Category Archives: Slave Trade

Youssou N’Dour’s musical travels: West Africa and Senegal as Black Atlantic crucibles

By Andy Cabot

Youssou N'Dour

Listening to the song “4-4-44” by Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour is a mysteriously peculiar experience. The sound and rhythm enters swiftly into your ear, and, at the end, as the distant drums and piano fade out, you realize that your body has quietly turned into a state of near total appeasement. Honestly, only one thought circles into your mind as the song comes to a closing stage: I need to play it again.

What’s so mysterious about that Youssou N’Dour piece? At first, I felt it could perfectly fit in as a fade out song for a Mad Men episode as the credit rolls in and Don Draper meditates on an empty Hawaiian beach about why he has cheated on his wife for the gazillion time this year. After further listening, another picture popped in my head. It felt like this could have been a reinterpretation of a famous popular folk song, or also an adaptation of a child’s song melody. All in all, there was one dominant feeling: this song was a masterpiece of quietness, the quintessence of what peaceful joy and harmony could sound like.


“4-4-44”: N’Dour’s tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence

During the long career of Youssou N’Dour, “4-4-44” is probably an epiphenomenon. His duet “Seven Minutes” with Neneh Cherry and other songs he recorded with his band in the 1990s were more significant in bringing the Senegalese artist to international stardom. At that moment, western media music industries considered N’Dour as the synonym for benevolent feelings of fraternity, loose passion for human rights and more vague sentimental attributes like advocates of world peace trough music. For a long time, it seems like he had his image and personality completely appropriated by the dominant expectations of Western audiences.

Arguably, Youssou N’Dour was not in the best position to develop a radical critique of the West or become an apologist of Afrocentrism when he rose to fame in the late 1980s. Indeed, he never felt any hatred or extreme passion neither towards Africa nor towards either of the two dominant ideological camps of the Cold war era during his early musical career.  N’Dour was a quite discreet character, far from the strong political opinions and eccentricities of other Afro-artists of the same era like Fela Kuti. His politics were almost void, still, his musical interests were immense.

Interestingly, retracing N’Dour’s crooked musical path leads us almost inevitably to interrogate his country’s history. For centuries, the present-day territory of Senegal had been nurtured and shaped by the movements and intersections of different civilizations. Even before the Ghana and Mali empires rose to continental preeminence around the fifteenth century, the major linguistic groups who now constitutes the Senegalese community –Wolof, Serer, Lebu, Tukolor, Mandinka, Diola- had already established strong commercial relations with the Abbasid Caliphates. By the 11th century, these groups were thus already fully integrated to the circuits of trade, knowledge and diplomacy of the Transaharian world economy. Contacts with European kingdoms erupted later on and were mainly directed at improving the plantation economies of Euro-American colonies. Indeed, despite intense resistance on the part of different linguistic groups, the great majority of Senegambia kingdoms were turned into large-scale suppliers of African slaves in the 18th century. The demographic and cultural legacies of the slaves-trade are still largely observable nowadays. All in all, at the beginning of the 20th century, one can see the modern Senegalese state as shaped over centuries of intercontinental and inter-religious relations. The salience of these multifarious cultural influences was decisive in creating one among the most vibrant musical traditions of West Africa.

“Senegal’s geography has brought its people into close contact with North Africa and the West and made Senegal a crossroads where Black African, Islamic, and European civilizations have met, clashed, and [1] blended”. Though this statement might appear un-original to many regards, its importance does not singly lie in the significance of the historical identity the author seeks to demonstrate but also in its relevancy if considered under a musical perspective. Indeed, Youssou N’Dour came to music as History came to Senegal: by the passage of caravans. In the late 1980s, while his family held doubts about his musical potential, N’Dour relied on the financial aid of the French-Senegalese community to launch his career. In 1983, Senegalese cab drivers working in Paris helped him raising funds so he could produce his first title. The latter was released shortly after the fund raising campaign and became an instant hit in France. Its title was “Immigrants” and certainly left no doubt about the intentions of N’Dour who sought to express his gratitude and support to migrants all over the world and especially to Senegalese ones.

