Transatlantic Crossings: Representations of Mobility in American Slave Narratives
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This dissertation examines memoirs of African Americans in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, who, as slaves, fugitives, and free people, experienced the evils of slavery. While not minimizing their experiences of trauma, I am particularly interested in how each author or narrator (Olaudah Equiano, Jeffrey Brace, David Dorr, William and Ellen Craft) uniquely and surprisingly navigated their own routes of survival, defiance, and, sometimes, subversion in the white-centered world of transatlantic slavery. The memoirists examined in my dissertation constitute rare survivors who had a chance to narrate their stories of sometimes forced and sometimes chosen mobility. They present a black traveling culture of painful yet hopeful journeys by crossing between north and south and the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling beyond state and national boundaries enabled them to perform various roles – not only as a slave, but also as a sailor (Equiano), a botanist (Brace), a flâneur (Dorr), and even as a slave master (Ellen Craft). These performative roles in travelling are reflected in their writings in such narrative forms as a sailor’s log, a nature writing, a travel book, and a fugitive narrative. In my first chapter on Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative (1789), I examine the importance of sailing culture and the sea in Equiano’s life. The slave ship and the Atlantic are dynamic, multifunctional spaces on which Equiano was not only enslaved, transported, and suffered but also was transformed, and struggled in order to achieve freedom. In my second chapter on Jeffrey Brace’s The Blind African Slave, Or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nicknamed Jeffrey Brace (1810), I investigate the memories and movements of flora that accompanied Brace and other slaves on slave ships and in new places. I introduce research on the extraction and transportation of African flora and the memory of botanical nature, which made a profound impact on Brace’s life in Vermont as a farmer. My third chapter on David Dorr’s A Colored Man Round the World (1858) focuses on his travels abroad and examines Dorr’s hybrid, “multicolored” gaze as a wealthy American gentleman, who was also a “colored” slave. My last chapter analyzes William and Ellen Craft’s Running A Thousand Miles For Freedom (1860) focusing on their stratagems of transvestism – crossing boundaries not only of gender, but also of race, class, and disability. By analyzing these four narratives – yet being aware that there are still many voices left to be heard – my dissertation aims to cast light on early African Americans who refuted conventional proslavery arguments about black inferiority and ignorance. The narrators I examine debunk and de-essentialize myths of color and challenge the color line by negotiating the politics of mobility.