Elevate Difference

Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects

Christina Sharpe’s work Monstrous Intimacies is concerned with reading how the Euro-American and African-American post-slavery subjects are constructed. An academic text, and at times quite dense with analysis, this work will be of interest mostly to academics working in the fields of critical race theory, post-colonial theory, or literary and cultural theory. Through compelling and intricate readings of visual and written texts, Sharpe is concerned with unpacking the intersection between violence, sex, and subjectivity in post-slavery subjects. Sharpe’s work is a poignant reflection on historical time and convincingly deals with the ways that the horrors of the past continue to structure the present. In this, Sharpe turns away from ‘freedom’ to consider the “unfreedom in freedom”—or in other words, the way that the “desire to be free requires one to be witness to, participant in, and be silent about scenes of subjection that we rewrite as freedom.”

In the first chapter, Sharpe considers Gayl Jones’ neo-slave narrative Corregidora as a text that deals with the demands of generational witnessing to the horrors of slavery. She considers how the scenes of rape and impregnation at the hands of the slave owner Corregidora become a means of survival for the Corregidora women—the continuation of their family ensures witnesses to their trauma. Sharpe reads this as one way in which the ‘space of enslavement post-enslavement’ is reproduced.

In the second chapter, Sharpe turns to consider Saartjie Baartman or the ‘Hottentot Venus,’ a Khoisan woman who was exhibited around Britain and France in the 19th Century as a sexual oddity, and then dissected upon her death. Sharpe contests that the pleas for the return of Baartman’s remains to South Africa itself continue to objectify Baartman, as she is “once again overwritten with multiple histories and used in the service of a number of national and political agendas that involve not the emergence of history but its repression.” Thus, Sharpe examines how what is ostensibly an act to ‘right’ history, is in fact intimately connected to the monstrous treatment of Baartman under colonialism.

Her third chapter on Isaac Julien’s film The Attendant serves her purposes particularly well and gives her space to continue to flesh out how practices of historical remembrance and display interact with everyday violences of black life. Finally, in perhaps her most engaging chapter, Sharpe looks at Kara Walker’s silhouette art work and its reception to continue to read how the violence of slavery manifests itself in post-slavery subjectivity—particularly concerned with how critics have been reluctant to read Walker’s invocation of whiteness in her work.

Sharpe’s book is an eloquent and at times challenging analysis of the construction of post-slavery subjects as subjects who are by no means ‘post’ but continue to be structured by the past that is not quite past.

Written by: Sam McBean, December 27th 2010