THERE IS A condition described by Maya Angelou in the first instalment of her memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House, 1969), in which a traumatised young girl retreats from the world in preference for the safety of a cultivated interiority. Hemmed in by convention and a bad experience, she relies on herself, her capacity to imagine scenes more conducive to her health. The outside world of grown-ups constitutes an abiding threat; the inside world of her own making provides safety and sustenance.
Could the same malady be applied to history? Can a person feel afflicted to such an extent by knowledge of a history of damage that the hurt of history becomes personalised, no longer a matter of another time and people but felt as real and here and now?
Trauma theory tells us that groups carry hurts across the generations. Without much purposeful talk about it, people retain their group’s trauma at a visceral level, in their nerves, in slights and asides, in looks and gestures. An obvious example is that of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II. With very few survivors alive today, the generations that have followed feel an affinity with the suffering of their predecessors as if they had gone through it themselves. This is more than an ability to empathise with the suffering of another; more even than an ability to imagine another’s hurt. This appears to operate at a genetic level. It is as if a trauma suffered by a group in the near or distant past became hardwired somehow onto the memories of succeeding generations.
This genetic memory coexists with notions of belonging to a group. In the example of slavery, the memory of the transatlantic slave trade (from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries) is invoked as an act of belonging. A black writer must imagine a journey through slavery in order to emerge from it; ignore it and some huge piece of consciousness is left unexplored and some vacuum remains in the mind. An act of reimagining slavery brings with it the credit of historical awareness and enriches the storytelling gifts of a writer.
Think of this process as a swimmer who dives into one end of a pool, swims underwater and emerges at the other end. Climbing out of the pool, that swimmer takes the act of immersion as an experience of the body and mind, a physical act that carries with it mental proportions. If a history of slavery is that pool then the writer’s delving into it, imagining stories from it, constitutes a deep dive into history for meaning. The insights help us to understand some of the problems that black people face today.
Making up stories about history sounds like a recipe for failure, especially a graphic history such as the transatlantic slave trade. The argument against it says that the awful facts of trafficking other people for slave labour until death speak for themselves. But there are compelling reasons for writers to return to the site of slavery for more novels, short stories, poems, plays and librettos. There might be something cyclical in the recent surge in fiction about slavery. Earlier spikes in writers reimagining slavery include the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s to mid-1930s, and the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s.
All these creative attempts are prefigured by a body of non-fiction by actual slaves talking or writing about their lives of bondage. Olaudah Equiano (1746–97) published his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, in 1789 to launch the first of these texts of personal testimony about slavery. His subtitle, ‘written by himself’, makes it clear that he is literate and not telling his story to a ghostwriter. Equiano ended up in London in his teens as the slave of a British captain. There is an anecdote in his autobiography in which he describes a white lad pushing him into the Thames. Equiano is a poor swimmer but learns fast and his immersion is a sort of baptism to the penalties of his skin and position as enslaved. He comes up for air and scrambles to the bank of the river much wiser. Though there are easier ways to learn, it is clear that Equiano viewed the threat to his life as an everyday occurrence and his need for increased vigilance as crucial as eating.
Revisiting slavery and literature about slavery become synonymous with attempts to know society, gain self-knowledge and achieve psychic healing. Looking back at fiction, poetry and plays in English by black writers, it is possible to see how this engagement with a history of slavery helps to foster a radical black consciousness that deepens the individual’s sense of a common humanity. Writing history imagines ways of belonging. Writing a history of pain seeks easement from suffering not its prolongation. Immersion into difficulty is not a courtship of defeat but a quest to surface from a trial with added knowledge. This is not about renewal. There is no such thing when it comes to facing a challenge from history. But there is benefit to the person as a whole, some notion of having come to terms with some indescribable thing that bothered you.
In addition, there is a quality feeling and a quantity of intuited, dreamed about and ever-present stimuli loitering at the edges of awareness. On occasions these intangibles gain a horrible momentum and they slam into the body as a result of some racially motivated personal incident or news item. They make up a cluster of reactions. They appear to come out of nowhere, unsolicited, so it seems, if that historical perspective is not a working part of the mind. This turns history into an imperative for a writer, not an option.
