Sites of Slavery

Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post–Civil Rights Imagination

Sites of Slavery

Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 5 illustrations Published: July 2012

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Cultural Studies

More than forty years after the major victories of the civil rights movement, African Americans have a vexed relation to the civic myth of the United States as the land of equal opportunity and justice for all. In Sites of Slavery Salamishah Tillet examines how contemporary African American artists and intellectuals—including Annette Gordon-Reed, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Bill T. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker—turn to the subject of slavery in order to understand and challenge the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the founding narratives of the United States. She explains how they reconstruct "sites of slavery"—contested figures, events, memories, locations, and experiences related to chattel slavery—such as the allegations of a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the characters Uncle Tom and Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, African American tourism to slave forts in Ghana and Senegal, and the legal challenges posed by reparations movements. By claiming and recasting these sites of slavery, contemporary artists and intellectuals provide slaves with an interiority and subjectivity denied them in American history, register the civic estrangement experienced by African Americans in the post–civil rights era, and envision a more fully realized American democracy.


“. . . . judged on its own philosophical and analytical terms, Sites of Slavery offers a powerful and strikingly original take on contemporary African American ‘rituals of collective recuperative forms of recognition, and revisionist forms of historiography’( p. 4).” — Scot A. French, Journal of American History

Sites of Slavery is an innovative synthesis of connecting historical memory, reflected in the cultural productions of African American artists, scholars, and writers who draw on the past to understand the present.” — Robert Anthony Bennett, III, Spectrum

“Tillet’s work is valuable to scholars because of its careful illumination of diverse conceptions of slavery, freedom, and citizenship.  Sites of Slavery is a useful book that contributes to our understanding of the challenges of contemporary neo-slave 'narratives' across several genres.” — Christine L. Montgomery, Black Scholar

“Ultimately, Tillet’s book has broad relevance to Americanists in historical periods stretching from the nineteenth century to the present, with archives crossing boundaries from the photographic to the juridical and methodological approaches from spatial theory to psychoanalysis. It is an impressive accomplishment.”  — Jennie Lightweis-Goff,, Journal of American Culture

“The greatest attribute of Sites of Slavery is its analytical framework in which the author employs a wide range of sources, including novels, photographs, installations, plays, films, pictures, official discourses, lawsuits, and scholarly monographs. The book offers a provocative snapshot to examine the problem of representations of slavery and the relations between history and fiction. . . . [T]he book is highly readable and a prospective addition to syllabi of graduate and undergraduate courses on African American and African diaspora studies.” — Ana Lucia Araujo, Journal of American Ethnic History

Sites of Slavery is a meticulously researched, compelling addition to a growing body of literature concerning race and the post-Civil Rights moment. Salamishah Tillet effortlessly analyzes a range of interdisciplinary materials, positing riveting examinations of how writers, artists, and intellectuals critique America’s hypocrisies and impact conversations about the possibilities for Black social life and a true racial democracy in the United States.” — Michelle D. Commander, Callaloo

“Tillet’s book brilliantly synthesizes the critique of US civic myths produced across cultural and aesthetic forms. . . .” — Alys Eve Weinbaum, American Literature

"Salamishah Tillet’s Sites of Slavery brilliantly explores aesthetic and political appropriations of chattel slavery by 'African American writers, artists, and intellectuals' in 'the post–civil rights' era." — James Edward Ford, Novel

"For readers of African American literary scholarship as well as contemporary popular culture, Tillet’s premise is astute and seemingly prescient." — Ayesha K. Hardison, American Literary History

"Sites of Slavery is a meticulously researched, persuasively argued, beautifully written, and intellectually daring study of contemporary narratives of slavery. Through her dazzling readings of fiction, drama, dance, cinema, visual art, heritage tourism, reparations legal cases, and critical race historiographies, Salamishah Tillet demonstrates how a range of African American artists, writers, and intellectuals respond to the contemporary 'crisis of citizenship' by foregrounding a 'democratic aesthetic' in their representations of slavery. This book will transform the way we think about the place of African American cultural production in relation to 'post–civil rights era' political discourse." — Valerie Smith, author of Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination

"Sites of Slavery is an original contribution to the scholarship on memory, representation, and New World slavery. With keen insight and dazzling analysis, Salamishah Tillet attends to the implications that contemporary representations of slavery have for our understanding of the history of slavery in the United States and of African American identity. This book crosses disciplines to offer a compelling view of the many ways that slavery lives in the contemporary imagination and colors the way we see our past, our present, and our future." — Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Salamishah Tillet is Assistant Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments xi

Introduction. Peculiar Citizenships 1

1. Freedom in a Bondsmaid's Arms: Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, and the Persistence of African American Memory 19

2. The Milder and More Amusing Phases of Slavery: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Black Satire 51

3. A Race of Angels: (Trans)Nationalism, African American Tourism, and the Slave Forts 95

4. What Have We Done to Weigh So Little on Their Scale: Mnemonic Restitution and the Aesthetics of Racial Reparations 133

Epilogue. The President's House, Freedom, and Slavery in the Age of Obama 169

Notes 179

Bibliography 195

Index 217
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5261-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5242-6
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