When Frederick Douglass toured Britain and Ireland in 1845-47, one issue that dominated his speeches was the decision of the Free Church of Scotland to accept donations from pro-slavery churches in the United States. The 'Send Back the Money' campaign was already under way when he arrived in Liverpool and embarked on a four-month tour of Ireland, but his rousing public appearances in Belfast, Glasgow, Paisley, Dundee, Edinburgh and many smaller towns clearly captured the popular imagination.1
Dr Thomas Chalmers and other leading figures in the Free Church cleverly defused the concerns expressed by some of its members, but the very fact that the matter was debated by them at all angered at least one of the key fund-raisers, Dr Thomas Smyth, an Ulster-born Presbyterian minister in Charleston, South Carolina, who pressed Chalmers to publish a robust defence of the church's position.
Chalmers may have disappointed Smyth by refusing to justify slavery, but he infuriated others more by refusing to break fellowship with slaveholding Christians in North America. Douglass mocked the distinction he made between 'between the character of a system, and the character of the persons whom circumstances have implicated therewith.'2 In his turn, Smyth - who crossed the Atlantic to join in the debates - incautiously repeated a malicious rumour about Douglass' sexual conduct, which he was forced to retract.3 Amid such polarisation it is perhaps not surprising that the money was not returned.
Some historians have concluded from this that the campaign was misjudged, even a failure. But Douglass was interested in more than the folly of a few clergymen. He sailed from Boston as an emissary of the American Anti-Slavery Society at a time when most abolitionists in Britain were more sympathetic to its rival, the breakaway American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass' decision to target the Free Church was a shrewd one. The complacent attitude of the US churches towards slavery was one which inflamed both wings of the abolitionist movement, and while some of his colleagues lost their way in sectarian squabbling, Douglass was happy to share a platform with anyone dedicated to the greater cause.4
We know that on many occasions, Douglass drew large crowds: for example, on the 1st May 1846 he addressed an audience of 2000 people paying sixpence a head at Edinburgh's Music Hall.5 Newspaper reports tell us how his words elicited cheers, applause and laughter (and sometimes hissing). But it is harder to tell how his campaign speeches in Scotland transformed his listeners - emotionally, intellectually. The speeches denouncing the Free Church are distinctive in their repeated use of the same slogan - the rhythmic 'send back the money' that was often chanted by his audience, providing - as such formulae often do - a sense of shared emotion that temporarily binds disparate people together. Douglass and his fellow speakers rarely analyse what these feelings might be - beyond congratulating themselves on the ferment of anti-slavery sentiment they have induced.6
We may glimpse perhaps something of a personal response to Douglass' speeches in the letters of two women who had attended his lectures condemning the Free Church addressed to two men at the heart of the controversy.
One was written to Thomas Chalmers by a woman who had recently seen Douglass in Dundee; she was not known to him and chose not to identify herself.7 The other was sent to Thomas Smyth in Charleston by Mary Cunningham in Belfast: they had been close friends as teenagers (before he emigrated with his family as a young man fifteen years earlier) and whom he had met more recently in 1844 on his first return to his home town.8
Both writers are keenly aware of the argument that the American churches have been soft on slavery and accepted slaveholders into their congregations without question, and that because of their actions their addressees have a case to answer. The women regard them as men of great influence and call on them to heed to those critics who invoked scriptural authority to denounce the property in human beings.
The woman from Dundee imagines that the 'strangers' (Douglass and his white abolitionist colleague James Buffum) were sent by God not only to show the error of the ways of Chalmers and the Free Church but to persuade her to examine her own conduct.
To me also were there [sic] words reproofs. I was shewing a little of the slaveholder my own conscience tell me so. I was also beginning to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone. But it was the Grand Intruder that was ever following me with his suggestions. God in Mercy sent these men to shew me my transgressions, by telling me what my sisters are suffering pent up in chains, bloodhounds their guardians Iron Collars their necklaces, Whips instead of the strong arm of Man to lean on or ward off ill. And are we content to leave it so...
Her own circumstances - represented here by 'necklaces' and the supportive 'strong arm of man' - hardly resemble those of slaves whose freedom is constrained by iron collars and bloodhounds. And yet in her confined domesticity she too has begun 'to murmur for more liberty I thought that I could not well get alone.' If Douglass' speeches made her feel a little ashamed of the limited horizons of her feminism (in which she now glimpses 'a little of the slaveholder' in herself), they also provides an opportunity to overcome them, if only in the act of writing and posting a letter to Chalmers.
