Resisting Social Death: Collective Agency of the Enslaved in The History of Mary Prince
Published in 1831, when the struggle for slave emancipation was at its peak, Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince became a significant body of work within the Black Atlantic literature. This paper investigates how Prince’s memoir exemplifies and resists the phenomenon of social death within enslavement. Social death was the outcome of the natal alienation suffered by the enslaved wherein they were prevented from making claims of birth and personhood or forging social relationships among themselves. Such estrangement from society perpetrated by the enslavers often meant legal, social, and physical death for millions of people of African descent. However, in some ways, considering social death to be the irrefutable result of enslavement inadvertently deemphasizes the resistance efforts of the enslaved and undermines their inherent agency by essentially accepting this reduced state of being that is imposed by white colonists. Through close reading and analysis, this paper argues that while the experience of enslavement was steeped in the impositions of social death, Prince’s memoir is able to create a socio-political space to establish a collective voice that resists such impositions and attempts to recuperate lost culture and community. Prince exhibits a sense of personal responsibility in documenting the sufferings of other enslaved people while narrating her own estrangement and alienation. While the social circumstances of enslavement compel such a mobilization of testimonies to produce a rebellious collective voice, Prince’s vehement indictment of slavery and her accommodation of marginalized voices also transforms the memoir into a community autoethnography. Thus, the memoir functions on two levels as it allows Prince to actualize a community within the text itself, even if said community is denied within the enslaver’s society, and challenges colonial discourses on slavery by reclaiming narratives and resisting the pervasive forces of social death.