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See Justice Done - The Problem of Law in the African American Literary Tradition

See Justice Done

The Problem of Law in the African American Literary Tradition

By Christopher Michael Brown
Series: Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies

Hardcover : 9781496848192, 212 pages, January 2024
Paperback : 9781496848208, 212 pages, January 2024

An analysis of the fraught relations between Black writing and the law


In See Justice Done: The Problem of Law in the African American Literary Tradition, author Christopher Michael Brown argues that African American literature has profound and deliberate legal roots. Tracing this throughline from the eighteenth century to the present, Brown demonstrates that engaging with legal culture in its many forms—including its conventions, paradoxes, and contradictions—is paramount to understanding Black writing.

Brown begins by examining petitions submitted by free and enslaved Blacks to colonial and early republic legislatures. A virtually unexplored archive, these petitions aimed to demonstrate the autonomy and competence of their authors. Brown also examines early slave autobiographies such as Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Mary Prince’s History, which were both written in the form of legal petitions. These works invoke scenes of Black competence and of Black madness, repeatedly and simultaneously.

Early Black writings reflect how a Black Atlantic world, organized by slavery, refused to acknowledge Black competence. By including scenes of Black madness, these narratives critique the violence of the law and predict the failure of future legal counterparts, such as Plessy v. Ferguson, to remedy injustice. Later chapters examine the works of more contemporary writers, such as Sutton E. Griggs, George Schuyler, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones, and explore varied topics from American exceptionalism to the legal trope of "colorblindness." In chronicling these interactions with jurisprudential logics, See Justice Done reveals the tensions between US law and Black experiences of both its possibilities and its perils.


"See Justice Done compels readers to think again about Black life before the law while revealing an aesthetics of harm and injury that gives form to the ‘incommensurable.’ A difficult, unsettling journey, it takes African American writing, from early slave petitions to the contemporary novel, as riposte to a legal system that fails to imagine the Black subject. Giving blood to terms overused and emptied out, this timely book is at once chilling and analytically acute."

- Colin Dayan, author of The Law Is a White Dog: How Legal Rituals Make and Unmake Persons, With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and In the Belly of Her Ghost: A Memoir

"See Justice Done cogently excavates the convergence of African American fiction and the histories in US law. Its declaration of this critical intimacy is accomplished in ways that are substantive, nuanced, and frankly brilliant. Brown’s book will be indispensable, not only for understanding the relationship between law and literature, but because of its compelling exploration of how the law’s ‘disjuncture’ and ‘ambiguity’ flow with unnerving ease through his distinctive and deeply engaged reading of African American fiction. Brown’s necessary text proves its point—that the relationship of law to ‘racialized subjects’ challenges the very notions of legal freedom and fugitivity, the composition of American cultural studies, and—in ‘In Formation’ the final chapter’s deadly serious take on Black culture’s performativity, whether as entertainment or as a matter of life and death, the law, with all its incapacities, may indeed be the adjudicator that determines whether and how Black lives—be they fact or fiction—matter."

- Karla FC Holloway, author of Passed On: African American Mourning Stories: A Memorial and Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Compositing Literature