At the turn of the decade, N’Dour had achieved a near status of world-music icon. Similarly to Alpha Blondy or Fela Kuti, his Afro-rhythm pop was now commercially successful not only in Senegal and Europe but also in North America. He had recorded songs and toured with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman while being held as a proud symbol of success in his native land. Still, by the mid-1990s, his commercial success declined along with financial funds from North American record companies. The artist was not too surprised by that situation. Surely, he felt disheartened by the neo-imperial logics that controlled and influenced the relation between world markets and access to music. To illustrate that idea, N’Dour did declare after the release of his LP Wommat (The Guide) in 1994 “It’s a matter of pride for me to have produced this album from A to Z in my own studio”[2] .

Shaped by various cultures ethnically divided by colonialism, Senegal and N’Dour entered the post-1991 world in a state of indecision about their destinies. In 1980, its leader Léopold Senghar Senghor- educated in the French métropole in the 1930s and strong advocate of pro-French views in foreign and domestic policies during his twenty years long presidency between 1960 and 1980- left the country in a state of strong democratic stability while domestic oppositions vilified its “reign” as favorable to neo-colonial nepotism and discriminatory against Muslim and traditional communities. During the subsequent decades, this divide between pro-French elites centered on Dakar and other demographically dominant communities in Senegal would not cease. By the end of the Cold War, Senegalese people recognized that distance from the Atlantic powers –especially France- would revitalize the country’s culture and economic dynamism.

The song “Immigrés” was a turning in point in that larger process. For N’Dour, it represented an early effort at creating music blending eclectic influences for Western audiences. The piece associated different styles of drumming and rhythms forged into Western African culture mixed with various musical tempos from Latin America (Tango), North America (Jazz) and the Caribbean (Reggae).  Known as mbalax, this genre would later being largely identified with Youssou N’Dour, whom while not inventing it transformed it into an extremely popular music in West Africa.

For a long time, this almost unavoidable association of Mbalax with N’Dour went unnoticed even by the artist. By the 1990s however, as the country’s faced economic difficulties and many of its African neighbors descended into full fledged civil wars, discontents towards this association emerged. As explained earlier, though N’Dour expressed few political stances while he experienced international fame, the backslash of the Western industry against its more traditional orientation in the late 1990s had left him disheartened. Within the space of a decade, N’Dour and Senegal once again followed an intimately related path. Faced with economic pressures from the West and internal pressures from inside, a certain return to tradition accompanied by a slight De-Westernization of the elites occurred.

Concerning N’Dour, this process achieved its maturity in 2004 when he released his album Rokku Mi Rokka. It came into the form of “4-4-44”. During the first part of the song, N’Dour proposes a blending of the joyful and celebration-like Mbalax sound that made him famous. Still, midway through the song, this rather fragile pop aesthetic turns into a denser atmosphere. As a son of a griot– central figure of Western African traditional societies transmitting communities history and legacy through songs and stories- N’Dour always remained close to the ancestral music of Muslim and animist communities of Senegambia. In “4-4-44”, this feeling of tradition is present in the most manifest way. Indeed, as the initial upbeat structure progressively fades when the song enters its second part, the Western ego of N’Dour relinquishes and its African self reappears as xalam strings make their way into the harmony.

Short video documentary on the tradition and influence of Xalam in West Africa

Music scholar Ronald Radano once argued that Black music in the US shared a strong sense of remembrance borne “directly out of the depths of social tragedy only to rise up miraculously in the voice of racial uplift”. In a recent article, Laurent Dubois attempted to go beyond this type of analysis centered on the Anglophone Atlantic by arguing that, by expanding the chronological and geographical frames of the Black Atlantic, one could easily seize the broader historical implications of Black music “Some songs also offer broader historical narratives, tracing the History of Haiti’s population from Africa through struggles in the new world”. Largely, Dubois’s analysis tends not to decenter the traditional questions of Black music scholars but rather to connect the often forgotten parts of the Black Atlantic to the dominant black Anglophone world. Indeed, while he focuses on traditional Vodou songs in 18th century Haiti, Dubois emphasizes on the contained metaphors and images evoking the slave-trade in the creole culture : “But that layers onto another set of symbols: the Atlantic ocean as giant graveyard for those lost on the Middle passage, as a site of ancestral death and memory. In this song, though, an origin in the depths of the water doesn’t preclude a soaring present, [3] uncaptured”.

