Reparational Literature: The Enslaved Female Body As Text In Contemporary Novels By White Women
Using postmodern techniques and slave perspectives, late 20th century African-American authors Octavia Butler, Sherley Anne Williams, Toni Morrison, and Phyllis Alesia Perry complexify representations of enslaved women in American literature in novels termed “neo-slave narratives”. Revising sentimentalism, exoticization and appropriation, primarily by white authors, these authors emphasize slavery’s negative legacies, memorialization of slave sacrifice and culture, and female strength and agency. Contemporary white authors, wrestling with the traumatic history of slavery and white complicity, emulate neo-slave narrative authors, using communities of women and white empathy with the enslaved female body to join the reevaluation of slavery representations. In what I term “Reparational Literature”, contemporary white authors return to a slave setting to negotiate white guilt, to “repair” wrongs, and to explore modes of cross-racial interaction that recognize privilege. This involves destabilizing the white subject and emphasizing acknowledgement and empathy to resolve problems. Enslaved characters are agents rather than objects or surrogates, and their role in allowing the white women access to their wisdom, recognizing white contrition, and offering forgiveness is crucial to the novel’s resolution. Literature and art are often on the forefront of societal change; Reparational Literature signifies transformation in white consciousness as legal, economic, and symbolic reparations become more widely accepted. Reflecting Foucault’s idea of the body as a site of struggle and Womanist ideas of universalism and connection to the community, these writers present the enslaved female body as the place to remember and repair slavery’s negative impact, a locus for acknowledging and merging the violence of the past and hope for the future. In Valerie Martin’s Property, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings, Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, and Pam Durban’s So Far Back, the white woman who is given access to the symbolic language of the enslaved woman’s natural world, to hear and see the language of her enduring body, frees herself from the artificial influences of slaveholding. These authors continue the long tradition of the black body as a symbol, but I argue that they do so with an awareness of the position of whiteness and appreciation for slave sacrifice and subjectivity.