APRIL 21, 2020
WITH THE RISE of US power on an international stage in the second half of the 20th century, American exceptionalism — the ideological doctrine wherein the nation is cast as incomparable in the rights, freedoms, and opportunities that it grants its citizens — went global. During and especially after the Cold War, American national culture was meant to serve as the blueprint for the rest of the world, especially for newly independent nations in the Global South. Postcolonial states were urged — or, more accurately, obliged — to follow the US example in “developing” their economies and their citizenries, and after the collapse of most of the socialist bloc by the end of the century, US conceptions of liberty and human rights were touted as practically providential for the rest of the world. But what then, anyone might reasonably wonder, were postcolonial societies to make of the central place and function of the brutal system of chattel slavery in this model?
Slavery, and the afterlives of racial hierarchy that it put into motion, has too long been considered by too many to be a “peculiar institution” that bears significance only for the United States, and even then, of only regional consequence such that white Northerners considered themselves innocent of responsibility in the matter. Moreover, as a range of historians have insightfully demonstrated in the past two decades, US policy officials, political leaders, and the culture industry charged with exporting the “American Dream” abroad cast slavery, and racism more broadly, as a regrettable but incidental episode in an otherwise progressive national narrative. Political and cultural elites from Harry Truman’s administration onward insisted that the struggle against and victory over white supremacy and racial oppression only further burnished the image of the United States as the aspirational “city upon a hill” for the rest of the world. And it is, after all, this optimistic version of the nation that liberals continue to evoke when faced with their “MAGA”-fueled fellow citizens today.
In contrast, a multitude of artists, scholars, and activists have steadfastly refused such a triumphalist account of US history, insisting instead that how we tell the story of that past holds profound implications for present-day experiences of racial difference, especially of blackness, at home and across the globe. A host of such thinkers challenge their audiences to recognize the way in which this history structures what the eminent Jamaican writer and theorist Sylvia Wynter calls our “genres of being human, and therefore, of the production of all our societies.” Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres: The Global Afterlives of Slavery offers an original and important contribution to this ongoing study of the memory and meaning of slavery for 21st-century politics and culture. She begins with the incisive premise that the slave narrative — the genre that became the definitive form by which slavery came to be known on a national scale — proves not only the “template” for the neo-slave narrative of our contemporary moment, but for an enormous amount of literary expression in the global present. In so doing, Goyal sets out to illuminate how the Atlantic history of slavery everywhere haunts the contemporary world that US power has sought to arrange and manage according to its own political and economic interests, even while the centrality of that history in the world is actively disavowed.
Goyal wagers that the “Atlantic frame goes global,” propelled by several, interrelated factors: the contemporary migrations taking place on an enormous scale; the attachment that so many writers and readers have to sentimentalism as the primary aesthetic mode for the narration of trauma; and an overriding inclination for readers and writers to perceive the present as a repetition of the past. As she demonstrates throughout Runaway Genres, the key features of the slave narrative appear everywhere in prose fiction and memoirs today, especially in portraits of “modern slavery” and child soldiers. Goyal homes in on recent representations from and of the African diaspora, and authors’ use of, for example, spectacular scenes of suffering meant to evoke feelings of pity and outrage that spur the (white) reader to action, the (white) amanuensis who “ventriloquizes” the subject of that suffering — often the black child, and the elements of Gothic terror deployed in order to portray the otherwise “unspeakable” horrors of slavery. With this remarkable insight, Runaway Genres insists that the history of chattel slavery, racial formation, and racism are fonts of the aesthetic categories by which social life is represented and lived, well beyond the temporal and spatial boundaries by which “black history” is conventionally contained.
But if slavery remains a captivating touchstone for much writing and thinking across the globe, it does so toward diverse political ends. As Goyal thus further explains, many black writers counter more clichéd representations by way of “post-black” and “Afropolitan” perspectives, foregrounding racial disunity in order to try to imagine a present and future beyond the traumatic origins of slavery. In the case of African-American fiction such as Mat Johnson’s Pym, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, this challenge comes in the form of what Goyal calls “post-black satire.” These writers adopt the neo-slave narrative in a contradictory key that “remains necessarily unstable, impossible even” since “the core of the neo-slave imaginary is to insist that slavery never really ended, and we are living ‘in the wake,’ with black life ontologically linked to the figure of the slave” while “the very definition of post-blackness leaves behind the history of slavery and the constitution of the contemporary subject through that historical trauma.” In these cases, writers do not so much offer definitive conclusions about the meaning of slavery for the present so much as lodge critiques about the way in which the slave narrative has been conscripted to encode and affirm a sense of progress.
