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Abstract

Like an unruly ghost, violence haunts the slave narrative. It dominates the polemical case against slavery. It shapes and severs families, ruins bodies, and renders language itself inarticulate. The experience of social death makes it impossible for writers to suppress their own annihilation, that sense, as Morrison puts it, of a “thickness thinning, dissolving into nothing” (123). The unstated premise of slave narratives is that so much must remain unsaid.

Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has a claim, she is not claimed.

—Toni Morrison, Beloved

Toni Morrison, Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987), 274. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 68. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. 2.

    Houston Baker, The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 31. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  3. 3.

    The phrase “originary violence” appears in Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 37. For Levinas, see note 52, below.

  4. 4.

    Jennifer Fleischner, in her study of women’s slave narratives, refers to the Freudian “compulsion to repeat,” but she is more interested in symbolic themes than in patterns of trauma. See Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 20–21, 26–27. Dwight McBride discusses the rhetorical effect of horrifying experience in Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 89–94. On social death, see Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). For Morrison’s novels and trauma, see J. Brooks Bouson, Quiet as It’s Kept: Shame, Trauma, and Race in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000); Tim Armstrong, The Logic of Slavery: Debt, Technology, and Pain in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 173–82; Evelyn Schreiber, Race, Trauma, and Home in the Novels of Toni Morrison (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Kristen Boudreau, “Pain and the Unmaking of Self in Toni Morrison’s Beloved,” Contemporary Literature 36 (1995): 447–65; and Naomi Morgenstern, “Mother’s Milk and Sister’s Blood: Trauma and the Neoslave Narrative,” Differences 8 (1996): 101–26. See also Lee Gilmore, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001).

  5. 5.

    Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 229–30, 249; Dori Laub (citing Nadine Francesco), “Bearing Witness, or the Vicissitudes of Listening,” in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, ed. Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (New York: Routledge, 1992), 64. See also Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Susan Brison, “Trauma Narratives and the Remaking of the Self,” Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present, ed. Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, and Leo Spitzer (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), 39–54; Brison, Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002); Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma and Memory,” Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, ed. Bessel van der Kolk, Alexander McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), 279–302; van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart, and Charles Marmar, “Dissociation and Information Processing in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Traumatic Stress, 303–27; and Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

  6. 6.

    Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 62.

  7. 7.

    My discussion here is drawn from Caruth, 63–69.

  8. 8.

    Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), 35; Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 27–59.

  9. 9.

    Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, ed. Paul Guyer; trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 152; cf. Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Leipzig: Meiner, 1922), 116.

  10. 10.

    Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, 32. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text. See also Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 121, 139–42.

  11. 11.

    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Vintage, 1989), 58; Ñacuñán Sáez, “Torture: A Discourse on Practice,” Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text, ed. Frances Mascia-Lees and Patricia Sharpe (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 138.

  12. 12.

    Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 21. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  13. 13.

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 93.

  14. 14.

    Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850–1910 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 5. Brooks derives the phrase “powerful stillness” from Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17 (1987): 66.

  15. 15.

    Jeannine DeLombard, “‘Eye-Witness to Cruelty’: Southern Violence and Northern Testimony in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative,” American Literature 73 (2001): 256.

  16. 16.

    Judith Butler, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 52.

  17. 17.

    Georg Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 118.

  18. 18.

    Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 46–47.

  19. 19.

    Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 3. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  20. 20.

    “Leaves from a Slave’s Journal of Life,” Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies, ed. John Blassingame (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 151. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  21. 21.

    William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847), Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/brown47/brown47.html, 39–40. Subsequent citations from this electronic edition will appear parenthetically in the text. Unless otherwise noted, citations from slave narratives will be drawn from the docsouth archive, designated, for each entry, by html address. In all instances, additional citations from the same source will be provided parenthetically. I have chosen only narratives written, so far as I have been able to determine, by the narrators themselves, checking each text against available bibliographic information. Peter Bruner’s narrative is the sole exception: it was co-written with his daughter.

  22. 22.

    Israel Campbell, An Autobiography. Bond and Free: Or, Yearnings for Freedom (1861), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/campbell/campbell.html, 18.

  23. 23.

    James Pennington, The Fugitive Blacksmith (1849), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/penning49/penning49.html, iv. On plantation violence, see Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (New York: Knopf, 1956), 174–88.

  24. 24.

    John Thompson, The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave (1856), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/thompson/thompson.html, 41.

  25. 25.

    Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bibb/bibb.html, 75.

  26. 26.

    Peter Bruner, A Slave’s Adventures Toward Freedom (1918), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/bruner/bruner.html, 30.

  27. 27.

    Leonard Black, The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black (1847), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/black/black.html, 13. See also Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 174.

  28. 28.

    William Grimes, Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (1825, 2nd ed. 1855), 83, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/grimes55/menu.html. For critical comment, see William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 81; Ann Fabian, The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 54–55; Lindon Barrett, “African-American Slave Narratives: Literacy, the Body, Authority,” American Literary History 7 (1995): 435–36; Jon-Christian Suggs, “African American Literature and Legal History,” Law and Literature 22 (2010), 333; and Charles Nichols, “The Case of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave,” William and Mary Quarterly, 8 (1951): 552–60.

