Russel Banks: discours inaugural

CONGRESS OF CARIBBEAN WRITERS KEYNOTE SPEECH

By Russell Banks

 

The subject that I have been invited to address is, in English, fourteen words long: A COLLECTIVE EPIC, STRUGGLES FOR FREEDOM, HISTORICAL TRUTH, AND NOVELISTIC FICTION IN CARIBBEAN LITERATURES. And my hosts would like me to hold it to thirty or thirty-five minutes. I’m not sure this is humanly possible. There are, as I see it, basically four themes bundled together here, but each of them alone is sufficiently interesting and complex to deserve a separate and much more lengthy talk than I could provide here this evening.

            Let us therefore try to discern what, if anything, they have in common. Let us try to determine why these four subjects find themselves together tonight in the same sentence. Let us try to uncover what binds the literary concept of a « collective epic » to the perennial evocation of « struggles for freedom », and ask what binds these two to the philosophical question of « historical truth » in a way that ties all three to a critical evaluation of « novelistic fiction in Caribbean literatures ».

            I propose that a single word can be said to tie all four of these terms together, and I would like to begin by briefly examining the word « America ». The name — not the nation that so persistently and nationalistically (one might say imperially) claims the name, or the continents that claim it, North and South, or the link between them that we call Central America. Just the word: America.

            For that we have to go back to the early sixteenth century and examine what got named by it. As many of you know, it originates with a world map made by Martin Waldseemuller and Mathias Ringmann, two French clerics from the village of St.-Die. It was printed in 1507 by a little-known maker of globes named Johannes Schoner, who bound the map into a portfolio. All the other original prints disappeared, until 1901, when a Jesuit priest discovered Schoner’s portfolio hidden away in a German castle.

            The map, often called “the birth certificate of America,” is the first to show both the northern and southern continents and the Central American umbilical that connects them, with the Caribbean Sea cradled nicely between, the Atlantic east of the continents and the Pacific in the west. We do not know how Wadseemuller and Ringmann in 1507 learned of the basic outline of South America, as well as the Caribbean, Florida, the east coast of Mexico and Central America. Nor do we know who told them of the Pacific six years before Balboa first glimpsed it from a Panamanian peak in 1513.

            The mapmakers, believing that Amerigo Vespucci, not Columbus, was the first to sight the southern continent, wrote the word “America” across it. Vespucci was an Italian banker in the house of the Medici who helped finance and outfit Columbus’s voyages and wrote several epistolary accounts of his own two voyages to the New World. He, unlike Columbus, believed that the Europeans had not sailed to the Indies, to Asia, but to a New World, which may be why the French clerics attached his name to the hemisphere. In any event, in its very first application, the word “America” denotes an entire hemisphere, a New World, not a national entity. In essence, it’s anti-nationalistic, or better, trans-national. Which is how I wish to use it here.

            Besides, as W. H. Auden said, “…to regard national statehood as anything more than a technical convenience of social organization…is idolatry.” And I do not wish to be an idolater. I want to be a part of a People. I’m with Duke Ellington, who said, “My people are The People.”

            A few years back, I was in Senegal in West Africa. More specifically, I was on Goree Island, just off the Atlantic coast of Africa, with the skyline of Dakar in clear view from my rented lodgings. Goree Island is tiny, an islet, actually, barely a mile long and half as wide, crowded with crumbling old warehouses and two-storey stuccoed stone residences, the empty, decaying mansion of the long-gone colonial governor of French West Africa, a few renovated houses that rent out rooms, one restaurant, and several seaside cafes for the day-tripping tourists who take the ferry out from Dakar – who are mostly intrepid French tourists and military personnel stationed in Senegal on leave for a day; local Senegalese escaping from the heat and crowds of Dakar; and to my surprise, African-Americans, usually couples, usually middle-aged.

            From the mid-fifteenth century, when the Portugese privateers first hove into view on the northern horizon, Goree Island has been a trading station. From time immemorial, the Wolof people of what we now call Senegal, have been a trading people, situated as they are neatly at the crossroads between Saharan and Equatorial Africa, and between the rich, interior kingdoms of Mali and the sea. With the arrival of the Europeans at this crossroads came a hunger that in time grew insatiable and lasted for nearly half a millenium. I speak, of course, of the hunger for black African slaves.

            The traders on Goree who built the warehouses facing the sea, the narrow streets and alleys, and the handsome, now crumbling residences were first Portugese, then Dutch, and from the late seventeenth century on, French and for brief periods British. The black Africans they traded for, or captured on their own, those that survived transport, ended up, therefore, in Brazil, Guyana, the Dutch Antilles, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, and beyond – peopling in time both the American continents and the Caribbean archipelago between.

