As Dorothy Couchman points out in her post, the previous chapter moved from “the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake” to “William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname.” In Chapter Five “’Popping Sorrow’: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude,” Gikandi focuses on the representations of the slaves as subjects. This chapter serves as a transition into the next chapter’s deeper exploration of “the meaning of the scenes of merrymaking that dominate descriptive accounts of West Indian and American slavery and how they should be read or interpreted” (202). His exploration of the “happy slave” revolves around the performance of sorrow.
For writers creating a new black modernity through their narratives, the former slaves Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass argued that slaves must recognize the negation defining their existential condition in order to recreate themselves as subjects. These authors work to interpret these scenes play and celebration by teaching their readers to read what seem to be markers of pleasure as melancholic signs of oppression. Douglass, Gikandi reminds us, “detested any suggestion that the experience of slavery would generate any kind of pleasure for the enslaved. . . . as far as he [Douglass] was concerned, slave holidays and performances were part of the master’s cunning, attempts to manipulate affect, rather than provide a vehicle through which the real feelings and sensibilities of slaves could be expressed” (197, 199). Building on but complicating these arguments, Gikandi asks that we interpret both these scenes of merrymaking and the slave narratives critique of them within a larger context of sensibility, aesthetic taste, and cultural memory.
For me, the most striking moments were the complicated relationship between affective performances and the moments when the black bodies depicted become marked by gender. Although not a major focus of the book, the discussion of the female, enslaved bodies of Mary Prince and unnamed mixed-race women illustrate the complicated performance of self required to create a black subjectivity within a slave society.