They Chose Instead Revolt: Slave Narratives, Sexual Violence, and the Black Radical Tradition

Knapp, Caleb. They Chose Instead Revolt: Slave Narratives, Sexual Violence, and the Black Radical Tradition. 2020. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation presents a revisionist account of black political radicalism in the United States. Scholars of black literature and history have consistently argued that enslaved people inaugurated a black radical tradition. But they have tended to neglect how enslaved people articulated a black radical politics through the writing of autobiographies, or slave narratives. The result has been the silencing of enslaved people in histories of the tradition they originated. Centering slave narratives, this dissertation finds that enslaved people articulated black radical politics through the telling of stories of sexual violence. It argues that slave narratives reveal hitherto overlooked sexual politics at the core of the antebellum tradition of black radicalism. The project’s intervention is to bridge two fields: the historiography of black radicalism and the literary scholarship on slave narratives. While the latter has examined sexual violence in slave narratives at length, it has not considered the genre’s implications for the study of black radicalism. Synthesizing these fields, the dissertation produces the insight that the sexual politics of slave narratives were central to the formation of the antebellum black radical tradition.

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