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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


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

A book such as this one accumulates many debts in its production and owes a great deal to the people and places that gave it the opportunity to come to fruition. For their support I am most grateful to the large community of African Americanist and queer studies scholars in the city of Chicago who provided a nurturing intellectual and social environment for my thinking ...

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pp. 1-16

I began by remembering the most easily forgotten thing: truth telling is not simple. It is not like the Norman Rockwell painting in which a ruggedly handsome white man, whose plaid collar is literally blue, speaks to the town meeting at his white clapboard church, while other white men, wearing ties, listen in admiration. Truth telling isn’t like that. ...

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Introduction: The New Black Studies, or beyond the Old “Race Man”

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pp. 17-32

I can recall with alarming clarity the moment I first cast eyes on the cover of the March 3, 2003, issue of Newsweek, which sported a picture of pop music icon Beyoncé Knowles, talk show host Star Jones, and president of Chicago-based Ariel Mutual Funds Mellody Hobson. I saw the cover story on black women rising faster socially and economically than black men and the ...

Part I. Queer Black Thought

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1. Straight Black Studies

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pp. 35-58

I speak for the thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of men who live and die in the shadows of secrets, unable to speak of the love that helps them endure and contribute to the race. Their ordinary kisses of sweet spit and loyalty are scrubbed away by the propaganda makers of the race, the “talented Tenth” ...

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2. Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch

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pp. 59-87

My interest—a polite way of labeling it perhaps—in Abercrombie & Fitch began quite a few years back. It was a rather ordinary weekend night much like countless others where friends and I were out having drinks at a bar (which bar is not important to the story, as will soon become apparent). For the first time, I noticed that easily one-third of the men in the bar were ...

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3. It’s a White Man’s World: Race in the Gay Marketplace of Desire

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pp. 88-132

In many ways this is the most difficult chapter of this book to write. It means having to be honest about and to face some of the private demons that gay men of color (and others on the periphery of the gay marketplace of desire) confront on a regular basis. It means articulating painful lessons learned about your value—or lack thereof—in the dominant logics that fuel that ...

Part II. Race and Sexuality on Occasion

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4. On Race, Gender, and Power: The Case of Anita Hill

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pp. 135-142

Rare are the occasions that so-called critical theory and politics (in a rather narrowly defined sense of the latter word) converge in illuminating and provocative ways that aid in the interpretation of popular political events. However, the controversy over the 1991 nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court—particularly a consideration of the testimony of ...

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5. Feel the Rage: A Personal Remembrance of the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising

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pp. 143-148

Even as I begin the process of putting pen to paper, something about this project feels hopelessly anachronistic, out of sync with time. As a people, African Americans are told almost daily by the government and the media of the “progress” we have made. We are reminded on a regular basis (as if someone were trying to convince us) of how much better off we are now than we ...

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6. Ellen’s Coming Out: Media and Public Hype

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pp. 149-153

... am quite predisposed toward skepticism. Perhaps a result of being an intellectual, or a black gay man, or a confirmed urbanite whose pose, in part, is not to be in the habit of letting much wow or impress. In fact, just about anything that receives as much public attention and produces as much hype as did tonight’s special episode of Ellen seems a prime candidate in my book for ...

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7. Affirmative Action and White Rage

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pp. 154-160

Affirmative action is the last topic to which I ever thought I would consent to address myself publicly. This does not mean that I don’t consider affirmative action to be among the leading issues of our time, because it most certainly is. If there is any doubt on that score, we need look no further than the near- Herculean political, rhetorical, and legal efforts undertaken to bring about its ...

Part III. Straight Black Talk

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8. Speaking the Unspeakable: On Toni Morrison, African American Intellectuals, and the Uses of Essentialist Rhetoric

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pp. 163-184

In the wake of deconstruction and poststructuralism’s move into the American academy, our fundamental understanding of the role of language in mediating our “reality” came to the fore. The advent of poststructuralism, then, has also meant a basic shift in the debate around such categories as race and experience. No longer are race and experience assumptions in critical ...

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9. Cornel West and the Rhetoric of Race-Transcending

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pp. 185-202

There can be little doubt that Cornel West is one of the most prolific scholars in academia and one of the most widely discussed professional intellectuals by mainstream media today. Indeed, few academics have distinguished themselves in such disparate venues as Emerge, the Today Show, Nightline, a special interview with Bill Moyers, the Yale Law Journal, and the Nation. ...

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10. Can the Queen Speak? Sexuality, Racial Essentialism, and the Problem of Authority

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pp. 203-226

The fundamental question driving this essay is: Who speaks for “the race,” and on what authority? In partial answer to this query, I have argued elsewhere that African American intellectuals participate, even if out of political necessity, in forms of racial essentialism to authorize and legitimate their positions in speaking for or representing “the race.”2 This essay is in some ways ...


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pp. 227-234


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pp. 235-240


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pp. 241-250

About the Author

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pp. 251

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

Page Count: 224
Publication Year: 2001

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American prose literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • Slavery in literature.
  • Autobiography -- African American authors.
  • African Americans in literature.
  • Slaves -- United States -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • Slaves' writings, American -- History and criticism.
  • Slaves -- United States -- Intellectual life.
  • American prose literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Antislavery movements -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
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