Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony

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Even the most cursory review of black literary production during the nineteenth century indicates that its primary concerns were the issues of slavery, racial subjugation, abolitionist politics and liberation. How did the writers of these narratives "bear witness" to the experiences they describe? At a time when a hegemonic discourse on these subjects already existed, what did it mean to "tell the truth" about slavery?

Impossible Witnesses explores these questions through a study of fiction, poetry, essays, and slave narratives from the abolitionist era. Linking the racialized discourses of slavery and Romanticism, it boldly calls for a reconfiguration of U.S. and British Romanticism that places slavery at its center.

Impossible Witnesses addresses some of the major literary figures and representations of slavery in light of discourses on natural rights and law, offers an account of Foucauldian discourse analysis as it applies to the problem of "bearing witness," and analyzes specific narratives such as "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass," and "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano."

A work of great depth and originality, Impossible Witnesses renders traditional interpretations of Romanticism impossible and places Dwight A. McBride at the forefront of studies in race and literature.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A necessary and compelling work which will expand and sharpen abolitionist scholarship."

-Toni Morrison

"In this ambitious and thought-provoking study, Dwight A. McBride places representative black-authored texts spanning the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries "in conversation with canonical Romantic authors and their tropes" to answer the fundamental intellectual question the work poses, "What does it mean for a slave to bear witness to, or tell the 'truth' about slavery?’”

-The Journal of American History

"His rich volume takes up the complex and strategic discourses that circulated around the truth of slave testimony....actively engaging."

-American Literature

"The globalization of culture makes increasingly apparent that the slave trade and its resulting exfoliation of cultural forms, both in the Americas and in Europe, were constitutive elements for the postcolonial and diasporic literatures of later days. In this respect and others, Impossible Witnesses describes a fascinating interplay between the Anglo-American history of slavery, British Romanticism, and African American literature, and constitutes an important addition to recent scholarship on the black Atlantic."

-Eric J. Sundquist,Dean of Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences, Northwestern University

"Dwight McBride's Impossible Witnesses is the most sophisticated treatment I have read of the slaves bearing witness to the truth of their condition. He teases out complexity and depth heretofore overlooked. Don't miss this important text."

-Cornel West

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814756041
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Pages: 207
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Dwight A. McBride is Daniel Hale Williams Professor of African American Studies, English, & Performance Studies at Northwestern University where he also serves as Dean of The Graduate School and Associate Provost for Graduate Education. He is the author of several groundbreaking works in African American Studies, including Impossible Witnesses and Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch.
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Bearing Witness: Memory, Theatricality, the Body, and Slave Testimony 1
2 Abolitionist Discourse: A Transatlantic Context 16
Abolitionist Discourse and Romanticism 21
Reflections on Abolitionist Discourse in England 25
African Humanity and the Possibility of Rage in Edgeworth, Cowper, and Opie 42
On Whiteness and Humanity: The Example of Blake's "The Little Black Boy" 59
Reflections on Abolitionist Discourse in the U.S. 62
Emerson and the Fugitive Slave Law: Toward a Theory of Whiteness 67
Troping the Slave: Margaret Fuller's Review of Douglass's Narrative 75
The Body as Evidence: Garrison's Defense of David Walker's Appeal 78
3 "I Know What a Slave Knows": Mary Prince as Witness, or the Rhetorical Uses of Experience 85
4 Appropriating the Word: Phillis Wheatley, Religious Rhetoric, and the Poetics of Liberation 103
5 Speaking as "the African": Olaudah Equiano's Moral Argument against Slavery 120
6 Consider the Audience: Witnessing to the Discursive Reader in Douglass's Narrative 151
Afterword 173
Notes 177
Bibliography 191
Index 201
About the Author 207
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