In his Nobel Prize speech Derek Walcott noted that a “sense of elegy, of loss, even of degenerative mimicry” defines our understanding of the sweep of Caribbean and arguably post-plantation era history. Walcott considers post-plantation history and culture “fragmented”; yet, despite the fragmentary nature of Caribbean and Afro-American texts, one theme emerges: the act of writing itself becomes an act of reclamation, a repossessing of the past as many Creole writers “celebrate … real presence” through composition by filling in historical fissures ruptured by slavery, capitalism, sexism, environmental disasters, and cultural hijacking. In other words, Creole writers reclaim ancestral authority through storytelling. I believe that in the constructing of text the performative act of writing itself becomes a retirer d’en bas de l’eau, a ritual reclaiming of souls. These post-plantation texts, therefore, uphold a sense of shared memory.
According to Maya Deren in her seminal book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, the Vodou rite of reclamation or the retirer d’en bas de l’eau, enables a family to “reclaim [an ancestor’s] soul from the waters of the abyss…and to lodge it in a govi [pot] where it may henceforth be …consulted … and so may participate in all the decisions that normally unite the members of a family in counsel” (46). While seemingly “primitive,” this ritual perseveres in the modern age because “the enduring presence of so many dead demands that it be tried again and again” (Lowe). This rite enables participants, both dead and alive, to performatively enact force in the material world through shared decision-making. I would like to argue that by bringing the dead back to life as a writer does when composing a text, in particular within a ritualized context such as publication and distribution, he/she enables a reading audience to participate in a cultural ritual, a performative act, one with external consequences: readers are affected by the voices they contact between the pages. Those rallied spirits alive in the book join the world once again as active participants. Like reading, Haitian Vodou is, through its “worship of metaphysical forces…ritualistic, rather than meditative, and involve[s] … [sustaining metaphysical forces] by feeding, or sacrifice, and [the spirits’] benediction [is] maintained by propitiation” (65). A Haitian’s religious system, Deren claims, “must do more than give him moral substance… it must provide the means for living. It must serve the organism as well as the psyche” (73). I aim to prove that the feeding of the spirits occurs in the reading, the praise in the writing. And the dead speak from the pages.
Collective memory is maintained through the performative act of writing. The writer becomes the mambo (priestess); the reader becomes a hounsis (initiate). Narrative construction must serve the writer, reader, and history by, according to Joseph Roach, “juxtapos[ing] living memory as restored behavior against a historical archive of scripted records” (242). Fiction functions as a record, promoting and maintaining culture. The voice of a text resounds with performative cultural iterations which reinscribe the identity of the writer, the reader, and the characters in the book. Too often readers are exposed to singular, authoritative voices from the Euro-centric majority and so marginalized voices are forgotten. While Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Willa Cather write very differently, their narratives contribute to a North American western-centered sense of ethos: white, individualized, rooted, whole. But the Afro-American or Caribbean writer, as suggested by Derek Walcott, inherits a narrative fraught with loss and division, a history defined by the other. How then, can a post-plantation era writer contribute to his sense of cultural history? By resurrecting the past and offering, as Roach claims, “mnemonic materials- speech, images, gestures- that supplement or contest the authority of ‘documents’ in [any] historiographic tradition”(242). Through the act of writing itself a Creole writer reestablishes the identity of ancestors and so weaves the past with the present. I see the dead speak through the text itself and shape the present in the extra-semiotic world. The text houses the cultural identity “of successive generations that sustain different social and cultural identities” (Roach 242), like the govi pot houses the dead.
James Weldon Johnson offers a complicated narrative in his fictionalized memoir The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, published in 1912. In his fabricated autobiography, “a veil has been drawn aside: the reader…[is] given a view of the inner life of the Negro in America… [and is] initiated into the ‘freemasonry,’ as it were, of the race” (Johnson 3). Theorist Brent Hayes Edwards claims that the novel offers a “small but crucial shift of authority” from an Anglo-centered narration to an Afro-centered narration (41).
