Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

LISA WOOLFORK
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 248
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt1xcq3x
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  • Book Info
    Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture
    Book Description:

    This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and reenactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology." Disrupting the prevailing view of traumatic knowledge that claims that traumatic events are irretrievable and accessible only through oblique reference, these novels and films circumvent the notion of indirect reference by depicting a replaying of the past, forcing present-day protagonists to witness and participate in traumatic histories that for them are neither dead nor past. Further, live performances and reenactments of slavery also rely on the time-travel motif (and the requisite suspension of disbelief) as a strategy to confront contemporary audiences with such spectacles as slave ship captivity, slave auctions, or a slave's decision to escape to freedom._x000B__x000B_As Lisa Woolfork cogently reveals, these cultural expressions indicate a concern that the traumatic meanings and consequences of American slavery have been lost to those living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Woolfork analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their re-creations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09296-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Go There to Know There
    (pp. 1-18)

    During a recent Juneteenth commemorative weekend at our local community college, the program coordinator issued a provocative invitation. Describing the many events of the day—which included an art workshop for children, exhibit of slavery artifacts, and quilting demonstrations—she announced a small series of re-created moments from slavery that had been set up in the areas outside the building. “We’re going to take you back there,” she said of the reenactments that included simulations of Goree Island and an auction block. Participants, most of them black, would drift through the simulated scenes in an effort to temporarily and imaginatively...

  5. 1. Trauma and Time Travel
    (pp. 19-44)

    In her important essay on the role of psychology in the history of slavery, Nell Irvin Painter notes the difficulty of applying twentieth-century methodologies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century circumstances. “When used carefully, perhaps gingerly,” she argues, psychology “provides a valuable means of understanding people and families who cannot be brought to the analyst’s couch.” She considers science fiction the perfect gateway to such analysis: “Ideally, historians could enter a kind of ‘Star Trek’ realm of virtual reality in which we could hold intelligent conversations with the dead, then remand them to their various hells, purgatories, and heavens and return to...

  6. 2. Touching Scars, Touching Slavery: Trauma, Quilting, and Bodily Epistemology
    (pp. 45-63)

    The body is at once a question and an answer. Yet despite the inherent paradox of the body’s interpretational complexity, African American fictional and autobiographical narratives of slavery continue to engage corporeality as a representational strategy. In the early twentieth century, former slave Henrietta King uses her body’s markings to reference her slave experience (Berlin, Favreau, and Miller,Remembering Slavery21). Interviewed as part of the federal Writers’ Project to collect memories and stories about slave life from the last generation of blacks who had been enslaved, King recounts a tale of slavery that centers on her marked body. King,...

  7. 3. Teach You a Lesson, Boy: Endangered Black Male Teens Meet the Slave Past
    (pp. 64-97)

    In July 2005, American parents learned of two unusual programs designed to teach teenagers valuable, yet difficult, lessons in gratitude and resourcefulness. Heifer International—an antipoverty and anti–world hunger organization operating in fifty countries—offers an immersion experience at its Heifer Ranch in Arkansas. The ranch’s Global Village, a re-creation of living conditions in developing nations, is the site of a learning experiment that ranges in duration from one night to two weeks. Students (middle school through college age) are randomly divided into “family” units, given “resources such as food, firewood, water, or shelter. . . . Since the...

  8. 4. Slave Tourism and Rememory
    (pp. 98-131)

    Since the mid-1990s, tourism theorists have identified a new trend in recreational travel. Instead of engaging the “innocent” amusements of a Disney theme park or observing the natural splendor of a mountain range or reenacting frontier life by taking a cattle-drive trip, many travelers are opting for what some scholars have identified as the “dark” side. Visitors to Dallas can retrace John F. Kennedy’s last journey, in a car identical to the one in which he was assassinated, complete with “a recorded soundtrack of clapping and cheering until, outside the school book depository, shots ring out and the car speeds...

  9. 5. Ritual Reenactments
    (pp. 132-158)

    The slave-auction controversy discussed in the previous chapter represents only one facet of slavery reenactment, which is a prevalent and diverse activity that blends elements of performance with the reverence of commemoration. Despite the reticence or aversion to frank public conversation about America’s slave past, multiple forms of reenactments persist to promote a variety of visions of American slavery. In the course of this project, I have identified several modes of slavery reenactment: ritual, historical, and participatory. Ritual reenactments are usually performed in church or for larger spiritual purpose. In 1995, St. Paul Community Baptist Church (SPCBC) in Brooklyn, New...

  10. 6. Historical Reenactments
    (pp. 159-192)

    Ritual reenactments likeThe Maafa Suitediffer significantly from those in the historical mode. These two forms, however, can be usefully placed in dialogue. Erriel Roberson, whose book on theMaafaexpanded the term’s application, has this to say about Colonial Williamsburg’s historical reenactments of slavery: “Colonial Williamsburg is a celebration of European colonial history with enslaved Africans as an unavoidable incidental, viewed from the perspective of those celebrating the European heritage. This is not memorialization” (The Maafa and Beyond19). Roberson’s characterization of Colonial Williamsburg is congruent with that museum’s description by some historians as a “Republican Disneyland.” From...

  11. Conclusion: A Soul Baby Talks Back
    (pp. 193-204)

    In her compelling 1989 essay “Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom—Dessa Rose,” Deborah McDowell concludes by broaching the ways in which Sherley Anne Williams’s novelDessa Roseaddresses and incorporates laughter as an emotional release for its female slave protagonist: “We laughed so we wouldn’t cry.” More forcefully, Williams uses black laughter as a sign of freedom and autonomy: “I told myself this [laughter] was good, that it showed slavery didn’t have no hold on us no more.” McDowell is careful to insist that these passages are not a sign that slavery is a joke, “an institution to...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 205-210)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 211-222)
  14. Index
    (pp. 223-234)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 235-236)