- Slavery’s Afterlife in Text and Image
In Christina Sharpe’s book Monstrous Intimacies, there is the palpable sense of the total encompassing of black subjectivity, part and parcel of slavery’s brutality, its horrendous intensity, and its transnational legacy. Explicitly linking visual and literary texts across slave nations and imperial registers, Sharpe is invested in exploring “how freedom and slavery are performed” and adhere to a set of intimate relations (familial, sexual, national) informing social and political arrangements (5). “Thinking about monstrous intimacies,” Sharpe writes in her introduction, “means examining those subjectivities constituted from transatlantic slavery onward and connected then as now, by the everyday mundane horrors that aren’t acknowledged to be horrors” (3). The lack of visibility of the “mundane horrors” is what links her project with Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997), as both books highlight the terror, making, and self-making that necessarily produce and extend racial trauma.
While Sharpe pairs texts that do not immediately adhere to the structures of slavery’s recognizable imprint (Gayl Jones’s Corregidora , Isaac Julian’s The Attendant [1993 film], Bessie Head’s Maru ), upon deeper examination it is precisely these imprints, according to Sharpe, that allow the [End Page 837] measure of postslavery memory to propel itself in specific (rhetorically, imagistically) manifestations. Visuality is central in Monstrous Intimacies (as it is for Hartman in Scenes) to the ways in which bodies are read and inscribed, subjected, and delineated.
In the introduction, Sharpe carefully lays out the stakes of freedom’s cloaking mechanism: “that is, freedoms for those people constituted as white . . . produced through an other’s body” and thus creating slaves out of slaves and molding freedom through unfreedom (15). She uses two case studies to tether these paradigms to a larger discourse of gender and restraint: Frederick Douglass’s writings concerning the beating of his aunt Hester, and Essie Mae Washington-Williams’s memoir of racial lineage as the “outside” daughter of the Southern segregationalist Strom Thurmond. From the middle of the nineteenth century through the earliest part of the twenty-first century, spatial and familial lineage breeds violence and engenders human indifference. Like the Charles Chesnutt short story “The Dumb Witness” (1897), slavery’s legacy is both literally and figuratively that of multiple inculcations of violated bodies. The servant in Chesnutt’s story “seemed a bit younger than the man” (her owner, her brother?), but “her face was enough like his, in a feminine way, to suggest that they might be related in some degree, unless this inference was negatived by the woman’s complexion, which disclosed a strong infusion of darker blood.”1 Since in the story she speaks the unspeakable—the violations against her body by this man, her brother—to his beloved future wife (the wedding is called off), she is silenced. At first she cannot speak, then she refuses to. But much like any slave on any plantation, she knows where the bodies are buried, as well as the treasure. Such proximity and violated intimacy, Sharpe’s books seems to say, is the space of profound articulations of irony and imagery, and the perfect place to parse out racialized subjectivities often rendered invisible.
The first chapter extends out from the introduction to deepen the exploration of the import of slavery-as-incest narrative. Examining the quintessential representation of this narrative, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Sharpe asserts, “Jones writes out something like a Corregidora complex; an Oedipus complex for the New World” (29). Indeed, it makes sense to begin Monstrous Intimacies with Jones’s novel, for it is within this text that the horrendous layering of incest, racial hegemony, enslavement, and eventual “self-making” takes place.
Using Corregidora and the diaries of former US Senator John Hammond, Sharpe writes, “The formerly enslaved faced a present [End Page 838] in which most other possible lives for them were rigorously foreclosed at all levels of...