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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Department of English


Mother, May I Please Have Some More: Melancholy, Maternity, and the State


This thesis returns to the neo-slave narrative genre to disrupt melancholic historicism by focusing on the consistent thematization of maternity. Previous scholarship has recognized the primacy of reproduction in these narratives, but have primarily read it in two ways. First, as an attempt to recover enslaved women’s acts of insurgence or, secondly, to show the fraught possibility of motherhood under slavery. However, I attend to maternity as a formation inflected by contemporary racial and gender reproductive politics. I ask two questions: How do understandings of the neoslave narrative as wholly invested in the antebellum past obscure their epistemic and narrative interventions in the present? What does it mean when maternity becomes an unhistorical means to track differences between antebellum and postbellum state disciplinary formations? In what follows, I connect the neo-slave narrative’s use of speculative temporality to late twentieth century legal discourse curtailing black women’s reproduction. Using Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), I show how black maternity can be used as a vehicle to evaluate contemporary government programs’ utilization of a discourse of care as a proving ground for reproductive coercion. Ultimately, by returning to what history is inflected in the neoslave narrative genre, this project aims to reanimate literary studies of slavery. Namely, by showing how the genre also looks forward to changes in the political economy rather than only back to the antebellum past.

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