What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.

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Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.

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Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.

 

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

 

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).

 

sea island met

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)


  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

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Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.

Sources:

Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/286557?sortBy=Relevance&deptids=19&ft=*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

 

Maneuvering the Master’s House

When I initially began my research about a year ago, I looked mostly to literature on postcolonialism, transnational feminism, and life writing. But as I was primarily interested in how film and gender fit into these general topics, I found myself perusing a book called, Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (2014). While trying to see if I could find any specific films or filmmakers that might help me hone in on a more specific topic, one paragraph stood out to me:

 Far from Hollywood, Senegalese director Safi Faye realised she could communicate more effectively in visual images rather than words to overcome the multiple languages of her country and avoid using the language of France, the coloniser of her country, Senegal (Kelly and Robson 12).

Although quite short and straightforward – more a survey than anything profoundly theoretical – this quote helped me to think more about the significance of film within (post)colonial contexts.

How does the visual medium of film work through the colonial implications of communication? How does it navigate language differences within (and across) borders? How does it challenge, and engage with, notions of silence?

In a way, Safi Faye’s filmmaking philosophy seems to echo Marlene NourbeSe Philip.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended … (Philip 56).

Sometimes I find myself forgetting the histories of power and persecution behind the very words that warp my tongue.

Perhaps I don’t really forget, rather, I fail to notice.

When something becomes seemingly second nature, like language – like my mother-tongue – it becomes hard to defamiliarize it, to distance yourself from it. But this is why it becomes all the more important to remember the many injustices that occur at the level of language.

 English

is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang

language

l/anguish

   anguish

— a foreign anguish.

 

English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

What does this mean then for filmmakers like Safi Faye who are caught between languages? How can the visual help us navigate those colonial histories? Can film maneuver the politics of language more effectively than other textual mediums?

I think also to Audre Lorde, who famously claimed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (112).

 Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women … know that survival is not an academic skill … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde 112).

If we think of these “tools” in terms of language, how can we apply this to Safi Faye’s approach to postcolonial filmmaking? Can filmmaking dismantle the ‘master’s house’? Or does filmmaking become yet another tool of the ‘master’?

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Can filmmakers, with unique, passionate, and critical ways of storytelling, direct their lens in a way that is resistant to their patriarchal, racist surroundings? Can filmmaking effectively contribute to (post)colonial conversations?

 

Sources:

Kelly, Gabrielle and Cheryl Robson, editors. Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through. Supernova Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017

Sounds of Silence

Sounds of Silence

St. John’s, Newfoundland. July 2015. 4:30am, my alarm jolts me out of slumber. Still in a half-dreaming state, I hit the snooze button, savouring every last minute of sleep I possibly can. My skin cringes at the cold air. The wind taps persistently at my window. I pull the comforter up to my chin, trying to preserve as much body heat as possible under my blanket. Eventually I emerge from my makeshift cocoon and get ready for work, shivering through the whole ordeal. Although it is technically summer, I throw on my down jacket, bracing myself for the thin layer of frost on my windshield. I blast the heat in the car, and begin my drive to work. My body is hunched over the wheel as it surrenders to the icy, damp, July air. It is most unseasonal, to say the least.

At work, a busy coffee shop, the wind cuts through the drive-thru window each time I hand coffee out to a car. I reluctantly turn the heater on for the first time since April (although there were many days this month where it would have been completely justifiable). On the heater is a switch for either ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ – I switch it to ‘winter’. The heat takes a while to combat the cold weather, but eventually my fingers come back to life. Small talk is easy on days like this – bodies have been shocked by the weather, and minds are confused by it. A few customers quip about it being like “winter in July.”

 Others say, “I guess this is climate change.”

 Is this change in climate a response to our collective history – of humans’ destructive dominance over nature? We respond to a winter in July, in turn, with annoyance. And perhaps fear. In a way, it is the future, it is the present, and we are haunted by the past, all at once.


“Any consideration of O must also consider the void and the circle.

