Slavery and the Post-Black Imagination
Bertram Ashe, English and American Studies, University of Richmond
Ilka Saal, Feodor Lynen Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, University of Toronto
“[E]ach generation of blacks demands more of the past. Not because they are suffering short-term memory loss or some such syndrome (after all, didn’t the generation before have lots to say about slavery) but because they need their own version of the past, to see the past in their own images, words. To have slavery nuanced their way.” (D’Aguiar, “Last Essay on Slavery,” 126)
Taking our cue from novelist Fred D’Aguiar’s observation that each generation needs its own version of the past, the question we are posing for this essay collection is how artists growing up in the post-Civil-Rights era—which critics have variously dubbed the post-soul or post-black era— attempt to nuance slavery their way. How do their attempts differ from those of their predecessors, particularly from the authors of literary and visual neo-slave narratives, and where do they affirm significant continuities? What are the images, rhythms, and narratives that matter to today’s artists? Is there a shared vocabulary, and if so, what politics of remembrance and what visions of the future does it articulate? If there is no common ground, what are the various aspects of the debate at stake? Put differently, this collection of essays seeks to take stock of the various ways in which artists have addressed the issue of New World slavery and its legacies over the past thirty years— that is, ever since the publication of Toni Morrison’s landmark novel Beloved (1987), which in many regards presented the culmination of the neo-slave narratives emerging from the late 1960s onward. While narratives of slavery continue to emerge in literature, music, film, the visual and performing arts, we believe that the conceptions of freedom and identity that have traditionally undergirded these narratives have changed significantly since the end of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements—and so has the relationship to the past. In light of the recent debates concerning the validity, usefulness, and meaning of referring to contemporary African-American art as “post-black,” we consider it crucial and fruitful to ask the above questions about the place and role of history in contemporary representations of blackness.
We are interested in a wide range of investigations and responses, including the literary, performing and visual arts. Contributions can address individual works of art or engage in comparative readings and theoretical reflections. They can deal with novels, poetry, plays, films, performances, and music by artists from North America and the Black Atlantic. Our only stipulation is that they should address works by artists who were born or came of age after the end of the Civil Rights movement.