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  • A Silent Book, Some Kisses, and John Marrant’s Narrative
  • Tara Bynum (bio)

The book—often a Bible or prayer book—never speaks. Despite its silence, scholars call it the “talking book,” a “strangely insistent metaphor, a curious image” and “the first repeated and revised trope of the tradition, the first trope to be Signified upon.”1 Found in several early African American narratives, the talking book generally describes a scene in which an individual (traditionally, an African slave) spies his master reading a book.2 The sight produces a desire to hear the text speak, but upon touching the book—either in the form of placing one’s ear or lips to the text—it remains silent.3 In his 1774 Narrative, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw offers this account:

And when first I saw [my master] read, I was never so surprised in my whole life as when I saw the book talk to my master; for I thought it did, as I observed him to look upon it, and move his lips. I wished it would do so to me. . . . I follow’d him to the place where he put the book, being mightily delighted with it, and when nobody saw me, I open’d it and put my ear down close upon it, in great hope that it would say something to me but was very sorry and greatly disappointed when I found it would not speak.4

According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., Gronniosaw remembers a failed conversation between an eager listener and a prayer book that refuses to speak. This refusal denies the very possibility of literacy, “the ultimate parameter by which to measure the humanity of authors struggling to define an African self in Western letters.”5 This silence ensures that Gronniosaw has no access to any proper measure of humanity. Yet, the silence begets a response—namely, a call for revision to which John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, John Jea, and Quobna Ottobah Cugoano respond.6 [End Page 71]

Gates’s reading of this curious sight privileges a desire—imagined as a longing that seeks satisfaction—for literacy. When the book does not talk, this unsatisfied desire mobilizes the revisionism that marks, according to Gates, the beginning of an African American literary tradition. Moreover, Gronniosaw, as a first, collectivizes a way of being—that is, possessing an inability to hear the book as his master does—which is mediated through a feeling of suffering; he writes of his displeasure, I “was very sorry and greatly disappointed when I found [the book] would not speak.”7 In Gates’s reading, when John Marrant, Olaudah Equiano, and John Jea revise Gronniosaw’s words, they reproduce this suffering and in so doing participate in a collective experience of embodied and ontological suffering or the race-making of African American literature. Thus, the result mobilizes an idea of race “as a stable and transhistorical category of identity” that is lived as an experiential and collective way of being mediated through a collective feeling of great suffering.8 Herein lies the origins of this written tradition.

Gates’s reading of the talking book adequately memorializes a presumed misunderstanding of the sight and act of reading but is too simplistic. Maybe Gronniosaw suffers when the book does not speak, but I question whether his suffering births a cohesive racial identity, literary category, or even if this scene marks a desire for actual book learning.9 Moreover, his narrative seemingly sidesteps the scholarly need to (im) properly racialize him in order to note the profundity of his religious experiences. It is at this point in classroom discussions that students begin to ask, “If it’s not about race, then what?” But the answer—Christian faith—is quite clear to these early writers, such as Gronniosaw, Marrant, and Phillis Wheatley. Because race does not function as a stable or transhistorical category of identity in early African American literature (though this fact should not deny an emergent racial collectivity), faith makes real their stories and their self-making.

I argue for a revision of Gates’s reading by way of an examination of minister Marrant’s deployment of the trope of the talking...


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pp. 71-90
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