But defining who that narrator is becomes challenging. The speaker is of mixed race- his father is white, his mother black- but his mother never communicates this to him, and he defers to a white identity. After hearing her son call a classmate “nigger,” the speaker’s mother “turned on [him and said] ‘Don’t you ever use that word again’” (7). Unwittingly, the speaker is forbidden to use a word which is a label of self-representation, albeit one of slander and shame. But the narrator, who is arguably a construction of Johnson’s psyche or an amalgamation of his personal experience, is writing the word and indeed his fictionalized self in the story speaks this word. The written signifier, “nigger,” stands in for the self, the “I,” and maintains a sense of permanence in shared memory as it is written and published. But the “I” in this tale is not the “signified” Johnson even though the text was published within the autobiographical genre, although it later was recanted and Johnson claimed the text as fiction. Herein lays complicated notions surrounding presence and absence in Afro-American texts. I rely on Deconstructionist Jacques Derrida in order to mine the self-referential nature of ‘beingness’ in text. The binary of who one is, is reliant on who one is not. We understand black in relation to white, reader in relation to writer, self in relation to someone else. Yet the true nature of the self is unknowable, there is no Platonic essence, as the self is an identifier for some indescribable interior consciousness which is paradoxically understood by who one is not. To further complicate deconstructionist notions of being, our Platonic understanding of self suggests a static, unchanging identity, a singularness, a purity. In a contact zone and in the context of postcolonial theory, I believe there is an added danger to trying to define static selfhood. If the narrator of Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is defined in a singular way, he cannot have any other identity, he is solely white or solely “nigger”. But readers and narrators cannot get around self-referents. This is Johnson’s entire point- the limits of language and of consciousness. For the speaker there is a sense of Derridean essential drift, for the self and the identifier never align- the “nigger” and the “I,” as he doesn’t identify fully as black and definitely not as “nigger.” He continues to climb the American socio-economic ladder through playing ragtime music and in his later years as a white businessman. The narrator passes back and forth from the white and black world, defined by the gaze of others both black and white. Arguably, Johnson was not interested in a definitive notion of race or identity as the narrator remains unnamed; rather Johnson chose to pen a text representative of black experience at the turn of the century. This shifting sense of identity, this “dual personality” actually leaves room for Derridean différance, a play on the French for “to defer” as well as “to differ,” by deconstructing notions of selfhood, race, and representation. According to Heather Russell, the “narrative structure simultaneously veils and conceals while unveiling and revealing,” ‘leaving its readers’ “tasked with standing at the gateway… of The Autobiography’s hybrid structure” (Russell 30). Suzanne Scafe notes that with Johnson’s fragmentary voice of re- and un- representation, he “foreground[s]… the constructedness of the ‘I’ identity and privilege[es] the texture of experience and memory” (190). Through the “simmering gumbo pot” (Cartwright 100) of “I,” “nigger,” “white,” and “black,” “speaker” and “author,” Johnson summons readers to participate in his narrative by forcing them to wade through his various representations. Like the “composite and multiple” spirits, “every first-person consciousness, every “I”, is an assemblage, a plural ‘we’” (Cartwright 100). I argue that by adding an assemblage of narrative voices to the Afro-American literary tapestry, Johnson reclaims the unspoken lives of millions of men and women who have passed as white, or who have identified as black. The retirer d’en bas de l’eau of giving voice to the dead remedies breaches in black history by establishing the presence of an everyman, not deconstructing identity, but re-constructing it. This turn of the century text seems to me to take up Derek Walcott’s call for acts of presence through art, “allowing the group [(readers)] to act itself out by reiterating its structure [(identity)] and commenting on its [own] values” (Brown 210). I read The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man as a govi pot to consult on my road to selfhood as I shift through fluid self-representations, the narrator providing me a predecessor to consult for advice through the performance of race and identity.
If Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man allows Johnson to reclaim shared memory through narration, then Eileen M. Julien’s Travels with Mae: Scenes from a New Orleans Girlhood (2009) addresses the specific and personal dead instead of the death of assumed identifiers. Julien’s text functions specifically because she writes from place- a contact zone. Common culture makes for “ersatz families both created and reinforced through ritualizing” (Brown 207). The setting of New Orleans offers an amalgamation of people, voices, perspectives, and opportunities for filial connections, but grounded in a specific culture where “community is both occasion for and the product of its own ritual activity” (Brown 210). Due to the multitude of voices (in addition to a factious history of violence, environmental disaster, and gentrification) a single voice can get lost. Readers can approach Julien’s text as a reclamation of the spirit of her dead mother. The performative act of writing this memoir contributes to the uniqueness of post-plantation shared memory and reclaims the past of New Orleans, her ancestral space.
For anthropologist and Vodou initiate Karen McCarthy Brown, the term “Vodou” was coined by outsiders and considered a religion, but its practitioners do not “believe” in Vodou, rather, they claim to “serve the spirits” (205). With this emphasis on action or serving, Vodou ceremonies illustrate that performative ritual creates a symbiotic relationship between the living and the dead: “the living need advice, warning, protection provided by…the spirits… The spirits, in turn, have to be…honored if they are to muster the strength… to protect the living” (206). It seems the act of performative remembrance is perhaps all the more vital for underrepresented populations. According to Keith Cartwright: “Our corrective effort to go to the mouth of the govi of New Orleans… calls for difficult acts of listening to subalternized voices that are often poorly represented, if recorded at all, in available texts. These voices that would balance our vision and open our eyes to clashing energies and contradictory impulses have been censored, silenced, and ignored” (101). Often readers are granted a glimpse into the lives of poor, marginalized black New Orleanians in fiction, but Eileen M. Julien offers readers an under-represented demographic: that of a middle class black girl who attended bourgeoisie balls, social clubs and parties. The members of the black middle class in New Orleans, as portrayed by Julien, developed their own exclusive subculture that was not a reaction to whiteness but rather a celebration of the presence of Blackness. Julien’s story unfolds in a series of vignettes reminiscent of Derek Walcott’s Nobel Prize speech on the fragmentation of Caribbean history, which I see Julien repossessing. Travels with Mae is largely a celebratory novel filled with food, family, and humid New Orleans, neighbors where okra grows in the backyard, jazz music plays in the music hall, and dainty party dresses swirl around girls’ ankles.
Several vignettes in the memoir present insight into Julien’s relationship with her mother, most notably her mother’s last days when age and fear beset both Mae (Julien’s mother) and her aunt Fe. Julien “spend[s] Thanksgiving at home because death lurks here and everywhere” (99). Mae and Fe fret over food for mourners after a series of neighbors and relatives pass away. The sharing of food, in particular gumbo which is mentioned several times in the memoir, which I believe becomes a performative reclamation of the dead as those alive eat to remind themselves that they are still living and memorialize, through the act of living, those who have died. Gumbo, known widely as a New Orleans dish, also reminds those consuming it of their African heritage, as “Gumbo, Louisiana-style, shares common ingredients with Senegalese suppakanja”(105).
Another vignette, narrated through journal entries, brings Mae to life but in one of Julien’s dreams: “Her hands on my forehead- joy, ecstasy to know that even though she was dead, she was somehow alive!” (113). Interestingly Julien ends her memoir not with the death of her mother, but a scene when her mother was still alive, seeing her off at the airport, when she gestured to her mother from the terminal and her mother “came back!” (129). I offer that the return of her mother’s spirit and body seems an appropriate moment to end the text as Julien’s book becomes the public govi for Mae, “[b]ecause… of them, of my them, all that will be left is me, a book like this one, and my pen” (100). The use of the first person pronoun (my), and Julien’s claim over the city of New Orleans, is a performative act of reclamation. The ritual enactment of writing and reading Travels with Mae, or what Keith Cartwright infers is a “govi text,” seems to me to expose readers to her memorialized past, and brings her mother to life.