‘How can nothing be something?’” (Tuck and Ree 657)

One of the things that struck me most in Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism” (2013) was the idea of silence. Jackson introduces discusses silence through her analysis of Kalpana Rahita Seshadri’s HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language, which she says, “takes as its central task the disruption of the hierarchical binary that purports to distinguish speech from silence” (Jackson 674). According to Jackson, Seshadri argues, “the figuration of silence as privation has been central to the law’s biopolitical expression with respect to race and nonhuman animals” (Jackson 675). As the “capacity for speech” is typically “equated with being human,” we can see how such notions may contort silence – and thus, ‘silent beings’ – into something separate from humanity, barring them from the laws and rights of that privileged class of ‘human’ (Jackson 675).

However, Seshadri challenges this speech-based dichotomy between human and inhuman by pointing out that language, in fact, requires both speech and silence (Jackson 675).

Silence, according to Seshadri, is “not identical with not speaking;” rather, it is an “empty space” where the regulatory power of discourse is inoperable (Jackson 675).

Seshadri further argues that silence is a political realm, a site of contestation and possibility (Jackson 675).

This idea of silence as a political realm draws attention to its transformative power. If we begin to think of silence as not distinct, but actually inherent to language, perhaps we can begin to disrupt and dismantle the linguistic hierarchies that have traditionally existed between concepts of “the human” and “the animal” (Jackson 675).

 Silence is both an instrument and disruption of what Agamben has referred to as the “anthropological machine,” or the recursive attempt to adjudicate, dichotomize, hierarchize, and stage a conflict between “the human” and “the animal” based on the putative presence or absence of language (Jackson 675).

The association between silence and animality is particularly disturbing when we see how notions of race have been affected by concepts of the human-animal divide. Following Michael Lundblad, Jackson shows how “discourse of human animality bifurcated along racial lines,” such that blackness was perceived as “savage” and fueled by “animal instincts” and thus inferior to not only the category of “the human,” but also to “the animal” (Jackson 677-8).

With the explicit racism enabled by the human-animal divide, or the “anthropological machine,” we can see why theorists like Jackson are calling for a posthumanism that incorporates perspectives of race and colonialism. Theoretical silence, in a way, is something that must be contested, too.

The potential for language and silence to disrupt the “anthropological machine” is something that we also see in Marlene Nourbese Philip’s, “She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks” (1989). Here, Philip shows how slavery and oppression are rooted in language.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

Through her unique literary structure, Philip juxtaposes ideas of nature and nurture by exploring the social and biological ways in which humans use language, speech, and more specifically, tongues. In doing so, she actively challenges and blurs the dichotomy between nature and culture. Through her provocative and poetic language and narrative devices, she highlights the conflict between the biological, natural potential of speech and language, and the ways in which they have been abused and appropriated by colonial powers.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended. (Philip 58).

Silence, here, harkens back to the “racial and colonial practices of silencing non-Western epistemic systems and philosophies” that Jackson is conscious of (681). For Philip, breaking silence is about dismantling the colonial forces that have traditionally and systemically silenced racial and ethnic minorities.

This is not to dismiss the transformative powers of silence, as Jackson theoretically entertains. For Philip, silence still has potential.

Silence is evoked through the description of a mother with her newborn: “When it was born, the mother held her newborn child close: she began then to lick it all over. The child whimpered a little, but as the mother’s tongue moved faster and stronger over its body, it grew silent … ” (Philip 56). Silence here connotes comfort – a maternal calmness. But it is also a precursor to speech and language – thepotential of a “mother tongue (Philip 56).

It is 4:45 a.m. I awake in the foreign country of silence. (Brand 52).

Dione Brand also engages with ideas of silence in A Map to the Door of No Return (2001). For example, when describing a PBS documentary on African civilization, which shows several African-Americans visiting the Door of No Return in Ghana, Brand is drawn to the silences. When the visitors admit to not knowing that their ancestors were sold by Africans, Brand notices that this realization brings great sadness to them (33). She adds, “The scene is full of silences. Even a film editor cannot cut out or put in such silences” (33). Silences can affect us. They can haunt us. And in turn, we can transform through them.

To enter Coetzee’s earlier work was to enter that odd trope, the “universal,” the “human.” At least some of us could. Others of us who saw a less noble and more vulgar world may have been untouched … I for one always felt a slight discomfort in his texts even though I longed for inclusion in his “human.” (Brand 127).

