Middle Passages: Histories and Poetics

Should I begin with what I am or what I am not?

One of the most powerful conversations I’ve heard in the past couple of days at least, has been around what is revealed in silence—the creative space that is borne of catastrophe. I don’t know if Vincent Brown coined the phrase as I have yet to read a book by him that has been on my Amazon wish list for the past year, The Reaper’s Gardenbut what a powerful and useful concept, especially as it relates to archives, historical narrative, the middle passage and slavery.

This question of what is revealed in the silences comes out of historians who participated in the Middle Passages: Histories and Poetics Conference held at CUNY Graduate Center on May 6 and 7th.

There was a frustration with the archives that was palpable as voices shot across the room. There was repeated reference to the Public Records Office T70 Series where so many of them have spent time reaching for their own, my own, our own life’s meaning. They talked about the awe they felt at handling the pages of manuscripts that so many of their heroes had handled before them. As people of African descent and as women and as women of African descent they felt like interlopers at a party to which they had not necessarily been invited. And as academics; thinkers and writers who get how deeply the distant and no-so-distant past informs and sometimes consumes our presents(ce) and futures we know how much being at that party means to us.

I do not consider myself a historian. I do not consider myself an anthropologist. As a graduate student I took courses in both disciplines and loved them. But I came to both of those fields through literature. I have such a love affair with and a commitment to the necessity of this art form to understanding the human condition that it is where I choose to reside (more accurately, it has chosen me). I have never felt like an interloper in the pages of a novel.

It is through literature that I came to history and anthropology. Literature illuminates the world for me. It permeates every cell of my being and informs all of who I am. It nurses me when I’m ill. It quenches my thirst and feeds my hunger–takes me to the highest heights and drops me to the depths of despair. Yes, it is my drug—there, I’ve said it.

It has been through literature– the imaginary–that I have been able to find voices that have been silenced in the archives–while finding my own voice.

A few books and essays to read:

Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Harvard University Press, 2008.

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

—“Venus in Two Acts”. Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1-14

Smallwood, Stephanie. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Harvard University Press, 2008

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