Without Exception ?

In 1798, Luís Gonzaga, a free man of African descent was arrested for promoting rebellion against slavery and colonialism in Bahia, Brazil. Upon his arrest colonial authorities discovered a collection of notebooks that contained a diverse array of writings from poems, to alchemy recipes, and descriptions of African diplomats arriving on the shores of Brazil. In 1812 José Antonio Aponte, also a free man of African descent, was similarly arrested in Havana, Cuba for fomenting rebellion against slavery and Spanish rule.  Upon arresting Aponte, officials in Havana likewise found a notebook containing drawings of the nile river, of black troops defeating white troops, and depictions of African and Haitian rulers. Both Gonzaga and Aponte were executed, and their notebooks either lost or destroyed.

Subsequent generations of scholars have long wondered about these notebooks. What could they have meant? How did the men who possessed them amass the type of knowledge it would have taken to produce such works? How did they learn to read and write? How were they able to compose these texts in societies where literacy in Spanish, Portuguese, or any other European language for that matter was sparse and limited even among the white population of the colonies? Underlining the entire ensemble of questions is an attitude that these kinds of productions must have been exceptional and that individuals who left behind such texts were not only extraordinary but also merit further study precisely because we seem to have no code or language of black literary production during times of slavery that would help us register and read their productions in any easy or stable manner.

For quite some time the idea of black, enslaved literature as exceptional was indexed by a few well distributed and published texts. One thinks of Sojourner Truth, or David Walker, or Phyllis Wheatley, or Olaudah Equiano. In truth, this was largely facilitated not only by the beliefs of earlier generations of scholars but also by the ways in which these writers were promoted or referred to their own work. This is perhaps most explicit in Equiano’s text, from the word “interesting” which appears in the title, to the first pages where he refers to himself as a “particular favorite of heaven” all while waxing poetic about his lack of vanity. 1

However, as Francis Smith Foster argued sometime ago while exceptionality and uniqueness was the rhetoric that one had to employ to get published, lurking behind the facade of exceptionality was a strong tension: exceptionality had to be constantly checked and underscored by gestures which alluded to one’s commonality, ones belonging to a group that contained members who might be equally capable. 2 It is a tension that points in one direction largely towards marketing a text for the world of print capital and consumption. In the other direction, however, the tension begs for grater recognition that practices and performances like intellectual production are common and abundant among black people. And the two sides of the tension could perhaps not exist without the other, for how could enslaved men and women plead for the commonality, the normativity of black intellectual production without first convincing white owned publications and publication houses that they were unique? How many times in our own classes have we pointed out that though Equiano portrays himself as unique, he also starts his narrative by talking about the rich social and political Culture of West Africa, in effect going straight to the matter of refuting racist notions about the exceptionality of Africa with regards to “civilization.” Or what about the fact that David walker addressed his appeal to the colored citizens of the world and not to a more general audience, basically assuming that people of color would be able to read or at least discuss the ideas he had put on the page despite the poor standard literacy rates of the era?

Of course the engagement with black writers and artists who were published in slave societies has continued to grow with continued research and the passage of years, and thus we are no longer only talking about Walker, Truth, et Cetera. Now we speak as well of writers like Juan Francisco Manzana from Cuba, or of Machado de Assis in Brazil. It is not however the belated recognition of already pre-existing and published texts that is helping us move beyond the narrative of exceptionality, but (as the opening paragraph of this post suggests) rather the ongoing discovery of unpublished texts in a variety of locales throughout the black Atlantic that is pointing the way towards this new opening. In addition to the attention now given to individuals like José Antonio Aponte and Luís Gonzaga, the papers of men like Jorge Davison have also been added to our discussions. Originally from Jamaica (and having also lived briefly in New Orleans) but arrested in Cuba for being in possession of anti-slavery literature, Davison’s mere presence and his stack of pamphlets, newspapers, and writings disturbed Cuban authorities enough that they had him arrested and isolated until a passing ship could be found to take him back to the British island. 3 We have now also the diary of Ursula de Jesus, a mystic and visionary who lived in seventeenth-century Lima, Peru and who wrote about her life, and her visions, inside of a convent for a period that covered more than ten years. 4 We know also of the case of California, an enslaved woman in Mississippi who used the mobility and the “comings and goings” associated with her labor as a laundress to collect prints and pieces of anti-slavery literature that she kept in her cabin. 5 There is also Rosa Egipciaca, an African born woman who was enslaved in Minas Gerais, Brazil in the first half of the eighteenth century. Rosa, like Ursula, became a mystic and left behind “a [portion of a] text she referred to as Sagrada Teologia do Amor de Deus Luz Brilhante das Almas Peregrinas” (Sacred Theology for the Love of God, Brilliant Light of Wandering Souls). 6

These names do not exhaust the findings that have come to us through the efforts of scholars consulting the archive. Nor have we here even begun to think about patterns, commonalities, and discontinuities among these assorted writings. Making any gesture towards doing so, however, will need to move beyond understanding the discovery of such texts as exceptional. While one may not be able to swing the discourse in the other direction just yet and begin claiming tout court that graphic and literary representations by black subjects living under slavery was quotidian, clearly the commonplace narrative that black intellectual production during slavery was altogether rare no longer seems to hold.

  1. Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001,) 27.
  2. Francis Smith Foster, Written By Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746-1892, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993)
  3. For more on Davidson, see Jane Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 215-220
  4. Urusula de Jesus and Nancy E. Van Deusen, The Souls of Purgatory: The Spiritual Diary of a Seventeenth-Century Afro-Peruvian Mystic, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004
  5. Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 230-240
  6. Kathryn Joy McKnight, “Colonial Religiosity: Nuns, Heretics, and Witches,” in Sara Castro-Klaren, A Companion to Latin American Literature and Culture, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 197-209
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Greg Childs

Greg Childs is Assistant Professor of History at Brandeis University. He is currently completing a book entitled Seditious Spaces, Public Politics: The Tailor’s Conspiracy of Bahia, Brazil and the Politics of Freedom in the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Comments on “Without Exception ?

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    We have to continue to search for literary work in Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French and English. Many Africans wrote in Arabic too. Scholars of African writing systems must also get involved in the project.

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