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date: 12 May 2021

Abstract and Keywords

Foundational to the canons of American and African American literature, the genre of the slave narrative helps us better to understand the relationship between law and print culture in the early republic and the antebellum United States. At a time when African Americans appeared in newspapers and statute books primarily as property, the narratives of Venture Smith, Moses Grandy, and Lunsford Lane strove to show enslaved entrepreneurs’ qualification to enter the social contract through displays of black contractualism. But as this article shows by reading The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave within the earlier gallows literature tradition and against later abolitionist appeals to popular legal consciousness, displays of black criminality may have more effectively demonstrated African Americans’ eligibility for citizenship by eliciting official acknowledgement—however punitive—of black personhood.

Keywords: American literature, African American literature, slave narrative, law, print culture, early republic, antebellum period, social contract, contractualism, gallows, abolitionists, crime, criminality, citizenship, personhood

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