Sunday, February 28, 2010

Whips and Ships

There was a panel discussion the other day entitled "Archaeologies of Black Memory". It featured Dr Paula Morgan, Dr Pat Saunders and writer NourbeSe Philip.

What the panel quickly established was that its real purpose was to examine and interrogate NourbeSe Philip's latest collection of poems entitled Zong. The book's inspiration comes from a one-page legal document that gives details of the massacre of the cargo of the Zong, a slave ship. the story is an extremely tragic one and its details inspire outrage and anger whenever it is recounted.

To synopsise, the Zong massacre took place in 1781 on the Zong, a British slave ship co-owned by James Gregson and other colleagues in a Liverpool slave trading company. The ship was enroute to Jamaica, the captain had lost much of his human cargo as well as several crew members. Facing a possible loss in profit if he delivered ailing slaves he dumped the cargo over board and returned to England. The owners then attempted to seek compensation from the insurers on the cargo. The issue at the time of the act was not its inhumanity, because there was nothing illegal about dumping slaves, the claims being made by the owners of the ship.

NourbeSe's collection of poems attempts to articulate the perspective of the human cargo on board the ship and to articulate their story, as well as to mourn their loss. Morgan's contribution to the evening was an artfully inarticulate discussion on trauma, loss, a sublime painting of the Zong Massacre that inspired a poem written by David Dabydeen, Toni Morrison's Beloved, and some more loss and trauma, just in case we missed it in her first few slides.

Perhaps the most rewarding piece of discussion at this entire event came from Saunders, who discussed her understanding of NourbeSe's work against a Derridian framework and began introducing the idea of a hauntology (playing on the word ontology).

There were a number of issues distressing about this panel discussion. Firstly, there was no member on the panel to give an African interpretation of the issues; and, since it was apparent that they were dealing with issues pertinent to the African diaspora, having that sort of input would only have been helpful. The title of the dicussion and its subsequent content seemed to be at variances with each other from time to time. With so much focus on mourning past loss and trauma, it was easy to wonder why on earth the term Archaeology was part of the panel's title at all. One of the questions that flew into my mind as well was, why in this day and age are academics still referring to Africans, and African-descended people as Black? A term that was clearly ascribed to Africans by Europeans.

As the evening progressed it became obvious that no new thoughts or ideas were being offered up by any of the panel members. In 2010, according to this distinguished panel the issues facing Afro-Caribbean people are still the fact that we came to the Caribbean on ships and were beaten by whips, have had a traumatic past and must mourn and wallow in it.

There is no mention of the other aspects of African experience in the Caribbean and the fact that there was a lot of resistance here that didn't involve open rebellion. Resistance that took its shape in various cultural forms such as cuisine, dress, dance, music, theatre, masquerade, religion, language and other social mores and practices. There is no mention that this retention of material culture was one form of mourning loss and healing and moving on.

But what sense is there in moving on from this loss, when it still allows for a sympthetic audience and a panel willing to wave the banner of "Oh Woe is Us!" See how we have suffered? Embrace that suffering! Cloak your self in it!

A basic psychology text will tell you that eventually you have to come to terms with your grief, and while you don't forget the tragedy, you have to move on from the incident a wiser person. Any practitioner of traditional African religions will tell you that they have ways of mourning that are distinctly different from Judaeo-Christian ways. Practices that don't necessarily need a grave and a tombstone (one of the losses that NourbeSe was lamenting during the session). Rather there are rituals to send the soul of the ancestor onto the next world. The ancestor's names lives on in orikis and stories. NorubeSe named her victims. She chose random African names to give to people who would have had names and would have died knowing their names, even if she didn't. And it beomes important to ask ourselves who is all of this mourning for? And if we have survived and are the progeny of those that have passed on, is weeping, wailing and gnashing our teeth on distinguished panels the only way we can remember the past? Aren' there other far more productive ways to discuss our African heritage and our African culture without whittling it down to whips and ships?


  1. I think the problem with the Diaspora or even African people as an entity is that we are still reeling from the effects of the slave trade and slavery.
    I sometimes use the analogy of a great boxing match when looking at the effects of the slavery on the African race...when a boxer gets hit by an upper cut he is down for the count, it took damn near 350 years for Africans to hit the canvas from the initial blow, in a fight the referee gives you a 10 second count to get up and fight again, if each second after emancipation was 100 years...we were just about realizing we’ve been knocked out in the 60’s & 1970’s.
    Just about now we (the African entity) are only beginning to comprehend our losses, so while some parts of the body like the brain has just about realised we’re in a battle here, the rest of the body is still swelling up and groaning in pain, and there is still about 5 seconds in the count to go...
    So while some of us are celebrating the fact that we survived and parts of our culture survived too, others are still getting over the facts of what happened to us and what we lost, others still are still denying the fact that African DNA runs through their veins...we still drunk from the first crossing in chains.

  2. I hear you massassassin, but my point is to begin to heal we cannot only focus on the negative and the painful. we must also focus on what was positive about us being here, and point out that we didn't only die and suffer, but that we also resisted and survived. I think too that there is so much focus on enslavement that we forget that Africans are a people with a culture before slavery....

  3. I hear you, but they only focus on slavery because that's what most of them know...nobody tell them about the resistance...dey tell them about flying Haitians and deals with the devil instead...

  4. well partners i willing to believe that of the average person...but it was three academic luminaries having this discussion....they aint read about African culture yet? then how can they talk about it? What gives them the right?