Sunday, March 11, 2007

speaking power

Speaking Power: Black Feminist Orality in Women's Narratives of Slavery (2006), the first monograph by Arizona State University professor DoVeanna S. Fulton, analyzes the use of oral traditions as a rhetorical strategy in the slave narratives of Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, Louisa Picquet, and others. She argues that, while scholars have tended to value written texts and literacy over oral narratives -- hence the privileged position of Frederick Douglass's narrative as the most canonized of all black slave narratives -- the oral tradition of black women in the nineteenth century provides a site for the empowerment of black women and the subversion of dominant ideas about storytelling and memory. It's a compelling and useful study.

I keep thinking about one of Fulton's techniques. At several points in the book, Fulton presents her own African-American heritage as a source of authority. This approach offers some interesting moments, such as her story about a white professor who, upon learning the names of his new students, commented enthusiastically when students had European names: "Kalinski, that's Polish[,] right? I love Polish foods" (xi). When his black students spoke, on the other hand, he moved on without comment.

Initially I wondered if Fulton's strategy somehow excludes me -- as a white male -- from the authority I would need to fully participate in the scholarly conversation she has initiated. Upon reflection, I think not. In my own home field of ecocriticism, there has been a movement toward so-called autobiographical criticism, or narrative scholarship. Fulton seems to be participating in a recent trend toward acknowledging and valuing the subject position of the researcher -- and this ought to be seen as a strength. It's interesting that many white scholars studying African-American history and literature tend to keep their white identities invisible in their scholarly work. Perhaps, as we come to recognize that white history and black history are really one and the same, this will come to be seen as unnecessary.

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