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Conjuring Freedom: Reconstructions and Revisions of Neo-Slave Narratives


My dissertation argues for a revisionist periodization of neo-slave literature as well as a reorientation away from a US-based literary history that has been dominated by the mode of realism and toward a more comparative view defined by the geography, history, and aesthetics of the Caribbean. The canon of slave narratives was first dominated by the assumption both of narrative as the major and sometimes only genre of slave writing and of a linear temporality emplotting the journey from slavery to an attenuated freedom. In contrast, most twentieth-century neo-slave narratives rethink the genre from the twin standpoints of temporality and narratology: how both the "neo" and "narrative" descriptors have produced an entrenched and unnecessarily restrictive view of this evolving archive.

Chapter One places Arna Bontemps' Black Thunder (1936) at the headwaters of a new transnational neo-slave canon. In Bontemps' complex depictions of revolt and gender and in his construction of a past and predictive temporalities, he revises the paradigm of freedom both ontologically and corporeally. Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) and Assata Shakur's Assata (1985) comprise Chapter Two, highlighting how the enslaved and imprisoned black woman's body becomes a cultural text on which we read symbolic, discursive, and narratological traces derived from slavery. Chapter 3 argues comparatively that two poetic works, the well-known Aimé Césaire's Notebooks of a Return to the Native Land (1943) and Ed Roberson's less familiar Aerialist Narratives (1994), revisit the complexities of slave experience by focusing on metaphorical transformations of the slave body. In the final chapter, Gloria Naylor's Mama Day (1992) and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972) are paired in their differing attempt to transcend W.E.B. Du Bois' theory of "second slavery," as each author underscores how multiple slavery-derived pasts travel and collide in the present. In comparing these diverse grouping of texts via their neo-slave topoi, I demonstrate how this emerging canon provides a space for new thinking on comparative slaveries and comparative freedoms to emerge.

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