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Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic
By Michelle D. Commander
Duke University PressCopyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THE SEARCH FOR ANCESTRAL TRACES IN BLACK SPECULATIVE NARRATIVES
Thomas Allen Harris's documentary É Minha Cara/That's My Face traces a formative period of the Black American filmmaker's early life during which he is haunted in his dreams by spirits and a hovering, red-faced female figure that his Christian grandmother suggests is Satan but that a Cuban family friend conversely identifies as a mystical being representing a messenger from the Yoruba pantheon. Harris, frightened and intrigued by the insistence of these visions, seeks answers to their recurrences throughout his life, eventually expressing a longing for psychic unification with the ancestors across time and space. The narrative composition of Harris's film consists of interviews with his family members about their religious beliefs and Africa and how they intersect with or part from the journey that Harris initiated just before his eighth birthday, when he became aware of his double vision. "My left eye," Harris explains in a voice-over, "sees completely normal, but my right eye never, ever focuses — it's as if it sees not the object but its essence ... its aura. ... Now I find myself with this double vision, looking for a place where I can be at peace as myself searching for my own Africa." Harris's grandfather's reported unrealized desire to discover his distant ancestral roots and failure to secure a sense of freedom from American racism that only Africa could offer piqued Harris's mother's interest in ancestral homelands as well. This generational fascination with moving toward Africa in rejection of social and cultural isolation within the United States propels Harris's own journeys in northeastern Brazil.
The documentary is, in essence, an exercise of generational speculation about Africa, which is carried out by the youngest descendant's intradiasporic travel. The soundtrack — music, interviews, narrator's script — is fused deftly with old family pictures and Super 8 silent film footage shot by Harris, his grandfather, and his stepfather from the 1960s to the 1990s in the United States; Tanzania; and Bahia, Brazil. Images dissolve into one another throughout the film and serve as an indication to the audience that Harris's past and present are intertwined. Evocative refrains, too, occur — particularly in the aural insistence of a disembodied female voice, perhaps Harris's version of a ghost or deity, chanting for him to "Go to Brazil, find the orixas there," which is juxtaposed with the repetition of a recording of his grandmother's persistence, "You need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. You need to serve Him." This time travel to recoup family lore and images sets the audience up for Harris's impending journey to Bahia. Africa, as Harris had experienced it on the continent proper in Tanzania as a child, had not sated his desire for identity completion. He is led to Bahia in search of spiritual salvation, contact with ancestors, and clarity. In a startling voice-over directed at the haunting presence of his avidly Christian, long-deceased grandmother, Harris explains his pending spiritual exploration: "All my life, I've felt the presence of a power beyond me, but your God is not mine. Your Christ is not the face I see in my dreams. Where do I find that face? My face?"
Taking its cue from Harris's quest for recognition in É Minha Cara, this chapter examines the trope of travel as it is utilized in cultural production by and about Black Americans as a means of allaying dispossession via time travel back to the era of slavery, intradiasporic movements, and traversals of the African continent. In literary and filmic texts, various modes of travel offer spaces for authors and their protagonists to come to terms with their complicated diasporan positionalities by allowing — often forcing — them to experience their ancestral pasts and Africa as potentially restorative, redemptive measures. It is as if the travelers in these texts are haunted by a ghostly imperative to seek out the faces — the literal visages, cultures, and traditions — of their ancestors. In what follows, I will analyze several neo-slave narratives and travel accounts concerning travel toward Africa to illustrate how speculative flights work to provide a twentieth- or twenty-first-century response, if not always an antidote or an answer, to the radical violence of and dispossession caused by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century transatlantic slavery. In these diverse contemporary texts, including Maya Angelou's All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Haile Gerima's Sankofa, Eddy Harris's Native Stranger, Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, and Reginald McKnight's I Get on the Bus, the inherited mark of slavery is not necessarily healed but, at least, is palliated by the travel that these protagonists undertake. Potentially restorative travels are not only made by the fictional characters that I will discuss but also by actual persons who head back to sites of slavery for healing. While scholars heretofore have tended to think about the neo-slave genre as that which illustrates how the past informs the present and future, I argue that it also works in the reverse — using trips back to repossess imagined origins. Fantastic flights are vexed propositions, as they allow protagonists to attend to the wounds and ruptures caused by slavery. Yet, as will be explored in the nonfiction travel accounts covered throughout this book, speculative acts often lead dispossessed travelers on perpetual return journeys to recover what they imagine has been lost.
Lived Experience: The Fantastic, Neo-Slave Narratives, and Shame
This perplexing emotion is also passed from each generation to the next; the transfer is mediated directly by critical scenes of shame which become internalized through imagery but which then are reactive and reenacted with others.
