Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture

by Lisa Woolfork

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This study explores contemporary novels, films, performances, and reenactments that depict American slavery and its traumatic effects by invoking a time-travel paradigm to produce a representational strategy of "bodily epistemology." Disrupting the prevailing view of traumatic knowledge that claims that traumatic events are irretrievable and accessible only through oblique reference, these novels and films circumvent the notion of indirect reference by depicting a replaying of the past, forcing present-day protagonists to witness and participate in traumatic histories that for them are neither dead nor past. Lisa Woolfork cogently analyzes how these works deploy a representational strategy that challenges the divide between past and present, imparting to their recreations of American slavery a physical and emotional energy to counter America's apathetic or amnesiac attitude about the trauma of the slave past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252033902
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 11/14/2008
Series: None Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 248
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Lisa Woolfork is an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture


University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2009 Lisa Woolfork
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03390-2

Chapter One

Trauma and Time Travel

In her important essay on the role of psychology in the history of slavery, Nell Irvin Painter notes the difficulty of applying twentieth-century methodologies to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century circumstances. "When used carefully, perhaps gingerly," she argues, psychology "provides a valuable means of understanding people and families who cannot be brought to the analyst's couch." She considers science fiction the perfect gateway to such analysis: "Ideally, historians could enter a kind of 'Star Trek' realm of virtual reality in which we could hold intelligent conversations with the dead, then remand them to their various hells, purgatories, and heavens and return to our computers. Lacking this facility, we can only read twentieth-century practitioners and enter the archives with our eyes wide open" ("Soul Murder and Slavery" 128–29). It is significant that Painter invokes science fiction as a possible means to create rich and accurate historiography, for Kindred and Sankofa, in their use of time travel, hold such conversations with the dead, bringing the past and the present face-to-face.

In addition to serving as an impossible, yet highly effective, form of historiography, these two nontraditional creative works provide the opportunity to reconsider fundamental elements of trauma theory. As speculative fictions, Octavia Butler's 1979 time-travel novel Kindred and Haile Gerima's 1993 film Sankofa are compelling sites in which to explore the possible meanings of slavery and trauma theory. Though time travel is a fixture in fantasy and speculative fiction, a genre considered by some to lack literary complexity, Butler and Gerima effectively renovate this device, bringing it to bear on the issues of history and traumatic knowledge. Butler's bridge between the past and present generates a series of doubles and oppositions in and beyond the plot; I use two sets of these oppositions to read the body of (and in) the novel and to illuminate its implicit critique of trauma theory. Gerima's similarly themed film uses the slave past for behavioral modification cum history lesson. Though his film eschews many of Hollywood's generic conventions, he adopts those of the slave narrative to create a vision of slavery that presses upon the current boundaries of traumatic knowledge. In their staging of a present-day protagonist's supernatural return to the slave era, Kindred and Sankofa are instances of bodily epistemology that implicitly critique the mind-body dialectic that informs trauma theory.

I begin this discussion with Kindred, a novel unique to Butler's oeuvre and an inaugural text for the project of bodily epistemology. Introduced to readers in 1979, Dana Franklin, Butler's time-traveling protagonist, was the first to "go there to know there" regarding the slave past. Nearly fifteen years later, Mona, a fashion model, would pursue a comparable—but more aggressively represented—return to the slave past. Kindred is partly the result of a mediation on Butler's own family history and partly a product of her impulse to have those in the present learn from those in the past. Haile Gerima is also invested in representing ancestral voices, creating a scenario that urges, even forces, blacks in the diaspora to recognize and reconnect with their unknown slave past. Their representations of time travel differ in each woman's awareness of the time shift: Dana retains her twentieth-century perspective; Mona, though cognizant of her capture and branding (the two events that mark her reembodiment of slavery), has her consciousness replaced by Shola, the slave woman for whom she acts as a vessel. Despite these differences, Butler and Gerima remain linked in their use of speculative representational strategies to place their contemporary female protagonist in a position to identify the slave past and ultimately use that past to better understand her present.

Set in 1976, Kindred is the story of Dana Franklin, a young black woman, and her mysterious journeys to the nineteenth-century Maryland plantation of her ancestors; Alice Greenwood, a black female slave; and Rufus Weylin, her white master. In order to ensure her family's twentieth-century existence, Dana believes she must protect the accident-prone Weylin, her white ancestor with whom she shares a mystical connection: he can abduct her (unconsciously) from the twentieth century when his life is endangered, and Dana can return to her present when her life is threatened. In this way, Dana protects Rufus from various childhood mishaps and later serves him when he becomes an adult. The most conflicted "service" she provides Rufus is to encourage Alice to submit to Rufus's unwanted sexual advances. Alice eventually but reluctantly "succumbs" to Rufus's demands, gives birth to several children (one of whom engenders Dana's family line), and commits suicide. Though her future existence is secure, Dana cannot leave the past unscathed. When Rufus seeks to replace Alice with Dana by attempting to rape her, she kills him but not before he seizes her arm, part of which is torn from her body by the cosmic pull of the past.

