- Slavery Represented
Two issues stand out in considering the representation of slavery in America. The first is the question of power—the raw power exercised by masters over enslaved people, the enduring power of stereotypes and images used to justify slavery, and the elusive power the formerly enslaved employed to challenge the institution and its effects. In the decade after 1830, the most widespread representations of people of African descent in the US were to be found in two relatively new cultural forms—the minstrel show and the fugitive slave narrative. In the one, the aspirations of an enslaved race to imitate white cultural standards were mocked as risible; in the other, the formerly enslaved attempted to move their audience, emotionally and to political action, by showing how they longed for the same things as white citizens. The message of the slave narratives, like the motto of the abolitionists—"Am I not a man and a brother?"—served to dispel the spell of minstrelsy and to undo the images of black people created in America's preeminent theatrical form. A Frederick Douglass who eloquently soliloquized about freedom on the shores of the Chesapeake was an apt figure to counter the abjectness of Jim Crow or the malapropisms of Zip Coon.
The second issue concerns time—how it passes, how it flows, how it is or is not recoverable. There is a crucial moment at the structural center of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) where the narrator discovers some documents belonging to an elderly evicted couple on the curb of a Harlem street, including "a fragile paper, coming apart with age, written in black ink grown yellow," that reads: "Be it known to all men that my negro, Primus Provo, has been freed by me this sixth day of August, 1859. Signed: John Samuels. Macon" (272). The narrator records his response to this discovery: "My hands were trembling, my breath rasping as if I [End Page 423] had run a long distance or come upon a coiled snake in a busy street. It has been longer than that, further removed in time, I told myself, and yet I knew it hadn't been" (272). The discovery that slavery in America is not that long ago comes with something akin to a physical shock. James Baldwin, attuned as he was to the ways that the past impinges on present identities, was nonetheless unable to "make the connection between slave and grandmother" because the one was immediate family and the other seemed remote and lost in the past (562). Even closer to our own time, many of us may have been startled when we read a news report that a 2002 reparations lawsuit had been filed by two sons of a former slave.1
Four recent books on the representation of slavery collectively demonstrate that slavery and the representation of enslavement are living issues in sites as diverse as tourist parks, churches, the art world, stand-up and sketch comedy, and, of course, literature. What these books collectively reveal is that the representation of slavery—in any media, in any form—is fraught with complexities and challenges as it takes on the related issues of power and time.
Glenda Carpio's Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery (2008) takes up the question of the power of stereotypes. Carpio's major argument is that African-American artists (writers, performers, material artists) have mined the "rich tradition of African-American humor … to represent both the distance that separates us from American slavery and the often imperceptible ways slavery has mutated" (7). She is particularly interested in seeing how African-American humor has worked as "a form of release, a medium...