Remembering Slavery, Remaking Race

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

The core question animating my explorations in Runaway Genres was the relation between slavery and freedom across past and present landscapes. The project started with noting the resurgence and proliferation of neo-slave narratives by African American writers in the last four decades; it moved on to track how the slave narrative’s peculiar features repeat today in narratives of capture and violence from the Global South; and finally it wanted to reckon with the ways in which concepts of race and racial formation derived from Atlantic slavery now define the contours of human rights imaginaries across the globe. My goal was twofold—to assess the cultural work of neo-slave narratives in the United States and across the world and to fathom how racial forms morph as they travel across space and time. Doing so, I suggested, would also help us rethink the meaning and valence of postcolonial and African American literature in dialogue with each other, pushing against rigid field demarcations that separate the two. Writing in a moment when the weight of historical violence pulls harder than ever on our present, as well as in a time of intense disciplinary roiling in terms of literary method and purpose, I found in the archive of slavery and neo-slavery the very pattern of treating slavery as exception and as exemplar that helps explain the meaning of Blackness as it circulates across the globe today, especially in relation to the African continent.

These questions can be extended in new and exciting ways—to other media (as Anthony Reed shows with his discussion of cinematic slavery), to new fiction from various sites of the African diaspora (as Sheri-Marie Harrison demonstrates with Jesmyn Ward), and to our era’s social movements (as Marina Bilbija reveals in her discussion of Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of racist monuments). The responses in this forum also invite us to meditate explicitly on disciplinary and field formation—the relations among intra-African and transatlantic migration, for instance, as Jeanne-Marie Jackson and Tunji Osinubi wonder; as well as on the valence of sentiment and affect in postcolonial studies, as Hadji Bakara ruminates. And as Sangeeta Ray explains in her Introduction, such questions dovetail with the meaning of aesthetic form and practices of formalism in literary study, especially in relation to the study of race and empire. I remain deeply grateful to all the contributors to the forum, as well as editor Angela Naimou, for the space to think again about slavery and analogy as we collectively probe the work of literature in a time of seemingly unending crisis.

Marina Bilbija leads us into a generative exploration of such questions, beautifully connecting the concerns of Runaway Genres with the runaway protest movements and the multiple falling monuments of our time. She rightly calls attention to protest as a global social form, even as she underscores the importance of critical analysis of a variety of scrambled imperial histories in protest movements inspired by BLM across the globe. What specificity should attend Dutch idioms of race when George Floyd’s plaintive cry “I can’t breathe” appears on Leopold II’s bust, strangled by a hood? Does such a spontaneous action index the repetition of a hegemonic African American protest movement or does it speak to the protestor’s understanding (ahead of politicians and policy makers, and it must be said, often of academics as well) of the interconnected nature of power today across national borders as debates about national history and identity reckon with the meaning of citizenship, belonging, and human rights erupting out of a long-repressed refusal to engage with the afterlife of slavery and colonialism? I have long been amazed by how sanitized the memory of colonialism is in the United States, where colleagues love The Crown, revere Winston Churchill as a savior, and fail to connect nostalgic representations of British period pieces with a true reckoning of the violence and savagery of empire. Lynching, famine, concentration camps, mustard gas experiments, genocide: these almost never appear in contemporary media as the iconography of empire. In connecting the afterlife of slavery to the African continent, my hope is that we learn to read these correspondences, return to the role of Britain itself, and as Bilbija says, meticulously trace what happened between Emancipation and Windrush, so that the widespread crackdown even on citizens across the world and the xenophobic attacks on migrants in particular can be seen as the culmination of the story that began with the forcible yoking together of various continents in a ring of violence. For scholars of race and postcolonialism, there is no more urgent task at hand than figuring out how movements for racial justice across the world connect and diverge. How do they intersect with new configurations of power where race, Blackness, and difference play out in unexpected ways? And what are the global forms of protest that can help bring about long deferred reckoning with historical and continuing violence?

Sheri-Marie Harrison approaches these questions by linking mass incarceration to the politics of memory and the uncertain processes of articulating a sense of belonging in a hostile place. As Harrison observes, my chapter on the child soldier highlights the gothic in order to chart a distance from the humanitarian embrace of sentiment, and as she explores via Jesmyn Ward, the gothic genre troubles projects of recovery and reconciliation by engaging in a politics of refusal. While I would not quite concede that Beloved should be seen as a recovery project (because Toni Morrison is interested in a profound impossibility—how to reckon with historical violations impossible to remedy or remember, heal or repair), Harrison’s invitation to extend these questions to new American fiction in order to see the presence of global histories of violence clearly shows how the very meaning of home can no longer be understood within the nation’s boundaries. Such an expansion of focus might further help erode outdated boundaries between African American and African diaspora or immigrant fiction, as the “literature of confinement” (to use Tara Green’s term), and the literature of migration could be read together through the conceptual frameworks of abolition and critiques of carceral logics at home and at the border. The repression of the histories of colonialism and slavery is at the heart of current geopolitical constructions of the refugee crisis in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.

