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”: by constellating the slave narrative with disparate archives and foregrounding testimonial genres that do not constitute the basis of a national or linguistic canon, this method challenges linear or teleological conceptions of Black literary history. 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 Anglo-Dutch territory of British Guiana through 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. When slaves lodged complaints with the Fiscal, the chief legal officer in British Crown colonies, they forced the collision of opposing institutional rhythms—those of law and labor—to produce momentary respite from the mundane brutalities of the plantation regime. The chapter reconsiders the relationship between agency and testimony, suggesting that enslaved complainants worked to make life more livable or tolerable rather than to “resist” the institution of slavery itself.
Chapter 2 focuses on Afro-Iberian Christian spiritual texts from the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth century. 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 chapter thus contends that the “archive of slavery” is 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. Barracoon is primarily an exploration of Black folk expression and the social practice of ethnography, demonstrating how New Negro intellectuals used slave testimony to recover Africanist folklore. By assessing how Barracoon has been misread as a slave narrative, the chapter reframes 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 those from Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti. As the testimonial capacity of lyric form exceeds the immediate social context of its production, lyric testimony does not yield insights into the experience of enslavement but rather the full complexity of Afro-diasporic expression within and beyond slavery. Examining why and how Wheatley has been canonized at the expense of other slave poets throughout the twentieth century, the chapter suggests that this singular emphasis betrays a narrow cultural nationalism further obscuring the history of slavery and enslaved expression in the Americas.