All posts by Thayne Stoddard

Just another 3L J.D./M.A. in English student at Duke!

Roll Jordan Roll: A Community in Song and Sound

After watching Lupita Nyong’o win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and the film itself, 12 Years a Slave, win Best Picture a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but return to the film for a second viewing. I happened to find the time on a 11 hour transatlantic flight, and while somewhere over that big open expanse of water, I watched and listened to the now famous scene where Chiwetal Ejiofor, playing Solomon Northup, first seems to embrace his fate, joining in song with his co-enslaved peers. The scene is haunting, and I recommend watching it here.

Topsy Chapman – (feat. Chiwetel Ejiofor and moviecast) “Roll Jordan Roll” From the movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

(Adapted by Nicholas Britell)

The lyrics themselves are simple, and the chorus repeated numerous times.

Went down to the river Jordan,
where John baptized three.
Well I woke the devil in hell
sayin John ain’t baptise me
I say;
Roll, Jordan, roll
Roll, Jordan, roll
My soul arise in heaven, Lord
for the year when Jordan roll

Well some say John was a baptist
some say John was a Jew
But I say John was a preacher of God
and my bible says so too.

A quick google search for the song provides the viewer/listener with some historical context. The song was originally written by an English Methodist preacher, Charles Wesley sometime in the 1700s. The song became popular in the United States sometime during the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s, and eventually reached Black slaves as a means to Christianize them, in the hopes that doing so would make them more cooperative in their slaved condition. (1) But the song ultimately had the opposite effect. Ann Powers described the song as “a primary example of slaves’ claiming and subverting a Christian message to express their own needs and send their own messages…Songs like this one, speaking of rivers, often sent coded messages about the hope for escape – passing over the Mississippi or the Ohio and northward.” (2) Powers claims that the song, and Northup’s joining in during the middle of a chorus, is further affirmation of Northup’s statement upon being captured, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live.”

I can’t help but question that conclusion, or at the very least, to read more depth into the simple claim that Northup is asserting his intention to “live” rather than “survive.” Though I’m far from an academic film critic, I think the scene warrants a closer reading, and that through just such a reading, it becomes clear that while Northup (and the director McQueen) may be signaling rebellion, the lyrics along with the setting of the song signify a community dynamic that is both hopeful and resigned. Northup’s joining is then more complicated, and demonstrates both a joining to that community, and one can’t help but hear his hopelessness as well.

The setting of the funeral is key to this reading. The man who died was another slave, one who simply dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, assumedly from exhaustion. While the song may have been meant to signal a hope that those enslaved singers would find some freedom, the freedom in this scene is not to another land where they are no longer enslaved, but to death and perhaps an afterlife. There is a certain macabre rebellion even if one reads this as a hopeful escape through death; in a way the dead man himself has robbed his owner of something by making further labour an impossibility. One can’t help but hear the respect for the man in the voices of the other singers; there is a resolution in their expression and the generally upbeat nature of the song that would seem to signify their standing proudly at this man’s graveside, saluting his ability to leave the fields.

And while the song is lead by the more elderly woman, the sense of community is not a hierarchical one. There is no preacher standing in a position of power, and the men and women are scattered equally through the small group. They clap in unison, bound together by the repetitive sound of flesh meeting flesh, perhaps ironically reversing what would usually be a violent contact of master-slave and turning it into one of community. All these factors might suggest a sort of egalitarianism worthy of praise; even in an enslaved state these African-Americans are able to preserve human dignity and respect for one another by coming together in a way that shows no more respect for one over another. But the rest of the movie itself provides a different reading. We do not know any of these other slaves standing around Northup. They haven’t been introduced to us, and we don’t know their life stories at all. The community has at the most basic level only one thing in common, their enslaved state. They did not choose to come together, there is not sense of family units within the crowd. They are simply together because there is no one else with whom they could be. The community then is forced, in much the same way as others have stated that the creation of African American culture in the early slave period was simply an amalgam of all the different cultures the Africans brought with them, so too are these individuals struggling to find connection, and triumph, in horrible circumstances.

And perhaps therein lies the beauty, and satisfaction, present in this scene. Though Northup is joining that community through his singing, he is not just joining the hopelessness (though he certainly seems to be accepting that as well). He joins a tragic community, one bound by circumstances yes, but also through their combined dignity of rebelling, at least through song and sound, against their oppressor. The repetition of the lyric, “roll, Jordan roll,” itself suggests the unstoppable power of water, and eventual freedom, as a force. Though traveling over that water first enslaved them, so will it free them, whether in crossing over a physical river to freedom, or perhaps, as the dead slave, passing over the river Styx into death. Again, though it may be rooted in the dark hope that freedom must come eventually, even in death, Northup’s joining is a signal that he finally identifies with those enslaved around him, no longer differentiated by his previously free state. The scene is haunting, and Chiwetal Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup, joining in song with a look of triumphant defeat, warrants the more complicated reading of rebellion. And while McConaughey doubtless gave a great performance, Ejiofor could just as easily have won for this scene alone.