            One can without difficulty travel along the coast of West and Equatorial Africa and visit renovated and restored warehouses, docks, and dungeons built originally by the European slave-traders. On Goree Island there is such a place. It’s called La Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves, and it’s the reason those African-American couples had come all this way. They had come to stand where their black ancestors had stood, to meditate and reflect upon their ancestors’ and their own connected fates and histories.

            I was there for a somewhat different reason, to meditate and reflect in the place where I believe the American imagination, and therefore certain distinguishing aspects of my own imagination, were born. Not at San Salvador where Columbus dropped anchor for the first time; not in Saint Augustine, Florida; not in the white gold sugar plantations of Hispaniola; not at Plymouth Rock; not at Cumberland Gap looking westward-ho across the continent. No, for me, the imagination of the New World was born here, on the coast of Africa, which is not even on the map made by the two French clerics in 1507. Here in Senegal, where half a century before Columbus sailed west, nearly two centuries before the English Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, the Portugese established a trading station that would be used by Europeans for nearly half a millennium in the trade or capture and transport to the Americas of fifteen to twenty million black Africans.

            Here the African Diaspora began. And here was sown the seed of race as a zoological category and its evil spawn, racism, in which human beings with skin pigmentation of one shade of color are seen, by virtue of that shade, as being superior to, and therefore as more entitled to power than, human beings of another shade of color.

            Here Othello became Caliban.

            The necessary links between the two, between the concept of race, and its corollary, racism, on the one hand and the history of the African Diaspora on the other, a link between a concept and a history in which one makes possible and nourishes the other, creates a chain that, even to today, binds all us Americans, regardless of our national citizenship, regardless of our skin pigmentation or other so-called secondary racial characteristics; regardless of our ethnic backgrounds; even regardless of the date of arrival in the Western Hemisphere of our ancestors, whether it was 17,000 BC from Siberia in pursuit of the wooly mammoth or 1840 CE from China to replace freed slaves in the Jamaican cane fields or 1975 from Vietnam in flight to the USA after having supported the losing side in a civil war. Race and its story, its ur-narrative, is the story of the Americas; it establishes our mythos and etiology as a people; and its most compressed, inclusive, and truth-telling dramatization can be found in all the chapters of the tale of the African Diaspora, from that of the 1450s to today’s. 

            It might be asked, isn’t the literary aspect of the African Diaspora a more proper subject for the descendants of the slaves than for me, a patently Euro-American writer? Isn’t that story someone else’s? What right have I, a descendent of the enslavers, to comment on the dramatization of the experience of those who were enslaved and of their descendants? Do the Egyptians have a right to opinions on the Jews’ account of the Captivity? Can the descendants of Custer and his Calvary cohorts  properly address the massacre, not of Little Big Horn, but of Wounded Knee? Do the children and grandchildren of the Nazis have anything useful and necessary to tell us about the Holocaust?

            The answer, obviously, is Yes. Of course they can. Not only that, as the children and grandchildren of the Nazis surely know, they must, or else we’ll be deprived of the whole story. We’ll only have a part of it. We’ll imagine and come to understand the story solely from the point of view of the victim and will be deprived of any understanding of who the victimizer was and is and possibly will be again. We’ll not know what it is to be German. Or perhaps what it is to be human. As the poet W. S. Merwin writes, we are the species, the only species, that must learn over and over again what it is to be itself. For better and for worse, I might add. For if the victim is human, then so is the victimizer. Sadly, to be human is to be both.

            The African-American writer James Baldwin declared that the full story of race in the Americas will be told, if ever, only when it can include the point-of-view of a white member of a Mississippi lynch mob. The great Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, speaking at Bard College of the abomination of slavery and its portrayal in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, somberly observed that, “A similar question will come up on the continent [of Africa]: ‘Is it true that you sold your own brother?’…It’s a frightening conundrum we have to deal with,” he said, “we black people.”

            As a starting point, there are two essential premises at hand regarding the relationship between a People (as opposed to a population) and its literature that I have long held to, and as a writer of fiction have long used for taking the measure of my task.

            The first premise is that every People has at the center of its literature an origin myth, a story or set of interconnected stories that tells where that people came from, and thus by implication tells them who they are now and what they must do in order to realize their destiny. The Greeks, ancient and modern alike, turn to The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans to The Aeneid; the French tell and re-tell the story of Jeanne d’Arc, and the English revisit again and again the Arthurian legends; the Norse recall their Sagas, and the Hebrews annually return to the Covenant, the Captivity, and Return. And so on throughout the world, like members of a family who know that, without a shared, consensually agreed upon story that describes and dramatizes its origins, without its roots, the family will perish.

            This is what story-tellers have always done; it’s what got them invited in from the cold to sit in the cave by the fire in the first place: “Tell us the story of our origins,” say those whose cave and fire it is, “so that we may know how far we have fallen or how high we have risen; so that we may know our destiny here on this harsh planet; so that we may know how to treat one another; so that we may distinguish between our friends and our enemies. So that we will know what it is to be human.”

