Literatures of the Black Atlantic – Recommended readings
Crowning the last week of the Black History Month in the USA and Canada, I have come up with a selection of novels/autobiography that focuses on slavery, passages, crossings, displacements; but also treating the reinvention of identity from the mixed heritage of the Black Atlantic. – Fred D’Aguiar, Condé, Levy, Phillips and more.
In his seminal study “The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness” (1992), Paul Gilroy postulated that personal identities, histories, and cultures are constituted by processes of exchange rather than by the allegiance to a single place of origin. Gilroy shifts the focus from land to sea, from single nations to the Atlantic as a space of transition – initially the enforced transportation of African slaves, via European sea ports like Liverpool, to the slave markets of the Caribbean, later the reflux of the West Indian workforce into the European job market. These processes of deportation, then, more positively, of cross-cultural exchange, travel, and communication produced the heterogeneous cultural space of the Black Atlantic, encompassing African, European, Caribbean, and American culture, literature, music, and art.
This collection of texts covers everything from the Black Atlantic to life in the Africa diaspora. Reading them calls up emotions of anger, hurt, hatred, revenge but also of forgiveness, letting go, love and above all Healing. If you want to learn more of slavery, its effects and the Black Atlantic without necessarily reading history books, then these books will help you get an insight – some of them though fiction, are based on real life stories.
1. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (an autobiography); by Harriet A. Jacobs
Excerpts from Chapter V: The Trials Of Girlhood.
During the first years of my service in Dr. Flint’s family, I was accustomed to share some indulgences with the children of my mistress. Though this seemed to me no more than right, I was grateful for it, and tried to merit the kindness by the faithful discharge of my duties. But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. I tried to treat them with indifference or contempt. The master’s age, my extreme youth, and the fear that his conduct would be reported to my grandmother, made him bear this treatment for many months. He was a crafty man, and resorted to many means to accomplish his purposes. Sometimes he had stormy, terrific ways, that made his victims tremble; sometimes he assumed a gentleness that he thought must surely subdue. Of the two, I preferred his stormy moods, although they left me trembling. He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men. The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe. Surely, if you credited one half the truths that are told you concerning the helpless millions suffering in this cruel bondage, you at the north would not help to tighten the yoke. You surely would refuse to do for the master, on your own soil, the mean and cruel work which trained bloodhounds and the lowest class of whites do for him at the south.
For the complete autobiography, click here
2. Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D’Aguiar
Inspired by a true story, this suspenseful and moving book chronicles an incident of courage and rebellion that took place aboard a disease-riddled slave ship, the Zong, returning from Africa. When illness threatens to infect all on board, the ship’s captain orders his crew to seize the sick slaves – men, women and children – and throw them into the sea. But one female slave, Mintah, survives drowning and secretly climbs back onto the ship. From her hiding place, she attempts to rouse the remaining captives to rebel against the killings, becoming a dangerous force on the ship. A trial is held upon the ship’s arrival to determine liability for the 131 missing slaves. The crew is nearly absolved of responsibility until Mintah’s journal is produced, which directly contradicts the crew’s accounts. The final words belong to Mintah, whose first-person account of her life after the Zong is troubling and dramatic. D’Aguiar’s imagery is haunting, his characters’ thoughts complex and the mood is darkly compelling.
3. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Moi, Tituba, Sorcière) by Maryse Condé
From the warm shores of seventeenth-century Barbados to the harsh realities of the slave trade, and the cold customs of Puritanical New England, Tituba, the only black victim of the Salem witch trials, recalls a life of extraordinary experiences and mystical powers.
At the age of seven, Tituba watched as her mother was hanged for daring to wound a plantation owner who tried to rape her. Tituba was raised from then on by Mama Yaya, a gifted woman who shared with her the secrets of healing and magic. But it was Tituba’s blind, all-consuming love of the slave John Indian that led her from safety into slavery, and the bitter, vengeful religion practiced by the good citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Though protected by the spirits, Tituba could not escape the lies and accusations of that hysterical time.
As history and fantasy merge, Maryse Conde, acclaimed author of Tree of Life and Segu, creates the richly imagined life of a fascinating woman in this lush novel.
4. Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau
With this passionate, funny, and inexhaustibly inventive novel, Patrick Chamoiseau produces nothing less than a mythic history of the Creole nation that arose from the forced marriage of French and African peoples in his native Martinique. Texaco traces one hundred and fifty years of post-slavery Caribbean history: a novel that is as much about self-affirmation engendered by memory as it is about a quest for the adequacy of its own form.
The chief spokeswoman for that nation is the indomitable and profanely wise Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the founder of Texaco, a teeming shantytown poised on the edge of a city that constantly threatens to engulf it.
