1. It was at first difficult for me to connect with the arc of Coleman’s narrative, mostly for the reasons Melanie outlined with Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence:” since Coleman’s “rage was a lifetime deep,” it took describing various, at times disjointed life events and observations to articulate the pain she accrued over decades in Watts (248). The easier story to digest is one of simply a few days of chaos and flames. On a second read, I was struck by the way Coleman structured the arc of this slow violence that I thought could be relevant to how we choose to structure our collection/project.
She laid out how interpersonal and systemic iterations of racism slowly worked their way into her consciousness. As a young child, she was first struck by the personal, immediate effects of this violence, teachers giving preferential treatment to the white peers who called her “nigger” on the playground, while the concept of racism itself was somewhat beyond her, “amorphous, eluding [her] preadolescent expression” (249). Then, as a wave of disaffected Texan and Southern African Americans enveloped her class, she became overwhelmed by the “ignorance and race hate that smothered [her] love of learning” (250). After she begins to understand how these feelings impact a larger group beyond the individual, her understanding of the ‘slow violence’ moves to the systemic as she notices how funding is cut from her school and “Calculus, Greek, Latin, and Journalism were among the classes that disappeared from the curriculum” (254). Her description of Watts ‘65 is surprisingly brief, focused more on her personal upheaval and newfound expression than any attention-grabbing headline events. Her chronicling of slow violence evolves on the next page as she graduates from observations about her school system to South LA as a whole, observing widespread “economic disparity -as the unresolved issues of redlining, police brutality, poverty, and drugs continued to fester, and new, more voracious, youth gangs sprang from the asphalt” (255). We gain a broader and more nuanced understanding of the slow violence attending her community through Coleman’s evolution and broadening of scope over years of life experience.
I thought this move could be instructive for structuring a type of narrative or frame within our project: moving from personal understanding, out to understanding of group and small systems, then out to the broader political and socio-economic factors at play in Watts ‘65. Perhaps we could start with stories from ‘65 or current day like Anthony’s and Kevin’s, ones of specific personal struggles under the weight of slow, systemic, even bureaucratic violence, then zooming out to glimpse the larger systems at work which produce this slow violence? Just a thought.
2. As far as the mechanics of Hartman’s project to link a “counter history” of past events or individuals to a “history of the present,” I think it’s important to consider the questions she raises early on about enacting any kind of narrative structure around past events separate from the often sinister narrative of the archive that is intertwined with the “play of power” that in this case “murdered Venus and her shipmate and exonerated the captain” (10-11). Is crafting a narrative “its own gift and its own end” and when we do craft it, is it “for us or for them” (3)? This kind of critical self-reflection is key when enacting this kind of counter history using the tools of narrative. Hartman does stress emphatically that her intent is “not to give voice to the slave” but to advance “a series of speculative arguments…in fashioning a narrative, which is based on…a critical reading of the archive” based on the narrative structures and “figurative dimensions of history” (12, 11). This seems to involve an imaginative reconceptualization of her murdered Venus, what Amirhossein Vafa calls a “proleptic narrative,” in which one imagines what could have been possible had a subaltern voice not been silenced or made object (39). Hartman stresses that her narrative is instructive in creating the space for discussion regarding the silencing of this theoretical narrative, noting that she “intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.” (11)
The mechanics and applications of this counter history were frankly a little unclear to me. In a particularly academic way, at least to me, Hartman provides a lengthy preamble, justification, dissection, defense, and partial dismissal of her own imagining of a life for Venus. After composing it, she had to admit that all she really wanted was to console herself and “escape the slave hold with a vision of something other than the bodies of two girls settling on the floor of the Atlantic” (9). However, at the same time, she wonders out loud if “by retreating from the story of these two girls, was I simply upholding the rules of the historical guild and the ‘manufactured certainties’ of their killers, and by doing so, hadn’t I sealed their fate?” (10). After further mining the depths of her doubts, Hartman settles on this consolation, which seems to provide the most appropriate framework for enacting a narrative like this: “If this story of Venus has any value at all it is in illuminating the way in which our age is tethered to hers” since for her “a history of the present strives to illuminate the intimacy of our experience with the lives our now as it is interrupted by” or, at the very least, informed by “this past” (13, 4). In constructing this imagined past, Hartman seeks to speak to the violence, the erasure of black female voices both in our past and in our present. If by providing all of that context, she can clarify the goals of such an endeavor, it can (perhaps) rise above the status of fantasy or wish fulfillment for her audience.
Outside Work Cited:
Vafa, Amirhossein. “Call Me Fedallah: Reading a Proleptic Narrative in Moby Dick.”
Leviathan 16.3 (2014): 39-56. MLA. Web. 15 Jan. 2016.
3. The Jet article on the lynching of Emmett Till provides a far more detailed counter history to its brief, detached equivalent in the New York Times. Other than the use of the word “slain” to describe Emmett Till’s death, the New York Times article seems to go far out of its way to sanitize and thoroughly decontextualize the incident from any history of violence against black bodies. Conspicuously absent are both the historical and emotional details used in the Jet article to incense their predominantly African American audience. The Jet article notes that this was the first lynching in the U.S. in four years, it provides strongly worded statements from the NAACP, the governor of Mississippi, a local newspaper editor, and the boy’s mother, and it gave gut-wrenching detail about the boy’s disfigured body along with the horrific image of his recovered body. In light of the Jet article, the brief blurb from the New York Times not only seems to downplay the numbers of mourners at his open casket funeral (though the true number in attendance could have been closer to the Time’s 10,000 than Jet’s 600,000, the NYT inclusion of the descriptor “mourners and curious” seems almost forcefully dismissive), it seems to subtly imply with its syntax that the boy “had it coming” when it notes that the body was found “three days after he reportedly whistled at a white woman in a Money store” (S9). Without the Jet article as a contemporary counter history, the myopic suppression of Emmett Till’s story might have succeeded in its erasure of the widespread impact of this event.