In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes and debates about cultural appropriation.
A recent, very long round was set off by “Open Casket,” a painting by Dana Schutz, which portrayed, in an abstract swirl, the body of Emmett Till, the black teenager tortured and lynched in 1955. There were calls for the painting to be removed from the Whitney Biennial — even destroyed. It is “not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” read an open letter by artist Hannah Black. An essay by Zadie Smith (which proved contentious in its own right) distilled the furor down to the question: “Who owns black pain?”
The debate over “Open Casket” followed in a long line of such controversies, including a public reading by poet Kenneth Goldsmith, in which he performed, as a poem, the autopsy report of Michael Brown, the black teenager killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
On the nature of black pain, works like those by Schutz and Goldsmith can feel as useful as “The Cat in the Hat.” They’re strangely callow — capable only of pointing at suffering — and marked by a titillated interest in “the black body” evacuated of all personhood or individuality.
These limitations are especially stark compared to the wealth of black art and scholarship about trauma: work by historian Saidiya Hartman, poet Claudia Rankine, memoirist and novelist Jesmyn Ward — and so many others who participate in what the writer Christina Sharpe has called “wake work,” art that bears witness to the shadow of slavery and conceives of itself as a kind of care over the living and the dead.
Two new books fit beautifully into this tradition. Written almost 70 years apart, and in very different genres, both tell the stories of Africans captured and sold into slavery in the New World: “Slave Old Man,” a novel first published in France in 1997, by the Martiniquais writer Patrick Chamoiseau, and “Barracoon,” the true story of a survivor of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, by Zora Neale Hurston.
“Slave Old Man” is Chamoiseau’s strongest work since his masterpiece, “Texaco,” awarded the 1992 Prix Goncourt. It’s the story of an unnamed old man, his master and a monster — the plantation mastiff trained to hunt down runaways. Children and adults tried their best to keep the animal from catching their scent — “with that in its nostrils, it could sculpt you in its dreams, taste in anticipation the splendors of your blood.”
The book unfurls as an extended chase sequence. One day, the old man flees for the forest, the mastiff in pursuit. As he goes further into the woods, he moves deeper into his own past. He encounters “once again the nightmares of the slave-ship holds” and hallucinates “blocks of blood that scatter into shrieks.” He channels the history of the island and of the slave trade. In his mind he plunges into the watery graveyard of the Atlantic: “He sees himself as bone powder transforming into seaweed and rusty chain links. He sees skulls sheltering translucid fish.”
“Slave Old Man” is a cloudburst of a novel, swift and compressed — but every page pulses, blood-warm. “Literature in a living place must be taken alive,” Chamoiseau once wrote.
The prose is so electrifyingly synesthetic that, on more than one occasion, I found myself stopping to rub my eyes in disbelief. Chamoiseau writes “with both studied care and fond disrespect for words,” according to the book’s translator, Linda Coverdale. He jumbles together Creole and French — bricolage is his ethic and his aesthetic. “You can’t go to a library and find out what really happened in Martinique,” he once said. “You have to go to the oral tradition. For the people who were dominated, there is no history, no past. These people don’t have a voice. The Europeans tell our story. So you have to go to the storyteller.”
This is the technique of “Barracoon” — and was, for a long time, its major liability in finding a publisher. In 1927, Hurston, at the behest of a mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas, went straight to the storyteller, traveling to Alabama to interview Cudjo Lewis, 86, the last living African brought to America aboard a slave ship. (“Barracoon” is a word for the barracks built near the coast, where the enslaved were kept until they boarded the ships.)
The book was completed almost a century ago. Publishers considered her use of dialect too alienating, and there was a worry that the blunt description of Africans selling their own into slavery was too incendiary.
Hurston herself is present only at the edges of the narrative, but she is unmistakable. She is most beloved for her novels, particularly “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” but she was also a gifted folklorist, and the qualities that distinguished her are on display in this early work: her patience, persistence and charisma; her ability to read her subjects; her tact. She has an unerring instinct of when to push Lewis — and when to slip away and leave him to his memories. She brings him gifts and company. They talk over “a marvelous mess of blue crabs,” “excellent late melons” and huge quantities of clingstone peaches.
Lewis was a widower when Hurston found him. Many of his children had died, and he was desperately lonely. He asked for his portrait to be taken in his family graveyard, where everyone had vanished to — “dey lonesome for one ‘nother.”
The details he shared with Hurston are indelible. He was captured as a teenager and marched into the ocean toward a slave ship, the water reaching his neck. He told of days in darkness in the hold of the ship, and the sour water given to drink twice a day, acrid with vinegar to prevent scurvy.
This term — “the hold” — is emblematic in Sharpe’s concept of “wake work,” referring to the psychic persistence of this space in black life. Chamoiseau returns to it often — “the holds-wombs of slave ships.” But this literature meets the horror of “the hold” with the injunction “to hold.” There is, in Chamoiseau’s conjuring and Hurston’s attentive gaze, not restitution but the consolations of kinship and witness, the sweetness of clingstone peaches, of the life built within the constraints.
Hurston once arrived at Lewis’ home and was sent away. He had no time for the past that day. He wanted to work in his garden.
“Slave Old Man”
By Patrick Chamoiseau
Translated from the French and Creole by Linda Coverdale
151 pages. The New Press. $19.99.
“Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo'”
Edited by Deborah G. Plant
By Zora Neale Hurston
171 pages. Amistad. $24.99.
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