Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 205-206
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In "The Regulations of Robbers": Legal Fictions of Slavery and Resistance, Christina Accomando argues that African Americans have a long history of resistance to the dominant white culture that would define them in opposition to itself as not white, not free, not human, and so on. Part of this resistance to the dominant culture's denial of African American voice, subjectivity, and agency emerged in the form of literature—poetry, narrative, and song—that functioned as "testimony" against social and legal discrimination. Accomando focuses her analysis on these testimonies of African American women, in particular, who embodied all of the oppositional definitions listed above but also were "not male." She reads the testimonies of Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Jacobs against the dominant legal discourses of their times.
The system of slavery in the United States and the legal structure that upheld it codified discriminatory racial discourses and racist practices. The voices of African Americans who struggled (and sometimes won) against this system rarely emerge in official documents, for they are not often mentioned. To contest these silences Accomando argues that we must "develop different reading strategies and seek out different sorts of texts" (4), a practice common to those in multicultural studies. Accomando has done an excellent job of placing legal, political, and literary texts dealing with discourses of slavery and resistance next to each other and reading them individually and in juxtaposition.
To do so, Accomando makes use of critical race theory, an interdisciplinary body of work developed by prominent intellectuals such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Harris, Patricia Williams, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others. Critical race theory begins with the premise that racism is imbedded into American systems and that scholars must read legal and historical documents critically while seeking out "alternate stories, voices that have been silenced or marginalized by the 'official' voice of the law" (11). Employing techniques of close critical reading in order to expose untold stories and voices (13), the framing of African American testimony (7), and the fictional nature of legal "facts" (8-9), Accomando reads for textual silences, especially those of black women who have been multiply marginalized.
The book is organized into three parts (Introduction/Phillis Wheatley, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs) and an epilogue. Chapter One introduces the intellectual concepts and reading strategies of critical race theory. In Chapter Two, Accomando applies these concepts and strategies to Phillis Wheatley's poetry and to the legal and political documents that claimed Africans were incapable of artistic, literary, and intellectual endeavors. Chapter Three analyzes Truth's legal efforts to achieve her freedom and reclaim her illegally sold son, demonstrating how Truth manipulated the legal system to attain rights denied her. Chapter Four details the ways Truth's speeches and physical presence have been recorded, framed, and used for multiple purposes throughout the years, up to the Norton Anthology of Women's Literature (1996). In her fifth chapter Accomando positions Harriet Jacobs within the dominant legal framework of her time, which included the Dred Scott case and [End Page 205] Thomas Cobb's proslavery An Inquiry into the Law of Negro Slavery in the United States of America (1858), a treatise articulating rationales and precedents for American slavery. Accomando depicts Jacobs' narrative as testimony within a system that did not recognize her legal right to testify. Chapter Six analyzes how Jacobs "explodes the rhetoric of rationality in legal discourse around sexuality and family... to explore how slave law both created and was sustained by contradictory constructions of race, gender and sex" (155). The epilogue brings Accomando's analysis of the rhetoric of race, racism, and legalized difference into modern American racial realities, focusing on the Moynihan Report (1965) and the legal practice of forcing poor women of color to use contraception.
Accomando situates Wheatley, Truth, and Jacobs within historical contexts that created legal fictions about race. She is precise...