A fictive tale, Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall (1983) offers another method for summoning ancestry and maintaining shared memory: ritual movement through the abject. Protagonist Avey/Avatara’s rebirth launches her through vomit, excrement, blood, and abjection to bring her dead ancestors back to life, as well as herself. It seems appropriate to mark this text as distinctly Modernist due to its self-conscious narration, rejection of Enlightenment notions such as free will, and its subtle commentary on fragmented family life in the face of racism and industrialization. Modernism is often thought to be a movement at odds with black/Caribbean/Afro-American experience. But Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic notes that some Afro-American literary ventures represent the notion of “the slave sublime” in which “the concentrated intensity of the slave experience is something that marks out blacks as the first truly modern people, handling the nineteenth century dilemmas and difficulties which would become the substance of everyday life in Europe a century later” (220-221). Paule Marshall, who was born to Barbadian parents and grew up in Brooklyn, was likely familiar with historical and cultural fracturing, and her protagonist Avery/Avatara has “slave sublime” experiences on her cruise vacation to the Caribbean in order for Marshall to explore her connection with our Afro-American past by “complicat[ing] individualist notions of personhood, authorship, filiation, or salvation, [by] present[ing] Avey as an avatar of lives that have preceded her, an avatar ritually bound to generations past and future” (Cartwright 50). Unlike the speaker in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man who performs fluid identifiers and presents readers with an ancestry of changeable identification in order to complicate our understanding of beingness, Avey of Praisesong for the Widow moves through an abject bodily experience to divorce her mind from the body, and in bodily absence focuses on the spirit, or inner world.
The notion of bodily absence is of course a familiar one in Caribbean culture. Slavery forces an abject state because the physical body is othered; a body absent of consciousness or soul is arguably not a person. According to Carole Sweeney, “the optimum functioning of the slave system required not only utter disregard for the…slave body but also the denial of the existence of consciousness in individual slaves” (52). Under the terrors of slavery the body was the privileged binary within the body/mind binary, therefore the slave mind did not exist for white slave owners and so slaves functioned as soulless commodities. Economics deemed the slave body “collective” because slaves were only worth the value of their labor (Sweeney 52). Any fungible slave represented labor, and so could stand in for another slave. Despite Marshall’s heavy hand at characterization- Avey is a well-rounded character- she is just a body, a slave, albeit a victim of Anglophile consumerism rather than plantation labor. Avey’s life is absorbed by materialism— she buys fashionable clothes and expensive dinners. She lacks self-actualization; she is not a whole person but an unconscious body. After her rebirth into full spiritual and cultural consciousness, her retirer d’en bas de l’eau or reclamation of her soul, I see her as standing in for anybody but this time, she “situates [her] place in an historical continuum,” in memory (Sweeney 52).
I’d like to posit that we first encounter the performative, ritualistic aspect of a retirer d’en bas de l’eau at Ibo Landing, where Aunt Cuney tells young Avey about the Ibo slaves who walked off the slave ship and chose to drown in defiance against their enslavement. This first gesture initiated by ancestors, constitutes a collective defiance against the white slave owners who attempted to make slaves of both the Ibos’ bodies and history. The Ibos’ drowning, returning to what a Haitian may call the Waters of the Abyss where the loa and souls of the dead reside, brought the living— Avey— back to life.
