All posts by Sasha Panaram

Sasha Panaram is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Duke University. She is also pursuing certificates in African and African American Studies, Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and College Teaching.

“Toussaint: The Heartbeat of Freedom”

By Sasha Panaram

For more than twenty-five years, Danny Glover has graced the entertainment world as an actor, producer, and humanitarian.  While Glover is most recognized for his role in Lethal Weapon (1987), he has also acted in much smaller films and produced projects of his own including his two latest documentaries, Concerning Violence (2013) and We Are Many (2014).

Glover’s first passion is acting, however, he has never limited himself to only one career. Instead, he leverages the attention he receives from the entertainment world to steer his fans towards meaningful social justice organizations.  Today, Glover is a UNICEF Ambassador and a former Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations Development Program.

US Actor Addresses Press Conference on Millennium Development Goals Awards

Glover’s interest in social inequalities led him to co-found Louverture Films with Joslyn Barnes in 2005, which is committed to supporting films “of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value, and artistic integrity.”[1]  Inspired by Haitian Revolution leader, Toussaint Louverture, Louverture Films supports progressive artists, especially those from the global South, and helps train people from communities of color interested in pursuing film as a career throughout the United States.

Glover and Barnes’ Louverture Films organization is all the more inspiring in light of Glover’s deep appreciation of Louverture.  In May 2012, Guardian reporter, Stuart Jeffries published an in depth interview with Glover entitled “Danny Glover: The Good Cop.”  “When I talk about Haiti, it breaks my heart,” Glover told Jeffries.  “Yet when I think about the Haitian people’s resilience, it heals my heart at the same time.”[2]

According to Jeffries, for more than thirty years, Glover has tried to make a biopic about Louverture.  In 2006, even after assembling a cast and receiving $18 million dollars from Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, the film never reached completion.  Part of the reason Glover wants to create a film that honors the Haitian Revolution is because he believes that previous tributes to the revolution including C.L.R. James play that featured Paul Robeson and the French TV series that starred actor, Jimmy Jean-Louis, did not capture the magnificence and full impact of the Haitian Revolution.

In searching for other filmic representations of the Haitian Revolution, I found a fifteen-minute video about Toussaint Louverture that was created three years ago for the Museum of the African Diaspora.  Glover narrates the short video while Glenn Plummett plays Louverture.  Dr. Cornel West and Wyclef Jean are also interviewed as part of this project.

The fifteen-minute tribute includes original music by Wyclef Jean that calls Louverture the “heartbeat of freedom.”  Weaving together paintings, acting, and interviews, the tribute not only seeks to make the claim that Louverture was the primary leader of the Haitian Revolution, but also suggests by the very nature of its composition that any worthy filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution must utilize different forms of narrative expression.  Most of the history is narrated from the prison cell where Louverture was confined during the last years of his life.  By having Plummett, who plays Louverture, reflect on the leader’s life retrospectively, the filmmaker indicates that even when Louverture is physically at his weakest moment, his heart and mind are both still strong even as his body succumbs to death.

One of the most compelling scenes in this video features Dr. West juxtaposing descriptions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Louverture.  By emphasizing Bonaparte’s limited vision and Louverture’s strong connection with his black brethren, West makes the case that the fundamental difference in the leadership styles of Bonaparte and Louverture result from their social positioning.  To put differently, since Louverture was born a slave, he could identify with those enslaved and mobilize more support in a way Bonaparte could not.

While the video composed for the Museum of the African Diaspora provides a glimpse into one critical actor in the Haitian Revolution, it runs the risk of oversimplifying the revolution.  For example, by not referring to Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his interactions with Louverture, the video – especially the remarks by West – make it seem like Louverture always wanted all blacks to have freedom from the start, while C.L.R. James and other historians have suggested that this was not in fact the case.  Moreover, by only having one principle actor in the video, even though West and Wyclef reference the thousands of slaves who participated in the revolution and show paintings of these slaves, viewers are still left to believe that one man was responsible for the revolution.

