Authorship in Africana Studies

University of London
Spelman College
Graduate Center, CUNY
Published October 28, 2015

Joan Anim-Addo, Arturo Lindsay, Robert F. Reid-Pharr, and Martha Southgate discuss authority and authorship in Africana Studies at the 2014 Callaloo Conference. For a print version of some conference materials, see Callaloo 38, no. 3 (Summer 2015).

Callaloo, a journal of African diaspora arts and letters established in 1976, held its 2014 conference at Emory University from October 15–18. This event brought together creative and critical voices from in and outside the US to present and discuss artistic expressions ranging from poetry, the visual arts, fiction, and music to archiving and cultural preservation. Southern Spaces video-recorded this remarkable conference and, in collaboration with Callaloo, presents a series of conference highlights. Southern Spaces thanks Callaloo founder and editor Charles Henry Rowell, former Callaloo managing editor Jackson Brown, and Emory provost Claire Sterk for their support of this conference and series.

Joan Anim-Addo
University of London
Arturo Lindsay
Spelman College
Robert F. Reid-Pharr
Graduate Center, CUNY
Martha Southgate

Joan Anim-Addo: Traveling with Imoinda

The cover to Joan Anim-Addo's Imoinda: Or She Who Will Lose Her Name (London: Mango Publishing, 2008).The cover to the 1688 first edition of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, A True History.
Above, the cover to Joan Anim-Addo's Imoinda: Or She Who Will Lose Her Name (London: Mango Publishing, 2008). Below, the cover to the 1688 first edition of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko: Or, The Royal Slave, A True History.

This presentation raises questions primarily concerning art, authorship, and to a much lesser extent, critique, specifically in relationship to my libretto Imoinda or She Who Will Lose Her Name, written in 1997. The piece received a rehearsed reading in 1998 and was first published in 2003. Considering the art involved in this full-length work of musical theater, not only in terms of writing, but also in performance or public spectacle, I am interested to reflect upon what keeps those of us, black women especially, who find ourselves as artists woefully under-resourced in our diverse locations, nonetheless committed to developing what seems, at times, to be an impossible practice. To do this, I borrow the notion of "the thin black line" from the seminal black british visual artists' exhibition curated by Lubaina Himid in 1985. For the purpose of today's reflection, the "thin black line" resonates ideas about resistance, that, retrospectively and disturbingly evoke 1980s Britain with its indifference or hostility to that which, for this discussion, might yet be referred to as "black art."

My idea for Imoinda was to rewrite Aphra Behn's seventeenth century text, Oroonoko or the Royal Slave, as a full-length libretto central to which would be Imoinda, the hitherto silenced black woman in Behn's 1688 novella. By this means, I aimed to authorize Imoinda as an (alter)native narrative to Behn's text. Thus, like Giovanna Covi who first translated the libretto with Chiara Pedrotti, readers and indeed audiences would find that, "Imoinda … does not simply write the story back from the point of view of 'the other' female character; most importantly, it subversively revises the very reality that inspired Behn's fiction."1 How, as a black British artist, does one go about such a project that also demands staging and the full incorporation of music and voice? It is likely that a perverse commitment is key to such an artistic vision. Yet, commitment first set me traveling with Imoinda, since the realities of under-resourcing became only too evident after the initial authorial stage, the point at which literary artists usually begin to relax.

The impact of under-resourcing that concerns black artists, particularly, becomes magnified in a project such as opera, which in the UK was subsidized in 2007 by the Arts Council to the tune of over fifty-two million pounds, compared to one and three quarter million pounds allocated for jazz, both of which boast similar audience figures in Britain. In the 1990s, black British opera was effectively non-existent, a situation that has barely altered. My desire to counter this through my writing in the 1990s also uncovered questions of authorship and interlinked notions of authority implicit in the attempt to write across boundaries of race, gender, and class, effectively positioning myself out of place as an artist. Who was I to presume to write opera or to consider that black historical engagement might interest an audience preoccupied with "culture"? To begin to historicize Imoinda as an art project and to draw some parallels with 1980s black women artists is also to acknowledge–at best–indifference, alongside a lack of infrastructural support, issues of skills and knowledge gaps, and a commensurate will "to leap our discontinuities," as Kamau Brathwaite has termed it. Much that we have begun to take for granted, for example, finding an agent, or having our work "read," was often unrealistic. The resources refused to find me, and so to achieve the realization of Imoinda fully as art, that is, beyond authorship and in performance, I would develop a push-and-travel relationship to the project, one that, fortuitously, my academic role could support.

