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Traumatic Possessions

Traumatic Possessions: The Body and Memory in African American Women's Writing and Performance

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    Traumatic Possessions
    Book Description:

    Studies of traumatic stress have explored the challenges to memory as a result of extreme experience, particularly in relation to the ways in which trauma resonates within the survivor's body and the difficulties survivors face when trying to incorporate their experience into meaningful narratives. Jennifer Griffiths examines the attempts of several African American writers and playwrights to explore ruptures in memory after a traumatic experience and to develop creative strategies for understanding the inscription of trauma on the body in a racialized cultural context.

    In the literary and performance texts examined here, Griffiths shows how the self is reconstituted through testimony-through the attempt to put into language and public statement the struggle of survivors to negotiate the limits placed on their bodies and to speak controversial truths. Dessa in her jail cell, Venus in the courtroom, Sally on the auction block, Ursa in her own family history, and Rodney King in the video frame-each character in these texts by Sherley Anne Williams, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robbie McCauley, Gayl Jones, and Anna Deavere Smith gives voice not only to the limits of language in representing traumatic experience but also to the necessity of testimony as the public enactment of memory and bodily witness.

    In focusing specifically and exclusively on the relation of trauma to race and on the influence of racism on the creation and reception of narrative testimony, this book distinguishes itself from previous studies of the literatures of trauma.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2895-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Preface
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. IX-X)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    InTestimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Dori Laub describes a videotaped archive of a Holocaust survivor recounting a Jewish rebellion at Auschwitz. “She was,” Laub writes, “relating her memories as an eyewitness of the Auschwitz uprising; a sudden intensity, passion and color were infused into the narrative. She was fully there.”¹ In the tape, which Laub presents to an interdisciplinary conference, the woman remembers four chimneys exploding. After the conference screening, the historians in the audience protest the accuracy of her testimony because, in fact, only one chimney had been destroyed. For Laub, this factual discrepancy...

  6. 1 “The Quick Gasp of Sympathy”: Trauma and Interracial Witnessing in Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose
    (pp. 14-33)

    “Memory stopped” for Dessa, the protagonist of Sherley Anne Williams’sDessa Rose, which opens with an imprisoned female slave recounting in “halting speech and hesitant manner” her experience in a recent slave rebellion.¹ Ashraf Rushdy describes the novel as a neoslave narrative, “a particular form of the contemporary narrativity of slavery” influenced by the cultural politics of the late 1960s, when, he asserts, “the study of American slavery was invigorated by a renewed respect for the truth and value of slave testimony, the significance of slave cultures, and the importance of slave resistance.”² The event linked to this “death” in...

  7. 2 Betrayal Trauma and the Test of Complicity in Suzan-Lori Parks’s Venus
    (pp. 34-45)

    A U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services campaign pamphlet, “Look beneath the Surface,” asks health-care providers, “Can you recognize victims of human trafficking among the people you help every day?”¹ The pamphlet then states, “Most victims do not see themselves as victims and do not realize what is being done to them is wrong,” a statement that raises complex issues around victim readability and selfawareness. What does it mean to “recognize victims” who “do not see themselves as victims”? As discussed in the preceding chapter, the white writer inDessa Rose,Nehemiah, refuses to recognize Dessa as a victim...

  8. 3 Between Women: Trauma, Witnessing, and the Legacy of Interracial Rape in Robbie McCauley’s Sally’s Rape
    (pp. 46-67)

    Atone critical moment in Robbie McCauley’s playSally’s Rape, the African American McCauley and her white co-performer Jeannie Hutchins engage in a revealing exchange about history, trauma, and denial:

    ROBBIE: In 1964 at the library job a U.S. history major who’d graduated from Smith College said—

    JEANNIE: I never knew white men did anything with colored women on the plantations.

    ROBBIE: I said “It was rape.” Her eyes turned red. She choked on her sandwich and quit the job.¹

    Through this exchange and throughoutSally’s Rape, McCauley asks her audience to explore what it means to “choke” on her...

  9. 4 Uncanny Spaces: Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Female Body in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora
    (pp. 68-88)

    In “Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle,” Dori Laub describes his experience with the Holocaust-survivor testimony on which he bases his theories about witnessing and recovery: “survivors did not only need to survive so that they could tell their stories; they also needed to tell their stories in order to survive. There is, in each survivor, an imperative need to tell and thus to come to know one’s story, unimpeded by ghosts from the past against which one has to protect oneself. One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life.”¹...

  10. 5 “I Have Never Seen a Movie Like That”: Traumatic Memory and the “Acceleration of History” in Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
    (pp. 89-110)

    The PBS production of Anna Deavere Smith’s playTwilight: Los Angeles,1992 opens with the line quoted in the epigraph, which evokes the tension between Nora’s observation on media-facilitated public memory and a belated, fractured post-traumatic response that, as Smith’s interviewed subject expresses above, exceeds the representational boundaries. The comparison between an actual crisis and film images alludes to the dominant conception of memory as a photographic still¹ or a film engraved in consciousness to represent specific experience. Nora’s claim suggests this conception’s functioning on a cultural level, where visual images pervade the collective consciousness and shape the perception of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 111-120)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 121-130)
  13. Index
    (pp. 131-134)