In a way, I can see how silence may be interpreted as a kind of liminal space – a site of unease and possibility at the same time. There is potential in the pause. Language does not exist without both speech and silence. And while silencing has a long history of racial and colonial oppression, taking a closer look at silence in itself might help us dismantle those human-animal ideologies which actually enable racist and colonial processes.

Perhaps too, this can help us deconstruct and blur the boundaries between culture and nature further – between human and animal; human and landscape; human and weather; human and thing. If we rethink silence, how can it help us rethink weathering and climate change? And how does silence affect our discomfort of a ‘winter in July’? How can we respond to silence, in all of its incarnations?

“Snow is quiet. It is not like rain. It has the sound of nothing happening. It is like a deep breath held and held. I sit in the car and the cold of it begins to creep in. There is a way that land defeats you, just the sum of it. In a cold car at Pinery Road and Concession 11, you notice its width” (Brand 145).

Sources

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism.” Feminist Studies, vol. 39 no. 3, 2013, pp. 669-685.

Neimanis, Astrida and Rachel Loewen Walker. “Weathering: Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality.” Hypatia, vol. 29, no. 3, 2014, pp. 558-575.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

Tuck, Eve and C. Ree. “A Glossary of Haunting.” Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis. Walnut Grove: Left Coast Press, 2013, pp. 639-658.

A Rap on Race and Return

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New York City. August 2012. Photo: Lesley Butler

There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartographer after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location (Brand 2).

Since reading Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return (2001) last month, I have found myself thinking more and more about rap music.

Sometimes people find it strange when they learn that I like rap. And I can understand it, I suppose. Maybe it is because I’m a feminist, and rap music is often accused of misogyny. Maybe it is because I am a white Canadian and rap is typically associated with Black Americans. Or maybe it is just my years of classical ballet training that has made me appear stiff and straight-laced, not exactly what you envision when you think of hip hop. Either way, I understand that my positioning as a rap fan is at least a little bit awkward.

Perhaps this is also why I feel a little strange writing a blog post on the topic. I am no ethnomusicologist, but while reading Dionne Brand’s book, rap lyrics kept popping into my head. It might seem like a strange pairing, but I think there are more connections between Brand’s writing and this musical genre than one might initially think. There are countless rap songs, and even entire albums, devoted to ideas of identity and belonging, both of which are central to A Map to the Door of No Return.

 If I can say it. Let me. I think that Blacks in the Diaspora feel captive despite the patent freedom we experience, despite the fact that we are several hundred years away from the Door of No Return, despite the fact that the door does not exist; despite the fact that we live in every state of self-agency, some exceedingly powerful, some less so of course but self-agency nonetheless. One might even argue for the sheer magnificence of our survival against history (Brand, 52).

When Brand speaks of the Door of No Return – in all of its complexities and incarnations – I realize that much of hip hop is an ode to that very door, whether it is explicit or not.

Is hip hop just a euphemism for a new religion

The soul music for the slaves that the youth is missing

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I will admit, before I became more familiar with rap, I always wondered why guns and money were such dominant themes. It was just so far removed from my way of life that I could not see the appeal.

Well, I later learned that it is not really about the guns, nor the money. It is about injustice and inequality, surveillance and oppression. It is about the circumstances that make crime a reality. About (re)claiming power, security, and a sense of self. A necessary evil, if you will. These things might still be far removed from my life, but that does not mean I should not listen to it. In fact, I think it gives me more reason to listen.

Many black rappers … contend that they are being unfairly singled out because their music reflects deep changes in society not being addressed anywhere else in the public forum. The white politicians, the artists complain, neither understand the music nor desire to hear what’s going on in the devastated communities that gave birth to the art form (Philips, “Los Angeles Times”).

If we don’t listen, how do we learn?

In the latter part of her book, Brand takes particular care in describing a scene at a juvenile courthouse. Even as an observer, Brand feels an “immediate loss of control and a sense of surveillance” when she steps into the courtroom (103). It’s a taste of incarceration, an unsettling appetizer. The juveniles are “diasporic children,” marked by the hybridity of their names (106-7). They are liminal in identity, in hybridity, and the courtroom is their “rite of passage” (107). If they must all pass through this rite of passage, what are they leaving behind? What are they becoming?

