Retelling the Slave Narrative

I just finished reading “Venus in Two Acts” and I have to say this essay really struck a chord with me. Since elementary school, the African American literature I’ve been exposed to was almost exclusively about slavery. I can’t think of any specific titles right now, and my memory could be skewed, but it seems as though once a year growing up we read our one token African American novel in reading group (the lack of diversity in the kinds of books we read is a problem in and of itself that I’ll save for another post) and it was always about slavery in a historical sense.

For example: it usually took place on a plantation, and the white slaveowners wouldn’t allow the children to read or write or play, there were gentle illusions to whippings and beatings (but never too explicitly), the main character would “escape” and the rest of the story would take place on the underground railroad where they’d either make it to the “free north” or be captured again. This kind of narrative is a crude injustice to the story of slavery. I’ve always thought this but it wasn’t until I read “Venus in Two Acts” that I understood why.

Hartman speaks about the struggle of rehashing old wounds by bringing up slave violence– how underneath the stories of the atrocities that occurred at the hands of white slaveowners or slave ship captains there are actual people lost in those words. But she talks about the danger of leaving the harsh details out, too. How it can lead to romanticizing a situation, just to comfort herself or the reader. I understand her difficulty in finding the balance between giving voice to the lost, to Venus, but also telling the truth. A lot of what Hartman described reminded me of Morrison’s books.

Morrison doesn’t play around. Her language is beautiful, but it’s scary. She “respects black noise,” as Hartman puts it. I think she does an amazing job retelling the slave narrative and imagining the lives of people who suffered after the suffering supposedly ended. The way Hartman talks about a “clash of voices” especially reminded me of Morrison and how she changes perspective throughout her novels, disorienting the reader.

I think these are the kinds of novels and the way of writing that attempt to capture the slave narrative, and I think they do it well.

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