Black Literature has, in quite a few ways, done the most for creative thinking, producing theories and pathways to actively imagine a radical reshaping of a world hostile to so many of us. I write this piece to briefly span across some of the most influential literary writings of the diaspora in the twentieth and twenty-first century and to commemorate three authors who redesigned my understanding of literary culture and its purpose today.
James Baldwin and Toni Morrison are some of the most heavily anthologised Black writers today and are widely commemorated every Black History Month, and for good reason. Their fiction and non-fiction celebrate the works of their predecessors and at the same time rewrite the purpose of literature to pursue truth and justice, and recover histories as the most creative and important challenges of the twentieth century (and now, the twenty-first). Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, becoming the first African-American woman to get it. Meanwhile, Baldwin bagged La Légion D’Honneur, France’s highest honour, amongst many other literary achievements.
Both Baldwin and Morrison caused a stir in the contemporary readership of their time by producing some of the most unique and unnerving narrative voices in their novels: Beloved (Morrison) and Giovanni’s Room (Baldwin). Giovanni’s Room is unique in featuring all white characters written by a Black author who felt that he could not have handled the “other great weight, the ‘Negro problem’. The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book.” Giovanni’s Room was considered quite provocative upon being released, but still gained huge and quick prominence: it was a black author intelligently articulating politics of American identities that were silently queer. The narrative voice in the text engages with the reader through strong theatrical imagery and a lyrical flow that unearths social and personal understandings of shame with homosexuality. He unroots the idea of ‘home’ as a space to live in, or relationships to live through, conceiving of it instead as “simply an irrevocable condition.”
Home as an “irrevocable condition” is something Morrison engages with too, in Beloved, though she ties it in with race and gender politics. Morrison’s Pulitzer-winning novel was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African-American woman who escaped slavery once but, when captured again, became infamous for killing her child rather than having her taken back into slavery. Though she was widely condemned for this, Garner and her choices were important to Morrison. She breathes back life into that child in her novel, making her a supernatural character and naming her ‘Beloved’.
In Beloved, the eponymous character comes back home to her mother as a young woman, craving maternal love and attention. The fragmented, non-linear structure and the wisdom of black ancestors’ oral traditions make up the structure and content of the novel. The book is about ‘rememory’, Morrison reflects: “Rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past. And it was the struggle, the pitched battle between remembering and forgetting, that became the device of the narrative. The effort to both remember and not know became the structure of the text.” The book is a whole experience that makes one question how creative writing is mostly about serving justice and collective mourning before anything else in a postcolonial world.
M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! is another text that picks up the theme of memory, from the genre of experimental literature. It is a scathing expose of the violence of the English language in literature and in history. ‘Zong!’ completed in 2008, is a poetry collection written using the legal jargon that was used in the ‘Gregson v. Gilbert’ case report of 1783, more widely known as the Zong case. Zong was a legal case fought between Messrs Gregson, owners of a slave ship called Zong, and their insurers, Messrs Gilbert. Gregson wanted to claim insurance for “lost cargo” – enslaved African people who were massacred on the transatlantic route by being thrown overboard due to lack of life resources on the sea and documented legally as a financial loss for the ship owners for which they can claim insurance from the insurers of their ship. The insurers refused to pay for the murder of the enslaved people and Gregson took them to court to recover all their losses. The jury found Gilbert liable and ordered compensation, but Gilbert took the case to the Court of King’s Bench and the jury there decided to hold a new trial. The case paved the way to the eventual abolition of slavery in England.
While Philip’s text is poetry, it rejects poetic devices like rhyme, allegories etc. to convey meaning. The writing style insists on being anti-narrative and anti-meaning rather than lacking meaning: to do otherwise would mean speaking the language of the colonisers, which would never bring justice. All the words used in the poems are plucked from the legal case document of Zong. Philip expresses that she wanted her poetry to “disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.”
During Black History Month, it is perhaps easy to get lost in celebrating the achievements of Black authors who have come and gone, forgetting to celebrate the continuing achievements of Black authors writing today. This year, M. NourbeSe Philip has been announced as the recipient of the PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature for her highly innovative ways of writing history. There are various other black authors to whom we owe our powers of creativity, out there destabilising western hegemony in the idea of literature itself.
Image: Anna Kuptsova