            The second premise is this: that I myself, a man born and raised in the United States whose life has been irreversibly bent to the telling of stories, if I wish to contribute to the making of my people’s literature, am obliged to learn and somehow contribute to the re-telling of the origin-myth of the Americas, that tale or set of inter-connected tales which can tell us where we who call ourselves Americans came from, how far we have fallen from the conditions of our origins or risen above them, and where, given the terms of those origins, we must go from here. 

            Apposite that premise, however, lies the question, do we who call ourselves Americans even have an origin myth, a shared, consensually agreed upon tale or set of tales that can keep this family, if indeed we are a family, from perishing?

            The poet Derek Walcott has written, “Either I’m a nation, or I’m nothing,” suggesting that our essential, individual identities depend upon our ability to view ourselves, among many things, as a People. If you know Walcott’s body of work and his long struggle to resolve the cultural and linguistic tensions and conflicts inherent in his having been born a descendant of African slaves in a small Caribbean island under European rule, you will know that by the word “nation” he means something larger than any national entity, something more sharply and intimately defining of his imagination than can be granted by mere citizenship. His Anglo-Saxon name and his complexion and facial features and his birthplace and the language with which he writes his poems, if he cannot view himself as a People, will nullify one another and erase him. Yes, either he is a People, or he is nothing.

            And perhaps more than anything else, it’s that origin-myth which establishes our sense of ourselves as a People. It’s what binds us to one another, all of us, regardless of our names, our complexions, or even the legal status of our citizenship.

            However, in the United States, especially, but all over the Americas, whether in novels and memoirs, in films, or on TV, we have told and continue separately to tell ourselves Euro-American origin tales, yes; but also African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Native American, Latino-American, and most recently, Asian-American origin tales. Hyphenated tales. Consequently, our stories of beginnings, our roots, multiply and grow increasingly tangled, failing to nourish us as a People, and failing also, as I believe, to nourish even the segment of the population whose origins the tales purport to dramatize and transform, ultimately, into myth. Our multiple origin stories end up competing with one another, diminishing thereby the meaning and value of all our origin stories. More becomes less.

            In the Americas, and in the United States in particular, for nearly half a millennium now, inasmuch as we have tolerated and actually encouraged dueling origin tales, we have deprived ourselves, confused and to some degree, like a family with no remembered agreed-upon roots, disenfranchised ourselves. We seem unwilling or unable to tell ourselves a single believable story of our shared origins. Instead, we allow the separate stories to stand against one another, or rather to sit, as it were, in separate corners of the room, neither speaking to one another nor listening. And we’re aided and abetted in this process by nationalistic agendas, by the prevailing economics of culture,  and forms of institutionalized racism.

            So that these days, for instance, if one is of European descent, it’s exceedingly easy to wall off and effectively ghettoize the African or Native or Hispanic or Asian stories, in that way trivializing them, making them seem parochial, enabling one to deny their application to one’s own personal and political history. One feels freed to ignore their moral demands and their legitimate claims upon one’s deepest attention. Oh, it’s not my story, we say, it’s theirs. On the other hand, and by the same token, if one is of African descent or Native or Hispanic or Asian descent, one is invited to believe that, in telling own’s own small part of the story, one has told the whole of it. As if a single chapter, a mere episode in what I believe could be our hemispheric epic, can be substituted for the whole.    

            We may have lost sight of what to me is an undeniable fact: that we are a single, Creolized people – not separate Native, African, European, Latin, or Asian descended people. Against the lie that denies the social construction of race, the simple truth is that we are racially and culturally mixed. Some of us more than others. But none of us is purely one thing or another.

             Thus our true story begins, Chapter One opens, when we have begun to mix. And we begin mixing races and cultures very early in the sixteenth century, about the time of that first map, when Africans and Europeans together, one group unwillingly, the other willingly, make their first landfall in the Americas, there to be greeted by the Natives in their canoes just offshore and on the beaches, from Newfoundland in the North to Tierra del Fuego in the South.

            So who or what is an American, anyhow? Not our names, not our complexions, not even our citizenship can answer it. No, to answer that question, one normally would turn to one’s national story of origins, the story that dramatizes our creation as a People, the cycle of sagas and legends that can be told, re-told, embellished, and elaborated upon, that can finally be braided together into a single strand that will lie coiled in our collective imagination, an autochthonous myth by which we can reliably set our ethical and metaphysical compasses, and our literary compasses as well.

            I believe that, if we are indeed a Creolized people and have been from the beginning, then the single, defining, linked sequence of stories that we share, regardless of our superficial racial characteristics or ethnic or cultural backgrounds, is that of the African Diaspora. This is the narrative template against which the truth of all the others can be measured, fitted into, laid over, or veneered onto. It doesn’t matter where in time one enters it – as Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead, it’s not even past yet.”

