Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Return to the Black (W)hole: Mitigating the Trauma of Homelessness in Sutton E. Griggs's "Imperium in Imperio"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

A Return to the Black (W)hole: Mitigating the Trauma of Homelessness in Sutton E. Griggs's "Imperium in Imperio"

Article excerpt

    The Middle Passage, this inevitable process--drifting?--from a lost    origin to a forced destination, is an in-between space, the place of the    motion from home to hell, from a lost homeland to (in)hospitable lands    that must become home...    --Claudine Raynaud (1)  

The abolition of plantation slavery in 1865 heralded a period of optimism for African Americans, as they sought not only to reconnect with their estranged kin but also to establish their own homes in the vastness of America's terrain. As Carla L. Peterson conveys in Doers of the Word: African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880), antebellum black leaders trusted that the Civil War would "promise a new era in which all African Americans would finally achieve full civil rights and forge that local place which had been denied them by the historical experiences of the Middle Passage, slavery and institutional racism" (196). Yet, the persistence of racial terrorism in fin-de-siecle America impeded blacks' efforts to gain political and social agency. Despite the 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted citizenship and equal protection under the law for all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and despite African Americans' subsequent acquisition of seats in state legislatures, the question of national belonging prevailed. African Americans essentially confronted the paradox of whether the "nation itself might become home" (196) or whether their alienation and status as "unprotected foreigner[s] in [their] own home[s]" would endure infinitely. (2)

African Americans' struggles to terminate their sense of homelessness were traumatic. Ron Eyerman explains that the white American public's rejection of its black brethren during the post-emancipation era was "traumatic not only because of crushed expectations, but also because it necessitated a reevaluation of the past and its meaning regarding individual and collective identity" (24). In Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity, he maintains:

    Many blacks and a few whites had believed that reconstruction    would, if not eliminate entirely race as a basis for identity, at    least diminish its significance, as former slaves became citizens    like other Americans and the caste system associated with servitude    disappeared. This was now clearly not the case, making it necessary    to reevaluate the meaning of the past and the options available in    the future. Once again it would be necessary to attempt to    transform tragedy into triumph with the uncovering of new    strategies in the struggle for collective recognition, in the face    of the threat of marginalization. (24)  

One of the strategies that African Americans employed in their pursuit of national acceptance was the attainment of education; they "concentrat[ed] on basic literacy and moral education, as well as the practical skills associated with good workmanship" (Eyerman 27). Nevertheless, as Eyerman suggests, they reflected on the history of the black experience to mitigate more effectively the crisis of citizenry and to devise new tactics for their collective survival. Conceivably, these moments of contemplation led them back beyond plantation slavery to the Atlantic slave trade and the experience of the Middle Passage. For it was in this "in-between space" that Africans formed a black community, however tenuous at that time, which extemporized modes of resistance to New World oppression.

In their efforts to fashion innovative campaigns to ward off the "threat of marginalization," African Americans followed the example of Africans who suffered the Middle Passage by strengthening, where they already existed--and, where they did not exist, formulating--new bonds of kinship predicated on their Africanness. Genevieve Fabre speculates in "The Slave Ship Dance" that the shipmates held hostage in the holds of transatlantic slavers determined that regardless of tribal affiliations, an "African identity had to be proclaimed when it was most threatened. …

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