But this soul-searching co-exists with humour. She tells him how the abolitionists quoted his words before dramatically inviting the audience to imagine a rather improper scene:
When the Collar and whip were produced it was remarked would the application of these to you or your daughters make you change your views on slavery. This caused laughter... Oh it is too serious a matter to make sport of - Fre. Douglass did make me laugh when he preached the boys in Dundee send back the money -
We know that, on occasion, Douglass (like other anti-slavery orators) displayed instruments of slave restraint and torture, to vividly bring home to his audiences the horrors of slavery, sometimes claiming that they were the very ones used in the events he is recalling.9 Here, we are told, he invited his audience (in a perhaps more unusual performative flourish) to imagine them being applied to Chalmers and his daughters - a rather risque move (especially if it was Douglass who was holding them) that partly accounts for the (presumably) somewhat embarrassed laughter at the meeting. But if the letter-writer dutifully steps back a moment to condemn the frivolity, she can't help mischievously admitting to Chalmers that she herself was amused, undermining somewhat the avowedly pious intent of her epistle.10
Mary Cunningham tells Smyth of 'the eloquent, and affecting lectures' she has attended, lectures which she says opened her eyes to 'the heart sickening horrors of this dreadful system'. She is most vexed by the revelation that so-called Christians participate in this system, in flagrant disregard of the Great Commandment and Golden Rule. She riffs on the ironies of 'the land of liberty' holding millions in bondage, which was one of Douglass' favourite rhetorical tactics.
You reside in the land, called falsely, (it is now represented,) 'The Land of Liberty,' the place of freedom, the picture now before us, is dark indeed, all the false coloring, has been wiped away, and nothing left for the eye, to gaze upon, but the gloomy, ghastly, features of this hideous monster...
'Hideous monster' is a term Douglass used to describe slavery in his famous 'What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?' speech in 1852 and he may have used it earlier, though I have found no evidence for it. But she certainly did not take from Douglass the image which she chooses to close the letter:
Oh! the thought of 'liberty,' the birds, that wing their joyous flight, above the clouds of Heaven, afford, ample proof, of the wise, beneficent, and glorious intention of our Heavenly Father, contrasted with the drooping, and imprisoned tenant, of a gilded cage, though that cage, be living in the palace of an Emperor.
The caged bird is an ancient symbol of imprisonment. The 'gilded cage' more specifically (as a space of confinement so comfortable or luxurious that it may appear otherwise) is at least as old as Chaucer (where it appears in the 'The Manciple's Tale') and was a pervasive Victorian metaphor for the subjugation of women.11 There is nothing 'gilded' about the slave plantation whose brutal violence is repeatedly described by Douglass, who identified not with a caged bird but other, more roughly-handled creatures such as the 'bridled horse and muzzled ox,' as he did in one of his Belfast speeches.12 The cage Mary Cunningham had in mind was more likely to have been her own.
Both letters draw on the arguments and capture the gestures that Douglass evidently made in his speeches in Belfast and Dundee (we have newspaper reports of them) repeating them to the people he accused but were not there to hear them. But they also reinterpret them, transposing their largely secular message into a more Christian key (that was more agreeable to themselves as well as their addressees), and hint that the 'Send Back the Money' campaign aroused more private feelings of shame and guilt as well as emboldening them to assert themselves, taking up their pens to call influential men to account.
It is not, perhaps, surprising that the repeated injunction to 'return the bloody gold'13 in the context of a fight against slavery should prompt these women to think of necklaces and other blandishments as the trappings of a gilded cage. If we multiply these letters by the thousands of individuals who were moved by Douglass' speeches, who knows how many lives they touched, realigned and transformed?
1. For a detailed account of the campaign see Iain Whyte, 'Send Back the Money!': The Free Church of Scotland and American Slavery (Cambridge: James Clarke, 2012).
2. Frederick Douglass, Arbroath, 12 February 1846, reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series 1: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Vol 1: 1841-46 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) (hereafter FDP 1:1), 162-4. See also speeches in Paisley, 20 March 1846: FDP 1:1, 192-93; and Glasgow, 21 April 1846: FDP 1:1, 236-37.
3. See Thomas Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, Letters and Reflections, edited by his granddaughter Louisa Cheves Stoney (Charleston: Walker, Evans and Cogswell, 1914), 362-78.
