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  • Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora by Hershini Bhana Young
  • Sarah Lewis-Cappellari (bio)
Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora. By Hershini Bhana Young. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017; 280 pp.; illustrations. $99.95 cloth, $25.95 paperback, e-book available.

What acts of black women’s “will” are legible in the historical archive? This inquiry has haunted and driven scholars to contest historical erasure by searching for evidence regarding the motives and desires of black historical figures. What would it mean, however, to imagine these archival absences not as gaps to be filled — the act of projecting some semblance of agency onto unknowable subjects as a means of redressing irreparable wounds, a futile gesture? Instead, what other forms of knowledge production could be considered by directly engaging those absences? In what ways, in other words, can we critically engage the archive to unsettle liberal notions of will and agency, coercion, and consent deployed in capitalist regimes of colonialism, slavery, and the “free” market? This is precisely Hershini [End Page 178] Bhana Young’s speculative challenge in Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora.

Drawing mostly from primary histories and shedding (an)other light on recognizable material, Young insists “that the illegibility of (black) will within the historical archive requires performative critical engagement with absence” (23). Rather than reading the archive for lost or new evidence, Young “conjures” the ghostly afterlife of black historical figures that resonate in contemporary cultural productions such as performances, novels, and photography. Navigating across disciplines to do this, Young applies a methodology that moves adroitly between black performance studies, contemporary African diasporic literature, and queer and critical disability theory. Emphasizing material bodies through their enactments of coercive labor practices, Young’s study is situated in South Africa, yet also expands to examine the transatlantic and, the much less theorized, trans-Indian and intracontinental circuits through which the construction of the commodified, raced, and gendered spectacle traveled.

Covering a sweeping range of time (the beginning of the 18th century to the early 21st century) and geographies, the book begins with the repatriation of Sarah Baartman’s remains to South Africa in 2002. Young, however, does not focus for long on Baartman’s exhaustively explored body and instead meditates on Baartman’s labor, an analytic shift that puts liberal notions of agency and free will on display. Here courtroom deliberations over the contractual “agreement” between Baartman and her London exhibitors are read alongside staged performances of enslaved Africans on North American auction blocks. These deliberations provide Young an opportunity to cross-examine the distinction between capitalist “free” labor and colonial “slave” labor as the commodified black body in both labor systems obfuscates choice (the legibility of will in the archive) while solidifying the legacy of racial capitalism.

Records from the 1713 Council of Justice exhibit how the kidnapped and subsequently enslaved Tryntjie from Madagascar is sentenced to public execution in South Africa for killing her child after poisoning her white mistress. Intervening in historical narratives of romantic love between Tryntjie and her mistress’s husband, Young disrupts those readings by examining the indistinguishability between coerced submission and compliance in a slave system that obscures Tryntjie’s motives for killing her “bastard” son. In this chapter, the illegibility of Tryntjie’s “will” and desire in historical narratives puts definitions of consent and love into crisis.

Furthering her argument about the limits of agency understood as acts of self-determination, Young delves into how race and disability have been transformed into spectacles and “conditions” in need of rehabilitation. By introducing Joice Heth, whose fragile aging body became one of the first attractions put on display by P.T. Barnum, Young facilitates a contemporary reading of the 2008 Miss Landmine Angola pageant, a beauty competition in which landmine victims win a prosthetic limb. As this chapter traces a genealogy of freak show performances and beauty pageants, Young questions whether Heth or the unemployed Angolan women’s willingness to participate in these spectacles is legible. Here Young underscores how focusing on individual compliance overlooks discourses and decisions based on the collective...


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pp. 178-180
Launched on MUSE
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