On Scipio Africanus and Nicki Minaj

Scipio Africanus Grave
Grave of Scipio Africanus, Bristol, England

“I who was Born a PAGAN and a SLAVE

Now sweetly sleep a CHRISTIAN in my Grave

What tho’ my hue was dark my SAVIOR’S sight

Shall Change this darkness into radiant Light

Such grace to me my Lord on earth has given

To recommend me to my Lord in heaven

Whose glorious second coming here I wait

With saints and Angels him to celebrate.”

The words above grace the footstone of the grave of a West African who was enslaved and brought to Bristol, England. It was there that his enslaver, Charles William Howard, the Earl of Suffolk, gave him the name Scipio Africanus. It was there, too, that he was buried following his death in 1720.

When James Walvin brought this epitaph up during his keynote address at the recent symposium on New Scholarship on the Black Atlantic at the University of Utah, I was struck by the use of first-person on the footstone.[1] Had the deceased once expressed the ideas that Howard would associate with him in death? The remarkable similarity with later eighteenth century black writings including those of Phillis Wheatley suggests that possibility. Or had the British aristocrat used the death of the enslaved man to express his own beliefs in the inferior albeit improvable nature of African culture? The broader ideas about race, environment and culture, and slaveholding that circulated throughout the Atlantic world of Howard’s era support that possibility.

Perhaps neither of those possibilities is more accurate than the other, though. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between, resting in an unrecoverable moment where the enslaved man had accepted baptism before dying in a foreign land and the enslaving man had interpreted it as a confirmation of his own righteousness. Although I don’t think that the West African remembered as Scipio Africanus must, in the words of one scholar, “remain unknowable to us,” I appreciate the challenges of recovering his life, his actions, and his words. His footstone offers a tantalizing snapshot of an organic black intellectual albeit one that is, perhaps, filtered through the lens of the same man who held him in bondage. It is a potentially rich source of black intellectual history, that, nonetheless, reveals the challenges still faced by the creators of that history.

Nicki Minaj
Nicki Minaj, 2013 BET Awards

“The fact that you feel upset about me speaking on something that affects black women makes me feel like you have some big balls. You’re in videos with black men, and you’re bringing out black women on your stages, but you don’t want to know how black women feel about something that’s so important? Come on, you can’t want the good without the bad. If you want to enjoy our culture and our lifestyle, bond with us, have fun with us, twerk with us, rap with us, then you should also want to know what affects us, what is bothering us, what we feel is unfair to us. You shouldn’t not want to know that.”

I read Nicki Minaj’s reproach of Miley Cyrus, found in a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, one week after returning from Utah. They deserve just as much consideration as the words attributed to Scipio Africanus. What they do not need, however, is the same degree of interpretation. Her point and her authorship of it is clear: if Cyrus wants to profit off of black culture then she should be sympathetic to the deeper concerns of the people who created that culture. Minaj owns this sharp assessment of cultural appropriation, the music industry, and the myopia that afflicts some white feminists.

And yet Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of that profile, feels compelled to translate Minaj for her readers, to blur the lines between Minaj the intellectual and Grigoriadis the interpreter. Minaj’s preference for clothing made with spandex? It’s just like Kim Kardashian. Her bouffant? No different than Amy Winehouse’s. Time after time, Grigoriadis encourages readers to understand the alien practices and words of Minaj by offering similar examples from the world of the (presumably) white middle-class reader. For Grigoriadis, Minaj’s “drama-school chops” make her like Lady Gaga, not Tupac Shakur or any number of other black artists who also participated in theater. In her opinion, “female empowerment is a trend, and the word [bitch] has been reclaimed—by Minaj . . . by Rihanna . . . and triumphantly by Madonna (emphasis mine).” I’m not sure what’s sadder, that Grigoridias thinks Madonna still sets pop trends or that she never heard Trina and Slip-n-Slide get loose.

The most troubling part of the profile—and the one that resonates most with the history of Scipio Africanus and Charles William Howard—comes at the very end. Minaj ends the interview after Grigoriadis asks her whether she “thrives on drama.”[2] Even after her loaded question is rebuffed, even after Minaj points out how condescending it was, Grigoriadis gets the last word. She writes that:

“Minaj’s actions made sense, in some ways: Even though I had no intention of putting her down as a small-minded or silly woman, she was right to call me out. She had the mike and used it to her advantage, hitting the notes that we want stars like her to address right now, particularly those of misogyny an standing up for yourself, even if it involves standing up for yourself against another woman. I didn’t know how much of it Minaj really felt, and how much it was a convenient way of maintaining control. I only knew that, in that moment, she was a boss bitch.”

Here, Grigoriadis moves from translating Minaj to excusing her to chastising her to dismissing her to, finally, obscuring her. For Grigoriadis, Minaj is not a black woman (or, for that matter, a Trinidadian woman from a working-class background). Instead, Minaj is simply a woman who has broken an unwritten code by putting her fragile interviewer down. The inability to recognize the racial and class dynamics at play in their interaction suggests why Grigoriadis feels entitled to judge whether the offended had acted rationally. It perhaps explains why she would question whether Minaj really dislikes the beef between her boyfriend and her labelmate. Maybe it clarifies just why Grigoriadis makes her voice and her feelings the dominant and final ones in a profile (supposedly) about Nicki Minaj.

I appreciate that Vanessa Grigoriadis is not Charles William Howard, that Nicki Minaj is not Scipio Africanus, and that 2015 is not 1720. But that is exactly the point. The study of organic black intellectuals and even black public figures is often complicated by archives that obscure their voices—by plantation records meant to record the priorities of white planters not black laborers, by shipping manifestos used to note the concerns of ship captains not the thoughts of their enslaved cargo, by, perhaps, graves that were designed to capture the sentiments of British slaveholders while shrouding the thoughts of deceased Africans. There is no need, then, to perpetuate these archival silences. There should be a vehement rejection of attempts, intentional or not, to diminish black voices or dilute black thought in the present. It is, after all, 2015. And Nicki Minaj does not need an amanuensis.

[1] If readers know of any other similar eighteenth-century graves, that is ones in which headstones or footstones erected by white masters use the first-person to memorialize black people, enslaved or free, please, please leave a comment.

[2] The question related to ongoing beef between Minaj’s boyfriend (Meek Mill) and Minaj’s labelmate (Drake) as well as an ongoing dispute between Birdman and Lil Wayne, the two most powerful men at her label. Minaj’s response? “They’re grown-ass men . . . It’s between them.”

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Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti.' Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.