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Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

Lisa Woolfork

Publication Year: 2008

This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and reenactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology." Disrupting the prevailing view of traumatic knowledge that claims that traumatic events are irretrievable and accessible only through oblique reference, these novels and films circumvent the notion of indirect reference by depicting a replaying of the past, forcing present-day protagonists to witness and participate in traumatic histories that for them are neither dead nor past. Lisa Woolfork cogently analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their re-creations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.

Published by: University of Illinois Press


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

I am grateful to a number of people and institutions for helping bring this project to its current state. Funding for research and development was generously provided by many sources. The University of Virginia awarded me several Summer Grants, a Small Grant, the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Award, ...

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Introduction: Go There to Know There

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pp. 1-18

During a recent Juneteenth commemorative weekend at our local community college, the program coordinator issued a provocative invitation. Describing the many events of the day—which included an art workshop for children, exhibit of slavery artifacts, and quilting demonstrations ...

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1. Trauma and Time Travel

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pp. 19-44

In her important essay on the role of psychology in the history of slavery, Nell Irvin Painter notes the difficulty of applying twentieth-century methodologies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century circumstances. “When used carefully, perhaps gingerly,” she argues, psychology ...

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2. Touching Scars, Touching Slavery: Trauma, Quilting, and Bodily Epistemology

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pp. 45-63

The body is at once a question and an answer. Yet despite the inherent paradox of the body’s interpretational complexity, African American fictional and autobiographical narratives of slavery continue to engage corporeality as a representational strategy. ...

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3. Teach You a Lesson, Boy: Endangered Black Male Teens Meet the Slave Past

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pp. 64-97

In July 2005, American parents learned of two unusual programs designed to teach teenagers valuable, yet difficult, lessons in gratitude and resourcefulness. Heifer International—an antipoverty and anti-world hunger organization operating in fifty countries—offers an immersion experience at its Heifer Ranch in Arkansas. ...

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4. Slave Tourism and Rememory

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pp. 98-131

Since the mid-1990s, tourism theorists have identified a new trend in recreational travel. Instead of engaging the “innocent” amusements of a Disney theme park or observing the natural splendor of a mountain range or reenacting frontier life by taking a cattle-drive trip, many travelers are opting for what some scholars have identified as the “dark” side. ...

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5. Ritual Reenactments

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pp. 132-158

The slave-auction controversy discussed in the previous chapter represents only one facet of slavery reenactment, which is a prevalent and diverse activity that blends elements of performance with the reverence of commemoration. Despite the reticence or aversion to frank public conversation about America’s slave past, ...

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6. Historical Reenactments

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pp. 159-192

Ritual reenactments like The Maafa Suite differ significantly from those in the historical mode. These two forms, however, can be usefully placed in dialogue. Erriel Roberson, whose book on the Maafa expanded the term’s application, has this to say about Colonial Williamsburg’s historical reenactments of slavery: ...

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Conclusion: A Soul Baby Talks Back

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pp. 193-204

In her compelling 1989 essay “Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom—Dessa Rose,” Deborah McDowell concludes by broaching the ways in which Sherley Anne Williams’s novel Dessa Rose addresses and incorporates laughter as an emotional release for its female slave protagonist: “We laughed so we wouldn’t cry.” ...


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pp. 205-210

Works Cited

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pp. 211-222


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pp. 223-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780252092961
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252033902

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 785781218
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Slavery -- United States -- Psychological aspects.
  • Psychic trauma -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Popular culture -- United States.
  • Human body in popular culture.
  • Slavery in literature.
  • Slavery in motion pictures.
  • Historical reenactments -- United States.
  • United States -- Intellectual life.
  • United States -- Social conditions -- 1980-.
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