Addressing the question of what is at stake in the narrative representation of slavery, I analyze the depiction of interracial interaction in three contemporary historical novels: Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose (1986), Caryl Phillips’s Crossing the River (1993), and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003). I contend that both in narrative strategy and content, these works advocate an approach to slavery’s historicization that underscores dynamic cross-cultural engagement. Depicting an intersubjective experience of slavery through the foregrounding of mutually constitutive relationships, these novels critique the way contemporary social, cultural and political debates are invested in one-dimensional models of racial interaction. Analyzing their narratives in relation to Toni Morrison’s assertion that slavery necessitated the dehumanization of both blacks and whites, I assert that Williams, Phillips, and Jones challenge articulations of slavery’s legacy that employ the divisive rhetoric of blame, but also resist the liberal humanist impulse to relegate slavery’s significance to the past.
Furthermore, each author blurs the line separating fact and fiction by grounding their creative fictions in the historical documentation of slavery. Their literary representations of slavery undermine strict expectations of accuracy and instead emphasize the narrative truth that resides in the co-mingling of fact and fiction. Rather than reinforce strict racial divisions or, conversely, suggest that the nation is somehow "beyond" race, I contend that Williams, Phillips, and Jones advocate "working through" slavery at the level of a shared narrative history.