Archives of the Black Atlantic: Reading between Literature and History [Review]

By Ania Kowalik
October 2014

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Wendy W. Walters, Archives of the Black Atlantic: Reading between Literature and History (New York: Routledge, 2013)

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Archives of the Black Atlantic stages an encounter between Black literature and the documented history of the Afro-diaspora to argue that Black writing “teaches us to read history anew” (1). But while the attention to history in diasporic literature has characterized much of the literary criticism in the field, Wendy Walters’ contribution is unique in that it centers a number of conceptual and political implications of reading history through literature. In her analysis, literature not only supplements what official documents have left out; more importantly, Walters shows that in attending to archival erasures, Black literary interventions disrupt the spatial, temporal, and generic categories on the basis of which historical documents are traditionally archived.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Walters’ analysis coheres around the concept of an “aspirational archive,” or “a reading of the past for which we may have either no evidence or compromised evidence, and yet which must be imagined as a possibility” (1). Elaborating the theory of an aspirational archive in terms of a subjunctive mood (what may have happened), Walters argues that literature’s imaginary register—which opens literal significations to new meanings—deciphers within the archive the possibility for a different articulation of the past, and thus refuses to accept established historical accounts as definitive for our understanding of history. For Walters, aspirational archives necessitate an ongoing re-reading of history and witness the persistence of the past within the present.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 This understanding of Black Atlantic archives informs the structure of Walters’ book. Part I analyzes the recurrence in literary texts of minor historical documents such as diaries, letters, or scrapbooks. This section’s broad geographical scope—comprising an interrelated analysis of Caribbean, African, and U.S. novels—sustains Walters’ argument that the Black Atlantic is a site of expanding interactions revealing an irreducibly transnational understanding of specific historical circumstances. While Walters’ analyses of Patricia Powell’s novel The Pagoda and V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Rift ­both entail a solid interpretation of specific documents, it is Walters’ commentary on Toni Morrison’s Paradise that best demonstrates the practice of reading between literature and history. Drawing on Morrison’s own archival work, Walters expertly moves between socio-political analysis and literary interpretation to center the links between the discrimination of Black communities, the development of the carceral society in the United States, and exclusions of radical female identities internal to Black communities envisioned in Paradise.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In contrast to the geographical breadth of Part I, Part II probes the archives of the slave trade to uncover literary contestations of official interpretations of historical events. In the three chapters analyzing the persistence of the Zong massacre in the Afro-diasporic historical consciousness, Walters shows that literary interventions into an established historical narrative uncover forgotten resistant subjectivities (Michelle Cliff), expose the limits of legal knowledge (Fred D’Aguiar), and unmoor fixed representations of historical actors (Marlene NourbeSe Philip). The main strength of this section is to illustrate the ways in which literature probes the internal instabilities of historical archives to find latent histories of rebellion and survival.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Walters’ rigorous readings between literature, socio-political history, and legal documents convincingly demonstrate that Afro-diasporic literary expression can contest the archival over-determination of Black subjects through histories of racism and colonial violence, and alter our understanding of socio-political worlds. But while Walters scrutinizes such epistemic challenges of aspirational archives, she spends less time explaining the ontological implications of these interventions. If Afro-diasporic ontologies have been determined by slavery laws— in Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s words, “The law it was that said we were. Or were not” (138)—how might aspirational archives recalibrate this absolute distinction between being and not being?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Overall, Archives of the Black Atlantic is a timely contribution to Black literary studies and archival studies; it testifies to the centrality of the Black Atlantic for questioning (neo)colonial epistemologies and argues for a sophisticated interdisciplinary study of historical memory. It also reveals an urgent need to continue reflecting on the problem of representation and the constitution of Black bodies in the socio-political sphere.

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Archives of the Black Atlantic: Reading between Literature and History [Review]

Ania Kowalik

PhD Student in Comparative Literature – Emory University

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