NEW ARTICLE | Enslavement and the Temporality of Childhood

Chinn, Sarah E. “Enslavement and the Temporality of Childhood.” American Literature 92, no. 1 (March 1, 2020): 33–59.

Journal Abstract

This article explores how thinking about the time of childhood through the lens of US slavery forces us to rethink both phenomena. According to many of the people who lived through it, enslaved childhood was a shifting, episodic phenomenon that had multiple points of definition. Throughout the nineteenth century, as their adult selves looked back on their early years, formerly enslaved people adopted a number of different strategies to understand and narrate how they came to be who they were and what their formative experiences meant in terms of the trajectory of their lives. They wrote within a literary culture that was itself partially responsible for creating (and certainly was instrumental in promoting and perpetuating) the temporal understanding of childhood as unidirectional, progressive, and only tangentially connected to material reality. But they also described quite different temporal patterns for slave childhood. These patterns are the focus of my analysis here: how African American narrators negotiated their vexed relationship to childhood as both never- and always-children in order to challenge the growing consensus on how childhood could and should be staged in literary texts. My primary sources are narratives by formerly enslaved people, written, as most slave narratives were, primarily but not exclusively for white readers.


Keywords: slavery, child, time, narrative