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Teaching Trauma: (Neo-)Slave Narratives and Cultural (Re-)Memory

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Published in Gina Wisker. Teaching African American Women's Writing. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 2010
Abstract This essay looks at some of the problematics of teaching the slave narrative tradition: from the foundational nineteenth-century autobiographical narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to twentieth-century neo-slave narratives like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. An important issue arising from this historical juxtaposition of the autobiographical with the fictional is the question of “normalizing” traumatic experience. By normalization I mean the scripting of trauma and its assimilation to cultural narratives of normality. The untranslatability of trauma makes survivor discourse especially reliant upon cultural scripting for the conditions of its own meaning, even when it may resist these cultural ideologies. The ineffable nature of trauma creates a relationship of dependency with discourse to bring it into a “condition of significance” (Shoshana Felman’s term). The recreation of the slave narrative cannot but be enmeshed in a number of contemporary North American cultural scripts which seek to control the significance of this historical trauma: in particular contemporary feminist analyses of patriarchal power structures. Novels by writers such as Morrison and Butler can be seen to derive validation from these cultural scripts and, in turn, to confirm these discourses as powerful cultural narratives. This should not be so surprising: historical trauma can be destructive of some cultural narratives but can also function to affirm others (for example, the genocide of Native Americans can confirm narratives of the Vanishing American and of Manifest Destiny). Specific issues that arise, and are discussed in the essay that follows, include: the representation of historical change and the theorizing of the relation between individual and cultural experience (which is key in terms of articulating the notion of “cultural mourning”); and the ethics of appropriating historical experience by contemporary writers of fiction (in contrast to the autobiographical representations of their personal experiences which provided the basis for the foundational texts of the slave narrative genre). The teaching of the slave narrative tradition is discussed in conjunction with the theorizing of trauma, to argue that the promotion of self-awareness about the process of constructing traumatic cultural memory in the teaching of African American Women’s writing is both problematic and essential if we, as teachers, are to raise the awareness of students about the cultural, historical, political, and gendered issues that these texts invoke.
Keywords African American LiteratureWomen's writingSlave narrativesTraumaCultural memoryFrederick DouglassHarriet JacobsToni MorrisonOctavia Butler
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MADSEN, Deborah Lea. Teaching Trauma: (Neo-)Slave Narratives and Cultural (Re-)Memory. In: Gina Wisker (Ed.). Teaching African American Women's Writing. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. https://archive-ouverte.unige.ch/unige:87694

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Deposited on : 2016-09-23

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