Troubling Silence: Sonic and Affective Dispossessions of the African Slave Trade
The United States has a slavery problem. Just last week, President Trump name-checked the political right’s current favorite past-president Andrew Jackson, suggesting that as a “swashbuckler,” Jackson would have prevented the Civil War…unlike Lincoln. Buried in Trump’s admiration for Jackson’s supposed intellect and political prowess, is the very real belief that the Southern slaveholding class, including Jackson who owned 150 slaves at the time of his death, would have maintained sovereignty and continued to make their wealth from the institution. Trump’s vile public utterance, which is misguided for many reasons, including the detail that Jackson died in 1845 and, in fact, could not have expressed his disapproval of the conflict as Trump recalled, is par for the course in this recent period wherein inane white supremacist rhetoric is normalized as acceptable in American public discourse.
Often, I am reminded of a shocking moment that I witnessed from the field in Bahia, Brazil, back in 2007. As I watched the only American-based news channel available to me in my rental apartment, former-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly began explaining to Senator John McCain that supporters of so-called illegal immigrants were intent on dismantling “the white male, Christian power structure” of the United States.
In the ensuing years, similar expressions of racial anxiety have led to acts of domestic terrorism as well as increased deportations and the surveillance and harassment of Black and Latino communities, reinforcing the stakes of my research. What is the place of African-descended peoples in a nation full of such political hostility? With the racial rhetoric at base level and the fear-mongering at a peak, what do we make of the persistent contemporary contention that America needs to be made great again, effectively, though somewhat covertly, wishing for a return to an era in the purported idyllic American past wherein the racial order depended on and thrived off of literal and figurative forms of Black death? How do we trouble the intentional silence about our actual history and thwart foolish advancements toward replicating the great American past?’
My book Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic (Duke UP, 2017) begins answering these questions. In Afro-Atlantic Flight, I trace the ways that post-civil rights Black American artists, intellectuals, and travelers envision literal and figurative flight back to Africa as a means by which to heal the dispossession caused by the slave trade and the ensuing forms of oppression and societal alienation that have continued in the aftermath.
Through ethnographic, historical, literary, and filmic analyses, I show how a range of cultural producers engage with speculative thought about slavery, the spiritual realm, and Africa, thereby structuring the imaginary that propels future return journeys. I go on to examine Black Americans’ cultural heritage tourism in and migration to Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and various sites of slavery in the U.S. South to interrogate the ways that a cadre of actors produces “Africa” and refigures master narratives. What I found in my research is that while these material flights do not always satisfy Black Americans’ individualistic desires for homecoming and liberation, there is a corrective: the revolutionary possibilities inherent in psychic speculative returns open up the egalitarian opportunity for the development of a new and contemporary Pan-Africanist stance that works to more effectively address the contemporary resonances of slavery that exist across the Afro-Atlantic.
As I conducted research, I was interested in how narratives about slavery and Africa are crafted as well as how they travel in literature, film, and the cultural roots tourism industry. To be sure, I did not conceive of this project as a sound studies inquiry, but throughout my more than eight years of active research, I was struck often by the sonic and the affective as I examined states of dispossession. For example, if I close my eyes and still myself, I can hear that which emanated from the Black expatriate in Bahia, Brazil, who I asked to reflect on freedom – he began his answer with a solemn, gospel music-inflected improvisation of the word/concept.
I remember the crashing of waves at various points along the Atlantic Ocean; often, I stood somberly and marveled at its power and the seeming fury that reverberates, particularly along and across sites of the transatlantic slavetrade. The ways in which the articulation of narrative scripts at remnants of slavery vary – how tour guides’ oral pacing, tenors, and selected content differ according to the racial composition of the visiting groups struck me as intentional and profitable, though not necessarily contrived. And various interviewees and writers recalled and created, respectively, ghostly felt and heard encounters with their long-dead enslaved ancestors; I remain moved by their welcoming posture to exploring this sensory haunting.
The excerpt that follows is drawn from the fourth chapter of Afro-Atlantic Flight, “Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South.” In Chapter 4, I sought to listen to and think through the function of silence in master accounts and the subversive sounds of speculative counter-narratives about slavery in the U.S. South.
