All posts by Savannah Windham

Savannah Windham is a MAT student in secondary English education at Duke University. She currently teaching 9th grade English at Jordan High School in Durham, NC. She is the author of the Deep entitled "Expanding the Atlantic for World Literature Classrooms."

Jean R. Perrault’s “Exodus” and the Sounds of Suffering

Dedicated to all those forced out of their homelands.

Many scholars, writers, and artists reflecting upon the transatlantic slave trade often seek to empathize with the slave experience. They want to feel what they felt, see what the saw, for in doing so the memory of those lost is somehow kept alive. This emotional catharsis, however, at times seems ineffable, while the catalogs of records and newspaper clippings chronicling the lives of the enslaved leave the seeker numb to mountains of repetitive data. One of the most powerful ways to assimilate the experience is to forgo the constraints of words through music. Haitian composer Jean R. Perrault’s string quartet entitled “Exodus” facilitates a meditation on the experience of the enslaved, combining disorienting time signatures and complex tonal structures with heart-wrenchingly sonorous violin solos to offer an emotional reflection of the island’s history.

The quartet’s dedication reads as above: “to all those forced out of their homelands.” Before hearing one note of the music, the listener’s mind is propelled back to the diaspora. The piece focuses on the theme of exile and experiments in eliciting the broad range of emotions that accompany it. “Exodus” is structured in three movements[1][2]:

I. Tale

II. Exodus

III. Hope

The three-movement structure, unusual for a string quartet, suggests metaphorical significance; Perrault alludes to the past-present-and-future of Haiti while also elaborating on each movement’s designated theme. Each section is characterized musically by several elements: complex, syncopated, and often unpredictable rhythms; frequent key modulations; emotional and passionate musicality directions; and varying stylistic markings such as pizzicato, staccato, sosenato, and so forth. The effect of this stylistically diverse work is one of intense emotionalism: the listener is at times frantic, depressed, mournful, and at others hopeful and inspired. In a review of a performance of Perrault’s work by the Borromeo String Quartet, Ann Klefstad writes that:

Memory, distance, loss, fragmentariness characterize this music in its relation to the history of music, as well as the life experiences that the music is trying to transmit. The bricolage of the composer mimics and mirrors the bricolage imposed on refugees, who must cobble together from whatever offers a whole and meaningful life.

The first movement – “Tale” – tells a story of disorientation, disunity, and longing. The discord is mirrored through the disharmony of the 4 lines while the strong melody vivaciously carries the piece forward. After several minutes, the listener is bombarded with a succession of ascending and descending scales, contributing to the frantic tone. Yet, near the 3-minute mark the sustained, mournful tones of the cello emerge. The tale evolves into one of longing, perhaps for a lost homeland or those left behind. The following forceful pizzicato section (instructing the musicians to cause the string to slap against their fingerboards) suggests bitter anger, yet the emotional quickly diminishes as the final notes fade into pianissimo.

“Exodus,” the second movement, continues the wistful cello line, interspersing major chord moments of hope with its previous sorrow. This hope is later passed to the first violinist, who after desperately trying to sustain it around 03:28 eventually disintegrates back into a tale of woe. This minor to major key wobbling creates a feeling of uncertainty—with an exodus, there is hope for the future, but also fear of the unknown.

Jean "Rudy" Perrault
Jean “Rudy” Perrault

The third movement, “Hope,” takes up this theme but seems to offer more questions than answers for the future. The beautiful opening lines of the violin cadenza with their block chords and sustained double stops immediately defy the listeners expectations of hope and plunge them into a complex array of emotions. The music becomes both heart-breakingly sad, reflective, and inspiring. Perrault plays with his audience’s expectations of hope by interspersing moments of a major key, but the instances are brief. One is prompted to ask, What is hope in the context of Haiti’s future? and Is it even possible? Without words, Perrault appears to answer the latter with a resounding “yes,” as the sustaining tones of the violin line morph into “vivace – con fuoco” and the work culminates in a furious, passionate finish.

Perrault’s aim for “Exodus,” then, is a decidedly optimistic one. Although moments of suffering and sadness are inescapable, hope, while fleeting, refuses to die. The spirited finale could hearken to a connection with the intense spirituality of “those forced out of their homelands.” Moreover, Perrault finds ways to connect to the traditions of these peoples, weaving passionate tales and syncopated beats that are reminiscent of the island’s unique musical environment. The form and content of this string quartet both nod to and stray from the classic form, mirroring, perhaps, Haiti’s assimilation of European and African cultures to generate something uniquely their own.

Although little has been written on the work on Perrault, his repertoire will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. To learn more about him or to hear other examples of Caribbean classical music, check out the following sites:

[1] Links provided here to the recording of each movement; performed by the Borromeo String quartet on the Living Archive label.

