Agony. Thoughtfully, Carefully.



Citation is both an act of recognition and a rigorous engagement with an author’s work. Using the example of M. NourbeSe Philip’s cycle poem, Zong!, Katherine McKittrick invites us to think about the stakes of appropriating and reconfiguring black feminist work as well as the lessons the “living memory of slavery” impart.

How do we work through with the onerous and troubling practice of the extraction and misappropriation of ideas and texts without falling back into the comfort of colonial proprietorship?

What is at stake for those who are sitting on the edge of erasure and actuality, and how does this produce the conditions for expropriation?

What if dismay and exasperation unfold into a study of what black feminist literature does—that is, how the essay or novel or book or poem changes how we know, how the essay or novel or book or poem interrupts prevailing systems of knowledge, how the essay or novel or book or poem invites moments of collaboration, how the essay or novel or book or poem generates new histories, new critique?

Context One: Language ///

M. NourbeSe Philip writes:

She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks

The Absence of Writing or How I Became I Spy

The Poetics of Silence and the Unvoiced

Discourse on the Logic of Language

The Disappearing Debate

In-Visible Ink

All I have Are My Broken Words

Philip observes how the violence of colonialism is enacted at the level of language. She traces the attempted obliteration of multifarious indigenous African words, speech acts, tongues, and dialects and shows that this produced black linguistic inventions and techniques that reframe (that is, re-language) black humanity within the doubled context of diaspora and coloniality.

The practice of re-languaging is chaotic and heartbreaking; it comes with the knowledge that there is no sufficient grammar for loss and violence and racism.

Context Two: Zong and Zong! ///

Mckittrick Funambulist 2
Excerpt of Zong! (2008) by M. NourbeSe Philip.

Philip’s Zong! was first published in 2008. It is a long poetry cycle that works through the deliberate murder of the enslaved who were aboard the slave ship, Zong, en route to Jamaica, in 1781. The poetry cycle also attends to the legal case surrounding the insurance claim (e.g. the throwing of the enslaved overboard evidenced a loss of property and ostensibly warranted an insurance investigation and consequent trial). Philip researched and studied the history of the Zong, the murders, and the legal document that accompanied the murders. Using only language and words from the legal case document, she produced the poetry cycle, Zong!

The Requests In Brief. Or, Telling Stories Without Reproducing the Extraction ///

  1. The request to cite the poetry-cycle and include it in a larger project. The request was denied by the poet. The poetry-cycle was cited and inaccurately recited without permission. (2018) [Thank you for the idea/your words are expended to no purpose.]
  2. The request to re-originate and reprint the poetry-cycle. The specific terms of publication—form, word organization, line spacing—were not confirmed with the poet. The inaccurate reprint went forward. (2021) [Just leave it in our hands.]
  3. The request for the rights to translate the poetry-cycle. The rights were sold for 150 USD and permission from the poet was not advanced. The translation misinterpreted the poet’s work. (2021) [Yes, you can purchase this for a low-low price, no questions asked.]
  4. The surprise and discovery of the massacre aboard a slave ship. A discovery made through the poetry-cycle, Zong! There are email requests made, asking that the poet provide more information by sharing the poetry cycle. There is a rewriting and dramatization of the massacre. The poet’s sources and references that made the rewriting possible disappear. (2022). [Can I borrow your notes?]

Analysis ///

Mckittrick Funambulist 1
Excerpt of Zong! (2008) by M. NourbeSe Philip.

There have been many creative iterations and reinterpretations of the Zong murders (Fred D’Aguiar’s 1997 Feeding the Ghosts, Margaret Busby’s 2007 An African Cargo, Drexciya’s 1997 The Quest, and more). What is interesting about the requests above is that they emerged after and through conversations with Philip. The requests assumed that Philip would simply give over Zong!, that the poetry cycle is a pliable-usable object, and that the poet is, even in incidents of refusal, consenting.Through this, theaffectual-political aesthetics, the research, the writing, the creative labor, the physiological-psychic energy expended to make Zong! what it is, are absorbed by the assumptive logic of the requests (the assumptive logics are importantly quotidian). The absorption reveals that both the poet and the poetry cycle are, according to some at least, fungible.

The poet’s backstories and stanzas and interviews and essays and books and preoccupations that unravel and historicize the connections between racial violence, language, and loss are disregarded, unresearched, unseen.

