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Impossible Witnesses

Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony

Dwight McBride

Publication Year: 2001

Even the most cursory review of black literary production during the nineteenth century indicates that its primary concerns were the issues of slavery, racial subjugation, abolitionist politics and liberation. How did the writers of these narratives "bear witness" to the experiences they describe? At a time when a hegemonic discourse on these subjects already existed, what did it mean to "tell the truth" about slavery?

Impossible Witnesses explores these questions through a study of fiction, poetry, essays, and slave narratives from the abolitionist era. Linking the racialized discourses of slavery and Romanticism, it boldly calls for a reconfiguration of U.S. and British Romanticism that places slavery at its center.

Impossible Witnesses addresses some of the major literary figures and representations of slavery in light of discourses on natural rights and law, offers an account of Foucauldian discourse analysis as it applies to the problem of "bearing witness," and analyzes specific narratives such as "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," and "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano."

A work of great depth and originality, Impossible Witnesses renders traditional interpretations of Romanticism impossible and places Dwight A. McBride at the forefront of studies in race and literature.

Published by: NYU Press

Cover

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TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-viii

Contents

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pp. ix-x

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xvi

Authors of scholarly endeavors inevitably incur many debts during the production of their work. Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony certainly represents no exception in this regard. I thank the staffs of the British Library in London, ...

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1. Introduction
Bearing Witness: Memory, Theatricality,the Body, and Slave Testimony

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pp. 1-15

The chief concern of this book is mapping the rhetorical markers that constitute the terrain of abolitionist discourse. Recasting the abolition debate in terms of a discourse usefully places central significance on the issues of language, rhetorical strategy, audience, and the status and/or production of the ...

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2. Abolitionist Discourse
A Transatlantic Context

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pp. 16-84

Simply stated, the fundamental intellectual question that animates this project is: What does it mean for a slave to bear witness to, or to tell the “truth” about, slavery? Perhaps at first glance a deceptively modest query, the question raises four primary concerns of this book. First, through the analysis of representative ...

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3. “I Know What a Slave Knows”
Mary Prince as Witness, or the Rhetorical Uses of Experience

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pp. 85-103

The above epigraph is arguably the most interesting and important passage in The History of Mary Prince. It points out Prince’s need to position herself as an “authentic” eyewitness to slavery, even as her contemporary audience wants to read her as such. This passage thematizes the fact that, for Prince, the experience ...

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4. Appropriating the Word
Phillis Wheatley, Religious Rhetoric, and the Poetics of Liberation

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pp. 103-119

This chapter is an investigation of the function and circulation of religious rhetoric in the poetry and letters of Phillis Wheatley. It is particularly concerned with the rhetorical strategies that she employed to bear witness to slavery in the late eighteenth century (the earliest context for institutional abolitionism)....

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5. Speaking as “the African”
Olaudah Equiano’s Moral Argument against Slavery

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pp. 120-150

While engaged with many of the same Enlightenment discourses as Wheatley’s poems, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself 1 makes use of a significantly different politics. Equiano marshals the army of contemporary metaphors at his disposal to make a ...

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6. Consider the Audience
Witnessing to the Discursive Reader in Douglass’s Narrative

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pp. 151-172

This chapter brings together some of the concerns discussed in the preceding ones by recasting, in terms that are most familiar to my readers, the discursive terrain into which the slave narrator enters to give his or her testimony. That is, I consider who is the intended reader of the slave’s testimony. The search ...

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Afterword

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pp. 173-176

The work of Impossible Witnesses has interested me in its specificity, but it has also fascinated me for the paradigmatic possibilities it offers up. The suggestions in this book for understanding slave testimony may also be paradigmatically helpful in our efforts to appreciate more fully our contemporary political ...

Notes

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pp. 177-190

Bibliography

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pp. 191-200

Index

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pp. 201-206

About the Author

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pp. 207-208


E-ISBN-13: 9780814759738
E-ISBN-10: 0814759734
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814756041
Print-ISBN-10: 0814756042

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2001

OCLC Number: 794701090
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Impossible Witnesses

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Subject Headings

  • Racism -- United States.
  • Sex role -- United States.
  • Sexual orientation -- United States.
  • United States -- Race relations.
  • African Americans -- Social conditions -- 1975-.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • African Americans -- Study and teaching.
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