Thinking of these children going through the justice system so early in life, I can’t help but think about the imagery of mass incarceration and police surveillance in rap music.

Penitentiary chances, the devil dances

And eventually answers to the call of Autumn

All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’

Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin

Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums

Based off the way we was branded

Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon

And at the airport they check all through my bag

And tell me that it’s random

(Kanye West, “Gorgeous”)

I don’t want to generalize an entire genre, but I think it’s fair to say that issues of racial and class justice are dominant themes. This is part of the reason why I find rap music so enlightening. It’s resistance. It’s rewriting history. It’s peeling back the layers of society, revealing the realities of inequality that are experienced by so many (and are ignored by so many, too).

When I think of the Door of No Return, I also think of Kendrick Lamar. His albums play like stories; vivid stories of violence and (loss of) innocence on vinyl.

While reading of desire, identity, resistance, and belonging in Brand’s work, I think, too, of Kendrick’s latest performance at the Grammys (see performance here).

He enters, shuffling, hands shackled, leading a line of prisoners onto the stage. A saxophone croons from a prison cage. Is this the embodiment of captivity (Brand 35)?

When unappreciated, the Black body is shown walking, single file or double chained … The many permutations and inversions of the original captivity leach into the contemporary popular discourse and the common sense (Brand, 37).

… Imprisonment comes to look like slavery in the 21st century.

I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black

Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black

And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black

Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks

How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back

But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block

All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black

Remember this, every race start from the black, remember that

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He trudges across the stage, looking lost and found at the same time. Spitting verses, surrounded by fire and African dancers. Is this a rebirth? A reclamation?

I’m African-American, I’m African

I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village

Pardon my residence

Came from the bottom of mankind

(Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry”)

He ends his performance standing in front of a map of Africa, simple in its black and white depiction, except for a small “Compton,” placed right in the heart of the continent. He’s playing with the paradoxes of home, of origins, of belonging, of the Diaspora, and … the Door of No Return?

The audience cheers. The lights dim.


But when the performance is over, what then is my relationship to this music? To this genre? Is it just a spectacle of social injustice for me? Am I just witness to the music, or am I still implicated in the histories that make these stories possible?

If there is one thing that I have taken away from Brand, it is the idea that the past is ever-present. History haunts us. It is not bound to history books; it lives in and through each and every one of us. History is complex, and it can be contested. That is why Brand writes. And why Kendrick raps. It is why I am listening … and still learning …

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-5-23-45-pm

@therealelp. Tweet by rapper El-P on how rap music will become even more politically charged after Donald Trump’s election win. 9 November 2016.

Sources:

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001.

Kanye West. “Gorgeous.” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Roc-A-Fella Records, 2010.

“Kendrick Lamar @ 2016 Grammy Awards.” Vimeo, uploaded by Sofia Payro, 21 Feb. 2016, https://vimeo.com/156180581.

Kendrick Lamar. “The Blacker the Berry.” To Pimp a Butterfly, Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015.

Philips, Chuck. “The Uncivil War: The battle between the Establishment and supporters of rap music reopens old wounds of race and class.” Los Angeles Times, 19 July 1992, pp.2, http://articles.latimes.com/1992-07-19/entertainment/ca-4391_1_uncivil-war/2.

@therealelp. “on the bright side rap music is about to be even more awesome in 2017 now.” Twitter, 9 Nov. 2016, 1:12am, https://twitter.com/therealelp/status/796211401513648128.

speculation

speculation

 

If there is one thing that is evident from the Slave Registers, it is the amount of speculation in which slave owners engaged. Buying and selling was an art of negotiation and jostling through which slave owners built their fortunes and, of course, their social cachet.

Among these owners was the British-born John Bent, a man who has faded into obscurity even as he played an active role on the Surinamese plantation stage in the first half of the nineteenth century.

I went hunting for John Bent because he was listed as the second owner of Sarah plantation, and was probably the first to develop the land (first acquired by Johan Heinrich Dietzel around the turn of the nineteenth century). My quest started with a desire to see if I could figure out where Frederick Noa Redout, born in 1898 according to the 1830 Slave Registers (Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40) but ca. 1800 according to the Royal Treasury records, and the oldest of my ancestors to be freed at abolition in 1863, came from. Unsurprisingly, my search went nowhere; I have not yet found records that detail how John Bent acquired the slaves who would work this property.

