Chapter Five: “Popping Sorrow”: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude

As Dorothy Couchman points out in her post, the previous chapter moved from “the self-fashioning gestures of male planters in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake” to “William Blake’s 1793 engravings of slaves being tortured in Suriname.”  In Chapter Five “’Popping Sorrow’: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude,” Gikandi focuses on the representations of the slaves as subjects. This chapter serves as a transition into the next chapter’s deeper exploration of “the meaning of the scenes of merrymaking that dominate descriptive accounts of West Indian and American slavery and how they should be read or interpreted” (202). His exploration of the “happy slave” revolves around the performance of sorrow.

For writers creating a new black modernity through their narratives, the former slaves Olaudah Equiano, Mary Prince and Frederick Douglass argued that slaves must recognize the negation defining their existential condition in order to recreate themselves as subjects. These authors work to interpret these scenes play and celebration by teaching their readers to read what seem to be markers of pleasure as melancholic signs of oppression. Douglass, Gikandi reminds us, “detested any suggestion that the experience of slavery would generate any kind of pleasure for the enslaved. . . . as far as he [Douglass] was concerned, slave holidays and performances were part of the master’s cunning, attempts to manipulate affect, rather than provide a vehicle through which the real feelings and sensibilities of slaves could be expressed” (197, 199). Building on but complicating these arguments, Gikandi asks that we interpret both these scenes of merrymaking and the slave narratives critique of them within a larger context of sensibility, aesthetic taste, and cultural memory.

For me, the most striking moments were the complicated relationship between affective performances and the moments when the black bodies depicted become marked by gender. Although not a major focus of the book, the discussion of the female, enslaved bodies of Mary Prince and unnamed mixed-race women illustrate the complicated performance of self required to create a black subjectivity within a slave society.

At the end of her autobiography, Mary Prince emphasizes something some of my students have found puzzling. They wondered why she needed to so forcibly argue that slavery and happiness were incompatible states. For Gikandi, her rhetoric acts as “a forceful denunciation of the ideology of the aesthetic  . . . an ideology that assumed that ‘sensual recognition’ was the key to subjectivity and that being happy was both the means and ends to a modern life” (197). Her narrative strives to counter the image of a sensuous slave that experiences happiness in spite—or, according to some planters, because of—their enslaved state.

The image of the “happy slave” in the minds of Prince’s readers may resemble the chapter’s opening pair of images by Agostino Brunias. The original paintings and their reproductions, Gikandi points out, “were intended to reproduce the West Indian islands  . . . as intimate and desirable places of settlement” and “to present the islands as spaces of cultivation and refinement” (188).

Brunias, Agostino (1728-1796). Linen Day, Roseau, Dominica - A Market Scene, c.1780. Painting. ARTstor. 17 May 2013.

Brunias, Agostino (1728-1796). Linen Day, Roseau, Dominica – A Market Scene, c.1780. Painting. ARTstor. 17 May 2013.

I am fascinated by how the images of the mixed-race, enslaved woman played with and against Prince’s representation of her enslaved past and free self.  The mulatress represents the pro-slavery rhetoric Prince rebukes. This figure “could be summoned to nudge readers and viewers of these scenes to see beyond their competing political and aesthetic ideologies.” She, “without even noticing the unspeakable subject of slavery[,]. . . . could provide a new dimension to a discourse of black happiness that was being presented by supporters of the slave trade as an antidote to the abolitionist insistence on black pathos” (190). Prince and others must undermine this fantasy within the “European imaginary” by depicting the slave as “a body deprived of its sensuous capacity, turned, often through brutal and sustained acts of violence, into a beast of burden, one regulated outside the norms of affective relationship such as family, kinship, and passion” (196, 197). Slave autobiographies must simultaneously make its author both a cultured subject of sensibility that can affectively connect with her readers, while denying that subjectivity to her past enslaved self. The slave’s performance of self becomes a movement between forced acts of inauthenticity during slave holidays and authentic expressions of sorrow.

Yet, Gikandi complicates this pairing of pro-slavery visual fantasy and abolitionist slave narrative through his analysis of how the performance of happiness shaped the suffering. In slave narratives, he argues, recognizable markers of sorrow create a narrative self that promises to reveal the “true” affective state of the slave. In another pair of images within the chapter: the 1860 Harper’s Weekly Princess Madia, Enslaved African from the Congo and a twentieth-century photograph of two female dancers from a National Dance Theater Company (NDTC) of Jamaica production. Madia gained her royal title “because of the solemnity of her bearing, most notably the palm she always placed on her cheek” (191). Her performance of sorrow allowed her to recover the subjectivity lost to enslavement and then reintroduce that self into a public space. The second image is not discussed by Gikandi, just cited as an example of how “even the smallest physical gesture, such as the placement of the palm on the cheek, was to become the visible measure of a depressive affect, the pose of sorrow, loss, and mourning” (192). It depicts two women sitting, echoing Madia’s gesture of palm on cheek and the dance’s title, Propping Sorrow.  This evocative image illustrates both the central claims of this chapter and hints towards a more complicated argument about the role of play in slave culture.

