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STEPHANIE LI Indiana University Valerie Martin’s Property.: A Neo-enslaver Narrative WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WHITE AMERICAN WRITERS AND ARTISTS REIMAGINE slavery? While an entire genre has developed to describe contemporary black conceptions of the experience of antebellum bondage, there is no such category for white-authored works. First defined by Bernard W. Bell in The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (1987), neo-slave narrativesare“residuallyoral,modernnarrativesofescapefrombondage to freedom” (289) that constitute a specifically black response to antebellumdiscourses.1 Bellemphasizeshowneo-slavetextssignifyupon themes explored in nineteenth-century slave narratives such as literacy, resistance, and black folk culture while also offering an important corrective to racial stereotypes and historical omissions. Recent treatments of the antebellum period—most notoriously Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 Django Unchained—ask us to consider what it means for white artists to envision the experience of bondage. Despite its heroic black protagonist, Tarantino’s Academy Award-winning film reifies a number of racist tropes and places white male subjectivity at the forefront of its revenge fantasy.2 Though Django Unchained is perhaps best understood as a filmic heir to William Styron’s exasperating The ConfessionsofNatTurner. (1967), these troubling worksdonotforeclose the possibility of more thoughtful and nuanced portrayals of antebellum slavery, but instead challenge us to look beyond works celebrated in the 1 Bell was the first to use the term neo-slave narrative, but his description of the genre was anticipated by other scholars who also noted continuities between novels about slavery and nineteenth-century slave narratives. In Witnessing Slavery (1979), Frances Smith Foster discusses twentieth-century novels “consciously modeled after the antebellum slave narratives” (ix-x). Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in TheSlave’s Narrative (1985), describe the “slave narrative novel” (xxii), while William L. Andrews, in To Tell a Free Story (1986), links the slave narrative tradition to contemporary works like Ralph Ellison’s InvisibleMan(1952) and Ernest Gaines’s AutobiographyofMissJane Pittman (1971) (291). 2 Tarantino received an Oscar for the movie in the Original Screenplay category. 236 Stephanie Li mainstream press.3 Valerie Martin’s Property (2003) heralds a new direction for the literature of slavery, offering an incisive portrait of the dynamic between enslavers and the enslaved that responds directly to neo-slave narratives. Property, like The Confessions of Nat Turner and Django Unchained, mines the complex social and racial forces of the antebellum period; all three are uneasy additions to the neo-slave narrativegenrebecausetheyemergefromwhite imaginations.However, while The Confessions of Nat Turner and Django Unchained bear the imprint of distinctly white male prejudice, Property shows that a white perspective can meaningfully signify upon a genre rooted in the African American literary tradition and deepen our understanding of how slavery warped the master class. In Neo-SlaveNarratives:StudiesintheSocialLogicof a LiteraryForm (1999), Ashraf H. A. Rushdy includes discussion of The Confessions of Nat Turner, describing the controversial novel as a “prototype” of the neo-slave narrative (22). Styron’s book and the debate it unleashed effectively closed literary treatment of antebellum slavery to a generation of white novelists. Though widely celebrated in the mainstream press, The Confessions of Nat Turner outraged many of the most respected black critics of the day. In William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), Vincent Harding called Styron’s novel a “total betrayal of the historical Turner” that “becomes an exercise in domestication, assimilation, and finally destruction” (25).4 Nelson George indicted Styron’s “romance of blackness,” pointing to the work’s “strange, often unintentional rape of black ideas” (225). With its blatant inaccuracies and offensive depictions, Styron’s book was read as a vulgar appropriation of history and a distortion of authentic representations of black masculinity. The novel also flagrantly indulges in racist stereotypes. Turner is portrayed as a man who masturbates as much as he urges others to follow his call for freedom. Consistent with the myth of the hypersexualized black woman, Turner’s mother is described as enjoying being raped by a white overseer. Although the Irish overseer McBride 3 Though The Confessions of Nat Turner is widely regarded by contemporary critics as a racist appropriation of a pivotal figure from African American history, it received the 1967 Pulitzer Prize and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 235-255
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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