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The Archaeology of Origin
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Yet, this seems to be a delimiting view of diasporic experience precisely because it privileges the original disruption from origin as the defining experience. What then can be said of the experiences of those black peoples who have lived for generations in cultures and nations beyond the original dispersal? Their distance in time and space from origin suggests that they may have travelled well beyond their original contexts and thus one might be tempted to regard length of time as the immutable line of demarcation between experiences of origin and diaspora. Again, such a stance is too narrow for practical purposes as these histories, regardless of their lengths, are still inscribed within racism and exploitation.
Rinaldo Walcott has described this connectedness of black diasporic cultures as a matter of circuitous routes or detours that bond black expressive cultures to their rhizomatic natures (1997, 18). A reflection of an improvisationary and an in-between space (18), it is this connectedness that makes diasporic experience escape encapsulation in either generalization or specifics. Whether described within Gilroy’s black Atlantic (1993, 3) or Clifford’s specific maps/histories (319), it would seem that slippage between origin, journey and arrival plays a significant role in the creation of black diasporic identities.
The purpose of this exhibition is to probe the slippage between notions of origin and diasporic consciousness in the borderless cinema of the black diaspora. The films and videos examined here offer a multiplicity of points of view and contexts within which origin is both constructed and deconstructed as an element of identity. The selections, which include fiction and documentary works, challenge static constructions of origin by underscoring both the positive and negative consequences of lives spent within transnational frameworks.
The paradox of diasporic experience is perhaps best situated by Gilroy’s position that there is a seemingly insoluble conflict between two distinct but symbiotic relationships to origin: the ontological essentialist view presents diasporic experience as pan-African, and therefore presents African origin as a defining feature of identity, while the pluralist view foregrounds race as a social and cultural construct, in which origin functions as one strand in a complex cord of experience (1993, 31-32). In effect, both positions have validity in that shared histories of racism, oppression and estrangement connect black diasporic experiences although they cannot and do not totally define them. Therefore, not surprisingly, the films and videos of this exhibition provide concepts of origin as diverse and intricate as the specific maps/histories in which they are located.
One of the most prevalent discourses in black diasporic experience is that of slavery. According to Walcott, the Middle Passage continues to be one of the primary psychic spaces being reconfigured by diasporic works (1997, 72), especially as the legacy of this inhumane forced migration unfortunately persists in the form of systemic racism. Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmaker living in exile in the United States, contributes to this reconfiguration in his film Sankofa (Ghana/US, 1993) by portraying the connection between the descendants of slaves and Africa/origin as ahistorical, immutable, contemporary and incapable of being sundered or mediated by generations of life within differing historical contexts.
Sankofa, an African word which may be defined as a return to the past in order to go forward, demonstrates a rhetorical connection between concepts of past and present time that is typical of African oral narrative structures. The film’s central character, Mona, an African-American model, travels to Cape Coast Castle, a departure point for slaves in the Atlantic slave trade. She is confronted by a mysterious African divine drummer, Sankofa, who commands her to return to her source. Mona becomes possessed by the lingering spirits of the slaves and transported into the body of Shola, a house slave on the Lafayette plantation in the southern United States. The inter-twining of these two stories generates a layered narrative structure in which past and present exist simultaneously, and are capable of impacting on each other in a real and imperative fashion.
Like Mona in her present life, Shola is complicit with the system, perceiving the status quo as natural due to her having been born into slavery. This is illustrated by her narration, which explicates each major event or revolution in Shola’s re-education and marks the arc of this character from collaborator to rebel. This narration begins just as Mona is transported into Shola’s body. The voice-over presentation underscores Shola’s observations as an immediate act of remembrance which foregrounds the vital role that personal memory plays in such oral histories. In addition, the close-up, remarkable for its extreme high angle and implication of entrapment, provides a visual counterpoint to Shola’s narration in which she expresses, in part, that if you was born a slave like me, it was easier to accept things like they was. Although her statement may suggest an acceptance of slavery, Gerima’s choice to associate this statement with such an unusual and compelling close-up, reveals from the very beginning, that Shola’s initial position is open to challenge. In other words, there is slippage between the rhetoric of the oral statement and the visual frame in which it is cast: Shola’s apparent complicity does not reflect the reality of her situation.
