Literary and Critical Theory Neo-Slave Narratives
Raquel Kennon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0017


Neo-slave narratives refer to the literary genre of contemporary narratives of slavery that emerge primarily after World War II, particularly flourishing in the late 1960s and 1970s. While comparative historical studies such as The Cambridge World History of Slavery masterfully explore slavery as a global phenomenon present in most societies since Antiquity, neo-slave narratives specifically rework accounts of racialized slavery in the Atlantic World from the 15th to the 19th centuries. These narratives written in the mid- to late 20th and early 21st centuries grapple with the brutality of transatlantic slavery’s history, cultural memory, representation, resistance, identity, race, gender, sexuality, and subjectivity. One notable exception to this periodization is Bontemps 1992 (cited under Literature: Prose), the renowned novel of black revolt. The neo-slave narrative reconfigures generic conventions of the historical antebellum and post-emancipation slave narrative with an emphasis on what Sharpe 2010 (cited under Black Women’s Voices) calls the “formation of post-slavery subjects” that centers the subjectivity of the enslaved African’s experience. The focus on subject formation also reflects a critical turn away in the 21st century from use of the term slave and a move toward the term enslaved African to underscore personhood and humanity rather than solely highlighting slave status. The neo-slave narrative is often marked by a fully developed black subjectivity that complicates, or directly calls into question, traditional historiography of “master” narratives. Scholarly debates deal with questions of authenticity and authorship. Should contemporary fictions of slavery include only black-authored texts or might they also include texts such as William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967)? A strict literary categorization might exclude, for example, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) as a neo-slave narrative, instead positioning the classic novel as “plantation romance” while including Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) within this contemporary genre. Furthermore, as fictionalized narratives of slavery, many texts borrow and replicate to varying degrees the formal conventions, such as style or plot, of the classic autobiographical slave narrative of the 18th and 19th centuries while others depart dramatically from this form, challenging and reimagining the “official” historical record to assert the voice and agency of the texts’ narrator-protagonists. Although most prominent within the African American literary tradition rooted in the United States, iterations of this narrative mode appear in various other outposts in the black Atlantic world (primarily Anglophone; although French-, Portuguese-, and Spanish-language textual varieties exist, among others). While this article chiefly focuses on Anglophone sources in the United States and the Caribbean, it also references notable examples outside these cultural traditions, as chronicles of modern racial slavery are characteristically transnational, multiform, and polyvocal (for a broader thematic treatment, see the related Oxford Bibliographies article in Atlantic History “Slavery in British and American Literature”).

General Overviews

The following scholarly texts theorize the “neo-slave narrative” as a literary genre. Bell 1987 first coins the critical precursor neoslave narrative (without the hyphen), which the author defines as “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” that are “based primarily on folk material” (p. 286, p. 289). Rushdy 1997 reconceptualizes the hyphenated term neo-slave narrative, and Rushdy 1999 popularizes it to describe the novelistic genre that challenges the historiography of slavery while revisiting and reworking narratives of slavery of the 18th and 19th centuries. Considered a somewhat confining term, “neo-slave narrative” in Rushdy 1999 concerns the “contemporary narrativity of slavery” that investigates “contemporary novels that assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative” (p. 3). The use of the hyphenated term neo-slave narrative in Rushdy 1999 differs from its use in Bell 1987 in the periodization and distinctions drawn between fictional varieties of the literary form: historical, social realist, magic realist, genealogical, and palimpsest novel, to name a few categories. Moreover, Morrison 1990 examines the interplay between memory and history, the past and the present. Several well-known anthologies of African American literature provide instructive introductory articles to the genre, including Dubey 2010 and Smith 2007. Since Rushdy 1999, many scholars have adopted Rushdy’s use of the neologism and it appears as a critical term in hundreds if not thousands of scholarly journal articles, theses, dissertations, and books. While the term challenges in various ways the historiography of slavery, some scholars question its definitional boundaries or resist the term as overly confining or reductive. Keizer 2004 offers the descriptive label, “contemporary narratives of slavery” and argues that the “literary works themselves theorize about the nature and formation of black subjects, under the slave system and in the present, by utilizing slave characters and the condition of slavery as focal points” (p. 1). Smith 2007 uncovers how the neo-slave narrative, or what the author calls “retrospective literature about slavery” branches out from the first-person testimonial narrative form as a “realistic” representation of slavery and notes how the contemporary narratives exist in diverse forms (p. 168). In a similar vein, Spaulding 2005 emphasizes the “reformation of the historiography of slavery” in what the author terms “the postmodern slave narrative” (p. 25) that includes third-person narration, parody, satire, and science fiction replete with polyphony, temporal gaps and shifts, haunting, and elements of the fantastic. Ryan 2008 further complicates the categorization, rejecting a purely aesthetic or historical interpretation of the genre. Murphy 2014 offers modern views of the slave narrative with first-person survivor accounts of present-day forced labor.

  • Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.

    Widely recognized as the book that invents the term neoslave narrative without the hyphen, Bell discusses two fictional narratives of slavery, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966) and Ernest Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) as significant examples of the genre among the extensive interpretations of more than forty African American novels.

  • Dubey, Madhu. “Neo-slave Narratives.” In A Companion to African American Literature. Edited by Gene Andrew Garrett, 332–346. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444323474.ch22

    Provides a useful overview of the genre and offers a broad definition of the term with close readings of representative texts. An especially instructive resource for undergraduates and a fitting starting place for studies in the subject.

  • Keizer, Arlene R. Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

    Impressive theoretically driven monograph that explores nine US and Caribbean “contemporary narratives of slavery” while theorizing the use of this broader analytic term and attending to the issue of subject formation.

  • Morrison, Toni. “The Site of Memory.” In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Edited by Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, and Cornel West, 299–305. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1990.

    Discusses the differences and similarities between memoir and autobiographical fiction, first focusing on slave narratives from the 18th and 19th centuries. Offers a writer’s perspective on the function of memory and imagination in the creation of postbellum fiction.

  • Murphy, Laura T. Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

    Rooted in first-person testimonials, this edited collection presents interviews from survivors of “modern-day slavery,” a capacious term that encompasses human trafficking, forced sex work, child labor, forced domestic work, and debt bondage; noteworthy for its expansive geographic breadth of case studies including Haiti, Germany, India, Italy, and the United States. Interviews originate from disparate sources—news reports, film, and nongovernmental organizations such as Free the Slaves—to shed an activist’s light on powerful 21st-century nonfiction narratives of slavery.

  • Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Neo-slave Narrative.” In The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Edited by William L. Andrews, Trudier Harris, and Frances Smith Foster, 533–535. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Departing from the invention of “neoslave” in Bell 1987, this reference focuses on how contemporary fictions of slavery illustrate “the experience or the effects of New World slavery” and demonstrate the “lasting cultural meaning and social consequences” (p. 533). Provides instructive periodization, categorization, and divisions of works in this genre.

  • Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

    Oft-cited, book-length work that popularizes the term, “neo-slave narrative” and discusses the genre in terms of its relation to the social, political, and cultural climate of the 1960s. Following Bell 1987, it establishes the field of “neo-slave narrative” studies. Hard copies of the book are easily available in most libraries.

  • Ryan, Tim A. Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.

    Discusses post–World War I American novels, specifically focusing on a comprehensive list of contemporary slavery fictions (authored by both blacks and whites), as existing in a dialogic “call and response” relationship.

  • Smith, Valerie. “Neo-slave Narratives.” In The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. Vol. 1. Edited by Audrey Fisch, 168–185. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    This in-depth article analyzes and compares more than ten contemporary narratives of slavery and offers analysis, including critical context, early texts, and a comprehensive interpretation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

  • Spaulding, A. Timothy. Re-forming the Past: History, the Fantastic, and the Postmodern Slave Narrative. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

    Distinguishes use of the term postmodern slave narrative from neo-slave narrative in Rushdy 1999, by focusing on the ways in which contemporary narratives of slavery “create an alternative and fictional historiography based on a subjective, fantastic, and anti-realist representation of slavery” (p. 2).

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