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Beyond Black Virtue: Crime, Public Presence, and African-American Literature

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Abstract:

A survey of early Black Atlantic literature yields a surfeit of virtue. From the pious belles-lettres of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon and the spiritual narratives of John Marrant and James Gronniosaw to the success stories of Venture Smith and Olaudah Equiano, the literature is overwhelmingly populated by exemplary black selves. Throughout the colonial and early national periods such print self-fashioning modeled blacks’ eligibility to participate in the transatlantic public sphere and, by extension, the emerging American polity. More recently, following the rise of African-American studies, these recovered accounts of virtuous blackness have presented powerful insider critiques of early American culture even as they have contributed to symbolic redress through canon formation. Positioned at the forefront of the black literary tradition, these works ground a reassuring narrative of transcendent value, unassailable authority, cultural authenticity – and yes, moral superiority.

But what, this paper asks, if we were to redirect our gaze to vice, not virtue? To crime, not piety, industry, or activism? What if, that is, rather than viewing African-American criminality (real or imagined) through the lens of pathology or persecution, we instead considered it from the vantage point of black public presence? (Here we might recall that, on those rare occasions when blacks appeared in early American statute books and newspapers as something other than articles of property, they most frequently did so as malefactors – not litterateurs, prophets, or entrepreneurs.) Probing the civic implications of print portrayals of black vice, this paper calls for a reassessment of criminality’s constitutive role in the development of African-American literature and authorship.

Focusing on the neglected genre of early Black Atlantic criminal confessions, this paper contends that it is precisely such criminality that enables the gallows narratives ascribed to the black condemned to sidestep what Philip Gould has characterized as the “epistemological trap” of liberalism. According to Gould, “the rhetorical mix of liberty, property, and humanity both empowers and undermines early Black Atlantic writing.” Recounting their virtuous participation in market relations that required the exchange of money or goods for manumission, early autobiographers risked conceding the black self’s equivalence to property. But gallows narratives, narrating their black subjects’ theft of others’ property, instead locate the transformation from object to subject not in the economic transactions of liberal market capitalism but in the combined discourses of law and print. Legally recognized as persons for their crimes and thereby distinguished from the chattel they have stolen, the condemned attained individual identities through publication of the personal narrative underwritten by their convictions and executions. Working through a logic of alterity rather than of substitution, criminal confessions differ radically from other forms of Black Atlantic autobiography. In place of a dangerous equivalency between the black self and the property exchanged to acquire formal possession of that self, these confessions invoke the criminality that sets in motion the decisive separation of (black) person and (stolen) property. As such, these gallows narratives urge a fundamental reevaluation of black authorship, as a form of a civic presence decoupled from virtue.
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MLA Citation:

DeLombard, Jeannine. "Beyond Black Virtue: Crime, Public Presence, and African-American Literature" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244499_index.html>

APA Citation:

DeLombard, J. M. "Beyond Black Virtue: Crime, Public Presence, and African-American Literature" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244499_index.html

Publication Type: Invited Paper
Abstract: A survey of early Black Atlantic literature yields a surfeit of virtue. From the pious belles-lettres of Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon and the spiritual narratives of John Marrant and James Gronniosaw to the success stories of Venture Smith and Olaudah Equiano, the literature is overwhelmingly populated by exemplary black selves. Throughout the colonial and early national periods such print self-fashioning modeled blacks’ eligibility to participate in the transatlantic public sphere and, by extension, the emerging American polity. More recently, following the rise of African-American studies, these recovered accounts of virtuous blackness have presented powerful insider critiques of early American culture even as they have contributed to symbolic redress through canon formation. Positioned at the forefront of the black literary tradition, these works ground a reassuring narrative of transcendent value, unassailable authority, cultural authenticity – and yes, moral superiority.

But what, this paper asks, if we were to redirect our gaze to vice, not virtue? To crime, not piety, industry, or activism? What if, that is, rather than viewing African-American criminality (real or imagined) through the lens of pathology or persecution, we instead considered it from the vantage point of black public presence? (Here we might recall that, on those rare occasions when blacks appeared in early American statute books and newspapers as something other than articles of property, they most frequently did so as malefactors – not litterateurs, prophets, or entrepreneurs.) Probing the civic implications of print portrayals of black vice, this paper calls for a reassessment of criminality’s constitutive role in the development of African-American literature and authorship.

Focusing on the neglected genre of early Black Atlantic criminal confessions, this paper contends that it is precisely such criminality that enables the gallows narratives ascribed to the black condemned to sidestep what Philip Gould has characterized as the “epistemological trap” of liberalism. According to Gould, “the rhetorical mix of liberty, property, and humanity both empowers and undermines early Black Atlantic writing.” Recounting their virtuous participation in market relations that required the exchange of money or goods for manumission, early autobiographers risked conceding the black self’s equivalence to property. But gallows narratives, narrating their black subjects’ theft of others’ property, instead locate the transformation from object to subject not in the economic transactions of liberal market capitalism but in the combined discourses of law and print. Legally recognized as persons for their crimes and thereby distinguished from the chattel they have stolen, the condemned attained individual identities through publication of the personal narrative underwritten by their convictions and executions. Working through a logic of alterity rather than of substitution, criminal confessions differ radically from other forms of Black Atlantic autobiography. In place of a dangerous equivalency between the black self and the property exchanged to acquire formal possession of that self, these confessions invoke the criminality that sets in motion the decisive separation of (black) person and (stolen) property. As such, these gallows narratives urge a fundamental reevaluation of black authorship, as a form of a civic presence decoupled from virtue.


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