My concerns with this short tribute to the Haitian Revolution and Louverture, in particular, lend themselves to speculations I have as to why the Haitian Revolution has not been made into a movie even though there are people, like Glover, who eagerly envision such a project.  First off, there are too many people involved in the Haitian Revolution and too little space in a film to represent all of the necessary participants.  Inevitably someone or some group of people would not be fully represented and this could change the way we choose to understand the Haitian Revolution.  Secondly, since the Haitian Revolution lasted from 1791-1804 it is likely that some portion of the revolution would be excluded in a filmic representation and this exclusion might devalue the full weight of this historic event.  Finally, as the short tribute to Louverture indicates, it would be very difficult to determine how to film a movie on the Haitian Revolution.  How might a filmmaker best weave together different forms of media and art to represent the drama inherent in the revolution is a question that could not be taken lightly in this endeavor.  I might supplement what I have just written by mentioning that even though a filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution might be difficult to produce this does not mean that it should not be attempted.  When I reference the difficulty of determining how to represent the Haitian Revolution, my concern is less that it cannot be done someday but more that I am not sure if film studies itself has developed its capacity to represent such an intensely dramatic event.  In other words, producing a film about the Haitian Revolution that actually does this moment in time justice might take several trials and errors.

In spite of my worries, a filmic representation of the Haitian Revolution would be an exceptional undertaking, because it has the possibility of resonating with so many different individuals.  By having West, a university professor and activist, and Wyclef, a musician, mediate the short video, the filmmaker suggests that the Haitian Revolution’s reach is widespread and unending.  If a film about the Haitian Revolution was constructed in the twenty-first century, then it could take a hint from the short video and utilize different mechanisms of storytelling to best represent the story at hand and attract as many viewers as possible.

Whether or not a film about the Haitian Revolution will be made remains to be seen.  What the tribute to Louverture from the Museum of the African Diaspora makes very evident is that whatever production results will have the challenge of teaching a group of viewers about an event that both demands and deserves more attention.



“Ship Ahoy”: The Sounds of Slavery

By Sasha Panaram

Slaves have long been credited with developing a rich musical heritage.  Traces of that heritage still permeate our world today.  Musical genres such as ragtime, the blues, gospel, and jazz each contain elements inspired by Negro spirituals, slave work songs, and plantation life.

While the musical influences of slavery can hardly go unnoticed, especially if listeners consider the rhythms particular to certain songs or even the instruments used in current music, popular entertainers are working overtime to keep slavery on the forefront of their consumers minds.  By explicitly referring to slavery in their lyrics, a handful of singers, mostly from the hip-hop community, force their patrons to consider where slavery exists in America’s cultural memory, whether or not the deep trauma associated with slavery still resonates today, and what new forms of slavery persist in the twenty-first century.

But before Nas referenced the Middle Passage in “Warrior Song” with Alicia Keys in 2002 or Tupac Shakur acknowledged the ramifications of slavery while critiquing the “American Dream” in “Panther Power” or Kanye speculated about how the incarceration of black males constitutes a modern form of slavery in “New Slaves” another set of musicians endeavored to highlight slavery in their own work: The O’Jays.

Formed in 1958 in Canton, Ohio, the O’Jays, an R&B group, first started with five male vocal performers including Eddie Levert, Sr., Walter Williams, Sr., William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles.[1]  Originally known as the Triumphs, the O’Jays adopted the name they still use today when a Cleveland disc jockey, Eddie O’Jay took them under his guidance and renamed them.  While the group has changed over the years retaining only two of their original five singers – Eddie Levert, Sr. and Walter Williams, Sr. – and adding Eric Nolan Grant, their music is no less powerful even with the alternations.


Best known today for their contribution to soul music, the O’Jays toped the charts with their music releases in the seventies.  Some of their hits include “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money,” and “Use Ta Be My Girl.”  Although originally from Ohio, the O’Jays put Philly Soul, otherwise known as “The Sound of Philadelphia” [TSOP], on the map after producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon A. Huff recruited them to sing for their project, Philadelphia International, in 1972.[2]

When people think of 1970s soul protest music Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Curtis Mayfield’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” come to mind.  But few seriously consider the O’Jays 1973 song, “Ship Ahoy,” either because they cannot grasp its impact or more frequently, have never heard of it.

The 1973 song appears on the O’Jays album also named Ship Ahoy.  Written by Gamble and Huff, this album became the highest selling R&B album on the Billboard Year-End chart in 1974.  In a New York Times article from Mach 31, 1974 entitled “The Philly Sound of Brotherly Love,” critic Clayton Riley raves that the O’Jays produced several of their most spectacular songs on Ship Ahoy.

While the song, “Ship Ahoy,” demands serious attention so, too, does the album cover that contains the song.  The artist, James Barkley, painted two sets of images of the front of the album.  The first image reveals a group of African slaves cramped together aboard a ship.  The image immediately below it is a close-up of the O’Jays members including Walter Williams, William Powell, and Eddie Levert.  While it is possible to identify the images of the O’Jays, it is far more difficult to recognize the slaves at the top of the album.  In fact, apart from their faces being indistinguishable and some having no faces at all, their bodies appear melded together as if they are one inseparable creature.  Shaven, unclothed, and shrouded in darkness, Barkley reminds people of how very little is known about the slaves who were distributed during the Middle Passage through this image.  As he paints the slaves leaning on one another, he both alludes to their forced kinship and their utter helplessness on their journey across the Atlantic.  The juxtaposition of the image of the faceless, nameless slaves with the image of the O’Jays – a band headed for stardom – suggests that one way of accessing stories about the past is by listening to the storytellers who exist today including singers.


