Thinking with Runaway Genres about Runaway Movements and Falling Monuments

This essay is part of a symposium on Yogita Goyal’s Runaway Genres. All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Which forms are most amenable for narrating the afterlives of slavery and why? Which configurations of race and power come to the fore and which recede when contemporary Afro-diasporic writers take up the slave narrative to address contemporary human-rights violations in Africa? What happens to the mutually constitutive relationship between race and form across different spaces and times? These are the questions that animate Yogita Goyal’s new book, Runaway Genres. Whereas scholars like Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson have expounded on the ruses of analogy in the contexts of comparative race scholarship and organizing, Goyal draws our attention to the political and aesthetic work of intra-diasporic analogy. Moreover, she spotlights the meta-critical treatment of analogy in contemporary Black writing about slavery. One of her most generative interventions is to reclaim the slave narrative as world-literary form, thereby centering African American literature in conversations about the future of Postcolonial and World Literature studies. The twenty-first-century global proliferation of the slave narrative stretches this genre outside the timelines and geographic coordinates of both its original nineteenth-century iterations, and its twentieth-century offshoot, the neo-slave narrative. For Goyal, its global career is an index of new mass-migration patterns, a global sentimentalist reading culture, and a recursive conception of history.

While ultimately making a case for analogy, the book also carefully attends to its breakdown, whether in the satires of African American writers Paul Beatty and Mat Johnson, or in the fiction of immigrant African writers like Teju Cole. Goyal argues that, for the writers of the new diaspora—Cole, Adichie, Taye Salasi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Dinaw Mengestu, and Chris Abani—“ideas of race and migration gen­erated by Atlantic slavery no longer serve as adequate containers for black subjectivity” (173). But rather than disavowing these earlier Atlantic frameworks of race-formation and migration, they refract them via other scales and spaces. For instance, Adichie’s protagonist riffs on the title of Douglass’s narrative by naming his own book Narrative of the Life of a Country, but signals an ontological shift from the individual to the postcolonial nation. Thus, novels like Half of a Yellow Sun “both rehearse and reverse the Middle Passage, prompting the question of how modern experiences of being a refugee or trafficked person or child soldier relate to the historical experience of Atlantic slavery” (174). To account for these new geopolitical constellations of Black immigrant writing, Goyal calls for new theorizations of diaspora, predicated on more recent histories of African migration to the United States. To this end, she demarcates emergent ideas of race, nation, and immigration forged in the U.S.-African migration nexus from those generated in the outdated model of the metropole-colony matrix or borne out of the national literatures of decolonization.

Here it is worth zooming out farther and examining the new diasporic configurations that Goyal describes alongside those that are being newly (re)articulated in the locales associated with the “old” diaspora: continental Africa, the Caribbean, or Black Europe, which are similarly experiencing shifts in demographics. Do the new diasporas of the Caribbean and Black Europe narrate the afterlives of slavery differently from Caryl Phillips’ generation? Do they have more in common with their predecessors or their U.S. counterparts? How do we account for the U.S. University’s role as the employer, and in some cases training ground, of writers of the new diaspora?[1] The volume of questions and avenues of inquiry that this book generates are a testament to the breadth of its scope and interventions.

Runaway Genres’ arguments about the global recursion of a literary form (the slave narrative) are richly suggestive for studying the Black Lives Matters protest as a global social form, not least because it spearheaded the removal of monuments to enslavers and colonizers worldwide. When Black organizers across the world coordinated their protests and messages in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, they did so in recognizable formations (the social form of the protest) and under a recognizable set of signs: the icons and indices of BLM. The fact that the toppled enslaver became the repeating icon of an international movement for Black liberation drives home Goyal’s claim that slavery remains the “template through which current forms of human rights abuses are understood in order to rethink race in a global frame” (2). By the same token, the performances, inscriptions, and rituals that activists worldwide brought to these monuments can be understood as a set of annotation practices that highlight the global frameworks of antiblackness and the afterlives of slavery. They operate on a continuum with Alan Rice’s “guerrilla memorialization” which “negotiates new meanings out of the interaction between what is there and what is missing, always being aware that what is lost can never be fully recovered” and Christina Sharpe’s “Black annotation,” “ways to make Black life visible, if only momentarily.”[2] The range of practices on this continuum signify differently depending on the punctum of the image they stage. (And here it worth noting that protestors are staging these scenes not only for the benefit of local communities, but also for circulation via photographs and videos on mass and social media.) When an annotation inscribes the violence of slavery and colonialism onto a statue but doesn’t necessarily “make Black life visible,” it swerves away from the ethical imperatives of Black annotation. I am thus heuristically and jointly referring to this entire continuum of annotation practices as guerilla annotations because they jaggedly impress the histories and afterlives of slavery onto statues that sublimate them.