To isolate the travel element, I offer a brief chronology that, since the traveling continues, can only be partial, even as it affords an important mapping of how such art might develop, perhaps especially if within one's transnational make-up, the identities black British and black woman are also key. Thus, the final years of the 1990s might be described as important initial "push" years of the project represented by the learning of new skills that allowed a leap of "discontinuities" into much that was unknown, as well as through a consolidating of much practiced writing skills.



Talawa Theater Women Writers' Bursary Award kick-started the writing of Imoinda


A June 19 rehearsed reading followed at the Oval House Theater in London under the direction of Warren Wills


An August 1 public performance directed by Juwon Ogungbe followed at the Horniman Museum, representing my 'push' to performance

Visual artist Lubaina Himid, whose "thin black line" I referenced above, writes of art as the practice of "gathering and re-using," and of the time art requires as "measurable in hours during a day certainly but also a sense of time having passed before, a sense of history and most importantly a sense of future, a knowledge of survival."2 Imoinda might easily not have survived into the twenty-first century. I had in my naiveté undertaken an artistic project of tremendous scale without thought of funding, acquiring an agent, a business plan or any such practical consideration. More than doing art, I was claiming a public and contentious arts practice for a black woman. Moreover, I remained blind to the reality of being a nameless, uncommissioned black woman doing opera in the UK, a cultural space in which opera is considered high art for the English middle classes, meaning a more or less exclusively white clientele. Fortunately, serendipity took me to Italy where enquiry about my writing led to the translation of Imoinda and a breathing of new life and renewed optimism into the artistic project. Serena Guarracino, having interviewed me during a break in the Pan-African conference to which I was contributing at the time, wrote afterwards about the "new set of possibilities for contemporary opera" that Imoinda promised. Guarracino's assessment was that Imoinda "challenge[d] the idea of Western opera as a corpus of works whose archaeological mise en scène deprives them of any relevance for the present." Indeed, Imoinda was meant to challenge on many levels, but what was new for me in Italy was the seriousness with which academic and music specialists alike engaged with the text and its possibilities as a staged work. Guarracino noted further that "publication of Imoinda in Italy, home of opera, with an Italian translation" shook "the very ground of Italian opera as it is known in Italy and elsewhere, opening it to the challenge of voices coming from the margins of Western cultural hegemony."3

Talking on Corners - Speaking in Tongues Exhibition. Artwork by Lubaina Himid, Harris Art Gallery and Museum. Photograph by Flickr user drinksmachine, October 6, 2007. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Talking on Corners - Speaking in Tongues Exhibition. Artwork by Lubaina Himid, Harris Art Gallery and Museum. Photograph by Flickr user drinksmachine, October 6, 2007. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Guarracino's point about "Western cultural hegemony," had summed up, accurately, I thought, what might be discovered at the core of the art-making that Imoinda represents. It is useful to know, for example, that the interview was conducted in the context of the conference Networking Women: Trans-European and Circum-Atlantic Connections, which took place in Florence in 2004. My own paper was entitled "Pan-Africanist Women: Amy Ashwood Garvey, Jane Rose Roberts and E.V. Kinlock as Networking Women."4 My research at the time concerned black women trying to articulate their freedom within the context of Pan-Africanism. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my writing of Imoinda was not only interested in presenting challenging black women. Instead, as Guarracino notes, the project as art was itself a challenge, daring "to go to the heart of this very, idiosyncratically Western genre" and daring further, to effectively claim it as "mine," the cultural heritage of a black, first-generation immigrant woman from the Caribbean. Indeed, I dared to conceive of and articulate the operatic performance that I envisioned for Imoinda as "carnival."5 In other words, my concern was with radical art-making, an almost compelling reason for the project's progress to be hampered in the UK. That itself serves as reminder that opera is not usually considered in terms of radical art and certainly not in the UK. In Italy, "home of opera," it appeared that opera lovers could afford to be more indulgent, generous even, in their embrace of someone at least proposing opera with a difference.

