Black Resistance in Literature, Television, and Song

Image from Roots (2016).

Looking upon the Wakandan sunset at the end of Ryan Coogler’s film Black Panther (2018), T’Challa holds his cousin N’Jadaka who is slowly dying from a mortal stab wound. T’Challa says that they may be able to save him; however, N’Jadaka refuses, simply telling his cousin, “Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, cause they knew death was better than bondage.” N’Jadaka’s wish to be buried at sea with the ancestors draws a direct link to the horrors of the Middle Passage and the present moment.

The memory of the Middle Passage exists, as Tara T. Green argues in Reimagining the Middle Passage: Black Resistance in Literature, Television, and Song, as a space where “the past, present, and future reside simultaneously” (47). Coogler’s Black Panther highlights this connection throughout the film in N’Jadaka’s forced separation from Wakanda, the fact that his father died and was buried outside of his homeland, and T’Challa’s plan at the end of the film to turn the Oakland building where N’Jadaka lived into a Wakandan outreach center.

Reimagining the Middle Passage provides a lens that “probes the historical and symbolic meaning and legacy of the Middle Passage as explored by African-descended artists in their literature, music, film, television performances, and art” (2). As such, Green examines the continued presence of the Middle Passage in texts such as Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983) and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011) to television shows such as Treme (2010-13) and Roots (1977; 2016). Instead of focusing specifically on direct representations of the Middle Passage within these forms of media, Green shows how the trauma and pain that more that 12.5 million Africans endured when they were separated from their homeland continues to hang like a specter over the present even when it does not tangibly appear.

Drawing on the work of Orlando Patterson, Abdul JanMohamed, Anissa Janine Wardi, and Albert Raboteau, Reimagining the Middle Passage explores “how the Middle Passage is both historic and symbolic,” focusing on the role of water “as a symbolic medium or conduit between the captive who is deemed socially dead and the captives’ attempt to reconstruct the self as a converted and transformed person” (3). Green’s work focuses on how real and imagined Black individuals affirmed “life, humanity, and personhood” in the face of oppression and white supremacy (4). Working from Raboteau, Green examines the ways that conversion challenges the idea of social death and allows individuals to reclaim their alienated rights. Conversion leads to “a rebirth of identity,” as a result of trauma in the case of the Middle Passage (10). She achieves this by foregrounding how the presence of water serves as a space where “beginnings and endings collide” and where resurrection and conversion take place through confronting the traumatic history of the Middle Passage and through the reconstruction of stories that link the present with the past (8).

Green centers Reimagining the Middle Passage within the context of the Atlantic Global South, exploring works that take place in Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina along with parts of the Caribbean. Dividing her study into two distinct parts, Green illuminates the ways that the shadow of the Middle Passage lingers over the present. The first part, “In the Middle Passage,” focuses on the ways that real and imagined individuals’ contact with the Middle Passage serves as “a period of transformation by water, where its intersection with death and suffering emanates hauntingly from the subconscious and the consciousness of African descendants” (12). Beginning with Olaudah Equiano’s narrative, Green shows how authors use the Middle Passage as a form of resistance, through the acts of writing and storytelling. “In the Middle Passage” explores Equiano, Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the novel and the two television adaptations, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Treme, the poetry of Brenda Marie Osbey, and Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams.

With part I, Green’s exploration of Haley’s Roots stands out due to her discussion of the cultural moments surrounding its initial publication and 1977 television adaptation and the 2016 television adaptation. During America’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford tapped Haley to assist with the plans for the celebration, and Roots hit stores on August 17, 1976. Coming during a period of America’s commemoration of its past, the novel, for Haley, served “as most certainly an exercise in discovery—of the self, of Africa, of Black America, and of America” (42). To complete the project, Haley decided to embark on a Transatlantic voyage “to get closer to the experience of Kunta Kinte” (42). Green argues that Roots, in its various incarnations, works “to expose, revisit, and ponder the meaning of the Middle Passage and the slave trade from the perspective of African peoples” (43). Through the telling of Kunta Kinte’s story, Haley uses storytelling to reaffirm the humanity of those who endured the Middle Passage and slavery, thus providing a counter-narrative to a system and history that sought to dehumanize them.

The novel and the subsequent televisual adaptations achieve just that, and they speak specifically to the cultural and historical moments in which they appeared. The most recent adaptation of Roots debuted on Memorial Day 2016 during Barack Obama’s final year in the White House and amidst the 2016 presidential campaign. Along with this, it connected the history of the Middle Passage to the present, speaking to “African descendants who felt as though there was a lack of convictions in high-profile cases that involved Whites killing Black men could at least feel moments of vindication through this visual narrative” by seeing Fiddler and Kunta kill White men on screen (66).

In part II, “Legacies of the Middle Passage,” Green takes up the ways that artists deploy “the Middle Passage as a metaphor, more specifically its implications and consequences to African descendants in the South” (14). Here she focuses on the presence of water in the form of floods and storms, and the ways that individuals resist social death in the face of such moments. She zeroes in on the 1927 flood and 2005 Hurricane Katrina to highlight the ways that individuals and artists counter structures that seek to dehumanize them and label them as expendable. Green achieves this by examining the rise of flood blues by Black artists and Richard Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” in relation to the 1927 flood, by looking at Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006) in relation to Hurricane Katrina, and concludes by exploring the role of storytelling in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.

Noting that hurricanes, and specifically Hurricane Katrina, tend to “follow the path of the transatlantic slave voyage over the Atlantic and, possibly, to the U.S. South,” Green shows how Lee’s documentary and Ward’s novel counter narratives that dehumanized Blacks after the storm and investigates “the meaning of death and the value of life in a post-Middle Passage South” (127). During the storm, individuals were moved into the Superdome in a scene that “could have been describing Africans disembarking from a slave ship” (128). Lee’s documentary tells individuals’  stories as a means of resistance to the narratives of those like Barbara Bush who dehumanized the victims in her comments. Likewise, Ward’s novel illuminates the ways that the Batiste family resists oppression and social death through the hope found in Esch’s unborn child and the family’s struggle to survive during the hurricane. Green argues that the Middle Passage as metaphor highlights the ways that hope separates “the little space between beginnings and endings” and that “transitional states are temporary” (143).

Green concludes Reimagining the Middle Passage by discussing the murder of the Charleston Nine in 2015, focusing on the links between Charleston, South Carolina, and the Middle Passage, and the forgiveness that the survivors and the family members extended to Dylann Roof. Through forgiveness, they countered social death by showing that as human beings they “possess the capacity to look at an individual and to extend forgiveness” (164). Along with this, Green also notes that Roof “was a legacy of the Middle Passage” and its lingering influence affects him as well, echoing Brother Ali’s lines in “The Travelers” where he raps, “Everything that the passenger do/The driver experience too.”

Ultimately, Green’s study provides a framework to not only look at the ways that the Middle Passage continues to affect individuals’ lives and artistic creation in the South, but also how it affects the Black diaspora in America. Green presents us with an insightful way to look at texts that specifically reference the Middle Passage, even in passing, such as William Melvin Kelley’s A Different Drummer (1962) or Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and to look at works such as Coogler’s Black Panther or lines such as Angelenah’s in P.O.S.’s “Gravedigger” where she raps, “Lost girl but I might be villain/ And I can feel the wounds on my back still healing.” Reimagining the Middle Passage illuminates how individuals resisted social death and why this resistance is still necessary today.

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Matthew Teutsch

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont College. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEAR, MELUS, Mississippi Quarterly, African American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest's run on Black Panther. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.