Blackness, a Haunted History

Three Kings Day Festival, Havana, Cuba, ca. 1850. (Credit: www.slaveryimages.org)

Historians generally frame their writing and research around the notion of change over time, assuming that time moves forward. But as a scholar of slavery who is also the descendant of African slaves, I do not experience the passage of time as linear. Instead, the ghosts of slavery haunt my present, forming an open-ended and ongoing history of life and death.  

The rituals, folklore, and music of African Diasporic peoples reveal how Black folks experience and describe time in nonlinear ways. This archive presents an opportunity for developing historical methodology that is equally dynamic as it is ethical. It forces us to confront the metaphysics of linear progressive time that sits as the unspoken assumption of History, a hangover of its Enlightenment Era (re)emergence as a modern discipline. A recalibration to the looping nature of time foregrounds Black Studies as a project of urgency–attuned to the plight of Black people from all times and places.

The conception of change over time rests upon an implicit premise that time’s passage is experienced as a linear progression. Change happens over time in this formulation because time figures as a stable staging ground for human activity. Plotted on a timeline oriented towards the future, history is constrained to narrate through the modality of change.

Circular notions of time are not entirely foreign to the West. Hours, days, and months rotate through on endless loops. But we number our years abstractly within a sequence of addition. Progressive annual calendars structure our conception of time as a partable quantity and encourage us to make differentiations and distinctions between year-number coordinates. Linear time positions change as the only legible dynamic to apprehend and articulate the past historically. This frame of change renders the Black past as a story of heroic improvement relative to the base conditions of slavery.

Diasporic descriptions and expressions of nonlinear time often come in spectral form. Hauntings trouble linear time, as a ghost can be thought of simply as time out of place. Past spooks spill and seep uncannily into the Black present. Ancestral time orientations across the Diaspora –- all those practices that conceive of an ever-present unity between the dead, living, and those yet to be –- point to the looping and cut times that characterize the Black experience in the West.

For example, the world of Vodou is immanent with spirits, called lwa, that belong to natural formations such as waterfalls, rocks, the soil, as well as spirits of the dead and ancestors.  One interesting facet of human lwa are their historical specificity that carries into the afterlife. The spirit of a Haitian who died in the nineteenth century, for example, will manifest within a ceremony and speak synchronistically in the present from their past. In Mama Lola, the lwa Azaka Mede, aka Papa Zaka, or more often Kouzen (cousin), is described as a country bumpkin peasant spirit. Historically, Kouzen Zaka entered the pantheon of vodou spirits at the turn of the twentieth century, as many Haitian peasants were leaving their farms and heading to the urban city, and bears the trace of these anxieties within his personality. Vodou ceremonies in which Kouzen rides his horse (chwal) and assumes the body of a devotee re/stage radical encounters between past and present. This figures Vodou as a living, or perhaps undead, oral history archive of Haitian experience.

In another example, Toni Morrison employed a ghost of slavery as a device in Beloved  for commenting upon the ongoing healing needed by the formerly enslaved. Sethe, her mother Baby Suggs, daughter Denver, and recent-arrival Paul D Garner live in a house haunted by a revenant believed to be the spirit of Beloved, the 2 year old daughter Sethe had murdered years earlier to spare her from re-enslavement. Beloved’s transition from spectral to embodied presence drives Morrison’s plot towards resolution of the repressed guilt and psychological traumas borne by her main characters. Beloved draws upon Southern Black Hoodoo folklore about “the haints” to underscore the persistence of slavery’s shackles on Black experience in the “freedom time” of Emancipation.

Perhaps music evidences Black temporalities best, as “music can create a world of virtual time” through manipulations of sound and silence that form patterns we experience as rhythms, grooves, and riffs. Greg Tate has described Hip Hop as “ancestor worship,” as the experience of the music emerges through production technologies that make use of samples from other genres, recordings, and artists as an homage to tradition — but always with a sense of play and subject to irreverence. Sampling deconstructs the partition that closes off the past from the present. Kanye West’s 2013 “Blood on the Leaves”  weaves together three distinct temporal periods to voice a unified critique of American racism by way of its pitch-edited and looping cut of Nina Simone’s 1965 cover of Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-lynching record “Strange Fruit.” Cut sequences and break patterns in Hip Hop music disrupt senses of temporal progression before they recede, allowing the originary pattern to reset anew.

Trinidadian-Canadian scholar Dionne Brand describes the Middle Passage as a “door of no return,” that “casts a haunting spell” on the Diaspora:  

Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door. How do I know this? Only by self-observation, only by looking. Only by feeling. Only by being a part, sitting in the room with history.

In my teaching I embrace Brand’s methodology and invite my students to sit in the room and feel the presence of history. I do not see the Black American narrative as a series of events, but rather, the Middle Passage stands as the event“one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” at the feet of Africans and their descendants on local and global scales. I wield the polemic force of my scholarship as a ritual of exorcism, as I am haunted by my escapades through the macabre archives of slavery. Ceaselessly I hear the phantasmagoric screams emanating from the hulls of the ships and the bottom of the oceans, the clanking chains of the coffles heading to the auction block, the grinding of Caribbean sugar ingenios, the creaking of bough and rope swinging from every Southern tree. These restless souls call out yet for redress and repair/reparation.  

Black temporalities in music, folklore, and ritual compel historians of the Diaspora to theorize time in relation to how Black people conceive and describe it themselves. Historians are skillful in detailing how human technologies, social relations, and ideas change over time. But what if time changes over (and under and around) humans?  What if the time of slavery sits immanent like a wormhole that Black bodies can stumble into at any unfortunate moment, such as Octavia Butler’s imaginative plot in Kindred, or Michael Brown’s very real fate after falling under the transmogrifying white gaze of Ferguson, MO Officer Darren Wilson? 

Euro-American history marches onward into the epochs of the post-post-post-, a meaningless timeline stripped of the telos that once oriented it, but that nevertheless is still caught in the mechanics of a dialectic pull ineluctably towards empty futures. The resonant times of Blackness, however, bid us to linger with the dead and perform our “wake work.” We must write (for) a haunted history. The conditions of Black death place this presentist claim of the past upon our scholarship and teaching frameworks. The very future of Black life is at stake.


James Padilioni Jr

James Padilioni, Jr. is a Ph.D Candidate and Teaching Fellow in American Studies (Africana-affiliated) at the College of William and Mary and will be the 2017-18 Consortium for Faculty Diversity Dissertation Fellow in History at Lewis and Clark College. His research interests include the religious and aesthetic practices of the African Diaspora, with a focus on Black musics and performance, folk/syncretized Catholic practices in Afro-Latinx and African-American contexts, as well as questions related to ritual knowledge and the phenomenology, kinesthetics, and ontology of race. James is co-host of the Always Already critical theory podcast and the director of its Epistemic Unruliness interview stream. Follow him on Twitter @ApontesGhost.

Comments on “Blackness, a Haunted History

  • You would appreciate the thinking and ideas in The Spiritual Practice of Remembering by Margaret Bendroth. She discusses the changes in how we think about time in terms of the Christian acts of remembering.

    • Thank you for sending along this title!

  • A powerful analysis and reminder to step outside Eurocentric concepts of time, space, memory, history

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