Recent books by Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, Scribner, 1990), Toni Morrison (Beloved, Alfred A Knopf, 1987), Caryl Phillips (Crossing the River, Bloomsbury, 1993) Andrea Levy (The Long Song, Headline, 2010), Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, Doubleday, 2016), to name a few, have launched an imaginative delving into history as a repository of wisdom for present-day conundrums, such as how blacks and whites may live better together. The idea is not to think that these texts are about verisimilitude. They are not out to convince you that this is how it was to live as a slave. They wish to link the reader in the present to that past so the reader can forge links between the two times. Never mind the lost, unnamed souls, those numberless dead (Toni Morrison called out ‘sixty million and more’ in the dedication to her novel Beloved) who lived in bondage and died unmarked by the usual vestiges of humanity: a name, a date of birth, a life lived aiming at right deeds and a healthy aversion to acts deemed as bad. Think of their children born into that routine punishment and with a childhood (if the term applies here) circumscribed by chains and treatment like chattel.
THAT INJUSTICE CHIPPED away at my consciousness and pulled my imagination into its orbit. There was no ignoring it. If I was worth my salt as a writer I simply had to answer that call to my art and craft. So many lives, so many unnamed, enslaved people over more than twenty generations. Name us, the dead whisper. Imagine our stories on our behalf. Speak as we could not.
As a child growing up in Guyana, I do not remember any relatives talking about slavery. I just knew about the complex racial composition of the country from passing references to blacks and whites and indigenous peoples and South Asians (the last two referred to collectively as Indians). There were hints too that all was not well among the three principal groupings, from sporadic disturbances between them. I came to know through school that the multiple racial composition of the country – indigenous to start with but added to by Europeans who embarked on the transatlantic slave trade and indentured worker programs, which replaced slavery – meant that the country was founded in barbarism and grounded in pain and resentment.
Guyana’s British administrative roots and my birth in London to Guyanese parents added to the complex picture of slavery, colonialism and imperialism. History lessons in Guyana and the UK brought home the fact of slavery that underpinned my sense of modernity, of living in a place and time that was charged with technological innovation and high ideals about civil society, but at odds with its claims to civility.
So why did it hurt when a white child in London called me a name that was a slur to my brown skin? (I do not print the word here. Such words rely on the oxygen of use and repetition for their longevity.) There is a poem titled ‘Incident’, published in 1927 by Countee Cullen (1903–46), about a black child on a train who smiles at a white child because the child is staring at him. Both kids are about eight years of age. The white child responds to the black child’s friendly gesture with a racial slur. The shock of the poem is not the age of the children. For me the outrage rests in the lingering effects and damage of the white child’s response to the black child in the brief last stanza:
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
Racism not only hurts, it deals a psychic wound on black people and white racists that takes generations to overcome; it provokes the artistic imagination into strategies of response as modes of resistance to racism born from slavery.
If this sounds too sociological, think of a poem or novel dedicated exclusively to answering the absence of a legitimate presence of blacks in literature in the West, though blacks have been formative in the development of Western wealth and modernity through the inventions made possible by slave labour. A writer’s imagination pressed into service to answer an injustice renders that imagination ideological just at the moment the creative impulse needs to flourish free of servitude to what Bob Marley called ‘isms and schisms’.
I am aware that this argument may be too much in the realm of rarefied thinking and insufficiently alert to the fact that all claims of artistic freedom are predicated by variables of race, sex, gender, age, class, ability, time, location and so on. Nevertheless, the feeling persists that white writers are privileged. Whiteness is not questioned. Art at its highest level is a given. Whites by virtue of a European ancestry appear predisposed to write the highfalutin notions that underpin a sophisticated creativity.
Blacks, by contrast – dissected as epidemiologically wanting, as somehow psychically diseased by the heritage of a history of slavery and in need of understanding, diagnosis and prognosis – need to prove an awful lot about themselves as writers even before they leave the blocks in the writing race (so to speak).
In other words, had I, as Fred D’Aguiar, the writer, not the civilian, lived a truly creative life of poems, novels, plays and essays without one of them inscribed by race I would have exhibited a gloriously oblivious racial consciousness and one ideally placed to philosophise about the condition of being human. That racial consciousness, though a matter of historical awareness and physical and psychical safety for me, left me trapped in an imaginatively restricted space. The bifurcated lens of writer and civilian may strike some as a false binary but I mean them to figure as part of a multifaceted personality, as two dominant elements whose push and pull help to shape how I understand my life as a writer as opposed to my life as a black male of Caribbean lineage from the UK now living in the US.
I was born in London in 1960. My parents had emigrated there from Georgetown, Guyana, in 1958. But at age two they sent me back to Guyana with my two brothers, one older, the other a baby. After ten years in Guyana, I felt my awareness shared by a twin location (Guyana and the UK) that mirrored a mixed ancestry (mostly black, some white, and a little East Indian). I know my lineage sounds like a potpourri, but I moved in a plural racial admixture where cultural multiplicity was the norm.
