When the abolitionist William Wells Brown said that “Slavery has never been represented; slavery never can be represented,” it wasn’t because he didn’t mean to try. The writer, ex-slave, and orator (1814–1884) would spend most of his career testifying to the realities of bondage, in speeches, memoirs, a novel, a play, and eventually, as though frustrated with words, in magic lantern slides—“William Wells Brown’s Original Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave.”
Today, slavery remains the American unrepresentable. It is the perennial confession of the national conscience, perpetually on the verge of being made. Somehow, it is always new—every book, film, and television show on the subject is praised as a reckoning with history or pilloried as a desecration of it, and treated either way as the breach of a long silence. And yet it has been more than twenty years since Toni Morrison’s Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize; forty since LeVar Burton declared “My name is Kunta Kinte” in Roots; almost two hundred since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sighed over “The hunted Negro” in “the dark fens of the Dismal Swamp.” Longfellow could have written for John Legend’s new series Underground; as the show opens, Kanye West’s chaos anthem “Black Skinhead” sets the tempo for a slave hunt: “But there’s nowhere to go now!/And there’s no way to slow down!”
Has the art of slavery become an escape from the American present, a means of avoiding ourselves? In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s play An Octoroon (2014), the author-surrogate, a black playwright, decides to stage Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859) while in therapy. Reviving a plantation melodrama seems to him the best way to face the existential dread of our contemporary racial psychosis.
You could easily put the country on the same couch. It seems hardly an accident that films like Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and Free State of Jones—stories of exceptional Negroes and white saviors triumphing over oppression—have become so popular precisely at this moment. As though compared to the police killings of unarmed black people, the rise of the carceral state, and the return of explicit white supremacy to national politics, slave stories don’t look so bad—at least they have a happy ending that everybody knows. And so they have become part of that vast placebo politics that is our antebellum nostalgia: slave ship splinters at the new Smithsonian; the revenge of Quentin Tarantino’s Django; Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill.
Cora, the skeptical heroine of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, is well acquainted with the pitfalls of “remembrance.” A runaway from slavery, she is equally a fugitive from the distraction of…
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