By Felicia Denaud
Our Mouths Are Source Enough
I, like Lisette of Saint-Domingue, “feel this story invading me” (74). And while this invasion, in part, is the kind marshaled by standing armies—their arsenals and geopolitics—it is also about a body overrun by language, a womb burglarized by words, a war over our narratively-seized flesh. Perhaps this is why Yvonne Vera insisted that “survival is in the mouth,” or Toni Morrison argued that “narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” We have no way through but to create ourselves. This life insists we make a cabal out of these words, gather them into a riot of gestures, a plot against their own inscription. I, like the maroons of La Goyave, remember that “words can be no bigger than the [woman] for it is all contained in [her] mouth” (150). Our mouths are source enough. But what if the mouth is just a belly by another name? What if partus sequitur ventrum, the law of enslavability, was just as much a claim to the mouth as it was to the womb? While “the master dreams of future increase,” he also dreams of speech. “Humanity reduced to a monologue,” Aimé Césaire indicts (74). We must create mutatively; we must birth these children from our mouths. But some words, some children, some rebellions are stillborn.
Solitude of Guadeloupe knew the architecture of a stillborn mouth. “Long, long ago she learned to distrust the words that came out of her mouth… mirrors that fell at her feet, shattering her reflections.” (124) I gather these shards, these broken sounds, these languaged silhouettes because I long to know her. I long to know Solitude, why she “decided in favor of the living” that night along the banks of the Goyave (142). I long to know Solitude, to “take refuge from liberty, equality, and fraternity in the deep dark woods” that set her free (109). Like Euphrosine, her fellow maroon, I dare to ask, “how does your living body feel?” (133) Euphrosine understood all the bodies Solitude contained: a corpse encased by the brands of many masters, a fugitive earth-machine with new life inside, a monument carved from memory and iroko wood. Dragging her dying parts into the Republic, Solitude recognized it was no place for the zombie she had become and learned to imitate life. These gestures soon became her own and, swollen with aliveness, Solitude revolted. With child, she survived the strategic suicide at Moutuba only to be captured and executed a day after giving birth. I, like Solitude, wonder: “Where are all the words? Where are they?” (161)
And then I met Dinah of Kentucky. All the words we could not find, our entire “past lay sealed in the scars between her thighs” (60). Written by Man, these scars are a metastatic alphabet, a “body becoming text,” and Dinah, a form of writing disappeared into the procedural mandates of History. “Know how to call my name,” she rages, a demand to overturn the order of Man and Word that sentenced her to state execution pending delivery (225). The coffle line Dinah liberated was the connective tissue of this slavocracy. Ninety men, women, and children emancipated. Three traders conquered. Dinah, like Solitude, revolted with child. These renegade gestators pursued the possibility of liberation over the certainty of servitude. You may dream of future increase but you must capture us both, and kill me first!
Black Gesturgency and the Reproductive Structure of Captivity
I do not beg the archive to yield what it never sowed. I do not rehearse its pretensions. “Critique,” Saidiya Hartman reminds, “[is just] another way of remaining faithful to the limits of the archive.” At Hartman’s suggestion, I pursue “a revolutionary imagination that wants to discover, institute, initiate a new way of telling” (6). This piece opens with a speculative practice of telling, or better yet, a method of being with Lisette, Solitude, and Dinah —the women I long to know. This opening chant is both a desire to know and a genealogy of knowing disappeared by the procedural mandate of (Intellectual) History. It reinforces that these women lived, thought, and conspired at the vanishing point of the word while resorting to writing as a provisional, insufficient meeting ground. Out of this methodological impasse, I can only defy the archive’s presumed powers of adjudication over matters of knowledge and truth.
The lives of Lisette, Solitude, and Dinah pose fundamental questions about the structure of violence underwriting Black captivity, the entanglement of rebellion and reproduction it forges, and the expressive forms available to hold it. My preoccupation with these women stems from a larger body of conceptual work on Black gesturgency, or practices and strategies of slave revolt concerning or coordinated by pregnant rebels across the African diaspora. The stakes of Black gesturgency as both a conceptual clearing and a figuration of form lie squarely in Joy James’ warning about “state intimate violence”: “When and wherever the concept of racial capital overshadows the phenomenon of racial rape, the outline of democracy’s boundary and the contour of its terrors are obscured.” (35) And as Deborah Gray White, Jennifer L. Morgan, Alys Eve Weinbaum, and Saidiya Hartman have all taken up with incredible sophistication and depth, the logic of enslavability as a heritable property relation was routed through Black women’s reproductive labors. “Conveying lineagelessness through the maternal line,” Morgan explains, “was addressed through a range of ideological maneuvers … that structurally denied African people the place of family while simultaneously rooting their enslavement in the very place” (14-15).
