Gendering the History of the Antislavery Narrative: Juxtaposing Uncle Tom's Cabin and Benito Cereno, Beloved and Middle Passage

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Studies of the numerous contemporary African American novels about nineteenth-century slavery have sometimes argued for interpreting those texts as postcolonial efforts to revise race history through re-formation of traditional historiography. Toni Morrison's Beloved has generated a good deal of such discussion, partly because of the author's own repeated references to her novel as an attempt to rewrite and revitalize history. Charles Johnson's Middle Passage has evoked similar critical response. A number of studies of twentieth-century slave narratives have effectively bolstered their arguments for generic links among the texts by pointing out recurring techniques for resisting the "master's" versions of historical experience. Understandably, through its focus on a race perspective to explore the revision process, this growing body of scholarship has deemphasized gender and other categories of analysis (social class, for example) when exploring what should itself by now be recognized as historicizable as well--the changing genre of the antislavery narrative. However, some voices have called for careful consideration of both race and gender--especially in the study of individual texts and hybrid genres based on African American women's experiences. Morrison herself has suggested the importance of attending to gender differences when interpreting African American literature. Meanwhile, especially given his recent lively criticism of Beloved and Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson's questioning of the idea of "empowerment through literature" and his reluctance to embrace the concept of a "black aesthetic" may be better understood within the context of the gendered historical development of narratives of slavery rather than exclusively through a race-centered interpretation of the genre.

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