U.Va. Professor's Book Reviews Slavery Re-enactments in Novels, Films and Real Time

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April 23, 2009 — A woman stands by an unfamiliar river and sees a boy drowning. After she rescues him, a man approaches and points a gun at her head.

Suddenly she is back in the living room of her home.

It turns out that Dana Franklin, the main character of Octavia Butler's novel, "Kindred," had time-traveled to pre-Civil War days, where, as a black woman, she must have been a slave. The white boy she saved from drowning turns out to be her ancestor; in the novel, she must return to the past to save him again in order to be born.

Through the Franklin character's first-person account, readers of the novel learn about slavery in early-1800s Maryland, and what lessons Franklin is able to apply to her contemporary life.

Butler is one of the authors U.Va. associate English professor Lisa Woolfork writes about in her new book, "Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture." Whether examining literary time travel, modern comedy routines or dramatic re-enactments, Woolfork's book shows how artistic treatments of slavery link past and present.

"The legal subjugation of black folks helped to shape the America in which we live today," Woolfork said. She sees the literary works, and other activities like comedy and live re-enactments, as adding clarity to the meanings, consequences and costs of slavery.

In books, "I read and looked for historical situations … with a more direct approach, from observer to participant," she said. In these works, the authors' characters return to the scene of the trauma of slavery to relive it and make it more tangible. Such experiences not only restore the past, but also create empathy for those who lived through it and cast perspective on current events.

Another source of slave accounts, the Federal Writers' Project, instituted during the Great Depression, employed individuals to interview older folks to record life in the earlier part of the 20th century and as far back as people had lived. In one story, a wizened former slave, Henrietta King, tells the interviewer to feel the scars on her face from a beating, in order to tell the writer that slavery, through its physical effects on her, has turned her into someone everyone fears.

Woolfork also sees a message in movies whose purpose is to teach a different lesson: That no matter what life is like now, it's better than back then, so you'd better shape up. In films like "Quest for Freedom" and "Brother Future," unruly black teens go back to the time of slavery as a disciplinary tool, and are grateful to return to 1980s Reagan-era America to join the mainstream culture and society, even if only in subordinate roles.

In other venues, the slave past is re-enacted as sacred ritual, as historical drama and in participatory games.

In examining re-enactments with real people that take place in summer camps, churches and other group situations, Woolfork said the purpose of these activities is to give historic visibility and credence to the conditions under which slaves had to live, as well as the consequences played out in the present.

Woolfork also presents the perspective of comedians, specifically Dave Chappelle and his eponymous comedy show, and his use of humor in taking on the seriousness of slavery. A post-Civil Rights Era child, Chappelle in his irreverent sketches challenges the idea that people should consider anything sacred about the portrayals of the slave past. Woolfork quotes him saying he's trying to poke at people's fears carried over from the past.

Whether the trauma of slavery is critiqued in comedy or recreated in fictional stories, Woolfork says they are attempts to use time-travel to challenge apathy or amnesia about this part of American history, especially among African-Americans.

Robert Crossley wrote in his introduction to "Kindred" that Butler "designed her own Underground Railroad between past and present whose terminus is the reawakened imagination of the reader." Woolfork's study explores a variety of routes to reach new places in understanding depictions of slavery.

— By Anne Bromley