- Revisiting Slave Narratives II/Les avatars contemporains des récits d'esclaves II
The past decade has witnessed a flourish of studies devoted to understanding the cultural causes and deeper meanings of the outpouring of contemporary narratives of slavery. Several scholarly monographs and innumerable scholarly articles have appeared, exploring a variety of facets of the work of those writers, mostly of African but some of European descent, who have written novels that use slavery as their historical setting or pretext. While these single-authored monographs and articles have proven important for our attempts to explain and appreciate that body of work, it is, however, to an edited collection published prior to this past decade that [End Page 504] I think we can trace the first concerted effort to study what the title of that 1989 collection called Slavery and the Literary Imagination.
In that groundbreaking anthology, edited by Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad, seven distinguished literary critics explored the ways slavery marked, inflected, and distinguished the literary imagination of a group of writers ranging from those who produced slave narratives (Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington), to those who wrote antebellum novels about slavery (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child), to those in the twentieth century, from W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 to Sherley Anne Williams in 1987, who recognized slavery as the "central problem" in American literary and social history. In many ways, that anthology inaugurated a field of study that today plays a significant role in many programs of study, scholarly and pedagogical. Indeed, it would be hard to find a department of English or African American studies that did not host some version of a course on contemporary narratives of slavery.
For those who are committed to teaching or studying the subject, this newest anthology will prove to be a boon in many ways. As its title indicates, it is a sequel to the original Revisiting Slave Narratives, also edited by Judith Misrahi-Barak, which was published in 2005. Whereas the earlier anthology was a collection of revised papers from a 2003 conference, and was organized along geographical lines (sections on the Americas, Africa, and the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean), the sequel is a collection of new essays (not delivered at any conference) that is largely but not solely organized around a particularly salient theme.
Misrahi-Barak provides a graceful and perceptive introduction in which she defines the major concerns of the volume. The primary subject of the authors of its sixteen articles is what the editor, developing a term from Jean-Marie Schaeffer, calls "generic recreation" (14). The genre in question is the antebellum slave narrative, and most of the sixteen articles in the volume attend to the formal conventions of the books on which they focus, showing the variety of ways that these contemporary books do indeed "revisit" and revise the slave narrative form itself. When the essayists in this anthology take up the question of form, they often produce original insights into the myriad meanings of these "generic recreations."
A first group of essayists shows the ways these modern authors revise an original form toward a modern political purpose. In her essay, Anna Hartnell shows how The Autobiography of Malcolm X "takes the shape of a slave narrative" while at the same time revising certain key motifs in the slave narrative tradition, including concepts of "America" and "Egypt," names and places emblematic in quite different ways for Malcolm X than they were for the original slave narrators (45-46). Wendy Harding demonstrates how Marilyn Nelson evokes the slave narrative form in Fortune's Bones by producing "paratexts"—those forewords and prefatory letters written by the slave narrator's guarantors attesting that the story of her or his life is truthful—but ultimately has her book move "beyond the slave narrative form in order to try to repair its inherent racial divisions" (101).
A second group discusses in what ways modern and postmodern literary formal...