The Coming: A Novel by Daniel Black, 210 pp.St. Martin’s Press, 2015, $11.94 paperback
Daniel Black’s The Coming: A Novel is less a novel as we normally think of it, as a fictional piece of literature, than a sustained meditation on the experience of becoming African diasporic. The refrain that punctuates the first third of the work, dominated as it is by the slave-ship voyage, “This was The Coming,” haunts, while the last two-thirds, though filled with new unimaginable horrors once the captives arrive in the New World is accompanied by an equally haunting, though perhaps, oddly hopeful message in its refrain: “This was not the end. There would be another day.” Both refrains act as a kind of literary shore on which the reader is invited to land, perhaps catch a breath, sip a bit of water, and take some nourishment before diving back into the nightmare that was the middle-passage voyage and enslavement.
I would compare Black’s project to Guy Deslaurier’s 2003 film The Middle Passage. It, like the film, assumes a collective (distinctively male) voice of the African captive who has been kidnapped from an unspecified African village and survives the middle-passage voyage to witness the delivering of several captives to traders in an unnamed Caribbean island before continuing on to Charleston, South Carolina where the last of the captives are auctioned off to the highest “pale-skinned” bidder. It also reminded me of the essay by Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory” in which she writes that contemporary writers who are members of marginalized groups are given license to explore the interiority of their experience; a privilege that was not available to formerly enslaved people who penned (circumscribed) narratives about their lives in bondage.
Black’s “heart’s desire…to write literature that celebrates the African American presence in America and teaches the world how to be more human” while also “inspiring young black minds to believe in themselves” comes through in the earnestness with which the story of the African/African diasporic experience of enslavement is told. The author meticulously documents what was lost to those who were brought to the New World; amongst the irretrievable treasures were spiritual traditions, sacred knowledge(s), vital connections with the world of the living as well as that of the dead, the counsel of the elders, the people’s connection to the land and its magic, ritual, relationships between enemies and kinsfolk alike. There is also a sense of what was gained by those who survived the unspeakable horrors of the middle passage, wrenched away from their homelands as members of distinct ethnic groups and arrived in a hostile foreign land, having made the decision, or rather a promise to those who have passed as well as those yet to be born, to live. The text implies that those who survived and who became the ancestors of today’s African diaspora did so willfully and willingly, sacrificing themselves so that their descendants would perhaps be able to return to the lands of their birth, or to, at least, discover why such disaster had befallen them—to learn the lessons that the encroachment of slavery and its devastation were meant to communicate.
In its breadth and depth The Coming would be immensely instructive in any number of arenas. It is most imaginable as foundational in a course in which high school and college students would be reading both “slave” narratives and fictional accounts of the slave trade and slavery. It would also be useful to small collective African-centered study groups and book clubs as well as cultural centers. It could easily become an instant classic—if enough people read it and are hip and open to the knowledge that Brother Black drops (yes, I went there).
The Coming is a love poem to black people; more specifically young black people who have inherited a powerful legacy, but who, unfortunately, as yet, have not recognized nor realized the strength they possess in both seen and unseen worlds.
Below, in no particular order, is a very short suggested reading list for anyone who is interested in learning more. If you have suggestions for others please make them known so I can include them.
Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1998)
David Blight’s A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation (2007)
Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2006)
Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (numerous editions)
Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (numerous editions)
Many Herbstein’s Ama (2016)
Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Narrative (2004)
Lawrence Hill’s Someone Knows My Name (The Book of Negroes) (2008)
Fred Aguiar’s The Longest Memory (1994)
Valerie Martin’s Property (2004)
James McBride’s Song Yet Sung (2009)
Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women (2010)
Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1977)
Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger (1993)
Julius Lester’s Day of Tears (2007)