November 14, 2013 John Drabinski

Trouble and Death

I’m writing and thinking about two passages. The first is an old 1920s blues and string band lyric, one that has many variations, but comes down to this turn of phrase:

If trouble don’t kill me

I believe I’ll never die

The lyric comes up a lot in profoundly sad and mournful songs, of course, but also in dance tunes. I am thinking about this lyric alongside this passage from Marisa Parham’s “Coda” to her Haunting and Displacement book.

In speaking of a population generally familiar with the facts of living too hard and dying too soon, there is nothing new in saying that narratives of mourning and loss are foundational to African-American subjectivity and, by extension, black cultural expression. Perhaps such reaping is inevitable.

These two snippets fit together in that they both begin with the notion of troublin’ not as an event in life, but the condition of African-American life itself. Trouble kills; Parham talks at the close of Haunting and Displacement about this notion of “ghetto miasma,” the idea that, folded into the 20s lyric, trouble is not just beleaguerment, but it will kill you. Life is unimaginable without trouble, so if it weren’t for troublin’, how could death even be imagined?

My interest in this pair comes back to the current essay on Naipaul and Fanon, as well as a longer set of questions that run through my readings  elsewhere of Césaire and Lamming. That is, for Naipaul and Fanon, and perhaps even at times Lamming, the Caribbean landscape is an unqualified, uncomplicated space of death. History and memory are the history and memory of the kind of massive, total troublin’ that can only mean dying too soon after a life that was much too hard. We could in this context (of Naipaul and Fanon) read the opening of Césaire’s Notebook as a kind of ur-text for this thinking; the poem begins with a terrifying set of images from the Martiniquan landscape. Césaire:

Au bout du petit matin, the extreme, deceptive desolate bedsore on the wound of the waters; the martyrs who do not bear witness; the flowers of blood that fade and scatter in the empty wind like the screeches of babbling parrots; an aged life mendaciously smiling, its lips opened by vacated agonies; an aged poverty rotting under the sun, silently; an aged silence bursting with tepid pustules, the awful futility of our raison d’être.

I quote this passage in full because it expresses the sentiment – which is really a metaphysics – of the Caribbean moment at the end of World War II and after: there is only and everywhere death, and death suffocates all possibility. Death is doubled by colonialism. That is, death is the character of the landscape and its existential effects and affects and death is the end of possibility. This is why Notebook calls for the end of the world; Césaire’s apocalyptic thinking is a response to this double effect of death.

Death is also the condition for Naipaul’s and Fanon’s conceiving the Caribbean as abject space at every level, from the detailing of the police and commodity trading in the chapter on Martinique in The Middle Passage to the ideological apparatus of language, expression, and world in the opening chapter of Black Skin, White Masks. For both Naipaul and Fanon, there is just death here (their here, the West Indies), so asking what it means to think and fashion life after colonialism – their shared postcolonial moment in the 1950s and into the 1960s – is tantamount to asking what is possible when there is only death. Nothing is possible. This is the lesson to be drawn from Naipaul’s and Fanon’s accounts of the Caribbean, leaving the former unmoored and melancholic, prompting the latter’s departure from the Americas and engagement with a wider, global struggle of the colonized where, perhaps, historical process could be conceived otherwise than death.

But is death simply the impossibility of life? Or is death also a place in which complicated, haunted, and also profoundly beautiful senses of life take root?

If trouble don’t kill me, I believe I’ll never die – this is the persistence of death and the impossibility of thinking or imagining without death. But it is also life, because it is a song that makes of death not only the quiet human beauty of a mournful blues song (could Fanon have been more wrong in describing the blues as a performance for white folks?), but also the playful, loud, shouting, sexy, hilarious, ecstatic dance of a string band tune. This, for me, suggests a way of widening – and perhaps deepening – the question of vernacular cultural forms. It’s not simply that such forms exist and have to be reckoned with (though that would be enough), but also that in many ways vernacularity (if that’s a word) is linked to death and refuses the claim that death is finality and expiration.

This brings me back to the closing paragraph of Parham’s Haunting and Displacement, where she turns to the inter-generational exchange in Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust and writes:

In the care and exuberance of her narration we might come to understand how one might meet a ghost with grace and graciousness, and how simultaneously similar and dissimilar the past must always remain, remainder, from the future…Understanding recovery, understanding how lives might again become livable after terrible events, is necessary to the interpretation of any art growing out of such events. I remember and I recall, and this too must be claimed.

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