4. This was the one of the main topics of discussion at the Annual Meeting of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in 1840, at which Thomas Clarkson made his last public appearance. His address, later published as A Letter to the Clergy of Various Denominations, and to the Slave-Holding Planters, in the Southern Parts of the United States of America (London: 1841), and James Gillespie Birney's pamphlet, American Churches the Bulwarks of American Slavery (London: 1840), were to be influential texts in the movement during the following decade.
5. Editorial note: FDP 1:1, 244.
6. In letters from Dundee, Douglass wrote: 'The agitation goes nobly on - all this region is in a ferment' (to R D Webb, 16 February 1846) and 'Old Scotland boils like a pot' (to Francis Jackson, 29 January 1846), Clare Taylor, British and American Abolitionists: An Episode in Transatlantic Understanding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1974), 251, 248.
7. Anon to Chalmers, 2 April 1846 in the Thomas Chalmers papers CHA.4.321, New College Library, Edinburgh.
8. Mary Cunningham to Thomas Smyth, Glenwood, 14 January 1846, transcribed in Smyth, Autobiographical Notes, 365.
9. A report of an abolitionist meeting in Dundee addressed by Douglass on 30 January 1846 refers to the exhibition of 'instruments of torture' including collar, handcuffs, anklets and lash, Dundee Courier, 3 February 1846. See also Douglass' speech in Limerick, 10 November 1845, FDP 1:1, 85-6.
10. I can find no reference to such an episode in Blassingame's compendium of newspaper reports of Douglass' speeches, in Dundee or anywhere else. In one speech in Dundee Douglass was reported as saying, 'Do you think Dr Chalmers would ever have said this, if, like me, he had four sisters and one brother in bondage?' (Dundee 30 January 1846: FDP 1:1, 155). Perhaps these hypothetical sisters were misremembered as a daughter, with the theatrical application of the whip a fanciful addition. In a letter to the Scottish Guardian (cited by the Dundee Courier, 21 April 1846), a correspondent advises 'the semi-savage, Douglass to be somewhat more tender-hearted in the application of his three-toed thong to the back of Dr Chalmers and others' which might suggest that the image of Douglass applying a whip to his Scottish opponents was a regular motif in the counter-attacks by supporters of the Free Church.
11. The image appears frequently in the work of many Victorian poets and novelists, including Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, and Thomas Hardy. 'I find that the caged bird makes a metaphor that truly deserves the adjective female' -Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977), 250. My first thought was that Cunningham was drawing on Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Nightingale', which also features an emperor, but this did not appear in English (in The Nightingale and other Tales, translated by Charles Boner, London: Joseph Cundall, 1846) until a few months after Cunningham's letter - and the cage in the story is not 'gilded' (though often mis-remembered as such in plot summaries).
12. Frederick Douglass, Belfast, 5 December 1845, FDP 1:1, 93.
13. Frederick Douglass, Paisley, 20 March, 1846, FDP 1:1, 189.
In 1961 Mother's Day in the United States fell on May 14th. Two groups of civil rights campaigners were half way through the second week of their bus journeys south from Washington, designed to test a Supreme Court decision of the previous year that declared the segregation of inter-state transportation unconstitutional.
With the black and white passengers deliberately sitting together, and ignoring the signs that directed them to different facilities at rest stops, they expected to face suspicion and hostility, but apart from an ugly incident in Rock Hill, South Carolina, they had not run into any serious trouble. But in Alabama, things suddenly turned nasty.
As it left Anniston, the Greyhound bus was pursued by a convoy of angry whites who, when it pulled over for a flat tyre, attacked the vehicle, set it ablaze, and assaulted passengers as they emerged from the smoke. The Trailways bus, carrying the second group, arrived later and, after on-board segregation was forcibly established, were allowed to continue to Birmingham, where many of the passengers were brutally set upon by members of a large crowd which was waiting for them.
Shaken and injured the campaigners were nevertheless determined to continue to Montgomery the next day. But when the Alabama authorities refused to guarantee their safety, the riders reluctantly agreed to complete their journey to New Orleans by plane. Thus ended the first Freedom Ride.
When I wrote a piece recently on two writers - John Lewis and Gary Younge - who had revisited the sites of some of the most momentous scenes of that first ride, in what I argued were politicized variants of the popular 'footsteps' genre of travel writing, I looked for an appropriate image to illustrate it, and found this:
Historic marker at 4th Avenue N and 19th St N, Birmingham, Alabama: photo by kschlot1
The marker was erected in 1995, close to the site of the old Trailways bus terminal (now occupied, somewhat inevitably, by a bank). The site of the bus burning in Anniston was memorialized in 2007, although both were privately funded: evidence perhaps of Alabama's official reluctance to come to terms with parts of its past it would prefer to forget.
