Decolonizing testimony: Frederick Douglass and Primo Levi

Public lecture | Birkbeck Arts Week 2024

Event Information and Booking

8th May, 2024
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm
In person - Birkbeck, University of London, Clore Lecture Theatre, Clore Management Centre, Torrington Square, London WC1E 7JL
Bryan Cheyette, University of Reading
Decolonisation, Fascism, Holocaust, Slavery
Europe, Germany, Italy, Poland, USA
19th century, 20th century
American Anti-Slavery Society, Animalization, Auschwitz Monowitz, Gender, Genre, Holocaust narrative, Humanism, Modern slavery, Racialization, Slave camps, Slave economies, Slave narratives, Slave songs, Testimony, Witnessing
Dori Laub, Elie Wiesel, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, James M'Cune Smith, John Beverley, Leonardo de Benedetti, Primo Levi, Shoshana Felman, Theodore Weld, William Lloyd Garrison, Wole Soyinka

Most anti-slavery organisations agree that there are around 50 million enslaved people today which affects all countries. Modern slavery includes human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage and is not confined to any one ethnic or racial group. We are complicit in this new form of slavery if we are consumers of cheap products made by under-paid workers.

In this talk, Professor Cheyette will bring together the narratives and memories of two groups of people who suffered under slavery: the victims of the slave plantations in the American South before the American Civil War; and those who underwent forced labour in the concentration camps in Europe. He will focus on two icons: Frederick Douglass, whose fugitive slave narratives are considered representative of the antebellum slave plantations in the American South; and Primo Levi, who described himself as a ‘slave’ in Auschwitz-Monowitz, a forced labour satellite camp about four miles from the industrialized killing in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Bryan Cheyette has called his talk ‘decolonizing testimony’, following the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, who argues that the long history of testimony goes back to the transatlantic slave trade.

Bryan Cheyette is Emeritus Professor of Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Reading. His research interests include modernism and politics, fiction and ethnicity, postcolonial literature, theories of ‘race’ and modernity, and Holocaust testimony.  His recent work connects the history of antisemitism with colonialism and anti-black racism. He is the editor or author of 11 books, including The Ghetto: A very short introduction (Oxford University Press, 2020) and Diasporas of the Mind: Jewish/Postcolonial Writing and the Nightmare of History (Yale University Press, 2014). He is currently writing a concise history of testimony from slave narratives to refugee stories.

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