Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America

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Author: Anita Patterson
Date: Winter 1999
From: African American Review(Vol. 33, Issue 4)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,173 words

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Saidiya V. Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. 275 pp. $50.00 cloth/$19.95 paper.

Saidiya Hartman's Scenes of Subjection is a prodigiously researched, provocative exploration of racial subjugation and the shaping of black identity during slavery and its aftermath. Her message overall is a profoundly pessimistic one. She contends that there is a tragic continuity in antebellum and postbellum constitutions of blackness, and that the range of liberal, anti-slavery, and reform discourses that were ostensibly used to promote progressive causes actually facilitated violent, symbolic forms of domination in nineteenth-century America. Popular appeals to the humanity of slaves, the invocation of rights, contractarian notions of property, self-possessed individualism, will, agency, responsibility, protection, and so on did not ultimately serve the struggle for black liberation in the U.S. Instead, these discourses tended to obscure a pervasive practice of subjection and, in so doing, paved the way for other newly emerging encroachments of power during the Reconstruction era and the Gilded Age.

As a theorist wrestling with the task of writing revisionary history, Hartman harbors a deep distrust of language, either as a means of ensuring the legal protection and social equality of oppressed people or as a means of representing the everyday experience of slavery and its aftermath. Scenes of Subjection thus opens with an adamant warning against being unwittingly led--whether by the love of absolute distinctions between the categories "slavery" and "freedom" or by the celebratory momentum and logic of liberal nationalist rhetoric--to believe that 1863 was a year marked by the simple triumph of American democratic ideals. Nonetheless, Hartman goes on to recognize the utility and ethical necessity of writing revisionary history. At the same time that she insists that her study is not intended to be a comprehensive examination of slavery and Reconstruction, she nonetheless commits herself to a sustained historical analysis that brings to light how, after the legal abolition of slavery, liberal notions lik e will, agency, responsibility, and individuality were used to create tragic continuities between slavery and freedom.

In her effort to prove that the legacy of slavery lived on in antebellum America, Hartman examines a wide variety of "scenes" that help to convey the terrifying morass of legal and socioeconomic constraints, and the daily rituals of terror, faced by African Americans--both before and after emancipation. She marshals an impressive array of scholarship and primary sources--slave narratives, white amanuenses, plantation diaries and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing, amateur ethnographies, government reports, WPA testimonies, fiction, popular minstrel songs, agricultural journals, freedmen's primers, and legal cases--and offers a vivid account of the lives of African Americans during slavery and the postbellum period.

The first half of the book discusses how spectacles of "Negro enjoyment" were, in fact, inextricably entangled with terror--one small part of the vast, obscene theatricality that characterized the slave trade. Chapter one examines scenes involving "jollity" or "simulated contentment" as everyday forms of domination that have generally been overlooked in previous historical accounts....

Source Citation

Source Citation
Patterson, Anita. "Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America." African American Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 1999, p. 683. Accessed 17 May 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A59024893