In its crossing of the temporal boundary, Kindred constructs a range of oppositional categories that parallel the divide between the past and present, the most central of which is slavery and freedom. These include physical immediacy and nostalgic distance, presence and absence, and, in Christine Levecq's terms, "event and memory, raw encounters and retelling, reality and textuality" ("Power and Repetition" 527). I suggest here that the novel presents two additional sets of categories that provide a context in which to address the discursive practice of trauma theory: observer and participant, book learning and lived experience. As part of a representational strategy invested in emphasizing the traumatic event of slavery, the novel also critiques two essential elements of trauma theory: the principle of latency as essential to traumatic experience (by forcing Dana to not only observe slavery but also actively participate in it) and the indirect referencing of the traumatic event (by eschewing "reference" in favor of direct exposure). Using these categories, I read Kindred as a tale of two stories: a time-travel narrative engaged in a bodily mode of referencing the traumatic slave past and an allegorical critique of a Freudian, or accident-based, definition of trauma.

The bodily mode of reference is a way to focus on the traumatic event and Dana's exposure to it. By placing Dana in the past so that she might develop an appreciation for the various meanings of slavery, Butler participates in a trend, new in the 1970s, to reform the historical study of slavery. Paying closer attention to the words, feelings, customs, and other ways slaves made meaning about their lives, historians, as Ashraf H. A. Rushdy remarks, "began for the first time to draw on the slaves' own testimonies" (Remembering Generations 14). Butler's project is also informed by this historiographic desire to listen to the experience of slaves. Though Butler concedes that her representation of slavery is not mimetic, the novel demonstrates what Dennis Patrick Slattery has described as "the essence of mimesis [which] is somatic, visceral, a shared psychic element wherein we feel the action, the wounding, the marking of the body, in our own being" (The Wounded Body 13). The novel stages Dana's interface with the traumatic past as such a process: a visceral, shared, and wounding exposure. The past, for Dana, is a site of increased sensation and vividness, which at times becomes more "real" to Dana than her present. Butler's bodily imaginings of slavery reshape elements of trauma theory by suggesting a new way to reference trauma across temporal lines. This return to the past permits a reconsideration of the temporal delay of latency, a factor that makes the mind "miss" the trauma and permits it to be known only in flashbacks or other forms of indirect reference. Rather than represent the traumatic event as elusive, Butler uses the time-travel device to explore the notion that the slave past can be referenced directly.

In many fantasy and science fiction novels, time travel is a form of entertainment and spectatorship. As the following comments from speculative-fiction expert Monte Cook imply, time travel is similar to any other journey: "The trick is to get as much information as possible about the time and place that you want to visit (and your route if you have a Wellsian time machine) and then to plan your trip based on that information. Once you have the information, you can estimate the probability of various courses of action and pick the one that shows the best chance of success" ("Tips for Time Travel" 54). Cook's advice for would-be time travelers represents the traditional view presented in many science- and speculative-fiction works: time travel is a controllable form of movement, and one can decide whether (and where) to travel. The idea of individual agency is not called into question; rather, time travel is at the service of the individual. The fantastic and mundane elements of time travel are further suggested by the time machine as a transportation device that is subject to human control.

The absence of a time machine is one way that Kindred revises these accepted representations of time travel. Whereas some science fiction critics find Kindred's version of time travel unconvincing, I suggest that using an invisible yet strong emotional force to pull characters back through time is a strategy that questions the instrumental focus in some science fiction narratives in which time travel relies on technological innovation. It is also a comment on the idea of inviolate individualism. Rather than have Dana invent or find a time machine, she is abducted into the past by a white man. The random nature of Dana's abductions not only undermines her individual will but also makes her twentieth-century freedom suspect.

Kindred also challenges the entertainment value of time travel. Unlike the scenario Cook describes, Butler's characters do not return to the past of their own will or for amusement. Although they do try to prepare themselves for their time in the past, that preparation is a reactive (rather than proactive) gesture. Once Dana and Kevin, her white husband who returns with her on one occasion, discover the unpredictability of their time travel, their only defense is to acquire relevant but largely inadequate information. The entertainment value of time travel is completely eradicated, as seen in Kevin's early attitude about antebellum Maryland and the repercussions of his beliefs. Kevin, who upon first arriving in the nineteenth century tells Dana, "This could be a great time to live in.... I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it" (97), is inadvertently left behind. Stranded in the nineteenth century for five years, Kevin finds himself caught in the brutality of slaveholding ideology. By replacing Kevin's romantic notions of the past with grim reality, Kindred subverts the impulse to look nostalgically at the historical past.