Now Marie-Sophie is Texaco’s protectress as well. For only she can dissuade an urban planner from ordering her anarchic quarter razed to the ground. Like Scheherazade before her, she relies on stories – stories of slaves and sorcerers, thugs and courtesans, uprisings and eruptions. Beautifully told and masterfully orchestrated, Texaco is a work of symphonic complexity and irresistible brio.
5. Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips
An evocation of the scattered offspring of Africa. A voice speaking out of a distant past describes the consequences of his desperation: his daughter and two sons condemned to the hold of an English slave ship bound for America in 1753.
Here are the stories of these children: Nash, Martha, and Travis. Yet as the narrative unfolds, we come to understand that although they are his children, they are also all of slavery’s children: Nash, returning to Africa in the 1830s a Christian-educated adult, a missionary to the new territory of Liberia, slowly becoming a part of the world his “masters” intended him to convert… Martha, her own daughter and husband sold away from her, settling in the American “wild west” of the late nineteenth century, freeing herself from slavery but never from the weight of “such misery in one life” …Travis, an American GI stationed in a small Yorkshire village during the Second World War, finding an acceptance in England that he doesn’t know at home and that he may not be able to promise his half-English son.
These brilliantly resonant stories—along with the slave ship captain’s journal and the lamentations of the children’s father—become a “many-tongued chorus of common memory” so vivid and powerful that it bridges the gaps between continents and centuries, inextricably linking the many generations of the African diaspora, one to the other
6. A Harlot’s Progress by David Dabydeen
A Harlot’s Progress reinvents William Hogarth’s famous prints of 1732 which tell the story of a whore, a Jewish merchant, a magistrate and a quack doctor bound together by sexual and financial greed. Dabydeen’s novel endows Hogarth’s characters with alternative potential lives, redeeming them from their clichéd status as predators or victims. The protagonist – in Hogarth, a black slave boy, in Dabydeen, London’s oldest black inhabitant – tells his story to the Abolitionists in return for their charity. But instead of embarking upon yet another fictional journey into the dark nature of slavery for the voyeuristic delight of the English reader he spins a tale of myths, half-truths and fantasies, presenting a dazzling array of lives: recreating African and eighteenth–century London in startlingly poetic ways.
In this, his fourth novel, David Dabydeen opens up history to myriad imaginary interpretations, repopulating a vanished world with a strange, defiantly vivid and compassionate humanity.
7. Small Island by Andrea Levy
It is 1948, and England is recovering from a war, But at 21 Nevern Street, London, the conflict has only just begun.
Queenie Bligh’s neighbours do not approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but Queenie doesn’t know when, or if, her husband, Bernard, posted to India during the war, will return. What else can she do?
Gilbert Joseph was one of the several thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England as a civilian, he finds himself treated very differently. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, too, had longed to find a better life in England. But when she joins him she is shocked that London is far from the golden city of her dreams. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Through the stories of these people, Small Island explores a pint in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.
8. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
Sacred Hunger is a stunning and engrossing exploration of power, domination and greed. Filled with the “sacred hunger” to expand its empire and its profits, England emerged fully into the slave trade and spread the trade throughout its colonies. In this Booker Prize-winning work, Barry Unsworth follows the failing fortunes of William Kemp, a merchant pinning his last chance to a slave ship; his son who needs a fortune because he is in love with an upper-class woman; and his nephew who sails on the ship as its doctor because he has lost all he has loved. The voyage meets its demise when disease spreads among the slaves and the captain’s drastic response provokes a mutiny. Joining together, the sailors and the slaves set up a secret, utopian society in the wilderness of Florida, only to await the vengeance of the single-minded, young Kemp.
**** Project Gutenberg has a rich collection of autobiographies and texts on the American Negro and experiences in slavery. You will find a collection of these ebooks here free of charge.
Posted on February 28, 2015, in Book/Movie Reviews and tagged A Harlot's Progress, Andrea Levy, Auto-Biography, Autobiography, Barry Unsworth, Black Atlantic, Black History Month, Book, Caryl Phillips, Crossing the River, David Dabydeen, Diaspora, Feeding the Ghosts, Fred D'Aguiar, Harriet Jacobs, Identity, Literature, Liverpool, Maryse Condé, Novel, Patrick Chamoiseau, Paul Gilroy, Project Gutenberg, Sacred Hunger, Slave Trade, Slavery, Small Island, Texaco, Tituba. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.
This is an outstandingly stimulating overview of the broader narrative about the increasingly contentious discourse centred upon the crossings of culture, politics, economy, religion, mobility, modernity and both collective and personal destinies. I would personally advocate an organised debate here on the Last Immigrant to engage in seeking out common grounds of what the coinage Black Atlantic truly entails. In this light, the list above offers a very useful inroad into, and foundation for, further reflection on the ‘Black Atlantic’ at the intersection of academic teaching/research and the public sphere.
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An interesting and arousing review makes one dream up the books and feel the pages. Rich and moving wish I could lay my hands on them. Thanks for sharing.