In addition to historicizing Imoinda as art project, I cannot escape in the course of this reflexive exercise acknowledgement of a politicizing that necessarily informs the "thin black line" of resistance to an over-determining of black identity and with it persistent attempts at directing, shaping, and limiting human potential. So, yes, it seemed right to "appropriate the name and conventions of Western opera … while hybridizing them with other forms of musical theater, such as Caribbean carnival and mas." Furthermore, Guarracino gets to the heart of my creative enterprise by acknowledging how much Imoinda itself calls for "a re-thinking of opera's role in the creation of Europe's cultural identity, while at the same time exploring how through opera the former European empire may write, or better, sing back."6

The "hybridized" or exotic version promised by Imoinda, of interest enough to composers such as Luigi Don Ciacci and opera specialists like Guarracino in Italy, made not the slightest performance ripple in the UK following the first published bi-lingual edition of the libretto in 2003. Notably, the art deployed by Imoinda was already authorizing the voices of slave women and representing explosive dynamics relative to the tension between subjugation and resistance, a relatively unpopular choice of art project in the UK.

A key change in the performance profile of Imoinda came about in 2008, persuading me to further travels after having listened to composer Glenn McClure's ideas for working with young people to develop a world premiere of Imoinda at the School of the Arts (SOTA) in Rochester, New York. Critique and travel had contributed to this moment. For the second edition of Imoinda, a portable text would be required, one that young people could easily carry around. Covi and Pedrotti's pioneering bi-lingual edition was not pocket-sized, but the 2008 second edition of Imoinda would be. As I explained in a recent interview with the young Italian scholar, Lisa Marchi, an important part of the art of Imoinda lies in the resolution I would reach between "music and affects" or the sound world of the project. Explaining my awareness of "the contrast between what the enslaved Africans were forced to leave behind – their 'vibrational practices,' in Eidshem's terms – and what they would attempt to recover in the new place of the Americas without either familiar instruments or leisure," I posed the solution of this problem as key to the sound world or musical content of the project. Indeed, the sound world was the huge artistic challenge. How to represent it? How to reconcile audience expectations with artistic vision? How to write it down so that it communicated even to a western trained composer, if need be? I had stipulated drums throughout the text although I was only too well aware that I was "working against many operatic traditions." At the same time, not having been "commissioned" to undertake the project, "I had the complete luxury of following through on my own concerns with the affective experience."7

12 Years a Slave marquee at the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 11, 2013. Photograph by Flickr user Steve Rhodes. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
12 Years a Slave marquee at the 36th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 11, 2013. Photograph by Flickr user Steve Rhodes. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Such "luxury" comes at a cost. Is the world ready for Imoinda, the full text? With the "crossing" of the Atlantic and following the luxury of performance, not driven or pushed by me, but handsomely funded by the Rockerfeller Foundation, Imoinda has more recently been subjected to some artistic compromise. The text is now increasingly spoken of and thought about in terms of a "Slavery Trilogy." With music more firmly in place, collaborative issues have become more of a concern. Is the "Slavery Trilogy" that my collaborating composer has begun to market, the same as Imoinda? How far am I prepared to compromise? How prepared am I to lose sight of the African part of the narrative, Part One, for what has become more acceptable, the tale of slavery in the Americas? Imoinda, Part Two has in the course of time metamorphosed into "The Crossing" and was first performed at Tulane University in April 2013. Part Two tells of the journey made by Oko and Imoinda on the slaveship across the Atlantic to the Americas, a theme that is attracting increasing media attention beginning with films such as Beloved and more recently and finally involving black British director Steve McQueen, Twelve Years a Slave.

