Living History

By Raquel Kennon

Raquel Kennon reveals how her family’s lineage intersected with her academic training and resulted in a book tracing the literary and cultural legacies of slavery in the Americas.

Jean-Baptiste Debret’s Le Dîner (“A Brazilian Dinner”), 1827, one of the works studied in Afrodiasporic Forms

Sugar. Sculpture. Mammy. A celebrated telenovela. Lithographs of the era of slavery in Brazil. Poetry of the slave ship and the Middle Passage. A vibrant painting of the Gate of Return.

What do these disparate cultural products have in common? As I discuss in Afrodiasporic Forms, they represent an eclectic archive of the literary and cultural legacies of slavery in the Americas.

The earliest seeds of my book germinated with an oft-recited family genealogy. My father retold the story of my paternal family lineage, which his father had passed down to him. I learned of my enslaved great-great-great-grandfather, Peter Kennon, who, denied the right to read or write, signed his name with an “X.” A headstone in a historically segregated cemetery in Minden, Louisiana, marks his grave and bears this “X.”

Pondering questions about the lived experiences of my ancestor, Peter, who had two brothers who took different last names, prompted my long-standing academic research interest in literary engagements with slavery. Classic first-person slave narratives such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and The Life of Olaudah Equiano, together with renowned, generically hybrid neo-slave narratives such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, exemplified the fascinating collision of history, literature, and form.

My academic training in comparative literature propelled me to think more expansively about slavery’s past across national, linguistic, and disciplinary borders. Reflecting beyond my own individual family lineage to broader questions of slavery and freedom, I was intrigued by the notion of an artistic “Black world” and how some artists in the African diaspora have engaged, explicitly or obliquely, with modern racialized slavery. Specifically, I ask in the book how poets, novelists, and artists from different traditions, periods, and geographies have remembered, forgotten, or transfigured the history of this global atrocity in their work.

What began as a narrowly defined search for a literary equivalent of an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century narrative of enslavement written in Spanish, for example, transmuted into a wide-ranging project that attempts to complicate a US-centric approach to comparative literary and cultural studies of slavery and its diasporic afterlife. While I was captivated by Juan Francisco Manzano’s 1839 Autobiografía de un esclavo (Autobiography of a Slave), an extant narrative of slavery from the Cuban literary tradition, I thought it imperative to put it in conversation with distinct literary forms across space and time. Thus, my initial inquiry that began with a limited search for transnational analogs of the slave narrative morphed into a broader study of the multiplicity of artistic engagements with the history of transatlantic slavery across the African diaspora.

Inspired by family genealogy and methodologies of comparative literature and cultural studies, Afrodiasporic Forms brings together canonical and kitsch, poetry and prose, visual and material culture, to explore, among other things, the significance of sugar as a multivalent commodity of slavocratic societies and a key ingredient in monumental sculpture, the representation of enslaved women in telenovelas and nostalgic congressional proposals in the early twentieth century, the daily struggle to write one’s life while surviving in the favela, and the plural resonances of the hold of the slave ship. 

Raquel Kennon

Raquel Kennon is associate professor in the Department of Africana Studies at California State University, Northridge, and a visiting associate professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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Afrodiasporic Forms

Afrodiasporic Forms explores the epistemological possibilities of the “Black world” paradigm and traces a literary and cultural cartography of the monde noir and its constitutive African diasporas across multiple poetic, visual, and cultural permutations. Examining the transatlantic slave trade and modern racial slavery, Raquel Kennon challenges the US-centric focus of slavery studies and draws on a transnational, eclectic archive of materials from Lusophone, Hispanophone, and Anglophone sources in the Americas to inspect evolving, multitudinous, and disparate forms of Afrodiasporic cultural expression.

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