We Can Never Tell the Entire Story of Slavery: In Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

The Toronto Review of Books has just published my interview with the renowned poet, M. NourbeSe Philip. In the interview we focus on her work Zong!, and touch on music, improvisation, slavery (including the film 12 Years a Slave), the haunting of modernity, and more!

Read the full interview, here.

Photo by Paul Watkins of M. NourbeSe Philip leading a book-length reading of Zong! on November 29th, 2013.

From The Second Storey Interview: Railroad and Rhythm

I was on the radio earlier today. I spoke about my own work, music, and read part of my poem, Soundin’ Canaan. I was asked to choose two pieces of music to bookend my interview, and selected Oscar Peterson’s moving “Hymn to Freedom,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

Jerry Prager, a local historian spoke first about his new book, Laying the Bed: The Native Origins of the Underground Railroard. I come in around 35 minutes after the Oscar Peterson piece.

The interview can be viewed in the From The Second Story archive, “12:00 PM ON MONDAY MARCH 10, 2014.”

Cheers,
Paul

Soundin’ Canaan (poem, draft)

“In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretched is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.”
-Aimé Cesairé

“So what If I write a poem like a song.”
-Lillian Allen

Columbus was no intrepid hero,
He was more an insipid & syphilic-vaquero hearding the “indios” like cargo
& John Hawkins was no Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins,
He was the English-dastard & coward who brought the fist slave ship to the “New World.”
They merely discovered the already discovered.
Hypocrites like John Hammond claiming he discovered Bessie Smith,
Counterfeit prophets racketeering off the backs of blacks, Chinese, Natives, navies, human life for profit.

A collective amnesia still persists: some 20 million Africans loaded on ships, mothers torn from babies,
whipped & sold into slavery. Some Canadians are still unaware that slavery existed in this country.
Slavery, à la Canadian style.
Listen: hear a history of violence, textured & composite.
Listen: hear a literature of Black Canadians— oral, written, & infinitely rich.
Listen: hear whistle blow, porter train riff.
Listen: hear makeshift improvisers providing a needed spiritual lift.

Mattieu da Costa, circa 1605, first African guide & translator to set foot in Canada,
Olivier Le Jeune, taken from Madagascar, first recorded slave purchased at age 8 in Quebec, New France, before it was Canada.
A hundred years later, after she learnt her slave mistress was gonna sell her, Marie-Josèphe Angélique burned down Montreal: they tortured her, hung her, tossed her to the fire, her scattered ashes to the wind, a feminist rebel before radical feminism was drawn.
We must not forget Josiah Henson who helped form the Canaan of Dawn, he inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We must not forget Harriet Tubman, dubbed “Black Moses,” she led escaped slaves on the underground railroad to its terminus in Chatham.
We must remember John Brown & Osborne Anderson, who accompanied Brown on his raid on Harper’s Ferry; Anderson fled & wrote a pamphlet, history demanded it.
Had help from Mary Ann Shadd, full time editor & first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada, her history we inherit.
Along with Thomas Peters who helped lead some 1200 blacks from Canada back to Sierra Leone Africa in 1792, a black loyalist & a Yoruba too, he wore a poly-identity become it was cool.
We must remember the great Rufus Rockhead, bootlegger, former porter, who opened the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise in 1928 in St. Antoine, Montreal.
We must remember John Arthur Robinson who helped form the Order of Sleeping Car Porters &
George V. Garraway who became the first conductor on the Canadian Railway.
We must remember Joe Fortes who taught children to swim while patrolling the beach at English Bay,
there’s a restaurant & a library named after him today.
& Leonard A. Braithwaite, first elected Black Canadian to the Ontario Legislature.
& Stanley Grizzle too, former porter & Canada’s first Black Citizen Judge, civis litigator!
—these are to name, mostly by name, but at least to start to name, some of the historic figures that are part of Canadian history.

Is it true, we be a people without a literature?
Were all of Canada’s early “white” writers performing in blackface?
Murphy’s Black Candle clearly states that racial mixing is a fear in losing the docility of the social body,
the female body, the cult of true womanhood replaced by the cult of the drug.
The fear of the white passive female body becoming possessed.
The body as text, the black pen as sex.
& Haliburton’s Sam Slick was sure some son-of-a-racist-prick.
But this history ain’t just bullshit, we inherit it.

