Tag Archives: Gikandi

Gikandi’s Ch 6: “The Ontology of Play”

Chapter 6 continues much of the work Gikandi begins in chapter 5, as he traces how “the possibility of being black in the new world . . . was transformed into a narrative of identity”(195). In so doing, what Gikandi offers in these chapters very much feels like a prehistory of Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk (1903), which serves as a sort of telos for much of the archives Gikandi explores in these chapters. Such a characterization of Gikandi’s work might sound like a criticism, but I don’t mean it as such. Let me explain.

In chapter 5, Gikandi defines what he terms a “mangled semantics,” or “the confusion of the performative and the truth-value of slave cultural activities and utterances” (203). [Side note: To add fodder to Evan Gottlieb’s excellent questions on this chapter , I think it is worth observing that Gikandi cites Austin, not Derrida or Butler on speech act theory and the performative]. In chapter 6, Gikandi defines some of the barriers faced in the expression of this mangled semantic: “how to recognize the impossibility of belonging to a place yet claim one’s presence in it; of how to strive and years for emplacement yet live in a world in which rights and ideals were constantly thwarted” (235). This sounds like a Harlem Renaissance dilemma, and it is no wonder, for it seems to me that what Gikandi is doing in these chapter is tracing the genealogy of a black aesthetic, an aesthetic that we might think, as we listen to scholars of contemporary and twentieth-century African American literature and culture (I’m thinking most recently of Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (2012)), has its roots in the eighteenth century, but until now, we have not had a single book to point to that covers much of that archive. As others have noted, Gikandi’s work here as a curator of a collection of such evidence indebts us to him. And what does he say about the collection he has assembled in chapter 6?

For one, he foregrounds the problem of memory at the heart of black expression. In slave culture, “memory,” Gikandi tells us, “was best doing its work when it was affective, magical, and ritualistic” (246). Thus, some memories were best publicly or collectively enshrined in dances, and others, such as the houses built in the “African style,” were private. This latter form was ultimately unproductive “because publicness was one of the essential conditions of being a modern subject,” and therefore was abandoned (253). Rituals and performances took precedent over private affect, Gikandi claims. I wonder though, could we possible reframe this as the problem of the archive, of institutionalized memory, rather than of a choice? Again, I ask this question in the spirit of Evan Gottlieb’s second question about the “the ambivalence of the archive” in this chapter. I am also reminded of Gikandi’s eloquent question in chapter 2, “Was the slave a human subject of a disposable body? Was her progress in time and space a journey toward the enhancement of the self or a movement toward its dissolution?” (67). We might push a bit further here and consider what the relationship between “dissolution” and archives of feelings, of affect might look like.

The highlight of chapter 6 for me was Gikandi’s discussion of property, and the central role of the provision grounds, which he reads as “a measure of control over time and space and hence part of the process of moral reorientation” (240). In this section, Gikandi allows us to rethink examples from later in the century of slaves’ claims to property, problematizing our assumptions that formerly enslaved persons had no positive experiences of ownership, either personally or in their communities. Gikandi opens the possibility of recasting slaves’ relationship to property as a form of “temporal leverage.” How might that sensitivity to the temporal help us to think of slaves purchasing their freedom, or of Belinda’s claim to her Isaac Royall’s Massachusetts estate, or of Equiano maintaining his literary property for his Interesting Narrative for the rest of his life?

I appreciated Melissa Mowry’s observation about the productive questioning that Gikandi models, and in that spirit, I would love to hear what others thoughts about his use of the term “public sphere” in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 6, Gikandi tells us that what he is doing is tracing “how slaves presented themselves in the public sphere” (202), a public sphere that he later identifies as “altered” (206). In these chapters, he traces “the role [scenes of happiness] played as a means of recoding social life for a people excluded from multiple domains of freedom and the aesthetic life that came with it” (202). From this, we might deduce that he is thinking of the “public sphere” as a space of both freedom and expression. Are we to assume that the black “public sphere” also has a political dimension to it for Gikandi? Whose “public sphere” is he referring to?  Given this term’s vexed history in the last few decades of eighteenth-century studies, I am puzzled by Gikandi’s unexamined use of it in chapters 5 and 6. We get a cursory explanation of the term in relation to taste in the first chapter (20), but I would like to hear more on how the term means in relation to slave culture.

Molly O’Hagan Hardy is the Digital Humanities Curator at the American Antiquarian Society.


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.

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