Dissertation

My dissertation project, "Narrative Events: Slavery, Testimony, and Temporality in the Afro-Atlantic World," starts with a simple presumption: that the slave narrative, its attendant critical conventions, and the sanctified position it has occupied in Americanist literary scholarship are not sufficient to furnish the most historically rigorous and theoretically robust account of enslaved testimony in the Americas—a corpus comprising texts from mainland North America as well as the Caribbean and Latin America, in languages including English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, and spanning chronologically from the early seventeenth through late twentieth centuries. By centering non-canonical forms of slave testimony, I show, we glean new insights into enslaved peoples' textual production, the comparative history of Atlantic slavery, and the institutionalization of Black studies in the postwar period. Progressively zooming out from the temporalities of everyday life (institutional rhythm, spiritual experience) to those of literary history (periodization, canon-formation), "Narrative Events" also reframes several key concepts in literary studies: agency, archive, genre, and canon.

 
 Detail from "Gezigt van de stad Nieuw-Amsterdam a Rio de Berbice," published by Bij C. Sepp Jansz (1807), © John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Detail from "Gezigt van de stad Nieuw-Amsterdam a Rio de Berbice," published by Bij C. Sepp Jansz (1807), © John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

the complaint

This chapter examines a singular, localized corpus: The Reports of the Fiscals and of the Protectors of Berbice and Demerara-Essequebo (1819-1834), representing the single largest archive of first-person testimony from and about enslaved people in the Americas. It argues that when slaves lodged complaints with the Fiscal, they forced a conflict between competing institutional rhythms and thereby produced momentary respite from the mundane brutalities of the plantation regime. These records further compel us to reconsider several categories that conventionally undergird the study of slave testimony in the Americas: authorship, abolition, and agency.

 Excerpt from "Processo do Padre Francisco Gonçalves Lopes e de Rosa Maria Egipcíaca" (1763-67), courtesy of the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo.

Excerpt from "Processo do Padre Francisco Gonçalves Lopes e de Rosa Maria Egipcíaca" (1763-67), courtesy of the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo.

The Vision

This chapter focuses on visionary texts from the early modern Afro-Iberian world: the visionary diaries of Úrsula de Jesus, a formerly enslaved donada in Lima, taken down between 1650 and 1661; the hagiography of Teresa de Santo Domingo, a formerly enslaved Guinean Catholic nun in Salamanca, published in 1752; and the Inquisition tribunals of Brazilian mystic Rosa Egipcíaca recorded between 1763 and 1765. It argues that such texts reveal these women’s spiritual lives to be indelibly contoured by their enslavement (and vice versa). They also foreground forms of feminine mystical experience in the tradition of Black women’s spiritual autobiography.

 
 
 
 Photograph of Kazoola [Cudjo] Lewis by Emma Langdon Roche, included in her book  Historic Sketches of the South  (1914).

Photograph of Kazoola [Cudjo] Lewis by Emma Langdon Roche, included in her book Historic Sketches of the South (1914).

The tale

This chapter focuses on Zora Neale Hurston’s manuscript Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" (1931), a biography of Cudjo Kazoola [Kossula] Lewis—survivor of the last slaving vessel to import African slaves illegally to the United States in 1859—compiled from several interviews. It argues that re-centering slave testimony in the development of New Negro Modernism unsettles  standard periodizations of African American literature. Other contemporary ethnographic works like Barracoon, which sought primarily to recover Africanist folklore and cultural practices, also trouble conventional conceptions of the “slave narrative” genre.

 Title page from Francisco Calcagno,  Poetas de Color  (Havana, 1878) accessed via University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection.

Title page from Francisco Calcagno, Poetas de Color (Havana, 1878) accessed via University of Miami Cuban Heritage Collection.

The poem

This chapter considers the reception of the poetry of Phillis Wheatley alongside the works of other enslaved poets in the Americas: early American poets Lucy Terry Prince, Jupiter Hammon, and George Moses Horton; Brazilian troubadour Inacio de Catingueira and satirist Luís Gama; Afro-Cubans Juan Francisco Manzano, José del Carmen Díaz, Juan Antonio Frías, Manuel Roblejo, Ambrosio Echemendía, and Néstor Cepeda; and popular works of the Haitian Revolutionary period. It argues for the testimonial capacities of lyric form, and tracks Wheatley's canonization at the expense of other slave poets across the Black Americas.