Monday, November 21, 2016

Janet Neary's "Fugitive Testimony"

Janet Neary is Associate Professor of Nineteenth-century African American Literature and Culture in the English Department, Hunter College, City University of New York.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Fugitive Testimony: On the Visual Logic of Slave Narratives, and reported the following:
In Fugitive Testimony I examine slave narratives through conceptual frameworks borrowed from contemporary visual art, and, conversely, demonstrate how certain modes of what I call textual visuality are traceable to these early texts. While present-day artists who use slave narratives in their work—including Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker—are often celebrated for their savvy and ironic treatment of the seemingly antiquated conventions and race rituals governing the structure and function of these early literary texts, I show how the ex-slave narrators themselves deploy sophisticated visual discourse to challenge racist assumptions and to undermine the control exerted over them as narrators by the abolitionist publishing juggernaut. Focusing on the visual challenges ex-slave narrators present to those assumptions, the book illuminates the sustained challenge African American cultural producers present to the damaging race rituals that reify a black/white binary in all phases of racial capitalism.

Applying the Page 99 Test, I was surprised to see how accurate it was! In the course of writing the book I realized that not only were ex-slave narrators challenging the visual logic of dominant culture—which understood sight as an objective function and visual material as self-evident—but that they were also advancing an understanding of visuality founded on sight as a subjective operation and visual material as a matter of interpretation inseparable from its context. The book demonstrates the stakes of these distinct treatments of visual material: an evidentiary paradigm of visuality (“seeing is believing”) insisted on by white abolitionists, which resulted in countless reproductions in image and text of the brutalized black body; and a subjective paradigm of visuality which was skeptical of the objectifying potential of these portrayals of brutality and instead offered intersubjective recognition as visuality’s paramount function. On page 99 of the book I give an account of a story related in William Craft’s Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in which an escaped slave dresses as a white planter and returns South to purchase his sister. Although the sale goes through, the sister doesn’t recognize her brother in disguise and refuses to go with him until he shows her a likeness of their mother. While it seems the image operates as proof of their relation, in fact it represents the sentimental familial connection between the two that can’t be seen under the laws of slavery. The parable demonstrates the triumph of human recognition over objectifying evidence.
Learn more about Fugitive Testimony at the Fordham University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue