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Traumatic Possessions

The Body and Memory in African American Women's Writing and Performance
Jennifer L. Griffiths

BUY Cloth · 144 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813928838 · $43.50 · Jan 2010
BUY Paper · 144 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813928845 · $21.50 · Jan 2010
BUY Ebook · 144 pp. · ISBN 9780813928951 · $21.50 · Jan 2010

Studies of traumatic stress have explored the challenges to memory as a result of extreme experience, particularly in relation to the ways in which trauma resonates within the survivor’s body and the difficulties survivors face when trying to incorporate their experience into meaningful narratives. Jennifer Griffiths examines the attempts of several African American writers and playwrights to explore ruptures in memory after a traumatic experience and to develop creative strategies for understanding the inscription of trauma on the body in a racialized cultural context.

In the literary and performance texts examined here, Griffiths shows how the self is reconstituted through testimony—through the attempt to put into language and public statement the struggle of survivors to negotiate the limits placed on their bodies and to speak controversial truths. Dessa in her jail cell, Venus in the courtroom, Sally on the auction block, Ursa in her own family history, and Rodney King in the video frame—each character in these texts by Sherley Anne Williams, Suzan-Lori Parks, Robbie McCauley, Gayl Jones, and Anna Deavere Smith gives voice not only to the limits of language in representing traumatic experience but also to the necessity of testimony as the public enactment of memory and bodily witness.

In focusing specifically and exclusively on the relation of trauma to race and on the influence of racism on the creation and reception of narrative testimony, this book distinguishes itself from previous studies of the literatures of trauma.


Traumatic Possessions makes a significant contribution to trauma studies in its unique approach to trauma, embodiment, and ideology. Griffiths analyzes scenes of public testimony in contemporary African American performance and theatrical works that reveal how racist and sexist discourses attempt to 'regulate' and deny traces of trauma in bodies and voices. Griffiths demonstrates how these innovative performances enact the relations between memory, language, and the body, and she instructs readers in the complexities involved in understanding the experience of trauma survivors.

Laurie Vickroy, Bradley University · author of Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction (Virginia)

Traumatic Possessions is an original and timely work. Mediating beautifully between theory and literary analysis, it examines for the first time the resonances that studies of trauma originating from scholarship on the Holocaust and slavery might have for our considerations of contemporary African American literature. One of the book’s many strengths is its attention to performance (e.g., Anna Deavere Smith) as well as to fiction (e.g., Gayl Jones). An important read for scholars in feminist studies, African American literature and history, and cultural studies.

Deborah R. Geis, DePauw University · author of Suzan-Lori Parks

For in the end, Griffith's work is a must read. It demands attention beyond the offices and classrooms of academics. Given its potent discussions on the politics of racial violence and human trafficking amid its critical assessments of traumatized nonwhite subjects, Traumatic Possessions also belongs on the shelf of any serious human rights advocate.


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