In response to this reproductive disjunction that figures Black maternity as both source and absence, Black women pursued a range of strategic orientations. From violent antagonism to performative conciliation, their tactics constitute a body of knowledge on the reproductive structure of captivity and map gestation, abortion, and infanticide as interlocking survival methods. Black gesturgency specifically attends to violent refusals and rebellions orchestrated by pregnant slaves; it isolates a particular moment in the reproduction of capture where inheritability itself (the sequitur of partus sequitur ventrum) is undermined. While abortion and infanticide deny access to/expansion of the property relation and giving birth signifies an “abiding knowledge of freedom contrary to every empirical index of the plantation,” renegade gestation intervenes on the “embodied determinism” that tethered the womb to perpetual kinlessness. Pregnant insurgents deny the proliferation of property by liberating their own gestational labor and violating the code of heritability. For Joy James, “Captive Maternal” names those conscripted into caretaking and the stabilization of culture and growth through the generalized consumption of their (re)productive labors. In a word, they endow democracy with its “generative” powers. As Captive Maternals, Black gesturgents decouple—if only for a fleeting moment—caretaking/reproductive labor from structural stabilization. This fleeting dissociation advanced by gesturgent rebellion offers a way of thinking care-work and destabilization as a strategic suite and political horizon.
Porous and Possible: Between the Archive and the Novel
Black women’s rebellion, and the even more niche area of pregnant Black women’s rebellion, calls on the relationship between skeletal archival fragments and lush Black novels. Indeed, Lisette, Solitude, and Dinah exist in the porous and possible terrain between the colonial archive and the novel. The historical records of their lives and ideas provide leads but amount to bare, sterile, and hostile narration. The novel not only makes these gesturgents available but provides a means through which we can co-create, as the beginning of this piece does, with their intellectual and experiential offerings. As Angela Davis writes in “Lectures on Liberation,” “the history of Black Literature provides, in my opinion, a much more illuminating account for the nature of freedom, its extent and limit, than all the philosophical discourse on this theme in the history of western society” (4).
Solitude and Dinah were pregnant rebels executed for their leadership in violent insurrections immediately after giving birth. In 1802, Solitude mobilized maroon bands in the hills of Guadalupe against Napoleon’s invading forces intent on re-establishing slavery throughout the colonies. In 1829, Dinah co-conspired with five others to liberate a coffle line of ninety moving through Vanceburg, Kentucky. The historical accounts of these two women amount to little more than a paragraph. In Auguste Lacour’s Histoire de la Guadeloupe (1858), Solitude is briefly and disparagingly described as the “wicked genius” of the rebels, “exciting them to the worst crimes… her hate and rage explosive.” Dinah’s story is recorded in three source texts: John Winston Coleman’s Slavery Times in Kentucky (1940), Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), and Angela Davis’ “Reflections on the Role of the Black Woman in the Community of Slaves” (1971). Aptheker’s account is compelling in its coverage of the male insurgents but reserves two lines for Dinah in which she goes unnamed:
The posse thus formed is reported to have succeeded in capturing all the slaves, and six of the rebel leaders, five men and one woman, were sentenced to hang. The woman was found to be pregnant and permitted to remain in jail for several months until after the birth of the child, whereupon, on May 25, 1830, she was publicly hanged.Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts, 291
Interestingly, Dinah’s name is lost in the citational jump between Coleman and Aptheker’s works, and that loss is reproduced when Davis sources her information from Aptheker. As Mary Kemp Davis writes, “the female slave rebel remains nameless—and, because of the paucity of information about her—faceless” (546).
