Retirer d’en bas de l’eau: Reclaiming the Dead in Black Atlantic Studies

Lone govi under a tree. Photograph by Aimee Green

By Lenny Lowe

It is often said that writing history is like trying to raise the dead. Nowhere is this miracle more difficult to achieve than in the field that has become known as “the black Atlantic” at the core of which lies the legacy of the transAtlantic slave trade. Its archives are eerily silent in nearly every place that one wishes them to speak. Furthermore, the ethics and politics of remembrance are especially delicate. Search too hard or represent too much, and you are branded a sentimentalist, or worse, a novelist. Remember too little or sound too hopeful, and you risk naiveté and irreverence. The task is supremely difficult, but the enduring presence of so many dead demands that it be tried again and again. In thinking about this struggle, I am reminded of other members of the black Atlantic who set out to reclaim the dead year after year.

In her 1953 Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, filmmaker Maya Deren described a vodou ritual for the reclamation of the dead:

“One of the major Vodoun rituals is the ceremony of retirer d’en bas de l’eau, the reclamation of the soul of the deceased from the waters of the abyss, the world of les Invisibles.”[i]

Deren is here writing about a ceremony that occurs (ideally) one year and a day from the death of an individual. The dead, having been deprived of material form and having gone to rest in the waters of the abyss, are ritually called up from “under the water.” The gros-bon-ange (here understood as the “soul” of the person in contrast to the ti-bon-ange, which is something like a Catholic moral conscience) is placed into a clay jar. This jar, called a govi, becomes its new material form, and it is with this form that the living world will resume its relationship with the dead. The dead individual, once a living and breathing human creature, is reclaimed and reinserted into the social world of the living. This ritual of reclamation is, for those involved, a pressing matter – an obligation.

For Deren’s vodouisants, she suggests that:

“This service for the ancestral dead is not a nostalgia or sentimentality…It is not a moment of return to the past; it is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as a ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future. The living do not serve the dead; it is the dead who are made to serve the living.”[ii]

It is not my aim to suggest that this ritual is or is not informed by the memory of the Middle Passage. There is a great deal of evidence from West and Central African cosmologies to suggest that the notion of the watery abyss of the dead is not unique to Africans who survived the crossing. It also seems unthinkable that such imagery would not be, at least, multivalent for the Haitian religious imagination. Still, regardless of how various scholars might assign proper provenance to this ritual practice, I am primarily struck by the ritual’s relevance to the work of the anthropologists and historians of the so-called “Black Atlantic.”

No less than  Deren’s vodouisants, scholars of the Atlantic world are engaged in rituals of reclamation (i.e. the making of monograph-govi, blog post-govi, archive-govi, etc.). Through this work, the dead are reclaimed, revivified and — despite our denials and apologies — they are also put to work for political and professional projects that they did not choose. Certainly, we are justified in our concern over such exploitation of the dead. But, if the long line of figures like Aimé Césaire, Edouard Glissant, and Paul Gilroy have taught us anything at all, it is that the resources for thinking the black Atlantic are to be found in the social worlds of the black Atlantic. Perhaps, then, the govi of Haitian vodou and the ritual of retire d’en bas de l’eau have something to say about our work.

“Heathen” funeral in colonial Jamaica

While it is certainly true that the dead pervade all religious lives, whether as saints, ancestors, or even as the generalized “ambient dead,”[iii] it is also the case that the slave trade generated death on such a scale that it has uniquely structured the worlds of the black Atlantic. Vincent Brown’s The Reaper’s Garden has made this fact eminently clear. For both Europeans and Africans living in colonial Jamaica, the near-constant loss of life both in the Middle Passage and in the new land itself meant that the dead came to occupy a prominent position in the social, political, and economic lives of Jamaicans. In both material and immaterial matters, the dead were undeniably agents. The dead spoke. The dead made demands. It is in the negotiation between the demands of the dead and the exigencies of the living that “real life” in Jamaica was made.

