Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 38-61
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Memorial Narratives of African Women in Antebellum New England
It is a telling irony that some of the earliest American narratives to record the lives of Africans in America were prompted by the deaths of those early subjects. These accounts of lives lived in bondage and in freedom were completed without any opportunity for enhancement, retraction, or rebuttal by a quite literally silenced black subject. Despite the absented subject, however, these memorializing narratives provide haunting glimpses of individuals who survived the Middle passage, pined for their African homes and families, established themselves in new and foreign communities, and who, in their final hours, negotiated the symbolic, religious, and social demands of the Western Judeo-Christian culture of which they had become a part. These unconventional texts represent an untapped mine of information about early black culture, domesticity, piety, acculturation, and resistance. They also introduce new opportunities to consider the ways in which black subjects, silenced by mortality rather than manmade discriminatory circumstance, achieve a voice, articulate their own histories, and attempt to acquire ownership of their own stories.
Antebellum obituary and elegiac materials about Africans in America, the foremothers and forefathers of those who would become African Americans, are fraught with conflicting literary, social, and racial politics. These tensions are fueled first by the fact the documents are, at first glance, thoroughly mediated texts, and ones that suggest particular negotiations of subjectivity and narrative authority. As the primary documents featured in this essay reveal, while these death stories, to borrow Joseph Amato's term, do have some characteristics of conventional obituaries, they do not conform to the traditional template and contexts associated with the genre. For example, Janice Hume notes in her recent study of obituaries and American culture that an obituary is "an idealized account of a citizen's life" (13). The experiences of Africans and African Americans in antebellum America, however, hinge on their collective dispossession, on citizenship denied. Thus the very notion of black obituaries, much less the narratives themselves, challenges an uncomplicated assertion that such documents "contribute to a society's well-being by strengthening it collectively and by highlighting the importance of its individual members" (Hume 13). The introduction of race here requires a measured reassessment of antebellum social relations. These types of new cultural narratives were not easily absorbed into the cultural record; they challenge what Joanne Pope Melish refers to as the systematic effort by whites to produce [End Page 38] a "triumphant narrative of a historically free, white New England in which a few people of color were unaccountably marooned, a class of permanently 'debased' strangers" (3). It is worth exploring, then, how death narratives of Africans in America reinforce or reconfigure the cultural mythologies of early white America, a nation that scholars like Melish consider prone to "characteristic amnesias" that privilege white social desire over black lived experiences (3). 1
Scholars have endowed obituaries and other death-related materials with the power to reinforce a sense of collective American identity. What is intriguing here, however, is the possibility that elegiacal documents about Africans do a kind of deeply politicized race work that would otherwise be protested or prohibited. First, the notion of the collective immediately is coded as a sign of homogeneity, one that in this antebellum context is predicated insistently on whiteness. Second, the social function of obituaries justifies new attention to the politics of appropriation and to questions of social, literary, and racial authenticity. If obituaries, and by extension, other published memorial narratives "legitimize characteristics of individual Americans to a collective audience [and] thus ad[d] to cultural values and memory" (Hume 15), then these memorial texts about people of color have explosive political potential. These racialized documents, therefore, may have the capacity to legitimize the culturally and politically illegitimate black other, to lay claim to previously unattainable American identities, and to transform cultural values and memory into multicultural morals and history.
The majority of these early notices appeared in white literary forums, including newspapers, evangelical publications, and...