  29. 29.

    Jacob Green, Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green (1864), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/greenjd/greenjd.html, 8.

  30. 30.

    Marcus Wood, Slavery, Empathy, and Pornography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 97. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  31. 31.

    On this general point, cf. Wood, Slavery, 98–106.

  32. 32.

    Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html, 107–109.

  33. 33.

    William Green, Narrative of the Events in the Life of William Green (1853), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/greenw/greenw.html, 12; Grimes 44 (striking a black driver); Bruner 17; Isaac Mason, Life of Isaac Mason as a Slave (1893), https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/mason/mason.html, 15, 26, 33; Thompson 54. See also Kenneth Stampp, Peculiar Institution, 125–32; Michael Wayne, Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain: Slavery, Cruelty, and the Rise of Humanitarianism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 184–85; and Jeff Forret, Race Relations at the Margins: Slaves and Poor Whites in the Antebellum Southern Countryside (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 121, 182. For an account of the black abolitionist embrace of violence, particularly after 1850, see Kellie Carter Jackson, Force and Freedom: Black Abolitionists and the Politics of Violence (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019).

  34. 34.

    Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 12 (I.1.2). For an account of abolitionist responses to sympathy, see Gay Cima, Performing Anti-Slavery: Activist Women on Antebellum Stages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 39–72. On the apprehension of pain, see also Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain, 158–73; Elizabeth Clark, “‘The Sacred Rights of the Weak’: Pain, Sympathy, and the Culture of Individual Rights in Antebellum America,” Journal of American History 82 (1955): 463–93; Karen Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” American Historical Review 100 (1995): 303–34; and Carolyn Sorisio, “The Spectacle of the Body: Torture in the Antislavery Writing of Lydia Maria Child and Frances E. W. Harper,” Modern Language Studies 30 (2000): 45–66.

  35. 35.

    John Jackson, The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina (1862), https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jackson/jackson.html, 21–22.

  36. 36.

    James Lindsay Smith, Autobiography of James L. Smith (1881), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/smithj/smithj.html, 11.

  37. 37.

    Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South (1885), docsouth.unc.edu/neh/stroyer85/stroyer85.html, 22.

  38. 38.

    Moses Roper, Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery (1848), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/roper/roper.html, 28. For a similar account, see Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 141.

  39. 39.

    Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868), https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/keckley/keckley.html, 34.

  40. 40.

    Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 162. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  41. 41.

    Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 81–139; John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 284. On slaves’ alleged capacity for pain, see also Margaret Abruzzo, Polemical Pain, 174–81.

  42. 42.

    The long list of slave community studies includes Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone; Stephanie Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); William Dusinberre, Strategies for Survival: Recollections of Bondage in Antebellum Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009); Philip Morgan: Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); George Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community (Westport: Greenwood, 1972); Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); Drew Gilpin Faust, “Culture and Community: The Meaning of Power on an Ante-Bellum Plantation,” Journal of Social History 14 (1980): 83–97; and Roger Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (New York: Pantheon, 1992). For critiques of the slave community thesis, see Jeff Forret, “Conflict and the ‘Slave Community’: Violence among Slaves in Upcountry South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 74 (2008): 551–88; and Peter Kolchin, “Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective,” Journal of American History 70 (1983): 579–601.

  43. 43.

    Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 301.

  44. 44.

    See also Walter Johnson, “On Agency,” Journal of Social History 37 (2003): 113–24.

  45. 45.

    Johnson, “On Agency,” 116.

  46. 46.

    Robert Eaglestone, Ethical Criticism: Reading after Levinas (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), 137. My approach to Levinas has been informed by Eaglestone’s indispensable study. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  47. 47.

    Emmanuel Levinas, “Substitution,” Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Adrian Peperzak, Simon Critchley, and Robert Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 83, 82. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  48. 48.

    Majid Yar, “Recognition and the Politics of Human(e) Desire,” Theory, Culture and Society 18 (2001): 63.

  49. 49.

    Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 199–200. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  50. 50.

    Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 110. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  51. 51.

    Levinas, Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (1981; Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998), 10. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.

  52. 52.

    James Olney, “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiographical Literature,” Callaloo 20 (1984): 46–73; John Sekora, “Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative,” Callaloo 32 (1987): 482–515.

  53. 53.

    William Andrews, To Tell a Free Story, 65.

  54. 54.

    Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Figures in Black, 104. See also Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); and Houston Baker, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  55. 55.

    See Daphne Brooks, Bodies in Dissent; Hazel Carby, Race Men (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998); Simon Gikandi, Slavery and the Culture of Taste (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Hartman, Scenes of Subjection; John Ernest, Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Frances Foster Smith, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979). The Gikandi citation appears on 271.

  56. 56.

    Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman (1857), https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/steward/steward.html#steward106, xii.

  57. 57.

    Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 3, 4.

  58. 58.

    On the relation of fugue states to trauma, see Bessel van der Kolk, “Trauma and Memory,” 284.

  59. 59.

    Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 257.

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Fichtelberg, J. (2022). The Sublime Object of Freedom. In: Exceptional Violence and the Crisis of Classic American Literature. American Literature Readings in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-07845-3_5

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