Eschewing a nostalgic approach to history, representations of time travel can also be used to reenvision the past. Arguing that time travel is a way to reconsider the flexibility of time, Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz observes that many speculative-fiction writers abandon "the generally accepted idea that history is irreversible as time is irreversible" (Science Fiction 103). Some science fiction, she argues, engages the time-travel device to offer a different version of reality by changing the outcome of historical conflicts. Such novels depict reversals of cataclysmic moments in world history, telling stories of the Allies losing in World War II, the Union's defeat by the Confederacy, and Europeans expelled by Native American troops. These reconfigurations depend on a premise that history is as flexible as time. Events that are considered fixed, in the present, are represented as entities capable of change.

Kindred, however, represents a different view of history, for whereas the space-time continuum is fluid (allowing Dana and Kevin to travel from twentieth-century California to nineteenth-century Maryland), history is not. As Kevin tells Dana, "We're in the middle of history. We surely can't change it" (100). This representation of history as static is not accidental. Butler could have chosen to make the past as flexible and fluid as her depiction of space and time. However, such a malleable history would not permit Kindred to stage a return to the traumatic past. As Butler remarks, "I don't use a time machine or anything like that. Time travel is just a device for getting the character back to confront where she came from" (interview with Kenan 496).

This confrontation with one's origins suggests the use of time travel as a vehicle for the therapeutic scene. Though the psychoanalytic aspects of time-travel fictions remain largely unexamined, a notable and important exception comes from feminist film critic Constance Penley, whose essay "Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia," analyzes time travel in the 1984 action film The Terminator. The blockbuster movie starring Arnold Schwartzenegger engages time-travel paradoxes and Freud's ideas of originary fantasy. Penley accurately summarizes the film's plot as follows: "In 2010, a killer cyborg is sent back to the present day with the mission of exterminating Sarah Conner, a part-time waitress and student, the future mother of John Conner, the man who will lead the last remnant of humanity to victory over the machines which are trying to rid the world of humans. John Conner chooses Kyle Reese, a young and hardened fighter, to travel back in time to save Sarah from the Terminator" (reprinted in Kuhn, Alien Zone 119). Penley argues that the film is driven by a particular form of desire—the primal-scene fantasy—arguing that The Terminator demonstrates the fantasy of overhearing or observing parental intercourse, of being at the scene, so to speak, of one's own conception. John Conner enacts the primal scene by sending Kyle Reese to protect his mother, and ensures his own birth on two levels. First, John sends Kyle to protect Sarah from elimination. Second, Kyle, who has become enraptured by Sarah's photograph, makes love with Sarah, who has become attracted to Kyle's heroism. Their sex act leads to John's conception.

At first glance, it seems far-fetched to compare Kindred with The Terminator. The dissimilarities are obvious. The Terminator is a dystopic speculation on the dangers of technology featuring human annihilation at the hands of menacing cyborgs. Yet Penley's analysis locates an element that the novel and film share: the primal-scene fantasy. Penley writes, "The idea of returning to the past to generate an event that has made an impact on one's identity, lies at the core of the time-loop paradox story" (73). I argue that the primal scene is addressed in Kindred on two levels. First, as an individual, Dana is forced to confront the traumatic nature of her family heritage. Second, on a broader plane, Kindred uses time travel to recapture a different primal scene: the peritraumatic, or impact, phase of American slavery. In Kindred, the return to slavery is an opportunity to consider the institution as an originary trauma for African Americans.

The generative desire represented by the primal-scene fantasy is played out in the novel's present-day and past settings. Dana knows her roots are based in nineteenth-century Maryland, thanks to a detailed genealogy written in her family's Bible. Though the genealogy lists who begat whom, it provides little else. So when Dana returns to the past and encounters Rufus and Alice as children, she wonders how they will marry ("or would it be marriage?" [28]) and engender her family line. Dana also wonders about the flexibility of time and her role in history. She considers, "[Rufus's] life could not depend on the actions of his unconcieved descendant. No matter what I did, he would have to survive to father Hagar, or I could not exist. That made sense.... But this child needed special care. If I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn't dare test the paradox" (29). To protect herself, she must also protect Rufus.


Excerpted from Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture by LISA WOOLFORK Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Woolfork . Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Go There to Know There....................1
1. Trauma and Time Travel....................19
2. Touching Scars, Touching Slavery: Trauma, Quilting, and Bodily Epistemology....................45
3. Teach You a Lesson, Boy: Endangered Black Male Teens Meet the Slave Past....................64
4. Slave Tourism and Rememory....................98
5. Ritual Reenactments....................132
6. Historical Reenactments....................159
Conclusion: A Soul Baby Talks Back....................193
Works Cited....................211

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