©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission
This book is the first scholarly biography of Queen Njinga (1582-1663), of one of the most controversial female figures in the history of Africa and the Atlantic world. Anybody who had the opportunity to listen Heywood in conferences over the last years know that she has been working on this project for several years, if not more than a decade. The book is divided into seven chapters. By examining the endnotes, the reader can easily notice that the book heavily relies on primary sources in multiple languages excavated through archival research and fieldwork in three different continents. You don’t need to know the history of Central Africa to understand Njinga’s history. But by reading the biography you will become familiar with the long history of West Central Africa. You will also be introduced to the various dimensions of the encounter between West Central Africans and the Europeans that ultimately led to the development of the Atlantic slave trade.
For those of us who are familiar with the literature in this field, this book allows us to better understand the history of precolonial West Central Africa, the long-lasting presence of the Portuguese in that region, and the conversion of West Central African rulers to Catholicism, and how already in this early period these rulers had access to literacy.
On the one hand, unlike other academic works, you can read this book without consulting the extensive endnotes. On the other hand, because this is the only academic biography of Njinga, the endnotes are succinct and limited to the primary sources on which the book is based. The book dismantles the idea of an Africa without history because of the alleged absence of written sources, an absurd idea that is still present in many circles, including among historians of Europe, who usually ignore the history of Africa in their works. The biography portrays Njinga like any other European queens such as Isabella of Castile or Queen Elizabeth I of England.
Heywood also explains how the Portuguese actively participated in the production of captives for the Atlantic slave trade in the region of the Kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo that cover part of what is present-day Angola. Heywood describes in detail the atrocities committed by the Portuguese in that region as well. She also highlights the importance of Catholicism in the occupation and conquest of what became Angola. She shows how Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries participated in this project of conversion of West Central African rulers and their subjects and how they endorsed and supported the methods utilized by Portuguese officials. Yet, Heywood does not portray Njinga and her subjects as absolute victims in this process. On the contrary, they are depicted as powerful historical actors, who had the ability to make choices and who did not hesitate in exerting their authority to control their subjects and neighbors. Heywood also shows the multiple dimensions of Njinga’s conversion to Catholicism and how the queen used her conversion to negotiate with the Portuguese, to resist against their presence, and to acquire political power by not necessarily abandoning her native religion.
Heywood does not seek to examine in detail the reverberations of Njinga’s rule in Europe (especially Portugal) and the Americas (notably Brazil) and to do so we would need another book. Yet, this Njinga’s biography will certainly help historians and students of the Atlantic slave trade to better understand the trajectories of the men, women, and children sent into slavery from Angola to the Americas.
Written and published in 2017.
©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission
It is difficult to write about The Price for the Their Pound of Flesh by historian Daina Ramey Berry, because over its 200 pages and additional 40 pages or more of endnotes, the reader is exposed to a dense narrative supported by a great array of primary and secondary sources exploring the journeys of enslaved men, women, and children from the womb of their mothers to the grave and then to the dissection tables in schools of medicine around the United States. As Ramey Berry states, this is the first book to explore the monetary value of enslaved people throughout all the phases of their lives in the United States. Yet, this is not a book of economic history of slavery commenting boring statistics. Contrasting with previous attempts dating back to four decades ago, this book elucidates the entire process that transformed human beings into valuable property. Ramey Berry’s analysis draws from the examination of appraisal prices and sale prices of men, women, and children starting in the early national era in the eighteenth century through the end of slavery in the nineteenth century. The book is divided into six chapters, and each one covers a period in the life of the enslaved. Using a variety of slave narratives, Ramey Berry puts the voices of bondsmen and bondswomen at the center of the narrative. Even though the entire book is about how enslaved people were commodified, Ramey Berry successfully demonstrates how slaves resisted commodification throughout their entire lives.
The first chapter “Preconception: Women and Future Increase” is perhaps one of the most elucidating ones. It discusses the value of enslaved children before their birth. Here the object are enslaved women. The next five chapters explore “infancy and childhood,” “adolescence, young adulthood, and soul values,” “midlife and older adulthood,” “elderly and superannuated,” and “postmortem: death and ghost values.” Ramey Berry shows how slave merchants prepared the slaves for display and sale, determining their health conditions, and rating them by using a 5-point scale. In this scale “prime or full hands” were rated as 1 or A1 prime, a measure that determined the amount of work an enslaved person could provide. This process of assessing the value of enslaved bodies involved not only slave merchants and slave owners (who are designated by Ramey Berry as “enslavers”) but also physicians who would determine the health conditions of slaves put for sale. These inspections are narrated in detail. Ramey Berry also movingly narrates the constant fear of separation in enslaved families. The author also explores the issue of sexual violence and rape of enslaved women by masters and how enslaved men were used to impregnate enslaved women in a more massive scale.
