- Traumatic Possessions: The Body and Memory in African American Women’s Writing and Performance
Anyone who picks up a copy of Jennifer Griffiths’s Traumatic Possessions will be struck by the image on the cover—a taped picture of three women looking back at you. These women—who vary in age and temperament—appear to embody different ways of knowing. That is, their body language and clothing suggest that they have a story to tell . . . a story that one might wish to know—a story that could tell us something noteworthy about the lived experiences of black women. But it is the central figure in the photograph that arrests the viewer. Her eyes are piercing. She is the one figure whose eyes tell you that her story won’t come easy. Her direct gaze into the camera asks: Should I trust you? Or better yet, Should I trust you with my story? [End Page 732]
Although seemingly a roundabout way to address the nuances of Griffiths’s book, these women stand in, for me, as caretakers of the intimate and sacred everydayness of living black and female in America. These voyages are sojourns of discovery, ones that assay the ability of the mind and spirit to balance the haunting realities of misdeeds done to the flesh. As Griffiths makes clear in her preface to the book, the writers and playwrights she examines in Traumatic Possessions test our notions of a split between body and voice, as the survival of the characters examined hinges on our understanding of the cultural imprints etched on the flesh. Specifically, figures like Dessa Rose, Rodney King, Ursa, and the Hottentot Venus have to negotiate their moments of truths in public spaces that appear to place limits on their ability to speak their social injustices. Thus, one’s figurative struggle with a racialized social script becomes a complicated process of testimony as the dynamics of intersubjectivity place memory and body in direct dialogue with each other. One must draw on the other to accommodate the refiguring of the limits of language in order to speak into existence the body’s pain.
Another important element of Griffiths’s theoretical analysis of trauma and the black body is her attention to the process of meaning-making through the memory of the flesh. As Griffiths delineates, the repetitive recitation of survivor narratives in African American culture appears to be an effort to get the reader/viewer not only to listen with an empathetic ear to the nuances of a story, but to also become a sentinel of the process that enables the listener to help author/character fashion meaning from the chaos of trauma. “Challenging traditional narratives that restrict form and content,” writes Griffiths, “they build new forms from memory fragments and bodily states” (12). Hence, private histories reinforced in the discursive limits of the black body create a dialogue between the dominant culture’s version of the “official” narrative of a moment and the personal meaning trapped in the painful silence of singular and communally weighted legacies. Griffiths’s Traumatic Possessions situates itself squarely within other modes of trauma enquiries found in Holocaust studies and postcolonial and critical race scholarship. Her efforts at affecting the more universal aspects of human suffering are efforts to move away from the false projection of cultural anxiety mapped onto the survivors’ tales and bodies, acknowledging the individuality of the traumatic experience while creating a tapestry of dis-cursive reinterpretations that probe and critique the spectacle of reading/witnessing the language of the body in multiethnic public spaces.
Griffiths’s analysis relies heavily upon a reconsideration of the vestiges of slavery and its aftermath. Three of the five chapters included here deconstruct, and then reconstruct the memories of chattel bondage. They also reconstruct the memories of the wounded female ancestral figures who testify to the ways traumatic memory possesses the living bodies of their progeny as that memory simultaneously renders impact upon the material lives of those it possesses. In chapter one...