In the chapter’s conclusion, Gikandi points to a more complicated reading of such performances of play and happiness than the one found in the Frederick Douglass’s dismissal. Since, unlike Douglass, Gikandi has the luxury of not having to convince his readers that slavery is a dehumanizing system that must be abolished, this book can look at these images and find a sense of agency in these ‘happy’ slaves. Through lived memory that would transform into tradition and ritual, the dancing, the play, the performances of merrymaking by slaves may have also served as a means to remember and recreate an African identity in the midst of a culture that sought to erase all traces of non-European culture.

The image below, not included in Gikandi’s book, is attributed to Brunias that reflects this argument.

Brunias, Agostino (attributed).  Handkerchief dance on the island of Dominica (West Indies). Easel Painting. ARTstor. 17 May 2013.

Brunias, Agostino (attributed). Handkerchief dance on the island of Dominica (West Indies). Easel Painting. ARTstor. 17 May 2013.

Reading Gikandi’s book, I am continually impressed by the project’s scope. I hope the example set by this project and the favorable reception it has received will encourage more work that pushes geographical and disciplinary boundaries. It also makes me wish for smaller projects to grow out of some of its secondary arguments. I would, for example, enjoy a reading of the women mentioned throughout the book that focused more on how gender and sexuality intersect with discussions of race and aesthetics.  The images of the mulatress in the two Brunias images as well as Mary Prince’s narrative are not simply marked as black bodies, but as gendered ones. That he describes the mulatress as “a figure of beauty” for a (arguably male) viewer to “gaze on, or even consume” nods to the history of sexualized images of mixed-race figures in representations of the West Indies (190). The History of Mary Prince may resemble narratives such as Equiano’s in its discussion of sensibility and sorrow, but unlike his narrative, hers includes implied sexual violence. As Moira Ferguson points out in her edition of the narrative, Prince’s “strategies for encoding the truth and inviting interpretation beyond the surface message are particularly important regarding the question of sexual experiences. Mary Prince’s History was sponsored by the Antislavery Society, who won public support by detailing atrocities and portraying female slaves as pure, Christlike victims and martyrs” (Ferguson 4). I hope the scholars reading Gikandi’s work will use his use of performing sorrow to produce more discussion on the experience of female slaves.

Works Cited

Ferguson, Moira. “Introduction.” The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself. Revised Edition. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997. Print.

Emily MN Kugler is an Assistant Professor at Colby College.

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2 responses to “Chapter Five: “Popping Sorrow”: Loss and the Transformation of Servitude

  1. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Emily, for a very thoughtful reading of G’s chapter. I was also struck by the ways in which the range of sources (paintings, autobiographical slave narratives, plantation owner’s journals like Beckford’s, and performances) all deepened and complicated each other’s meanings.

    It also seems to me, from my perspective, that the core of the book’s confrontation between the culture of taste and the emergent communities and identities of enslaved people seems to be staged by writers like Douglass and Prince, who can begin to address white readerships to inform them, to use Carl’s earlier terms, that there is a “problem” in their enjoyment of the spectacle of racialized suffering and subjection. In other words, this seems to be a moment when writers like Equiano, Cugoano, Prince, Douglass and others try to make their white public aware of the moral dissonance surrounding slavery’s practices. In some ways, the absence of anything like a linear chronology makes it harder for G to highlight the importance of this moment, which I think is an important one, at least from the perspective of the culture of taste.

    I also concur that the book’s treatment of performance seems to serve as a conceptual nexus to talk about a variety of issues raised when these two cultures confronted one another: the staged power differential that produced flattery for planters like Beckford, but also opportunities for public expression of melancholia among some performers; coerced affects for slaves in some contexts, but then also possibilities for agency and community-formation. I also think that the performing and the visual arts are especially important here, because they make it possible to talk about collective and oral experiences ways that feel somewhat less mediated by the slave-owners and their allies.

    Finally, it seems to me that the routine commodification of gender in the culture of taste seems to put special pressure on the female slave, especially, as G points out, the “mulatress.” (190) Do you have other works in mind besides Prince that might benefit from taking this approach to the performance of sorrow?

  2. I think this observation is really astute, Emily: “Since, unlike Douglass, Gikandi has the luxury of not having to convince his readers that slavery is a dehumanizing system that must be abolished, this book can look at these images and find a sense of agency in these ‘happy’ slaves.” It got me thinking about what other opportunities G’s transatlantic approach opens up; how are those of us coming at race in the US with a transatlantic (and here I am thinking Anglophone, only because that is what I work on — would love to here other orientations as well) perspective able to shift the conversation? Are we able to get away from certain hagiographies that come with national approaches to literature? I certainly don’t mean to be putting transatlantic studies on a pedestal here, but rather to interrogate the differences rendered by different approaches. I was struck throughout G’s book by his takes on Du Bois, Douglass, etc. than we might see in African American scholarship (and I should add that I am not an expert in 19th and 20th Afr Am scholarship, so I might be totally off here).