Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Memory in African American Culture: Short Piece Written for an Art Exhibition in Berlin, Germany

Dr Mark Naison

“it started with that slave ship that set the journey flaming.”

Akua Naru, “The Journey” from her 2011 Album, The Journey Aflame

The lines between past and present in African American culture, consciousness and experience are rarely clearly drawn. The past is alive in African American discourse, sometimes as trauma, sometimes as heroic example

. Images of slavery and Jim Crow, sexual assault and rape, mass incarceration and lynching can be found in virtually every form of cultural production and political agitation Black Americans have created, from songs like “Strange Fruit,” to art and photo exhibits highlighting lynching or convict labor camps, to campaigns for reparations from slavery or compensation for 20th Century pogroms like Tulsa Riot of 1921 ( which has been the subject of several books), or the Rosewood massacre of 1923, which was the subject of a feature film.

But heroism and endurance have been as powerful a force in African American memory as trauma. The popularity of Negro spirituals in the early and mid twentieth century, whether performed by Black college choirs or concert singers like Paul Robeson, the persistence of songs and folktales honoring late 19th Black strongmen like John Henry and Stackolee, the constant invocation of Malcolm X and Rev.Martin Luther King Jr as standards against which current Black leaders are judged, all are testimony to the power of heroism in the African American imagination. Even hip hop, widely condemned as ahistorical, is filled with ghosts of heroes past, sometimes in the form of jazz and R&B samples, sometimes in explicit tributes to individuals who paved the way for or inspired the artist, such as this one on Tupac Shakur’s “Thugz Mansion”:

Seen a show with Marvin Gaye last night, it had me shook
Drinking peppermint Schnapps, with Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke
Then some lady named Billie Holiday
Sang sitting there kicking it with Malcolm, 'til the day came

You cannot live in the African American community, or study African American culture, without encountering historical memory on a daily basis. Sometime it is in the form of ghosts from times past as literary characters, as in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved; at other times in titles of historical works such as Worse than Slavery, or

Slavery by Another Name; occasionally in the form of symposiums and panels discussing whether African Americans are still suffering from “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” as a result of their slave experience. African American feminists have extended historical memory globally, by claiming Sarah Bartmann, a Khosian woman from South Africa put on display in museums throughout Europe in the 19th Century under the title The“Hottentot Venus,” as a metaphor for the continuing humiliation of Black women, and exoticization of Black women’s bodies, in all spheres of popular culture. Bartman has been the subject of books, art exhibitions, plays and academic lectures which see the way Black women are depicted in advertising, film, and hip hop videos, sometimes under the direction of Black males, as continuous with the way Black women were viewed by white men in the heyday of European colonialism

This fusion of past and present, fiction and history is likely to remain a defining feature of the African American experience for some time. African Americans not only see the past as shaping the present, they feel they must honor their ancestors in order to sustain integrity and self respect in a world that still too often denies them power and recognition.

No work better exemplifies the power of the past to inform the present than a song called “The Journey” by a contemporary African American poet and hip hop artist named Akua Naru who was born and raised in New Haven Connecticut and now lives in Cologne Germany.

I will close with the text of the song, whose stories and images cover four hundred years of African American history in a explosion of poetry that invokes Black women’s endurance and resilience and pain, a pain which , unfortunately, is not yet fully honored, much less fully healed

the journey…(aflame)

song lyrics by akua naru. “…The Journey Aflame” © 2011 akua naru


at once

we were people on our land

African feet touch the sand

free woman and man

stand tall

respond call

conga djembe

we sing a song for our first born

skin uncovered unashamed original names

we served god through a pantheon, then secular world came

some prisoners of war betrayed by our own others chained, some sold stolen from

the shores by a foreign man we never seen before, families torn

put in chains

the chattel slave trade,

black bodies chained, whipped, burned, maimed,

many tongues speaking the same pain,

confused, i cant understand a damn thing,

world view rearranged, in el mina’s castle caged, somebody say a ship came,

forced board. feet lusting for my soil, what the fuck is going on?

“aint i a woman?”,

somebody just jumped overboard

cross the atlantic, skin branded, left stranded, laid in fractions

heart in fragments, captured, deemed as savage, pull my body backwards.


“no chords could strum the root of my pain/they set the journey aflame”

second v.

white man.

crush my womb. shattered. scraped, raped. battered.

another miscarrage. another baby born to a world of shackles

fire crackers, havin flash blacks. the middle passage,

spoon fashioned, semen, blood, urine, dragging. human organs splattered,

scattered cross caribbean. carolina.

reduced to fractions divided by my black vagina ,

enter in the battle, in this so-called “new world”

look at this nigger-girl on iriquois/pequot earth

(turn around) u up first

smile, teeth strong, assess my worth,

on the auction block, they say im ripe for birth, strong stock, look at my buttocks,

hair like wire u need brush not,

nothin pretty to rub hot ,

behind my chest heart beats the first seeds of hip hop,

fire burnin rage is... gun cocked,

my water breaks. the beat drops.

mic chords bind me. stop rewind me

let my memories rock, enemies drop,

oh lord, let us fast forward. promise to let my tape rock

and it wont stop.


“no chords could strum the root of my pain/they set the journey aflame”

third v.

sometimes i want war for these muthafuckas

and im restrained, nigger, negro, colored, nigra, bitch, hoe,

mammy, harlot, minstrel

aunt jemima kinfolk

nicki minaj instrumental

sista stomp hard!! but we forced to tip toe

three-fifths of a human, two-fifths cause you woman

abandoned oshun, praying for Christ second coming

jiving, shuckin corn, word is bond

used to sing work-songs about being free

now freedom comes (w)RAPped in porn

buying european wigs, Italian designers

manolo blahnik, gucci and prada

somebody baby mama

rhyme about the dollar

identity draped in male desire

the illusion of free, but we for hire, lost in buying power

who got it made? last week we was the maid

breast-feeding white babies

they grow, sell our children as slaves

billie holiday, hang from maple trees

a game of make-believe

log on to facebook, forget the rape of centuries

grammar stays in present perfect

but us, we simple past on it

degraded by our brothers, they say shake your ass on it

constructed before the white face

now its music on my space

body parts separated from soul

bought and sold

nothing new though

my question crucial

whats the worth of a black woman, who go

cross the atlantic, stranded

on plantations


college loan payments,

exploited, captured and framed in

white imagination

black male sex arrangements

christian names

master’s house the first stage

that made my body famous.

beauty caged in


behind the lust for blue eyes and blond manes and im saying

it started with that slave ship that set the journey flaming.


“no chords could strum the root of my pain/they set the journey aflame

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