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Conjured bodies, trickster voices: Transforming narrative, history, and identity in the literature of slavery

Suzanne Therese Lane, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation examines slave narratives, neo-slave narratives, and histories of slavery. Using critical race theory, narrative theory, and philosophical critiques of objectivity, I trace how academic histories, such as U. B. Phillips's American Negro Slavery, developed a grammar of white supremacy that excluded African-Americans from equal citizenship. These texts claimed to present a “transparent” view of the past by highlighting the perceived (through physical, documentable evidence) and eliding the role of perceiver and of language in the creation of narrative history. In order to write themselves into history, I argue, both fugitive slaves and contemporary novelists have drawn on the oral conjure and trickster tales that enslaved African-Americans told as a means of subverting the masters' authority. Both conjure and trickster narratives deny that narrative can present a transparent description of the past, and yet they work in contradictory, sometimes antagonistic ways. To counter the grammar of white supremacy and its Cartesian claim to a “universal,” disembodied perspective, conjure narratives emphasize the embodied perceiver, while trickster narratives emphasize language, as the mediums through which we know both history and identity. Conjure narratives such as Douglass's My Bondage and My Freedom, Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chesnutt's conjure tales, Bontemps's Black Thunder, and Morrison's Beloved depict the dominant discourse as a “magic” rhetoric that transforms reality while claiming to simply describe it. Invoking magic and ancestral spirits, conjure discourse disrupts mechanistic assumptions about reality, reunites body, mind, and spirit, and creates a communal, participatory history. In contrast, trickster narratives such as Bibb's Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, Chesnutt's “The Dumb Witness,” Reed's Flight to Canada , and Johnson's Oxherding Tale present the master narrative as a set of generic conventions that we have been duped into accepting as reality. Through anachronism, parody, mixed genres, and linguistic “sleight of hand,” trickster narratives disrupt teleological history, erase distinctions between slave and free, black and white, past and present, and remind readers that narrative constructs both history and identity. Finally, I examine Johnson's Middle Passage, which integrates trickster and conjure narrative to explore the tension between self and community.

Subject Area

American literature|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Lane, Suzanne Therese, "Conjured bodies, trickster voices: Transforming narrative, history, and identity in the literature of slavery" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988812.