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Zong!: Layout & History

These poems threw me for a loop. I was not expecting the layout to look the way it did at all. His was the first time I have ever read something with this layout, so I was having to restart and reread many of these to make sure I was comprehending everything that was going on. It made my eyes hurt a little, which I wasn’t really a fan of, but the overall experience was interesting.

My first impression of the layout reminded me of the concept behind blackout poetry. I forgot who said it, but someone in class mentioned that it looked like some information or the rest of the sentence was missing, which would go along with my thought of blackout poetry. I also noticed that the layout didn’t stick to one format, if that makes sense. Some of the pages were set up in columns, diagonals, ovals, and some that didn’t have any specific shape, it just looked like a bunch of words on a page, more so than they already to.

I really liked the line that she kept repeating throughout the whole essay. “There is no telling this story; it must be told.” I like how she recognizes the fact that the events that took place during this time is something that she herself would not be able to fully understand and write about from her point of view. Even though none of this happened during her lifetime, and the information she gave was from a person that may or may not have existed, she still understood this was not her story to be told.

The content of the essay was really shocking. In school, you learn about slavery and its role in American history, but not a lot, if anything, about it from different countries around the world. We may be told that slavery did not just happen in America, but that’s about it. We don’t get any other information unless we do the research, which most likely won’t happen. So, it was intriguing to read about how slavery worked in another country.

Zong!: the irrepressible and the neverending

Prior to this reading, I had never heard of the Zong case. As I read the poems, I had no idea the context of what I was reading. I did not understand the full story until I read Philip’s essay, after I had already absorbed the poems. One thing I was struck by in her commentary on her work was the idea of telling a story through not telling it. In my case, she succeeded in this mission handily. I knew nothing of the story, but by the time I read the details, I was not surprised. The horror had already been whispered to me slowly through the poems. They translated to me the essentials of the situation, which, stripped of meaning, conveyed more through silence than noise. Water-frenzy-negroes-overboard-justice-escaped. My brain painted the rest of the picture, which had already been formed but was simply fleshed out through the revelations in Philip’s essay. In this there can be seen an element of subjectivity; the story can become anything the reader finds in it.

This is in part what I believe Philip means when she claims that in writing Zong! she implicates herself–simply by allowing the story any flexibility, she allows the atrocities to be overlooked. She exposes the dead for what they were–humans who deserved respect and dignity and life–by opening the history up for inspection, but in doing so she allows them to be abused once again. In turning them from property into people, she reveals the solemn truth: they were people the whole time, no matter what any law or judge said. So she is not only savior but warden. Putting a story like this into the world; one that reveals so much of the evil humanity has the potential for, yet also allows murder victims a space for remembrance, is a powerful statement but a dangerous one.

The other thing I believe Philip could mean when she talks about guilt in authoring this work is somewhat reminiscent of Derrida’s ideas. It could be debated that just by writing about an act so singularly and irrevocably violent, Philip furthers the worlds that allowed it to happen at all. In putting the words on paper, she claims some type of ownership over such a horrific event, giving herself the power to condemn or acquit, save or abandon. From this view, the poems of Zong! become performative acclamations, words that bring long dead atrocious acts and innocent souls back into the landscape of present-day, breathing life into them and encasing them in the written word, where they will rest forever. The struggle becomes that it is impossible to separate the two; the killer and the victim, the captain and the slave, the perpetrator and the victim. They must all await judgement together. This requires the most delicate sort of artistry from an author, and this is where I commend Philip in her performance more than anywhere else; she refuses to let the dead remain unheard, yet she neglects to give them her own voice, which would, in the end, only be yet another form of subjugation for them to endure.

Zong! – Format and Racism

In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!, the unusual and confusing format of the poetry proposes a large question: why did Philip decide to tell the story of the Gregson v Gilbert legal case and enslaved people in a manner that demands dissection, deep background, and intense analyzation? Philip’s use of format is directly tied to the unimaginable case that is being told. The case, which involves a ship that has been misguided and was not prepared for extended travel, states that slaves either died due to the lack of food and water or they “were thrown overboard for the preservation of the rest” (210), illuminating the fact that during this era, enslaved people were taken with less regard and were valued less than food and water to keep the white people on board alive. The lives of the enslaved were seen as just another provision; however, less than the provisions that are necessary to keep a human alive. Philip utilizes the format of her poetry in order to portray the case and a much larger picture. The words are written in a way that is difficult to understand and digest, much like the story that Philip is sharing. Philip connects her format to the story because to understand how one can trade another’s life for food is unfathomable, much like the poetry at first glance. To understand both Philip’s work and the history behind the enslaved people, there is an abundant amount of analyzation that must be done, further alluding as to why Philip chose a complex and complicated way to tell the story. Tracy K. Smith’s poem, Declaration, also discusses the issue of human rights in yet another unproportionate format, “He has plundered our- ravaged our- destroyed the lives of our- taking away our-.” Smith does this for the same reason that Philip does, to illustrate the fact that the poem is not easy to read; therefore, neither is the content laced throughout the poem.       

Partus Sequitur Ventrem

In both Philip’s and Harris’ works, there is a question, spoken or non, about the association of blackness to property.

For Harris, she noted that slavery was a system that thrived from the division of color, facilitating the idea that ownership was a birthright of skin tone. On page 278, Harris says, “…the institution of slavery, lying at the very core of economic relations, was bound up with the idea of property.” There were many continuing underlying issues perpetuating the idea of whiteness as property, but the most notable was the monetary gain white slave owners were earning from their black slaves.

Philips examined every line of text from the Zong legal case and offered her own expert insight on the determination of the case. As she tore into insurance and property law, she highlighted several key points, one of which was the reasoning behind throwing the African slaves overboard. The insurance company would have to pay the Captain and the family buying the slaves money for “loss of property and income.” In the original case document, the slaves were referred to as “cargo.” Slaves were considered property.