  1.  See Calt, Stephen (2008). I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
  2. Ann Powers (2013). ’12 Years a Slave’ Is This Year’s Best Film About Music. NPR.

Another Take on the Middle Passage

I’d like to compare a couple different literary approaches to narrating the experience of the Middle Passage. Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage offers an account with a distinct, and interesting narrative. Instead of choosing the kind of non-narrative, experimental form used in the poem Zong!, Johnson speaks through the mouth of a freed slave, born in the US, and previously owned by a relatively civil master in Indiana. His name is Rutherford Calhoun.

Cover design by Tom Stvan, painting by Wilberforce House.
Cover design by Tom Stvan, painting by Wilberforce House.

The novel tracks Rutherford’s journey on an illegal slave ship as it makes its journey from New Orleans to Africa and back again in the early 1830s. He originally finds himself on the ship as a way of avoiding his debts and an impending marriage, and so in many ways, feels bound to the ship in a way not unlike slavery. And in fact, that was one of the reasons that I enjoyed this novel so much; it manages to simultaneously teach the reader something about the awfulness that was the Atlantic slave trade, while simultaneously managing to remind the reader o all his own bonds, whether financial, societal, or marital, which act their own kind of very small slavery on the lives of any person.

This relatability is the key difference between this work and Zong!. Where the poem absolutely rejects narrative, the novel embraces it wholeheartedly, as Rutherford himself is writing it in order to preserve his memories of the ill-fated ship. That narrative allows the reader to very comfortably fit himself into the novel, to track his own way through Rutherford’s shoes. And that is the beauty of the character himself; as he is a total outsider to any of the societies in which we see him, he is forced to describe them in the most basic of terms, allowing the reader the needed education without taking on a tone of lecturing. This relatability then translates into the reader quickly making his way through the novel, and enjoying it all the way. If the goal of the novel is to remind and teach about the horrible history of this shipping channel, then it would seem that Jonson’s novel very successfully treads the line between weightiness and readability, appealing to a wide swath of readers.

I understand that the goal for Zong! was in some ways very different. Philip admits openly that she embraced the idea of a non-narrative as it was, to her, the only appropriate way to memorialize the slaves who had been thrown overboard during the Zong’s journey. As the poem quickly moves from semi-coherence into total chaos, I find that the effectiveness of the poem to effectively attract readers as well as memorialize is more limited. Yes, there might be meaning in piecing together word fragments that may ultimately provide some satisfaction, but the exercise is laborious. The reader finds himself (or at least I found myself) guiltily skimming through the last pages, which for the most part are nearly identical from one to the next for the last fifty or so, before briefly pausing to more closely consider the faded text, only to realize its utter incomprehensibility. We end exhaustedly with Philip’s own journal of her thoughts and feelings as she wrote, and at that point we just want it to be over.

As a memorial, perhaps the poem serves its purpose perfectly, capturing the exact lack of voice that those who died were given. If the poem could somehow stand in a physical place, visited by tourists with reverence, then I could see it as something a little more successful. But it isn’t purely monumental. It is a book, and as a book, it needs a reader in order to be experienced. While readers have no doubt appeared, if the goal of a memorial piece of literature is to maximize the number of people who learn and remember, then this seems to be a poem that will swiftly fall into unremembered history itself. And while it might genuinely be a good piece of poetry, I can’t help but deem it unsuccessful if it isn’t going to be remembered.

That said, Johnson’s book might be criticized for not taking the issue of the countless number killed in the passage seriously enough. he frames the book almost as a satire, and while the novel has its serious moments and themes, one would be hard pressed to call it a depressing read. And while it doesn’t necessarily memorialize any one group of slaves brought to the Americas, it doesn’t necessarily adopt a voice for them either. The slaves on-board Rutherford’s ship are of a fictional tribe, created by Johnson. Their fictitious nature seems to stand in then for all those brought across the Atlantic. They are mystical and for the most part silent. Only three or four of a couple hundred are given voice, and that silence seems to speak for all those who were forced through that horrible journey.

The novel, as a piece of fiction, is of course allowed more imagination than Philip’s more historical reconstruction (particularly when she has bound herself to such a limited dictionary of language). With that, Johnson is able to give th reader some sense of justice through the destruction of the ship. While nearly all the slaves as well as the crew die, at least it was not just slaves as it no doubt historically was. This justice though may most erode the value of the novel as a simultaneous memorial and fictive piece. Zong! so effectively captures the feeling of total tragedy, where Middle Passage somewhat skirts it. Yes, the plight of the slaves is recounted, but they are not our focus. We are not forced to uncomfortably experience any of the mental chaos they felt; instead our minds are happily satiated by the taming and tempering of Rutherford’s personality, ending with his marriage to his previously fled from fiance. The end is too tidy, and invites comfortable meaning of just the sort that Philip rejects.

At the end of the day, Middle Passage will draw more readership. It is simply more accessible. Hopefully readers will bring with them the level of thought to reject the simple emotional satiation in favor of a deeper sense of the tragedy of the Middle Passage itself. But even if read without that level of awareness, I believe the novel is still a more capable memorial than Zong!, and while I’m glad I read both, I would only recommend the novel to a friend.