Anthony Reed usefully reminds us of the need for larger media histories of the afterlives of slavery, probing us to consider how cinematic slavery differs from literary representations of slavery over the last four decades. Reed rightfully highlights the white savior and liberal reconciliation narratives at the center of many of the most acclaimed cinematic representations of U.S. slavery, noting as well that there seems to be no space to imagine Black citizenship, only victimhood. In this respect, I wonder if difficult novels by such writers as Morrison, Octavia Butler, Charles Johnson, Edward Jones, Colson Whitehead, and Sherley Anne Williams are actually able to achieve a focus on the interiority and the complex psychology of the enslaved, outside of expected narratives of national progress or liberal overcoming. In contrast, celebrated bestsellers like Dave Eggers’s What Is the What or Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls flatten such complexity, and create a clear divide between slavery and freedom, something that the writers of the historical slave narrative sought to correct. As Saidiya Hartman has influentially argued, any return to the subject of slavery brings with it difficult ethical choices for the artist, scholar, and student, since attending to the scene of violation can too often amplify the spectacle of pain.

Hadji Bakara appreciates the force of my critique of sentimentalism but longs for a clearer exposition of unsentimental globalism. In counterpoint to his claim (for which he draws on Deborah Nelson) that the unsentimental has no critical history, I would submit that the entire canon of postcolonial critique serves as a rebuttal to this notion. And so Bakara is right in his suspicion that I think that anti-colonial and postcolonial theory and culture have always been unsentimental. I don’t mean to suggest a homogeneity that doesn’t exist here, rather to point to a common project in much of the work that seeks to understand the power/knowledge nexus of colonialism and its aftermath. As I discussed in my first book, Romance, Diaspora, and Black Atlantic Literature, the political imaginaries of decolonization were not static—I called the competing tendencies that attended mid-century anti-colonial movements romance and realism, as aesthetic and political yearnings collided in efforts to imagine worlds beyond what we can see and touch even as the need for actualizing the promises of liberal democracy remained pressing. These impulses in the African diaspora tradition were always transnational, as the varied careers of Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Amílcar Cabral show. Even if decolonization failed to achieve the political, economic, and social hopes attached to it, we need to understand its full meaning, which was revolutionary rather than sentimental, as Frantz Fanon urged. Removing the gauze of sentiment would then clear the ground for a renewal of those political energies to imagine a humanist politics that would no longer serve as proxy for colonialism.

When we turn to the aftermath of decolonization, as I do in Runaway Genres, the affective patterns I identify in relation to the work of empathy in foreshortening the distance between us and them must be understood as the direct outcome of the perceived failures of decolonization and left internationalism. It is also worth noting that I’m not interested in a generalized argument against sentiment as such, but in a very specific narrative about race, slavery, and sentiment. The African American literary tradition in particular has always been deeply sensitive to the risks of sentimental reading, visible everywhere from critiques of Harriet Beecher Stowe to the naturalist force of Richard Wright and Chester Himes as they chart the uses and abuses of Blackness for whiteness. Accordingly, while the word unsentimental may only appear once in Runaway Genres, the entire book is about turning away from the sentimental in favor of practices as varied as corrosive satire in Paul Beatty’s evisceration of post-racialism, the lyrical opacity of Chris Abani’s fiction, Morrison’s wanderings through Shakespeare’s Othello and Rokia Traoré’s music, Teju Cole’s elegant meditations on the haunting of the cityscape by ghosts of intertwined histories, and the grotesque humor of Ahmadou Kourouma.

Jeanne-Marie Jackson rightly points out that the Atlantic frame can take up critical attention more vividly than smaller stories of regional migration and servitude, whether created by long-standing patterns or by new configurations of labor migration. Indeed this was one of my motivations in musing on what happens when the Atlantic frame is replaced by the global. It’s worth thinking, with Jackson, how Atlantic and global frames relate to what might be called local or regional in only the most superficial sense (given the magnitude and diversity of the works and populations being discussed). To me, the most intriguing question raised by the response—too quickly passed over—is that of form. If the Atlantic slave narrative, as I argue, structures wide-scale writing about transatlantic and other migrations, what forms are available for narrating cross-border labor migrations, often temporary? And do these twenty-first century forms differ substantially from existing ones that we already account for in African Studies of the twentieth century, such as the bildungsroman, the national allegory, the epic poem, the literature of disenchantment, and the turn to magic realism? As twenty-first century literary culture taps into the almost instantaneous connections enabled by technology and globalization, what are the distinct aspects of literary culture in various national spaces? To what extent does it make sense anymore to speak of national literatures rather than regional, Atlantic, hemispheric, or global literatures?