Shola’s journey from compliant house slave to open rebel is parallelled by Mona’s journey from denial to acceptance of her Africanity. In both instances, the characters move from a disavowal of their identities to a state in which they embrace their African origin regardless of consequences. Shola ultimately dies for her role in the slave rebellion, but through her narration, describes that death as an uplifting act of resistance which affirms her selfhood. Mona returns from this ordeal transformed from an American to an African-American, and joins with the Divine Drummer in a celebration of a mystical experience which locates African origin as the centre of identity construction. Thus, Gerima presents a triumphant ideology which seems to suggest that for diasporic identities, the schism created by slavery cannot be effectively healed without an African centre in which to anchor identity construction.
Like Sankofa, Euzhan Palcy’s Rue Cases-Nègres/Sugar Cane Alley (Martinique/France 1983), probes the inequities of political, racial and economic systems that have arisen out of slavery. Focussed on the lives of sugar cane labourers in 1930s Martinique, the film explores education and neo-colonialism as sources of power and oppression within Martinican society. The story follows the struggles of a young boy, José, and his grandmother, M’Man Tine as they attempt to establish a future beyond the sugar cane fields.
M’Man Tine sees eventual freedom rooted in the pursuit of a good education for José and is prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to achieve this goal. Although José speaks French and excels in his studies, the French component of his life education is counter-balanced by a strong sense of Afro-Caribbean culture passed down by the elder Médouze who has served as a mentor to the boy. In one striking scene, Médouze tells José a story that his father told him, an act that simultaneously combines past, present and future histories. Portrayed through tight close-ups as Médouze and José participate in ritual storytelling, the oral tale focuses on the capture of Médouze’s father in Africa and his sale as a sugar cane slave in Martinique. Médouze relates how his father participated in the St. Pierre rebellion that ended slavery on the island only to find himself trading in a master for a boss: although slavery had ended, the plantation economy perpetuated poverty for Martinican blacks as the land, and therefore the power, remained in white hands. The sequence ends with a two-shot of José and Médouze positioned on either side of the frame as Médouze comments ironically that although it is now illegal to beat black labourers, it is not illegal to pay them less than a living wage. When José tells Médouze that he would go to Africa with him, Médouze replies that there is no one left for him in Africa and implies that only his spirit will return when he dies. The significance of this exchange lies in the transmission of an oral history that affirms an historical connection to Africa but recognizes that it has become transformed by experiences encountered on the journey outward. Thus, while Africa still has a vital role as origin, it is now expressed in a more mythological sense: José’s identity may be rooted in African culture, but it is also shaped by contact with France and in order to be complete, must find a balance between the two.
Palcy makes it clear that the acculturation inherent in embracing French education is destructive if it is pursued in the absence of an Afro-Caribbean cultural context. One of the ways in which she illustrates this point is through the contrast between the experiences of José and his friend, Léopold, who is the child of Honorine, a black Martinican woman and Monsieur de Thorail, a white French plantation overseer. Léopold is expected by his mother to repudiate all connections with his Afro-Caribbean heritage. As Gerise Herndon suggests, the de Thorail household evokes profound conflict as Léopold is caught between loving his French father and craving a connection with other petits nègres (1996, 263). De Thorail’s actions on his death-bed emphasize the degree to which racism is ingrained in Martinican society: although he will provide for his son by bequeathing him land and a family signet ring, the purity of his white ancestry cannot be violated by passing on his name to his mulatto child. Léopold’s shock and anger at recognizing that race will always separate him from his father, drives him to a desperate act of solidarity with the black sugar cane labourers. He is caught in the act of stealing the plantation account book in order to expose white corruption, resulting in a cruel and humiliating public punishment. Palcy is suggesting that without solidarity amongst all levels of black society, effective societal change is impossible. Thus, Léopold’s theft is a call to action, even if the act itself is ultimately futile.
John Akomfrah’s documentary, The Last Angel of History (UK, 1995), shares with Sankofa and Sugar Cane Alley a sense of African origin as one of the defining aspects of black diasporic identity. A collage of interviews wrapped in a fictional framework, the documentary disentombs the relationship between black cultures, digital technologies and science fiction. The documentary begins as Edward George tells the story of the Data Thief, a fictional character who is surfing the internet of black culture, searching for techno-fossils that will lead him to his future. The imagery of the thief breaking into the vaults of knowledge to recoup his own history provides the organizing principle around which the interviews are arranged: in effect, they become the very fragments that the thief is pursuing.