But what I didn't immediately notice about the plaque is how inaccurate and misleading it is. That it refers to the Greyhound, rather than Trailways, terminal is perhaps of no great consequence, although it must surely puzzle those passers-by who know that the Greyhound terminal is several blocks north and must wonder why the marker is placed here and not there.
The use of the word 'youth', though, demands a little more attention. Not only is it simply misleading to imply that the riders were all young people - five of the fifteen riders who arrived in Birmingham that day were over 40 (indeed three of them were over 50) - it's a very curious choice when applying it to a very specific group of individuals, for it is neither a plural nor a collective noun. It is as if in the struggle to find a wording that everyone would find acceptable, no one knew what to call them.
The 'klansmen' who attacked them have a certain familiarity, as do the 'police' who stood by and watched, and yet - perhaps to compensate for this reckless admission of official collusion - the riders themselves become a strangely disembodied, abstract entity, the personification of one of the stages of life. It makes it easier for us to feel the kind of sympathy that is born of condescension rather than solidarity; it marks them as immature, easily swayed by manipulative others (the acronym CORE - surely opaque to many who read the notice - serving perfectly in this respect).
Above all, it codes them as feminine in contrast to those hyper-masculine thugs who participated in their humiliation. Or it would, if it weren't for that final clause that suddenly and unexpectedly has them 'standing their ground' - a phrase that has circulated with particular speed these last few weeks, but which for a century or more has conjured up the image of an armed white patriarch defending his private property against intruders. Here, in a brilliant twist, it is being used to honour non-violent protesters (black, white, male, female) seeking to assert their right to occupy public spaces together.
Evidently, there is more than one way to stand your ground.
Dany Laferrière has suggested - with a hint of provocation, no doubt - that the greatest novel of the Duvalier dicatatorship was written by an Englishman: Graham Greene's The Comedians.1 In the same spirit, perhaps, we might add that the best film of the Haitian Revolution was made by an Italian: Queimada (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Pontecorvo, best known for The Battle of Algiers (1966), named Queimada after the fictional Portuguese colony in the Caribbean he chose for its setting. Filmed in Colombia, it is a defiantly unglamorous period drama that tells of the struggle against slavery and colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century.
William Walker (Marlon Brando) arrives on the island and helps to rekindle a slave rebellion, which he then recommends the white mulatto elite support in order to win independence from the Portuguese. Walker is an British agent whose objective is to get the Portuguese out of the way so that the Antilles Royal Sugar Company can profit from its plantations. Once independence is won (and slavery abolished), Walker persuades his protege, the black leader Jose Delores (Evaristo Márquez) to convince his men to return to the cane fields. The reluctant mulatto figurehead Teddy Sanchez (Renato Salvatori) becomes president and Walker leaves.
Ten years pass. The sugar company effectively rules Queimada instead of the Portuguese, but precariously. For the last six years, Delores has been leading a guerrilla campaign and has proved unwilling to negotiate. At the government's request, Walker returns. He advises the army to ruthlessly destroy key villages, but the campaign continues. The army stage a coup against Sanchez (who is prepared to capitulate) and General Alfonso Prada calls in the British Army. With their superior fire-power, the scale of devastation multiplies, and the sugar company is concerned that its plantations are being destroyed in the process. With Dolores still at large, it wonders whether the price is worth paying. But Walker reminds the company's representative Mr Shelton (Norman Hill) that even if Queimada is burnt to the ground, it would be worth it, because it would at least stop the revolution spreading to other islands where the company also has sugar interests.
Finally, Dolores is captured, but he maintains an enigmatic silence, and refuses to talk to Walker. The government discusses the preferred form of execution. Walker reminds them that Dolores would be much more dangerous dead than alive. They try to offer him freedom if he leaves the Caribbean but Dolores laughs. He knows the value of martyrdom. And, as he explains to a black soldier guarding him: 'If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something you, you alone, must take. Do you understand?' On the day of his execution, Walker offers to allow him to escape, asking for nothing in return, but Dolores again refuses. He is led to the gallows.