The Canada of many Canaanadas for many Canadians.
In 1834 the mere touching of Canadian soil made the runaway slave free.
The continued exodus & disappearing of borders.
Canada: the North Star, “heaven,” the Underground Railroad starting in the south & heading North to Canaan land, simply follow the Drinking Gourd.
Survivors of the crossing who found Philistines replacing the Egyptians.
The volatility of human borders, escaping fugitive slave law
& hoping to find freedom under the lion’s paw,
forming the Canadian Canaans:
Wilberforce, Dawn, The Refugee Home Society, & Elgin
Escapin’ plantation cottin’ pickin only to find a more subtle racism,
which kept people on the go, poly-identities in motion before postmodernism called it so.
Like Boston King moving from America to Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone then England & back to Sierra Leone; did he ever really feel at home?
Hear Nina Simone singing, “Ain’t got No…”
To be in another place, not here.
Fiction “here” is the transcription of history, reworking tradition,
As Mandela said, “History isn’t born it’s made.”
History: a kind of philosophical lab.
A tidalectical wave crashing back & forth,
into the torn & new of this host country.

Mr. D, in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in The Bush notoriously states “there are no ghosts in Canada” because “the country is too new for ghosts.”
But if you put your ear to a tree, or stand still in one place, you’ll realize this land is “hauntological.”
The silences echo with the whispers of ghosts in the corridors of history.
Fighting for survival since arrival is enough to make anyone suicidal.
& where is here really? Here is simply here for those who ended up here, or for those who’ve always been here. To first Nations people the question is absurd.
It’s apparent we exclude all others when we construct a garrison.
Especially when that construction is at the expense of a community.
“We” tore down Africville & bulldozed Hogan’s Alley to make room for a highway.
& they call it urban renewal, more like “Negro” removal.

My education was one of white-faced white-studies effacing my white face with white paint.
If I encountered a black text it was usually as subtext, prefix, or preface to the rest.
As critics we need to flip the script proper with a provisional manuscript
& avoid creating bordered realities like the Gaza strip,
or the whole world really, when you get down to it.

Rather, DJ take us into an “indexical present.”
The DJ as cultural archivist & resistive resident,
Moving the fader, back & forth between diverse cultural realities,
Using beats, rhymes, & counter rhythms like swords.
Poetry working & un/working on the edge,
Like Rakim said: “Standing on shaky grounds too close to the edge,
Let’s see if I know the ledge.”

An edging towards the Just Society.
A tapestry entwined within Trudeau’s notions of a pluralistic & polyethnic society.
For multiculturalism is an exercise in blackness: an acculturation of forms, a creative destruction of old selves into new states.

Canada is an archipelago of blackness:
For whiteness is death & only when we let go of our possessive investment in it, can we truly unravel the shells holding in the outer limits of our outer selves.
Discover: the heteroglot, the polyglot, the polyphonic improvised being who is always a listening being.
Are you listening Canada? Where is H/ear? Or, Where are you from?

Canada can never claim to be a homogenous culture.
So paint phonemes on canvas, over this Canaan land, soundin’ Canada,
Chant, grunt, shout, & sing a callaloo of aquarelles, a gumbo-concoction with rhythms
that be boppin’ & hip-hopin’ on the Canadian kazoo, & find:
George Elliott Clarke sounding Miles Davis with a blues-beaucoup in Blue.
Wayde Compton entwininging Grandmaster Flash in his legba-trickster brew.
Dionne Brand phrasing Coltrane with a jazz text sonically riffing through.
M. NourbeSe Philip turning the echoes of Zong into song with poetry guiding her through.
K’naan taking us through Babylon wavin’ a flag with the force of a million literary reviews.
& these are to name but a few of the artists
improvising consciousnesses in the liminality of contact zones.

Hear: the spirituals & blues augmenting a salacious truth that speaks Canada with a cool icy-blue.
Hear: jazz, the flattened 5th of devil’s music, blowing freely in Canada too.
Hear: funk, r&b, & rock syncopating the electric past into the reclamation of bodies.
Everybody, hear the dub of the duppy, mystics using a West Indian aesthetic to heal the present.
Hear: Hip Hop urban youths speakin’ beats & rhymes—& more than just music—the movement.
Hear: DJs recontextualizing all material, for sonic frequencies are not a fixed phenomenon.

Legein: the layering out, gathering, collecting, reading, the “mix” of the mixedness of all things.
Improvisation: the open-ended possibility for polyglossic polyventiality, for survival.
Speak as a prophet or profess like a professor: it does mean after all, “To declare openly.”
Laurier, MacKenzie King, & Harper aren’t my prime ministers.
Administer a protesting crescendo with a glissando like Oscar Peterson on the piano,
pushing the keys with love.

Sing Canaan, chant it, shout it, play it, pluck it, howl it, honk it, scream it, into pure utterance & possibility—
freely imagine what a truly Just Society could sound like & be.