But from historical shards come verdant tellings. In 1972, Andre Schwartz-Bart published A Woman Named Solitude, an atmospheric meditation on maternity and desire within conditions of physical and psychic confinement. Schwartz-Bart imagines a beginning for Solitude that precedes her New World capture, starting the novel among the Diola in West Africa and with her mother’s childhood: “Once upon a time, on a strange planet there was a little black girl by the name of Bayangumay…” (1) The novel moves through Solitude’s own experiences of dispossession, alienation, zombification, desire, pregnancy, and execution. For Solitude, pregnancy stages as a mythic return to the self that breaches the seen and unseen. After reading Angela Davis’ essay, Sherley Anne Williams takes up Dinah’s story as inspiration for her 1986 novel Dessa Rose. Dessa Rose both builds out a backstory to the liberated Kentucky coffle line and imagines a future in which Dessa (Dinah) evades execution and births a son. Pregnancy is one of the few autonomous pursuits Dessa shares with her late “husband” Kaine (murdered by their master) and that of him which remains in a regime of relentless birth and death. The baby incubates, even before Kain’s murder, an impulse to flee and to fight. When asked during an interrogation why she killed white men, Dessa responds: “I kill white mens cause the same reason Massa kill Kaine. Cause I can.” (20)
Unlike Solitude and Dinah, Lisette is a fictional character from Evelyne Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie. Interestingly, however, the novel itself is inspired by a passage about an Arada midwife in Saint-Domingue (sourced from M. E. Descourtilz) in Lucien Abenon, Jacques Cauna, and Liliane Chauleau’s Antilles 1789: La Révolution aux Caraïbes, a historical look at the revolutionary reverberations coursing through the French Antilles at the end of the 18th century. While on trial, the midwife confesses to killing 70 newborns in order to “remove these young creatures from the shameful institution of slavery.” (77). She documented each death by tying a knot on a necklace made of rope. In The Infamous Rosalie, Lisette is the niece of this midwife, who Trouillot names Aunt Brigitte. The driving tension of the text is Lisette’s inheritance of the memories, experiences, and violations of her maternal forebears as she negotiates her own desires for freedom. When Lisette gets pregnant with a maroon lover and decides to both keep the baby and officially join an underground rebel network, she draws strength and understanding from Aunt Brigitte’s acts of political infanticide. For Lisette, the cord marking infant deaths is a source of knowledge, lineage, and dignity. She recognizes Aunt Brigitte’s work as part of the gestational matrix or reproductive structure of captivity in which Black women had to make a range of strategic decisions. And she, too, creates her set of conditions around political life and the birth of her daughter:
Aunt Brigitte’s cord, riding against my belly, reminds me of the promise of love and dignity I made in her honor as well. I must wrap myself in passion and light so I don’t fear the emptiness and so I can teach my daughter to confront the barracoons and soar to the stars Most of all, my love for her must be as wide as the blue sky and sea. May I find the courage to honor my promise: Creole child who still lives in me, you will be born free and rebellious, or you will not be born at all.Trouillot, The Infamous Rosalie, 120
Having Survived by Word of Mouth
Collectively, Lisette, Solitude, and Dinah point towards a subterranean genealogy as it relates to the labor/thought of Black revolt. Black gesturgency rips through time and form and is, in fact, more a percussive call-and-response than technique of historical or intellectual recovery: this is writing/pregnancy against the procedures of History. In the Author’s Note in Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams writes that “Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth—and made of that process a high art—remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often, these have betrayed us.” This life insists we make a cabal out of these words, gather them into a riot of gestures, a plot against their own inscription. We, like the maroons of La Goyave, must remember that “words can be no bigger than the [woman] for it is all contained in [her] mouth.” We must create mutatively; we must birth these children from our mouths. We must not beg the archive to yield what it never sowed. Our mouths are source enough. We have no way through but to create ourselves.
Felicia Denaud is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in Africana Studies at Brown University. Her work sits at the intersection of critical theory and history with an archival deference to expressive culture. Research areas of interest include Black radical thought, slavery and capitalism, theories of revolution, sacral knowledges, and Black feminisms. She is currently writing her dissertation “At the Vanishing Point of the Word: Blackness, Imperium, and the Unnameable War,” which activates the category of war as a conceptual analytic for the structural, experiential, and historical dimensions of Black life. Recent publications include a review of Non-Sovereign Futures by Yarimar Bonilla.
Featured Image: Slave woman and child [no date recorded on shelflist card]. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.