I loved anyone who showed me kindness, regardless of race or sex. I avoided anyone, no matter how much they looked like me, if they seemed too coarse or aggressive or even too stupid for words. Songs pulled my heart and mind no matter who sang them, so long as they had oodles of passion and a little pinch of camp. I was in search of love, the elongated version (looouurrrveee) screamed about by James Brown, honeyed into citadels of desire by Al Green and bellowed from the anvil of the incomparable Aretha Franklin. Don’t bring a racial bias to the table if you want to break bread and hold council with me. Take that shit to some Neanderthal convention of clubs and stones as substitutes for parlaying. I wanted to par-tay as a young man in London, not march against racism, as I was forced to do by the reactionary times that I found myself in, even as I cultivated my art as a writer with poetry workshops in the evenings at Goldsmiths College in South London and on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton.
So where did it come from, this simultaneous politics and aesthetics, this social living (as the reggae icon, Burning Spear, intones) conjoined with an artistic sensibility – or what the Guyanese writer Wilson Harris calls a ‘literacy of the imagination’ (meaning the ability to envision unfamiliar viewpoints, say that of the oppressed, and comprehend perspectives that are the complete opposites to our own if we are to be fully human in our lives)? And how do I understand my politicised art in the realm of my many selves (writer, teacher, father and so on) that combine to animate my life?
THE NOTION THAT one human will hold another in captivity for a lifetime and across generations undermines claims of a civilised modernity. Claims to be a modern civilisation need to be reconciled with a history of owning people for profit. What are the mechanisms for a modern state to come to terms with its history? The answers appear to be in the arts of the imagination.
As writers and artists imagine possible worlds, as they turn their art to the history of slavery rather than any effort to ignore that tarnished past, so it follows that a deeper, more compelling art results. Writers, in particular whose imaginations are historically aware – that is, with a sensibility honed by the more formal aspects of the arts that concern craft and through a moral compass wakened by an engagement with history – seem predisposed to solving the contradiction of the history of the transatlantic slave trade of Britain and Europe.
The arts, with history as its moral compass, can make huge leaps in the evolution of thought and responsibility, including the nature of a slave past that gave rise to the modern present. Neo-slave narratives, that contemporary form of imaginative enquiry into the slave trade, seek to bridge the gap between an active past of slavery and a passive sense in the present that all the horror is over and done with for the time being.
The modern slave narrative reimagines that scary trade, not to spread guilt about it, but to remember at such a deep level that the act of imagination enables strategies to surface that help to dismantle behaviour in the present.
The white child in that Cullen poem from the 1920s will in all likelihood be a white child in the 2020s going by the resurgence of bigotry among whites concerning blacks. Power in politics, the economy and society continues to exploit any weakness in the populace, and a racial bias may be the most convenient given its careful delineation as an economic system for so long and its principle position in the formation of thinking about whiteness in the developed West. What if we give the descendants of that child a good story with strong characters from a past ruled by violence of one group over another expressly for economic gain? The hope is that such a book will grow in the reader a natural aversion to any repetition of such barbarity.
The example of the centuries-long transatlantic slave trade, a triangle between Africa, the New World and Europe, resulted in a body of autobiographies written or reported by slaves as well as fictions about the experience of the enslaved and the motives of the enslaver. Taken as a whole, these works present the opportunity for a successful move by nations from despotism to enlightenment, from shame or blame about the blight of slavery to an understanding of the many ways for former slaving territories to come to terms with their histories as a necessary step toward civility and modernity.
MY WORK IS concerned with a history of black people’s dismembered bodies. I counter the dismembering with creative and critical acts of remembering black people in history.
James Joyce said that history was a nightmare from which he was trying to awake. He meant the Catholic and British colonial history of Ireland. History, for writers preoccupied with the transatlantic slave trade, globalisation and transnational currents, leaves no separation between waking and sleeping. Instead, there is a continuous present wakefulness that runs from those past lives into the lives of present writers. The nightmare frames consciousness itself. And since consciousness never sleeps, the condition of worrying about the past shapes the creative imagination. A writer in the grip of this state of mind, tied to an awareness of history as a force in the life of the writer, insists on that link with the past for the vitality of the art of writing and for the meaning given to the life of the writer.
As early as 1900, WEB Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk portrayed black consciousness in terms of the depredations of slavery that would become a mental degeneration; from generations of servitude would arise the need, as Marley put it in ‘Redemption song’, to ‘emancipate yourself from mental slavery’, or what Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o refers to as a necessary ‘decolonisation of the mind’. This must occur among citizens and within governments, alongside independence, if decolonised nations are to free themselves from patterns of domination.