Slaves continued providing profits to their owners even upon their demise and afterlives. The state reimbursed the owners of enslaved rebels and enslaved who had committed crimes and who were sentenced to death with the same amount they valued in the market. Some slave owners would choose to keep elderly slaves because their market value were low, but as they took insurance policies they could replace elderly men and elderly women upon their deaths. The dead bodies of enslaved men, women, and children were also valued in the market that emerged with the creation of schools of medicine around the United States. Ramey Berry explains that between 1760 and 1876 there were between 4,200 and 8,000 dissections in the United States. However, the only legal candidates for these medical dissections were unclaimed executed criminals and enslaved men and women whose owners consented to provide their bodies to these schools. This “trade” of dead bodies stained and still stains the image of many US universities and colleges including Dartmouth, Harvard University, and University of Virginia. Some slave owners dug up and sold the bodies of deceased slaves.
This book covers an impressive amount of sources throughout a long period of time. As any pioneer book, it will give many ideas to other scholars to develop particular aspects in each chapter into entire new studies. For example, although Ramey Berry emphasizes the differences between men and women of different ages born in the United States and Africa, the reader would like to know more about crucial stages in the lives of enslaved men and women: their embarkation in Africa and disembarkation in the United States. Upon arrival the entire process described by Ramey Berry throughout the book was certainly reproduced when enslaved bodies were examined, treated, and in several cases discarded when they could not be sold. The reader would also like to know more about the moments when enslaved men and women took control of their bodies and the bodies of their offspring by committing suicide and infanticide. Finally, following the discussion on rape of enslaved women and the use of enslaved men for sexual purposes by white mistresses, the reader would like to know if enslaved men were also victims of rape by the slave owners and overseers. But here perhaps the sources may be very limited, and adding these aspects would require two or three more chapters.
I recommend this book to any reader interested in slavery in the United States. It can be adopted in a variety of history undergraduate courses and will certainly encourage lively discussion. Yet, this does not mean that this is an “easy” book. Scholars of slavery and graduate students will find in it rich material and provocative analysis. Ramey Berry explains her sources in detail in the text, in the notes and in a separate section at the end of the book, which is extremely helpful for those of us who are not specialists in slavery in the United States. I also highly recommend this book to students of slavery in other societies in the Americas. I am sure that Brazilian scholars will find in this book a great source of inspiration to produce similar works focusing on Brazil. Unfortunately, I am also sure that the tragic events regarding the use of enslaved dead bodies by schools of medicine and after emancipation the use of cadavers of black men and women were and are still common in Brazil. Then this book contributes to scholarship at several levels: to the economic history of slavery in the United States, to the study of all dimensions of the lives of enslaved women and children, and to the study of commodification of black bodies from the late eighteenth century to the present. The story told in this book did not end. Every week a new abandoned slave cemetery is uncovered. In addition, by clearly providing an assessment of the value of enslaved bodies, Ramey Berry adds an important layer to the debate of financial reparations for slavery.
Written and published in 2017.
©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission
Adam Rothman’s Beyond Freedom’s Reach: A Kidnapping in the Twilight of Slavery (Harvard University Press, 2015) brings to light the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children on the eve of and during the Civil War.
Rothman follows the case of Louisiana’s enslaved woman Rose Herera and her three young children Joseph Ernest (6), Marie Georgiana (4) and Marie Joséphine (2). The book shows how by the middle of the nineteenth century, even in urban areas like New Orleans, the boundaries between freedom and bondage were often blurred. The book emphasizes the importance of slave families, but also shows how slave mothers had little control over their children, submitted to the will of their masters.
Beyond Freedom’s Reach is divided into five chapters, in addition to a prologue and an epilogue. The first chapter explores the parish of Pointe Coupée, where Rose was born, as the child of an enslaved mother. Although about 150 miles from the “cosmopolitan” New Orleans, by the mid-nineteenth century, the institution of slavery in this parish had many elements in common with other large slave societies. Among others, there was high mortality and low birth rate among the slave population. Like in other areas (such as Brazil) where the slave trade from Africa had been prohibited in 1850, in Pointe Coupée, the slave population was increasing, but through the domestic slave trade. The growing slave population in the area was connected to the blooming of sugar and cotton production that was replacing tobacco and indigo production in the area. In Pointe Coupée, in 1850, two-thirds of the population was enslaved.