[2] Scores for each movement can be found on Perrault’s website here:


M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

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Outside of the history world, the word “Zong” and the event to which it refers is virtually unknown. The tragic lost of life of over one hundred and forty slaves thrown overboard during its journey to the New World is an atrocity that has escaped mention in the largely US-centered perspective of textbooks one frequently encounters in high school and even university classrooms. Its horror, its warning, its echo is left unheard to many of those outside the realm of Caribbean Studies. Why is such a crucial event in American history so often overlooked? While the answer to this question is debatable, it seems critical that keeping the story alive and continuing to reflect upon and examine its significance not only to history but also to humanity itself is paramount. M. NourbeSe Philip’s collection of poems entitled Zong! seeks to respond to this aim by emulating the thoughts and experiences of slaves aboard the ship and beginning to work through the process of understanding the event and its long-ranging ramifications.
Zong! #1 Part 1

Zong! #1 Part 2

The first poem of the first section of the collection entitled “Zong! #1” immediately strikes the reader with its unconventional physical structure and positioning of words and letters. Not only are words strewn seemingly at random across the blank page, but they are also violently torn apart. It is not even until the third line that we are able to decipher a full word—“w                a                      w         a          t           /            er…”—the joining of which only occurs after the movement of “er” to another line. The reader’s experience of reading this poem—one of disorientation, confusion, and frustration—mirrors the experience of the recently captured slave as he or she boards their doomed vessel of the Middle Passage. Individual words slowly become perceivable, although their discovery does not offer any satisfaction at discovering their meaning. Pulling together the disassembled letters, in order, assembles words such as “water,” “was our water,” “good,” “water…oh…on one won(e) one day ah days one days wa….” before continuing, again broken, to the next page. Here, as the reader continues to search for some kind of discernible meaning, one can see an almost geometric quality to the arrangement of letters on the page. The structure slopes downward; words, and their corresponding meanings, are collapsing. “Wwww w   a          t           e          r,” water… “wa   ter   / of     w / ant.” The lines of the poem, like the lives of those aboard the Zong, are deteriorating. In our disorientation, we are left, dissatisfied, with only the permeating image of “water” and “want”: our basic human needs, our basic will and instinct to survive.

Zong! #3

It seems fitting that Philip emulate the absence of meaning and complete destruction of slaves’ lives as they knew them by a corresponding destruction of poetic form. The reader is offered no answers, only thrown into a world, much like the slaves, in which he or she does not have the tools to decipher the experience. However, as the collection progresses, coherence slowly begins to return, eschewing the chaos of “Zong! #1” by providing, in the very least, whole words as units of meaning. By “Zong! #3,” letters have reformed into words and the disorientation is lessened, yet cryptic language and inverted patterns of speech remain. The momentum of the sense of a fractured reality continues to be propelled by repeated enjambments: “the some of negroes / over / board / the rest in lives / drowned / exist did not / in themselves / preservation / obliged / frenzy / thirst for forty others / etc”. The word “overboard” itself is sliced in half, almost mirroring the throwing of bodies from the ship deck. A sense of panic is elicited by “frenzy,” closely followed by “thirst for forty others,” where the reader has no doubt in what has occurred. Yet, after this terrible act has been committed, we are left with one hauntingly evocative word: “etc.” The reader’s mind is ripped from the scene in front of them directly to the ship’s log where deaths of “cargo” were catalogued. We are reminded of the ship’s recorder who after the entry of several slaves who suffered the same death felt compelled to write “etc” or “ditto” in the column justifying loss of cargo. As scholars, we often caution each other to protect ourselves from the loss of empathy in examining what can be monotonous (yet still horrifying) ship records such as these. However, the poignant plantation of the simple term “etc” at the conclusion of “Zong! #3” reminds us that such a notation is anything but forgettable: three simple letters can dismiss both one life and a massacre.

When one visits M. NourbeSe Philip’s website, you are greeted by a quotation by Setaey Adamu Boateng that reads: “There is no meaning but meaning–our search from it, our fleeing from it, our longing for it, our denying it, and, finally, our embrace of it.” Reading the poems within the first section of Zong! entitled “Os” (from which the two poems above were taken), the question of meaning becomes essential. Our traditional structures of meaning (words, phrases, lines, etc.) have been disrupted; we are left to piece together what we can from what remains. Philip invites us to search through the wreckage and ultimately embrace its reality along with her.

These are but two examples of the chilling insights one can gain from the Zong! collection of poems. As an English teacher, I’m naturally pre-disposed to connecting content I learn to the lives of my students. More than often these days, teachers are faced with the ever-frustrating predicament of wanting to provide authentic academic experiences in the classroom via critical thinking and exploration of a given topic while simultaneously being required, to some extent, to “teach to the test.” However, learning about events such as the Zong Massacre and reading poetry such as this help us to examine our definition of humanity and better understand who we are today. I am rather ashamed to say that this class has been my first exposure to this material, and it has already had a profound effect upon my understanding of the slave trade and my ideas about what I would like to impart to my future students. I’m interested in developing and adapting some of this material to be taught to younger audiences as I believe that thinking through these issues can be valuable to younger students as well—this is a topic I hope to examine in future posts!