By virtue of their international recursion, these guerilla annotations can be understood as a minor global form which approximates only to subvert official annotations: the plaque and contextual inscriptions on a plinth. If, as Saidiya Hartman reminds us, “the afterlife of slavery is not only a political and social problem, but an aesthetic one as well,” then the work of representing that duration, that afterlife has an aesthetic too.”[3] The divergences between the aesthetics of the guerrilla annotations and the state-sanctioned ones betoken differences between their: temporalities (ephemeral versus monumental); relationships to property (criminal versus state-sponsored); definitions of “context” (global versus national, slavery versus philanthropy/civil service); representational strategies (narrative and indexical versus embodied); and even media (brass and stone engravings versus spray paint). Notably, a year before the protestors in Bristol threw Edward Colston into the sea, multiple versions of a  “corrective” plaque were drafted, variously indicating Colston’s, and by extension Bristol’s role in the slave trade. The question remains whether the representational strategies of a short narrative on a metal plaque are suited to communicating what Hartman calls the  sense of “simultaneous entanglement” (in this case, between Colston’s trade in enslaved people and the predations on Black life in the present,) “where the past, the present and the future, are not discrete and cut off from one another.” While noting that this understanding of temporality “is almost common sense for black folk,” she also remarks on the difficulty of finding an adequate form to represent it.[4]

In Bristol, the protestors indicated the simultaneity of Floyd’s murder in 2020 and the murders of enslaved people in the past by reenacting both histories of violence onto Colston’s likeness. In Ghent, their counterparts signaled Belgian’s entanglement in a global, centuries-long regime of racial violence, by making the bust of  Leopold II “speak” the dying words of a twenty-first century African American man. To my knowledge, there are no recordings of the staging of this Ghent scene, it appears as a fait accompli. A hood tightened around Leopold’s head symbolically suffocates him, and on that hood, someone has painted George Floyd’s dying words “I can’t breathe.” The text and the hood act upon the viewer together, bringing Leopold’s victims in the Congo and George Floyd into the present of Belgians, people living in the Congo and in African America.

What makes these guerrilla annotations a recognizably global minor form, in addition to their recursion, is their scrambling of different imperial histories. This distinguishes the removal of statues depicting enslavers and colonizers from the destruction of monuments associated with the fall of national regimes. While BLM is committed to defunding the police and radically remaking our current social order, the toppling of Colston, Rhodes, or Columbus did not portend or accompany the immediate overthrow of particular governments. (In some cases, public pressure and fear of protests prompted authorities to remove offensive statues themselves). In Western Europe, protestors and annotators conspicuously circumvented the nation as the main political and historical form through which to understand the afterlives of slavery and colonialism. Consider how the retention of the original English “I can’t breathe” on Leopold’s hood splices across the “here” of Ghent, Belgium and its empire, and the “there” of the United States. The use of English in this non-Anglophone context functions as a citation, while also staging a scene that can be circulated and replicated elsewhere. Given the hegemonic status of English as the global language of popular culture and social movements alike, its deployment here could be interpreted as a hegemonic overwriting of local idioms of race. But there is nothing to suggest that local Black communities in Ghent are not triangulating their political struggles via multiple scales and vernaculars. This annotation and the global dissemination of BLM are cases in point. Floyd’s untranslated last words refract the national contexts of this Belgian monarch’s monument through its bloody imperial history and through inter-imperial histories of slavery and colonialism.

To map all the locations across the world in which different enslavers have been felled is to map what Lisa Lowe had evocatively called the “the intimacies of four continents.”[5] The global dispersion of public monuments to enslavers tracks neatly with the reproduction of political forms of unfreedom across different colonies and empires. It is not surprising that movements to topple enslavers, colonizers, and politicians associated with the genocide and removal of indigenous populations have been coextensive, if somewhat unevenly. For example, the South African and UK branches of “Rhodes will Fall” campaign drew attention to colonial extraction and colonial violence against indigenous peoples in addition to slavery. However, the hesitance to remove monuments to figures from more recent memory, namely Winston Churchill’s, reveals how the late colonial era is eclipsed in conversations about the afterlives and analogies of slavery, as if nothing happened between Emancipation and Windrush. The monumentalizing of World War II obscures the complexities and complicities of its heroes, who on the one hand, defeated Hitler in Europe, and on the other, terrorized and murdered colonial populations within years of that war. If, as Goyal, concludes “what we talk about when we talk about slavery is thus the Atlantic past, the global present, and everything in between,” it is crucial not to lose sight of the “everything in between” period stretching from Emancipation to Decolonization, precisely because it provides historical models (and analogies) for reckoning with the disappointments of a nominal freedom (215).

NOTES

[1] See Kalyan Nadiminti, “‘The Global Program Era’ Contemporary International Fiction in the American Creative Economy,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 51, no. 3 (November 2018): 375–98.

[2] Alan Rice, “Tracing Slavery and Abolition’s Routes and Viewing Inside the Invisible: The Monumental Landscape and the African Atlantic,” Atlantic Studies 8, no. 2 (2011): 256; Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2016), 123.

[3] Saidiya Hartman, “Will Answer to the Name Glenn,” in Glenn Ligon, America, ed. Scott

Rothkopf (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011), 112.

[4] Catherine Damman, Interview with Saidiya Hartman, Artforum, https://www.artforum.com/interviews/saidiya-hartman-83579

[5] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke University Press, 2015).

 

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About Marina Bilbija

Marina Bilbija is an Assistant Professor of English and Affiliated Faculty of the African American Studies Department at Wesleyan University. She writes about Black editorial practices and the print cultures of Black internationalism in the 19th and early 20th century. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled “Worlds of Color: Black Print Internationalisms Before Decolonization.” Her work has appeared in American Literary History, Contemporaries post-45, Modern Fiction Studies, and The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.


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