'Unsayable secrets' of diaspora's bodily history
Of the many recognitions that rush to mind as I read NourbeSe Philip’s thirst-quenching essay, the boldest is the memory of a woman who, at a gathering of writers and scholars not many years ago asked me, in a hotly confidential tone, “but, Mecca, do black people really read?” She was a white woman much older than me, one who I knew, and who was very comfortable with her own relationship to words. Three facts about that moment burst forward as I read “Wor(l)ds Interrupted”: that I do not remember how I responded to the question, that I felt a furious block in my throat and body at its asking, and that the fury of that silence has shaped my dealings with language since.
Philip’s essay names that fury, gives it flesh, and lays out its work in the world. “Wor(l)ds Interrupted” breaks down the silence that surrounds black diasporic letters, and links it to a fleshy history that acts, moves, and speaks today. Black language, she shows, is written in ambivalence — in a vexed relationship to a form of expression that on one hand, no matter its purposes, “is always doing another function … proving your personhood,” and that on the other hand, extends from a history in which literacy itself is illicit, illegal, and dangerous. By remapping Caribbean history onto the corporeal, kinetic dimensions of Afrodiasporic experience, she shows how the fury of silencing abides within black language, and how any response — “literate” or otherwise, “legible” or not — is a railing against History’s continuing violences against Afrodiasporic humanity.
Here, this railing takes shape in the linguistic reconstruction of history’s body, and the forms through which histories can be told. Philip concurs with the logic of scholars like Kamau Brathwaite who, as she puts it, “insists thatwe do not speak in iambic pentameter nevrhavnevrwill that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks …” Yet for Philip, Caribbean language’s resistance to Western literary conceits is a form in itself, one that “explodes” the meaning of linguistic/literary form by highlighting its inseparability from motion, movement, and corporeality. Thus, to Ezra Pound’s pantheon of legible poetic structures (which includes melopoeia as the influence of music, phanopoeia as the presence of the visual, and logopoeia as the place of memory in poetic hermeneutics), Philip demands that we “add kinopoesis” to account for the movements and experiences of bodies as a central presence in black diasporic literary texts. Scratching past Pound’s prescriptive notions of “How to Read,” Philip reveals “a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin” of Afrodiasporic history. This poetics of movement reconfigures Pound’s “ordering of language” by subsuming each of its elements into the black body. It reveals the literate within black music, rewrites visual iconography of blackness, and does its work through and upon history’s persistent memory.
Philip’s kinopoeia is the dangerous, unspoken answer to the question of “How to Read” black language and literacy. It is the voice within what appears as black silence, a voice that, in its supposed illiteracy or illegibility, articulates the “unspeakable” places of death, violence, and impossible humanity in the living history of the African diaspora. Caribbean syncretic languages; black readers’ ambivalence toward the vexed necessity of literature; and black writers’ noncomformity to “the yambic pant pant panta meter” (a phrase that links the privileging of iambic pentameter to both the erotic and reproductive commodification of black bodies and the breathless silencing of black people) are all parts of Afrodiasporic unwriting of Western form.
Philip approaches this unwriting by recreating history as a craft tool. History, in Philip’s cartography, is both person and persona, figure and form. Taking as her point of departure the moment of Europe’s contact with Africa, when “History stopped dead in its tracks … took a deep breath then continued changed forever,” she opens space for another vision of History, one in which its use as a proper noun can reflect not only its Western imperial authority, but also its status as a character capable of choice, and of change. Like diasporic letters, this History is ambivalent, ambiguous, and inextricably linked to the body. Through an authoritative third-person voice, we are presented with the image of “the blank indifferent face,” but are also met with that face’s ability to “reflect … the linguistic distortions of the kari basin” and the diaspora.
Through this kinopoetic personification, Philip’s History can outreach third-person narrative authority and be absorbed into Philip’s first-person black woman voice. Her story begins as competing “scripts and histories” clash around the Caribbean,
Exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked
against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead … here History stopped
dead in its tracks hiccupped took a deep breath then continued changed
tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption of eruption
and irruption from explosion and plain ole ruckshun so I was thinking
to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the
experience (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in
syncopated time) a second violence it retraumatizing in today’s tongue
so the contradictions hanging right out there
When Philip’s ungendered, past-tense History stops “dead in its tracks,” it gives way to a woman figure, who “tries her tongue” at speaking history into the present tense. This female voice is an “irruption” into a dominant masculinist, patriarchal narrative of imperialism, separated from its former self by a full (though fractured) line of white space, but proceeding along the horizontal plane of the page nearly without pause. The feminine voice of History quickly becomes Philip’s own narration, as, speaking through History’s first person, she explains linguistic violence against Caribbean people from her perspective as a black Caribbean woman — a speech act that corrects the very historical miswriting it names.
By subsuming History’s body into a black female voice tuned against hegemonies of form, Philip draws connections between historical linguistic violences and those violences’ most silenced objects — black women’s bodies. She creates a History whose “tongue” works not only against white linguistic dominance, but also as “a tributary that can contain the blachisseuse the washer woman the higgler the jamette the obeah woman and mad bad black witches a tributary coming from dis place the space between /me myself and i ’n i …” In eschewing mono-vocal narration, disavowing the primacy of pentameter, and toppling the sacred “order” of European language, she makes space not only for what Brathwaite calls “the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean,” but also for black womanhoods silenced by imperialism and patriarchy alike. Her irruptive poetics hails the quick-talking woman “higgler” (a British term used to describe market traders in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean); the defiant “blachisseuse” (from “blanchisseuse,” a term for French washer-women and the name of the village in former French colony Trinidad notoriously impossible to settle because of its corrugated terrain); and the simultaneous sexual autonomy and sexual objectification of the “jamette,” which Philip defines elsewhere as “A ‘loose’ woman, a woman of loose morals whose habitat is the street” (so called for “jambette,” the French term for “legs” or “leggy”). All these figures become part of the multivocal chorus of “mad bad black” women from whose perspective Philip’s first-person voice re-speaks the history of black diasporic language.
As she turns to locate her own work in history’s maelstrom of misreadings of blackness, Philip’s voice becomes the voice of all these figures, and of the free-moving legs, elusive tongues, and unconquerable bodies they hail. And if we understand “dis place the space between” as Philip does in her groundbreaking essay of that title, as the space between black female legs, we see the way of Philip’s words as a “tributary” to unvoiced diasporic histories coming straight from their capacious, inaudible, furious sources. Or, more precisely, from black women’s wor(l)ds themselves.
So, with Philip’s closing reminder of the unspeakable erasure of black linguistic being “today,” I feel invited to read all this as the answer to that conference participant’s throat-choking question. The question of whether black people “really read” is a question of whether black people in the diaspora really write, really speak, or should bother to — a question about whether black languages can exist and matter in History’s grand scheme. To all of these questions, Philip delivers a guttural “yes,” unmissable and unmistakable by those who care to learn to hear it.
3. See NourbeSe Philip’s “Dis Place The Space Between” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Christianne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 290.