Then the second chapter moves to New Orleans, where Rose (and consequently her three young children who by the law could not be separated from their mother) were sold. There she passed through various owners, and ended up in the hands of James De Hart, a dentist married to a woman named Mary De Hart. New Orleans had a large population of color, but slaves were a minority. The city had also a huge population of foreigners as well and was the largest slave market in the United States by 1850. This is an important chapter to understand the dynamics of urban slavery in the US South and especially the working conditions of domestic slaves. It demystifies the idea that domestic slaves benefited from good treatment by their masters.
The third chapter explores the explosion of the Civil War and how it affected the lives of the free and enslaved population of New Orleans, especially Rose and her children. In New Orleans things were becoming increasingly difficult for black residents and black travelers.
Among the enslaved population, there was hope of being freed by the federal troops that took control of the city. Thousands of black soldiers entered the military service on the Union side. Slave insurgency was visible at various levels and this raised great concern among the masters, especially the mistresses who gradually saw the seeds of revolt among their slaves. The picture described here is the very opposite of what viewers saw in the film Gone with the Wind.
In this turbulent context, Rose (now married to a free man) and her young children were sold to the aunt of Mary De Hart (James De Hart’s wife), probably to avoid him having his slave property seized. Weeks later, James De Hart left New Orleans for Havana, Cuba. Slavery was well alive in Cuba and ships carrying slaves from Africa continued to arrive at its shores. Merchants and businessmen from Havana and New Orleans were involved in this trade. Now that her husband was gone, Mary had to convince Rose (along with her children) to follow her family to Cuba, leaving behind her husband and the hopes of freedom. In December 1862, about two weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation, Rose was thrown in jail. Mary De Hart failed in convincing Rose to leave New Orleans. She then kidnapped Rose’s three children and brought them with her to Havana.
The next two chapters, “Justice” and “Reunion,” explore the consequences of this drama in Rose’s life in the context of the end of the Civil War until the final abolition of slavery in 1865. Freed people were looking for their relatives, a dramatic moment explored by Heather Andrea Williams in her book Help to Find My People (2012). Rose fought to recover her children. Her defense used various arguments, including the 1829 law and previous codes that prohibited the separation of enslaved children under ten years old from their enslaved mothers. Among others, by the time the children were kidnapped, the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 had already passed. Moreover, when Rose’s lawyers defended these arguments by in April 1865, the new constitution of Louisiana had abolished slavery, anyway making Rose and her children free.
Rose’s story and her fight to recover her children shed light on many elements that characterized slavery, and especially the experiences of enslaved women, in other parts of the Americas. In New Orleans, like in Brazil for example, paternalism was an important feature of the discourses of lawyers and slave owners, who claimed that enslaved children were treated well like they were members of the master’s family. Rothman’s book also highlights the nefarious relations between mistresses and enslaved women. Although Mary De Hart was not the legal owner of Rose and her children, she was the one who committed the crime of kidnapping and the one who was sent to jail.
Rothman shows how emancipation was a very long and complex process. In the United States, unlike Cuba and Brazil, and other parts of Latin America, there was no Free Womb Law. Children remained legally enslaved until the final abolition of slavery in 1865, after the end of the Civil War. Several years after the abolition of slavery, fears and rumors of re-enslavement and kidnapping continued to spread.
The book is an exemplary work of micro-history. It examines many important aspects for historians working on slavery in the North and the South Atlantic worlds. It explores the problem of slavery borders, the issue of the illegal slave trade, re-enslavement, and enslavement of free persons. It raises questions about the limits of motherhood under slavery as well. The book also contributes to the understanding of the crucial role of enslaved women in fighting for freedom during and after the Civil War. It provides elements to study the enslavement of children, an aspect that only recently has gained attention from scholars of slavery.
The book is in dialogue with several recent works of scholars working on similar issues in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. As I am most familiar with the scholarship of Brazil and Latin America, I think especially of Camilla Cowling’s latest book Conceiving Freedom: Women of Color, Gender, and the Abolition of Slavery in Havana and Rio de Janeiro (2013), and Gerald Horne’s The Deepest South (2007). In Brazil, it is also in dialogue with the works of several Brazilian scholars. Here I think especially about the works of Keila Grinberg, Karl Monsma, Lisa Earl Castillo, Luciana Brito, and Maria Clara Sampaio.
