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McBride, Dwight A. Impossible Witness: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. New York and London: New York University Press, 2001.
The finest achievement of Dwight McBride's new book is its success in bringing to life within their original discursive environments slave testimonies as various as Mary Prince's History and Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative. Impossible Witness demonstrates that the discursive circumstances within which these testimonies were produced were not secondary, not background, but constitutive. Drawing on cultural theory and cultural studies (including Foucault's concepts of discourse and of truth and recent thought about bearing witness to historically caused trauma and devastation, particularly the Nazi Holocaust), on scholarship on slavery as an Atlanticist phenomenon, on Abolitionism in England and America, and on the fields of African American and African/English culture and history, Impossible Witness is a major contribution to the recuperation of the dynamics—and the dynamism—of slave testimonies.
The discursive context McBride reconstitutes for slave testimonies is that of Abolition, which McBride appears to cast as white and uninflected by gender. These limitations are likely to disturb many scholars, as they disturb me, but, as I shall suggest, Impossible Witness does not preclude integrating blacks as readers or gender into the models it proffers. And McBride makes a forceful case for the role of Abolitionism in enabling former slaves to speak and write: Abolitionism demanded the "truth" about slavery and identified those who had experienced it first-hand as the only valid authorities (the "truth" to which these witnesses to slavery testified was thus the "truth" as Abolitionists already knew it, one reason that witnessing was "impossible" for Equiano, Prince, et al). McBride argues that those who bore witness to slavery had to understand Abolitionist discourse—including its rhetoric, presumptions, expectations, and debates—and to use it adroitly. They did so, he shows, with extraordinary sophistication and artistry. Impossible Witness is built around complex discussions of the sophistication and artistry with which individual works negotiated Abolitionist discourse; rather than giving a comprehensive account of them, I will highlight certain features.
McBride's valuable "Abolitionist Discourse: A Transatlantic Context" (chapter 2) reflects on Abolitionist discourse in England and in America, taking up the specific circumstances and the periodization of slavery and Abolition in each country along with literary works by whites who embraced different positions within Abolition, among them "The Grateful Negro" (Maria Edgeworth), "The Little Black Boy" (William Blake) and "Address on the Fugitive Slave Law" (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Like much work in cultural studies Impossible Witness invokes "discourse" without [End Page 920] defining it, but McBride's use covers rhetoric, tropes, vocabularies, values, political positions and debates, philosophical premises and arguments—all inseparable from, indeed unutterable except for, the institutions and other material circumstances which shaped and sustained them and which they shaped and sustained. Abolitionist discourse is complex and self-contradictory. The positions it encompassed included a Rousseauistic embrace of natural rights, Christian-based morality, and an Enlightenment concept of humanity which informed the ways in which Abolitionists represented slaves' status as human. It also included anti-slavery and pro-slavery arguments, which McBride astutely recognizes as interdependent. This recognition brings into focus the centrality of debates about slaves' ontological status—Abolitionists argued they were human, advocates of slavery that they were a lesser order of being—and sheds light on how profoundly white Abolitionists' arguments were informed by the terms of this debate as well as by a deep concern about the effects of slavery on white subjectivity. Their lack of any sense of slaves'— or blacks'—subjectivity was bolstered by reigning conceptions of slavery as corporeal, which had the effect of defining blacks in terms of the body.
Abolitionist discourse thus presented black writers with circumstances so difficult as to be virtually "impossible." McBride devises the concept of a "discursive reader" to illuminate how brilliantly they engaged, or, to use his trope, mapped this terrain. Not any actual person or set of persons, "a discursive reader" is a way of referencing the "confluence of political, moral and...