F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Project Proposal] Transatlantic Identity Formation: Imperial Anxieties, Colonial Hybridities, and Slippages of Power – A Syllabus Unit

Throughout a number of the texts assigned to explore the themes and narratives of the long eighteenth century and the Black Atlantic, issues surrounding racial and economic fixity come to the fore.  All abolitionist captivity narratives, of course, strive to challenge the system of enslavement the served as the crux of the New World order and imperial wealth, but the engine of empire also becomes clear as a paradoxical force that contains its own slippages.  Metropolitan anxieties surrounding colonial creole subjects in the West Indies metastasized during the long eighteenth century – emerging from what Rex Nettleford dubs “negrification” and Stephen Frenkel calls “tropicalization” – whereby the Africanness of the Caribbean and exoticism of its landscape taints the Europeanness of the creole colonizer.  This contamination, coded in racial terms, dovetailed with fears of moral decay.  As Faith Smith notes, even the colonial planter class “worried about white degeneracy and unnatural combinations of species” in the West Indies, producing the taboo of miscegenation as fundamental to the axiomatics of imperialism – a taboo that coalesced metropolitan anxieties even as it failed to contain colonial behavior.  Per Nettleford, negrification “implies a metropolitan European perspective of the African essence in the New World and more generally of the creole culture” (184), thereby rendering the black slave population of the West Indies the symbolic source of European anxiety even as that same population fueled imperial wealth.

Both The Woman of Colour and The Female American feature biracial protagonists whose very existence challenges the racial order and the taboo of miscegenation.  Olivia Fairfield’s relative control over a vast amount of wealth inducts her into a British class system that hoped to deny her, which alongside her successful navigation of feminine agency, makes the text radical for its era.  At the same time, yet her place within the West Indian race- and economy-based class system place her in a complex relationship with the Jamaican folk.  Similarly, Unca Eliza Winkfield’s half-Native American identity in a proto-feminist Robinsonade imbues her text revolutionary potential, yet her alignment with Christianizing missionary work places her in a complex insider/outsider relationship with the project of empire.

These texts resonate with other texts of the era:  in Jane Eyre, for example, Charlotte Brontë infuses Bertha Mason Rochester’s white creole identity with a bestial physiognomy, irrational madness, and a poetics of Gothic horror that all bespeak the troubled place of the white creole in the British cultural imagination as a result of metropolitan anxieties surrounding the project of empire.  Insofar as Bertha functions as a “dark mirror” of Jane, she becomes a symbol of the psychologically abject that must be cast from the social order.

With attendant secondary and theoretical readings, a Scalar syllabus could more fully explore the cultural ruptures and containments that emerge in the literature surrounding metropolitan anxieties over colonial dominion.

(Such readings would include Rex Nettleford’s Mirror Mirror, Ramón Soto-Crespo’s “Trash Travels,” Julia Murray’s “The Country and the City and the Colony in The Woman of Colour,” Elsa Goveia’s Caribbean Cultural Thought, Douglas Lorimer’s “Reconstructing Victorian Racial Discourse,” and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s “Colonial and Postcolonial Gotchic,” and Betty Joseph’s “Re(playing) Crusoe/Pocahontas,” among others.)

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