The international movement of writers who have emerged from colonies, writers who have crossed borders, at least two territories, are in a good position to understand and oppose ongoing challenges to our humanity. The arts are not for keeping in temperature-controlled spaces, nor are they for ritual consumption. These arts take to the street and protest oppression even as they celebrate flesh and blood, speech and memory, antiquity and futurity.
I am the first to confess that my enslaved ancestors do not equal automatic moral rectitude on my part. A process of artistic awakening must take place. There has to be a politics of the imagination, a sense of a morality fuelling the process of imagined inventions. Why? Because we live in a moral multi-universe. My art, as a result of my knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade, sets out to show value in all life, to venerate the gift of our planet that must be nurtured, as one would hallow ground.
The hurts of the past haunt my present. I cannot help thinking about history from the viewpoint of the dispossessed and oppressed peoples under-represented in histories. Rather than being lost to time, I find that I face unique challenges as a storyteller. I have to capture the feeling for the word, image, smell, sound, taste, touch or dream that got me going in the first place. The outrage that I feel powers me through many long and difficult spells of writing a story, poem, play or essay. I may move from hurt to joy but it takes a long time to get there, and a lot of work to achieve something respectable.
IN HIS NARRATIVE of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass tells the story of how he learned to read by trickery at a time when slaves were forbidden to read and write. He was a few years older than the children in the Cullen poem. Douglass played with a white child and each time they met he made an approximate scrawl of a letter on the ground with a stick and watched and remembered as the child called Douglass a fool, and promptly corrected any mistakes in the writing. Douglass managed this game over a period of time and worked through the entire alphabet. He graduated to words that he heard around the plantation. Here literacy is a trope in the story of becoming literate under an inhuman system. More than that, learning to read and write starts Douglass on a course of self-discovery and freedom.
Douglass’s trickster persona is invention parading as utilitarian deceit. Who would not forgive him? His procedure is a fictional device, to pretend in order to bring about some imagined end, which is what a good poem or story enacts. Douglass speaks from experience but his formal organising of his autobiography to increase awareness of the abolitionist cause roots his work in a politics of art many writers shun these days as somehow beneath their craft.
The dialogue between society and the artist happens whether artists pay attention to it or not. Take, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement that started in the US and has spread to black communities all over the West. I could ignore the youth-and-women-led protest group and continue merrily on my way as a mature writer. Or I could connect the dots between police killings of black people with the lynch mobs of the past and the slave system that gave rise and credence to it. There is no contest in settling on the latter. To do so invigorates my thinking, my writing and keeps me locked in on the very contemporary issues that have foundations in slavery.
The big difference between Black Lives Matter and me is that while I join them in protest, I must return to my desk and find the stories that tackle the problems from a writer’s perspective. Politics cannot be divorced from aesthetics. I see the beginnings of a unity between my awareness of history and my writing that leads me to spaces where I do not figure as a black writer, preoccupied with blackness. I am proud of my skin and its cultural affinities, but see my nervous system as not contingent on the colour of my skin. This is not to say that I see myself as aligned with whiteness (without the need to define any loyalties) at the expense of my Caribbean heritage. But I am not bound by racial subjects that seem in the main to do with injustice and the need to right a set of wrongs done to blacks by the white-run system.
MY DREAMS ARE not black dreams. In fact, I have never had a dream where I can identify myself as a black man dreaming. Mostly I occupy my raceless body (not aligned to any known group) and find it difficult to keep up with the quantum leaps of dreaming. This dream-life signals where my art wishes to be from now on: broadly in sync with a humanist ethic (justice, ecology, equality, peace and, yes, love, too) narrowly preoccupied with the daily practice of my art and craft.
The realism of my craft – that it should shun frills and magic and stick to a matter-of-fact, hard-nosed, thing-centred tone – remains in negotiation with my penchant for the surreal, the intuited, the numinous, surely a remnant of my childhood in Guyana where a high premium was placed on superstition. I embrace the broad church of my aesthetics. It is really my surrender to the fact of my subconscious taking up so much room in my head. How can my rational and conscious mind dictate all the terms for an engagement with my life of dreams and intuition; of having a strong feel for a thing long before I manage to garner facts about it; of an art invested in an emotional intelligence over and above rationality.
Rationality never gave me a single good line in a poem, even as I spent hours in a rational state of mind chipping away at my work. Why invoke Angelou’s caged soul, if not for how it resonates with meanings? She expresses a condition of the artist as forced to sing despite, and in spite of, the material conditions or traumas that seek to stifle creativity. It was and shall always be that a subject moves me to such an extent that I devote large portions of my waking life to exploring it. Nutty, if you ask me, but writing informs everything that I do in my life.