In closing, I would like to share a couple of minutes of the SOTA production, one that has been very faithful to my vision. The focus on performance in this presentation has been to consider this element of theater writing as crucial to the kind of literary art that Imoinda represents and ultimately an indicator of whether this particular artwork flies at all. Critique or criticism is ultimately of no lesser importance. For those who are interested, I direct you to the Goldsmiths, University of London website that focuses on critical perspectives and published papers on Imoinda. I also encourage those interested to peruse volume seven of the online journal Synthesis titled "Perspectives of the Radical Other" that engages critically with Imoinda as written text and as performance. I offer a few final reflections on authorship and draw again on my responses to Lisa Marchi's interview.

Why did I first insist upon writing? Partly because, at a specific moment, I found myself among a privileged minority of African-Caribbean women who could assume such a responsibility, given that history and its aftermath. It was in part a political decision. I did not emerge from a middle-class cocoon destined to write and to find a privileged place in the world; far from it. So, I consider my writing to be political. Imoinda and the women of that text are speaking, thinking subjects in direct contradiction to what has been generally understood about enslaved women. They reflect an important part of what it means to be human. That humanity is not new though it has been newly allowed to speak.

Front cover from The Fifth London Festival of American Music program featuring The Crossing, libretto by Joan Anim-Addo.Content page from The Fifth London Festival of American Music program featuring The Crossing, libretto by Joan Anim-Addo.
Front cover and content page from The Fifth London Festival of American Music program featuring The Crossing, libretto by Joan Anim-Addo.

The art that chooses us, I suggest, carries its own restrictions, dependent on our personal location. I have mentioned three identities that signify my own location and indicate something of the challenges of ever making art at all in Britain. Writing and, more importantly, publication in Britain still carries real challenges for those of us who are differently located in relation to the white mainstream. Those of us who place writing at the centre of our art and who are black in Britain dare to forget this at the peril of simply piling up dusty manuscripts. The challenge for black women like me, who insisted on writing and publishing in Britain in the late twentieth century, has been the challenge of claiming – despite the very real restrictions – artistic territory central to which is writing, publication, and performance when society deems such pursuits effectively off limits. To permeate boundaries that effectively dehumanize has been a crucial concern of my art. Hence the representation of speaking black subjects, the invisible ones of a dominant history, projected from page to stage, from community halls to proscenium arches and back again when art calls. Art calls again. No doubt helped by reception across the pond, "The Crossing" is due to be performed at the Actors Church in Covent Garden November, 2014. It is billed in a Festival, "The Fifth London Festival of American Music." Partly as consequence of my engagement with scale, the traveling continues, a questionable exoticism flies, though, for the moment, only when the text is seen to be traveling.

About Joan Anim-Addo

Joan Anim-Addo is professor of Caribbean literature and culture in the department of Engish and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is author of the libretto Imoinda, or She Who Will Lose Her Name (London: Mango Publishing, 2008), two poetry collections, a literary history, as well as co-founder of New Mango Season, the Journal of Caribbean Women's Studies.

Arturo Lindsay: Erasing Erasure and Other Ways of Seeing

To see is to know. But how can we know the unseen—the histories, the stories, or even the names of a people that were undocumented, erased?

I asked myself that question late one evening as I looked at the sun setting behind the hills on the Bay of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast of the Republic of Panama. The view from my studio faces the remains of a dock that was, at one time, the first encounter with tierra firme for many weary and enslaved black feet whose journeys began months before in Africa.

The setting sun in Portobelo reflects off the cerulean blue sky and puffy white clouds unto the still waters of the bay, producing a rather unique effect of light that seemingly glows from beneath the surface of the water. I wondered—could this light be the souls of those that did not disembark?

Wall of the Santiago de la Gloria Battery overlooking the Bay of Portobelo, Panama. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Gualberto 107. Courtesy of Gualberto107. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Wall of the Santiago de la Gloria Battery, Bay of Portobelo, Panama, September 26, 2013. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Gualberto 107. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 3.0.

