WHow can the unwritten history of the experience of enslaved people be presented? And how can the fates of these people be saved from oblivion? Saidiya Hartman, a literary and cultural scholar who teaches at Columbia University in New York, thinks in her highly influential essay “Venus in Two Acts”, which was first published in 2008 and is now available in German for the first time in the small anthology “Diese bittere Erde”. about the possibilities of documenting the life of enslaved people during the crossing across the Atlantic. The starting point of the essay was her study “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route”, published a year earlier. In it, Hartman had described the fate of a girl who had been tortured to death on the British slave ship “Recovery” in 1792, probably because she had refused to dance naked for the captain. The murder of the girl further fueled the debate in England about the ban on the slave trade.
In Hartman’s account of this brutal killing and the subsequent court hearings, another enslaved girl named “Venus” is mentioned in passing: a coincidental discovery of files in the indictment against the captain of the slave ship – who was otherwise acquitted by the court. In “Venus in Two Acts” she takes up the fate of this girl again. Because it does not only refer to the physical death that many slaves suffered during the crossing. It also stands for the “social death” that the archive promotes in its inability to document black lives
Interviews with psychologists and sociological surveys
Against this background, Hartman develops the concept of “critical fabulating” in her essay. She ponders “what could have been” and begins with a made-up detail: the testimony of a sailor testifying that the two girls were friends. From there, she imagines a story of two doomed slaves spending their days on board together, finding solace in each other’s company. At the end, Venus holds her dying friend in her arms and whispers in her ear that everything will be fine.
Hartman recognizes that such a “counter-story” must seem problematic to many. She still wants to “write a fantasy story that surpasses the fictions of historiography”. And yet much of her essay consists of presenting the uncertainty about her methodological procedure.
Hartman’s intervention nonetheless made “the problem of the archive” a central issue for the study of Atlantean slavery. This was soon coupled with criticism by black feminist researchers of standard social history methods, which were deemed inadequate to convey the experiences of African and Afro-descended women in the Americas. Hartman’s most recent book makes another attempt to help depict these experiences.
#Saidiya #Hartman #Black #women #acted #established #gender #norms
Leave a Reply