2. "Changing Masters" : Gender, Genre, and the Discourses of Slavery
He had never sold anyone before, and now he persuaded himself that what he was about to do was not selling in its actual sense."1 What is "selling in its actual sense"? A young African man about to exchange his seven-year-old sister for money measures his action against a fixed standard, and, moved by his own rhetorical argument, concludes that his (trans)action can be distinguished from "selling in its actual sense." How he comes to that conclusion and its moral and political implica tions for
... the study of comparative literature are of paramount concern to me. Difference, it would seem, both acknowledges and dismisses a ground for comparison. Especially ironic because structured as a neg ative assertion-"he had never sold anyone ... he was not selling"the older brother's exercise in critical self-deception is an exemplary moment in Buchi Emecheta's novel The Slave Girl, a text that both com pels comparative analysis and challenges the terms of current compar atist practice. What does slavery mean? How do different cultural narratives about national, social, and individual identity, sameness and difference, frame our "sense" of slavery? And how does a feminist approach to issues of subjective agency and possibility, power, prop erty, and propriety ("le sens propre du terme") change the character of such an inquiry? Slavery as an institution has persisted, indeed flourished, since an cient times across continents and empires, exceeding even those bound aries during the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries when an international slave trade made human bondage virtually a universal practice. In turn, the discourse on slavery has itself become a kind of master narrative in which reductive and restrictive categories co-opt as well as overtly A skeletal version of this essay was read at a Modern Language Association special session (New Orleans, 1988) on the colonial subject in women's autobiography, organized and chaired by Julia Watson. I thank Margaret Higonnet for her invaluable insights throughout the preparation of this essay and Louise Yelin for her generous and incisive comments on its final form.