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Institute of Advanced Study

The Work of Cultural Memory: Imagining Atlantic Passages in the Literature of the Black Diaspora


This paper considers the emergence of the slave Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas as a pervasive topic and motif in late twentiethand early twenty-first-century black diasporic writing. Drawing on theories of ‘cultural memory,' it explores an oceanic imaginary in the field of modern African American and Caribbean literature, but also poses broader questions about the formation and mutation of group identity in relation to understandings and constructions of a shared past. Three textual examples, taken from the work of David Dabydeen, John Edgar Wideman and Toni Morrison, are examined to illustrate the suggestiveness and variety of the many figurations of Atlantic crossings in writing of the diaspora. Addressing concerns with memorialisation, the recovery of histories of suffering, and counter, shifting and contextual narratives of the past, cultural memory and cultural production are seen to perform several kinds of ‘work.' Finally, in an outward turn, the paper briefly speculates on the possibilities and pitfalls of setting different traumatic collective memories, and their distinct expressive traditions, in relation.

Insights Paper