As scholars of the black Atlantic, we are no doubt engaged in similar negotiations, and yet we too rarely imagine the situation thus. We seem to be keenly aware of the demands of the dead (i.e. to be remembered, to be honored), but we are less certain of our own exigencies. Or, perhaps, we are less certain of how much we need their service to make sense of our “real life.” In my view, Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic wrestles with precisely this problem. Namely, it is the problem of Hegel, the problem of dialectics — the problem of the negative. He takes as his aid to meditation on the problem of modernity the 1781 Zong massacre, in which one hundred and thirty-two slaves were thrown overboard to collect insurance money on the “lost cargo.” Baucom’s book is, therefore, fundamentally a book about the process of govi-making, modes of reclaiming the dead. It asks us to consider how we might go about reclaiming the dead without also employing the same typifying logic and “theoretical realism”[iv] that lies at the core of finance capitalism and the massacre it underwrote/underwrites. In an act of performative refusal, Baucom never quite reaches a moment of prescription. Instead, we are left with a few examples of counterdiscourse and anti-dialectical (i.e. affirmative rather than negative) thought. Chief among them is Edouard Glissant, whose philosophy of history Baucom describes as “sedimentary” and accumulative. In Glissant’s own words, it is relational. In Baucom’s reading of Glissant, this is a view of the past that is not past in any recognizable way. Rather, history accumulates, it stacks up. Connections are forged on top of existing connections. History is understood as a process of addition rather than sublation. In this version of history, loss is — unavoidably — a ground gained.

It is here that the retirer d’en bas de l’eau begins to appear to me as a resource for thinking the black Atlantic. Concerning the ceremony, Deren continues:

“An undistinguished member of the family may be neglected and the costly ceremony of his reclamation repeatedly postponed, to be accomplished eventually, without much enthusiasm, only because nothing of heredity’s accumulations should be permitted to leak away, to be lost forever.”[v]

Deren describes what looks very much like a sedimentary poetics whereby history is made to accumulate. Whether those who remain loved or hated the departed soul, death is refused as a loss. The soul of the dead must be rematerialized, revivified, and reincorporated into the social world of the living, for indeed they are (genetically and relationally) already and always present. What resources exist for the anthropologist or historian in the making of govi for the dead? How do we refuse the loss of death without sentiment or nostalgia? Can we find a way to reclaim the loved and despised “as a ground gained”? The risks are, as always, very high. Not even Deren’s vodouisants are immune. She suggests that, as memories fade with the loss of generations, the person in the govi becomes depersonalized, and something like a principle. But, that cannot be the ultimate end:

“And yet — what once was so real, so substantial, cannot be permitted to end in such rarefaction, to vanish forever into the far reaches of history. This abstraction, to function in reality, must become reality; the principle must become the person. And so the process of abstraction, as though meeting, finally, the limits of its own extension, curves back towards its origins: those who cannot remember begin to create, building now from the inside outward, as one might be guided by the clues and logic of a skeleton to construct a figure.”[vi]

It sounds like black Atlantic scholarship to me.



[i] Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1983), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 27-28. Italics mine.

[iii] Todd Ochoa, Society of the Dead : Quita Manaquita and Palo Praise in Cuba (Berkeley: University of California, 2010).

[iv] Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic : Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[v] Deren, 28.

[vi] Ibid., 29. Italics in original.

2 thoughts on “Retirer d’en bas de l’eau: Reclaiming the Dead in Black Atlantic Studies”

  1. Fascinating reflections here on the way religious practice offers up a way of theorizing and thinking about the historical experience of slavery and the slave trade; your use of Deren, which is still such a powerful text, is great in this context. I’ve found the songs gathered together in Max Beauvoir’s Recueil of Vodou songs to be an endlessly fascinating source of material relating to this topic as well. (There’s an English translation of a number of these songs available on the Digital Library of the Caribbean’s “Vodou Archive” project here:

  2. Weaving together Boucom’s reading of Glissant that views the past as not past in any recognizable way, but rather the accumulating or stacking up of history, with the practice of the soul being revivified or rematerialized in the social world of the living in Voudoud religion, you have really helped to make concrete and yet not totalizing, an account of memory and history. Perhaps it is the space of religion/or the mystical that is capable of engaging the historical reality of the slave trade in a way that resists quarantining it to the past, but rather sees it rematerialized in our social reality.

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