English 203

Graduate Readings: Narrative and Middle Passage

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
7 Spring 2009 Best, Stephen M.
Best, Stephen
TTh 9:30-11 222 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

Aphra Behn, Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave; Ottobah Cugoano, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery; Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; Robert Harms, The Diligent; Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother; Charles Johnson, Middle Passage; Herman Melville, Benito Cereno; Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon; Caryl Phillips, The Atlantic Sound; Stephanie Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery;Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past


Toni Morrison once remarked, on the subject of African American slave culture, that “no slave society in the history of the world ever wrote more – or more thoughtfully – about its own enslavement.”  For those Africans who were kidnapped into slavery the truth is much closer to the opposite.  African narratives of captivity and enslavement are comparatively scarce; and, in fact, there is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage. Illiteracy, violence, and an historical record predisposed toward the quantitative (e.g., markets, values, property) have provided strong impediments to the narration of middle passage. Our knowledge of transatlantic slavery is structured around an absence – the silence of the slaves themselves.
In this course we will explore how two domains – history and literature – deploy similar narrative and figurative strategies to compensate for this silence, and will attend as well to the paradox of trying to recover slave voices from structures that in the act of apprehending them destroy them.  We will generate a critical vocabulary out of recent work on black memory that engages both questions of the archive and affective history.  Some of our questions will include the following: What relation to these figures do we hope to cultivate?; What desire propels our engagement with them?; What do we believe eyewitness accounts of middle passage afford us that other types of evidence do not?; Can a fiction of middle passage be redemptive and redressive, or will it only serve to make explicit the inevitable failure of any attempt to recover the past?; Do fictions provide us with “information” on the slave trade, or is their most potent effect to provide readers with an experience of representational failure or absence that approaches that of an ethical encounter?; Should it make any difference to us that the narrative protagonists of middle passage can be both slaves (The Life of Olaudah Equiano) and slave ships (The Diligent)?

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