The blurring of lines between the living and the dead plays out through abject instances in the novel. Avey’s vacation on the cruise ship the Bianca Pride (White Pride) could be likened to traveling a kind of perverse Middle Passage and she experiences this voyage in an abject state. On board Avey eats a European- style parfait and “her stomach, her entire midsection felt odd.” She maintained— “[I]t felt like a huge tumor had suddenly ballooned up at her center” (Marshall 50, 52). Avey’s discomfort continued until she seemed “in the grip of a powerful hallucinogen- something that had dramatically expanded her vision, offering her a glimpse of things that were beyond her comprehension” (59). In this semi-catatonic state Avey escapes the ship to the island of Grenada where she finds herself in an “unlikely sacred room of mourning (a hotel)” (Cartwright 51). From there she smells a child’s filth and sweat (arguably her own); she releases her bowels on a small boat and finds herself anointed while sick by rum shack owner Legbert who represents Papa Legba the loa of the crossroads, and his daughter, perhaps a representation of an initiate, or hunsis. In one of the final scenes in the novel Avey attends the nation dance where diasporic Caribbean attendees dance for their ancestors, “drawing on…[a] shared pool of memories…to reconstruct [ritual African dances]” (Brown 209). Avey performs her own nation dance; her subconscious connects with the other dancers, moves beyond her body, and she suddenly remembers Ibo Landing, the resting place of her African ancestors. It seems Avey’s symbolic death and rebirth as she proceeds through abject stages of physical discomfort, allow her to reclaim her ancestral spirits, in particular the spirit of her mentor Aunt Cuney and the spirits of the Ibos. I see Ibo Landing as also offering up a ritualized space for a retirer d’en bas de l’eau. The water submerges the slave bodies and Avey’s repeated visits memorialize those under the water, making for a performative, ritualized space. Avatara resolves to bring her grandchildren there and share her ancestral past. Marshall’s narration reverses the intentions of slave owners who attempted to empty the Afro-Caribbean body of consciousness. By emptying herself of consciousness through physical abjection, I see Avatara standing in for her ancestors themselves and reaches back through history to reclaim collective memory in the govi pot of the body, no longer mindless, no longer soulless, but conscious.
I conclude with arguably my most definitive offering of the retirer d’en bas de l’eau, Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which Beloved, a two-year-old, is murdered by her mother who intends to rescue her from slavery. Beloved, residing in a woman’s body, emerges from a kind of Vodou Water of the Abyss “full of venom” to haunt her mother Sethe. Eventually the reclaimed child consumes her mother as Sethe wastes away and Beloved grows fatter and fatter on guilt and love. Finally the community of Black women who previously rejected Sethe because she killed Beloved and tried to murder her other three children, circle the house and exorcise Beloved’s spirit and Sethe is accepted back into the community again. Beloved is a warning of what can happen when we ignore the whispers of the novel’s epigraph: “Sixty Million and more,” slaves Morrison memorializes in her novel. Un-reclaimed spirits sleep uneasily, and so will our history if we fail to recognize the voices of speakers with fluid identifiers, the soul reaching beyond the abject body, and our ancestors calling from home. There may be no better way to allow those voices to be heard than through the act of writing, where they can speak for themselves.
Cartwright, Keith (2013-09-15). Sacral Grooves, Limbo Gateways: Travels in Deep Southern Time, Circum-Caribbean Space, Afro-creole Authority (The New Southern Studies) (p. 101). University of Georgia Press. Kindle Edition.
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Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.
Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.
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Johnson, James Weldon. The Autobiography of an Ex-colored Man. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. Print.
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Marshall, Paule. Praisesong for the Widow. New York” Putnam’s, 1983. Print.
McCarthy Brown, Karen. “Serving the Spirits: The Ritual Economy of Haitian Vodou”. Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1995. 205-223. Print.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Random House LLC, 2007. Print.
Roach, Joseph.”Introduction: History, Memory, and Performance.” Transatlantic Literary Studies: A Reader. Manning, Susan and Taylor, Andrew. Baltimore: John Hopkins, UP, 2007. 236-248. Print.
Russell, Heather. Legba’s Crossing: Narratology in the African Atlantic. Athens: U of Georgia, 2009. Print.
Scafe, Suzanne. “Lives Written in Fragments: The Self-Representational ‘I’ in Caribbean Diasporic Women’s Auto/biography.” Life Writing 10.2 (2013): 187-206. Print.
Sweeney, Carole. “The Unmaking of the World: Haiti, History, and Writing in Edouard Glissant and Edwige Danticat.” Atlantic Studies 4.1. (April 2007): 51-65. Print.
Walcott, Derek. “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory.” From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1991-1995, Editor Sture Allén, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1997.