The Catholic margin in contemporary narratives of slavery
Salius, Erin Michael
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This study argues that Catholicism informs a major genre of African American literature in ways and with a significance that has gone largely unrecognized. Since their emergence in the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary narratives of slavery have challenged the traditional historiography of American slavery, radically revising how we remember that "peculiar institution." These fictional works disrupt the form and content of slave autobiography, suggesting that the conventions of Enlightenment rationalism to which antebellum texts were bound could not adequately represent the experience of enslavement. Scholarship on the genre has thus tended to focus on the way it undermines the rationalizing impulse of Enlightenment discourse, which in the U.S. as well as in Europe was determined by the ideals of the Protestant Reformation. But while the scholarly attention to Protestantism has yielded valuable insights regarding the contemporary slave narrative’s critique of the "unreason" of slavery, it cannot account for the striking presence of the Catholic themes and images at the margins of these texts that this dissertation uncovers, nor for the way that the religion is imaginatively linked to radical moments of historical revision. I argue that Catholicism undergirds the imaginative ways the genre expresses the inexpressible horror of enslavement and the legacy of those horrors in the present day. Because of its historical association with irrationality, superstition, and an aberrant supernaturalism, Catholicism is thus marshaled—with justified political hesitation—in the contemporary slave narrative as an oppositional category of discourse through which African American authors break with the historiographical methods of the Enlightenment and, in particular, with the rationalization of slavery characterizing the period. Chapter One analyzes two novels by Toni Morrison, Beloved and A Mercy, and her concept of "rememory." In Chapter Two, I examine the trope of spirit possession in Ernest Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Leon Forrest’s Two Wings to Veil My Face. My final two chapters address temporal disjuncture in contemporary narratives of slavery: Chapter Three comprises readings of Phyllis Alesia Perry’s Stigmata and Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, while in Chapter Four I focus on Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.