The documentary features dense digital landscapes in which layered images underscore the notion of unearthing and preserving techno artifacts. In one striking sequence, images of contemporary Ghana are overlaid with the narration of the Data Thief’s story as he discovers the word Africa. The sequence then cuts to images of Ghana digitized on a computer monitor overlapped by a map of Africa as the Data Thief suggests that the Africans’ first experience with science fiction occurred when they discovered drumming. The sequence ends with an image of an old slave fortress as the Data Thief explains that because the sound of drumming travels over water, Africans recognized that it could connect the old world with the new. The construction of this sequence connects the futuristic search of the Data Thief with the present as well as the past, creating a narrative structure that functions not unlike a collection of interactive lexia.
Many of Akomfrah’s interview subjects, from musician George Clinton to writers Greg Tate and Ismael Reed to critic Kodwo Eshun, discuss the experiences and consequences of living as dislocated entities within a dominant society determined to refuse them entry. Tate, in particular, links the alienation and estrangement of African-American experience to science fiction protagonists who find themselves fighting authoritative power structures that seeek to keep them alien within society. The doucumentary takes the position that the Middle Passage is pivotal in the creation and maintenance of estrangement in blck diasporic cultures. Eshun suggests that Greg Tate’s work recasts American history in the light of science fiction and that the themes of alien abduction and forced genetic transformation are rooted in the legacy of slavery. Thus, The Last Angel of History shares with Sankofa, a sense of longing and loss linked to a forced dislocation that even generations of passing time have not healed.
Raoul Peck’s L’Homme sur les quais/The Man by the Shore(Haiti/France/Canada, 1993), offers a very different view of origin. Focussed on the political struggles of Haiti during the Duvalier regime in the 1960s, the film concerns the remembrances of Sarah as she comes to terms with these violent events thirty years lager. Unlike The Last Angel of History and Sankofa, which posit origin as an embracement of African roots, The Man by the Shore grounds identity within the specific map of Haitian history. Thus, origin becomes, in effect, transnational: of all the forces that shape the lives of the characters in the film, journey from Africa by slavery is but a single strand in a cord of diasporic experiences.
The film’s aesthetics offer a sense of social space which is maintained by the predominance of medium and long shots showing Sarah and other characters existing within the context of a community space. The film’s lyrical cinematography and use of pans and dollies reinforces the sense of remembrance as juxtaposed timelines take the spectator back and forth in Sarah’s memories. Although the film resists the use of transition devices such as dissolves between timelines, it is made coherent by the use of Sarah’s narration, spoken from the perspective of a woman reconciling disjuncture between past and present experiences. Thus, memory functions as a factor in bridging dislocation created by factional violence: in order to go forward in her life, Sarah must reconstruct her memory to create perspective and initiate healing.
In a key scene near the end of the film, Sarah asks her Aunt Elide if her father was a tonton macoute in Duvalier’s government. In a striking medium shot, Elide and Sarah’s reflections are framed in the murky glass of a mirror as elide struggles to explain that her father was a naive soldier who was forced to flee when the Duvalier regime turned against him. In a frustrated response to Sarah’s persistent questioning, Elide tells her that adults don’t always know the answers themselves. Later, the shot is reprised when Sarah says that the solution is for her father and the others to return and end Duvalier’s regime. Elide covers Sarah’s mouth, ordering her to be quiet, an act that clearly implies certain things must never be spoken aloud even in private. As Sarah storms away, Elide is left staring at her own despairing reflection in the murky glass.
This sequence of shots reinforces the sense of dislocation and all-embracing terror that tore Haitian society apart. Elide’s admonition of silence to Sarah underscores a society entrapped and oppressed by secrets within secrets. Thus, Sarah’s choice to remember these terrifying and confusing events, suggests that such histories of oppression can only be reconciled by actively probing remembrance and accepting the terrible ambiguity of internecine strife as a strand of identity.