In the late 1990s, I took an evening walking tour called “The Ghosts of Charleston,” a guided encounter with the supernatural in Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled around the city’s downtown area and through winding cobblestoned streets, admiring the horse-drawn carriages and rainbow-colored buildings, we paused often at cemeteries, centuries-old homes, hotels, a former jail, and markets to witness the locations of the occult. Our guide opined that a range of elements whereby widespread death occurred—hurricanes, floods, fires, and the Civil War—had rendered the city ripe for paranormal activity. The dead, he intimated, have unfinished business. What struck me about the tour and the numerous visits that I had made to plantations throughout the Lowcountry throughout my childhood in South Carolina during school field trips and family excursions, as well as a researcher in more recent years, is that other than in passing references, Charleston’s history as a major slave port is glossed over in the larger tourism industry to promote representations of the imagined antebellum South of the Lost Cause. In downtown Charleston, a former slave market sits quietly near a more recently constructed block called the Market, which is surrounded by expensive hotels, eateries, and boutiques that serve as background for a sort of souvenir bazaar at which Gullah women and their children weave and sell seagrass baskets crafted using what are believed to be West African techniques passed down from their ancestors [For more on these historical claims, see Gerald L. Davis’s “Afro-American Coil Basketry in Charleston County, South Carolina” in American Folklife. Also of interest here is Patricia Jones Jackson’s When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions on the Sea Islands]. The silence about slavery betrays the trauma, dispossession, and death suffered to build and sustain the wealth that, if one looks at and listens critically (even to the silence), hovers over the area, mocking the evidence of the great injury that was the transatlantic slave trade.
“The Ghosts of Charleston” tour guide’s lone story that described the spirit of a slave was about a boy named George, a decidedly gentle spirit who is said to pester guests impishly at the 1837 Bed and Breakfast. George drowned in 1843 after he jumped into the harbor in pursuit of a ship that was transporting his parents to a Virginia plantation. Today, George taunts hotel patrons by shaking the bed in one room and by turning the lights on and off repeatedly in another. He is sometimes seen playing in the building or swaying in a rocking chair. George’s nuisance, the story goes, is remedied easily when one cracks a whip to frighten him. To relegate Charleston’s cruel history of slavery to the margins of the historical master narrative by repeating stories about slaves that make light of the institution while reinforcing its horrors—ships utilized to separate parent from child, the horrific struggle that ensued as the child fought drowning, and the whip’s lash—rewounds. Most disquieting is that 1837’s guests are encouraged to participate in the past, wherein it becomes a diversion to threaten the spirit of a slave with force, reenacting the role of the master. The lore identifies a playful ghost rather than a sad spirit who is frightened, crying, screaming, gurgling as he writhed in the ocean, or gasping for air. Why is it that the unsilenced ghostly specters of slaves in these Lowcountry master narratives are not enraged and vengeful?
In the post‒civil rights moment, Black Americans are not only returning to the South to live permanently in a reverse migration that has befuddled onlookers, but Black American cultural producers are also working against the region’s geography of silence to illustrate how the ideologies that undergirded past social configurations in the South redound in the present, moving toward a broad Black fantastic frame. Through analyses of these points of return and revision, this chapter contends that Black Americans embrace speculative thought to recast cultural production about the South; challenge what is commemorated as significant in historical preservation; and create alternative “African” worlds in the purview of the racism and the often spurious narratives of progress that reign in the South, particularly at sites of slavery. Such fantastic reimaginings contest and thereby perform a democratization of contemporary master narratives and, for some, attend to the desires of those who are determined to realize Black social life in the American South despite its sordid histories.
Troubling the Silence in Southern Master Narratives
Growing up in Midway with the coloreds, I spent the night at Molly Montague’s house in the bed with five niggers—spent the night with them. In the same bed, eat from the same table, drink from the same thing, play with them every day. I mean, they were family. I mean, as far as I was concerned. They loved you.
Winston Silver’s curious memory of a colorblind childhood in North Carolina in the pre‒civil rights era reflects a disturbing disconnect that his cousin, the film critic and novice documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, explores in the film Moving Midway.
