Scenes of Subjection

In an epistle to his brother, John Rankin illumined the “very dangerous evil” of slavery in a description of the coffle, detailing the obscene theatricality of the slave trade: “Unfeeling wretches purchased a considerable drove of slaves – how many of them were separated from husbands and wives, I will not pretend to say – and having chained a number of them together, hoisted over the flag of American liberty, and with the music of two violins marched the woe-worn, heart-broken, and sobbing creatures through the town.”

That is the first sentence of Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (New York: Oxford UP, 1997). I missed this book when it came out, but I am interested in it for the way in which it connects slavery and subjectivity or self-making. Its treatment of terror as spectacle is, of course, welcome as well.


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