By Alisha Hines
Where is romance in remembrances of the Black Atlantic?
I am no literary critic or theorist, I am merely a gracious and humble consumer of those fine art forms that are capable of relaying the deep emotional preoccupations embedded in historical narrative. Derek Walcott’s alloy of literary traditions in Omeros, which offers within the structure of a revitalized form of epic poem an interiority of the narrative’s protagonists that is characteristic of its successor, the novel form, opened, for me, new intellectual possibilities proffered by a Black Atlantic past.
It is tempting and seems almost requisite to emphasize the painful and violent legacy of the Middle Passage and its lasting consequences for a Black Atlantic diaspora. Walcott’s Omeros seems aligned with but also liberated from this obligatory mourning. Beauty, romance, and even nostalgia are available for readers to experience through Walcott’s narrative and use of language.
This led to me consider where else I might find similar representations or remembrances, and whether there might be a politics of romanticizing the Black Atlantic past.
I was watching some performances of poet/activist Aja Monet, who recently performed during Duke University’s MLK commemoration, and I began to think more about the references in her work to the Black Atlantic and the Middle Passage. Monet is of Cuban-Jamaican heritage and was born in Brooklyn, NY. Her poetry draws on a range of experiences, memory, and emotion but a recurring theme in her poetry is identity and her sense of culture and heritage. In these moments of reflection and expression, she references the Middle Passage in literary context that is interestingly not explicitly painful or sorrowful. In her poem, “Is that All You Got,” for example, she describes the black female’s ability to love as a direct result of the slave experience [2:58]:
…she knows how to love like
we survived slave ships like
thrown overboard babies…
In another poem, included below, she expresses “fascination” with the Mid-Atlantic slave trade, and remembers fantasizing about Ghoree Island.
A clearer example of this kind of turn from tragedy or mourning to peace or contentedness in Walcott’s poetry can be read in Sea Canes:
Half my friends are dead.
I will make you new ones, said earth.
No, give me them back, as they were, instead,
with faults and all, I cried.
Tonight I can snatch their talk
from the faint surf’s drone
through the canes, but I cannot walk
on the moonlit leaves of ocean
down that white road alone,
or float with the dreaming motion
of owls leaving earth’s load.
O earth, the number of friends you keep
exceeds those left to be loved.
The sea canes by the cliff flash green and silver;
they were the seraph lances of my faith,
but out of what is lost grows something stronger
that has the rational radiance of stone,
enduring moonlight, further than despair,
strong as the wind, that through dividing canes
brings those we love before us, as they were,
with faults and all, not nobler, just there.
I included the above for explanatory purposes, to demonstrate what I consider to be distinct about Monet’s engagement with the Black Atlantic as historical narrative. Like Walcott’s renewed strength after losing loved ones, “something stronger” comes of tragedy for Monet, something to be valued and cherished, and not simply mourned.
Monet embodies certain tropes of a Black Atlantic legacy in that she exudes a creole sensibility–she is both an awe-ful observer of her own past and the human vestige of mixed bloodlines. In her poem “What I’ve Learned” she traces what seems to be her personal heritage merged with the equally formative cultural knowledge and practices she bears witness to in her hometown [3:55]:
…I know there are guardians protecting me
I am certain one of them is Native American
I know santeras clean people from negative energy
And light tall glass cylinder candles they buy from botanicas or Ctown or Trade Fair or Met Foods
as an offering to the saints
I know La Caridad…
Having recently watched the The Stuart Hall Project (2013) and also the documentary on Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1996), I was interested in how Monet constructed and articulated her identity through her poetry. Both Fanon and Hall individually forged landscapes of the Black Atlantic at different historical moments, and their experiences of encounter with the colonial metropole had extreme consequences in the shaping of their racial identities, their political lives, and their scholarship.
Similarly, although a few generations removed from a colonial past and with the US as her pivot point, Monet’s encounter with Europe is formative for both her identity and artistic expression. I think her poetry expands the concept of “multiple Atlantics” that is also present in Walcott’s Omeros in the sense that she represents a specific Atlantic racial heritage, and also acknowledges, engages with, and claims what could be considered a more contemporary Black Atlantic literary tradition.
After Monet graduated from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she traveled to Paris to live and work with the poet Saul Williams. In an interview with the creators if IDontCamouflage.com, she explains that her decision to move to Paris was inspired in part by her knowledge of James Baldwin’s sojourn to France in 1948 at the age of 23.
She describes her experience as emancipatory in the sense that she was not bound by the demands of an American work ethic, which encourages production and is in many ways stifling to creativity. She drew, then, on a new Black Atlantic landscape that had been shaped by those Black American artists and poets.
Monet also places herself in opposition to Europe by identifying herself as American, more specifically a New Yorker. She explains that her trip abroad was additionally significant in the sense that her bloodline had never been to Europe: “There is something unique about bringing my bloodline places they had never been before;” Monet, in this contemporary moment, then, is also generating a new, deeply personal Black Atlantic landscape and heritage.
Overall Monet’s poetry, like Walcott’s Omeros in some cases, locates beauty, power, and possibility in the Black Atlantic past and I remain curious about its latent political potential. The very tangible and enduring political implications of this past, though, are not lost on Monet. She has used her poetry to raise thousands of dollars for victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and is committed to educating a new, politically engaged generation of poets.