Imagine a beginning— always arbitrary. A woman stands on stage in London,
clad in a black dress that hugs every curve. Across the Atlantic in New Or-
leans, a group of women wearing high- necked blue dresses, with well- oiled
hair and scrubbed fingernails, answer questions from buyers eager to procure
a deal. These women, separated by an ocean, know nothing of one another.
They cannot even dream one another up. These women have every thing to do
with one another. And with us.
This volume attempts an excavation of the historical and pres ent-day lim-
its of liberal, cap i talist notions of individual agency. It does so by exposing
the continuities between the forms of labor literally embodied in slavery, in-
denture, and the commodified raced and gendered spectacle. Illegible Will is
structured around a series of disparate and far- flung (geo graphically and tem-
porally) case studies/per for mances, which include the tragic life of Tryntjie
(a Madagascan slave at the Cape of Good Hope), a novel by Andre Brink,
Indian indenture in Natal, the Miss Landmine Angola beauty pageant, Saa-
rtjie (Sarah) Baartman’s time in London, Joice Heth (one of P. T. Barnum’s
first freak shows), and Yvette Christianse’s brilliant novel Unconfessed. By jux-
taposing “case studies” such as these, my historiographic approach situates
southern African per for mances within African diasporic cir cuits of mean-
ing. I do not mean to suggest that these historical case studies are teleologi-
cal explanations. Instead, as C. Riley Snorton writes, these “prior moments
and events . . . foreshadow [black will’s] emergence to suggest that our con-
temporary moment finds pre ce dents in other times and places” marked by a
crisis of meaning in black will.1
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