By Alma Alma
Edited by Veronica Vivi
Artwork by Natasha Ruwona
Words are important for history as it is through words that history is told. So, what is the language of an untold history? It is the language of imagination, dreams, of interpretation of the tongue. For marginalised communities, history is the study of loss – a loss that is sometimes irretrievable. Without conventional historical sources, the past remains a locked door, but with an imaginative approach through a combination of personal experience, memory, and creativity there can be a re-construction of the past. With black history often found in oral traditions, folklore, and music, these stories are frequently at odds with more conventional historical practices such as written documents and official records, thus leaving them unexplored and untold. The work of black women writers such as Dionne Brand and Toni Cade Bambara shows how this hurdle can be overcome through an illustrative and imaginative writing practice.
In Dionne Brand’s novel In Another Place Not Here, Brand shows how for black women, history is a cumulative experience that moves through the body across generations. She takes the Black Power Movement in Trinidad as the central moment of the novel, which then cuts across different periods, showing the similarities of being black and alienated across time and space – from the Middle Passage, to Africa, and finally modern Canada. Through evocative diction, Brand shows how there can be a history of black lesbian women, if the conventional understandings of time and space are allowed to be bent.
In Brand’s novel, the past is something that is not easily accessible to the characters. However, just because the past is difficult to reach, it does not mean that it is impossible to access it. As a child, the main character asks her guardian to teach her what the plants around her are. These are plants that black people, and more specifically black women, traditionally used to treat illnesses, prevent pregnancy, and utilise for sustenance without access to modern medicine. The child wants to know what the names for these plants are, but her guardian refuses to tell her. The main character, thus, forges her own names for them, ‘pull and throw bush, make haste weed, jump up and kiss me flowers, waste of time plant, red berry poison, beach tree poison, draw blood leaf, stinging leaf bush, Jack Spaniard tree, wait in the road come night time bird’ (Brand 20). She innately knows the uses and the historical significance of these plants but doesn’t have the language for it – therefore she creates her own.
Similarly, in Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, as a child, the main character Velma is in the woods with her grandparents when her grandfather suffers a venomous snake bite. Her grandmother instantly gathers remedies in the bushes and leaves around them. As she is treating him, both grandparents explain the function of the natural treatments and how they work. However, this knowledge is something that Velma is sure she knows already. She claims the knowledge was passed down to her from ‘Douglass, Tubman, the slave narratives, the songs, the fables, Delaney, Ida Wells, Blyden, Dubois, Garvey, the singers, her parents, Malcolm, Coltrane, the poets, her comrades, her godmother, her neighbors had taught her that’ (Bambara 214-215). In black communal life, history is thus conceptualised as an inheritance of knowledge, and not necessarily through words alone but through other forms too: music, poetry, resistance, world-making, black predecessors, and the body. This knowledge is therefore intuitive and what remains then is the re-discovery of this knowledge that has been stored in the body and the subconscious.
In The Salt Eaters, Bambara explores the Civil Rights Movement in the American South through the theme of healing. The author explores the mystical aspect of healing, and the burden women carry as reservoirs of emotional distress for their community. In her book, Bambara shows how there is a history of the Civil Rights Movement as it is documented and narrated in the official records and one that is about the specificity of how people felt living through that time. The story shows that resistance has an emotional and spiritual toll on those fighting injustice. Bambara also explores other aspects of history such as language, and how cultural elements such as dialects and mannerisms can be preserved through literature; this applies to other aspects of culture like linguistics, shared culture, and customs which can also be explored in this manner. Through literature then, individuals can access what might otherwise be elusive: feelings, miasma, language.
Both authors explore how there are moments historical records may be too official to take note of. This is an idea that has been explored in detail by Irish feminist poet, Eavan Boland. Similarly to Bambara and Brand, Boland shows how history is often cruel to the minute details of the past. She asserts that the past and history are distinct (Boland) and that literature and creative writing can bridge the gap between the two. Assessing records and identifying what is not officially recorded allows then a dialogue between history and the past. This provides underrepresented and marginalised individuals with a liberatory practice too. For instance, Brand and Bambara show how personal gendered experiences are enmeshed into the larger political and historical narrative. Their creative practices – ranging from fiction writing to other forms of self-documentation such as film – can thus offer insight into the problem of underrepresentation, scant historical information and contribute to a more inclusive black history.
Dionne Brand asserts that she does not write towards justice but toward liberation (Brand). As black, feminist historians there can be no justice. The wrongs committed are too vast; women and intersectional experiences lost to the harshness of the record that may leave individual and collective stories in the dark no matter how much we dream. However, dreaming can bring liberation – and liberation, rather than justice, can be the aim. This possibility can also free individuals from the dichotomy of colonial, capitalist thinking that places black bodies solely as either owned/not-controlled/autonomous. Dreaming through artistic practice, thus, does not care for ownership, forgotten history or official records. Through this practice, something else can be achieved: the acknowledgement of that negative space in history through which recognition of black experiences becomes a site for potential liberation. This can be enough.
Bambara, Toni Cade. The Salt Eaters. London, Penguin Books, 2021.
Boland, Eavan. “History vs. the Past”. Poetry off the Shelf from Poetry Foundation, 13 December 2007, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/podcasts/74865/history-vs-the-past
Brand, Dionne. “Dionne Brand: Writing Against Tyranny and Toward Liberation”. YouTube, uploaded by Barnard Center for Research on Women, 20 August 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=ychlzoeeIm0
Brand, Dionne. In Another Place, Not Here. Toronto, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
Alma is passionate about words and the power they possess to tell stories. She is an MA History Fellow at The University of Dar es Salaam working on a project dealing with museums and provenance research between Germany and Tanzania. She is also a PR & Comms consultant at Kengo Tanzania. The intersection between history and writing is of great interest to her – for any queries, partnerships or comments please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org