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To Be Free November 10, 2007

Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.
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Greetings Class!

As a compromise I am moving our investigation of “Falling Between the Cracks” to accompany our discussion of the Spread Magazine Piece and Natasha Tretheway’s Bellocq’s Ophelia next week.  For this week I am re-posting two  posts that I wrote while rereading Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise almost a year ago to provide you with some info as to my relationship to the text, alongside these questions which came up in my more recent rereading:

What does this work of historical fiction by Michelle Cliff tell us about history? What connections does she make between the repressed histories of black women freedom fighters, Arawak ancestors and repressed memories of sexual violence in this text?

What does this text have to say about the political function of art?

What does  “free” mean in this text? What does “enterprise” mean?  What is Mary Ellen Pleasant’s argument with John Brown? What do you think about her assertion that black people have a capital right to ownership of the United States?

What do you think of the intergenerational relationship between Malcolm X and Mary Ellen Pleasant here?

What is Cliff doing with space (bedrooms, bottletrees,  caves, quarantine camps, holds of ships, maroonages on cliffs, asylums…) in this text?

December 24th 2006

Specters of the Caribbean (See?): The Ghost of Annie Christmas


Roots, Kamau Brathwaite, 1957-1973
Soulscript, June Jordan, 1969
Beyond Master Conception, Sylvia Wynter, 1992
Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 1993
Free Enterprise, Michelle Cliff, 1993
Black Girl Talk, The Black Girls (SisterVision Press), 1994
Bread Out of Stone, Dionne Brand, 1994
Culture as Actuality (The Pope Must Be Drunk), Sylvia Wynter, 1995
Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe, 1997
Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon, 1997
Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman, 1997
Q&A: Queer in Asian America, David Eng and Alice Y. Hom, 1998
Time Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delaney, 1998
The Prisoner’s Wife, Asha Bandele, 1999
Refasioning Futures, David Scott, 1999
Thinking Space, Mike Crang and Nigel Thrift, 2000
Queer Diasporas, Cindy Patton and Benigno Sanchez-Eppler, 2000
Wayward Reproductions, Alys Weinbaum, 2004
Specters of the Atlantic, Ian Baucom, 2005
Black Empire, Michelle Stephens, 2005

