Writing through the Blood-Stained Gate: The Literatures of Slave Resistance

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 8:50 AM
Columbia 2 (Marriott)
Jason R. Young , University at Buffalo (State University of New York), Buffalo, NY
Convinced that blacks in America maintained little of their cultural inheritance from Africa, famed novelist Richard Wright was surprised, while visiting Ghana, to find in a group of women dancing, a perfect reflection of the dancing styles so often on display in black American culture. Few now dispute the constitutive role that the long arm of Africa plays in the development of black cultures in the Americas.  But, if New World blacks have enjoyed the bounty of Africa’s cultural gifts, theirs has not been a passive inheritance.  That is, successive generations of American blacks have consistently debated the ultimate meaning of Africa in their lives.  In this sense, the Middle Passage was less a direct highway, ensuring the transmission of African culture in America than an open discursive field where blacks persistently (re)made Africa in their own lives.  And the choices that blacks made in this discursive space were anything but natural or presumptive; indeed, they were inherently political.

“Writing through the Blood-Stained Gate” analyzes the development of a centuries long writerly tradition that connects Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge with a much larger history of black Atlantic travel writing devoted to resisting the horrors of slavery. This writerly tradition extends back to the 18th century writing of Olaudah Equiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and Quobna Cugoano.  Notably, black authors have consistently put Africa to political use not only in defining their opposition to slavery, but also in defining themselves. Taken together, this literature of resistance compliments our understanding of African cultural transmission in the Americas by emphasizing the very deliberate choices that blacks made in maintaining their varied connections to Africa even as they created new cultural forms in America.