November 19, 2013 John Drabinski

Sighs and history

The meaning of Caribbean history is too much for any single post, to say the least (ha), but let me reflect here on with two signature moments in theorizing the Black diaspora. At the 1956 Paris Congress, where Fanon delivered his “Racism and Culture” essay, Alioun Diop makes an important set of remarks. Diop remarks that history has “dishonored” black communities, not simply through the systematic violence of four and a half centuries of slavery and colonialism, but also because the meaning and significance of history has always been at stake and the European theorists of history have dominated the narrative that consigns only abjection to Africa and the diaspora. “[W]ere it not for the fact that this History, with a capital H, was the unilateral interpretation of the life of the world by the West all along,” Diop writes, perhaps the historical meaning of black people could be different.

Of course it’s just that difference that the 1956 Congress wants to begin, following the Bandung Conference one year earlier, which focused so firmly on questions of politics and global South alliance, with a robust cultural program(me) informed largely by the metaphysics of Négritude.

We could say that Diop’s remark, framed by Négritude’s epistemology of forgetting and retrieval, induces a sort of sigh. A sigh in the sense that he wants us to stop, consider the damage of the West’s story of History, and exhale at the thought of what could have been for people of African origin (Diop’s appeal in unifying the diaspora). Sighing over the thought for forgetting. Perhaps sighing as the work of retrieval begins.

What is a sigh? We know the physical act. We inhale and we exhale. But sighing is so much more; it tells its own story, full of affect. The sigh is mournful, full of longing. For what does the sigh long? What is the sigh in the New World context? Diop’s remark on History with a capital H is the perfect embodiment of the sigh of Négritude. The violence of European historiography dishonors black history, that much is clear. This violence and dishonor, which induces forgetting in the diaspora at the level of writing and imagination, ought, for Diop, induce a companion longing for the Old World. But of course neither Fanon nor Naipaul sigh over the ruins of the Americas. There is no mourning or longing that leads down the path of retrieval. There is rather the absoluteness of beginning (Fanon) and the irreducible, unaddressable melancholy of estrangement (Naipaul). Fanon derides the search for a great black past in Black Skin, White Masks as a nostalgia born of the flight from neurosis. Naipaul reads the Ramleela as a sad trace, a kind of cry into the abyss.

Derek Walcott’s “The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory” also begins with the question of the sigh of History, and in the rejection of the sigh – or even just noting that it does not sound in the Caribbean – joins Fanon and Naipaul in throwing a deep skepticism over claims to great, retrievable civilizational pasts. Walcott writes:

The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts. (“The Antilles,” 68)

In this moment, Walcott cleaves an important space between what Glissant and Benítez-Rojo call “continental” and “archipelagic” thinking. The sigh of History arises from thinking diaspora on the model of a continent, with natural and firm borders that contain a people. But Walcott, in a clear address to Naipaul, of course goes further when he writes:

Looking around slowly, as a camera would, taking in the low blue hills over Port of Spain, the village road and houses, the warrior-archers, the god-actors and their handlers, and music already on the sound track, I wanted to make a film that would be a long-drawn sigh over Felicity. I was filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India, but why ‘evocations’? Why not ‘celebrations of a real presence’? Why should India be ‘lost’ when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not ‘continuing,’ why not the perpetuation of joy in Felicity and in all the other nouns of the Central Plain…?” (“The Antilles,” 68-69)

The claim here is straightforward, but with enormous consequences: without the lure of the sigh (longing is its own kind of comfort and restoration), there is the pleasure of performance. For Walcott, and he catches himself here oscillating between repudiating the sigh and falling back to it in a quasi-colonial habit, the festival is its own event. It refers only to itself, which means, in this case, the pleasure of the song, the costumes, the words, the dialects, the vernaculars, the creolizing food and dance – that is, life itself in this landscape as home.

While Walcott complements Fanon and Naipaul in the repudiation of the sigh of History, and so distances himself too from Diop’s imagination of liberating Black people from History as European historiography, he also suggests something quite provocative. The sigh of History might also function as a ghost in Fanon’s and Naipaul’s work, disclosing, perhaps, a trace of colonialism still at work in each. Perhaps the sigh of History still functions as a regulative ideal, making it possible to understand the terms of cultural success (producing or being unable to produce what’s worth longing for) and cultural failure (abject landscape, “nothing was created here”) and, in turn, framing vernacular forms of cultural production as derivative, imitative, and degraded versions of a larger civilizational force. Fanon and Naipaul respond to this failure of the sigh of History very differently; radical optimism is very different than wandering melancholy, of course. But it does make me wonder if in fact Fanon and Naipaul share not only an account of the Caribbean as a landscape of death and abjection, but also a quiet concession to the demands of colonial historiography in affirming the demand for something enormous like civilizational force to both frame an understanding of and a going beyond failed nostalgia,  abject landscape, and the strange Fanonian vision of a future of the unprecedented. Colonialism here would function as a kind of transcendental field, delineating the conditions for the possibility of the full range of critical, decolonial, and postcolonial thinking. Perhaps. And if this is right, and we set aside Naipaul’s legacy for a moment, then we have to wonder if and how it might it overturn our popular imagination of Fanon? A colonized Fanon? Unimaginable. And yet.

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