Identifying with the Ghosts of the Zong — Christopher Taylor Cole

[in this essay, Christopher Cole refers to the novel Feeding the Ghosts by Guyanese-born author Fred d’Aguiar, a novel that was based on the infamous case of a slave-ship known as the Zong, whose captain threw overboard more than 130 of his captives (while they were still alive) and then claimed for the “loss” from his insurers.  The insurers refused to pay, so the case was taken to court–not with the captain (one Luke Collingwood; the equivalent of d’Aguiar’s Cunningham) as defendant on a charge of mass-murder, but with the insurers in the dock for having reneged on the insurance agreement. The courts initially found in favor of the ship’s owners, but on appeal reversed the decision and ruled in favor of the insurers. Despite strenuous efforts of noted abolitionist Granville Sharp, prompted by Olaudah Equiano, no one was ever charged with murder. The case has led to numerous other artistic and historical treatments in addition to d’Aguiar’s novel, notably Marie Nourbese Philip’s Zong!, James Walvin’s The Zong, A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery,  and Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic.  JMW Turner’s famous 1840 painting Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)  is commonly regarded as having been inspired by the massacre.  SKL]

22, April 2014

Start Time: 8:33am

During the course of the semester, we have read several narratives regarding the institution of slavery. As a Michigander and as a white male, I found these texts to be exhilarating and very informative since Michigan’s history is not primarily filled with slave elements. I remember learning about slavery in middle and high school, but reading these texts brought slavery more to life–which is eye-opening since it took these slave narratives to stir interest in slavery rather than non-fiction texts like the ones I was coerced to read in my History classes. Living now in South Carolina, a state that not only propelled the institution of slavery but also harbored and transported slaves throughout North America, I am able to see these places in real time and juxtapose its historical past with its historical present. For example, Sullivan’s Island used to be my favorite beach to sunbathe, but since I now know that Sullivan’s Island was once a place where transatlantic slaves were deposited after the Middle Passage before being transported to the slave markets in Charleston, I feel a little uneasy sunbathing on sand that absorbed tears, blood, and who knows what else. Though slavery in America has been abolished for many years, I feel like it lingers–almost to the point of saturation–in every nook and corner of Charleston. Walking down the street, one can still see anti-slave rebellion barbs on the wrought iron fences, street names of historical slave owners and anti-abolitionists, a fort that stands as a symbol of the Civil War and racial disparity, etc. You can still even see the markets where slaves were bought, sold, traded, and reprimanded.

As a white male northerner, I was not, and still am not, used to the history that lingers in Charleston. The subtle, yet particularly blatant at times, aspects of racism and class differences still inhabit South Carolina. For example, the active pursuit to build hotels, businesses, uptown apartments, and high-end restaurants may look like an innocent attempt to build a better Charleston, but realistically, these tactics are just legal cannon-like shells to enforce and encourage the expulsion of the black inhabitants from the city–some who have familial ties with the city for hundreds of years. Before this course, I would not have particularly noticed these things in great detail, but now that my eyes are open, I cannot help but become intricately interested and involved.

Furthermore, as a gay man, I found these texts to be speaking to more than just the savage–almost barbaric–horrors of slavery, but rather to the cumulative result of a system which continues to be at the pinnacle of power–white male patriarchy. Even though I am a white male, my sexuality makes me a minority and a target for discrimination and surveillance. In Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, Feeding the Ghosts, I connected with Mintah and her adversity since her source of struggle was not with slavery itself, but rather the laws and the enforcement of laws which benefited the white male patriarchy system and power. Even though the novel is set in the late 1700’s, D’Aguiar’s novel, to me, spoke about the anti-gay laws in the U.S. that are controlled and surveillanced by white male patriarchy. Much like the laws in the novel that leave Mintah and her fellow slaves powerless (even voiceless), laws against the LGBT community are similar since they create a liminal space of being resulting in a sense of second-class citizenship. Just like the sexual surveillance within the novel, LGBT sex is surveillanced and controlled through laws and surveillance. In several states, homosexual sex is considered a crime. In fact, recently, a few states have re-empowered and addressed their anti-sodomy laws as a symbol of continued homosexual surveillance. This may also be read as laws that continue to empower heteronormativity. Just like D’Aguiar’s characters, people of the LGBT community lose agency and are denied free will.

Mintah’s entire world is controlled by the slave system and Captain Cunningham’s avaricious drive for profit and power. To Captain Cunningham, Mintah and the other slaves aboard his ship are nothing less than cargo–no more than spices or the animals that inhabit the lower decks. In fact, they are all reduced to numbers and tallies within his ledger. Despite Mintah’s attempts to show she exists as a person instead of an item, or the crew’s plea to end the massacre, Captain Cunningham does not sway. He is, ultimately, a symbol of the slave system and its laws, white male patriarchy, and surveillance. Again, as a gay man, I viewed Captain Cunningham as similar to modern-day politicians who hold tremendous power in Congress, executive-level judges within the court system who affirm heteronormative laws, and religious figures who fuel animosity and disparity between heterosexuals and members of the LGBT community. Together, these three institutions together not only produced and empowered slavery, but also the continued oppression of LGBT individuals. Captain Cunningham, much like these individuals, uses laws to enforce his power; the courts at the end of the novel absolve Captain Cunningham and perpetuate the slave trade and the slave system, and religion in the novel is used to justify the actions that occurred on the Zong.

Much like the enslaved Africans on the Zong, the LGBT community are “caged” in by the homophobic laws that encourage discrimination, dehumanization, and even violence. Also, much as in the case of the Zong, these laws and systems perpetuate injustices that are created, managed, and controlled by people who are not members of the community that are affected. Who gets to determine who is a slave and who is a slave-holder? Who gets to determine if someone can marry someone s/he loves? Mintah and the slaves, to me, represent more than just slavery. They are my fellow LGBT brothers and sisters. They are the past, present, and future gays, lesbians, transgendered, gender-queer, and bisexuals. They are–metaphorically, spiritually, and symbolically–me.

I felt this connection with Mintah and the black slave community when Mintah first attempts to resist Captain Cunningham and Kelsal. She separates herself from the collective whole and defies Captain Cunningham and Kelsal–saving two children. Once their feet touch the ground, the two children run to the collective whole and the collective whole protects them by shielding them. In this way, Mintah becomes a symbol of resistance much as queer figures have–such as Harvey Milk, Ellen Degeneres, etc. The collective whole in the novel, to me, is just like the LGBT community. Comparing the collective whole and Mintah with the LGBT community, both adhere to the same principle–the community helps the individual, and the individual helps the community. With her bellicose nature, Mintah protects the collective whole by attempting to free them from their chains. Interestingly also, the collective whole protects Mintah by hiding her from Kelsal and the other Zong sailors. This phenomenon also occurs in the LGBT community.

Though this course specifically encompassed the institution of slavery and its history, I–with my Northern-Michigander-White-Gay-Male concepts, beliefs, and precepts–related to these texts in a particular way based on my particular situation. As a gay white male in an exceedingly religious southern state, I am able to identify with these slave narratives and their stories despite time, space, gender, race, and even religion because their struggle parallels my struggles–struggles with unjust laws, obtusely religious zealots who use religion as a force to propel their own hate, racism, and agendas, and discrimination. Whether the character was Aminata from Hill’s Someone Knows My Name or Equiano himself, I saw aspects of myself in them. I was able to glimpse into the past to characters who have lost their stories, their voice, and their own sense of self through the power of white male patriarchy and ability to manipulate history.

Stop Time: 10:45am


Filed under: Jubilee Project

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