            And it doesn’t matter from whose point-of-view it’s told, for we all have played different roles in that long, serpentine story – sometimes as victim, sometimes as victimizer, sometimes as merely horrified or thrilled onlooker with something important and self-defining to lose or gain in the outcome. And it doesn’t matter where it’s located. For there is no town, neighborhood, or household, no county or state or nation in the Americas that has not been profoundly effected by the events, characters, themes, and values dramatized by the story of race in the Americas.

            It’s a terrible, all-encompassing story that begins in violence on the shores and estuaries of West Africa with permanent enslavement and forced migration, passes into institutionalized racism, and through emancipation and war rises to a first and false climax, where it undergoes sudden reversal and embittered transformation, withdraws like a wave falling back to gather force and new complexity, and leads eventually in our time to a vision (and this is important), not of assimilation, but of Creolization – a vision in whose light we hope to be led, not to the denial of racial difference or to the sentimental celebration of it, either, but to a vivid image of the eventual elimination of racial difference as a means of group identification. As put by the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah: “…if we are to move beyond racism, we shall have, in the end, to move beyond current racial identities.”

            Central to that story, driving its plot, which is given to us practically as a birth-right, is the conflict between the crime of slavery and its evil spawn, the continuing sin of racism. How that conflict, in the telling of the story, gets resolved is of crucial importance to our collective identity and morality. It tells a story of a war between our demons and our angels over the nature of our soul.

            I’m arguing that there is a confluence of stories arising from the African Diaspora. It is a wide and deep, east-running Amazon of stories and a south-running Mississippi that eventually flow together into the Caribbean Sea, from Miami to Caracas, Houston to Port-au-Prince. It is the one myth that gives life to the beautiful dream of a hemisphere-wide Creole Nation. There is no other like it. For it is a truly democratic story, the only story capable of functioning for a multi-cultural, multi-racial, Creolized people as their trans-national epic,

            I’m speaking of a kinship here, a kinship that transcends race, nation, language and ethnicity. As W. E. B. DuBois wrote of African-Americans: “The actual ties of heritage between the individuals of this group vary with the ancestors that they have in common with many others: Europeans and Semites, perhaps Mongolians, certainly American Indians. But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant, save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery….”

            I fear that our desire to separate our historical strands one at a time from the braided destiny of a Creole union of nations will lead ultimately to its unraveling, and to the permanent establishment of mere populations, citizenries, instead of a People. It’s already well under way. We in the US are fast becoming a Balkanized cluster of small colonies of the separately saved. White writers in the US seem to be getting whiter, as it were, especially among the youngest generation of novelists and story writers, and seem increasingly to live in the literary equivalent of a gated community. And black writers appear to be getting blacker; even the best of them have shown an increasing tendency, however understandable, to preach to their choirs. One can argue that the same thing is happening to Asian-American and Latin-American and Native writers.

            The fact is, our imaginations, individually and collectively, are shaped out of darkness by our story-tellers. And our morality and ethics are shaped in turn by our individual and collective imaginations. How we come to treat one another, then, depends at a profound level on the stories we tell one another. If we cannot end our reluctance, each of us, to tell our separate versions of the story of our common origins — the story that, simply by means of its telling, has the capacity to liberate us from our shared bloody history of race — then we will each end up in thrall to a private, alienated, racialized fantasy of difference. We will define ourselves, not by our shared humanity, but by our names, our complexions, our mere citizenship.

            “My inheritance was particular, specifically limited and limiting,” James Baldwin wrote. “My birthright was vast, connecting me to all that lives, and to everyone, forever. But one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance.”

            A few miles off the Atlantic coast of Senegal on Goree Island, it’s easy to get lost in time, The island looks very much as it did in slavery days. Narrow, unpaved streets and lanes, early colonial-era stone warehouses and shops and two-storey houses with courtyards enclosed by high walls. No motor vehicles; just handcarts. I passed along a quiet street, on my way to the Maison des Esclaves, the House of Slaves.

            The gate to the House of Slaves opens onto a courtyard. You can look across the courtyard into a darkened corridor that leads through an open archway to a stone jetty and the glittering sea beyond. There are ghosts in this place, the ghosts of those who were enslaved and the ghosts of those who enslaved them. That is our inheritance, in Baldwin’s sense, and we must accept it before we can claim our birthright.

            So I leave us there, standing at the gate, peering into the sudden, cool darkness of the House of Slaves and the bright light of the sea beyond. I leave us at that gate, because I’m a story-teller from the Americas; and it’s there, at the doorway to the House of Slaves, that my inheritance and my birthright originate. It’s there that our story begins.

 

 

 

 

 

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