As I would argue here, N’Dour cannot be easily connects to “traditional” themes of the Black Atlantic: loss, displacement and painful remembrance. Indeed, as Saidiya Hartman beautifully explained in her book Lose Your Mother, though it is possible to draw an emotional connection between the African diaspora and African people, recent years have shown the historical gap increasing between the two continents in their relations to the slave-trade and its legacy. When the author retraces her journey through different iconic locations of slave-trade history in Ghana, she insists on the impossibility for native Africans to feel to what extent the wound of displacement is deep for those who were captured and deported “Love longed for an object, but the slaves were gone. In the dungeon, missing the dead was as close to them as I would come. And all that stood between artifice and oblivion was the muck on the [4] floor”. N’Dour explicitly tackles that issue in “4-4-44”. As first and foremost a tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence achieved on April 4th, 2004, one can perceive N’Dour words as expressing a distinct –perhaps even new- feature of the modern Black Atlantic: namely the notion of a purely prideful remembrance of the Black past not rooted in the history of a “social drama” but rather in the mental overcoming of that trauma.

During his early musical career, N’Dour often took his distance with politics. In January 2012, while still recording albums and touring West Africa, he decided to present a bid for the coming Senegal’s presidential election. One of his first statement as a candidate epitomized N’Dour and Senegal’s intertwined historical fate “C’est vrai, je n’ai pas fait d’études supérieures, mais la présidence est une fonction et non un métier. J’ai fait preuve de compétence, d’engagement, de rigueur et d’efficience à maintes reprises. A l’école du monde, j’ai appris, j’ai beaucoup appris. Le voyage instruit autant que les livres »[5]  (I admit it, I have not attended higher education, but the presidency is a duty and not a job. I have proved that I’m skilled, that I’m hardworking and rigorous on many occasions. The world has been my classroom, and he taught me a lot, so many things. Traveling teaches you as much as books). The artist did not won the election and that was no surprise, it was a detail. As he contemplated his past experiences in relation to those of his country, N’Dour once again proved how personal histories can change you and thus History can be change if you stay faithful to your past. In Senegal as in other West African countries, N’Dour knew perfectly how to achieve just that: by not missing the next caravan.

 [1]Gellar Sheldom, Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West, Westview Press, 1982.

 [2]Frank Tenaille, Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African popular music, Lawrence Hill books, 2002, 232.

 [3]Dubois Laurent, Afro-Atlantic Music as Archive, 2013, [Online],Available <> [Accessed: 19 April 2014 , 15.]

[4]Hartman Saidiya, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Farra Strauss, 2007, 135.

 [5]Aude Lasjaunias, Youssou N’Dour croit en son étoile présidentielle, January 2012, [Online], Available <>, [Accessed: 19 April 2014].


The New Face of the Black Atlantic

This blog is primarily dedicated to slavery as it existed from the 17th through 19th centuries⎯ and the idea that slavery was eradicated with the last country to abolish it during this phase, Brazil in 1888, is commonplace. But while this was one of the apexes of allowing human beings to be bought and sold like chattel, it was by no mean the end of it. Modern slavery is just as—or more⎯ pervasive, violent, and as deeply wrong on a fundamental level as it once was; but the pernicious part is that while Atlantic slavery dominated conversations religious, political, and ethical until it was abolished, modern slavery is barely part of the discussion.