But my archival peregrinations did offer more insight about John Bent himself, and ultimately, also about nineteenth-century Suriname.

 

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Warappakreek, at Bent’s Hope Plantation. Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon.

At a biographical level, little is known about John Bent. Born in 1776 to a relatively low brow English family, he later served as MP for Sligo between 1818 and 1820, and then from 1820 to 1826, as MP for Totnes. But as the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project points out, he was also a slave owner in Suriname and Guyana, becoming, by 1838 , according to A. Halberstadt, “one of the most important planters in Suriname.”

John Bent appears to have begun acquiring plantations in Suriname sometime in the early nineteenth century, perhaps during the periods of British control, a period during which he had also been appointed “the Commissioner in Surinam to sequester the property of nationals of France and her allies”. In the 1820 Almanac, he is listed as the owner of a number plantations in various parts of the colony: Descanzo, Domburg, and Sarah. He also owns a final, as yet undeveloped, parcel of land along what was then known as the “Zeekust,” a range of plantation properties located not along a river, but right next to the ocean in the western side of the country. These lands had only recently been opened to development.

Over the next decade, Bent actively engaged in buying. By 1828, for example, he’d added Breedevoort, and de Herstelling to his holdings, and developed his previously unnamed land into Totness Plantation, perhaps in honour of his parliamentary role.

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Walking into what remains of Bent’s Hope Plantation. Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

At a certain point, he acquired what appears to have been his dream plantation, which he named Bent’s Hope. Formerly known as Limieshoop, Bent’s Hope lies along the Warappakreek, right at “the confluence of the water from the sea and the creek” (Anonymous); that is, the point where salt water met fresh water. This was prime real estate; according to a late nineteenth-century eyewitness nostalgic for the plantation days of yore, this region lay at the heart of Suriname plantation culture. The Warappakreek was one of the oldest plantation areas and had some of the most gracious houses filled with the grandest things.

 na mijne bescheide mening is de Warappakreek de mooiste landbouwstreek geweest en de rijkste ook. Prachtige woonhuizen en loodsen, groote, geplaveide drogerijen (voor katoen en koffie) steenen bruggen over de loostrenzen, majestueuze sluis werken …. Langs beide oevers van de kreek liepen welonderhouden communicatie-weg, die het gezellig verkeer bevorderde …. De streek werd ‘de kleine stad’ genoemd wegens het grootscheepsche waarop alles ingericht was.

In my humble opinion the Warappakreek was the most beautiful agricultural region and also the wealthiest. Beautiful houses and sheds, large, paved drying areas (for cotton and coffee), stone bridges over the canals, majestic lock works …. Along both banks of the creek lay a well-maintained communication path, which promoted social intercourse …. The region was called the “small city” because of the large scale with which everything was decorated.

( E.J. Bartelink Hoe de Tijden Veranderen: Herinneringen van een Oude planter Paramaribo: H. van Ommeren, 1916, 29)

Here, Bent decided to set up a modern sugar cane plantation, ordering the latest in sugar producing technology: a James Watt steam-powered sugar mill. But to make this work, he needed money, and lots of it. While he managed to acquire the necessary funds through creative arrangements with financial institutions, it’s clear from early newspapers and other records that this gamble had not necessarily paid off. Bent’s properties, among them Sarah plantation, were placed under sequestration numerous times and threatened with public auction. Over time, he abandoned most of his other plantations, apparently focusing his energies almost solely on Bent’s Hope.

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James Watt Steam Powered Sugar Mill, Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

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Bent’s Hope Sugar Mill. Photo: Sonja Boon

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But all was still not financially well with John Bent. In addition to the various sequestrations, an intriguing hint of this can be found in the Slave Registers of 1830.

Folio 5064, detailing the slaves registered to the names of J. Mackillop, R. Dent and J. Young, consists of a list of over 260 slaves, all purchased from John Bent in December 1833 “on condition of re-purchase over a period of three years” (Slavenregister Inv.Nr. 42). Mackillop and co. appear to have functioned like a pawn shop, guaranteeing the possibility of re-purchase even as they also gave out money that Bent clearly desperately needed.

