Week #1:Counter History

Hartman states, “…by re-presenting the sequence of events in divergent stories and from contested points of view, I have attempted to jeopardize the status of the event, to displace the authorized account, and to imagine what might have happened or might have been said” (11). In many ways the Jet article is doing exactly this, it is attempting to displace an authorized account. It serves as a counter history to the Times article because it is a revisiting and revision of the accounts otherwise told of Emmet’s murder. One can easily see the differences in the articles from the language utilized to the images or lack thereof. The Jet article disrupts the narrative most notably with images that offer everyone the opportunity to, in a sense, reconstruct the past by looking into the casket. 

Week 1: Saidiya Hartman’s Critical Fabulation

Though I initially dismissed the spectral presence of “speculation” in Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts (believing I was under the influence of my own recent engagements with speculative fiction, the speculative turn, the speculative solution to the problem of correlationalism), she explicitly names it towards the end of her piece:

Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive? By advancing a series of speculative arguments and exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities), in fashioning a narrative, which is based upon archival research, and by that I mean a critical reading of the archive that mimes the figurative dimensions of history, I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling (emphasis mine, 11).

Week 1 Prompts

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.

Wanda Coleman’s “The Riot Inside Me”

In The Riot Inside Me, Wanda Coleman’s understanding of space and place in South-Central Los Angeles constitutes a distinct power dynamic which works to systematically oppress the Watts community. For instance, Coleman frequently describes her community, as well as her place in it, in spatial terms. While offering information about her father and mother, she states that they, “hung on the periphery” of a select social circle “of coloreds who had seemingly gained entree into the White world” (248). Here, Coleman observes socially constructed, and internalized, boundaries which work to define her family, the community, and the “White world”. Not only are her parents detached from the “White world”, but they are also only affiliated through peripheral contact with a few people, Coleman refers to as “coloreds,” who have “gained entree.” This understanding of the social ladder depicts a hierarchy among the community which favors the “White world,” as those who have access to it are a select few who possess a certain skill; she refers to these members as the “talented tenth” (Coleman 248). Of her life outside the home, Coleman states that she “lived in a White world” where she had little agency over her own place in space. She states, “The hands of teachers — females — were rough as they snatched my forearms to move me away from one spot or to another, one place to another, without any explanation except ‘You belong over here.'” (249). In this instance Coleman is literally being transferred from place to place, or from “one spot . . . to another” and specifically told where she “belongs” by “White authorities” (249). In this way, social and physical constructs of space determined by “White authorities,” in the case of Coleman in grade school, and internalized by the black community demonstrated by Coleman’s explanation of her parents in relation to the community, play a major role in maintaining power-positions between marginalized communities and dominant authority figures. In examining the conditions of Watts, and the uprising of 1965, the dense population of the community of South-Central with its lack of space, the displacement of Black communities by means of Mexican immigrants (as identified by Coleman), and the “restricted housing” which Coleman argues, “crippled their chances for economic stability” are all factors which contribute to the systematic oppression of the Black community in Los Angeles.
Moving forward, it is important to realize ways in which space is not neutral, and how the way it is designated, controlled, manipulated by those in power, and sequentially internalized. This is something that cannot be ignored when understanding the Watts Uprising and the community in Watts today. Questions to consider further would be: How does designating a certain space as a “Food Desert” tell a narrative which does an injustice to a community? What kind of narrative does the spatial of positioning of bodies in Jorja Leap’s video tell?  

¶ Week 1: Questions

1.) There has been a lot of talk recently about “slow” movements: the slow food movement; slow scholarship; the slow professor; the slow university. At a distance from these discourses lies Rob Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” (see Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor). While Nixon is focused on environmental projects and disasters (Bhopal etc.), I kept thinking of the concept as I read Wanda Coleman (and listened to Anthony and Kevin). One of the challenges of responding politically to or organizing to address the negative developments that occur in neighborhoods and communities is that they often occur slowly and incrementally (and thus, in some ways, invisibly). And one of the most effective aspects of Coleman’s narrative is the way she reminds us of the obvious (but often forgotten) fact that large-scale historical events and developments are often experienced, as if, in slow motion as lives slowly unravel. What struck you about the way she weaves together the story of a neighborhood, a community, and her own life story? Are there some early lessons from her story and from the stories of Anthony and Kevin (though very different) that we might adopt provisionally as protocols/adages to inform our work on this project?