Reading the Painterly Text: Clarence Major's "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage."

Article excerpt

Many writers of the black diaspora have embarked upon figurative journeys to the troubled waters of the Middle Passage in their poetry, fiction, and criticism. Their attempts to wrest meaning from this historical site of terror speak to a compelling identification of the Middle Passage as the originary moment of the black diasporic migration. In his well-known modernist poem "Middle Passage" (1945), Robert Hayden presents a redemptive critique of the past through a melange of imagined voices that ultimately articulates a passage through suffering to affirmation. More recently, in her widely acclaimed novel Beloved (1987), Toni Morrison turns to the Middle Passage to chart the possibilities for individual and communal agency in the face of radical dislocation and systematic terror. Charles Johnson's controversial postmodern allegory of African American history, Middle Passage (1990), places its protagonist on a mid-Atlantic voyage that radically alters his conception of personal identity, leading him to understand the self as fluid rather than fixed, formed by each person's confrontation with an Other. Finally, in an important recent critical work, Black Atlantic (1993), Paul Gilroy attempts to "rethink modernity" through the history of the black Atlantic, seeing in its process of "cultural mutation and restless (dis)continuity" a challenge to established categorizations of history and nationalist definitions of culture (2). Contrasting with traditional narratives of the search for origins in some utopian or prelapsarian past, these figurative returns to the troubled history of the Middle Passage are suggestive of black writers' continuing struggle with issues of identity and representation in their art.

In "The Slave Trade: View from the Middle Passage" (1994), Clarence Major makes his own distinctive voyage across the Atlantic in a poem that is devastating in its attack on the discourse of empire and subtle in its analysis of the difficulties inherent in the project of fashioning an identity through art. In contrast to the "speakerly text" Henry Louis Gates describes as characteristic of fiction growing out of the African American folk idiom, Major's poetry typically offers instead what might be called a "painterly text" - one that presents readers with a complex collage of historical, literary, and philosophical allusions, street talk, cartoons, puns, folk tales, children's songs, advertising slogans, and references to international locales. A talented painter as well as a writer, Major has recently described himself as "a visual thinker," one who tends to "make connections between things more on the basis of visual associations than verbal or logical ones" (McCaffery and Kutnik 132). Building its critique through images drawn from specific art works and from repeated themes in Western iconography, "The Slave Trade" draws heavily on Major's technique of associative collage to document European culture's normalization of its own history of conquest through the representation of black people in a hierarchical history of progress. By drawing upon actual works of art to illustrate the various ways in which blackness has been framed by the designs of others and by offering its own reconfigurations of specific European landscapes, Major's poem ultimately raises difficult questions about representation, self-expression, and the emancipatory potential of art, while simultaneously delineating the special province of the "painterly text."

I. "Hope, Hope, Fallacious Hope / Where is Your Market, Now?"

- J. M. W. Turner, from a poem displayed with his painting

The Slave Ship (1840)(1)

Charting a dizzying route over three continents and several time periods, "The Slave Trade" is composed of four major sections that move from the African past, to Europe, to the Americas, and, finally, to the present-day United States. From this comprehensive vantage point the poem attempts to negotiate the crisscrossing conceptual routes of a triangular trade whose operating principles are Christianity, commerce, and colonialism. …