John Bent died in October 1848. Today, the only thing that remains of Bent’s Hope are the ruins of his sugar mill, a heap of rusting metal in a tangle of dark, damp jungle alive with the sounds of insects. Was Bent’s Hope actually Bent’s Folly?

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The dock at Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

 

References

Anonymous, “Mattapica en Warappa” De West: Nieuwsblad uit Suriname, 24 December 1909.

Halberstadt, A. Vrijmoedige gedachten over de oorzarken van den tegenwoordigen staat van verval der Kolonie Suriname en over de gebreken in het stelsel van regering dier kolonie. 1838.

Hall, Catherine et al. Legacies of British Slave Ownership. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40 fol. 2397-2795

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 42 fol. 4801-5200

Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1820. Paramaribo & Amsterdam: E. Beijer and C. G. Sulpke.

Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1828. Departement Paramaribo der Maatschappij Tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen, z.p. 1827.

 

(c) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca

Buy and sell. And Liberate

(Photo: pathway into the former Bent’s Hope Plantation, Warappakreek, Suriname. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon) 

I’ve spent the last two weeks working at the Nationaal Archief Suriname in Paramaribo. In some respects, it’s a fantastic place to be: the staff is friendly, the materials arrive with efficiency, the other patrons are relaxed, and it’s air conditioned, which is ideal when it’s over 30 degrees outside, every single day. And who wouldn’t want to be in the tropics? Papaya for breakfast. Soursop juice for lunch. And a yummy smorgasbord of evening meal possibilities brought to you by the wonders of imperialism and colonialism. In the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, and Creole meals, sharing most with my aunt and uncle, the only family members who still live in Suriname. In a word, it’s been fantastic.

But this work is haunted. It’s challenging. It’s difficult.

I’ve been in the archives, one of my favourite places to be, but I’ve been looking through slave registers. Volumes and volumes of them. 1830. 1838. 1840. These are the account books of slavery, their columns marking purchases and sales. Each slave is listed at least twice: in the records of the owner who sold them, and then, once more, in the record of the owner who purchased them. The records extend further as the sales and purchases add up: 4, 6, 8.

Some owners maintained stable slave populations; there are few sales or purchases. Others, however, were of a more speculative bent, and their records show extensive buying and selling as human property exchanged hands.


(Boat on the Suriname River, outside Fort Zeelandia. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)

It’s hard to read such records. It’s difficult to immerse oneself into a world that you can’t imagine inhabiting, a world you have absolutely no desire to inhabit. But this is a world I need somehow to understand if I am to understand my own research at all. I have to work past my resistance. I have to look through colonial eyes, no matter how hard this is, no matter how little I want to, no matter how much I’d rather look away, close my eyes, return the volumes to the staff.

But every now and then, I come across slave owners who are different. One such owner was a man named Jan Houthakker. Like many owners, Houthakker possessed numerous slaves, well over 100 over a twenty-year period. But unlike the majority of his fellow slave owners, he didn’t buy them to own them; he bought them to free them (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40).

It is, as Okke ten Hove observes,  the ultimate irony of a slave-based system that you could only free slaves by first purchasing them. But that’s exactly what Houthakker did, subverting a system designed to benefit slave owners by using it to benefit the enslaved.

In a twenty-year period, he manumitted over 120 slaves. How’s that for using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Lorde).

But how might this come about?

The Dutch educational website slavernijenjij.nl offers some insight. Houthakker, the authors observe, was himself a manumitted slave. Originally named Flink, he was manumitted in October 1838 and written into the Registry of Citizens in 1841. From this point on, he could own property, including slaves. But the story goes even further back than this. Flink had been owned by a group of three men. Of those two had previously been enslaved; their owner, one Mary van McNeil, had also been enslaved. It would seem that Houthakker’s vocation was a responsibility, an inheritance gifted to him by those who came before him. It was clearly something he took seriously, and as the records show, it was something that some of those who were freed through his work also took up.

