F20 Black Atlantic: Resources, Pedagogy, and Scholarship on the 18th Century Black Atlantic

[Week 5] The Trauma of the Archive: Absences and Presences in the Figuration of the Black Woman

As Saidiya Hartman notes in her treatise on the putative absence of the enslaved black female subject in the historical legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, “[t]here is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage” (3), and the archives that contain traces of their lives are imbricated in violence, operating as they do through such documents such as “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life” (2).  (Robin Mitchell attests to the horror of the archival of the black female body, recounting that she “burst into tears” upon being being presented with the plaster cast of Sarah Baartman – even archival research becomes fraught given the history involved (xiv).)  Hartman thus fears that any attempt to narrativize these lives risks symbolically and literarily “committing further violence in [the] act of narration” (2) because “the stories that exist are not about [the enslaved women], but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity” that “transformed them into commodities and corpses” (2).  There is in some ways a paradoxical irony to this structural absence, because these women of course were the engine of the “libidinal economy of slavery” (Hartman 1).

Archival violence and the struggle with history are foundational to black thought in the New World context, perhaps particularly among Caribbean theorists.  In his poem “The Sea Is History,” Derek Walcott conceptualizes the sea as “that grey vault” that “has locked [history] up” (364) in a display of submarine tidalectics.  The figure Hartman thus describes as Venus resonates with the one to whom Sylvia Wynter refers as ‘Caliban’s woman’: the (fecund) black woman whom Europeanist colonialist discourse absented despite her foundational presence as the engine of reproduction for the colonial enterprise and whom Caribbean feminist and nationalist discourses discursively absented despite her ontological legacy as ancestor and presence in the contemporary bloodstream.  Wynter argues that Caliban’s woman’s ‘ontological absence’ positions her on a ‘doubly silenced “ground”’ (365) due to her race and gender. Wynter describes this ground of Caliban’s woman as ‘demonic’, by which she refers to ‘a vantage point outside the space-time orientation of the humuncular observer’ and thus ‘outside the “consolidated field” of our present mode of being/knowing/feeling’ (364).

Hartman questions whether it is perhaps possible “to generate a different set of descriptions from this archive” and to “envision a free state from this order” (7, emphasis original) through the production of “counter-history” (12).  She argues that counter-historical projects “are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalized and derailed before they ever gain a footing,” however, and so concludes that the “history of black counter-historical projects is one of failure” (13, emphasis original).  Perhaps, however, this does not give enough credit to the counter-historical realities of black political praxis since the advent of the New World plantation or the ways in which their marginalization is indicative of strategic obfuscation.  A theoretical turn to New World tropes like marronage might then explicate a way of seeing the other side of the archive and Venus’s place within/without it.

Works Cited

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe, vol. 12, no. 2, 2008, pp. 1-14.
Mitchell, Robin. Vénus Noire: Black Women and Colonial Fantasties in Nineteenth-Century
     France. Georgia UP, 2020.
Walcott, Derek. “The Sea Is History.” Collected Poems 1948-1984. Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
     1987, pp. 364-67.
Wynter, Sylvia. “Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/Silencing the ‘Demonic Ground’ of Caliban’s
     ‘Woman’.” Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean Women and Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and
      Elaine Savory Fido. Africa World P, 1990, pp. 355–70.


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