What has it to do with me, the trading in enslaved Africans that happened along these shores? I have met many people of African descent who now come here from the Diaspora, arriving trying to ‘find’ many varied yet similar things along these coastlines. Theirs is perhaps a more direct and logical enquiry into the routes that have lead them to who they are via where they are from. But for me, a Tswana girl from the Southern end of this continent whose ancestors were never shipped across the waters, what is the search for?
If there is a certain logic to returnee narratives, where people from the Diaspora look here, what is it to look from here over the Atlantic, has it really so little to do with me? What is it I’m looking for, what did I need to find here? Perhaps it is because in order to understand and move beyond my current state it is necessary to perceive what produced it. Otherwise are we fumbling about in the dark not able to see what has us snared, shackled?
What I look to, or listening for in my travels towards understanding those shackles, understanding their grip, their seemingly unrelenting strength, it is the “Archive”, the repository of stories. I am preoccupied with a social archive as palimpsest; the archive in space, in the land, the architecture, social structures, where and how we live, the archive inscribed in bodies, in my body, and perhaps most importantly with what is beyond that archive, beyond those stories and the readily available accounts of history. What I have found myself having to wrestle with or learn is how to listen to silence because what is “documented” is documentation “surrounded by telling silence” Kuster.
In her article The Imperceptibility of Memory Brigitta Kuster quetes Ann Laura Stoler saying
“If a notion of colonial ethnography starts from the premise that archival production is itself both a process and a powerful technology of rule, then we need not only to brush against the archive’s received categories. We need to read for its regularities, for its logic of recall, for its densities and distributions, for its consistencies of misinformation, omission, and mistake − along the archival grain. […] Reading only against the grain of the colonial archive bypasses the power in the production of the archive itself.” Stolar argues for delving more intensively into the conventions of the imperial archive, into the practices that make up its implicit order, into its classifications and principles of organization, and its spatial arrangements and references, which she also interprets as all being “a telling prototype of a postmodern [state], predicated on global domination of information”. (My emphasis)
(Missing) Information. Knowledge. Stories. To understand what chains us.
Like one of those returnees I come here “convinced that even now lives hung in the balance. My own as much as anyone else’s” and I do my work “still hoping for a different outcome” Saidiya Hartmann. It is not just stories, or theory. It is a matter of survival. It is about surviving intact. When something is born out of such prolonged and sustained degradation of human dignity, can the resulting structures not bear traces of the permeating and pervasive traumas? This question started forming in my mind a few weeks into my stay in Bahia and has remained with me ever since. A question as applicable to my home in South Africa as it is to my experience of Brazil, and it was that experience in Brazil that has brought me to West Africa.
I explore the breadth and limits of links between myself, my personal lived memories, the communal memories I claim in an African context and the degree to which I can claim a kinship to the communal pool of radicalised memory I encountered in the Diaspora. It is a play between memories of personal lived encounters while travelling, which mirror my own social positioning in South Africa, in order to create a lapse or slippages between the multiple spaces. It becomes a conflation of different experiences of marginality, expressed through specificities of the personal in different contexts. I use memory as a vehicle through which to connect the personal experiential with broader historical narratives while at the same time disrupting the historicised cannon of histories that were shaped over centuries on the Atlantic and have come to sit so firmly on my skin.
These stories, “I dwell in them, they dwell in me, and we dwell in each other, more guest than owner. My story, no doubt, is me, but it is also, no doubt, older than me…no end, no middle, no beginning; no start, no stop, no progression; neither backwards not forward, only a stream that flows into another stream, an open sea” Trinh Minh-Ha.
To leave things open. Flowing. Fluid.
“The boat is open, of course, in contrast to the slave ship”. Édouard Glissant
“What is it we chose to remember about the past and what is it we will to forget…were gaps and silences and empty rooms the substance of my history?” Hartmann. As we are in the process of telling and retelling our histories, I am interested in the gaps, the silences in the images. “In the Akan language, knowledge was constituted anew with each retelling; elasticity of silence as important as authority of sound” Nana Oforiatta-Ayim. It is to always be cognisant off the limits of my vision and knowing that there is more beyond what one can account for, where the gaps and silences are always part of the picture.
So, once again, how do these stories “concern ‘me’ at all and what is at stake here?” Kuster. It is the stories that make us who we are and in our stories there are these gaps; the undisclosed and unspeakable things. But with each telling the story is born anew. The silences shift, some are filled while new ones are left open. And she who writes stories writes herself and writes us in the speaking of those words. Between you and me and us and we, we write ourselves. “The story depends upon every one of us to come into being. It needs us all, needs our remembering, understanding, and creating what we have heard together to keep on coming into being. The story of a people. Of us, peoples” Minh-Ha.
I am looking for those shadows, for the stories in the margins in those silences and ‘empty’ spaces. Important things were written out on these shores, on the shores in the Americas, and in the Ocean between, subsumed by the waters that joint them. Were things were written, other things were written out. Where things were made, others were unmade. In the making of commodities there was an unmaking, a voiding, a dismemberment of persons from their humanity. It is this unmaking of people and the making things that is the legacy of the slave trade and my inheritance. So it is to the margins and the in-betweens that I look, listening for the omissions, the unspeakable, for those things that were written out, to reclaim them, to remember and to be re-membered.