Thus Ferdinand Touh, who was freed in September 1854 (and whose last name is an obvious homage to Houthakker), furthered his ‘master’s’ legacy: in November 1859 he freed Ernstina Frederika Omzigtig and her three-year-old son, Julius Ferdinand Omzigtig (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40; “Suriname: Manumissies,” ghaetna.nl).. So, too, did Salomon Adam Schelts, freed in December 1857, later free a child – Rudolf, born in 1857 – on 24 December 1860 (“Suriname: Manumissies”, gahetna.nl). Perhaps in homage to the man who manumitted him, Rudolf became Rudolf Schel.

Houthakker appears to have purchased and manumitted both “private” (individually-owned) and “plantation” (belonging to the larger property of the plantation) slaves; he also appears to have purchased and manumitted both young and old. In some instances, he manumitted single people, each of whom acquired a last name. In others, he manumitted whole families.

Some families came intact, purchased as a group from a single owner. Thus, for example, he purchased Fanny, her daughter Santje, and two grandchildren, Eduard and Herman from an owner named Faerber in January 1860, with the express purpose of granting them freedom. This family was officially manumitted in December 1862, by which point Santje had had one more child, a son named Julius (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40)


(Photo: Mangroves along the Commewijne River, Suriname. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)

But some manumissions were not as straightforward.

A group of three slaves – Meyntje, Heintje, and Salomon Adam – purchased from Van Eyck in January 1856 and manumitted together in December 1857 as Maria Susanna, Hendrik, and Salomon Adam Schelts, do not on the surface appear to be related. Born in 1802, 1811 and 1828 respectively, they all had different mothers. How then, were they united as a single family unit? It’s possible, in this case, that they were cousins. Or, perhaps, two cousins and a nephew. This is ultimately impossible to discern.

 In some instances, families had already been separated by the realities of slavery and a series of purchases were necessary before a family could be reunited and freed under a single name.

Consider, for example, the case of Willie, Johanna, and Patientie Koen. Willie and Johanna, born in 1845 and 1843 respectively, were the property of one F. W. Faerber, from whom Houthakker purchased them in January 1860. Patientie, their mother, born in 1808, was the property of L. M. Kohn (perhaps the origin of their manumitted name of Koen), from whom Houthakker purchased her one month later, in February 1860 (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40). They were manumitted together, as a family, on Christmas Eve 1862, six months before abolition, taking the names Jacoba Patientie, Christiaan Willie, and Cecilia Johanna Koen. Interestingly, another woman, Hermina Albertina, born in 1849 and also property of L. M. Kohn, was manumitted the same day, and also under the last name Koen (“Suriname: Manumissies,” gahetna.nl).. Was Hermina Albertina Willie and Johanna’s cousin? Again, it’s impossible to know.

While manumission – as practiced by a man like Houthakker – had the capacity to bring families together, it also served to separate families from one another. My own family history includes a multi-generational family of fourteen who were freed in 1863, at manumission, at which point they took the last name Redout. What the emancipation registers don’t say is that there was another family member – Annette – who was manumitted six months earlier under a completely different last name (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 33). While manumission freed her, it also divided her from her family. Houthakker freed numerous individuals; that is, people who do not appear to have been linked by kinship relations with others, at least not others under Houthakker’s ownership. What happened in these instances? Were they freed in order that they might further manumit other members of their families? Were they seen as the most likely to succeed in nineteenth-century society? Were they the product of interracial relationships and thus better positioned for post-manumission social integration? Or were they freed along with other family members under different ownership (like Hermina Albertina Koen)? Any of these options might have been possible.

Buy and Sell.

And Liberate.

The Slave Registers are difficult to read, difficult to process, difficult to engage with. But within them I can still find resistance, subversion, and small moments of grace.


(Photo: Nineeenth-Century Officers’ Residences, Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)


References

Primary Sources

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40 fol. 2397-2795

Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 33 fol. 2004-2400

Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, “Suriname: Manumissies” database: http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340

Secondary Sources

“Achtergrond: Suriname Manumissies” http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340/achtergrond

[Hove, Okke ten]. “Manumissies in Praktijk,” http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340/achtergrond/manumissies-praktijk

“Manumissies,” http://www.slavernijenjij.nl/de-aankomst/manumissies/

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Maser’s House.”http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf
(C) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca