Literature and the Lived Experience

Friday May 19, 10.30-11.45 am

Moderator: Lisa Del Sol

Rebecca C. Pawel, “Anti-Abolitionist Romance: The Discourse of Love and Slavery in 13th century Castilian Texts”
Gema Ortega, “The Cost of Freedom for Juan Francisco Manzano, a Cuban Cimarrón: Mimicry and Escape from the Discourse of Otherness in Autobiografía de un esclavo (1840)”
Indya Jackson, “Afro-Pessimistic Perspective in Between the World and Me or “Death Was Simply a Part of the Working of the Trade””

Rebecca C. Pawel, “Anti-Abolitionist Romance: The Discourse of Love and Slavery in 13th century Castilian Texts”

Siete Partidas, Alfonso X of Castile’s monumental late thirteenth century compendium of laws, details practical guidelines for slavery, including how one may become a slave, the many obligations and few rights of enslaved people, and the procedures for sale and manumission. However, Siete Partidas also makes an implicit attempt to provide an ideological justification for slavery while at the same time repeatedly emphasizing that slavery is “against the law of nature” because “man is the most noble and free creature of all those made by God.” This paper argues that a trio of near contemporaneous late thirteenth century literary texts, Libro de Apolonio, Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, and Donzella Teodor, all deliberately engage with the language of Siete Partidas and the real conditions of slavery in thirteenth century Castile in an uneasy attempt to justify an economic institution recognized as morally suspect. All three stories, Libro de Apolonio, Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor, and Donzella Teodor feature enslaved heroines who eventually gain their freedom and are married to men who have either owned them or tried to purchase them. While both Tarsiana in Libro de Apolonio and Blancaflor in Crónica are presented as of noble birth, both texts, along with Donzella Teodor, make a point of presenting their enslavement as legal within the framework of Siete Partidas. Similarly, all three stories show legal processes of manumission before the inevitable marriages of the heroines. I contend that as Muslim-held territory in the Iberian Peninsula gradually decreased over the course of the thirteenth century, and the supply of captives from local warfare similarly decreased, presenting slavery as the just fate of prisoners of war became a less tenable ideological justification for the institution. This led to a new attempt to link slavery to gender roles and to relationships of love and marriage.

Rebecca Pawel received a BA in Spanish Language and Literature from Columbia in 1999, and taught high school in Brooklyn for thirteen years before returning to Columbia to study for a PhD in English. She presented a paper on Chaucer’s House of Fame as science fiction at the Biennial London Chaucer Conference in July 2015, and received her M Phil from Columbia in May 2016. She is currently working on a dissertation about how ideas about medieval and early modern Spain influenced the writings of African American intellectuals who spent time in Spain in the mid-twentieth century.


Gema Ortega, “The Cost of Freedom for Juan Francisco Manzano, a Cuban Cimarrón: Mimicry and Escape from the Discourse of Otherness in Autobiografía de un esclavo (1840)”

In her Nobel Prize Lecture, Toni Morrison reasserts that the appropriation of language, storytelling, and writing is fundamental for the formation of speaking subjects in situations of extreme oppression. The stories we tell, Morrison affirms, “create us” as they are being created (Morrison, Nobel 2). Tracing this premise to slave narratives specifically, she notes that in the U.S. the signature “written by himself” or “herself” was intentionally included in the texts to emphasize the authority of the slave as a writer of his her own story. Yet, these narratives were also determined by the necessity to please the sensitivity of a white audience, so they were convinced of the humanity and suffering of the slave. Thus, the cost of freedom for the slave author was the suppression of an individual, authenticated voice in favor of a coopted narrative that would secure the sympathy of white abolitionists (Morrison, Site of Memory 189).