Scholars, graduate, and undergraduate students will love this book which really reads like a novel. Moreover, beyond its scholarly scope, the general public can easily read and enjoy Beyond Freedom’s Reach, without having to pay attention to the well-documented endnotes.
Written and published in 2015.
©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission
The problem of portraying extreme violence is part of scholarly and public debates since the end of the Second World War. After the Holocaust, whereas some scholars considered fiction an adequate means to represent atrocities, other scholars and Holocaust survivors were opposed to these fictional representations, by underscoring the ethical problems posed by it. Theodor Adorno, for example, sustained that eyewitness accounts were the most powerful instruments to accurately convey the horrors of concentrationary and genocidary experiences. But Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and historians like Christopher R. Browning, have underscored the problems related to the use of testimonies, because the emotional desire of the witnesses could blur the necessary critical approach that historians allegedly employ when examining primary sources.
Despite these concerns, tragedies like slavery and the Holocaust have been extensively represented in novels and plays. Over the last few years several Hollywood movies, like Beloved, Amistad, Schindler’s List, Inglorious Bestards, and Django Unchained have portrayed the tragedy of slavery, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Holocaust. The new film 12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen is the latest, and probably the most successful, attempt to represent what for many scholars and artists is part of the sphere of the irrepresentable. Based on the narrative 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup published in 1853, very probably the reason for this success is related to Adorno’s recommendation regarding the power of eyewitnesses’ accounts.
12 Years a Slave loyally portrays the ordeals of Salomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The son of a former slave, Northup was born free in the state of New York in 1808, the exact year of the abolition of the slave trade to the United States. In 1829, he married Anne Hampton, who Northup describes as a colored woman who carried in her veins the blood of the three races. Together they had three children. In 1834, Northup and his family were living in Saratoga, New York. An educated man, he worked performing different activities. He obtained contracts to transport timber from Lake Champlain to Troy, and during these trips, he visited Montreal and Kingston, in Canada. He also made some earnings as a violin player. In 1841, he met two men who invited him to follow them to New York, to play violin. Northup accepted the invitation and ended up in Washington DC, the US national capital, where he was kidnapped and sold as a slave.
Northup is kept in the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, located at 800 Independence Avenue SW, the present-day headquarters of the Federal Aviation Administration. As one scene of the movie shows, the slave pen had a privilege view to the US Capitol. The film features a number of elements contrasting Northup’s life as a free respectable man (in the film African Americans do not seem to suffer any kind discrimination in the state of New York) and his life as an enslaved man. Dehumanization is represented by the slaves’ lost of control on their own bodies. This is visible in the repeated physical punishments with whips, chains, shackles, and other instruments of torture. The film also emphasizes the promiscuity imposed on enslaved men, women, and children. Northup and the other enslaved men and women kept with him, slept together and took bath together. They shared their nakedness and wounds. The scenes portraying these atrocities are powerful because the camera occupies a particular position. In one of the first scenes in the Washington DC slave pen, when Northup is whipped, the camera is placed near the floor. This strategy of placing the camera in the victim’s position is employed in other scenes of floggings, making the spectator a witness of the horrors that take place during the film.
During the rest of the movie, the spectator continues occupying the very uncomfortable position of eyewitness and accomplices of the extreme violence imposed on Northup (now renamed Platt) and other slaves. In this matter, the film is successful in showing the complexities of the slave system. Slave owners and slave dealers are certainly the perpetrators in this narrative. However, in the film, it is clear both in Northup’s words and in the words of other slaves and former slaves that the ethics that allow enslaved men and women to survive these experiences of extreme violence differs greatly from the ethics of the everyday life in freedom. In one scene, Northup is hanged from a tree with a rope around his neck by an overseer, and remains there for several minutes. The camera does not move. As in a horror tableau, the hanging man occupies the foreground, whereas in the background the other enslaved men, women, and children continue to (a)normally perform their daily activities. The spectator witnesses the scene of torture without being able to take any action, until Northup’s master eventually cuts the rope, rescuing him.
