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Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. (Reviews).

Dwight A. McBride. Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. New York: New York UP, 2001. 207 pp. $55.00 cloth/$18.00 paper.

Drawing upon Foucault, Bakhtin, and Holocaust survivors' testimonies, McBride creates a critical lens to explore "the difference between actual slave experience and the narrative or testimonial truth of slavery' within eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black-authored nonfiction and poetry. The author posits that the Romantic era's transatlantic abolitionist debates produced a coded, multi-layered "discursive terrain" that slave witnesses had to know and negotiate when representing in written form their own truths about slavery. Hence black authors faced a very difficult project when writing about their lives, for they had to juggle their own truths, and what they wanted their readers to believe as truth, within the mutually enabling and constraining parameters that white abolitionist discourse established. Their self-portraits, in other words, were always already dictated by the transnational identities that abolitionism had designed for slaves, for pro-slavery advocates, and for white abolitionists alike. B lack "truth" was highly problematic precisely because it had to be portrayed in a stylized manner that would meet hegemonic readers' expectations of "authentic" slave experience.

To find black authorial truth under these "very complex discursive conditions," McBride says, we need to look closely at individual authors' literary tactics: "If we understand truth as always a production, a process, a political operation, then what matters most to the work at hand is the attention we pay to the rhetorical strategies enacted to produce truth." Thus, after briefly delineating in Chapter 2 the history of white abolitionist discourse in England and the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in which McBride includes readings of Maria Edgeworth, William Cowper, Amelia Opie, William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, William Lloyd Garrison, and Benjamin Lundy), McBride interprets in Chapters 3 through 6, respectively, Mary Princess History (1831), Phillis Wheatley's eighteenth-century poems and letters, Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative (1789), and Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845). Within each of these texts, resistance to slavery and to white subjectivity is achieved through a variety of literary poses--Equiano, for example, ironically fashions himself as a "philosopher and saint"--and/or subtle manipulations of religious and political rhetoric. By focusing on the highly conscious nature of these black texts, McBride asserts, scholars can uncover and appreciate previously unconsidered complexities in black literary production; moreover, by putting a high premium on the links between transatlantic Romanticism and abolitionism, the literary canon itself can be reconfigured and reappraised more richly and usefully.

McBride's call to re-prioritize black-authored primary texts and to redouble efforts to interpret writerly strategies more closely is commendable, particularly in regard to early African-American literature, which tends to attract relatively little scholarly attention or respect as compared to its twentieth- and twenty-first-century counterparts. Slavery and its representations are not the same, and McBride is right to remind us of this discrepancy. Issues of geographical access and sociological exposure to slavery, for example, are key to consider when studying eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black literary production and reception, for they permeate both hegemonic and black world views and, perforce, become an influential part of the textual "truth" that slave witnesses will illustrate and white readers will accept. Examining the changing configurations of that truth, as McBride does, can be a fruitful and rewarding experience if scholars know where and how to start looking for it.

That said, this book is not without its flaws. The chapter on Phillis Wheatley offers no new insights and, unfortunately, is not informed by some fine extant scholarship; Frances Smith Foster's work on Wheatley in Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892 (Indiana UP, 1993) comes to mind here, as well as everything ever published on poet Jupiter Hammon, with whom McBride shows little familiarity. Similarly, in Chapter 5, McBride doesn't draw upon Adam Potkay's perceptive articles on Equiano's Interesting Narrative, found, respectively, in the Summer 1994 and Summer 2001 issues of Eighteenth-Century Studies. Moreover, the historical contexts outlined in Chapter 2, the book's longest chapter by far, were written without reference to the top historians of early black Britain-Peter Fryer, James Walvin, and Folarin O. Shyllon.

Overall, however, this book will prove helpful to critics and students beginning to explore the unfolding world of early modern black writers. With its transatlantic focus and its emphasis on close, considered literary interpretation, it brings a thoughtful methodology and respectful attitude to texts that continue to evince complexities.
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Author:Burr, Sandra
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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