Comment

"Black Beethoven" on TheGuardian.com

TheGuardian.com has just published a piece on the new album Beethoven Was African by ANY, which seeks to demonstrate the composer's African ancestry by revealing the supposedly Africanist polyrhythms embedded throughout his oeuvre (and specifically his piano sonatas). Writer Tom Service refers at several points to my article on the longstanding debates over Beethoven's ethnic makeup: 

But the essential question is: why do we need to claim Beethoven as black at all in order to think more deeply or differently about his music? Rinehart has it right, I think: the significance of the idea that he might have been black is that it is a symptom of classical music’s ossified canons, and a bigger story of cultural-racial politics, rather than a historically accurate line of questioning.

Read the rest of the story here.

Comment

1 Comment

AAIHS Report on Afro-LatAm UNCC

[Originally posted on the African American Intellectual History Society blog, as part of a report by Chris Cameron on the conference "Locating and Connecting Latin America and the African Diaspora" at UNC-Charlotte, April 30-May 1, where I presented a paper entitled "Enslaved Testimony and Religious Institutions in Colonial Latin America."]

...

"The third paper by Nicholas Rinehart of Harvard University was mainly historiographical in nature, arguing that scholars must take a broader conception of what a slave narrative is. Many scholars of Latin America and the Caribbean argue that there is no comparable slave narrative tradition there as in the United States, but that is not the case, Rinehart argued. The forms of slave narratives continually shifted, going from the confessional, spiritual autobiography style of James Gronniosaw and Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century to the sentimentalism of works by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs in the mid-19th century to the racial uplift narratives of figures such as Booker T. Washington. Slave narratives have taken the form of interviews, letters, autobiographies, stories told to whites, and stories told to blacks, among other forms. The institutional particularities of slavery in Latin America, Rinehart argued, provided for very different forms of narratives, often religious in nature. The Jesuits, for instance, used slaves to make money for their colleges but were also very concerned with their conversions. One Jesuit in particular, Alonso Sandoval, wrote a treatise on slavery in the early 17th century that explores slave life and efforts to convert to Catholicism. Sandoval’s treatise was based partly on interviews with slaves that seem very similar to methods used to produce narratives in the U.S. 300 years later. This source shows us that the genre of the slave narrative stretches back much farther than we think. And it also speaks to a key element in the study of slavery, one that Greg Childs also noted in his post, namely the tendency of scholars of slavery to privilege the exterior lives of slaves without looking seriously at their cultural and intellectual lives. Exploring these different types of narratives could help alleviate this situation."

...

Read more about the conference here.

 

1 Comment

Comment

On Élie and Eric

[Originally posted as part of the "I Can't Breathe" forum sponsored by Transition Magazine at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.]

The Montagne plantation on the island of Martinique was founded in 1810 by two brothers for the harvest and refinery of sugar. One of the brothers, Saint-Catherine Clauzet, shared with his slaves the toils and duties of the plantation. He relied especially on the assistance of skilled foreman Jean-Baptiste and expert refiner Élie. When Clauzet died in 1839, his son-in-law Marie-Louis-Joseph Havre assumed complete control of Montagne, initiating his own reign of terror.

When the plantation’s sugar crop began to spoil, Havre blamed Élie. The refiner was confined in shackles to the garret of a plantation building — later to be joined by Jean- Baptiste and an enslaved woman named Angèle — where he died of deprivation soon thereafter. Both Jean-Baptiste and Angèle gave witness testimony against Havre when their illegal confinement and torture came under investigation years later. The official report of Judge Hardouin’s inquest was reprinted in the second volume of L’Histoire de l’esclavage pendant les deux dernières années, published by French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher in 1847.

Jean-Baptiste recalled Élie’s dying moments thus: “Élie, feeling about to die, asked for nothing but water; but I didn’t have any to give him; he suffered greatly from thirst. I saw him take our jug, I heard him breathe the freshness from the jar, but it didn’t have any water.” Angèle, too, echoed this image: “Élie asked, several times, for a little water; none was brought to him. He brought to his lips his water jug, there was nothing inside and he breathed it like that!”

Any glimpse of Eric Garner’s quick murder immediately recalls Élie’s death. In the brief moment that Eric gasps desperately for breath and reaches out his tensed hand, Élie grasps in vain for the empty water jug — the two images superimposed like a photographic mishap.