Another important and complex problem presented in a masterful way in the film is the violence imposed on enslaved women. Most of these scenes are related to the remaining years Northup spent in a cotton plantation owned by a man called Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who drank heavily. The enslaved woman Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) plays the role of the exemplary victim of violence and sexual exploitation. As Northup explains in his original account, Patsey was 23 years old and was the daughter of an African man, brought to Cuba in a slave ship. In Northup’s words, Patsey was the “queen of the field.” She was famous as the best cotton picker in the region and could make 500 pounds a day. As Northup’s narrative and the film shows Patsey suffered more than any other slave in the plantation, not because she did not perform her work or resisted in any ways but because of the sexual violence imposed by her master and the jalousie of her mistress (Sarah Paulson). As in other slave societies like Brazil, the film shows the pervasive role of white mistresses. In response to the behavior of Epps who constantly raped the young and beautiful Patsey, the mistress constantly terrorized the young enslaved woman. Moreover, Epps would whip Patsey only to please his wife. In one occasion, after Patsey left the plantation without warning, upon her return she was severely whipped. Stripped from her clothes, the young woman was attached to a whipping post. Northup was then forced by the master to whip her. What the film does not explain is that by this time, Northup was a slave driver, who dominated the art of whipping other slaves. During this long scene, the most violent in the whole movie, the camera is sometimes positioned in the place of the driver and sometimes in the position of the victim. After inflicting some dozens of lashes, Northup attempted to give up the horrible task. Eventually, Epps continued whipping Patsey until she lost consciousness.
Although underscoring the complex dynamics of terror established by a system in which slaves were forced to punish other fellow slaves, the film emphasizes victimization by alternating action and slow scenes. The filmmaker uses and abuses of close-ups to make the spectator an accomplice of the horrors of slavery. Sometimes the violence against enslaved men and women seems to be gratuitous, especially in the case of Patsey. The film portrays slavery as torture and terror, but also makes clear that from the point of view of the master an enslaved woman like Patsey was precious property. Not only she was beautiful and smart, but she had tremendous abilities to pick cotton that generated great profits to her master. The film does a good job in loyally giving life to Northup’s written narrative. However, as spectators and scholars, we have to take into account the fact that 12 Years a Slave was published in the context of the abolitionist movement. Northup’s slave narrative was not only intended to provide an accurate portrait of slave life, but also to promote the abolitionist campaign. Even though the huge focus on physical punishments presented in the movie is enlightening to understand slavery and the racial violence against African Americans that persisted in the post-emancipation period, this focus places enslaved men and women in a helpless position, where they are denied all agency and means to resist slavery. This is particularly visible by the end of the film when Northup is eventually rescued by his Northern white friends. But it is important to have in mind that those who were born in slavery and did not have the chance of being freed, also found numerous ways to resist and negotiate their existences under that horrible system. They were also fighters and active survivors, and not only passive victims as sometimes they are portrayed in the film.
Written and published in 2013.
Written in 2018. ©AnaLuciaAraujo. May not be reprinted without permission
The video of the song Apes**t by Beyoncé and Jay Z revives the conversation about slavery and its legacies. The song is part of the couple’s new joint album as the Carters. Far from the United States, the Carters occupied the Louvre Museum, one of the most important art museums in the world and greatest symbol of high white culture, to address the persisting heritage of the Atlantic slave trade.
The stage of Apes**t was carefully selected. The Louvre Museum was created at the end of the eighteenth century during the summit of the Atlantic slave trade. This was also a troubling period in France’s history. The French Revolution swept the monarchy, spreading change across the Atlantic world.
Conceived to house French royal collections, the Louvre displayed paintings produced by European artists. Upon its inception, its visitors were French elite members. Its walls only displayed the works of selected prominent artists. Very few black subjects are portrayed in the paintings hang on the Louvre’s walls. Obviously, still today black artists rarely have their works exhibited in the Louvre. Apes**ts‘svideo puts this system upside down. Appropriating the iconic western museum, the video is in dialogue with the acclaimed scene of Marvel’s film Black Panther, when Killmonger reclaims a Wakanda’s artifact on display in a fictive major western museum. Intentionally or not (it doesn’t matter), through the work of the video director, Beyoncé and Jay Z give a wink to the actions led by the movement Decolonize this Place.
The opening scene of Apes**t shows the Carters posing with one of the greatest icons of Western art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa (1503). In reality, no ordinary visitor to the Louvre can stand alone in front of this painting, always surrounded by crowds of hunger tourists pointing their smartphone cameras to capture the best image. Beyoncé and Jay Z are the privileged viewers in this setting, a position confirmed in the lyrics of the song: “I can’t believe we made it, This is what we’re thankful for.”
With their monumental bodies, filmed in low angle shots at one of Louvre’s marble staircases, the Carters and a group of black dancers wearing “nude” costumes dance in front of the marble sculpture The Winged Victory of Samothrace (190 BC). The Carters and the video’s black performers conquer a space that was not conceived to be occupied by black subjects. Yet, sometimes these bodies are alive and moving, sometimes they rather look like immobile corpses.
