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Our Slaves: Meditations on the Traffic of Black Bodies in Print (Part 1 of 2)


April 18, 2013

The Chicago River is swollen; and for the first time in over a century, they are allowing it to flow into Lake Michigan, the lake that provides the city’s drinking water. A fertilizer plant in Waco, Texas smolders after a violent explosion. In Copley Square, the FBI and all manner of secret and not-so-secret police tweeze every piece of trash and race bibs for clues concerning who blew up the Boston Marathon on Monday. And I, I am pulling books off my shelf looking for black bodies. On my desk lay Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Chameleon Couch, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Kevin Young’s Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, Evie Shockley’s the new black, Fred D’Aguiar’s Bloodline, and Douglas Kearney’s Fear, Some.

It seems all over the country we are looking after our dead. The recently and not-so-recently departed.


I am looking for my kin. I am looking for traffic. Specifically, I’m looking for the traffic of black bodies in print.



Where the rain comes, long-toed and crushing the grass,
swamping the land; where a slave talked his children
out of running away with the bottom of his shoe.
This is what it means to believe in ascension and fear climbing.
—Terrance Hayes, “Arbor for Butch”

November 1862

Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape’s
song of bondage—dirge in the river’s throat
where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees
choked with vines. I thought to carry with me
want of freedom though I had been freed,
remembrance not constant recollection.
Yes: I was born a slave, at harvest time,
in the Parish of Ascension; I’ve reached
thirty-three with the history of one younger
inscribed upon my back. I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.
—Natasha Trethewey, “Native Guard”

…I was in Accra
again gazing up at the vaulted cathedral ceiling
of the compound. I could see the ships at dusk
rising out of the lull of “Amazing Grace,” cresting
the waves. The governor stood on his balcony,
holding a sword, pointing to a woman
in the courtyard, saying, That one.
Bring me that tall, ample wench.
Enslaved hands dragged her to the center,
then they threw buckets of water on her,
but she tried to fight. They pinned her to the ground.
She was crying. They prodded her up the stairs. One step,
& then another. Oh, yeah, she still had some fight in her,
but the governor’s power was absolute. He said,
There’s a tyranny of language in my fluted bones…
—Yusef Komunyakaa, “Cape Coast Castle”


In a previous blog post for Harriet, one that sought to speculate darkly, I used the term "Hayes’s slave" to denote the difference between an actual enslaved African in the American South and one that is a writerly construction or imaginative fabrication upon the part of Terrance Hayes, the poet. I performed this speech-act because it is important to distinguish between imaginative renderings of slavery and the artifact or history of slavery—though I would argue that both are linguistically constructed. It’s also important to note that Hayes’s (like Trethewey’s and Komunyakaa’s) construction occurs in the twenty-first century. These twenty-first century renderings of slavery are private ruminations made public through the economies of publishing and language. They are made for us. In other words, what I hoped to presence with the term "Hayes’s slave" in the previous blog posts is the way in which Hayes appropriates (and I do not mean this term negatively) the archive of slavery for the purpose of our viewing (reading) pleasure. I say pleasure because as a reader we are in the position of spectator. And if we follow the roots of the word spectator back to its origins, that a spectator is one who decides what is beautiful, then Hayes puts us and we put ourselves in the position of the decider (to borrow a George Bush-ism). We, as the reader, decide what is beautiful. Thus, all the print on the page moves at our will and whim. And concomitantly, we participate in the trafficking of black bodies across the page. We—Hayes, you, and I—are participating in a transaction, one that is akin to the transactions that black bodies shuttled across the Atlantic encountered when they arrived on shores in North America, South America, and the Caribbean and were bought and sold on auction blocks, in bars and court houses. However, in this transaction, a corporeal black body is not bought but a printed one and sometimes many printed ones at once.


When I speak of pleasure, I am not thinking of pleasure in the sense of titillation, though there is a bit of that in this conversation as well. When I write that we take pleasure in the renderings of black bodies in print, I mean that we “enjoy” them. This notion of enjoyment comes from the legal notion of what it is to enjoy one’s property: one can use the property (book, shovel, cow) as one sees fit. Black’s Law Dictionary defines enjoy as the ability “to have, possess, and use with satisfaction; to occupy or have the benefit of.” In reading about slavery, particularly in the aforementioned poems, we, as the reader and / or purchaser of the poem (or book) “have the benefit of” the book. We possess the poem; we read the poem or don’t read the poem at our leisure. Regardless, the poem is passively waiting for us to do with it what we want. Concomitantly, the black bodies in the poems are waiting for us “to have” or “to possess” them as well.

