The Neoslave Narrative Project: A Study of Select Texts and Contexts from 1971 to 2023

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Hallman, Micah
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Middle Tennessee State University
The relatively new field of civil rights literary studies investigates the role of literature in understanding and challenging the single-story narrative of the struggle for civil rights. Julie Armstrong’s The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature (2015) features essays on fiction, films, plays, and poetry that engage in some way with the standard chronology of the civil rights movement, 1954-1965. Although neoslave narratives have generated a substantial amount of scholarship, critics have yet to consider these texts as civil rights literature. My study examines three neoslave narratives within the field of civil rights: Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), and Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979). I also examine each text’s adaptation: the made-for-television version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974), both miniseries versions of Roots (1977; 2016), both the graphic novel (2017) and Hulu television series (2022) based on Kindred. Neoslave narratives challenge the consensus narrative of the civil rights movement in two primary ways: extending the standard chronology and creating a bottom-up people’s history. When reading neoslave narratives as civil rights literature, these novels aid in the shaping of what Scot French calls “social memory.” My interest in the civil rights movement in the American popular imagination puts me in conversation with both historians and literary critics as well as scholars and consumers of popular culture.
Civil rights, Civil rights literature, Civil rights movement, Neoslave narratives, Social history, Social memory, Literature, African American studies