As is the case with The Man By the Shore, Salem Mekuria’s Ye Wonz Maibel/Deluge (Ethiopia/US, 1997) catalyses personal histories and complicated relationships to origin by presenting a multi-layered structure of political fact, personal memoirs, and interviews with survivors of Ethiopia’s Red Terror. Possessing a multi-narrational framework, the film is founded on three identifiable systems: Mekuria’s own complex narration, which encompasses her personal history and Ethiopia’s political one; letters from Mekuria’s brother Selomon and best-friend Negist; and witness testimony from survivors. As a subject/participant, Mekuria moves through the narrative unimpeded by the constraints of classical structure, mixing times and tenses. Her own narration takes place in the present, but, as remembrance, it is couched in the past. Although Selomon’s and Negist’s letters are used to illustrate past events, the letters are written and read in the present tense, bringing a sense of continued immediacy to their struggle. Standing at a mass grave presently being excavated, a woman survivor relives the death of her son during the Red terror, thus adding another layer to the narrative as she simultaneously unravels both her past experience and its lingering effects in the present.
The aural elements are visually illustrated by a mixture of personal photographs, newsreel footage, witness interviews, art and images of present-day Ethiopia. These also render the divisions between past and present as imaginary lines: for example, in speaking of the past struggles of Ethiopians, Mekuria underscores her point by including present-day images of Ethiopian women carrying heavy loads of wood. The overlapping nature of the above elements creates a subtly complex narrative structure which frustrates easy access by disrupting reductive linear relations of time and space. As each narrational position combines and recombines with others in the text, the spectator is empowered to question and decipher the interrelationship of the layers.
Mekuria’s own education in America and her decision to remain there during the Ethiopian revolution problematises her own relationship to origin: is she, and therefore her point of view, Ethiopian or diasporic? This is dramatized in a sequence in which Mekuria faces two video monitors as she edits the film, one revealing a rushing waterfall and the other, columns of soldiers. Over this shot, she narrates that the rosy foundations of her memories of Ethiopia were eroded as she viewed graphic images of Ethiopia’s evolving crisis from her distant home in the United States. This distance sets Mekuria apart from the events in her homeland, and shifts her point-of-view into a space that is physically and ideologically separate from those occupied by actual participants in the revolution. She legitimately questions the historical and ideological underpinnings of the revolution in a desire to bridge the gap that yawns between her experience and theirs. Thus, while it may be argued that Deluge shares certain diasporic concerns and perhaps owes its genesis in part to her location on the shores of the black Atlantic, Mekuria possesses both inscribed Ethiopian identity and an incorporated distant perception of that identity, reflecting an insoluble tension between point of origin and diasporic recollection.
Dana Inkster’s Welcome to Africville (Canada, 1999) and Colina Phillips’ Making Change (Canada, 1994) offer narratives that are located with African-Canadian experience. Rinaldo Walcott has suggested that African-Canadians share in the sense of dislocation pervasive in diasporic cultures when he observes that to be black and ‘at home’ in Canada is both to belong and not belong (1997, 136). This is certainly underscored in Phillips’ and Inkster’s films which both recoup lost histories and offer haunting portrayals of estrangement within specific Canadian cultural landscapes.
Welcome to Africville is a meditation on the role of betrayal and loss in what might be described as Africadian1 consciousness. Set on the eve of the destruction of Africville, Inkster’s film presents the community as a mythical, intellectual construct, not unlike George Elliott Clarke’s Africadia’ itself. The eradication of the community in Halifax in 1967 and the forced relocation of the population still resonates as one of the milestones of racism and arrogance in Canadian society.
Symbolically, Africville whose history dates back at least as far as 1948,2 has come to stand as a marker for the expunging of black histories in Canada. Described by Walcott as an absented presence always under erasure (1997, xiii), Canadian blackness has always had to fight for the inclusion of histories that should be accorded respect without contestation. Inkster’s film claims its place in this struggle by recouping lesbian and homosexual histories within the larger issue of Africville’s demise. The character of Dusty Dixon, a young lesbian woman, feels dislocated from her community by virtue of the ‘secrets and lies that build character in the black community. By her own admission, she has been beyond the borders of Africville, but continually returns because the community is her home. Dusty’s language, often bluntly sexual, is intended to confront the spectator with the unveiling of a history within a history which, in turn, causes a reevaluation of the psychological geography that is Africville.
