“From sugar, to investment in planter-dominated banks, to, of course, the trade in slaves itself, the whole plantation complex stank of the arousal of rape.”
~Edward E. Baptist, “”Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One-Eyed Men”: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106 (December 2001), 1619-1650.
I am #nowreading Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende. It’s like watching a car accident, a collision of metal, glass and soft, meaty human bodies, in slow motion. Into the blender, hit mix, tear flesh from bone, coat the glass red, hemoglobin run a muck under the relentless pressure of some outside violence, ignore the scream of the gears, the turning blades as bone matter resists, but, no, push through, taking, tearing, plunging forward simply because you have the power to do so. Rip apart, swirl together, then call it pacification, christianization, civilization, natural order of Man.
I’ve spent almost a week sitting in the heart of slavery. Above and beyond my usual scholarship, teaching and service, I attended the Middle Passages: Histories and Poetics conference at CUNY-Graduate Center. The conference was curated by (or dj-ed, or conjured as different participants noted at different times) by Herman Bennett, professor of history at CUNY, who specializes in early Latin American history. The conference, which included keynote speeches by Eve Troutt Powell and Saidiya Hartman, tackled the complex relationship between histories of slavery and literatures of slavery, a relationship that in reality is wrapped up in the credo that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
For me, one of the most intense manifestations of the legacy of slavery is the acute vulnerability of black women (re: “any and all African descent”) to the permutations of global economies, political regimes and everyday caprice. It is a vulnerability that is so old (re: slavery began in the 15th century) that violence enacted on the bodies and selves of women of African descent is so commonplace as to be hardly worth mentioning.
So that when I picked up Island Beneath the Sea on Monday, I knew that reading it would be a difficult experience. I didn’t realize how much. If only it were simply a matter of dealing with Zarité, the slave woman born of a rape, subjected to rape, all of her incredible mental and spiritual energies consigned to the limits imposed upon her by a heteropatriarchal slave regime–then perhaps I could digest it. It sounds amazing, but years of practice consuming the politics of power and resistance at slavery’s core has imbued me with a willful sadomasochism. That is to say, as a survivor of slavery (yes, these hundreds of years later), I attack the history with the zeal, empathy, passion and fury that…well, that only a rape-crisis counselor could understand.
But it is not just that.
Because the Island Beneath the Sea is set in the context of the Haitian Revolution. So it is not only about a woman (after all, was she ever a child?) struggling to be a woman in a world that will not recognize her. It is also about a world that will not recognize an entire people (re: slaves) and their aspirations for freedom…and a people that will not recognize the festering, decomposing core which the logic of slavery relies on. It is about the contradiction at the heart of the making of the modern world.
How to digest that? How to write that? How do you draw a rape?