— Gershen Kaufman and Lev Raphael, Coming out of Shame
Throughout the speculative texts explored in this chapter, there is a necessity for the Black American protagonists, who are always already travelers and always already socially alienated, to re-create, revive, become one with, and/or convene with the physically dead and thus repatriated though ever-present ancestors. The realization of such desires often hinges on the employment of the fantastic, whose themes in literature typically involve the following: "harried souls in search of peace, asking for specific actions"; "ghosts condemned to endless travels"; "personified death walking among the living"; "inversions of dream and reality"; and the "repetition of time sequences." As a literary mode, the fantastic reveals "forgotten Middle Passages between Africa and America ... [and] 'indicates a rupture in recognized order, the irruption of the inadmissible in the midst of the unalterable everyday legality,' like a crack in the spatial time continuum that serves as a framework to ordinary experience." This fantastic is not science fiction or fantasy in the way we might imagine it traditionally, but a new understanding that includes communing with those who have gone before. Readers often see this temporal dynamic portrayed in texts in which elders from the U.S. South, for instance, serve as griots whose repetitious storytelling and warning to their migrating families to "never forget" their ancestors inscribes a rootedness and regard for the past as prologue. In addition to nonfiction narratives that chronicle the diasporan's travel to the African continent, several authors employ the fantastic to explore alternatives to Black American natal alienation and genealogical isolation. The impulse that undergirds these literary and filmic narratives has helped structure a more popular imaginary that propels much of the cultural roots tourism and expatriation that I explore in subsequent chapters. The cultural texts examined herein approach Black American flights in the following ways: time travel to the past in which the protagonist assumes an active role on a slave plantation; dreamscapes and hallucinations about the protagonist's ancestors and her African pasts and futures; and the author-protagonist's physical return to the African continent or other symbolic Africas as described in fiction and nonfiction texts. I show how instability throughout each narrative drives the protagonists to a crisis point, forcing them to grapple with questions of diasporan identity with which they may not have dealt previously — particularly not to the degree that temporal displacement, madness, and trauma proffer.
The production of post-civil rights era neo-slave narratives and historical fiction has been crucial to Black American cultural identity and to the engagement with master narratives, which often marginalize the African descended from the nation. Neo-slave narratives, Ashraf Rushdy explains, "assume the form, adopt the conventions, and take on the first-person voice of the antebellum slave narrative" in service of intervening in contemporary debates to which they offer a historical situation. The production of these texts also illumines the desire of authors to return to the literary form through which Black Americans originally had asserted their "political subjectivity in order to mark the moment of a newly emergent black political subject." In these speculative texts, Black American authors respond to the linking of Black social alienation with what Ron Eyerman refers to as "cultural trauma" among Black Americans and other diasporans. Cultural trauma, Eyerman maintains, is "mediated through various forms of representation and linked to the reformation of collective identity and the rewording of collective memory. As opposed to psychological or physical trauma, which involves a wound and the experience of great emotional anguish by an individual, cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion."
While the trauma need not have been experienced directly by all, this dispossession or natal alienation, "the loss of ties of birth in both ascending and descending generations," is endemic to Black Americans and other diasporans, who historically have responded by attempting to construct a triumphalist narrative through the collective memory in which "the past becomes present through symbolic interactions, through narrative and discourse, with memory itself being a product of both, 'called upon to legitimate identity, to construct and reconstruct it.'" The cultural trauma catalyzed by the Middle Passage and slavery may be sutured by the exercise of what Sara Clarke Kaplan has described as "diasporan melancholia," an "embodied individual and collective psychic practice with the political potential to transform grief into the articulation of grievances that traverse continents and cross time. ... As a political practice, diasporic melancholia can thus be understood as ... the refusal to declare the past resolved." According to Kaplan, melancholia is practiced through a range of engagements with the past, including religious ceremonies and spiritual possession. It is crucial that we understand that this phenomenon — the practice of a kind of intentional melancholia — occurs not only in literary and filmic texts, some of which I will examine herein, but also in real lives. To be sure, this study brings into focus such a cultural logic as it appears in both cultural production and lived tourism and expatriation.
