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  • On Making the Present Past: Nongenerational Temporality in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
  • Molly Ball (bio)

Orlando Patterson argues that New World slavery ruptured past and present by casting slaves into a state of natal alienation that entailed “the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generational time.”1 With no legally binding, socially enforceable connection to prior or future generations, slaves seemed to occupy a static temporality that contrasted sharply with the steady progress that characterizes modern temporality.2 However, scholars are now questioning the idea that slavery and modern time were diametrically opposed; they have demonstrated the many complex temporalities that structured slaves’ lives. Both Daylanne K. English and Lloyd Pratt argue that enslaved Africans in the Americas were neither insulated from modernity nor relegated to one particular temporality, premodern or not.3

While these studies are generative, they elide how male and female slaves were positioned differently in relation to time. Hortense Spillers shows that both gender and race structure the static temporality ascribed to slaves.4 She notes that family “as we practice and understand it ‘in the West’” is “the vertical transfer of a bloodline, of a patronymic, of titles and entitlements, of real estate and the prerogatives [End Page 419] of ‘cold cash,’ from fathers to sons.”5 This formulation suggests that generational advance requires a masculine presence—a patriarch who can accumulate transferrable wealth. But, Spillers argues, slaves were considered ungendered flesh; as property themselves, they could hold no property, not even an abstract property such as gender. Therefore, they could have no patriarchs and were thus disqualified from the vertical, generational relations that are actually property relations. Crucially, a slave mother’s status determined this disqualification, because children followed her condition according to partus sequitur ventrem. Her reproductive labors created property that white families could bequeath and inherit, confirming their position within generational time while simultaneously cementing slaves’ perpetual position outside of it.

Synthesizing Spillers, English, and Pratt, I examine how women’s slave narratives worked to combat slavery’s natal alienation and seeming temporal immobility without simply embracing the linear, generational temporality that slave women’s labor was coopted to support. While Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) critiques how slaveholding society systematically barred African Americans from “genealogical succession imagined as a stately procession,” the author does not seek to participate in this temporality.6 Instead, her narrative delineates a nongenerational temporality that establishes human connections across time while nonetheless ensuring that the past’s violence and dispossession need not absolutely determine the present.7

Incidents’ nongenerational temporality develops as Jacobs and others performatively invoke the past in the present by corporeally substituting themselves for those who came before. Joseph Roach describes a version of this strategy, arguing in In Cities of the Dead that as death and time eliminate a generation’s individual members, others adopt their roles, performing in their place. He calls this [End Page 420] process “surrogation” and shows how it transmits culture across time via substitutions: “Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure … survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternatives.”8 Of course, even the most faithful performances introduce changes, because attempts to reenact the past are never perfect. Still, surrogation aims to reproduce the past in the present. Given this repetition, it may seem strange that former slaves—whose pasts contain systematic dispossession—would attempt surrogation. Indeed, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl’s performative invocations help us expand Roach’s definition. While the process he describes typically occurs on the stage or in the street, Jacobs’ narrative records the past textually. This difference creates a form of surrogation that explicitly refuses the past’s seamless repetition. As Roach observes, “In a … relationship between a predominantly oral culture and a literate one, written texts … may serve as powerful instruments of forgetting.”9 While slave narratives record traumatized pasts (and thus reject “forgetting”), their textualized surrogation nonetheless allows former slaves to disinvest in those same pasts.10 In slave narratives, this approach does not represent a melancholic repetition, but rather a strategic anachronism: it asserts a relationship between...


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pp. 419-442
Launched on MUSE
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