The following morning I felt compelled to begin imagining and imaging the anonymous faces of the children that did not arrive in Portobelo on those slavers. My drawing session attracted a few neighborhood children who began guessing who the subjects were in my drawings. Ese parece a Jerónimo. No, no, parece a Tatú, el primo de Gustavo! Their guessing game made me realize that my drawings were probably not that anonymous after all. Maybe, my drawings were informed by the faces of the children I saw every day in my neighborhood. And if that is the case, I thought, maybe the faces in my drawings bear phenotypic resemblances to their ancestors, as well as family members of their ancestors, that perished at sea. The people of Portobelo are, in some cases, direct descendants of Africans that arrived in the village enslaved.

So began my journey. I became obsessed with knowing the faces in my drawings. I wanted to know their stories, their names. Naming the children proved to be easy. I simply looked up traditional ethnic African names from villages in areas where the enslaved were abducted. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that a young girl named Ye from the village of Ejisu might have been on a slaver and the same can be said of a Babatunde of Lagos. Their stories however, eluded me.

I returned to Atlanta that fall with a small portfolio of line drawings of faces that I reworked into a series of prints during an artist residency at Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia. But their stories continued to elude me. Finally I approached my colleague and art partner, the poet Opal Moore and asked her to live with my children for a while to see if they would tell her their stories.

And they did.

Through the rituals of seeking, seeing, and imaging that is Art, they gave Opal the fragmented stories of their lives in Africa: a moment when the slave catchers arrived in a village called Ndeer, of the women who put the stories of their lives into songs for children to sing, women who charged a favorite daughter, the one who wove stories in baskets, to carry their story in song and basket back to us, the yet-unborn. The story of women who lay fire in every corner and doorway to avoid capture and enslavement; who "climbed the ladder they made of smoke to confront their maker."

The stories they left were the stories of how they had loved.

Opal and I began a collaboration that allowed us to see the faces and hear the voices of the children that others wished to erase. Through art we retold their stories in Atlanta, in Panama, in New York, on Gorée Island in Senegal, in Bellagio, Italy and in various cities in Germany. We retold their stories sometimes together and at times in separate presentations. The important thing however, is that we were able to defy the canon that defines anonymity. Our children had faces, names, and voices!

Opal writes, "Once lost, how can something as intangible as identity, so lightly fixed in a given name, be regained? This question was my point of entry into an artistic collaboration with Arturo and the subject of his series of prints titled, The Children of Middle Passage. We entered into an active artistic conversation that has spanned several years and multiple revisions and re-visionings, resulting in an interdisciplinary, multifaceted art performance work, and now a book."8

Children of the Middle Passage by Arturo Lindsay & Opal Moore, cover page from unpublished manuscript.

Cover, unpublished manuscript, Children of Middle Passage by Arturo Lindsay & Opal Moore. Screenshot by Southern Spaces.

Our book however, is still a work–in–progress. But, in light of the recent murders of young black men at the hands of the police and other young black men through gun violence I wonder if our book is reminding us that we are still in middle passage.

Maybe Opal has a point. She made a significant change in the title of my series of prints when she said, "The absence of the article "the" in Children of Middle Passage allows us to understand that we are still in middle passage." Historical documents are a valuable source for knowing important moments and events in the past. They are however, told mostly by the victors, the wealthy, the literate, and the elite.

But, is that the whole story? I believe not, especially for Africana Studies students and scholars. The epistemological view of the tabula rasa African, as a person devoid of a culture, language, or religious belief system worthy of preservation was applied as enslavers instituted the practice of erasing African cultures by imposing European customs and values. It was believed that the best slaves were those who were a blank slate capable of adopting, defending, promoting, and even proselytizing the religions and cultures of their enslaver. While it is possible to enslave a person who has his/her own belief system and culture intact, it is impossible to make that person a slave.

An audio recording of Opal Moore reading "The Women of Ndeer," (2:47).

That said, it takes art and poetry, music and dance, theater and performance art and, yes, story telling to connect with the spirit of the enslaved person that is resisting erasure. It takes an artist to conjure up a powerful ashé that can erase the erasure transcending time, space, and malevolence. It also takes scholars, critics, and art historians familiar with the aesthetics of ashé to interpret the telling of that story. And finally it takes courageous academics regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin to force the academy to widen its field of view in order to see; in order to know; and therefore to understand the palimpsest that is our collective histories.

