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Frank Wilker, Cultural Memories of Origin: Trauma, Memory and Imagery in African American Narratives of the Middle Passage

Theodora D. Patrona

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1Frank Wilker, Cultural Memories of Origin: Trauma, Memory and Imagery in African American Narratives of the Middle Passage

2Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag Winter GmbH, 2017. 302pp. ISBN 978-3-82536192-1 (hardback)

3Theodora D. Patrona

4Frank Wilker is a budding scholar who has recently completed his doctoral dissertation and has diligently revised it into an engaging volume published by Universitätsverlag. Well-read and documented in this interdisciplinary study, the eloquent Wilker carefully makes his way in a field thriving in robust bibliography and he manages to find space for novelty and creativity.

5In specific, the author’s “Introduction” clarifies the basic theoretical terms employed like “trauma,” “memory” and “Middle Passage” emphasizing their liaisons in his work. Concurrently, he deploys his basic aim, to argue “on how the representation of [the Middle Passage] supported and eventually challenged a certain master narrative about what it means for identity to be of African descent and more particularly what it means for identity to be a descendant of slaves in the United States” (11). Wilker justifies his choices as regards the artworks or literary works to study, to include for example Toni Morrison’s awarded Beloved but exclude the popular TV series Roots, stating that he has worked “by select example and (…) a diversity- approach concerning the popularity of the source material” (15). With a difficult task at hand, to demonstrate how politics, theory and aesthetics diachronically “shaped the shifts within the cultural memory of the Middle Passage” (18), Wilker constructs a detailed theoretical framework on trauma in his two ensuing chapters. In what is certainly a most informative and articulate account of the diverse trauma theories Chapter 2 concludes by convincingly pointing out the common ground between Holocaust Trauma Studies and the Middle Passage. The third chapter, analytical and well-structured, is entitled “Trauma and the site of dispersal: a historic reconstruction.” It navigates the reader through some of the key concepts of the oral memory cultures slaves came from like food, dress and memory, while it stresses how the Middle Passage was “transformative” for the memory and knowledge of the slaves “marked excessively by notions of creolization” (88). Closely related to this chapter is the following which focuses on the analysis of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, as a fundamental work of the African Diaspora, shedding light on the representation of the Middle Passage, the connection between historiography and archive, the embrace between history and memory. Exploring the unspeakable in between the late 1960s and 1990s, Wilker reflects on the impact of Amiri Baraka’s Slave Ship and Toni Morrison’s Beloved on Middle Passage Memory, two well-trodden paths in African American Studies. Nonetheless, what gives momentum to this chapter are the reflections on Tom Feelings’ The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo, a picture book for children published in 1974. Fresher and substantial, this most intriguing part of the chapter, is well-phrased and engaging as it searches the notion of the unspeakable wrestling with crucial concepts such as pain and body commodification, counter-memory and redemption. In the same vein, the final chapter of Wilker’s monograph pondering over the works of two more recent authors and an artist, Saidiya Hartman, Charles Johnson and Kara Walker respectively, conclude the book delivering interesting insights that reverberate with vitality. As the author himself characteristically comments on the three artists examined here: “They have in common a counter-ideological position in that they do not produce nostalgic narratives of belonging but point the spectator to their own involvement and unsuspecting faith in a representational apparatus that is geared towards veiling ‘the absence of the real’” (268).

6As a new addition in the vast area of African American Studies, Wilker’s Cultural Memories of Origin, well-written and rich in bibliography, is a promising first attempt with strokes of originality and talent.

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Theodora D. Patrona, « Frank Wilker, Cultural Memories of Origin: Trauma, Memory and Imagery in African American Narratives of the Middle Passage », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2018-2, Online since 25 July 2018, connection on 24 September 2020. URL :

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About the author

Theodora D. Patrona

Theodora D. Patrona is an independent Scholar and author of Return Narratives. Ethnic Space in Late-Twentieth-Century Greek American and Italian American Literature. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2017.

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