Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Fugitive testimony: Race, representation, and the slave narrative form
by Neary, Janet Eileen, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2009, 161; 3355942
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation understands the slave narrative to be a mode of cultural critique which utilizes the visual objectification of blackness against the logic of racial slavery. By reading narratives which have been relatively marginal within the study of the slave narrative—Elizabeth Keckly’s Behind the Scenes, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, and William Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom—and analyzing work by contemporary visual artists who use slave narrative conventions within their work—Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Ellen Driscoll and others in the 1990s—this project reconsiders the logic of racial slavery by tracing it to the conventions of visuality within the slave narrative itself. I argue that slave narratives deploy a complex visual logic that relies, paradoxically, on language rather than image. In addition to redrawing the genealogy of the slave narrative, the project demonstrates how the confluence of visual speculation, linguistic determination, and social performance at work in racial slavery shore up the visual practices and prejudices that create the “color line” of the twentieth century. Additionally, I identify how ex-slave narrators of the texts I examine confront the dominance of the visual by producing what I call “representational static” within the narrative. That is, I show how literary and visual discourses are juxtaposed, revealing their non-correspondence and, therefore, the limits of each to determine black subjectivity. By combining an analysis of literary, visual, and social forms, the project presses a reconsideration of the limits of the literary slave narrative and allows for an expanded notion of what has been called the neo-slave narrative. More broadly, it offers visuality as a complication in the staged conflict between white literacy and black orality, taken to be the foundational scene of an African American literary tradition in, for example, Gates’s analysis of the trope of the talking book. The project’s focus on the recursive nature of the form unifies what have been three distinct phases of slave narrative criticism within the academy—historical, literary, and cultural studies approaches—and contributes to the historiographical contours of Atlantic studies.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Schwab, Gabriele
Commitee: Keizer, Arlene, Terada, Rei
School: University of California, Irvine
Department: English - Ph.D.
School Location: United States -- California
Source: DAI-A 70/05, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Black studies, American literature
Keywords: African-American, African-American literature, Contemporary art, Craft, William, Driscoll, Ellen, Keckly, Elizabeth, Ligon, Glenn, Northrup, Solomon, Race, Slave narrative, Walker, Kara
Publication Number: 3355942
ISBN: 978-1-109-15550-1
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