Walker leaves before the execution takes place. On the quayside he is approached by a young man offering to carry his bags (as Dolores did in the two scenes that bookend the first half of the film depicting Walker's arrival and departure). Momentarily caught unawares, Walker turns round and the stranger stabs him fatally in the chest.
Two versions of Queimada were released. The original version (132 minutes) is dubbed in Italian. To hear Brando's own voice (and his plum accent), you will have to make do the English-language version that is 20 minutes shorter. Lawrence Russell claims that it was Brando's favourite film, despite the tribulations of the shoot itself, in which the star and the director disagreed over just about everything. It is certainly possible that he was attracted to a script that 'fitted well with his social activism on behalf of the American Indian and the black civil rights movement'. Or admired it as a 'furious Vietnam allegory', as Stephen Hunter has described it.
But its allegorical possibilities do not stop there. The Somali teenager Sagal in Nuruddin Farah's novel Sardines (1981) has production stills of Brando from Queimada on her bedroom wall, along with posters of Che, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but she cannot explain to her mother the story of the film or which revolt was being depicted. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as its parallels are legion. One reason, no doubt, that, as her mother goes on to inform her, it was only shown once in Mogadishu and then only in a highly censored version.2
And indeed, the parallels may continue to proliferate. For instance, during the second half of the film, it is not hard to think of the current war in Afghanistan and the ten-year search for Osama bin Laden. The title is even a close anagram of Al-Qaida.
But the historical events they most closely resemble are those of the Caribbean itself, notably the struggles that led to the abolition of slavery in the French islands in the 1790s and the brutal attempt to restore it - successfully in the case of Guadeloupe, but not Saint-Domingue, which became the independent republic of Haiti in 1804.
What is striking is the way Pontecorvo captures the complex, shifting political allegiances of metropolitan governments, private companies, white settlers, prosperous free people of colour, and the black slaves. We might have got a sense of this in the film Sergei Eisenstein planned in 1934 to make about Toussaint Louverture, starring Paul Robeson.3 And may still yet in Danny Glover's rumoured-to-be-forthcoming biopic, based - it is alleged - on a screenplay by Med Hondo.
But it is a book - C L R James' The Black Jacobins (1938), his classic study of the Haitian revolution - that Queimada most resembles. In particular, the emphasis on the importance of the decisions that Toussaint made to accept or reject offers of help from those whose commitment to black freedom were suspect. The British and the Spanish for instance. Or even the representatives of the French Revolution, which had promised to abolish slavery, like commissioner Sonthonax. In each case, James spells out the political and military calculations Toussaint had to make when choosing his allies.
In Queimada, these dilemmas are dramatised clearly in a series of three scenes early in the film which show Walker and Dolores preparing to join forces.
The story of Queimada is told from Walker’s point of view, an outsider - like the audience - unfamiliar with the island which he first sees through an eye-glass from the deck of his approaching ship. And yet Walker is ultimately out-manouevred by Dolores. They both die at the end but it is clear that it is Dolores who will be remembered, not Walker.
In this clip, the two characters are at first glance, presented as equals who can help each other, who share a common goal. But in fact the formal equality suggested by the presentation (the scrupulous attention to both partners in the dialogue, filmed chiastically in shot reverse shot), in the end draws attention to their differences.
In the church, Walker proposes they join forces to rob the bank and split the proceeds. But of the 100 million gold reales, fifty go to Walker while the the other half is shared between Dolores and his men.
On the hillside where he outlines his plan, it becomes clear that they won't be escaping together. While Walker intends to flee to England, Dolores and his men dream of Africa.
Once the preparations are complete, Dolores and Walker drink to the success of their mission. They drink each other's habitual tipple (Walker tries rum and Dolores whisky) and toast (separately) 'England' and 'Africa' before finding something they can both pronounce: 'the world'. But it is the thinnest cosmopolitan veneer. Pulling faces, neither manages to down his cup, and, relieved, they switch back. Each to their own. May the best man win.
1. Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi (Montréal: Mémoire d'encrier, 2010), p127.
We demand the right to ... to what, exactly? Opacité is no more a household word in French than opacity is in English. It doesn't seem appropriate for the kind of motto you would expect to see sprayed on public buildings or hear chanted in the streets, though that jarring of registers is, I imagine, quite deliberate. And so if we propose an alternative, we should not banish this, the most literal equivalent, from our minds.