Writing in a letter, in the wet air framed by her bottle tree, with her other hand holding her piece of a tapestry to the battle lost, Caribbean born conspirator for an armed revolution by enslaved people in the US, Annie Christmas (in Michelle Cliff’s imagining/relating of her story) writes “This is the story I do not tell.” And indeed all was lost. The plot was discovered and Annie cross-dressing and blacked up was attached to a chain gang of about to be enslaved fugitives and marched through the woods I type this from. And when she was discovered to be who she was, a light skinned black woman, her captors forced her fellow captors to gang rape her. Her vagina her mouth. All was lost. The enslaved masses never recieved the weapons. All was lost. The “war to free the slaves” happened…on some very different terms, and as one of the unnamed characters in Free Enterprise explains, “there is ‘free’ and then there’s free”. The one that this character…cooking some wild animal in an alley got is clearly the lesser of the two. And Annie Christmas never went back to the Caribbean, and Annie Christmas never joined her mentor Mary Ellen Pleasant who continued to work for the other freedom. And nobody told Malcolm X that when he talked about “by any means necessary” when he talked about “self-defense” he was citing these women…(and Ida B. Wells too) and so Black Power came to mean some masculinist militarist raping thing. So all was lost.
Or was it? David Scott says that our freedom is not a sham…but that the liberal project..the moving back and forth between economic individualistic “expression” and political restraint is what have come to know as freedom. That we may as well either admit it or fight the normalization of such a definition of freedom that needs scare quotes and needs waking up. Lisa Lowe and Ian Baucom both invoke Benjaminian emergency…to reveal the normal as deadly and to make something new emerge. And I say..something is lost. What is lost is present in what Avery Gordon would call a haunting. What cannot fit into coherence is my presence here speaking Annie Christmas’s name, nativity in her desecrated mouth. Because I too have a story that I do not tell.
If the drowning of slaves, jumping overboard or being dumped for insurance money is the thing that haunts the Glissantian project and the thing that indeed haunts the characters of Free Enterprise and Beloved and on and on and down and down. Floating up is another set of questions for me. First what about this haunted water and how specific can I be about it. Because here is the thing. I am fine with these transatlantic hauntings. Or at least I admit them and rage against them. I have stood in Ghana and shuddered at the cruel persistance of the gray waves at the walls of Elmina. I have even rejected the Atlantic side of Anguilla (not the side where I learned to swim) as the place where people drown. Of the coarse sand and crude waves, of the time where I remember once sinking unnoticed and sputtering betrayal while my parents turned away secure in my ability to get over (if not to vanquish) my fears. But the only reason that I have afforded this rage articulation, the only moments that I can afford to reject that dominant ocean are while loving to a fault the Caribbean sea. I have made the Caribbean sea into the place where I am held, floating watching while Grandma paints faith into the sky above Rendevous Bay. I have made the waves that embrace and release my legs during thousands of long walks talking to myself into the refrain of a song about something that lasts forever. If the Atlantic brought slavery, the Caribbean embraced survival. If the Atlantic threatens to break me and then forget about it, the Caribbean is a ritual, is a sacrement to my breathing. A simply binary non dialectical that I stay sane by not problematizing.
But I know the story of the Zong. I know that slaves, named with a certain value (Wynter calls it the pieza Baucom traces as the impetus of the finance capital that the novel trains us to believe in) were dumped off of the coast of Jamaica. And I know (momma says ‘you better know’, exactly where Jamaica is. Jamaica is surrounded on all sides by the Caribbean Sea. Which means if they emptied the Zong of the coast of Jamaica those bones, those chains, those screams, those exploding lungs are there, are here are in the Caribbean Sea. So I see that I have tried to deny the fluidity of water, to make walls, to do violence to the Caribbean Sea by making it a nation-state, by making it a thing that will always affirm me, always make me feel at home, provide continuity and somehow not leak out into the the world that I have been trying to defend it from.
This desire for a myth has made me very specific. It has made me ask Michele Stephens if when she talks about conversation between the Caribbean and North America if that is neccessarily “trans-atlantic”. Because though C.L.R. James and Marcus Garvey and Claude McKay may have taken boats up the Coast..now the American Eagle stops in Puerto Rico for immigration and flies up over the Caribbean Sea (maybe over the Gulf) to the US. And insane protectionism over the Caribbean Sea aside…i still think this makes a difference. I am completely convinced by the story that Stephens tells about masculinity and black internationalism at the time of the hegemony of the nation…when the US was a place from which Caribbean Intellectuals could think about a ship of state as a response to Europe when there were no Caribbean nations. Which is different from flying away (besides the class differences that Belinda Edomdson and Carole Boyce Davies point out) FROM these actual nations, after the failure of federation…haunted by the joke of CARICOM…knowing the violence that nationalism means and knowing the US’s policies to make nation mean that rape will keep turning into a metaphor about land that gets re-enacted on the bodies of women. There is a difference…if stil haunted. Flight from the nation means we can make something new…means we don’t have to keep making the same thing…because when water can’t even be water, the world is a prison. And as Asha Bandele makes clear love in the face of prison means “everything has to change. everything.” So that means that I have to take on the challenge that Mohanty and Alexander make in the name of transnational feminist solidarities. The nation is not the name of my limits, my birth is not seperate from my embattlement. And baptism, for me and for the world I’m questioning. Is still a dangerous thing.

December 25th 2006

Annie Christmas

Today (for some reason) I am thinking of Annie Christmas, the name taken by a revolutionary black woman survivor who was an instrumental part in the radical black freedom mission (1859) that is usually attributed to John Brown. The orignal Annie Christmas was a legendary black woman warrior (a cross between a momma-messiah and John Henry as the story goes), and this Annie Christmas took on her name and called herself inheriting an imperative to struggle for her people. Annie Christmas moved to the United States from the Caribbean after surviving incest and conspired with Mary Ann Shadd and Mary Ellen Pleasant (and yes, John Brown) to arm US slaves and create a free black state. After the plan was discovered she suffered further sexual abuse at the hands of her captors. She finally escaped. And her story has passed on (and been passed over) And here.

In Michelle Cliff’s brilliant work of historical fiction about Annie Christmas, Mary Ellen Pleasant et. al. “Free Enterprise” (read it!) she insists that we have to become “talking books”. Our stories of resistance, our dreams and the visions that we act upon…like our experiences of violence are often repressed. Today I am proud of and waiting for and in love with our stories, our visions, our actions, our histories. “Talk it on

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