Plasticity, Animality, and Opacity in the (Neo)Slave Narrative
Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative has been central to interpretations that read African American literature through the framework of a petition for human recognition. Douglass, arguably the nineteenth century’s most iconic slave, grounds his critique of slavery in natural law. However, his later speeches problematize his commitment to the natural rights tradition by disrupting its racially exclusive conception of being and challenging the animal abjection that is foundational to its ontology. Toni Morrison’s Beloved recalls rhetorical strategies, such as appeals to sentimentality and the sovereign “I,” employed by Douglass that diagnose racialization and animalization as mutually constitutive modalities of domination under slavery. Chapter 1 examines how we might read Morrison as well as gendered appeals to discourses of the Self rooted in religio-scientific hierarchy, as both discourses have historically recognized black humanity and included black people in their conceptualization of “the human,” but in the dissimulating terms of an imperial racial hierarchy. Beloved extends Douglass’s intervention by subjecting animality’s abjection to further interrogation by foregrounding nonhuman animal perspective, destabilizing the epistemological authority of enslaving modernity, including its gendered and sexual logics. By doing so, Beloved destabilizes the very binaristic and teleological epistemic presumptions that authorize the black body as border concept.
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