Photographer Lisa Kristine had been photographing the whole gamut of subjects, all over the word, and for 28 years, when she met a supporter of the organization Free the Slaves. Over the course of their discussion, the supporter informed Kristine that there were (in 2009) 27 million slaves worldwide living in conditions just as execrable as any 19th century account (this is the same estimate as the one released by the US State Department in 2013 This discovery bowled her over, and made her determined to help these people in the best way she knew how; by giving them a face, and a voice. (

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 4.24.42 PM

The facts that led to Kristine’s professional change of course are truly staggering, both in comparison to slavery in the past, and intrinsically. In the 19th century, an agricultural slave cost about the average American farmer’s yearly wage, about $50,000. And yet today, an entire family can be enslaved to pay off a debt as low as $18. The scale of the problem is immense, both in numbers and ubiquity. NY Times Nick Kristoff estimates that at least tenfold as many girls are trafficked through brothels as Africans were brought into the New World during the peak of the slave trade. And the problem truly is ubiquitous– while the worst countries in the world for modern slavery are Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbawe, ( the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are at least 60,000 modern slaves being forced into labor in the United States. Moral imperatives are moral imperatives, and the need to stop injustice shouldn’t be limited by something as trivial and arbitrary as national borders. But at the very least, we should be able to save the 60,000 poor souls living within our own.

The problem is immense, and on a global scale; it also encapsulates a wide stretch of definitions, everything from involuntary child prostitution to forced labor. The rush to finish infrastructure for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi led to widespread human rights abuses of migrant laborers, with a similar pattern occurring in Brazil with their preparations for the World Cup. In countries such as Mauritania, children can be born into slavery

This isn’t a problem easily fixed; it’s enormous and entrenched. When existing infrastructure that could be solving the problem has yet to, the solution is far more complicated than cut-and-dry 1), awareness, 2), widespread horror, 3), call-to-action, 4), problem solved. This illuminating op-ed was published in the New York Times— 14 years ago. The State department released this report a year ago It’s been half a century since Abraham Lincoln legally freed American slaves; and yet the 27 million slaves struggling to survive today are still waiting.

“I know the mid-Atlantic slave trade fascinates me:” On romanticizing the Black Atlantic

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.[1]

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[2]:

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, 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.




[1] Derek Walcott, Omeros, 1990.


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.

Empire State of Mind: Kery James and the Colonial Complex


Cabot Andy

Nos rapports avec Haïti sont plus délicats, émotifs et rétractiles parce qu’en clair-obscur, ils mettent en jeu les rapports de la France avec elle-même. (Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, 2004)

(Our relations with Haiti are delicate, emotional and subjected to mutual discontents because of their shadowy nature, they say something about the relation of France with itself)

 In 2004, the publication of an official diplomatic report on French Haitian relations marked a turning point for the two countries. After almost two centuries of near abandon, the French government decided to survey diplomatic relations between the two countries as the Caribbean state celebrated the bicentennial of its independence.

 Diplomatic relations between France and Haiti represents a critical aspect in what we could refer to as the “post-colonial world”. In January 1804, after thirteen years of tumultuous conflicts opposing it to France, the colony called Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. What started as an isolated slave revolt in 1791 against planters in the Northern Province of Haiti became a national war of liberation. Though this rather quick summary might provide a good overview of the situation, the historical fate of the newly founded Haitian Republic was everything but simple.

 Indeed, Haiti’s independence was won primarily by the blood and sacrifice of former ”Bossales”—slaves recently deported from their home societies who had no blood relations in the colonies—a mass of gang labor slaves that defeated Napoleon’s brother in law Charles-Victor Leclerc and his troops, which was then the strongest military force in the world.

 In the aftermath of its defeat, France devoted sustained international efforts to silence and suppress the consequences of this colonial disaster. In 1825, French King Charles X and Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer agreed that Haiti should pay reparation amounts to French planters who had fled during the Revolution. By 1914, as the Haitian state credit interests to French banks rose to extreme proportions, the country was concentrating almost 80 percent of its national wealth to repair its debt to France. Even today, there might still be interest payments due that had been frozen by the French government (Laurent Dubois, Aftershocks, 2012, 7-8)

 In the early 21th century, relations were still very precarious. As the 2004 report indicates, while two American presidents chose to visit Haiti during the 20th century, no French president or high official bothered to set foot on the island. Still, regardless of this ideological denial by France and other Western countries, the former colonial power managed to maintain strong connections with Haiti and its other colonies throughout the years. In the Haitian case, the fact that the French language was still being spoken by the great majority of the elites—as well as the growing presence of Haitian migrants in French-speaking areas—offered possibilities for a diplomatic rapprochement. In many ways, this twofold factor (language-migrations) also characterized the destiny of many African countries that achieved their independence from France in the 20th century. Still, this rather “bright” picture of a possible new future between an imperial power and its former colonies leaves us with an idyllic contemplation of the problems facing what has now come to be understood as the “Francophone” world.

