FICTION WITH FRICTION: UNRELIABLE NARRATIVES OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY?

ABSTRACT

Storytelling and oral history are important and preserved aspects of the African identity. But restrictions and language barriers placed on the captives of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, forced African Americans to create new ways of ensuring that their customs and heritage survived for future generations. Oral histories can be problematic, since stories conveyed by word of mouth corrupt and change over decades. The concept of storytelling itself calls for invention and adaptation and when these are applied to the protection of a proud history it reduces it to a genre or trope. Thanks to their creativity, some African Americans managed to preserve their lineage (as demonstrated by the late Alex Haley in Roots), but millions of life stories remain untold. Of surviving narratives familiar to modern readers, many were dictated to custodians in charge of translating the account for a wider audience. Accounts of slaves were invariably prefaced by a gatekeeper (often an abolitionist), in order to validate a narrative, and the tone is sometimes emotive or challenging, due to the interference from a white perspective. This essay addresses the oral tradition and the situation of slaves in captivity before examining the various ways in which slave narratives were recorded and validated. It also considers why white custodians felt the need to authenticate slave accounts and thereby influence subsequent literary movements.

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