Slavery as History, Slavery as Fiction , Part 3: Imagining the Unimaginable: Film, Fiction, and Fabulation in Narratives of New World Slavery

AHA Session 152
Saturday, January 3, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Riverside Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Third Floor)
Patrick H. Breen, Providence College
Kristen Block, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Marisa J. Fuentes, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Elena Machado Sáez, Florida Atlantic University
Jenny Shaw, University of Alabama
Saidiya Hartman, Columbia University

Session Abstract

This roundtable explores the role of narration and storytelling in writing and teaching the histories of slavery in the Americas. Each of the historians on the panel have grappled with how to write the lives of enslaved people in the early modern Caribbean from a fragmented source base that that privileges European colonial elites; the literary scholars are engaged with the ethics of historical fiction and representation. They have taken these questions into the classroom, where works of fiction and film have been useful tools for exploring narratives that are obscured by archival biases and that center the enslaved “experience.” And yet these fictional pieces raise questions of their own – about authorial choices, studio and publishing house pressures, and the political contexts in which they are created. Together, the panelists will discuss the problems of imagining the unimaginable to create narratives of slavery in their own work, in the work of others, and in the work produced by their students, centering the issues of violence, gender, and power. Jenny Shaw will explain the tools of historical fiction that she drew on when writing the lives of two enslaved women in her first monograph set in the seventeenth century Caribbean. Marisa Fuentes will discuss her experiences reading and teaching The Book of Night Women, a powerful novel by Marlon James set in eighteenth-century Jamaica. Kristen Block will articulate the challenges and triumphs that her students experienced when analyzing films depicting slavery across the Atlantic World. Elena Machado Sáez will outline conclusions from her latest project of literary criticism on intimacy and ethics as represented in historical fiction from the Caribbean and its diaspora, much of it related to those islands’ past experience with slavery.