notes on method I: lessons from the group chat

A week or so ago, I had a debate with my siblings. It started off as typical group-chat fare: I ask a difficult question, with an interest in seeing how people think about the question, rather than coming up with a solution. My question was: “Do y’all think we were just ‘chilling’ in Africa before the Europeans arrived?” Immediately, my eldest brother was suspicious:

Jason: ppl had civilizations, empires, villages, cities. im not sure what you are looking for

My question, which I did not intend to be provocative but invariably was, was more rooted in the construction of history — its inherently fictitious nature — than in documenting a set of historical truths. By outlining the fictions of history, I mean to dispel the pretense to truth that makes certain fictions viable as histories and bars others from consideration as myths, legends or mere stories. In this case, I am questioning the common history of blackness endemic to a particular brand of post-Négritude thinkers, call them hoteps or neo-Négritudists or Afrocentrists. I am not interested in telling you that Molefi Kete Asante is wrong because I don’t think he is anymore wrong than Orlando Patterson or David Brion Davis. Rather, historians and philosophers of history endeavor to narrativize history, to make past events make sense within a continuity, and to explain what had hitherto remained inexplicable. Once you acknowledge that all history is fiction, you are able to ask an entirely new set of questions that read to those who accept history-as-fact as little more than idle provocation. As I’ve said to friends in passing, the critic is ultimately a mad person. But I’ll save this for another post.

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Slavery and History in Chamoiseau’s L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse

This is a presentation script prepared for Christopher Miller’s course Slavery and its Aftermath in French and Francophone Literature.

L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse is a novel written by Martinican author and 1992 Prix Goncourt winner Patrick Chamoiseau, published originally by Gallimard in 1997. The novel tells the story of an old man who, under the spell of a mythical ailment known only as the décharge, flees captivity into the woods surrounding his master’s plantation. He is thereafter chased by the Master and his mastiff, the rest of the novel recounting the triptych of these three characters’ inevitable boundedness to one another. While there is so much to be said about this short text, my presentation today will attempt to situate Chamoiseau’s novel within a political and aesthetic discourse on history in relation to Martinique’s curious position within the French nationalist archipelago. When we read a novel like L’esclave vieil homme, we are not only reading a novel about a past which has been, within the French cultural and national memory, willfully repressed and unquestionably overlooked, but we are also, in our act of reading, contributing to a counternarrative, a counter-history which brings into questions contextualizes, resists and defies the dominant narrative, that thing which we call History with a capital H. My presentation will look exactly at the question of L’esclave vieil homme as a literary object which attempts to reconfigure the ways we ought to think about French History with a capital H as a historical imposition which subjects of les vieilles colonies in particular must endure. In doing so, I draw broad strokes around the complexities and intricacies of a particularly ultramarin possibility for postcolonialism, given that colonialism in the Antilles and Reunion never formally ended.

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Fugitive manhood in Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.

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