It may seem an epic trudge separating Élie and Eric. Yet no matter the great distance between, time has a way of snapping it shut. Past and present coil in history’s brutal warp.

Comment

2 Comments

Ned Cobb: the re-emergence of "black Homer"

[Originally posted on the American Literature in the World conference and anthology site, as part of "News and Field Reports," accessible here.]

Over the past year or so, the incredible commercial and critical success of Steve McQueen's film adaptation of Solomon Northup's Twelve Years of Slave has made the slave narrative a bestseller for the second time. While McQueen may have claimed to rescue Northup's testimony from the dark depths of American history, Twelve Years a Slave sold 10,000 copies in its first month of release in 1853 and 30,000 copies within two years. In the wake of McQueen's stellar success, the 2012 Penguin Classics edition of Twelve Years a Slave has sold over 150,000 digital and print copies.

Ned Cobb is the new Solomon Northup. In 1974, the National Book Award for general nonfiction went to All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, the dictated autobiography of an Alabama sharecropper named Ned Cobb. Cobb's epic memoir was taken down and compiled by a man named Theodore Rosengarten, then a graduate student at Harvard. All God's Dangers was published to great acclaim, only to fall into the utter pits of obscurity within just a few short decades. Last week, New York Times literary critic Dwight Garner published an article on the work, lamenting its profound absence in the canon of the deep South. Thanks to Garner's piece, The Life of Nate Shaw is once again a bestseller: It has jumped to No. 1 on Amazon's best seller's list after its sales numbers have increased by 1,542,000 percent.

The book received glowing praise upon its initial publication, the New York Times Book Review calling Shaw "a black Homer, bursting with his black Odyssey.” Garner's re-appraisal echoes this admiration: "[All God's Dangers] is superb — both serious history and a serious pleasure, a story that reads as if Huddie Ledbetter spoke it while W. E. B. Du Bois took dictation. That it’s been largely forgotten is bad for it, but worse for us." 

The resonances between Ned Cobb's and Solomon Northup's memoirs do not end with sales figures. Indeed, All God's Dangers could and should be understood as an historical remnant of the American slave narrative tradition. Although Northup was educated and literature, his autobiography was dictated to an (white) amanuensis-editor named David Wilson. This thoroughly mediated, collaborated production of enslaved testimony was not at all unique —such renowned American or Black Atlantic slave narratives as those attributed to Briton Hammon (1760), Ukawsaw Gronnosiaw (1772), John Marrant (1785), Mary Prince (1831), Nat Turner (1831), and Sojourner Truth (1850), were based on oral accounts. What perhaps distinguishes Cobb's epic tale from his antebellum antecedents, and specifically Twelve Years a Slave, is that the author(s) reveals the editorial processes behind its production.

As Rosengarten writes in his preface to the book: "This big book is the autobiography of an illiterate man" (xiii). In earnest and almost tender prose, he describes the lengthy conversations with Cobb that ultimately led to All God's Dangers. Rosengarten recalls: "We would sit under the eave of his tool shed and talk for two to six hours per session. [...] When it rained we would move our chairs inside the shed. There, in near dark, cramped among baskets, broken-bottomed chairs, sacks of feed and fertilizer, worn harnesses and tools, Shaw enacted his most fiery stories. I am thankful for all the rain we had, for it moved us to a natural theater and pounded the tin roof like a delirious crowd inciting an actor to the peak of his energy" (xviii). While the historically and politically problematic paradigm of the black narrator/white sponsor has in many instances confounded the interpretation of antebellum slave narratives—especially concerning questions of authenticity, historical accuracy, and authorial voice—the social collaboration behind The Life of Nate Shaw is thus laid bare.

And so perhaps the evocation of Cobb as "black Homer" has some sense in it. All God's Dangers signals the longue durée of the slave narrative tradition in the United States—its re-emergence, afterlife, or even its continual presence in American letters. But Ned Cobb's memoir and its recent "rediscovery" also harken back to the oldest traditions of Western literature, the Homeric epic. Scholars have debated for decades—really, for centuries—the true identity of the figure we call Homer and the exact nature and domain of his authorship. Who was Homer? Was he (or she) an actual historical figure? Were the Iliad and Odyssey composed by a single author or by multiple authors? Was the Homeric epic the written product of solitary genius or the collective inheritance of a much older oral tradition? Ned Cobb's return to literary and historical inquiry is a prime occasion to consider such lasting questions.

2 Comments