Evoking life and death, one of the first scenes of Apes**t shows Baroque and Renaissance angels decorating the ceilings of the Louvre, while outside the building a very human black angel is crouching on the ground. Apes**t is a celebration of African American achievement, but at the same time the video mocks the meaning of material wealth and symbolic distinction (also embraced by the Carters) in a world where black men and women are the daily victims of lethal racism.
The video returns a few times to the motive of black motherhood. One scene showcases details of the painting Pietá (1537-1540) by Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), associating the bodies of black young men with the suffering body of the crucified Christ, a motive that often appears in a number of later works depicting slavery, especially in the nineteenth century.
Apes**t continues with numerous references to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. And Napoléon Bonaparte is no stranger to this tragic history. The French Revolution storm fueled the Revolution of Saint-Domingue (1792-1804) that by the time was the richest French colony in the Americas. The insurrection led by slaves and former slaves pushed the French Convention to abolish slavery in 1794. But freedom was short-lived.
In 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte led a coup d’état, by becoming the First Consul. The connections between Bonaparte and slavery are clear: in 1802, he reestablished slavery in the French colonies. The Revolution of Saint-Domingue was eventually successful. In 1804, the rebels abolished slavery in the colony and made it the first independent black nation, now named Haiti. At the end of that year, Bonaparte crowned himself emperor, becoming Napoléon I. Apes**t features The Consecration of Napoleon (Le Sacre de Napoléon) (1805-1807) by the prominent neoclassic French painter Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). The painting portrays the coronation, by also featuring the Empress Joséphine. Although Napoléon’s rule ended in 1815, slavery continued alive in the remaining French colonies until 1848.
David’s painting is the background for Queen Bey and her team of performers dancing performance. They are now part of this painting. By conquering Europe and the Louvre, Beyoncé and Jay Z place themselves in the same lineage of black men and women who fought for freedom in Saint-Domingue, and who became kings and queens, such as Henry Christophe (1767-1820), crowned King Henry I and his wife Marie-Louise Coidavid (1778-1851). The couple also flirts with Afrocentrism. They pose with the Great Sphinx of Tanis (ca. 2600 BC), a giant statue associated with the pharaohs Ammemes II (12th Dynasty, 1929-1895 BC), Mernpetah (19th Dynasty, 1212-02 BC) and Shoshenq I (22nd Dynasty, 945-24 BC). Taking an Afrocentric stance, the Carters connect themselves to the cradle of (black) civilization. They are as black emperors of world popular culture performing in the temple of high white culture.
Apes**t also engages with the slave past by showing two other French paintings.
The first painting is The Raft of the Medusa (Le Rafle de la Méduse) (1819) by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). An icon of French Romanticism, the painting depicts the wreck of the French frigate Medusa, occurred in 1816, just after the restoration of Bourbon dynasty that followed the fall of Napoleon. The Medusa was sent to Senegal to confirm the authority of King Louis XVIII over the colony just ceded to France. Carrying 392 men on board, the ship wrecked on the Senegalese coast. The tragedy happened during the period of the illegal slave trade in this part of the West African coast. During thirteen days, its passengers fought to survive. The dramatic painting portrays a small group of survivors on a raft. Among them, three black men occupy featured positions. Géricault’s painting is considered a manifesto for the abolition of slavery when the institution still existed in French colonies in the Americas and Africa.
The video also displays another painting, Portrait of a Negress (Portrait d’une Négresse) (1800), by Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), a student of David. The painting is among the very few French paintings depicting a black woman as its main subject. In a period when very few women were well-established artists, the painted portrait is also among the few works authored by a woman that made it to the Louvre. Nameless, the model was probably a domestic servant. Although the naked breast evokes an exotic image of black womanhood, the model is wearing fine clothes and is portrayed in a dignified position.
Apes**t greatly contrasts with the recent video of the song This is America by Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino). Unlike Glover, the Carters chose to emphasize black splendor, to show the legacies of slavery through the dramatic beauty of black bodies, dead or alive. By occupying the Louvre, they draw a line between the absence of black subjects in western painting and art institutions and the persisting racial violence that ravages not only the United States, but also France and other areas of the African diaspora. To accomplish this project, the creators of the video chose the Louvre Museum, and this is very significant. In the US context, France and French art remain symbols of high culture and sophistication. For many African Americans, slavery and racism seem to be far away from France’s reality. But as the couple immersed in the Louvre’s collections, slavery and race resurfaced once again. Yet, from now on white spaces such as the Louvre can no longer survive without acknowledging how much they owe to the black and brown bodies that allow them to exist.