 In 2013, the French rapper Kery James expressed these hardening concerns in most blatant terms. The new title track of his recently released compilation “Lettre à La République” provoked outstanding reactions from public figures in the French media. The song was violently dismissed and degraded for being a model of anti-Frenchness, an insult to the nation, and almost an act of betrayal. In effect, James’s song is not moderate in any sense towards the national sentiment in France. Castigated as a remnant of colonial domination and inherent national racism, the words “France” and “Republic” are successively portrayed as engines of destruction, cultural mechanisms of superiority primarily directed at submitting French migrant population to a colonial continuum. At the height of his suffocating prose, James declares “Mon respect s’fait violer au pays dit des Droits de l’Homme. Difficile de se sentir Français sans le syndrome de Stockholm” (My respect got raped in the country of the Rights of Man. Its hard to fee French without the Stockholm Syndrome).

 At first glance, one could be tempted to see these words as emanating from pure hatred and resentment. After all, a consequent segment of the French rap industry tends to produce short-minded lyrics about what is often perceived as the country’s colonial legacy. James is not this kind. Indeed, his letter opens us a diverse series of interrogations on the past, present and future of relations between France’s ex-colonial “subjects” and the former “métropole”. To some extent, his song epitomizes in a highly polemical but also poetical manner the unresolved issues of French imperial history brought back from the past by migrants from ex-colonies residing in France. In the same vein, this song is also primarily addressed to these populations. It conveys the sense that a different set of relations between these migrants and the Republic has recently emerged—one that contradicts the basic pattern of the French tradition of national assimilation.

 As a resurgence from military and administrative practices in the different French colonies, the idea of national assimilation took shape in the “métropole” by the late 19th century. In order to compel the first waves of non-French migrants to follow the rule of the Republic, the theory of assimilation dominated the country’s relation to migrants without any serious alternative until the late 1980s. To put it simply, it advanced that if one wished to become a citizen of the French Republic, he had to categorically abandon all traces of his home culture to prove his willingness to learn and assimilate the superior codes of French culture. As essentially a state-controlled ideological force, national assimilation turned out to become an extremely tense subject by the late 1980s when large group of migrants from North, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Asia started to flood the métropole in the aftermath of decolonization. By the late 20th century, assimilation was presented by representatives from the entire political spectrum as in a state of crisis while migrant populations – through the use of popular genres of music like rap – started to voice their concerns about the place of their cultural identities in contemporary French society.

 It is only throughout these recent debates that James song puts on meaning. On many occasion, the rapper does not hesitate in drawing a parallel between migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As he says as a run-through during the song:


 La République n’est innocente que dans vos songes. Et vous n’avez les mains blanches que de vos mensonges. Nous les Arabes et les Noirs on est pas là par hasard. Toute arrivée à son départ.


 (The Republic is only innocent in your dreams. Your hands are filled with white lies. Us, Arabs and Blacks are not there by accident. All arrivals have their origins)

Interestingly, the words used are contemplating different levels of the French colonial and post-colonial realities. When he refers to “us”, James immediately assembles “Arabs” and “Blacks” in a single community. To some regards, this kind of counter-assimilation is very surprising at an historical level while being more sensible in terms of the present-day social conditions of migrants in France.

 When the first wave of migrants from France ex-African colonies massively disembarked in the “métropole” by the late 1960s as cheap labor force for boosting the domestic economy, the rather separated entities of the French Empire in Africa (the North African regions were composed of the three Algerian departments, the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia while the Sub-Saharan colonies stretching from Guinea to Cameroon were separated between the AEF and AOF) were forced together in the same urban and social environment. As poverty and weaker social aids started touching those areas in the outskirts of Paris by the late 1980s, the second and third generation of “Arabs” and “Blacks” tended to develop a shared sentiment of ostracism and abandonment.