The phrase appears in the first section of the opening essay to his Le Discours antillais (1981), a book only partially translated into English: J Michael Dash's Caribbean Discourse (1989).1
Glissant begins with three anecdotes (two fragments of dark humour and one somewhat dismissive response to a query from a French psychiatrist) that seem to indicate a certain all-pervasive Martinican cynicism or nihilism. This is the dead-end (situation "blôquée") that serves as his starting point.
He does not characterise this mind-set directly, but does indicate that this is the object of his study (l'objet de mon travail): his purpose is to trace (pister) the various aspects of what he calls the web of nothingness (toile de néant) in which such an apparently educated people are trapped (s'englue) today. Note the use of the passive voice. The web has been woven for a people (tissé pour un peuple): Glissant does not suggest who or what has woven this web.
His next paragraph refers to the '"intellectual" effort' that this - his - project requires. In what seems to be a succinct description of his own method and writing style, he refers to repetitions, contradictions, imperfections, and a certain obscurity, as a way of insisting that 'the attempt to approach a reality so often concealed does not proceed simply by means of a series of clarifications.'
And then the celebrated phrase: Nous réclamons le droit a l'opacité. What is most immediately striking is that this is the first use of the first person plural in an opening that is relatively free of personal pronouns. Glissant has talked of 'my work' (mon travail) and we might reasonably assume that this 'we' is the royal 'we' of academic discourse, but is perhaps deliberately ambiguous, aligning the work of the single intellectual with broader social forces. After all the form of his slogan is surely meant to remind us of more conventional political slogans (say, a nation insisting on the right to self-determination), which suggests that this '"intellectual" effort' is not exclusively his, but of all those people in the Caribbean who are determined to escape this nihilism.
And this sense of collective endeavour indeed becomes more prominent in the next sentence, when he writes of (to quote Dash's translation) 'the creativity (élan) of marginalized peoples who today confront the ideal of transparent universality (l'universel de la transparence), imposed by the West, with secretive and multiple manifestations of Diversity.'
Here Glissant seems to align himself more clearly with the energy or momentum of peoples who are marginalized (a rather weak translation of néantisés, recalling the toile de néant in which they are trapped: the idea is that their very existence is disavowed), and suggests that the opacité he is referring to is characteristic of - and appropriate to - not only his own project but that of oppressed peoples more generally. The sentence also invokes transparence, the opposite of opacité, placing the terms in a dramatic relationship that suggests an ongoing struggle between these marginalized peoples on the one hand and the West on the other. The contrast is also a more philosophical one: on the one hand, genuine diversity; on the other a general principle of transparency that insists all difference can be comprehended within a single interpretive scheme.
In her fine essay on Phillis Wheatley, June Jordan notes how the opening lines of her poem 'On Being Brought from Africa to America' partakes of the kind of 'iniquitous nonsense' she had imbibed from her reading of white literature that coded this transition as a passage from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge:
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there's a God, that there's a Savior too.
But then follows this with 'something wholly her own, something entirely new':
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew
by which, Jordan writes, she asserts: 'once I existed beyond and without these terms under consideration. Once I existed on other than your terms.'2
In translating Glissant's slogan, Dash avoids 'opacity' and prefers 'obscurity'. In some ways this is unfortunate because it could be interpreted as a demand to be forgotten or ignored, which is rather too close to the marginalization or annhiliation that opacité is supposed to resist. The demand for opacity is not a demand for invisibility but an insistence that I exist on other than your terms. It is an assertion of the right not to be understood.
When President Mubarak recently berated Barack Obama: 'You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down now ... If I resign today, there will be chaos.' As zunguzungu and others so eloquently pointed out, this is to 'understand' Egyptian culture entirely within the familiar terms of western orientalism. And terms which one will find it hard to dissociate from the other word Dash uses for opacité: 'inscrutability' (a characteristic normally reserved for the Chinese).
All too often, we seem obliged to think of people as either just like us (or what we think is 'us') or the exact opposite. Or indeed as somewhere in between. Nowhere on this continuum will we find anything really different that might trouble our imagination or test our intelligence. If that is what being 'understood' entails, then the logic of Glissant's position surely begins to make sense.
And this includes the famously 'difficult' nature of his writing, full of poetic allusion and conceptual invention rather than empirically testable propositions. Glissant's work often seems to aspire to the condition of music and other non-representational forms. Invoking the art of the drummer, he speaks of the value of repetition, its capacity not to clarify ideas but to render them more opaque.
