Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

(Very) close to the bone

A dire alchemy; but nonetheless, an alchemy: ‘Literary Archaeology: Exploring the Lived Environment of the Slave’ is about archaeologising memories of slavery.

Ralph Hoyte
21 August 2016
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Zanzibar: Memory of Slaves. missy//flickr.cc(by)

Archaeology is digging things up and making inferences about the lives and cultures of the people who left or used the discovered objects. Literary archaeology is metaphorically ‘digging up’ the writings on and of long-gone people and cultures and making inferences about their lives and cultures from the writings. But for this project we are going one step further. We are archaeologising memory. So where are these memories to be found? Can we dig them up? Find them? Re-imagine the life of the enslaved? How to construct this, when memory is itself a constructed narrative, both on the individual level as well as shared?

These particular memories exist as bones scattered in a cemetery in Gran Canaria. Can the bones speak? No. Can the scientists speak for them? Well, the scientists say, “3: Female 20–25 Right lateral SW-NE – Possible earring/glass beads”, or “Individual: 1 δ18OVPDB – 4.2 δ13Ccarb – 10.7”. This is a kind of poetry in itself, the poetry of which we are made, the poetry of our basic building blocks; the poetry of life which expresses itself in any way it can, given the circumstances it finds itself in.

So what route to take? How to approach the topic? What is the structure? These are always the first questions I am confronted with when I am commissioned to write ‘a work’ (and being commissioned to write about ‘something’ is my main way of working). I think I work more like a sculptor than a poet or writer: I have to have a ‘structural backbone’. Then the words appear out of nowhere and get bolted on to the scaffolding.

The sheer horror of ‘the lives of the enslaved’ hits me. How dare I?

These concerns get even more pointed when I look at the theme. Slavery. How is one supposed to write about slavery? What’s the angle? ‘_Re-imagining the life of the enslaved_’ – wow! A scientific approach goes only so far. Scientists can – will – only say ‘our results indicate…’ or ‘the prevailing evidence points to…’. Historians can –will – only say ‘in 1492 …’ and then proceed on the basis of their own cultural conditioning and persuasions. What can writers and poets say? Well, I could be a romanticist and write ‘romantically’ about the lives of the enslaved (if you look up ‘romanticism’ the definition is framed in terms of the nineteenth-century Romantic movement, but modern use of the term seems to imply a heightened and even overblown thickly daubed-on artistic palette; something ‘larger-than-life’); or I could write a kind of costume drama, in which the dry bones of the story are fleshed out in a kind of faux-historical narrative; I could –

And then the sheer horror of ‘the lives of the enslaved’ hits me. How dare I? How can such suffering, such numbers be approached at all? The only thing I know is that I, too, am a product of a system of slavery, through many pathways, and many inter-twined fates and bloodlines, and across three continents; and, that ‘a transformation’ has occurred, is occurring, is always occurring. It is/was a dire transformation and a dire passage, but, what else have we got? A narrative of victimisation which sits sour in me belly like the green guava me di tief off de neighbour tree an’ Miss Ivy she did tell me, ‘eh, Master Ralph….’? ‘Master Ralph’ – class, too, always present. Do I want to write a victimisation narrative? Well, let’s at least give the finger to that one:

Shipshape and Bristol Fashion they did go
Down the Avon Gorge under the cliffs in tow
Out to the Bristol Channel where the Severn did flow
Carrying trinkets for the African Kings, Yo heave ho!

Ho! And out to the Bristol Channel where the Severn did flow
Carrying trinkets for the African Kings, Yo heave ho!

The winds o’er to the Guinea Coast their ship did blow
They anchored in the Bight of Benin and to the shore did row
They loaded up with slaves till their gunwhales were low
And set off for Amerikee with their cargo of woe

Ho! They loaded up with slaves till their gunwhales were low
And set off for Amerikee with their cargo of woe

And back from the Americas they did come
Loaded to the gunwhales with sugar, 'baccy and rum
Ho King of Spain here’s one up yer bum
An' a pox on the Frenchies and those Portuguese scum!

[CHORUS]
Ho! King of Spain that's one up yer bum
An' a pox on the Frenchies and those Portuguese scum!

So, no victims. Have patience with me while I argue that ‘being a victim’ requires that the victim agrees to be victimised. Dat likkle rasta-man on de corner of Jelf Road, Brixton. When I did arsk him is what him feel ‘bout dem always oppress I-man for why, him did tell me seh: “_I no business wid de Man business_” and went on to explain that if ‘de Man’ wanted to oppress him, then dat was The Man’s problem, not his. I don’t think I could live that, but I’ve remembered that for, oh, 25 years: to be ‘oppressed’, to be ‘a victim’ requires you accept the label. He denied it, so ‘the oppressor’ became the one carrying the burden of historical oppression, not him.

Where does that leave poets and writers? Not Romanticised. Not Historical (costume) drama. Not Victimisation. When Skuld (‘being’), Urd ('fate') and Verdandi ('necessity') spin and the Iron Maiden gapes: why, transform yourself!

The bones gather themselves, from Finca Clavijo the bones gather themselves. They emerge from tiny rustles in the foliage; they erupt, snarling, out of the ground; they scrape the clay off themselves; they roll, creep, rattle; they crawl, simper over the dry soil; they clack their teeth. Es el Día de Muertos. The back swash of herstory eddies her loops around them; the far-off Milky Way; they congeal, congregate, clabber; they fuse, join: I am the composite one, of this one am I made, of that one, of the little one who died in childhood, of the Forokuromhene of Ashanti, the Adowahemmaa, of the Golden Tree, the Nyame Dua of Nana Ameyaw Kwaakye, the mother of dental enamel hypoplasia. Sing then Brothers, sing, Sisters, for it will be a dread song…

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