 James’ childhood experience in France relates directly to this historical background. Born in 1977 in Guadeloupe, James’s parents chose to move to France in the mid-1980s. His parents were both Haitians and James apparently chose never to return to Haiti even during his adult life. As he experienced distance and displacement from his native land, he started recording at a very early age with different musical acts. In one of his iconic early track “28 décembre 1977”, the then coming-of-age James powerfully demonstrated the meaning of what he saw as another form of forced migration inflicted to peoples of African descent « D’une famille plus proche d’êtres pauvre que fortune 28 décembre 77, aux Abymes j’suis né Et a une date que j’ignore un jour je partirai… » (From a poor family rather than a rich, December 28 1977 in the Abyme I was born, and at an unknown date I will leave) before insisting on the dreadful social conditions his family had to put through in France. “J’ai grandi à Orly dans les favelas de France. J’ai “fleury” dnas les maquis j’suis en guerre depuis mon enfance” (I grew up in Orly in the French favelas. I came to age in the guerilla fields, I’ve been at war since my childhood). All in all, as he relates his own experience to those of African migrants, the artist here succeeds in bringing together a continent into a unique historical condition of imperial sufferings and domination.

 Twelve years after this song was recorded, James’ letter still resonates to this original separation from his home country while it meddles with his call against the ideological pressure of assimilation:

 Ici, on est mieux que là-bas on le sait. Parce que décoloniser pour vous c’est déstabiliser. Et plus j’observe l’histoire beh moins je me sens redevable. Je sais ce que c’est d’être Noir depuis l’époque du cartable

 (Here we are better than there. Because for you to decolonize is to destabilizeThe more I contemplate your history the less I feel proud of it. I know what it means to be black since playground times)

 In a broader sense, it is extremely striking to see the effectiveness of James words if one knows a bit about the common sentiments of African migrants in France. On the one hand, it is interesting, though not surprising, to hear such radical and deeply-researched prose from James. As mentioned above, the feeling of resentment against assimilation is a common theme that runs throughout many popular rap songs in France. Nevertheless, James’ song is one of the few that successfully manages to tackle the core problem that is still at stake in debates around the French colonial past: that of the relational condition of two different versions of France since the beginning of the colonial experiment in the early 17th century. Coming from a family born in Haiti, brought up in Guadeloupe in his early childhood before being thrown into the African suburbs of Paris, James had experienced the relationship between the colonial and colonized France in many different ways when he started his musical career.

 His “Letter to the Republic” acts as a highly symbolic gesture for the present day condition of migrants in France while being also closely related to a sound and significant lyrical inquiry of French imperialism. Though a bit flawed and tangling in some occasions –as when James gathers “Arabs” and “Blacks” within a supra-ethnic category of imperial sufferers- it is through the deeper roots of the artist one can find the most profound challenge contained in the letter.

 As a distant son of Haiti, James does remind us of the still pervading difficulties for solving the unresolved matters of the French colonial past. Almost two centuries after the death of Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture, the French remains of colonial prejudice tend to portray James in the same manner as Toussaint: a hybrid other, a talented man but also a sulfurous agitator. These realities still formed a highly complex set of ideological interests. When James calls France to its historical responsibility when he repeats, “Every arrival has an origin”, the 2004 report on responds « Would we be able to seize this occasion to remember our slaveholding past and get rid of the weight that servitude imposes to the masters? »Puissions-nous saisir l’occasion de nous rappeler que nous fûmes desesclavagistes, et nous débarrasser du poids que la servitude impose auxmaîtres. »

 All in all, despite all the difficulties facing France in its relations with its ex-colonies, the former “métropole” and “colonies” seem to have entered enter a new era of diplomatic relations by the early 21st century. Nevertheless, as James’ words seem to remind us, questions still remain unanswered as history’s shadows continue to weigh down on these two entities: the two versions of France.


Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, Rapport au Ministrèe des Affaires Etrangères, M. Dominique de Villepin, January 2004. Available :  [Accessed 11 March 2014].


