[One of this blog’s central premises is that we Americans need to do a better job remembering many of our histories, including, even especially, our most dark and negative histories. But the question of how to do so is a pretty challenging and complicated one. This week I’ll be examining five such dark histories, and highlighting a few distinct options for how we might better remember them. As always, both your responses to these examples and your suggestions for others will be very welcome!]
On the innovative and impressive lengths to which writers will go to capture one of our most horrific histories.
I know this is a strange way to start a post, but I can still remember how impressed I was when Alex Haley stripped down to his underwear. Toward the end of Haley’s Roots (1976), the author details his painstakingly thorough research into the life of his slave ancestors, and particularly into the book’s main protagonist, Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped into slavery in Africa and brought to the Americas as part of the Middle Passage. In an effort to get slightly closer to the experience of that horrific journey, Haley stripped down and climbed into the crowded hold of a freight ship, imagining himself in his tiny space surrounded by a sea of enchained, enfeebled, sick and death-ridden and terrified fellow slaves, not knowing whether he would survive nor where he was headed if he did. As Haley freely admits, the act might seem silly, both literally and in its distance from the Middle Passage itself—but it also symbolizes nicely Haley’s willingness to do whatever he could to imagine himself back into his family’s, people’s, and our national past; a willingness that certainly resulted in a highly detailed and hugely compelling work of autobiographical and historical fiction.
It’s difficult to imagine getting any closer to the details and specifics of the Middle Passage than did Haley, in his own action and in the resulting section of the book. But details and specifics are only part of a historical event, of course, and not necessarily the most evocative or significant part. And other American authors have made equally interesting stylistic choices in an attempt to capture other, more ephemeral but no less meaningful sides to the Middle Passage. Robert Hayden’s dense and demanding poem “Middle Passage” (1962), for example, utilizes numerous and varied formal elements to capture the passage’s many voices and identities: direct quotes from journals and letters (written by not only slaves but also slavers, other sailors, and more); the Biblical names of slave ships juxtaposed with passages from Scripture; an extended quote from Shakespeare that echoes many of the passage’s themes; Hayden’s own highly poetic and evocative language and descriptions. The poem does not, to my mind, capture much at all (nor does Hayden intend to) the experience or emotions for any one slave—but it portrays the whole communal experience with deep and real power, and contextualizes it in a longer literary, cultural, and human history at the same time. Certainly both of those effects are likewise key to remembering the Middle Passage.
Yet so too is that individual side, and while Haley’s book does a great job conveying all the details of what an individual slave might have experienced, I don’t know that his journalistic style is quite able to capture the emotions and effects of those experiences. For that, I’d highlight a brief but crucial section of one of the most prominent American historical novels: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Beloved is about the whole of slavery, among many other weighty American themes, but in one particularly complex, dazzling, and important passage Morrison makes it very specifically about the Middle Passage; the passage, which represents the only section in which Morrison uses her stream of consciousness style to portray the perspective of the ghostly title character during her experiences after being killed and before coming back to life (spoilers, sorry!), locates that character on the Middle Passage, even though neither she nor any of the novel’s other characters actually experienced the journey. There are thematic and historical effects to that choice, making clear how much the passage served as a formative and foundational experience for—a ghost that haunted, if you will—all that followed in slavery, for African Americans, for America, and so on. Yet Morrison’s hugely compelling stream of consciousness style also simply captures the passage, the feel and emotions and moments of it, in a way that neither of those other talented authors quite accomplishes for me.
Individually, three very significant works; taken together, a great start to imagining our way into this horrific and vital American history. Next one tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses to this post? Suggestions for other bad American memories?