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  • Why Does the Slave Ever Love?The Subject of Romance Revisited in the Neoslave Narrative
  • Angelo Rich Robinson

[Blacks] are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.

—Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Until . . . [the emotional capacity for romance] is thoroughly established in respect to Negroes in America, . . . it will remain impossible for the majority to conceive of a Negro experiencing a deep and abiding love and not just the passion of sex. . . . As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions, is ruled out.

—Zora Neale Hurston, 1950

Like Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Sherley Anne Williams' white male antagonist, Adam Nehemiah, in her novel Dessa Rose (1986) also believes that African Americans are incapable of experiencing romance in their intimate relationships. Nehemiah is of the opinion that blacks are capable of achieving only the most innate form of physical desire: lust. The idea of black romance, even if fictionalized, is for Nehemiah, a nineteenth-century writer, a joke, a ridiculous notion. His thoughts in response to the romantic relationship between Dessa and Kaine portrayed in Dessa Rose reveal his utter disbelief. He rejects the idea as preposterous and outlandish: "Had he but the pen of a novelist—And were darkies the subject of romance, he thought sardonically, smiling at his own whimsy" (39). Are Nehemiah's thoughts simply [End Page 39] the bigoted perceptions of one man, or are they more than that? This essay argues that Nehemiah's attitude points to the complicated reality of African American romance as it was shaped by slavery. According to the enslaving white culture, which Nehemiah embodies, African American romance was an absurd possibility; thus, for white society, it could not exist. However, within the culture of enslaved blacks, romance was an unavoidable aspect of human life. Thus, within the black community it became a reality, though often hidden. In one respect, therefore, Nehemiah's comments are an apt reflection on African Americans in antebellum America. They were not the literary "subject of romance," for white people denied black people the space for romance, while black people often hid the fact of its existence.

This essay will investigate the reality of black romance during slavery through the literary genre of the twentieth- and twenty-first-century neoslave narrative. The examination will specifically explore the importance of the neoslave narrative1 in providing a window into the reality of black romance during slavery, one often obscured if not hidden in the slave narrative. It is, in fact, interesting to note that the further removed from slavery they were, the more apt former slaves were to speak of romance. Thus, WPA testimony is replete with love stories.2 However, the fugitive narrative, as it was a part of antebellum literature, is less forthright in its discussion of black romance. The reasons for this are no doubt numerous, not the least of which is the fact that the enslaveds' priorities changed. For instance, during slavery the priority was to bring about slavery's abolition, thus it was more important to reveal its horrors. Consequently, they would be more apt to speak of those ways in which slavery denied their humanity than to speak of the ways in which they were able to claim their humanity despite the circumstances of slavery. Whatever the reasons may be for the paucity of romance,3 it is not fully explored in fugitive slave narratives. In this regard, the inclusion of romance becomes yet another way in which the neoslave narrative completes the picture of the people who were enslaved. In doing so it affirms the existence of romance for the enslaved African Americans and hence its importance to the full expression of their humanity. In this instance, it becomes the task of the neoslave narrative to provide what slave narratives could not or did not provide in their firsthand accounts of slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In order to understand the significance of romance in the neoslave narrative, we must first appreciate why romance was a forbidden reality for blacks in antebellum...


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pp. 39-57
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