"Force. Spirit. Feeling": Rewriting the Slave Ship in Contemporary African American Literature Open Access
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"Force. Spirit. Feeling": Rewriting the Slave Ship in Contemporary African American Literature examines the trope of the slave ship in late twentieth-century African American literature. I argue that while the slave ship is a site of historical trauma, the ship space has been repurposed to signify not just loss, but freedom in black American writing. Contemporary writers utilize figurative depictions of the slave ship to probe temporality and ongoing experiences of loss and displacement in twentieth-century America. Writers such as Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, August Wilson, Octavia Butler, and Saidiya Hartman turn to the ship space as a figurative vehicle in order to clarify questions of collective identity, cultural memory, and revolutionary consciousness. My project contributes to current conversations in the field of African American literary studies surrounding literary tradition, critical and conceptual genealogies, embodiment, and memory. Through close readings of figurative language I identify four metaphorical spheres associated with the slave ship: the hold as the foremost site of terror, the psychological effects of enclosure and captivity, the black woman as most vulnerable victim, and the bodily as well as psychic effects of possession. There exists a slave ship dialectic in contemporary black American fiction and drama between representations of the material conditions experienced by the enslaved during the Middle Passage and an abstraction of the slave ship that posits the ship as a frame through which to examine alienation and displacement in the context of U.S. nationality and citizenship. My scholarship is in conversation with historical studies of the slave ship and the Transatlantic Slave Trade such as those of Marcus Rediker, Stephanie Smallwood, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Ian Baucom that place the ship and the sailor at the center of modernity rather than its periphery. I claim that the slave ship is an artistic symbol that pushes against liberal humanism to theorize a form of collectivity based upon remembrance and counternarratives to U.S. imperialism.
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