Scholarly accounts of enslaved testimony overwhelmingly center the slave narrative genre. Yet vast and heterogeneous archives of enslaved testimony must be understood on their own terms rather than those derived from this Anglo-American example. “Narrative Events: Slavery, Testimony, and Temporality in the Afro-Atlantic World” surveys several testimonial forms—legal complaints, spiritual visions, folk ethnographies, and lyric poetry—across various periods, geographies, and languages. Rather than read Anglophone slave narratives as the origin of a single tradition, this project proposes a model of “lateral reading” that constellates the slave narrative with disparate archives and foregrounds testimonial genres that do not constitute the basis of a national or linguistic canon. Centering non-canonical forms of slave testimony, moreover, reveals new insights into enslaved peoples’ textual production, the comparative history of Atlantic slavery, and the postwar institutionalization of Black Studies.
Chapter 1 considers The Reports of the Fiscals and of the Protectors of Berbice and Demerara-Essequebo (1819-1834), the single largest archive of first-person testimony from and about enslaved people in the Americas. Enslaved complaints represented a form of testimonial marronage, an embodied practice of time and space that enabled enslaved people to achieve momentary respite from the mundane brutalities of the plantation regime. The Reports of the Fiscals compel us to reconsider the relationship between agency and testimony in the study of slavery, illuminating how slaves’ testimonial imperatives were contoured not by the achievement or presumption of freedom, but rather by the pursuit of justice under colonial institutions of containment and surveillance. This processual expression of grievance was itself an enactment of enslaved social life that fostered novel modes of mutual witness, shared vulnerability, and common cause.
Chapter 2 focuses on Afro-Iberian Christian spiritual texts from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century. These visionary writings illuminate the intrusion of the Divine into the everyday, signifying a temporal relation between mystical rapture and mundane racialized labor that challenges normative conceptions of enslaved “experience.” In these works, “mystic speech” gestures permanently toward that which is outside of time and thus unsayable: the Infinite or Divine. As they index the struggle to articulate what cannot be represented, mystical texts evince an erotics of language haunted by an absolute Nothing. This visionary “silence” does not indicate absence, lack, or death, but instead the poetic construction of the work itself. The “archive of slavery” is thus not categorically a site of erasure or deprivation; what remains secret, hidden, or otherwise unsaid instead constitutes the practice of a fugitive mysticism.
Chapter 3 examines Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (1931), a biography of Cudjo Lewis—survivor of the last ship to traffic African slaves to the United States. Hurston’s text is an exploration of Black folk expression and of the social encounter fundamental to ethnographic fieldwork. This form of folkloric slave testimony was crucial to the innovations of the New Negro renaissance and its interest in Africanist cultural retentions in the New World. The reception of Barracoon, emphasizing its historical documentation of the experience of enslavement at the expense of a deeper appreciation for Hurston’s anthropological imperatives, illuminates genre as a temporally situated mode of reading scripted by institutional practice. The “slave narrative” thus emerges less a stable historical object than a method of inquiry enabling African American literary criticism as a specialized field of knowledge production.
Chapter 4 considers the poetry of Phillis Wheatley alongside the works of other slave poets across the Americas in the long nineteenth century, including: Afro-Cubans Francisco Manzano, José del Carmen Díaz, Ambrosio Echemendía, Juan Antonio Frías, Manuel Roblejo, and Nestor Cepeda; and Brazilian troubadour Inacio da Catingueira and satirist Luís Gama. Over the course of the twentieth century, the canonization of Wheatley shifted from positioning her work within a pantheon of major authors of African descent to situating it at the origin of a specifically African American literary tradition. The layering and ordering of synchronic time in lyric poetry, moreover, models an historical method that moves outward rather than forward. This perspective reframes these works as untethered to the development of a national canon in order to construct a wider, hemispheric archive of enslaved poetics in the Americas.