Abstract

In this article I argue that Cliff's portrait of the nineteenth-century African American abolitionist, entrepreneur, and civil rights activist Mary Ellen Pleasant participates in a genre of subaltern historiography that I term “ghostwriting.” Cliff was inspired to write about Pleasant, who provided major funding and leadership in John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859—and indeed the stone that marks her grave reads simply: “M. E. P. She was a friend of John Brown”—because her role in the raid and in U.S. abolition is absent from nearly all historical documentation. I open the essay with the fact of Pleasant's erasure by documenting her historiographical absence and then go on to explain how Cliff ghostwrites Pleasant's story through a narrative of strategic adjacencies. Cliff enmeshes Pleasant's story with those of others engaged in contrapuntal history-telling from all over the world. This transnational network of resistance extends in Cliffs novel from the Caribbean to the Pacific to Sephardic passageways; her character bears witness to events from the Spanish Inquisition to the Civil Rights era in the U.S., a temporal span that Cliff achieves through the dynamic of haunting. Through her emphasis on the power of mutual witnessing and her use of a Decameronian plot structure, Cliff acts as a ghostwriter by first telling another person's story and, more importantly, by recounting stories of largely absent and hence ghostly subjects.

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