African American literature and the law

Date29 February 2008
Published date29 February 2008
AuthorJon-Christian Suggs
Jon-Christian Suggs
Reading African American literature through the lens of American legal
history broadly construed and reading American legal history through the
lens of African American literature reshapes both texts of American
experience and provides new readings of the literature and new
perspectives on the law. Consequences for the understanding of each
socially constructed ‘‘text’’ of reality proceed from examining their
common narratival practices, specifically calling for a new periodization
and taxonomy of African American literature and for a new ‘‘romantic’’
history of American law.
The writer of this chapter begins from the assumption that the reader, having
opened this volume, has some sense of the fundamental positions that can be
taken in a consideration of the relationships between literature and the law:
literature in law; law in literature; law as literature.
Case has been put for
and against the efficacies of each of these as an enterprise and most of those
arguments will be examined, surely, in the essays which accompany this one.
The purpose of this chapter is to examine an additional or alternative
relationship between one particular body of literature, African American
literature as represented by fiction in a specific period, and ‘‘law’’ if ‘‘law’’ is
Special Issue: Law and Literature Reconsidered
Studies in Law, Politics, and Society, Volume 43, 153–172
Copyright r2008 by Emerald Group Publishing Limited
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved
ISSN: 1059-4337/doi:10.1016/S1059-4337(07)00607-2
understood not only as legislation and litigation, but as legal philosophy,
legal history, legal scholarship, and legal education. One claim of the chapter
is that African American literature, especially the classical African American
narrative that emerges in the 1840s and begins to merge into the larger body
of American literature written by Euro-Americans in the 1950s, has as its
central concern matters of American law and that African American
literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can be profitably, indeed
perhaps ‘‘best,’’ read through lenses ground out of American law. Corollary
to that claim is the claim that using lenses ground of African American
narrative a reader can begin to see the outlines of an alternative text of
American legal history.
There are several reasons I am moved to make these claims. Some are
grounded in the more general observation that both literature and law are
narrative systems. As such, each is informed by conventions of representation
the elements of which are often closely analogous if not coterminous. So, for
example, each privileges some speech and some speakers while excluding
others; each drives toward closure; each is self-referential; each must manage,
through some authorized process of editing, the narrative elements of
character, setting,and action. This familiar list of essentializedcharacteristics,
while incomplete, stands well enough as the base for some observations. One
is that these narrative systems are not only alike in that they are systematic
sets for making meaning and both produce not only narratives but narratives
about narratives, but that they complement and compete with one another as
and for authority as social texts. The competition exists not only because they
share conventions of representation but because they share a common
subject, human relationships within social contexts played out in actions.
More specifically, in the case under consideration here, that of African
American literature and American law, both take as their subjects the
existence under the law of Africans in America and create two compelling, if
often contradictory, narrative records. There are both obvious and more
obscured elements of this problem of the creation of these texts, in the
creation of contradiction from commonality. In the first instance, for
example, African American literature exhibits a consistencyin its attention to
relationships that are also scrutinized by American law: property, contract,
identity, citizenship, crime, tort, regulation, federalism, constitutional law
and civil rights, taxation, commerce, environment, family relations and
estates, military law, petit and high treason, and corporations. For over a
century, the legal framework for defining and allocating the problems,rights,
privileges, and penalties attendant to these issues is the undergirding frame
for literary narrative as they are played out among African Americans and

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