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  • Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination by Salamishah Tillet
  • Robert Anthony Bennett III (bio)
Salamishah Tillet Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012. 248 pp. ISBN 9780822352426 paper.

Salmishah Tillet's Sites of Slavery builds on the work of Roger Smith's Civic Ideals by expanding on the idea of "civic estrangement," the notion that a person or group of people have been marginalized and underrepresented in the symbols and narrative of United States history. To be more specific, the aim of Tillet's book is "to broaden and complicate the ways in which scholars define and critically interrogate contemporary representations of slavery" as a means to illustrate the ways African Americans have been excluded from the narrative of American history (p. 4). The author defines "sites of slavery" as "the objects, texts, figures, places, and narratives from the American past that provide tangible links between present-day Americans and American chattel slavery" (p. 5). Her interdisciplinary approach draws upon film, visual and performance art, music, and a wealth of secondary sources in an effort to support her claims. Tillet identifies four "sites of slavery," each serving as the focus of one of the four chapters. The first chapter, "Freedom in a Bondsmaid's Arms," contextualizes the sexual relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson.

Tillet draws on the work of several scholars to discuss the ways in which they interpret the life of Sally Hemings within the context of "civic estrangement." These scholars, according to Tillet, reconstruct the ways in which enslaved Black women were critical agents in the founding of the United States. Throughout this chapter, she uses the work of Barbara Chase-Riboud, Robie McCauley, and Annette Gordon-Reed to illustrate why their various interpretations of Hemings's life are vital to the telling of early American history, because her biography "ties black people to the founding of the nation, reinforces birthright claims, and gives them access to a 'kind of epic American identity' previously unavailable to them" (p. 48). Chapter two, "The Milder and More Amusing Phases of Slavery," discusses the representations of Blacks in Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictional novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and the works of other writers to examine their depiction of enslaved Blacks through satire. When Stowe's novel was published in 1852, it became the first book to sell a million copies. Tillet illustrates that numerous Black male writers sought to distance themselves from the caricature of Uncle Tom as a way to redefine Black manhood. In all, African American writers throughout the post-civil rights period demonstrated "that a confrontation with the complex past of slavery is the only path toward a sustainable practice of American democracy" (p. 93). [End Page 124]

"A Race of Angels," the third chapter, examines "Back to Africa" tourism and its link to historical memory for African Americans. Tillet argues that contemporary scholars have shifted their focus away from the early 20th-century proponents of expatriation, who saw a return to West Africa as a means of freedom. However, in the 21st century, Blacks have become "heritage tourists," visiting countries like Ghana and Senegal "as part of an obligatory process of self-identification and cultural affirmation" (p. 98). The author uses photography and film to help illustrate this point, relying on the work of Chester Higgins, Carrie Mae Weems, and Haile Gerima. In the final chapter, "What Have We Done to Weigh So Little on Their Scale?," Tillet examines two contemporary court cases, Cato v. United States and the African American Slaves Descendants Litigation, as well as legal history more broadly to demonstrate how 21st-century African Americans advocated for "intergenerational monetary compensation" as a way to restructure American civic memory as it relates to their lives and history.

The epilogue of Sites of Slavery points out that while African Americans are reexamining their position in American society through the lens of chattel slavery, so are many Whites. She mentions the Tea Party, among other organizations, to demonstrate opposition to revisiting and revising the traditional American narrative. Scholars from academic and artistic backgrounds...


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pp. 124-125
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