Salamishah Tillet is assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a regular contributor for the online magazine, TheRoot.com, and in 2006, Ebony named her one of America’s top 30 Black leaders under 30. As a result of her 2010 Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Tillet was able to finish her debut book, “Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in Post-Civil Rights America” (Duke University Press, $23.95).
More than 40 years after the major victories of the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans have a vexed relation to the civic myth of the United States as the land of equal opportunity and justice for all. In “Sites of Slavery,” Tillet examines how contemporary African-American artists and intellectuals — including Annette Gordon-Reed, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Bill T. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems and Kara Walker — turn to the subject of slavery in order understand and challenge the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the founding narratives of the United States. She explains how they reconstruct “sites of slavery” — contested figures, events, memories, locations and experiences related to chattel slavery — such as the allegations of a sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the characters Uncle Tom and Topsy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” African-American tourism to slave forts in Ghana and Senegal and the legal challenges posed by reparations movements. The book will “examine how post-civil rights, African-American artists, writers and intellectuals reimagine slavery both as a metaphor for post civil rights citizenship and as a model for racial democracy, in their art and in their rhetoric,” explained Tillet.
Tillet is currently working on two other projects: a co-edited book on musical responses to the deaths of 1960s civil rights leaders and a new book of her own on Nina Simone, the civil rights icon and musician. “This comes out of my desire to go back to the period of the Civil Rights Movement and look at how Black radical thought and African-American artists, like Nina Simone, were using both their poetics and their politics to change the world,” said Tillet.
“‘Sites of Slavery’ is a meticulously researched, persuasively argued, beautifully written and intellectually daring study of contemporary narratives of slavery,” said Valerie Smith, author of “Toni Morrison: Writing the Moral Imagination.” “Through her dazzling readings of fiction, drama, dance, cinema, visual art, heritage tourism, reparations legal cases and critical race historiographies, Salamishah Tillet demonstrates how a range of African-American artists, writers and intellectuals respond to the contemporary ‘crisis of citizenship’ by foregrounding a ‘democratic aesthetic’ in their representations of slavery. This book will transform the way we think about the place of African-American cultural production in relation to ‘post-civil rights era’ political discourse.”