Here, I am thinking with and through Saidiya Hartman’s first chapter in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. In Scenes of Subjection, Hartman discusses the way in which abolitionists received pleasure from black bodies on stage, in anti-slavery pamphlets, and other abolitionist ephemera. You might wonder how it is that abolitionists took pleasure in black bodies being that the abolitionist endeavor, that of freeing captive Africans, seems to contradict the impulse of pleasure. Hartman explains that it was possible for abolitionists to gain pleasure from captive black bodies because of the fungibility of the commodity, the fungibility of captive black bodies. Fungibility, quite simply, means the ability to be exchanged. Because the captive body can be bought, sold, and traded (also known as the fungibility of the commodity), the captive body is “an abstract and empty vessel vulnerable to the projection of others’ feelings, ideas, desires, and values; and as property, the dispossessed body of the enslaved is the surrogate for the master’s body since it guarantees his disembodied universality and acts as the sign of his power and domination." You’re probably like “hold up, buddy; neither a writer nor a reader are slave masters.” Or, you might be asking, “Where is he going with this? Ain’t nobody got time for that.” In the words of Jericho Brown, I would ask you to give a man a minute.

Let’s start with the beginning of Hartman’s quote—the notion that the captive body is an abstract and empty vessel. As Hartman explains rather beautifully and succinctly, the enslaved black body is a site of enjoyment; the captive black body is a body whose aegis is taken and manipulated by another. However, the captive body is not just at the aegis of those who do it harm, it also at the aegis of those that might wish otherwise, those who might wish to distance themselves from the harm of the captured body. In other words, the captive black body can become the site of multiple violences. Hartman cites a letter by John Rankin, an abolitionist, as an example of the fungibility of the black body. In a letter to his slave-holding brother, Rankin describes watching a coffle pass him by. A coffle is an extension of the Middle Passage. It is the parading of slaves to the auction block from either the ship or from one plantation to another. Often, slaves were made to step lively, dance, and grin if they were heading to the auction block because no one wants buy a sad body (object? human?). Rankin describes the horror of watching this display. Hartman draws our attention to the way in which Rankin re-stages the coffle for his brother as a means of producing a transformation in the way in which his brother viewed slavery. By extending humanity to the captive body, Rankin sought to convince his brother that these slaves were indeed people. However, he extends humanity to these captive bodies through a radical embodiment, through wedding his body and subjectivity to that that of the enslaved. Rankin writes: “My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed under the reign of terror. I began to in reality to feel for myself, my wife and children—the thoughts of being whipped at the pleasure of a morose and capricious master, aroused the strongest feelings of resentment…" While his sentiment is well-meaning and his goal laudable—the freeing of his brother’s slaves, Rankin appropriates the captive body for his own purpose. Despite his good intentions, through his imagining, his radical embodiment, a type of radical identification, Rankin projects his feelings into the abstract vessel of the captive body. In fact, he produces its abstraction through his epistolary imagining. And it’s not until he does this radical imagining that he’s “persuaded” of the horrors of slavery. It’s not until he can refashion the terror of slavery to include his own wife and children that he’s able to understand the banality of the violence that slaves encounter daily. Black, captive bodies are not allowed their own, particular circumstance. They must become him. He must possess them.

In this way, Rankin traffics in black bodies. However, unlike his brother, he traffics in these bodies via print (his letter), via his imagination (affect) which leads us to the question: are all such trafficking abstracting the black, captive body? What are the ethics of trafficking in blackness, particularly when one considers the fraught relationship black bodies have with the history of language and economies? What violence do we or don’t we, as poets, reproduce or re-iterate in the imagining and recapitulation of slavery? As Saidiya Hartman argues, do we produce or re-iterate the fungibility of the black body and its attendant violence for the pleasure of the spectator, the reader? And is that pleasure, that enjoyment necessarily unethical, or dare I say immoral?

Originally Published: April 24th, 2013

Roger Reeves's poems have appeared in journals such as PoetryPloughshares, American Poetry ReviewBoston Review, and Tin House, among others. Kim Addonizio selected “Kletic of Walt Whitman” for the Best New Poets 2009 anthology. He was awarded a 2013 NEA Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation in 2008, two Bread Loaf Scholarships, an Alberta H....