Arturo Lindsay

Arturo Lindsay is professor of art and art history at Spelman College. He is an artist-scholar who consucts ethnographic research on African spiritual and aesthetic retentions in contemporary American cultures.

Robert F. Reid-Pharr: Writing at the Plantation's Edge

The Studia must be reinvented as a higher order of human knowledge, able to provide an "outer view" which takes the human rather than any one of its variations as Subject . . . to attain to the position of an external observer, at once inside/outside the figural domain of our order.

Sylvia Wynter, "The Ceremony Must be Found: After Humanism," 1984

As a result of rallies we got courses in "black literature" and "black history" and a special black adviser for black students and a black cultural center, a rotting white washed house on the nether edge of campus.

David Bradley, "Black and American," 1982

There comes a time when the only thing that one can do is admit defeat. Standing at the tail end of a Black Studies movement established as part of the articulation of anti-segregationist, anti-colonialist African and African American political and cultural insurgencies, one is made painfully aware of a sort of necessary and inevitable social and professional marginalization structuring the everyday existence of the so-called black scholar. The broadly imagined ethical outlines of even the most valued projects of black intellectualism continue as ornamental, overly moralistic, never quite fully valid aspects of the industry/government/education complex that we decorously name the American University. Accommodated in ever more brightly colored, if distantly placed and institutionally vulnerable, houses, the Black, African, Africana scholastic project has only the most limited means by which it might affect a sort of inchoate articulation. When times are good and the funding secure, the history, thought, and culture of the peoples of the African Diaspora might be taken as a sort of reiteration of the central conceits of American and European cultural and intellectual orthodoxy. A single red/brown/yellow/blue face appearing intermittently in recruitment brochures or faculty lounges boastfully reminds us of the meritocratic liberalism that presumably underwrites the basic structures of our most cherished educational and intellectual institutions. More impressive still, the scholar of Black Studies might make great use of an apparently never too tired for service "plus one" account of black subjectivity in which the most traditional ideas of Universalism, Cosmopolitanism, and western Modernity are presumably broadened and deepened through the indication that some representative "black" individual "was there." And when times are lean and narratives of scarcity rub harshly against notions of open-minded largesse, one might enact again, and yet again, a sort of hysterically ineffectual theatrical rebellion, identifying the many always easy to uncover moments of racialist hostility and insensitivity that are among the most profoundly resilient aspects of American and European societies.

Still, regardless of the modes of attack and address, only the most limited consideration of Africa and the African Diaspora can be discerned within the best supported and most cherished precincts of the human sciences. There is so little awareness of the broad ideological structures on which the various practices of professional "humanists" are established that it becomes difficult to imagine that we might either critique or redirect basic modes of research and study. Broach the topic of lists, fields, and curricula with the most generous of colleagues and you will very likely be met with a handwringing and apologetic, if firmly conventional, story of limited resources, fixed traditions, bureaucratic obstacles, and the rigid expectations of a harshly disciplining market. At the moment of challenge, humanistic studies are imagined to exist not so much as a complex of ideologies, discourses, and institutions with an identifiable and relatively short history, but instead as an impossibly distant force, almost metaphysical in nature, that we are able to approach with only the most unstable of intellectual prosthetics.

The crisis of the humanities is first and foremost a failure of the political and ethical imaginaries that stabilize the labor that one presumably does as a practitioner of the human sciences, as a writer. It is the ever more vertiginous social reality confronting intellectuals who approach their work through a sort of willed ignorance of the ideological organization of the Studia. The philosophical and ethical arrangements of the human sciences become much clearer once one appropriates the historical understandings given us by Michel Foucault and amplified by Sylvia Wynter, once we recognize that not only are the conceptual and instrumental arrangements that we use to teach, research, write, and publish decidedly new phenomena, but also that they are inextricably tied up with the violent extraction of value and labor. In a sense then, we are lucky in the United States to have so little opportunity to cover over the absolutely intimate relationship between universities, colonization, and enslavement. Step onto the campus of one of the country's great sites of learning and you are quite likely stepping onto a plantation, an institution in which the expression of so-called high culture was—and is—fueled by the literal entrapment and internment of Africans and their descendants.9