The experimental aesthetics of Welcome to Africville are reflected by Inkster’s use of black and white archival and colour live-action footage. This strategy is well illustrated in a scene featuring Dusty’s sister, Mary as she recalls a drama she heard on the radio. As the story is conveyed in voice-over narration, Mary is depicted in a dream-like hand-held medium close-up as she walks to a window and pulls back the curtain. The shot then cuts to a black and white image of Africville showing a view of the community through the open window. This point o view shot connects the colour images of the live action to the archived past, thus restoring a sense of immediacy to a history that has been removed. Later, in the same sequence, Mary reveals that the subject of the story, an insane man, comes to the conclusion that the only person he can rely on is himself. This becomes a parable for the betrayal and estrangement from dominant society felt by the characters in the film. The revelation is paired with two hand-held pans that circle Mary as she stands still in the centre of the room. The dream-like floating sensation created by this camera work suggests a sense of separation from environment, underscoring the fact that equality in Canadian society is apt to be illusory for the African-Canadian community.
The ending of the film affirms that the consciousness of origin imbued in Africville survives its literal destruction. Using an archival shot of Africville’s razing, Inkster superimposes close-ups of her characters, indicating that their connection to this psychological space persists despite its erasure.3 The destruction of the physical place is incapable of eradicating the collective history of African-Canadians despite dominant society’s best efforts to deny such histories’ inclusion with Canadian experiences.
Colina Phillips’ Making Change joins Welcome to Africville in foregrounding Black Canadians as central to both the material and psychic structures of the nation, in spite of, and despite, official national denial (Walcott 1997, 143). In the film, Phillips combines memory, documentation and fiction to recreate a pivotal moment of choice in the history of her family. Set in Donkin, Nova Scotia, in 1936, the film depicts the struggle of an African-Canadian coal miner to escape the mine and pursue his gift as a musician and composer. As the film progresses, the miner becomes increasingly frustrated by the boundaries of his life and his failure to achieve his dream.
Walcott, drawing on Quincy Troupe, argues that the film is concerned with the music of geography and place (Troupe qtd. In Walcott, 142). This is certainly an apt description given the relationship between the landscapes, the sense of place and the way in which the soundtrack functions like dialogue in the film. The interrelationship of music, place and image is illustrated in the following sequence. In the first shot, the miner is depicted in long shot walking to the mine. The strong forced perspective created by a combination of the narrow road and high hedges on either side diminishes the miner’s figure and reinforces a feeling of entrapment and isolation. In the next shot, the miner is passed by a friend in a car who gives him a handbill announcing the arrival of an orchestra performing in Glace Bay. A riff of clarinet music is heard functioning as a bridge into a fantasy sequence in which the miner is on stage playing his composition for an appreciative audience. As the audience claps, the clarinet music becomes distorted and hollow, creating a transition into the next shot where the miner is depicted at work in the coal mine. The music ends with a crash of piano chords that coincides with the miner’s action of driving his pick axe into the coal in frustration. Thus, as this sequence suggests, music and image are affirmatively linked as an indicator of the miner’s psychological state, a device far more evocative than dialogue.
Faced with either accepting his life as it is or making an effort to change it, the miner chooses to take the risk and embrace his music. He is shown at the end, again isolated within a landscape, but this time he is joyfully playing his clarinet. This is not to suggest that he is reconciled to the Canadian landscape, but rather, demonstrates the resiliency and self-reliance that is the hallmark of the African-Canadian community.
The experiences presented by these film and videomakers foreground the diversity and complexity of identities in the black diaspora. It is not surprising, therefore, that origin, whether within living memory or mediated by generations of time and distance, is a site of contestation, reconciliation and recoupment. As Iain Chambers has remarked, to come from there and not here, is to live at the intersections of histories and memories, experiencing both their preliminary dispersal and their subsequent translation into new, more extensive, arrangements along emerging routes (1994, 6). The transnational space in which the black diaspora constructs and ultimately locates concepts of origin is not a static state but is, rather, a space in flux where the process of becoming is as important as the marking of where one has come from. Thus, the redefining of origin is the act of living cultures which transcend boundaries and obstacles to create unique voices of being.
1. George Elliott Clarke originated this term to combat the ongoing erasure of historical presence and cultural distinctiveness of Afro-Nova Scotians. See Moynaugh, page 71.
2. See Donald Clairmont, Africville: a Historical Overview in The Spirit of Africville.
3. It should be noted that filmmmakers comprise only a small number of the individuals and groups engaged in maintaining and documenting Africville’s history. For example, the Africville Genealogical Society, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia and other institutions and individuals are actively engaged in preserving Africville as a community and history.