115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Touching Slavery

Molly Hiro, University of Portland

A commonly-expressed desire among those who write about American slavery is to make palpable the lived experience of slaves. In this paper, I propose that literary scholars might benefit from considering what is at stake for writers and editors in their strivings to materialize the stuff of slavery. 

Proposal: 

In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison described her philosophy of writing about slavery as one of aiming to make the experience not just imagined, but felt. She articulated this concept through the figure of the “bit”—that dehumanizing piece of metal that was placed in slaves’ mouths to punish and silence them. While researching this tortuous practice, she realized that

of course you can’t buy this stuff. You can’t send away for a mail-order bit for your slave. Sears doesn’t carry them. So you have to make it. You have to go out in the backyard and put some stuff together and construct it and then affix it to a person…. Then I realized that describing it would never be helpful; that the reader didn’t need to see it so much as feel what it was like. I realized that it was important to imagine the bit as an active instrument, rather than simply as a curio or an historical fact.

Morrison’s compulsion to make palpable the lived experiences of American slavery is shared by many who create history, fiction, and art on this topic. In this paper, I propose that literary scholars might benefit from considering what is at stake for writers and editors in their strivings to materialize the stuff of slavery. More specifically, I consider the editorial apparatus built around slave-authored narratives that have been re-discovered and re-published in recent years. In his sixty-page introduction to Hannah Crafts’s The Bondswoman’s Narrative, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. tantalizingly narrates the experience of paging through the auction catalogue, holding the manuscript itself, and ultimately discovering, with the help of other researchers, that it was an authentic novel written by actual escaped slave Hannah Bond.

On one hand, the authenticating zeal underlying Gates’s introduction as well as the 2013 New York Times front-page article attesting to the “solved mystery” of Hannah Crafts’ true identity somewhat unsettlingly mirror the antebellum-era fixation, on the part of abolitionists and amanuenses, on possessing and presenting true narratives by actual slaves. On the other hand, there’s something refreshing about the unabashed poignancy with which writers such as Gates speak about their contact—literally physical contact—with the bound pages one slave put pen to. As historian David Blight put it in his 2007 introduction to two newly-discovered slave narratives, “I am personally grateful for the moving experience of seeing both [slave narrators] struggling on the page to tell their stories” (emphasis added). Hortense Spillers once cautioned that “[i]n a very real sense, a full century and a half ‘after the fact,’ ‘slavery’ is primarily discursive, as we search vainly for a point of absolute and indisputable origin, for a moment of plenitude that would restore us to the real, rich ‘thing’ before discourse touched it.” Yet being back in “touch” with slavery remains desirable enough that we keep trying, and perhaps readers and critics could benefit from considering what is gained—or risked—by doing so.