Moreover, how might we separate the intra-African from the transatlantic in today’s globalized world? To be sure, one always takes precedence in critical focus, which is partly my point. But don’t labor migrations today go off in many directions at once? And aren’t postcolonial nations themselves part of the history of colonial rule, and hence inevitably work within a continental frame? In terms of narrating the local, part of the challenge is finding the language to represent quotidian slow violence versus the magnitude of the event of slavery. It’s also worth noting in this context that the treatment of slavery as the touchstone also changes depending on where one sits. From the African Americanist’s perspective, the erasure of slavery still looms large, even as it can look like the hegemonic story from the vantage point of an Africanist. Exploring these contradictions is precisely what the writers of the new African diaspora enable, I suggest, because they collide both these traditions in their fiction. This is why the work of such writers as Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo, Taiye Selasi, and Dinaw Mengestu is so generative, because it pushes against long-held conventions of what I would call critical nativism. Despite the proliferation of transnational frames in almost all fields and disciplines, we seem reluctant to relinquish our attachment to national boundaries. The irritation with the phenomenal success of African writers who engage the U.S.–Africa nexus and choose to live in the United States has led to an unfortunate zero-sum approach where their prominence somehow sidelines both African writers who are not Afropolitan and African American writers who are not accorded the cosmopolitan label as easily. But such an approach misses the deeper story of what their dual positioning enables both for the study of the afterlife of colonialism and that of slavery. In engaging with the concepts of race and Blackness forged in the Atlantic cauldron of modernity, these writers open up new possibilities for both fields. To put it simply, I don’t believe that every writer who succeeds in the West is a sellout or fails some kind of authenticity yardstick. This is why my work on new African writers seeks to rescue them from critiques that seem mired in outdated models—whether about authenticity tied to the local or the regional or too totalizing of a model of Western control. There are multiple ways of reading the work of these celebrated texts—some that challenge expected frames of resistance, some that continue the project of critique in the postcolonial vein, and others that are involved in additional imaginative projects of reconstruction.

Tunji Osinubi’s concern about the parochialism of the Atlantic frame similarly misses the opportunity to explore a relation that is far more complex than unidirectional influence or hegemony. My goal is to invite us to think about the differentials of power that follow variegated routes, without losing sight of distinct aesthetic projects. How could one see Morrison’s turn to Shakespeare’s Othello through such a rigid framework, for instance? Or remain sensitive to Abani’s evocation of a vibrant intellectual culture—where a child in a slum reads Rilke in the communal toilet, or Beatty’s clever riposte to “dum dum donut intellectuals” who parade their anti-racist critique in a purportedly post-racial world? And while Osinubi wishes that my book would not return to America, I would only submit that this turn was neither unconscious nor unreasoned but very deliberate. As I have suggested elsewhere, one of the limits of postcolonial critique as it formed over the last four decades in the Anglo-American academy is the inability to move across scales of European and American imperial formations, and the refusal to engage with the United States—either to parse the specific nature of neocolonial power today or to pursue deep historical and cultural connections among minority populations and the Global South. We will never be able to understand contemporary culture or politics if we remain attached to a static model of Manichean binaries between colonizer/colonized and West/Africa. My goal in gathering an array of writers and texts and national contexts is not to blur differences but to make visible the common threads—interwoven patterns, jigsaws, and zigzags. I want to keep that sense of movement and energy alive which we sometimes quash to establish firm disciplinary and field boundaries. This is why the dynamism of analogy is my central concern—when it breaks down, when it reconstitutes, when it may fail but still create openings that weren’t possible before. Slavery as an analytic invites claims to particularity and enables connections, which is why the relation between Africa and the United States remains important.

I’ll end with Ben Okri’s recent wonderful statement on African literature on the literary blog Brittle Paper (itself an index of the vibrant transnational culture of the “boom” years of African literature). Okri writes, “Make no mistake about it, African literature is taking over the world. It has sprouted from Africa, but it has grown in all the corners of the globe. It is a literature of the native lands, but it is also a literature of sensibility, of exile, of migration, of travel, of home-leaving, home-staying, homecoming. It is a literature that can no longer be contained in a continent, or by a school, or a name, or a homogeneity.” It is this energy and this vision that Runaway Genres hopes to contribute to, to avoid the critical orthodoxies that don’t allow us to explore the multiple pathways of contemporary literature across borders. Okri concludes with what I would regard as a mandate: “There was a time when African literature was treated with a ghettoization. Now it is a universe.”

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