In her 1995 essay, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison invites the reader to ponder the relationships between literature, subject formation, and the capacity to remember racial terror. In a section of the essay that discusses nineteenth-century slave narratives, Morrison draws our attention to the pressure placed on formerly enslaved writers like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs to reenact the anguish of enslavement in a manner that did not tarry too much with the negative. Alluding to the tacit and explicit prohibitions placed on ex-slave writing and expression, Morrison writes, “Popular taste discouraged the writers from dwelling too long or too carefully on the sordid [violent, scatological, and excessive] details of their experience. . . . In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things, and they ‘forgot’ many other things.”1

There is (too) much to unpack here. For one, Morrison draws a connection between the demand to accede to common sense, or the general sensibility of potential readers, and the inability to “dwell” on episodes in slave life that are excessive, wasteful, and dirtying. Since the typical slave narrative was used to galvanize abolitionist support, that narrative had to shape and curate experience in a manner amenable to those in a position to liberate slaves. In addition, the genre under consideration often operated with a linear “slavery to freedom” formula, a linearity that mapped on to the desired movement from the South to the North. As literacy was a marker and evidence of black capacity for freedom, the slave narrative (written by him or herself) was designed to enact and display an autonomous black subject—an autonomy that required white patronage and verification. But as Morrison suggests, this aspiration toward black freedom, powerfully articulated in slave memoirs, was accompanied by omissions and silences, enabled by forgetting or disremembering those “sordid details” that frustrate the logic of progress.

Consider for instance the ways in which memory and terror figure into Frederick Douglass’s account of being subjected to the sexualized violence of slavery during his childhood. In the oft-cited section on witnessing the punishment of his Aunt Hester, Douglass reveals a tension between not being able to forget this primal scene and the failure to find the appropriate words to convey to the reader the anguish involved in being the object and spectator of this violent spectacle. Douglass writes,

He [Mr. Plummer, the overseer] would at times seem to take great pleasure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened at the dawn of day with the most heart-rending shrieks of an aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back til she was literally covered with blood. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped the longest. He would whip her to make her scream and whip her to make her hush . . . I remember the first time I witnessed the horrible exhibition. I was quite a child but well remember it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember anything. It was the first of a long series of such outrages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant. It struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

In this passage, Douglass suggests that the torture directed against Aunt Hester’s flesh is mundane and routine. While he sets the reader up to describe the first time he witnesses the whipping of his aunt, Douglass indicates that gratuitous violence against the enslaved occurs as a “long series of outrages.” In addition, he compels the reader to think about the “horrible” exhibition as a scene in which the aural is just as much a part of the spectacle as the visual. Aunt Hester’s scream is marked by a loudness that is precipitated by the lash of the whip; this shriek (and the transition to silence) in turn incites more intense punishment. And Douglass vows to not forget the sound of horror, or the image of blood running down his aunt’s back. The self-incurred demand to remember is connected to an “awful force” that continues to strike and haunt Douglass years after his escape. Memory is affective, as it involves images and thoughts that move, incite, overwhelm, and occasionally draw tears.

And yet, even as Douglass must recall and recollect “terrible spectacles,” this reaching back cannot always find adequate words to capture the affective intensity. Douglass “wishes” that he could “commit to paper the feelings” spurred by watching his aunt being tortured. While he does commit to paper an abundance of words to describe and recount his experience of being transformed from a slave to a free subject, there are moments when he indicates that language fails to convert a memory to an instance of writing. This sense of inadequacy gets reiterated in the section about the slave songs, those cries and moans that give sound to and fill Douglass with an “ineffable sadness.” The songs themselves might sound like “unmeaning jargon” but, according to the narrator, they reveal more about the terror of slavery than ordinary discourses and forms of language.

We have been taught to remember Douglass’s 1845 slave narrative as a testament to black freedom and progress, as a kind of counterexample to the Afro-pessimist’s emphasis on slavery as a mode of enduring social death. Many of us have been trained to place Douglass on the pedestal of towering “race men” who represent the best possibilities and aspirations of black people in the United States. And while there is something akin to ascendant progress in the structure and movement of the narrative—from the tomb of slavery to liberation, from social death to resurrected life, from submissive object to male subject—the interplay between terror, memory, and affect in the above scene refuses linearity and simple forward movement. The reader is reminded that Douglass must reach back while he writes forward. He has to recount what Morrison calls the scatological and excessive—even as he attempts to leave behind images and scenes of gendered and sexualized violence for the sake of progress and propriety.

Nevertheless, he/we cannot forget these moments that introduced him to the “blood-stained gates” of slavery; they are forever impressed on his memory, psyche, and subjectivity. And if the written word fails to capture the anguish of being enslaved, then Douglass acknowledges a kind of void within his narrative (or a gap between the parameters and strictures of the slave narrative and the exuberance of violence and affect). Memories of anti-black violence traverse an abyss, an occasion for silence and/or the cry.

  1. Morrison, “Site of Memory,” in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), Kindle Edition, 236-237.