As she turns to the “global African” novel by acclaimed writers of the African diaspora Chris Abani, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, NoViolet BulaWayo, Teju Cole, and Dinaw Mengestu, Goyal illuminates the way in which such fiction forgoes the neo-slave narrative altogether, but also the other templates of Anglophone literature (e.g., the bildungsroman or the immigrant novel) that have been regarded as integral to the writing of Western modernity. Instead, she examines their notion of the “Afropolitan,” the term first used in print in 2005 by British-American writer and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent Taiye Selasi to describe “the newest generation of African emigrants” who are “not citizens, but Africans of the world.” Selasi celebrated the Afropolitan as a cosmopolitan, multilingual, hybrid identity for those who nonetheless remained resolutely attached to Africa’s “cultural complexity,” and to the “intellectual and spiritual legacy” of “the young, gifted and broke” who began in the 1960s to leave their home nations “in pursuit of higher education and happiness abroad.”
The construction of the Afropolitan has proven so appealing over the past decade and a half in large part because it powerfully challenges the all-too-familiar images that fold the geographical, cultural, and political diversity of the continent into singular stereotypes of poverty and warfare. For Goyal, the Afropolitian proves not so much a fixed category for black literary production as a framework for analyzing the global African novel, with a particular emphasis on class as a feature of mobility. As such, the African diaspora challenges both national and ethnic categories and “demands more complex scales of comparison and analysis sufficient to navigate local, regional, and global formations.”
The considerable commercial and critical success of the writers whose work Goyal examines is also central to her account. She describes her archive as constituting a “runaway genre,” not only because of how it concerns the fugitive slave, but because these books have become “runaway” hits in our moment. Alongside the revered and always probing Toni Morrison, Abani, Adichie, Beah, Cole, Whitehead, and others have been readily hailed by mainline reviewers and academic critics as exemplary purveyors of “world literature,” especially since this category has been expanded to include instances of diverse literary production from well beyond Europe. And yet, as Goyal trenchantly observes about the conception of “world literature” in comparative study:
[T]he revival of Goethe’s notion of Weltliteratur often focuses not on politicized histories of race and empire but on aesthetic forms of transnational contact. Defined as works that travel beyond their cultures of origin, that gain in translation, that are deemed classics that have stood the test of time, world literature as a frame has moved away from the restrictive model of national literatures largely by bypassing efforts such as the black Atlantic or the postcolonial, rather than building upon them.
In contrast, Runaway Genres locates the slave narrative as a blueprint for a very different kind of world literature, one whose forms obtain not (only) in the traction that such works have with privileged arbiters of literary value situated in the First World, but in the conditions of mass displacement, violence, and subjugation.
This is not to say that all readers of the neo-slave narrative and its discontents will unlock the alternate possibilities of racial critique and imagination that contemporary writers of Africa and the African diaspora might pose. Far from it, since, as Goyal perceptively argues, slave and neo-slave narratives gather their emotional and political force through the heuristic of analogy, by inviting readers to continually view themselves as the central agent that the genre addresses. In other words, these forms have long relied on comparison and the creation — or imposition — of correspondence and likeness across vast gulfs of social and historical difference. Yet, while it has proven over and over again all too easy for the Western reader to insert herself as the “prototypical subject of empathy,” the antebellum slave narrative always also offered instruction in reading against the grain, given the risks, challenges, and negotiation involved in delivering “’black messages’ enclosed in ‘white envelopes.’” Runaways Genres proposes that this elusive literacy remains vital for contemporary black literary production as well. Goyal’s aim then is not only to point out the key generic features of the slave narrative that are taken up in a broad range of contemporary literary work, but to trace the affective logic and rhetorical effectivity by which such forms confront “head-on the contradiction of speaking the unspeakable […] the dual imperative at the heart of the genre: that slavery cannot be represented and yet it must be.”
Rather than only flattening the literary terrain through simple binaries of enslavement and freedom, victims and villains, then, Goyal proposes that “analogy could […] serve as a path to particular histories, which in turn could benefit from comparative literacies prompted by the writers who turn to slavery.” Inducing us to consider how the particular or peculiar institution of chattel slavery has been figuratively put to work on a global scale, while also refusing the exceptionalism by which all forms of violence and suffering are rendered the same, Runaway Genres invites us to think the world US globalism made from the ground up, concluding with the moving suggestion that “what we talk about when we talk about slavery is thus the Atlantic past, the global present, and everything in between.”
Crystal Parikh is professor of Social & Cultural Analysis and English at New York University, specializing in 20th-century and contemporary American literature and culture. She is the author of Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) and An Ethics of Betrayal:The Politics of Otherness in Emergent U.S. Literature and Culture (Fordham University Press, 2009).