Dr. Mary Anne Boelcskevy gives talk at 2013 NAAAS conference

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February 19th, 2013

Dr. Mary Anne Boelcskevy, Senior Lecturer in African American Studies, presented a paper, “The Neo-Slave Narrative in Outer Space: Octavia Butler’s Dawn” on February 14th at the 2013 NAAAS & Affiliates Joint National Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The Neo-Slave Narrative in Outer Space: Octavia Butler’s Dawn

Slave narratives not only made the case for abolition but also form a foundational genre in African American literature. The genre itself did not disappear with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865 but was transformed into the neo-slave narrative. The neo-slave narrative revisits slavery, most often in antebellum or Reconstruction years, to give voice to some of the earlier form’s necessary silences. In making the case for abolition, fugitive slaves were careful, for example, not to give specific details of escape, lest those routes be closed to those still in bondage. Neo-slave narratives bring to the page the precise plans and strategies. Slave narratives often described the psychological impact of freedom denied but did so in the language of feelings available in a nineteenth-century culture. Neo-slave narratives make particularly effective use of the twentieth-century advances in our understanding of the psychological impact of trauma and in our knowledge of modern narrative techniques to convey the horrifying state of enslavement. Octavia Butler brings the neo-slave narrative and science fiction together. Her mainstream bestseller novel Kindred (1979) uses time travel to shuttle its heroine Edana somewhat randomly back and forth from her 20th-century Southern California home to the 19th century plantation of her ancestors, effectively juxtaposing two very different lives and their consequences. In Butler’s1987 novel Dawn, however, the neo-slave narrative rockets into outer space. In the first book of what will be her Xenogenesis trilogy, Butler moves the setting to a spaceship two centuries after an apocalyptic war on earth. The aliens, the Oankali, have just awakened Lilith Iyapo, one of the rescued humans they have kept in suspended animation. Dawn translates the master-slave into alien-human. It re-envisions some of the subtler issues of community, identity, and loyalty that the original slave narrative first explored. This paper examines Dawn through the lenses provided by slave narratives, Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of An American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and by the neo-slave narratives, Toni Morrison’s 1987 Beloved and Paule Marshall’s 1983 Praisesong for the Widow, in order to discover which threads have woven into the twenty-first century.