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Zong! & Apathy in History Classrooms

When I initially began reading Zong!, I was faced with the typical confusion that always seems to accompany this kind of poetry for me; the sparse wording and odd formatting were nothing short of disorienting, especially when combined with the complete lack of context I had with these poems. However, as I continued to read, these initial confusions only better lent themselves to the point the poetry was making. 

In classrooms in the United States, the profound tragedies experienced by the Africans as they made their way to the new world are largely left glossed over and unexplored. Apathy regarding history is something that I find to be quite prevalent due to the way history is often taught, but Zong! does a wonderful job of filling these gaps. The feelings of disorientation, confusion, and altogether frustration I felt as I was trying to decipher these poems is a direct reflection of the confusions felt by the Africans that were transported to the “New World.” I have memories of learning about this in elementary school and how inhumanely these people were treated, but these realities failed to sink in whenI was just learning them from one angle. In Zong!, I felt as though I was transported into the mind of one of these individuals. 

The elements of formatting utilized in these pieces mimic the unstructured form of natural thoughts; the confusion, frustration, and utter disorientation faced by these individuals are better felt in these poems. When reading this, it made me wonder about how history is taught in classrooms and its validity. I know that many history classes read novels to enrich their learning, but reading Zong! made me realize just how much of an asset this can be to students. Novels, poetry, and other creative works assist in the development of empathy as well as a deeper understanding of the events that occurred. In the current day, I can only see this as an enrichment to students’ learning in the United States.

2 thoughts on “Zong! & Apathy in History Classrooms”

  1. I completely agree with your opinion on reading the “Zong!” I too was confused at first – the formatting of the poem was very sporadic and definitely took me a while to get through. However I appreciate your comment about how the format of this poem mirrors the complete and utter confusion going on in the minds of those onboard the ship. I also think your post is spot on when you discuss what we read in elementary school classrooms regarding the struggles Africans had to go through. It seemed very one-sided and in a way, much too simple. What the “Zong!” gets at is the realistic, complicated and horrific history they endured. It was certainly an interesting and eye-opening read and I really enjoyed your blog post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great identification of readerly confusion as having a purpose in Philip’s volume. I would love to get a sense of how you see some of the wonderful interpretive claims you put forth playing out in relation to a specific poem and what it’s doing!


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