Those gates and guards through and by which we pass are not simple adornments, but instead absolutely necessary safeguards within a set of protocols designed to distinguish (European) order from (African) chaos. The disciplinary structures most commonly associated with the humanities operate first and foremost to yoke the "free-floating energy" of the untidy (Negro) to a process by which a disembodied "universalist" (White) Order might be named. The trick, of course, is to accomplish this particular procedure without seeming to do so. There is good reason that there has been so little discussion of the relationship between the history of Atlantic slavery and the development of the "disciplines." That procedure would invite consideration of the rather uncanny overlap of these institutions' developmental timelines, coming to maturity as they did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and "fracturing" in the twentieth. Even more to the point, a truly historicist and anti-white supremacist examination of the history of the human sciences would necessarily have to take into account not only the fact that the descendants of the enslaved and the colonized continue to do the unseen, unwanted, irrational work of the university, dumping trash cans, cleaning toilets, and preparing meals, but also that the scholars whom they service incessantly, even manically, reiterate a set of intellectual protocols built precisely on never noting that their cleverness and disinterestedness are often themselves examples of brittle misunderstanding(s) of the conditions of their own labor.

The Academy's big house, the "Euroamerican order of the center," and the Black Culture Center small house, "on the nether edge of campus." Collage by Eric Solomon. Courtesy of Eric Solomon, 2015.
The Academy's big house, the "Euroamerican order of the center," and the black culture center's small house, "on the nether edge of campus." Collage by Eric Solomon. Courtesy of Eric Solomon, 2015.

It comes as no surprise then that the Black Culture Center should be so studiously ignored as it stands mocking and mocked at the plantation's edge. It is not dissimilar from the skulls, bone, teeth, and bits of decomposing cloth that one might encounter in a Catholic reliquary. Fascinating in its vulgarity and decrepitude, the rotting whitewashed house seems to point in two directions at once, naming a desiccated past while demanding a certain horrified attention in the present. Wynter writes:

It is within the same governing laws of figuration and its internal logic that the Black Culture Center was proscribed to exist on the nether edge of the campus. It functioned as the target stimuli of aversion, with respect to the Euroamerican order of the center of the campus, which is then enabled to function as the object stimuli of desire. The relation, functioning dually at empirical and valorizing levels, if stably kept in phase, ensures the stable production of the same shared endogenous waveshapes, in Black students as well as Whites—the same normative seeing/valuing, avoiding/devaluing behaviors. Hence the paradox that, after the turbulence of the 1960s and the 1970s the Black Culture Centers in their nether-edge-of-the campus place function to enable the recycling (in cultural rather than racial terms) of the Order/Chaos dynamics of the system-ensemble.10

Here I take some solace in the conditional nature of Wynter's most damning observation. If the fraught relations between Black Studies and "the Euroamerican order of the center" are stably kept in phase, then we condemn ourselves to the reiteration of those normative behaviors and modes of thought established in the crucibles of enslavement and colonization. The very presence of the shabby house at the edge of campus marks the possibility of rupture within these systems. It suggests modes of knowledge and articulation that, if not elegant, are at least not so wholly and innocently disconnected from the means of their own replication as to exist in a sort of creative stasis, operating like the disciplined, defeated professor of literature whose tepid passions never quite reach the level of either offense–or brilliance.

While I knowingly, even lovingly, embrace the disorder that is Black Studies, I cannot bring myself to celebrate that embrace. Sitting here on the ugly side of campus, collecting my thoughts in rooms that though not obviously rotting are nonetheless likely to be swept away come the next great wind, I know that my efforts must be read as at once marginal and suspect. I "have every interest in challenging an order of figuration" that programs my own negation.11 Yet, mine is not a blameless opposition. I do not naively celebrate the obvious fraying of the humanities project. Nor do I yearn for an easy reorganization of priorities, the moving of the white house to the center. Instead I am seeking, however haltingly, for the reinvention of the Studia in a manner that would allow for the articulation of a fully universal humanism and the dismantling of the deeply imbedded white supremacy that so firmly establishes American and European intellectualism. In doing so, however, I must by necessity recognize the Black Studies apparatus itself as having been established within the Order/Chaos ideological nexus that lies at the heart of the human sciences. Thus in the necessarily radical practices of disarticulation that one hopes will soon and very soon take up our attention and our energies, it is quite unclear if the rotting house will survive.