The film was conceived initially to chronicle the relocation of the home at Midway Plantation to a quieter tract of land away from the urban sprawl in Raleigh, North Carolina. Yet as Cheshire scoured historical records and interviewed members of his mother’s family, he found that most narratives about slavery at Midway went unspoken, though it once was a thriving tobacco plantation. During his search, Cheshire discovered that there existed a branch of Black people on his family tree who might be able to assist him in developing a more complete narrative about his familial history. The film, then, traces two interrelated stories. The first is a catalog of a white Southern family’s desire to preserve its plantation home, the “grand old lady” and “sacred center of the family” that sat on property that was settled by their ancestors in 1739. The second story is that of Cheshire’s chance encounter with Robert Hinton, a Black American history professor whose grandfather was owned by Cheshire’s great-great-grandfather. Hinton’s inclusion in the film acts to challenge the myths of purity that the majority of Cheshire’s maternal family members had embraced about their ancestral past.
Perhaps the most compelling thread examined centers on Cheshire’s family’s holding steadfastly to memories that were imparted to them by their ancestor Mary Hilliard Hinton (Aunt Mimi), who was fascinated with the idea of pastoral pasts and constructing genealogical maps that connected the Hinton family to the British aristocracy, despite her certain knowledge that various indiscretions by the Hinton slaveholders had resulted in mixed-race Black American kin. What Cheshire reluctantly finds and attempts to rectify is how he is implicated in what he sets out to explore—the lengths to which crafters of genteel, idealistic Southern myths often go to extricate slavery, violence, and racism from how the past is articulated. While the slave plantation serves as a place for wistful Americans to recall the zenith of white superiority, these vestiges of slavery also haunt the region and negate narratives of progress. Black Americans have begun visiting plantation sites and often become vocal about how the lives of their ancestors are erased from the tourism scripts. The moments of rupture in Moving Midway are indicative of what happens when the Black and white branches of a Southern family attempt to come to terms with their ties to blue-blooded ancestors, whose wealth was accumulated through their continued participation in the violence and inhumanity that marked slavery.
Robert Hinton appears throughout the film as a historical expert and also as someone who Cheshire initially and naively believes holds an emotional stake in ensuring that the land upon which Midway sits and the home itself are preserved positively in the collective memory. Hinton tours the plantation site in search of evidence of slavery and his long-dead ancestors, seeking out slave quarters and grave sites and showing very little interest in Cheshire’s family’s romantic stories about Southern gentility. Early in the film, Hinton is asked to attend a Civil War reenactment with Cheshire and Cheshire’s mother, Elizabeth. This moment highlights the rifts that would arise later between Hinton and Cheshire, who had become friendly during the making of the film. At the reenactment, Elizabeth attempts to convince Hinton that the Civil War was about states’ rights unlike what the (liberal) media and historians suggest about slavery’s significance to the conflict. When Cheshire questions Hinton about his response to the reenactment, a tense moment occurs between him and Cheshire, whose film narration theretofore had been somewhat progressive in its historical analyses of race and slavery in the South:
Hinton: It looked like it was fun for the people involved, but it—it represents to me a misremembering of the war of Southern history and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of Black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Cheshire: Right. But also, there was the argument that was of states’ rights. That that was—wasn’t that the argument? But I mean, don’t look at me like that. That was the argument that was put forward, right?
Hinton: I just think the whole argument about states’ rights is an avoidance, and if slavery had not been an issue, the issue of states’ rights would have never come up. My attitude about this is that I’m perfectly happy to have [the Civil War reenactors] keep fighting the war as long as they keep losing it.
[Both men laugh.]
“Crafting Symbolic Africas in a Geography of Silence: Return Travels to and the Renarrativization of the U.S. South,” in Afro-Atlantic Flight, Michelle D. Commander, excerpted from pages 173-220. Copyright, 2017, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder. http://www.dukeupress.edu
Featured Image: The author listening to the Atlantic from the Cape Coast Slavecastle in Ghana, courtesy of the author
Michelle D. Commander is a native of the midlands of South Carolina. She is an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2010, Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She spent the 2012-2013 school year in Accra, Ghana, as a Fulbright Lecturer/Researcher, where she taught at the University of Ghana-Legon. Commander’s research has been supported by numerous organizations including the Ford Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, and the Irvine Foundation. She is currently working on three projects: a book manuscript on the function of speculative ideologies and science in contemporary African American cultural production; a book-length project on the production of Black counter-narratives of the U.S. South; and a creative nonfiction volume on African American mobility. She has also begun engaging in essay writing for public audiences, which has been cathartic. You can find her essays at The Guardian and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
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