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:


Shackles for Sale

By Lynda Berg

An Ebay ad boasts “RARE Handmade Vintage 1800’s Slave Handcuffs Manacles Shackles” with a sub-description under the category “item condition: Used” that extols “Shackles are in excellent condition with a working lock and key.”[1] The crassness of this boast, in combination with the next line denoting the price of $550, should disturb anyone who reflects upon their use in the production of humans as commodities. Is there not a sinister irony extant in these items, which were once commodities for the production of human commodities, and now returned to the market as a commodity in their own right, not for their use, but because of their use.

RARE Handmade Vintage 1800’s Slave Shackles

In thinking through what this re-commodification means, I am drawn to reconsider first the production of “the slave” by which these tools first functioned. In doing so, I find the article by Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” illuminating for this task. Spillers emphasizes the significance of the power to name in the process of controlling and commodifying a “body.” Spillers lays open the architecture behind names by relating them to the procedures of capture employed in the theft of African bodies beginning in the 15th century with the conquests of the Portuguese[2] and continuing in the Atlantic slave trade. “The captivating party does not only earn the right to dispose of the captive body as it sees fit, but gains, consequently, the right to name….”[3] This naming is part of the work of the “master” to deny past social and cultural meaning already present in the lives of these African peoples, including the denial of their identity and gender. It was a process of stripping bodies down for the purpose of creating new bodies, conformed to the body politic of colonial sovereignty, and thus malleable to the domination of the master to which they would eventually be delivered.

In this space, particularly on the slave ship, captives are first ungendered: made interchangeable with all other captive bodies on board. As Spillers notes when assessing the cargo stat sheets from slave ships, “under these conditions, one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into account as quantities.”[4] That is, as those uprooted from land and kin, “shackled” in the hull of a ship, crossing an unknown sea, persons are made into units of indistinct exchange, assuming no past, no identity, only mute exchange value.

What does it mean, that centuries later these vary shackles, these tools of stripping down, are themselves placed on another sort of sea (the internet) stripped of their narrative, and sold for an exchange value to the highest bidder? In what ways does this process actually re-inscribe the vary capture they once helped produce? The situation seems to demand a response to the (re)commodification of these shackles, and a response that escapes this capture, rather than living into it.

Again, Spillers may be helpful in imaging a possible horizon. For, when describing the stripping down of African bodies, she notes that in this moment flesh is laid bare. For Spillers this flesh is a double site: the site of negation and of potential. The flesh then is that which is anterior to the body, anterior to the subject position, it is the “zero degree of social conceptualization.”[5] While the process of commodification will always try to force upon this flesh a new state of capture (a new body known as “the slave”), the “negative,” the “criminal,” the very existence of flesh will reveal that these titles are never totalizing, and in fact there is always something that escapes capture (the flesh). Of course, Spillers is speaking of the flesh, not of inanimate objects such as shackles. But I wonder in what way the responses to these fetishized shackles can attempt to be a response of escape rather than capture? I have no complete answer, though others have suggested the idea of a collaborative purchase to place them in a space (perhaps a museum) that does not allow these objects to be disconnected from their narrative.[6] I don’t know if this is the right answer, but perhaps it is a way through, a way of resisting the break with narrative that the reduction to exchange value purports to do. Regardless, in moving forward, we must ask what pressures does the response of the flesh put upon the way these items are being stripped and sold that could reveal new potential?

M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

rains &


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!

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.


Memorials, Memory, and History in the Black Atlantic 

By David Romine

As the first sitting Republican president to visit Africa, President George W. Bush’s speech in Senegal seemed to be more for the benefit of an American audience than an African one. Standing safely out of the noonday July sun on the Isle of Gorée, Bush declared that “At this place liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return. One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.” [1]


Acknowledging the violent, dehumanizing history of the transatlantic slave trade at this particular site was by no means accidental. Gorée Island has since the 1990s served as a site of pilgrimage which has become almost de rigueur for visiting presidents, religious leaders, and dignitaries. Among those to speak there since its designation as a site of “Outstanding Universal Value” by UNESCO in 1978 are Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Pope John Paul II, and Bill Clinton. Gorée has joined the ranks of Cape Coast Castle and São Jorge de Mina as sites of remembrance for the horrors of the slave trade by members of the African diaspora.[2]


At only 45 acres, the main attraction on the island is the Maison des Esclaves, or the House of Slaves, its pink outer walls concealing an austere interior. Since 1962, the site has been maintained by a museum founded by Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye in order to preserve the historical significance of the island. Tours take visitors from bare room to bare room, with plaques on the walls, commemorating the millions who passed through the halls of this house and the estimated dozen or so others on the island, culminating in the la porte du voyage sans retour (the door of no return). The door itself, a plain affair on the ground floor, opens directly onto a short, rocky beach and then to the sea. As a potent symbol in the memorialization of the slave trade, the door is described in literature and tourist narratives as the final portal Africans passed through on their way to death and suffering in the New World. It was the beginning of the Middle Passage for millions of men, women, and children.


