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  • Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic
  • Joanna Brooks (bio)
Genius in Bondage: Literature of the Early Black Atlantic. Edited by Vincent Carretta and Philip Gould. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2001. 280 pp., illus.

Genius in Bondage materializes a recent upsurge of scholarly interest in eighteenth-century African-American and Afro-British authors. Co-edited by Philip Gould and Vincent Carretta—who has also produced Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Kentucky, 1996) and new Penguin editions of Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, Ottobah Cugoano, and Phillis Wheatley—this collection of 13 essays covers Black authors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Equiano, Sancho, Cugoano, Wheatley, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, John Marrant, Venture Smith, Benjamin Banneker, Mary Prince, and Nathaniel Paul. Contributors include new and established scholars of American and British literature, as well as a prominent African-Americanist. By introducing new texts and offering new perspectives on early Black writers, Genius in Bondage confirms the vigor of early Black Atlantic studies and the genius of the literature it represents.

The collected essays demonstrate that early Black authors participated in the dominant literary and cultural developments of their day and that their writings can be read productively alongside contemporary white-authored [End Page 354] texts. Examining Olaudah Equiano's production and promotion of the Interesting Narrative (1789), Vincent Carretta declares the multifaceted Equiano a "master" of the eighteenth century's burgeoning "commercial book market" (151) and advocates for early Black texts a place within the broader history of the book. In his essay on Ignatius Sancho, Laurence Sterne, and "sentimental libertinism," Markman Ellis shows how Sancho's Letters (1782) invested the conventions of Shandyism and the epistolary form with a "transgressive and radical" racial politics (212). Felicity Nussbaum compares constructions of Black masculinity in writings by Sancho and Equiano against influential white-authored texts such as Othello and Oroonoko. Karen Weyler plumbs the polyvalent language of redemption in captivity narratives by John Marrant and Briton Hammon, and Philip Gould finds in Marrant and Venture Smith a creative manipulation of early national discourses of "mastery," "liberty," and "property" toward the construction of "free" "entrepreneurial" personas (118).

Other contributors to Genius in Bondage deepen our understanding of the shaping contexts for early Black literature. Robert Desrochers, Jr., sheds new light on the heretofore shadowy figure of Briton Hammon, whose 1760 Narrative established him as the first published African-American author. Through historical and literary research, Desrochers assembles an important and unprecedented body of knowledge about Hammon's identity, his master John Winslow, and the context of the Narrative, with information about the slave trade, legal varieties of slavery, maritime culture, New England's Black communities, and Massachusetts history. Frank Shuffleton also uses historicization to produce a new appreciation of the later works of Phillis Wheatley. Shuffleton shows that after 1773 Wheatley responded to shifting personal and political situations—her manumission, the death of Susannah Wheatley, the maturation of the Wheatley children, the War of Independence, emergent abolitionism in Massachusetts—by "reconstruct[ing] her role as a poet" and "developing a more complex, pluralistic sense of audience" (176).

Close textual readings by Rosemary Fithian Guruswamy and Gillian Whitlock produce similar revelations and reevaluations of early Black texts. Guruswamy identifies in poet Jupiter Hammon's "An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly" a "deliberate coding technique" based in Hammon's "signifying on the Book of Psalms" (193). Her essay contributes to the ongoing reclamation of Hammon, who has been for so long unjustly dismissed [End Page 355] as a poetic mimic or a slavery apologist. Similarly, through an examination of The History of Mary Prince (1831; republished 1987), Gillian Whitlock successfully dislodges conventional notions of amanuenses' "corrosive" influence on early African-American literature and proposes a more nuanced understanding of this authorial-editorial relationship. As they redress long-standing misconceptions and build new knowledge about Wheatley, Briton Hammon, Jupiter Hammon, and Mary Prince, essays by Desrochers, Shuffleton, Guruswamy, and Whitlock will greatly benefit students, teachers, and scholars. These essays also model the investigative, interpretive, and imaginative audacity necessary to the decoding of early Black literature.

Essays by Roxann Wheeler...


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