Engagements with the traumatic and unspeakable are also enacted in Black American traveling culture whereby physical movements across the Afro-Atlantic (including Africa) and flights of the fictive literary and filmic imaginations propel the traveling protagonist toward the past to engage with historical realities, which arm her with the necessary understanding of the prior events and institutions and perhaps even improve her and other Black Americans' chance at realizing social life in the present. The idea of a palimpsest is critical here, as it demands a rejection of quasi-progressive thought in the post-civil rights moment that posits that the United States has moved into a postracial moment and that the sins of the past have been reconciled sufficiently. The present, in fact, is "always written against a background where the past is erased but still legible." In the neo-slave narratives discussed in this chapter, each author employs time travel by figuring the temporal as horizontal and chaotic, while Western time is conceived as movement from an origin point through cyclical periods of rest and conflict — it thrives off progress. The African diasporan sense of the temporal is synonymous with Sheila Smith McKoy's concept of "limbo time," which is "located in West African belief in the cycle of time. Tradition bonds African culture across space and time to the extent that the living are responsible for answering to their ancestors for their behavior. In essence, tradition binds Diaspora cultures to their African roots across space and time in that the ancestor — the mythical and spiritual embodiment of another time — maintains a constant relationship with the living. In effect, there exists a living transcendental pact that is grounded in another temporal space."
In my examination of these speculative texts, I maintain that the ancestral past is deemed by each author as critical to her protagonist's (immediate) future, and that, concerning the larger context of the Black American imaginary, neo-slave narratives highlight the traveler's understanding that to satiate her longing for origins, she should visit sites from which her inherited dispossession commenced to grapple with her plight and shame and to move closer to Africa culturally and politically. While the original narrative form of the written Black American travel narrative — that which was written by freedmen and freedwomen about their fugitivity to promote an abolitionist agenda — focused mainly on the liberty offered by the future and distance away from the reality of the plantation, a brief reading of Butler's novel Kindred reveals a compelling trend in post-1965 speculative texts about slavery and Africa that points strategically to the importance of remembering the past to critique and manage one's positionality in the present. The novel also signals why the U.S. South is emerging as an alternative site of homecoming and ancestral memorialization for diasporan travelers.
Kindred is set in the midst of the U.S. bicentennial year of 1976, a year that was highly anticipated and rife with extravagant events across the country to commemorate the nation's independence from British colonial rule. The novel is a fantastic exploration in which Dana Franklin, the protagonist, involuntarily travels into and out of her family's life in antebellum Maryland beginning in 1819, maintaining the memories of both of her lives on either temporal side. In a 1991 interview with Randall Kenan, Butler revealed that Kindred manifested as a "reaction to some of the things going on during the sixties when people were feeling ashamed of, or more strongly, angry with their parents for not having improved things faster, and I wanted to take a person from today and send that person back to slavery." Butler sought to develop a narrative to challenge a faction of young Black nationalists who naively postured as if the revolution began when they became politically conscious. She accomplishes this literary critique by forcing Dana to endure the physical and emotional trauma of slavery, including ruthless violence, though Dana reappears in the 1976 moment each time she meets the threat of certain death. Through Butler's frustrating, capricious time travel methodology, Dana interacts with her ancestors and experiences slavery directly, and identifies the foremost purpose of her flight to be the saving of the rambunctious Rufus Weylin, a young boy whose family owns her enslaved forebears. In fact, when Dana is summoned to the past for the first time, she is going about her everyday life in Los Angeles, unpacking books in her and her husband's new home when suddenly she feels ill, her vision blurs, and she falls to her knees, only to become conscious in the same position but in the grass nearby a river, where she sees a small boy floating face down. She rushes to save his life, not yet realizing that she does so to ensure her own.
Excerpted from Afro-Atlantic Flight by Michelle D. Commander. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
1. Fantastic Flights: the Search of Ancestral Traces in Black Speculative Narratives 25
2. The Production of Homeland Returns: Misrecognitions and the Unsteady Path toward the Black Fantastic in Ghana 75
3. "We Love to be Africans": Saudade and Affective Performance in Bahia, Brazil 123
4. Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South 173
Conclusion. "Say Me My Name": Genetic Science and the Emerging Speculative Technologies in the Construction of Afro-Atlantic Reconciliatory Projects 221
What People are Saying About This
“Afro-Atlantic Flight enters at a point at which there have been so many critiques of the mythmaking involved in imagining ‘Africa’ that the beauty, the justified yearning, and the revolutionary potential of such imagining have been lost. Michelle D. Commander escapes this trap, countering it with empathy for her objects of analysis, even as she subjects them to a critical gaze. Employing beautiful logic, a powerful argument, and writing that is both graceful and capacious, Commander brings together contemporary currents of thought in new ways to create this truly original piece of scholarship.”
“Michelle D. Commander’s tremendously illuminating work will be a seminal study on the psychological, political, and quite literal flights experienced by African Americans and their kin in the post-civil rights United States and postcolonial African Diaspora. Wonderfully executed, creative, and comprehensive, Afro-Atlantic Flight deeply enhances our understanding of how signifiers like heritage, diaspora, and Africa have functioned over the last several decades.”