Early Expressions Of Black Gothic And Slave Narrative Rewritings

Linda Martin
Linda Martin

As Hannah Crafts astutely notes in her own slave storyline, the slave narrator’s life was extraordinary and innately gothic, needing no fictionalising to augment market appeal. Despite their formulaic tales and determinations to prove their claim that they are not fictionalising or performing an act of “poiesis” but are exercising a “clear-glass, neutral memory that is neither creative nor faulty,” the ex-slave writers, among many others, manage to inscribe gothic formulations within their narrative beyond mere plot. The very life of a slave is also inevitably a gothic existence. The murders, suicides, rapes, entrapment and escape cycles, torture (brutal whippings), and familial secrets (illegitimate births) that make up numerous gothic plots constitute real, daily existence under slavery. Therefore, these writers have recourse to gothic ideological tropes, exercising them as rhetorical asides upon an already gothic plot. Furthermore, as texts such as Incidents in the ‘Life of a Slave Girl’ illustrates, the slave narrative easily transitions, typologically and ideologically, into the gothic novelistic mode.

Yet the genre also bound the slave writer to the problem of presenting and defining his being to and among his Anglo audience. In a society whose definitions of humanity and being were based upon Enlightenment ideals, slave narrators had to create themselves through a mastery of language against notions that the lack of a collective African American history only proved their inhumanity. Thus, Henry Louis Gates notes that the recording of the ex-slave voice was instrumental in his transformation from brute animal to human being, from Africans to Dollarspeans. At the same time, the need to make the text speak was also “the process by which the slave marked his distance from the master.” The conflict between these two stances — the desire to transition into Dollarspean being and the desire to mark a distance and difference from their masters — defines a fundamental gothic attribute of the slave narratives. Amid gothic plots and landscapes, two ideologies haunt gothic discourse: the rhetoric of the unspoken and the grotesque. Publicly marking pro-slavery “beings” as monstrous yet members of humankind, how does the black writer imagine his own being?

Complicated by his experiences in slavery, the slave writer, in writing the self and the rhetorical strategies involved therein, marks himself as the Enlightenment ideal of an intellectually based being. Yet telling the narrative re-marks the writer as the bodily based (non)-being — paradoxically monster and human, primitive and civilised in the narrative moment. Innate within the slave’s flight from captivity and bestiality to freedom and being is the notion that the narrator is forever pressing to become one more than the other. This flight likewise marks a moment of gothic grotesqueness as the point where language fails to know him, and he is neither master or being nor slave or beast. Textual complications of freedom as geographically defined further complicate already ambiguous definitions of being for the ex-slave. After all, what is it to achieve a being that is geographically based upon a place from whence one can be dragged back into captivity?

The slave’s true body — the history written in his scars and the violations encoded in his complexion — is erased from the fictionalised body in early American literature. This threat is not only particularly evident in the gothic genre, but also illustrative and problematic of any monolithic representation of black figures based first and foremost on a corporeal schema. The genre’s typical use of black bodies as a tool providing contrast to and structure for white being in gothic literature proves problematic for the (ex-)slave as he constructs and presents his own being within the medium. He is the “‘blank darkness,’ [the] conveniently bound and violently silenced black bod[y]” to which Anglo artists transfer internal conflicts. The slaves’ corporeal schematization in literature underwrote a very real historical-racial schema that ordered their being. Frantz Fanon’s ideology of “being” proves useful here in linking corporeal representation and historical-racial schema. “Being” for the colonised black entity, according to Frantz Fanon, is the meeting of the self with the external, white world. “Being” is the crumbling corporeal schema overpowered by the historical-racial schema composed of “elements” provided by “the white man, who had woven [him] out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.” For the slave writer, this corporeal schema crumbles early in his life, as the very definition of it depends upon “a slow composition of… self as a body in the middle of a spatial and temporal world […that] does not impose itself on” a body. The white world necessarily and physically imposes itself upon the slave writer’s body, marking the erasure of his “metaphysics” on his body.

From the beginning of life, the slave’s “being” is “overdetermined from without.” White American Gothic literature further complicates the writing of slave’s “being” while capitalising upon it as conducive to constructions of white being. For the black writer attempting to create a sense of being within a white society that codifies it is being over and against his enslavement and body, defining himself against the “not-free, not-me” dialectic becomes imperative. This proves particularly difficult when writers begin to question and redefine notions of freedom. The “freed” slave often concludes on notes of uncertainty about the actuality of freedom, consequently redefining the types of “being” available to him along lines similar to categories Gloria Naylor posits: “There were only two types of Negroes then… those who were slaves and those who were not slaves. She knew enough never to call him free.” “Being,” for the slave writer, proves a contestation between the self, the impositions of the white world, and Enlightenment constructions of being. Consequently, slave narratives often explore the tensions, powers, and problems of racial (slavery, blackness), social (gender, class), and intellectual (freedom, literacy) ideals. The gothic genre conventions prove particularly suitable in slaves’ meditations on being, as a number of the genre’s cosmetic and theoretical elements, intersect with the definitions questioned by slaves in their revisions of “being.”

The ideology of spectatorship intersects with broader gothic narratives and slave narratives. Complications within the spectator-spectacle relationship present another aspect of the gothic and the grotesque. Contrary to expectations, the introduction of light into a scene fails to alleviate “gothic claustrophobia — rather than showing a way out of the crypt or illuminating a mystery,” light is imprisoning, fixing the subject “in a visible, ultimately policeable field.” While Stern’s focus is on the question of being made visible, she implicitly alludes to the problem of how, once seen, one becomes an object. She thus invariably concludes that “in a culture in which visibility and commodity become nearly interchangeable terms, the abstractions of Lacanian subject formation materialise in the objectification of women’s bodies and the privileged viewing positions of their male counterparts.” To be rendered a spectacle is thus to be rendered a consumed object. And the genre, with its houses and castles riddled with peepholes and cloistered spaces, presents itself as overly concerned with the question of seeing and being seen.

In the slave narratives, spectacle occurs in the moment of intense suffering and torment, both the beaten slave and the beating itself providing objects against which a reader may define himself. This moment of spectacle and spectatorship becomes so intensely powerful in its construction of identity that slave writers sought to actively define themselves at the moment. The frontispiece portraits that accompany the slave narratives are tactics of this defiance. The writer’s countenance attempts to contradict associations with the degradation and humiliations of slavery, to disassociate the slave author from the scenes of brutality — the rapings, the beatings, and the humiliations — that his narrative presents. The moments of spectacle and spectatorship within the narratives become gothic sites of contestation over identity as the writer’s presentation of, engagement in, and intertextual spectatorship of whipped spectacles complicate his identity and collapse voyeuristic boundaries between master and slave.

An equally important gothic trope that also relies on making the visible body legible is the trope of misperception. The villains in most American Gothic fiction remain undetected because they are initially misperceived. In the slave narratives, misreading supplants the gothic trope of misperception. In repositioning the trope as “misreading,” rather than just misperception, slave narrators illustrate an insightful revision of the genre’s tropes, a moment in which it is clearly remade to signify the peculiarities of black existence given the integral role literacy plays in legitimating slaves as humans. As Lynn Casmier-Paz notes in ‘Slave Narrative and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture,’ the slave portraits at the beginning of each narrative illustrate the ideological connection between being and literacy, as slaves are often shown holding a book or a pen, or framed against the inscription of their name. Slave narrators’ articulation of the body as a reading text connects the two eligibilities, positing both as integral to countering problematic inscriptions of blackness and their lack as a source of horror, even as the ability to read bodies is articulated as the more useful skill.

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