(Re)Claiming Agency in Language: The Case of the Contemporary African American Slave Narrative
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This thesis examines the cultural memory of slavery in the United States of America by considering two recent novels which revolve around the topic of slavery: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003). These novels, also called neo-slave narratives, are examined with special consideration being given to their treatment of the traumatic past of slavery and to the ways in which their African American characters use and relate to language. By combining postcolonial theories of the subaltern and the novel (Reda Bensmaïa, Gayatri Spivak, et al.) with theories of the postmodern historical novel (Linda Hutcheon, Amy Elias), this thesis seeks to explore the ways in which neo-slave narratives may act as interventions into the cultural memory of slavery, not only by questioning and undermining the ways in which slavery is currently remembered in the United States, but also by altering the manner in which African Americans are represented and represent themselves in and through language. The main assertions of this thesis are based upon the argument that the novel may be seen as a speech act and, as such, has the inherent ability to potentially create a space in which subaltern peoples may gain agency (or power) within the linguistic system(s) of which they are a part.