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The story of Margaret Garner—the runaway slave who, when confronted with capture, slit the throat of her toddler daughter rather than have her face a life in slavery—has inspired Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a film based on the novel starring Oprah Winfrey, and an opera. Garner’s story has defied solid historical treatment, and Nikki M. Taylor’s fierce, poetic history of Garner brilliantly captures her circumstances and her transformation from a murdering mother to an icon of tragedy, resistance, and motherhood.
As an enslaved woman, Garner left only faint traditional historical footprints: she could not read or write, and she left no diary, letters, or personal papers, obliterating the opportunity to know with certainty what she thought or believed. Although she is one of the few runaway slaves ever to testify at her own hearing, there are no extant official transcripts. Local papers covered it, but summarized her testimony. In the wake of the killing, various factions appropriated her as differing symbols, each with its own audience and purpose (from hero of slave resistance to black bogeyman).
A black feminist interpretation of Garner’s life—as an enslaved woman, wife, and mother—offers a more holistic picture of who she truly was and what drove her to kill. Taylor—the first African American woman to write a history of Garner—grounds her work in this interpretation and also melds trauma studies and literary criticism with history to account for shortcomings in the written record. In so doing, she rejects distortions and fictionalized images; probes slavery’s legacies of sexual and physical violence and psychic trauma in new ways; and finally fleshes out a figure who had been rendered an apparition.
Nikki M. Taylor is a professor of African American history at Howard University. Her other books include Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802–1868 and America’s First Black Socialist: The Radical Life of Peter H. Clark.