I find it interesting that in both readings we hear cases for blackness as property, and in each case, the law stands on the side of white, property-owning citizens. Even though the law does not strictly mention skin color, it mentions property, and slaves had their statuses legally demoted to “domestic animal” and were branded as animals (Duke Law). This was because whites had adopted the Roman law of partus sequitur ventrem. It handled the legal status of animals in Rome, but the law had been twisted to fit the needs of slave owners by becoming “a legal doctrine concerning the slave or free status of children born in the English royal colonies” (Wikipedia, Duke Law). Both authors make strong legal arguments that blackness was a determinant of property, and I believe they are correct in their stances of black skin color sealing slaves’ fates as property.

Duke Law:

I realize Wikipedia isn’t a good source, but Duke Law stated the same idea. Wikipedia just said it better.

Smith’s “Declaration” Offers a New Context

The first thing that jumped out at me while reading Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration” was the poem’s structure. I have never seen a poem have that spacing and style, so I decided to do some additional research and learned that “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry. Meaning Smith used a pre-existing text and took out most of the original words to make something new. The pre-existing text in this case is the United States Declaration of Independence, and she eliminates most of the original words so that the Declaration of Independence can be viewed from a context that’s different from just the original colonies tearing away from Britain. This new context is able to use some of the significant themes the original text offers and apply them to different ideas. Smith is using her poem to illustrate the hypocrisy of the document because slavery was so prominent when it was written. The hypocrisy exists because the Declaration of Independence advocates for the inalienable rights of every person, yet slavery remained prominent for many years after the text was written.

            Smith emphasizes the transitive verbs while leaving out the content making them incomplete in a sense. Some examples of this are “plundered our-,” “ravaged our-,” “destroyed the lives of our-,” “taking away our-,” and “abolishing our most valuable-.” In all of these examples there is no content provided, but it is because of this that we are able to look at the pre-existing text differently. Our new context fills in the content left out by Smith. All of those verbs fall in line with how people treated slaves during that time, and using the Declaration of Independence’s own words really highlights the contradiction. The writers of the old text failed to see their own faults in the society they created, and the examples “taken captive,” “on the high seas,” and “to bear” supports the idea that Smith wants us to see this contradiction. I believe Smith’s overall message is that we cannot excuse the hypocrisy of our history just because of how impactful the Declaration of Independence was in forming our country.

Haitian Declaration and Constitution : Anti – Slavery

William (Tradd) Stover

I found these two documents really interesting and unique from anything I have analyzed before. I say they are unique because of the cleanly stated, staunch outlaw off slavery that is stated in multiple areas of both pieces. Clearly, those sort of statements do not exist in the U.S founding documents. Rather, America makes claims that can be interpreted in different ways such as labeling all men as free. Well, this raises the question: what is a man?

In the Haitian Declaration, the commander in chief states that slavery is horrific and shall never be practiced again within the first few lines of the work. “Independence or death” is a phrase used multiple times throughout the document. This is interesting because on initial glance, this looks and sounds like something the U.S declaration would say. The idea of being free is relevant, and even crucial, to both nations, but it is simply the connotation of the word “free” that brings about a difference. Haitians want to be free in somewhat of a more literal sense. They want to be free from the chains that have held them down, oppressed, and bloodied their people. On the contrary, colonial Americans want to be free from an overbearing government, one that patriots deem unfair. This similarity in form but difference in context is really interesting and telling of some of the differences between each culture.

The Haitian Constitution is in many ways similar to that of the United States. Most notably, it lists powers that the president, or in this case Emperor shall possess. I noticed that the powers shared between the two are quite similar. The structure of the document is also quite similar to the U.S version in that it is separated into sections with articles. One of the main differences, again, is the clear outlaw of slavery. The second article reads, “slavery is abolished forever’. That is about as clear cut as possible. This idea of what the word free really stands for comes into play once again.

Another blatant and extreme difference is the feelings that these Haitian documents show toward France. The Declaration speaks of “pursuing forever the traitors and enemies of your independence” and “Eternal hatred of France”. There is an incredible theme of revenge here that is much more evident than in the United States Declaration.

These two documents make for an interesting read. I enjoyed comparing and contrasting these from the ones drafted by the U.S. It is striking in some ways how similar, yet fundamentally different these documents are from what I am used to reading and studying. This writing is very powerful and useful still today.

Presentation Versus Representation

In hindsight, the historical context from which I analyzed the US Declaration of Independence is quite lacking in comparison to the literary perspective. The most prominent thing that I kept coming back to was the emptiness of the wording used. Phrases such as “one people,” all men are created equal,” and “powers from the consent of the governed.” I see all of these as merely a presentation; they do not truly represent the “one people” of the US. These were written down to provide a sense of unification, equality, and shared power — in reality they are far from that. This entire document is put on as a sort of act to show power in writing rather than in action. While this document was written and published no actions were made to ensure what was said was enforced. This declaration presents representation where there is none to be found.

Going back to the second phrase I quoted, “all men are created equal,” there enslaved West Africans who would have disagreed. Calling upon the erasure poem “Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith, there is a line from this poem that reads “We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. –taked Captive — on the high Seas — to bear–” (Smith). The irony being that this is the exact words of the Declaration the founding fathers wrote. Yet they could not see that they too were the same as they they enslaved. In my opinion, it was an insult to write such a phrase as “all men are created equal” as a presentation to the world how just the US is, while in reality, when it comes time to represent what they wrote, such justice is merely spilled ink.

Smith, Tracy K. “Declaration.” Poetry Foundation, Graywolf Press,