- Rethinking the Black AtlanticGallows Literature, Slave Narratives, and Visual Culture
Jeannine Marie DeLombard
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012
Edited by Nicole N. Aljoe and Ian Finseth
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014
Jasmine Nichole Cobb
New York: New York University Press, 2015
While it has been twenty-three years since Paul Gilroy published The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993), it remains a touch-stone in studies of the African diaspora. Three recent works, Jeannine Marie DeLombard’s In the Shadow of the Gallows, Nicole N. Aljoe and Ian Finseth’s edited collection Journeys of the Slave Narrative, and Jasmine Nichole Cobb’s Picture Freedom, all engage with Gilroy’s work and offer fresh perspectives on textual productions by and about people of African descent in the Atlantic world, particularly as they speak to issues of race, subjectivity, and political and social belonging. DeLombard highlights the ways in which Gilroy’s concept of the “Black Atlantic” led to the formation of the canon of early Afro-diasporic literatures that we know today, including such figures as Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Venture Smith, [End Page 683] and many others.1 This vein of scholarship, she argues, has “entrenched the Afro-diasporic canon’s foundations ever more deeply in masculinist life-writing, [but] it has ignored arguably the most widely circulated, influential form of early black personal narrative, the criminal confession” (12–13). It is this gap that DeLombard addresses in her fascinating study of “gallows literature” and the criminal confession. Aljoe’s introduction opens with a discussion of Gilroy’s concept of the slave ship as a “chronotope” and Marcus Rediker’s analysis of the actual ships that participated in the slave trade, many of which were refurbished vessels that had originally pursued other enterprises. Journeys of the Slave Narrative, which features essays on works from North America, South and Latin America, and the Caribbean, is informed by Gilroy’s conception of the Black Atlantic and by Rediker’s characterization of the slave ship (which functions as a counterpoint to Gilroy’s chronotope). In advancing the volume’s argument for a more capacious definition of the “slave narrative,” Aljoe offers a compelling reading of Rediker’s vision of the slave ship—a blend of different materials and purposes from around the Creole Atlantic—as a metaphor for the early narratives on which the collections’ authors focus. Cobb also draws on Gilroy’s discussion of the slave ship, describing the “transatlantic parlor” as another “single, complex unit of analysis” of the African experience in the Atlantic world (Gilroy qtd. in Cobb 17). Gilroy’s ship provides both a critical model and a point of contrast for Cobb’s own exploration of the ways in which black freedom was “domesticated” through the use of visual images. Informed by Gilroy’s concept of the Black Atlantic and the expanded literary canon that his work made possible, DeLombard, Aljoe and Finseth, and Cobb offer fresh perspectives on early African American literature and culture and pressure familiar understandings of genre and temporality.
At a basic level, these three works share a concern with representations of the freedom and unfreedom of people of African descent and devote significant attention to African Americans. The work of DeLombard, Cobb, and the authors featured in Aljoe and Finseth’s collection of essays testifies to the range of critical approaches that can be brought to bear on African diasporic literatures and early American studies, including law and literature, critical race theory, Marxism, feminism, transnationalism and hemispheric studies, food studies, intellectual history, visual theory, and so forth. They also complicate and extend what we understand as African American literature—moving beyond first-person narratives of the journey [End Page 684] from slavery to freedom to include texts such as criminal confessions, ship’s logs, and lithographs. In so doing, these three works also turn away from the search for an “authentic” black voice—with DeLombard noting the distinction between “writers of...