- Surface and StasisRe-reading Slave Narrative via The History of Mary Prince
Slave Narrative & Symptomatic Reading
In his Narrative of the Most Remarkable Particulars in the Life of James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, an African Prince, As Related By Himself, Ukasaw Gronniosaw recounts his appearance before a tribunal of Dutch Calvinist ministers. He came before them to testify not only to the particulars of his life story, but, most importantly, to prove his ability to articulate the story on his own. Gronniosaw was subjected to a seven-week long examination by the Dutch clergy during which he “stood before thirty-eight ministers every Thursday,” to eventually leave them satisfied that, as he phrased it, “I was what I pretended to be” (35). These proceedings exemplify the Enlightenment era practice of deploying white, male tribunals to verify the mental capabilities of African authors. People of African descent who were producing work in Anglo-European languages had to be not only seen, but strictly examined, to be believed as viable human subjects who had the capacity to produce written art.1
In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Atlantic slave narratives, the tradition of the oral examination followed by the (white) examiner’s statement of approval persisted in written form. The paratextual material—prefaces, introductions, and codas—that “framed” a slave narrative most often functioned as an authoritative white verification of a black author’s intellectual abilities and good moral character. Most often written by white antislavery activists, these introductory and concluding notes were, at their most basic level, appended to a slave narrative to vouch for the ability of the black author to articulate and/or inscribe her own story.2 In addition, these textual framing devices corroborated the details of the subsequent narrative. They vouched that the slave’s story was a true-to-life, factually accurate portrait of the horrors of slavery. Oftentimes an offshoot of former slaves’ tours on abolitionist lecture circuits, during which some were encouraged to turn their naked backs to an audience in order to display the physical scars of slavery, the white-authored paratextual frames of slave narratives manifested a similar desire to “vividly” show readers a portrait of slavery “whose veracity is unimpeachable,” slavery’s truth ostensibly made doubly true by the authenticating aid of a white voice (qtd. in Douglass 42).
Among these “framers,” Thomas Pringle, a Scottish abolitionist activist, is known for his overbearing presence throughout The History of Mary Prince (1831). Mary Prince was a former plantation slave from the British Caribbean colonies who was freed/abandoned by her owners after she had traveled with them from Antigua to England (Prince 33).3 Barbara Baumgartner finds Thomas Pringle’s narrative presence in Mary Prince’s History [End Page 298] “excessive,” as it competes for control of the short thirty-eight-page narrative by way of an introduction, lengthy footnotes, a thirty-page concluding supplement that provides documents from the various legal cases surrounding Prince’s freedom and enslavement, a letter written by Pringle’s wife certifying her examination of Mary’s naked body (to verify the existence of her scars), and a short narrative about another fugitive slave, Louis Asa-Asa, whose story is unrelated to Mary Prince’s (261). Baumgartner points out that “Prince’s control over her own voice and body, even within the context of her personal narrative, does not go uncontested” due to Thomas Pringle’s editorial infiltration of the text (261).
Contemporary scholars like Baumgartner are well-trained in viewing the slave narrative as a fragmented, conflicted genre in which overweening white authorial voices function to suppress or undermine (even when ostensibly validating) the texts’ black authors. Much scholarly work surrounding slave narratives through the 1990s engaged in what I characterize as a symptomatic reading of the genre, guided by the assumption that “what the text means is what it does not say, which can then be used to rewrite the text in terms of a master code . . . the [symptomatic] critic restores to the surface the deep history that the text represses” (qtd. in Best and Marcus 4). A great deal of this important criticism about slave narratives sought to disclose the hierarchy of...