It seems the requests were filled up with, a priori, assumptive logics and fungibility and disregard. That is, erasure-objecthood is already in place, in advance, thus laying the groundwork to take hold of, misappropriate and rework the poet’s text without consent or approbation.

Why is this?

Extraction and misappropriation have no bounds. But the requests provide some important clues as to how we can trace the gendered and racialized workings of expropriation, especially because the quotidian assumptive logics are bound up in the creative work produced by a black feminist poet and the wilful murder of black people who were marked, within the context of white supremacy, objects, commodities, and waste.

The gendered history of racial violence, as it pertains to the objectification of black women specifically, is a throughline in black feminist thought. This history, inextricably bound to transatlantic slavery, organizes, but does not twin, our contemporary understanding of black femininities. Objecthood, black feminists note, is an idea moves through time, shifting and changing of course, but nonetheless adversely shaping black experiences. Objecthood is the lens through which black life and black femininity are rendered perpetually available and voiceless and in need of constraint. The requests to the poet are woven tightly into this history; the historically present perceptions of black womanhood make the requests and the extractions possible. But something else is going on, too, because the terrible history of murder and unspeakable loss that unfurls as Zong! is populated by seeming objects, too: the enslaved on the ship Zong, on the middle passage, those thrown overboard, those unthrown. These acts of racial violence crystalize the commodity status of the enslaved and, like the throughline in black feminist thought, the commodity status is propelled forward and shape how Zong and Zong! are, in the eyes of some, inhabited by waste-objects, and thus worthy of all kinds of removal. This waste-object-history is tethered to the requests in advance. The redoubled fungibility thus operates to stage both extraction and misappropriation because of the assumptive (a priori) logics.

These conceptual arrangements of the past and present (object, waste, commodity) are clarified by Philip’s own preoccupation with the limits of language as it pertains to racial terror (how do we say this history, why do we say this history, what has it done to us, all I have are broken words, my tongue is gone) and her brilliant rethinking of the massacre that materializes in the cycle poem Zong!. Her rethinking emerges through the poetic fragmentation and the reconfiguring of legal and extra-legal narratives that, as fragmentations and rearrangements, function to provide an account of monumental loss that is, all at once, opaque, impossible, and sharply devastating. The knotted poetic narrative (impossible, opaque, devastating, black, feminist) undergirds the requests and the redoubled fungibility; terror, illegibility, and unknowability—the re-languaging provided by the poet—serve as alibis for extraction and misappropriation. Even as the outcomes of extraction and misappropriation might seek to name racism (and seek consolation through naming racism), the amplification of black suffering cannot be pried away from the thorny yet ordinary assumptive logics and past-present conceptual arrangements (object, waste, commodity) that imbue the requests.

My request is for nothing relevant or legible. Can I borrow this?

My request is for your black feminist poetics. My request is for your words and labor. Can I borrow them?


At Close Look ///

NourbeSe Philip, at close look, provides us with all kinds of methodologies and stories that call into question extraction and colonial proprietorship. Her writings provide clues about how the fulcrum of colonial activities, grasping (capture, removal, extraction), is different from sharing or collaborating or learning. At the same time, she painstakingly shows that the work she has done to lift up this particular history (the massacres, the murders) is not a move that essentializes and takes ownership of Zong or Zong!

Philip, like many black scholars and creatives, shows that black essay or novel or book or poem are not just discursive objects but sites through which anti-colonial activities are generated and shared.

These activities eschew the calcification of ideas and signal alternative ways of holding ideas, too. Zong! is, then, an active and moving set of lessons. Notably, Philip often asks that Zong! be read aloud and that multiple people participate and co-read the poetry-cycle with her. Her insistence on sharing, and that we collaboratively live with, inhabit, speak, and tell the story of black loss does something to us physiologically—or at least it does something to me. It is a moment of difficult and relational storytelling, and it is a moment where the story, the poem, become, in Sylvia Wynter’s words, a new science of human discourse. Philip once described Zong! as a poetry cycle, thus showing that it is a series of events that are repeated and bend back into themselves. In this, there is a circuitous logic that frames the story she is telling yet continually gestures to what this history of violence ushered in, now. With this, her creative return to the slave ship Zong might be read as putting forth a set of preoccupations that illuminate how this past has shaped what we have come to know as freedom, in the present (with all its limitations and troubles). Philip then offers alternative freedoms (collaboration, text as activity, embodiment as poetic, story as lesson, language at its limits, words breaking into something new) that demand we engage the living memory of slavery thoughtfully, carefully. ■