Much later in the book Glissant appears to celebrate a raw energy that is (stereotypically) a hallmark of African-derived cultures - 'the rhythm of the drum, the provocative intensity of the scream'. But then he goes on to target the 'pathetic lucidity' of folk-tales in a demonstration of just how conservative 'transparency' actually is. In the breathless thrust of their narratives, the landscape is never described or worked-on. The trickster does not pause to consider his or her surroundings, and as a result the tales suggest not merely a resignation to colonial rule but a justification of it.
For Glissant the reactive development of Martinican Creole in the shadow of French meant that it gradually lost its distinctiveness. Nowadays it offers a poor basis for a radical poetics. The best we can do, he says, is to render the two languages opaque to each other (les rendre opaques l'une à l'autre). Which is one reason he chooses to write in French.
But it is not that he avoids Creole completely. It's just that when he does - in his play Monsieur Toussaint, for example - the chants and incantations he incorporates are syntactically incoherent and indiscriminately mix sounds from Haiti, Guadeloupe and Martinique. They are not meant to be decoded. Above all they signify 'the unbridled pleasure of finally writing down a language as it is heard.'3
1. Eduouard Glissant, Le Discours antillais (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1981); Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, translated with an introduction by J Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989). The passages I discuss here are pp11-13 and pp238-45 (translation: pp1-4 and 120-34). Translations from the French my own unless otherwise indicated.
2. June Jordan, 'The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley', On Call: Political Essays (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p91.
When Robert Burns published his first book of poems, he intended it as a parting shot before leaving Scotland for good. A position had been arranged for him on a plantation in the West Indies, and he was due to set sail from Greenock in September, 1786. ''Twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow,' he wrote in a letter of August 1787, 'even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver.'
But he never did cross the Atlantic. Instead he set out for what he called the ‘new world’ of literary Edinburgh to follow up his recent success there and exploit the tempting prospect of a second edition. Today Burns is more likely to be remembered as the friend of liberty, man of the people, and composer of the sentimental abolitionist song 'The Slave’s Lament': ‘It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral / For the lands of Virginia-ginia O.’
In 1846, fifty years after his death, he was paid homage by someone who had travelled in the opposite direction to escape the long arm of American slavery. In a letter from Ayr printed in the New York Tribune, the fugitive wrote animatedly of the romantic setting of his Monument. He took delight in being able to see with his own eyes the places named in 'Tam o’ Shanter' and 'Ye Banks and Braes.' And he was honoured to meet Burns’ 80-year-old sister, 'a spirited looking woman who bids fair to live yet many days.'1
The author was Frederick Douglass, already well-known in the United States following the appearance of his autobiography the previous year. Its graphic descriptions of life on a Maryland plantation, and of the cruelties he witnessed as a child and later endured himself, made the book an instant classic. It told how, against all odds, he taught himself to read and write, and - barely out of his teens - engineered his escape, equipped with forged papers, to the free North. In New England he hooked up with radical anti-slavery campaigners and became one their leading spokesmen.
But in publishing his story, he increased the chance of being identified and recaptured. So in 1845 the fiery abolitionist sailed for Britain, where he stayed nearly two years. Douglass captivated audiences at hundreds of speaking engagements across the country. He made several extended tours of Scotland, where the anti-slavery societies were especially active. His slogans were carved on the turf of Arthur’s Seat and his visit celebrated in popular ballads of the time.
In his letter from Ayr, the former slave made common cause with the former ploughman who saw through the empty rhetoric of the 'bigoted and besotted clergy' and the 'shallow-brained aristocracy', and 'broke loose', as he put it, 'from the moorings society had thrown around him.' But he acknowledged his faults too. 'Like all bold pioneers, he made crooked paths', he observed - perhaps alluding to some of his own.
Both men rose from lowly origins to become figures of major historical importance. Douglass himself went on to hold government posts during the Civil War and afterwards, including that of Minister to Haiti. His books are nowadays required reading in schools in the United States. And he has become a cultural and political bone of contention, claimed by black nationalists on the one hand and those who think of him as more a typical American on the other - in much the same way that Burns can appear in turn the quintessential Scot and the hybrid cosmopolitan.
Douglass was not the only African American writer to have found much to admire in Burns. In James Weldon Johnson's introduction to the Book of American Negro Poetry (1931), his work was held up as an example of how sophisticated a vernacular literature could be, comparable to that of Paul Lawrence Dunbar:
The similarity between many phases of their lives is remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong dialect of his people and made it classic; Dunbar took the humble speech of his people and in it wrought music.