Francisco Manzano’s Autobiografía—the only Cuban slave narrative that has survived in the Spanish Caribbean prior to abolition in 1886—uniquely attests to the futility of acquiring subjectivity in situations of physical as well as discursive oppression. My analysis of Manzano’s Autobiografía argues that the creative abilities of Manzano, as a slave, are always hijacked by the necessity to imitate, adapt, and live up to the expectations of the white audience to prove his right to freedom. Mimicry, in the case of Manzano’s Autobiografía creates a “white but not quite” individual who seeks legal manumission at the expense of individual subject formation (Young 147).  Yet, while Homi Bhabha assures that mimicry can be productive because it looks back at the eye of power threatening its instability and causing its paranoia (Bhabha The Location 86), in Manzano’s Autobiography that psychological instability in her mistress is never productive to obtain freedom. On the contrary, the more Manzano adopts the colonial ideology of his mistress’ world, the more punished he is. Thus, living in the “folds” of the master’s text prevents Manzano from acquiring an independent subjectivity outside the confines of the master’s discourse (Bhabha, Signs 154) Thus, Francisco Manzano’s Autobiografía is not a Buildungsroman, against the assessment of some critics (Molloy 414 and Gallego 59). His autobiography ironically narrates the deconstruction and unraveling of the subject when freedom means to live up to the standards of humanity set up by the white abolitionist world of England and Cuba in the mid-1800’s.

Manzano’s “real” freedom starts when he steps out of the trap of mimicry to “escape” into silence and invisibility where his voice and creative power can no longer be defined by sanctioned discourses of otherness.  The cost of freedom for Manzano is his own creative power and authorial voice, for stepping into the realm of discourse is always fraught by an imposition to accept a narrative of oneself measured by a model of whiteness that is sadist and violent as the Autobiography of Manzano ultimately reveals.

Gema Ortega holds a Ph.D. in Comparative and World Literature from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Her research focuses on the comparative study of colonial and postcolonial literature written by women in Spanish, English, and French. Her dissertation, “Writing Hybridity: Identity, Dialogics, and Women’s Narratives in the Americas,” analyzes discourses of mestizaje, créolité, and hybridity in the works of Rosario Ferré, Maryse Condé and Toni Morrison. Her work has been featured in academic conferences and publications across the U.S. as well as in Latin America and Spain. Her teaching at Dominican University includes courses on Colonial and Postcolonial Literature and Theory, Non-Western World Literature, Literature of the Americas, Women’s Studies in the Humanities and Women Writers. She also teaches English Composition courses, specializing in multilingual students and pedagogy.


Indya Jackson, “Afro-Pessimistic Perspective in Between the World and Me or “Death Was Simply a Part of the Working of the Trade””

A still emerging school within critical race theory, Afro-pessimism has an interest in resolving the natal isolation of Black life. Perhaps most associated with writer, critic, and professor Frank B. Wilderson III, Afro-pessimism is a critical framework which, at its very root, theorizes that the Middle Passage “divided the Slave from the world of the Human in a constitutive way.” Uniquely actuated in this modality is the belief that slavery did not end with any meaningful emancipation, but it instead resulted in a new form of domination in which “Black” replaced “slave. Consequently, Afro-pessimism dually theorizes that Black persons now exist within an “afterlife of slavery” in which the abject state of the Black body is what stabilizes the conditions that re/produce Black abjection. In his own way — though not entirely unlike many a literary forefather— Ta-Nehisi Coates similarly grapples with Black natal isolation in his bestselling memoir Between the World and Me (2015). While Afro-pessimism maintains that Blacks are essentially “non-human” (and/or “death-bound-subjects”) and that there has never truly been an emancipation from slavery, Between the World and Me finds Coates promoting kindred ideas through his personal narratives.

Thus, for purposes of this paper I will build upon the theorizing of Wilderson, Saidya Hartman, Orlando Patterson, and Jared Sexton in order to contemplate the meeting of Coates and Afro-Pessimism with the thesis that both invite readers to imagine a route to liberation which — in an arguably radical fashion — calls for a rejection of latent optimism. In doing so, this work will extend the critiques issued in Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death in order to incorporate an analysis which positions mass incarceration as the primary tool of contemporary Black abjection. Whereas JanMohamed introduces a methodology for locating presence of the Black abject (via the death-bound-subject) in African American literature before produced prior to 1960, my work considers the transformation of Black abjection within the Black Power and Post-Soul eras as critical to engaging in an Afropessimistic analysis of contemporary African American literature.

For this project, my work will undertake the task of writing against much traditional African Americanist literary scholarship which regards the specter of hope as a linchpin of the genre. By positioning an Afro Pessimistic framework as a lens to outline the limiting structures which overdetermine Black life and death, this project will unveil the continuity of this “cruel optimism” throughout the modern expanse of African American literature.

Indya Jackson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her research is most interested in literary nationalism of the Black Arts movement. Jackson holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Tuskegee University and a Master’s degree in English literature from The Ohio State University.