Written and published in 2018.
Escrito e publicado em 2018. Copyright ©AnaLuciaAraujo. Não pode ser impresso sem permissão.
O vídeo da música Apes**t de Beyoncé e Jay Z reanima o diálogo sobre a escravidão e seus legados. A música é parte do novo álbum conjunto do casal Carter. Longe dos Estados Unidos, os Carters ocuparam o Museu do Louvre, um dos mais importantes museus de arte do mundo e sem dúvida um dos maiores símbolos da alta cultura branca, trazendo à tona a discussão da persistente herança presente do comércio atlântico de escravos.
O palco para essa performance Apes**t foi cuidadosamente escolhido. O Museu do Louvre foi criado no final do século XVIII durante o ápice do comércio atlântico de africanos escravizados. Esse também foi um período turbulento da história da França. A Revolução francesa varreu a monarquia, espalhando mudança através do mundo atlântico.
Concebido para abrigar as coleções reais francesas, o Louvre mostrava pinturas produzidas por artistas europeus. Desde sua criação, seus visitantes eram membros da elite francesa. Suas galerias expunham trabalhos de artistas célebres. Muito poucos personagens negros eram retratados em pinturas expostas nas paredes do Louvre. É claro que ainda hoje, artistas negros raramente tem seus trabalhos expostos no Louvre. O video Apes**ts coloca esse sistema de cabeça para baixo. Apropriando o icônico museu ocidental, o vídeo dialoga com a famosa cena do filme da Marvel Pantera Negra, quando Killmonger revindica um artefato do reino de Wakanda exposto em uma vitrine de um grande museu ocidental fictício. Intencionalmente ou não (isso não importa) através do trabalho do diretor do vído, Beyoncé e Jay Z acenam para as ações de grupos americanos de ativistas tal como o Descolonize esse lugar.
A cena de abertura Apes**t mostra os Carters posando na frente de um dos grandes ícones da arte ocidental, a Monalisa (1503) de Leonardo da Vinci. Na realidade, nenhum visitante comum do Museu do Louvre pode ficar de pé sozinho na frente desse quadro, sempre rodeado de multidões de turistas famintos, apontando as câmeras de seus telefones celulares para capturar a melhor imagem. Beyoncé e Jay Z são os observadores privilegiados nesse ambiente, posição confirmada pela letra da música que diz: “I can’t believe we made it (Eu não acredito que eu consegui), This is what we’re thankful for (Isto é a que somos gratos.”
Com seus corpos monumentais, filmados em contre-plongé no alto de uma escadaria de mármore do Louvre, o casal Carter e um grupo de dançarinas negras usando malhas da cor da pele dançam na frente Vitória de Samotrácia (190 BC). Os Carters e os dançarinas negras conquistam um espaço que não foi concebido para ser ocupado por personagens negros. Apesar disso, às vezes esses corpos são vivos e se movem, outras vezes eles parecem imóveis, como cadáveres.
Evocando vida e morte, uma das primiras cenas de Apes**t mostra anjos barrocos e renascentistas decorando o teto do Louvre, enquanto do lado de fora do prédio, um anjo negro muito humano aparece agachado no chão. Apes**t comemora o sucesso afro-americano, mas ao mesmo tempo o vídeo zomba do significado da riqueza material e da distinção simbólica (tão bem incorporados pelo casal Carter) em um mundo onde homens e mulheres negras são vítimas diárias do racismo letal.
O vídeo retorna algumas vezes ao motivo da maternidade negra. Uma das cenas mostra detalhes da pintura Pietá (1537-1540) do artista italiano Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540), associando os corpos de jovens negros com o sofrimento do corpo do Cristo crucificado, motivo que mais tarde, principalmente no século XIX, aparece em vários trabalhos representando a escravidão.
Apes**t continua com várias referências à escravidão e ao tráfico atlântico de escravizados. E Napoléon Bonaparte não é estranho a essa trágica história. A tormenta da Revoluçao Francesa impulsionou a Revolução de Saint-Domingue (1792-1804) que naquela época era a mais rica colônia francesa nas Américas. A insurreição liderada por escravos e ex-escravos forçou a Convenção Francesa a abolir a escravidão em 1794. Mas a liberdade durou pouco.
