restricted access Neo-S(k)in Trade: White Skin, Black Bodies in Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots
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Neo-S(k)in Trade
White Skin, Black Bodies in Bernardine Evaristo's Blonde Roots

How would they like us to make slaves of and hold them in cruel slavery, and murder them as they do us?

—David Walker

White myth making around the black female body is inextricably linked to the larger African diaspora, that space of rupture, dispersion, and displacement. The presence of white hegemony, the black female body as property, the pervasive phenomenon of sexual abuse, and the experience of trauma constitute significant motifs … that are indicative of the reality of black diasporic women's existential experiences.

—George Yancy

Responding to the question, "What sparked Blonde Roots?" Bernardine Evaristo explains, "I wracked my brains about how I could write about [the transatlantic slave trade] in a way that enabled people to see it afresh."1 The British novel combines current and historic realities; there are slave ships and minstrel shows but also subways ("Tube trains") and self-help books.2 The blending of old and new urges readers to consider how modern slavery exists and operates in a contemporary context, particularly the sociocultural hierarchies and economic infrastructures that support such oppressive systems. [End Page 1] Similar to the 1995 American film White Man's Burden, Blonde Roots interchanges the roles of blacks and whites in society, imagining a world where Europe (Europa) is the "Gray Continent" whose natives must work as slaves for the black oppressor in Aphrika, the UK of Great Ambossa, and the West Japanese Islands (i.e., Caribbean islands).3 In Evaristo's novel, the white female body occupies the position of the deviant, aberrant Other, a "role" historically held by blacks. Protagonist Doris Scagglethorpe (slave name Omorenomwara) and her fellow female slaves suffer at the hands of ruthless slave catchers, violent and abusive Ambossan slave masters, and cruel and constantly suspicious Ambossan mistresses.

In Blonde Roots, everything is doubled; white is also black, the past is also the present, what is imagined is also real. The various doublings in the narrative, though primarily focused on the story of white Doris, serve to represent and underscore the complexities and contradictions of black invisibility, visibility, and hypervisibility, particularly as it relates to black women who "are likely the most socially invisible in societies where poverty, blackness, and women historically mark the depths of powerlessness." David Theo Goldberg writes, "Constitutive or reflective of strategic relations, visibility and invisibility each can serve contextually as weapons, as a defensive or offensive strategy, as a mode of self-determination or denial of it."4 Evaristo uses Doris's textual visibility or presence (in lieu of a black protagonist) as a narrative strategy to retell black women's "unspeakable" slave experiences. Her whiteness also reminds readers of the power of white oppression with regards to its strategic efforts to deny or refuse to see black subjectivity. Other doublings serve a similar purpose in the novel: they remind us of an ugly past while exposing and denouncing contemporary global problems such as sex trafficking and modern-day slavery—issues that remain concealed from or ignored by the public eye.

My title signifies on Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks (1952) whose title speaks to Blonde Roots's racial inversions; Doris's supposed inferiority is due to her being a "Caucasoi," a race of people who suffer from "infantalism, aimlessness, laziness, cowardice, poor coordination, [and] moral degradation."5 In his pro-slavery pamphlet, The Flame: Reflections, Thoughts, Experiences & Sentiments Candid & Free on the True Nature of the Slave Trade Remarks on the Character & Customs of the Europanes & An Account (Modest & Truthful) of my Progression from Inauspicous Origins to the Highest Echelons of Civilized Society, Chief Kaga Konata Katamba I notes that "[b]eating the hide of a Caucasoi is more akin to beating the hide of a camel to make it go faster," a statement that equates "whyte" skin with animalistic traits historically assigned to black corporeality.6 Thus Doris's whyte skin barely masks her symbolic black body. Chela Sandoval writes that Fanon's metaphoric title "calls up, but also undoes," the very racial binary opposition that the metaphor also depends on in order...