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  • Losing ManhoodAnimality and Plasticity in the (Neo)Slave Narrative
  • Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (bio)

You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)

The uncompromising nature of the Western self and its active negation of anything not itself had the counter-effect of reducing African discourse to a simple polemical reaffirmation of black humanity. However, both the asserted denial and the reaffirmation of that humanity now look like two sterile sides of the same coin.

Achille Mbembé, On the Postcolony (2001)

Slavery and colonialism not only catalyzed the conscription of black people into hegemonically imperialist and racialized conceptions of “modernity” and “universal humanity” but also inaugurated Western modernity’s condition of possibility, initiating a chain of events that have given rise to a transnational capitalist order. In light of this history, it stands to reason that we should critically remember New World slavery as epochal rupture.1 Slavery’s archival footprint is a ledger system that placed black humans, horses, cattle, and household items all on the same bill of purchase. This ledger’s biopolitical arithmetic—its calculation of humanity—dislocated, depersonalized, [End Page 95] and collapsed difference, except in the area of market value. The ledger’s life promised the social death of those enslaved.2

“Slave humanity” is an aporia with which we have yet to reckon and which, perhaps, marks the limit of the reckonable. Rather than view the paradoxical predicament of enslaved humanity through the lens of lack or absence, I contend that humanity itself is fractured and relational instead of a single trajectory or a unitary sign. In place of assuming the virtuousness of human recognition or humanization, I interrogate the methods upon which an imperialist and racialized conception of “universal humanity” attempted to “humanize” blackness. In the case of slavery, humanization and captivity go hand in hand. Too often, our conception of anti-blackness is defined by the specter of “denied humanity,” “dehumanization,” or “exclusion,” yet, as Saidiya Hartman has identified in her pathbreaking study Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, the process of making the slave relied on the abjection and criminalization of the enslaved’s humanity rather than the denial of it.3 Thus, humanization is not an antidote to slavery’s violence; rather, slavery is a technology for producing a kind of human.

Following Hartman, my interest is in drawing attention not only to the manner in which black people have been excluded from the “life and liberty” of universal rights and entitlements but also to the conditions under which black people have been selectively incorporated into the liberal humanist project. Blackness has been central to, rather than excluded from, liberal humanism: the black body is an essential index for the calculation of degree of humanity and the measure of human progress. From the aporetic space of this inclusion that nevertheless masks itself as exclusion, I query, how might Toni Morrison’s Beloved disarticulate Eurocentric humanism while negotiating blackness’s status as interposition in the ever-shifting biopolitical terms and stakes of “the human versus the animal”? Beloved’s questioning of liberal humanism’s selective recognition of black humanity is suggestive of a desire for a different mode of being/knowing/feeling and not simply a desire for fuller recognition within liberal humanism’s terms.4

In Beloved, Morrison departs from and transforms the slave narrative convention of juxtaposing the degradation of slaves with that of [End Page 96] animals in order to draw our attention not to the violence of dehumanization but rather to the violence of humanization. More specifically, Beloved suggests that animalization and humanization of the slave’s personhood are not mutually exclusive but mutually constitutive. In other words, the slave’s humanity (the heart, the mind, the soul, and the body) is not denied or excluded but manipulated and prefigured as animal, whereby black(ened) humanity is understood, paradigmatically, as a state of human animality, or “the animal within the human.”

Morrison’s text recalls rhetorical strategies employed by Frederick Douglass, arguably the nineteenth century’s most iconic slave, that...


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