Robert F. Reid-Pharr

Robert F. Reid-Pharr is professor of English at The Graduate Center City University of New York. He is author of Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (New York: NYU Press, 2007), Black Gay Men (New York: NYU Press, 2001), and Conjugal Union: The Body, the Hours and the Black American (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Martha Southgate: What Came Before

Cover, Martha Southgate's Third Girl from the Left.Cover, Toni Morrison's Sula.
Cover, left, from Martha Southgate's Third Girl from the Left (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005) and, right, Toni Morrison's "parent" novel Sula (New York: Knopf, 1973).

This presentation raises questions regarding the meaning of history and influence as refracted through my novel Third Girl From The Left. This novel was written very much with an awareness of the weight of history both on my fictional characters and on the lives of African Americans.

Not only does this presentation consider history, both within the novel and in everyday life, crucial to one novel's shape, but I also explore the ways in which other novels, among them Toni Morrison's Sula, provided direct inspiration, in some senses parenting this novel into being, informing crucial passages and my understanding of how Third Girl would develop. I offer thoughts on how that parenting might be made more explicit in the examination of certain literature and contemplate the implications of these cross-literary relationships.

About Martha Southgate

Martha Southgate is author of Another Way to Dance (New York: Delacorte Press, 1996), The Fall of Rome: A Novel (New York: Scribner, 2010), Third Girl from the Left (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), and The Taste of Salt (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2011). Southgate has received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, Hurston/Wright Legacy award, the Alex Award from the American Library Association, and the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O, Premiere, and Essence.

  • 1. See Giovanna Covi, "Oroonoko's Genderization and Creolization: Joan Anim-Addo's Imoinda," in Revisiting and Reinterpreting Aphra Behn: Proceedings of the Aphra Behn Europe Seminar ESSE Conference (Entrevaux, France: Bilingua GA Editions, 2002), 83–92.
  • 2. Lubaina Himid, "Fragments: An Exploration of Everyday Black Creativity and its Relationship to Political Change," Feminist Arts News Vol. 2, no. 8 (1988): 8.
  • 3. Serena Guarracino, "Imoinda's Performing Bodies: An Interview with Joan Anim-Addo," in I am Black/White/Yellow: An Introduction to the Black Body in Europe, eds. Joan Anim-Addo and Suzanne Scafe (Londong: Mango Publishing, 2007): 212–223.
  • 4. See Giovanna Covi, Modernist Women Race Nation: Networking Women 1890–1950: Circum-Atlantic Connections (London: Mango Publishing, 2005).
  • 5. Guarracino, "Imoinda's Performing Bodies" 212–223.
  • 6. Guarracino, "Imoinda's Performing Bodies," 212–223.
  • 7. Lisa Marchi, "The Transformative Potential of Imoinda: An Interview with Joan Anim-Addo," Synthesis 7 (2015):154–163.
  • 8. Opal Moore, "Artist's Statement," in Children of Middle Passage, Arturo Lindsay and Opal Moore, eds. (Lindsay and Moore, 2006):
  • 9. The deep connections between especially the most elite American universities and slavery is becoming ever more clear. Brown University, the College of William and Mary, Harvard University, Emory University, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, Yale University, and Columbia University, among many others, either held slaves directly, utilized slave labor in the building of their campuses, traded slaves as commodities, greatly supported the work of slavery apologists (and later apologists for colonization and segregation), or more likely some rich combination of all these things. The main campus of Johns Hopkins University is built on the former Homewood Plantation. Tours through the still standing main house are a regular part of campus life. For more on this matter see, Craig Steven Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013).
  • 10. Sylvia Wynter, "The Ceremony Must be Found: After Humanism," boundary 2 vol. 12, no. 3 – vol 13, no. 1 (Spring–Autumn, 1984): 47.
  • 11. Wynter, "The Ceremony," 49.

Browse by