The Caribbean-born poet and novelist of the Harlem Renaissance, Claude McKay, was dubbed the 'Jamaican Burns' for his early dialect verse, though it is possible that Louise Bennett might be more deserving of the title (so long as we also allow that Burns might be the 'Scottish Bennett'). More recently, Maya Angelou celebrated the Burns bicentenary in 1996 with a visit to his homeland, the subject of a fascinating documentary made for television.
Douglass' interest in Scotland did not stop at Burns, though. His surname - adopted after his arrival in Massachusetts - he took from the hero of The Lady of the Lake. A rather cheeky gesture, perhaps, given the popularity of Walter Scott among the Southern planters he left behind. In view of the continued appropriation of Scottish emblems on the part of white supremacists in the United States - from the pseudo-celtic rituals of the Ku Klux Klan to the tartan wallpaper that adorns Confederate websites - his choice invites us to imagine a different Scotland, one less amenable to fantasies of racial purity and ethnic exclusion.
Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
As far as I can tell, he quoted them first in an article entitled, appropriately enough, 'What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves', published in the North Star, the newspaper he founded on his return to the United States in 1847. No doubt a certain impatience with white abolitionists contributes to its subsequent reappearance in his fictionalization of the 1841 mutiny aboard the slave ship Creole in The Heroic Slave (1852) and at the end of the chapter that records his triumph over the notorious slave-breaker Covey in his second autobiography My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).2
But if Byron provided the slogan for an emergent black radicalism breaking free of white patronage, it was the words of 'A man's a man for a' that' by that other Scots poet which were called on time and time again to underscore Douglass' robust egalitarianism.3 Most poignantly perhaps in an address at a Burns Supper in Rochester, New York in 1849.
He began by admitting that 'I am not a Scotchman, and have a colored skin, but if a warm love of Scotch character - a high appreciation of Scotch genius - constitute any of the qualities of a true Scotch heart, then indeed does a Scotch heart throb beneath these ribs.' He described to his listeners his recent travels in the country - where 'every stream, hill, glen, and valley had been rendered classic by heroic deeds on behalf of freedom' - and his memorable visit to the poet’s birth-place.
'And if any think me out of my place on this occasion,' he concluded, pointing to the portrait of Burns on the wall, 'I beg that the blame may be laid at the door of him who taught me that "a man’s a man for a’ that."'4
1. Frederick Douglass, 'A Fugitive Slave Visiting the Birth-place of Robert Burns', extract from a letter dated 23 April 1846, New York Tribune, 9 July 1846, reprinted in Alasdair Pettinger (ed), Always Elsewhere: Travels of the Black Atlantic (London: Cassell, 1998), pp95-7.
2. Frederick Douglass, 'What are the Colored People Doing for Themselves', North Star, 14 July 1848, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), p315; The Heroic Slave  in William Andrews (ed), The Oxford Frederick Douglass Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p157; My Bondage and My Freedom  (New York: Dover, 1969, p249. The lines also appeared in Henry Highland Garnet, An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America  (New York: Arno Press, 1969), p93; they were used as masthead of Martin Delany’s paper The Mystery, launched New York, 1843) (see Robert S Levine (ed), Martin R Delany: A Documentary Reader (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2003), p27); cited in James McCune Smith, ‘Outside Barbarians’, Frederick Douglass’ Paper (25 Dec 1851), reprinted in John Stauffer (ed), The Works of James McCune Smith: Black Intellectual and Abolitionist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p80; and featured as the epigraph to Chapter III of W E B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk  in Writings (New York: Library of America, 1986), p392.
3. Frederick Douglass, Letter to William Lloyd Garrison, London, 23 May 1846, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume 1: Early Years, 1817-1849 (New York: International Publishers, 1950), pp170-1; 'The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered: An Address Delivered in Hudson, Ohio on 12 July 1854', reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), p523; 'Our Recent Western Tour', Douglass' Monthly, April 1859, reprinted in Philip S Foner (ed), The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass. Volume II: Pre-Civil War Decade, 1850-1860 (New York: International Publishers, 1950) p451.
4. Frederick Douglass, 'On Robert Burns and Scotland: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York on 25 January 1849', reprinted in John W Blassingame (ed), The Frederick Douglass Papers. Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews. Volume 2: 1847-54 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1982), pp147-48.
(Revised and expanded version of an article first published in the Sunday Herald, 23 January, 2000).