Written by Alma Simba
Edited by Katya Zabelski
Illustrated by Sage Anifowoshe
I come to Dana through Saidiya. And Saidiya comes to Dana in relation to Venus. We all convene under a sky of grief particular to black women. Of the crushing weight of history. I pick up from where Saidiya leaves off. The archive, the futility, the resignation to language and history never being enough. Of failure as the new sky. But maybe also the new dawn.
I come across Kindred by Octavia Butler in a reference by Saidiya Hartman’s 2008 article, “Venus in Two Acts.” In the article, Hartman explores how the history of domination must be accepted by black people to try and untangle it. The article functions as a continuation of her earlier book, Lose Your Mother, where she charts the journey of the middle passage, loss, and connection to history. In “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman continues this historical reconstruction and methodological struggle when she writes of a young girl who was murdered on a slave ship with little further information cited in the records. In both, Hartman highlights the difficulty in deciphering the blankness and violence in black historical narratives, while discussing the different options in the weighted obstacle of writing black history.
There is a tendency for narratives on black history to portray suffering as brave and resilient. Black valour is therefore assumed to be obscured in both the archive and the mainstream. The understanding is that if black scholars, writers, and descendants work hard enough to look for accounts of black heroism, they can find it. But both Kindred and “Venus in Two Acts” offer no resolution nor any moral judgement of black suffering but rather a quiet acceptance of the violent history that black people, and particularly black women, have had to endure. There is no discussion of bravery or resilience in these narratives and if there are, it is alongside suffering – two sides of the same coin.
The world of suffering in Octavia Butler’s Kindred is of no argument. It has no moral value to it, it is neither good nor bad, it just is. That Butler’s novel is one of the most well-known explorations of black speculative fiction and it encourages the hope that she may use the genre to test how black suffering could have been minimised if there were tools, such as time travel, used by black descendants. Indeed, when the protagonist Dana finds herself in the 19th century Antebellum South, technological advancements such as painkillers and ink pens serve as tools to her advantage and those around her. She uses them to bring slaves at the cliff of death back to health and teaches literacy. Since Dana has travelled back in time from the 20th century, she uses her reality to protect herself. In her world of 1976, Dana’s interracial marriage is allowed and thus her relationship with her white husband offers her security from being treated like other black slaves. Additionally, she wears jeans, illustrating that she comes from a world of equality, where she can don trousers that were worn only by men.
Despite these advancements, Dana still cannot change the inevitable path of history. She suffers at the hand of the whip, her back becomes a patchwork of scars after an attempted escape. The white ancestor of hers that she is tasked with saving betrays her often in favour of the comforts and expectations granted by his status as a white man. When she openly disobeys him or the plantation rules, he allows her punishment by his plantation owner’s father and the overseer. Dana’s great-great-grandmother takes her own life, overwhelmed by the horrors of the time she is slave to. Kindred does not offer black suffering as valiant, but as an indubitable fact. In it is the message: we must accept the fate of our ancestors. As Hartman concludes in her article, “we must bear what cannot be borne: the image of Venus in chains.”
The conclusion seems grim. It seemingly encourages us to embrace failure. It also encourages the denial of the agency of the countless black fighters who escaped, hid, ran, and successfully fought for new futures. Both Butler and Hartman seem to suggest that black communities must accept a history so dark that the only option is to reside in it. On further reflection, however their conclusions seem to suggest that failure is not the let-down we think it is. By accepting that there were moments of undeniable breakdown in our history one can acknowledge the suffering of black ancestors as just that: suffering. It acknowledges that alongside crucial movements such as The Underground Railroad were innumerable instances of grief, loss, and pain. Many of these movements were fatal and seeped generations with inherited trauma. The result is a mosaic of black history: both painful and revolutionary.
Hartman and Butler are not the only ones to suggest that the grief that history leaves behind must be overcome through resignation and self-embodiment. Shola von Reinhold’s 2020 novel, Lote explores this idea through the obsession of twenty-something, Mathilda, with forgotten black queer icon, Hermia Druitt. Hermia was a member of the Bohemian ‘Bright Young Things’ group of young socialites of the 20th century. Lote explores the idea of how hallucinatory visions and deep obsession factor into the process of uncovering more about forgotten black actors. Mathilda’s entire life – both waking and subconscious – is fixated on uncovering more information about Hermia in museum catalogues, galleries, and lost books. The novel shows how the world of art history often confines influential black historical figures to the shadows and the long period of – often endless – searching that comes with trying to bring these figures into light. In attempting to explain, re-balance, and revert the violence of the archive, Lote also shows the futility of the endeavour.
These writers suggest that often the only thing to do is to submerge oneself within the archive and wait for the next generation to pick up where we left off from. In speaking into the dark emptiness of the archive we become engulfed by it. In trying to save Venus, we end up only being able to sit with her in the dark. Our history thus becomes one of imitation to the point of reincarnation. Dana is the mirror image of her fated ancestor. The black historian becomes the voiceless slave while trying to bring her back to life. There is a resurrection through self-embodiment, but death is certain still.
Hartman, Butler, and von Reinhold show that by trying to re-visit the past and correct it we are confronted with more devastation than sense. Dana was not able to do anything to stop the wheel of history from turning. She could only stand witness, provide the little solace she could to her ancestor and wait for the next generation to be born before returning to her contemporary reality and letting her genealogy unfold. Because the genealogy does unfold.
I wish I had read Kindred before beginning my career as a historian. Often, I approached narratives, visual archives, and documents as though I was Clark Kent. As though underneath my clothes was a secret, giant emblem of my superhero status. As though I could undo decades, then millennia of suffering through finding courageous ancestors in the archive. Conversely, this dream quickly became my kryptonite: the twisted realisation that I could never stand squarely against Time. Even less so against the Unknown. Of which the archive was full of when it came to those I wanted to study. But Kindred has shown how black historians, descendants, whatever we are, need not be superheroes. Sometimes all our ancestors want, all Venus wants, is for us to acknowledge them. Their voices may have been stolen but their humanity is not. Not to those who can see them. And we can still be superheroes, just by being, by surviving. We can sit with them and that can be enough.
References and Further Reading
Butler, Octavia. Kindred. New York: Doubleday, 1979.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14.
Reinhold, Shola Von. Lote. London: Jacaranda Books Art Music Ltd, 2020.
Visual Art References
Sibanda, Mary. “The Purple Shall Govern” 2013.
Gordimer, Nadine. July’s People. London: Penguin, 1982.
Cock, Jacklyn. Maids and Madams: A Study in the Politics of Exploitation. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 2001.
Alma is a writer, historian and experimental sound artist interested in both the potentials and failures of words in capturing the human experience. Her subject matter is ancestral heritage and how indigenous black Africans can communicate and explore this history through oral traditions, memory, and imagination. She has recently completed her MA in History at The University of Dar es Salaam where she is based.