Slavery and Race in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko

Programs for Teachers
Chicago Teachers as Scholars
Thursday, March 24, 2011

Aphra Behn’s brief 1688 prose narrative “Oroonoko” is a key text in histories of slavery, race, and the novel.  Recounted in the first person by a young white British woman (and perhaps partly reliant on Behn’s own experiences), “Oroonoko” tells the tragic story of an African prince and his wife forced to move to Surinam in the West Indies to work as slaves.  In this seminar we will consider Behn’s complex mixture of romance, reportage, and sensational travel narrative as a window onto some of the ideas underpinning economic slavery and the emergent concept of race.  In the eighteenth century “Oroonoko” was mobilized as a popular abolitionist text, and we will also look at some of the adaptations of the narrative, including plays by Thomas Southerne (in which he turns Oroonoko’s wife white on the model of Othello) and contemporary Nigerian writer ‘Biyi Bandele.

Seminar led by Amelia Zurcher, Marquette University

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