"If you go there - you who was never there:" On Contemporary Uses of the Memory of Slavery


  • Anna Scacchi




American literature, slavery


Kenneth Warren, in his controversial What Was African American Literature? (2011), argues that while African American literature was once “prospective,” contemporary black writing is “retrospective” and its obsessive preoccupation with the past is the result of nostalgia for the supposedly unified and cohesive black community of Jim Crow times and unwillingness to accept the disappearance of racial particularity after the end of legally sanctioned racial segregation. While some of his points are well taken, nostalgia for the past is not behind the current rememory of slavery in literature, the arts and popular culture. “I know I can’t change the future but I can change the past. It is the past, not the future, which is infinite,” replied Toni Morrison to a question about the genesis of Beloved. By changing the past, however, she aims at changing the future. Neo-slave narratives are works that rewrite the past in order not only to set the historical records straight, but also to heal the collective memory through narrative so that an authentically post-racial community can come into existence. They challenge the divide between past and present, to counter Western amnesia of the traumas of colonization and slavery.


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