Interestingly, the backside of the album Ship Ahoy displays a painting of an illuminated slave ship.  Unlike the images on the front of the cover, the ship is grand and dominates the entire frame of vision.  Compared to the slaves on the front of the album, the slave ship has a known past that is traceable through history.  Moreover, in the water, where there is supposed to be a reflection of the ship, all we see is a reflection of slaves, which suggests that today slaves only exist as a faint image; a memory.  When Barkley places the slaves on the front of the album cover and the slave ship on the reverse side, he indicates that one purpose of Ship Ahoy is to focus on the narratives of the untold; to shift the attention of the viewers through music.

Ship Ahoy

The song, “Ship Ahoy,” itself is unlike anything of its time.  First off, “Ship Ahoy” is nine minutes and forty seconds long – three times the length of any song typically produced today or even in the 1970s.  The first voice of the song that appears roughly forty-seconds after the song begins is that of a long drawn out groan or sigh.  Prior to this voice, listeners sense they are on a ship after hearing sounds resembling strong winds, splashing water, wooden creaks, and thunderous storms.  When the O’Jays start singing their lyrics describe the people onboard – “men, women, and baby slaves” – and their journey to the “land of liberty” where “life’s design is already made.”  As the O’Jays sing of the tiring journey across the Atlantic, the only constant in the slaves’ lives is the sun that beats down on them.  By the end of the song, the O’Jays initial description of the “land of liberty” becomes a “jail” – an unpromising destination where slaves are beaten, exploited for labor, and forever subordinate to their masters.

While the lyrics of “Ship Ahoy” tell of the exhaustive journey of the Middle Passage and the slaves arrival in the Americas, the silences of the song are equally important.  The long gaps and pauses apparent throughout the song and especially at the beginning reflect the waiting that the slaves endured as they were shipped from one location to another.  Although the long pause at the start of the song is unsettling to listeners since we are used to hearing words shortly after the music begins, the silence attempts to replicate in listeners the feeling of uncertainty in slaves who embarked on journeys with very few details, if any, about their impending trips.  The one phrase used the most in the O’Jays song is “Ship Ahoy.”  “Ship Ahoy” is the phrase the O’Jays belt out between verses.  While the exact origin of this phrase is unknown, “Ship Ahoy” was generally used by sailors to both greet ships and announce their presence.  That the O’Jays choose to not only name their song “Ship Ahoy,” but also repeat the phrase excessively throughout the song suggests their desire to call attention to the hundreds upon thousands of ships that facilitated the Middle Passage.

The O’Jays production of “Ship Ahoy” warrants attention, not unlike other songs that discuss slavery, because it forces listeners to consider the manifold ways that history is told and the effects of those different mediums be it art, song, performance, or literature. The topic of slavery has been ever present in recent years through television series including Henry Louis Gate, Jr.’s “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” movies including Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, songs including “New Slaves,” and literature including The Invention of Wings.  In listening to the O’Jay’s hit song “Ship Ahoy” and reflecting on recent productions that emphasize slavery, one persistent question that emerges is: Why are we still talking about slavery?  One answer may be that we have not yet fully developed a language that is capable of discussing slavery and these different productions serve to help start the conversation over anew in different ways with different voices.

Another question “Ship Ahoy” demands listeners to ask is how effective is socially conscious music?  To put another way, does the music of the O’Jays inspire people to turn to other sources to learn about slavery or does it further commodify the slave and serve as the only means people today, especially students, even encounter slavery?  While I’d like to think – and to some extent do think – that “Ship Ahoy” and other similar music is purposeful when it makes the issue of slavery accessible to everyday folk, it may also function as a disservice if listeners do not venture beyond the lyrics to learn more about the issue at hand.  It is not implausible to suggest that artful representations of slavery serve as replacements for how students learn about slavery instead of reminders of the incidents that actually occurred.

As the O’Jays album and song, “Ship Ahoy,” endures for another year alongside new music, new art, and new literature about slavery, we, as consumers, must be prepared to ask at what cost, literally and figuratively, are we letting ourselves learn about slavery and how might we best use new material on slavery to supplement what we already know and not replace it.