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Reviewed by:
  • Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism ed. by Eric D. Lamore
  • Roland Leander Williams Jr. (bio)
Eric D. Lamore, editor. Reading African American Autobiography: Twenty-First-Century Contexts and Criticism. U of Wisconsin P, 2017, 278 pp. ISBN 978-0299309800, $74.95.

African Americans have had powerful life stories to tell since 1661 when they were sentenced to slavery in a land sold on liberty. They have produced a long line of narratives recording their fortunes. Academic publishers have printed reams of criticism on the genre, and the University of Wisconsin Press recently added Reading African American Autobiography to the list. Edited by Eric [End Page 435] D. Lamore, the new book contains a collection of scholarly studies that take fresh looks at the tradition of African American autobiographical expression from the vantage point of the twenty-first century.

The practice of telling Black life stories took root in the colonial era of US national development, germinating works such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), which recounts how the author freed himself from slavery through the use of learning. A host of life stories relating clever escapes from enslavement came out of the antebellum era; the number includes Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft (1860) as well as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs. In the wake of the slave system, through the time of Jim Crow, the line of Black life stories extended from Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868) by Elizabeth Keckley to Up from Slavery (1901) by Booker T. Washington and Black Boy (1945) by Richard Wright, telling how the writers beat long odds through deft exercises of ingenuity. Displays of resourcefulness that improve lots have distinguished the genre of Black life stories produced in every era of African American history. The motif marks The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou, besides Dreams from My Father (2004) by Barack Obama.

Reading African American Autobiography pays an implicit tribute to each of these oft-cited narratives, and a couple of the works receive special attention. First, in the essay "Olaudah Equiano in the United States," Lamore inspects the 1829 abridgement of Equiano's book by Abigail Mott. He resolves that the particular edition, allied with other versions, gives cause to treat it as an indicator of historical conditions. Then, "Richard Wright's Environments" by Susan Scott Parrish calls into question scholarship that ascribes the world-view behind Black Boy to theories of human development encountered by the author in Chicago. Instead, Parrish ties the origins of the perspective shared in Wright's life story to impressions made by his upbringing in rural Mississippi. Along with Lamore, Parrish presents a case that raises fresh issues for consideration in relation to the production and reception of African American autobiographical expression.

The greater part of Reading African American Autobiography covers an array of forgotten or neglected Black life stories. Spreading knowledge of the ample iterations of this genre is a great service performed by this collection of essays. One explores The Life and Dying Speech of Arthur (1768), the confession of a Black man charged with rape and condemned to death for the offense, treating the eighteenth-century narrative as a recollection of a fatal [End Page 436] struggle to overcome oppression. Another study complicates the concept of autobiography with a review of Samuel Delany's graphic novel Bread & Wine (1999) based on his personal history. The essay "Born into This Body" leaves the future borders of Black life writing open with a study of stories akin to Faith Adiele's Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun (2004). Subsequently, "From Blog to Books" renders the prospective media of the practice provisional with references to Angela Nissel's Mixed: My Life in Black and White (2006). "Grafted Belongings" turns the identity of twenty-first-century Black life writers...


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pp. 435-438
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