This poem is in draft stage and covers some of the theory and history surrounding my thesis project, Soundin' Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry. The featured image is of Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and friends. I'll be reading part of this poem and discussing my work more generally on Monday, March 10th from 12:30pm - 1:00pm on From The Second Story, a radio program on the University of Guelph's CFRU (93.3 FM).

A “Truthful Statement of Facts”: A Review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

So states Solomon Northup in the first page of his grueling autobiography 12 Years a Slave; 160 years later Northup’s words are visually echoed in perhaps the best portrayal of slavery on film. 12 Years a Slave is a fictionalized historical drama by British director Steve McQueen that adapts Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title. Given the palette of slavery, McQueen’s film is difficult to watch at times—as it should be—and I agree with critics who have called the film essential viewing. Having seen McQueen’s major theatrical releases, Hunger (2008, about the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike) and Shame (2011, about a struggling sex addict), I knew he wouldn’t shy away from starkly depicting the brutality of slavery, of which, believe it or not, the film could have shown even more.

African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave, says the film actually minimizes the depiction of violence: “Slavery was a brutal, violent, sadistic institution. And I think that Steve McQueen showed remarkable restraint. It just hints at how violent slavery was… You can’t depict it and not show violence. That would be Gone with the Wind. But if you’re depicting it, there is a lot more violence in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative than there is in Steve McQueen’s film” (click here to read more from this article). Very true, and while the violence in 12 Years a Slave is visceral and unrelenting, it is fully necessary, much in the way that Schindler’s List needed to show the atrocities Jewish people faced in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The unfortunate reality is that many suffer from a “collective amnesia” and fail to take into account that the Middle Passage—the capture of Africans and the brutal crossing of the sea into the New World—was a holocaust that ruptured, damaged, or destroyed the lives of over 20 million African people. 12 Years a Slave can’t tell the total story of slavery—the epigraph from Northup states the impossibility of this—but it is admirable for its heightened focus on the experiences Northup faced when he was captured, taken from his family, and sold into bondage. Given how realistic McQueen’s antebellum Southern opera feels, the film will set the bar for which other films about slavery will be compared.

McQueen’s early ventures into the art world are apparent, as many scenes are so horrifically beautiful (with very long and wide shots) that you feel as if you are watching a painting slowly combust before your eyes. Such as in the scene where Northup hangs from a tree—almost like a Tableau vivant—with his feet barely touching the muddy ground, which feels like an eternity on the screen. The beautiful southern landscape, along with the pious hypocrisy of the slave owners shows just how dehumanizing slavery was for all parties involved. And yet, despite this brutality the slaves found ways to make their lives meaningful, emphasized, for example, through the spirituals in the film. Recounting the emotive and philosophical power of slave songs, Frederick Douglass attests, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Narrative 57). Douglass declares that the slave song is the final province of resistance to slavery.

Of course, none of the music, storytelling, or spectacular cinematography would be very affecting if the acting weren’t so phenomenal. As the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor gave such a heart wrenching and brilliant performance that it would be a shame if he weren’t given an Oscar nomination. The rest of the star-studded cast also shine, or tarnish, as evil men and women who personify the malevolent machinations of slavery. Paul Dano is particularly vicious, that is until we encounter Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a cruel plantation owner who is married to an equally cruel woman played by Sarah Paulson. However, the surprise standout performance, for me, was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation who suffers the cruel brunt of the Epps’ guilt, jealousy, and perverted rage. Her performance will haunt me for some time to come, as will the film, which is the most painful, and lucid depiction of American slavery I’ve seen in cinema.

Watching a movie in Canada about American slavery, made by a black British director, reminded me of how global and transnational slavery was. And while Canada no longer practiced slavery at the time Northup was captured—he is aided by a Canadian carpenter in the film played by Brad Pitt—it is important to remember that slavery is “Canada’s best kept secret, locked within the National closet” (Afua Cooper, Untold Story 68). In Canada, slavery was not denounced until 1793, and was not formally abolished until 1834. I mention this because the last thing we should do as Canadians is congratulate ourselves for not participating in slavery—because we did—and our continued poor treatment of First Nations people (who were also once kept as slaves) is a reminder of the legacy of injustice that still effects this country.

On a less somber note, 12 Years a Slave is additionally a film about the will to overcome injustice, to find hope where only despair seems plausible, and to remain ardent in the search for greater freedom, fraternity, and equality for all people. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Northup’s book was published less than a year after his liberation. It became one of the best selling slave narratives of all time, and yet it remains unknown what happened to Solomon Northup. Regardless, Northup lives on in his book, and now his incredible story manifests in this gripping and powerful historical drama about the brutal inhumanities we as humans inflict upon one another. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it.

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup

Works Cited

Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.