Abstract

Booker T. Washington's Cotton States Exposition Address enlarges our understanding of the genre of witnessing by presenting a version of public testimony and historical remembrance sharply at odds with contemporary definitions of the genre. Washington's resolute choice to lend voice as a living witness to the atrocities of slavery in the service of conspicuously pragmatic and narrowly defined interests rather than universal human rights dramatically separates his performance of public witnessing from its late modern forms. Whereas survivors of historical atrocity in the post–World War II era ritually assume the difficult responsibility of testifying to past evils with the greatest possible accuracy, Washington relates the history of slavery—most notably its legacy of heinous human rights abuses—in radically inventive ways. The address demonstrates that those who embody the putative collective voice of subaltern communities may, in particular circumstances, call on the public to willfully forget, rather than somberly remember, the crimes of history. In doing so, the speech also suggests that the ability to bear witness may not automatically result in the ability to petition for equal human rights.

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