And yet, as early as 1959, French historians were questioning the idea that the Island of Gorée was a major transshipment point for African slaves. In 1995, Atlantic slave trade historian Philip D. Curtin publicly stated that Gorée was never important in the slave trade and the following year the French historian Emmanuel de Ru lamented in an article in Le Monde that the “myth” of the House of slaves survived by being “resistant to reality.”[3] Archeologists have weighed in, as historical anthropologist François Richard of the University of Chicago argued that the Maison des Esclaves itself “would not have been a commercial point or processing center for slaves.” The lack of literature documenting voyages to and from Gorée is the primary factor for historians’ conclusions, but the island’s small size and lack of infrastructure or apparent evidence of slave trading has led most to conclude that slaves on Gorée resided there in the houses of their owners. In other words, Gorée was not a major site of slave-trading, but a colonial outpost with slaves in residence.

The vast majority of African scholars, historians, and archeologists agree on this perspective. However, some take issue with their methodology. Ibrahim Thiaw, a Senegalese archeologist at IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire), commenting on the lack of physical evidence of large numbers of slaves being housed in preparation for sale and transport, argued that chains and confinement were seldom necessary. “Captive populations don’t usually leave much behind,” Thiaw notes. “Archaeologically you won’t find much evidence that Gorée was used as a transshipment center for slaves. But it was clearly an important point in Atlantic trading patterns and, anyway what would you expect to find? Chains? The act of transshipment does not necessarily leave traces in the archaeological record.”

This debate, over the authenticity of Gorée as a site of historical memory of the slave trade, has not ceased, and with each visit by a foreign dignitary, the debate is revived again.[5] President Obama called his recent encounter with la porte du voyage sans retour  to be a “very powerful moment” upon which he reflected on the history of African Americans, but a number of news outlets mentioned the site’s contested history. It is perhaps more reflective of the needs of Senegal as a state than Gorée remains a site of memorialization. Gorée’s physical location, just a short ferry ride from Dakar’s bustling port, draws thousands of tourists a year. As a memorial to the slave trade, Dakar/Gorée now resides amongst other slave castles and trading sites that draw tourists from the African Diaspora to Africa’s coast.

Barack Obama

There are a number of questions that are raised when the site of memorialization is physically disconnected from the event (or events) being memorialized. In the case of the Maison des Esclaves, its supporters claim it to be the actual site of departure for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Africans bound for the New World. Even if, as Curtin claims, a “mere” 33,000 slaves (estimated) were taken from Gorée in chains, does that mean it is less of a memorial than El Mina or Cape Coast Castle? Does it obscure the suffering of those being led down to the Atlantic littoral and shipped across the ocean? 

Even if it is not the actual site of departure, that fact does not change the reality of the middle passage, of the men and women and children bound in manacles and chained below decks of slave ships. Gorée’s history as an administrative site of empire implicates it in the slave trade and French colonialism, much like Liverpool or London or New York. Does it matter that Gorée is not an “authentic” slave castle? Can Gorée be a placeholder of sorts for the whole history of the transatlantic slave trade in West Africa? Perhaps there perhaps more mundane reasons for its continued popularity, for instance, its accessibility and location so close to a major African city means that it can be seen by thousands of people each year whereas other sites of the West African coast might be far more difficult to reach.

Historians are famously (notoriously) concerned about evidence for claims, perhaps to the point of pedantry, but what work does evidence do in the face of meanings derived from sites such as this? How do sincere fictions such as Gorée serve the dead in ways that no historical monograph, article, or panel presentation ever could?