Octavia Butler, Harriet Jacobs, slave narratives, neo-slave narratives, book history, orality, identity


While literacy may have signified the humanity of male slaves in the antebellum South (at least in their own view), the English language and American print culture did not similarly empower female slaves towards positive subject-formation through discourse. This article will examine the tension between oral culture and print culture in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Ultimately, an analysis of Jacobs’s work through the lens of book history and its power to shape cultural formation will suggest a critical imperative for the contemporary neo-slave narrative genre.

Accordingly, the agency of contemporary neo-slave writers serves as a foil to the problematized authority granted to our literary foremothers, and in many ways redeems the emancipatory potential of the written word. This essay argues that neo-slave narratives, as part of the continuum of slave narratives, attempt to resolve or deconstruct the dualistic myths of Western epistemology and through interaction with speculative tropes, offer a vehicle for the creation of new meaning and healing for the postmodern African American subject. The manipulation of language serves different ends in the neo-slave narrative than it does in its precursor, but by exploring the breakdown of mind/body dualism, challenging the hierarchy of oral and print cultures, and interrogating the slave’s act of refusal across both works, we make visible the ways that neo-slave narratives build upon antebellum slave narratives and ultimately position us to find generative uses for our traumatic past.



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