Em 1799, Napoleão Bonaparte liderou um golpe de estado, tornando-se primeiro cônsul. As conexões entre Bonaparte e a escravidão são claras: em 1802, ele restabeleceu a escravidão nas colônias francesas. A Revolução de Saint-Domingue acabou por ser bem sucedida. Em 1804, os rebeldes aboliram a escravidão na colônia e fizeram dela a primeira nação negra independente, agora chamada Haiti. No final daquele ano, Bonaparte coroou a si mesmo imperador, tornando-se Napoleão I. Apes**t mostra a tela A Coroação de Napoleão (Le Sacre de Napoléon) (1805-1807) do famoso pintor francês neoclássico Jacques Louis David (1748-1825). A pintura representa a cerimônia de coroação, também destacando a imperatriz Josefina. Mesmo se a era napoleônica terminou em 1815, a escravidão continuou viva nas colônias francesas até 1848.
Dançando na frente da pintura de David, a Rainha Bey e sua equipe de artistas agora fazem parte desta pintura. Ao conquistar a Europa e o Louvre, Beyoncé e Jay Z colocam-se na mesma linhagem de homens e mulheres negros e negras que lutaram pela liberdade em Saint-Domingue, e que se tornaram reis e rainhas, tais como Henry Christophe (1767-1820), coroado Rei Henry I e sua esposa Marie-Louise Coidavid (1778-1851). O casal Carter também flerta com o Afrocentrismo. Eles posam com Grande Esfinge de Tanis (ca. 2600 BC), uma escultura gigante associada com os faraós Ammemes II (12a dinastia, 1929-1895 AC), Mernpetah (19a dinastia, 1212-02 AC) e Shoshenq I (22a dinastia, 945-24 AC). Assumindo uma postura afrocêntrica, os Carters se conectam ao berço da civilização (negra). Eles são como imperadores negros da cultura popular mundial atuando no templo da alta cultura branca.
Apes**t também dialoga com o passado escravista ao mostrar outras duas pinturas francesas.
A primeira pintura A Balsa da Medusa(Le Rafle de la Méduse) (1819) de Théodore Géricault (1791-1824). Um ícone do romantismo francês, a pintura retrata o naufrágio da fragata francesa Medusa, ocorrido em 1816, logo após a restauração da dinastia Bourbon, que se seguiu à queda de Napoleão. A Medusa foi enviada ao Senegal para confirmar a autoridade do rei Luís XVIII sobre a colônia recém cedida à França. Transportando 392 homens a bordo, o navio naufragou na costa senegalesa. A tragédia aconteceu durante o período do comércio ilegal de escravos nesta parte da costa da África Ocidental. Durante treze dias, seus passageiros lutaram para sobreviver. A pintura dramática retrata um pequeno grupo de sobreviventes em uma jangada. Entre eles, três personagens negros se destacam na composição. A pintura de Géricault é considerada um manifesto pela abolição da escravidão quando a instituição ainda existia nas colônias francesas nas Américas e na África.
O vídeo também mostra outra pinturaRetrato de uma negra (Portrait d’une Négresse) (1800) de Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1768-1826), uma aluna de David. A pintura está entre as poucas pinturas francesas que retratam uma mulher negra como personagem principal. Em um período em que poucas mulheres eram artistas bem estabelecidas, o retrato pintado também está entre as poucas obras de autoria de uma mulher que chegou ao Louvre. Sem nome, a modelo provavelmente era uma empregada doméstica. Embora o seio nu evoque uma imagem exótica da feminilidade negra, a modelo veste roupas finas e é retratada em uma posição digna.
Apes**t constrata grandemente com o recente vídeo da música song This is America de Donald Glover (alias Childish Gambino). Ao contrário de Glover, os Carters optaram por enfatizar o esplendor negro, optaram por mostrar os legados da escravidão através da beleza dramática dos corpos negros, mortos ou vivos. Ao ocupar o Louvre, eles traçam uma linha entre a ausência de sujeitos negros nas instituições de pintura e arte ocidentais e a persistente violência racial que persiste não apenas os Estados Unidos, mas também na França e em outras áreas da diáspora africana. Para completar esse projeto os criadores do vídeo escolheram o Museu do Louvre e isso é muito significativo. No contexto dos EUA, a França e a arte francesa permanecem símbolos de alta cultura e sofisticação. Para muitos afro-americanos, a escravidão e o racismo parecem estar longe da realidade da França. Mas enquanto o casal Carter mergulhava nas coleções do Louvre, a escravidão e a questão racial ressurgiram novamente. No entanto, de agora em diante, os espaços brancos, como o Louvre, não podem mais sobreviver sem reconhecer o quanto devem aos corpos negros e marrons que lhes permitiram existir.