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  • The Slave Trade as Memory and History:James A. Emanuel’s “The Middle Passage Blues” and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage”
  • Raphaël Lambert (bio)

James A. Emanuel’s “The Middle Passage Blues” (1999) and Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” (1945) are two of a few remarkable poems about the transatlantic slave trade, and comparing them affords a unique opportunity to explore two very divergent and yet complementary perspectives—one memorial and the other historical—on the slave trade.1

Emanuel’s poem serves as a prologue to Black Imagination and the Middle Passage (1999), a collection of essays originally presented at the inaugural conference of the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR) held in Tenerife in 1995. The “Transatlantic Passages” theme, the time of the conference, when claims for reparations were rising, and the location in the Canary Islands—a thriving center of the early slave trade—undoubtedly account for the visceral, even phylogenetic bond Emanuel establishes with his middle passage ancestors, urging us to consider the interplay of individual and collective memory.2 Emanuel’s poem, by postulating an unbroken continuity between past and present and advocating devotion to the community, revives issues of identity formation and identity politics that say more about our present world than about our past.

Hayden’s poem, unlike Emanuel’s, was not commissioned. It grew out of the earlier Black Spear project and shows Hayden’s determination to offer a fresh perspective on black history while refashioning the poetic canon in the process. Hayden takes a primarily historical interest in reconstructing the narrative of the middle passage, and although his poem is less demonstrative and more detached than Emanuel’s, it remains equally harrowing and involved with the past. But Hayden, whose affected objectivity is candid and deliberate, addresses not only the revision of history but also the transcendence of racial and cultural schisms so as to foster universalist values. For Hayden, the middle passage is not a personal inheritance, a cause for mourning, resentment, or self-discovery as it is for Emanuel. It is a past for all implicated parties, a past not to be forgotten, and a lesson for the future.

“The Middle Passage Blues” and the Source of Memory

It is not given to man to make for himself another cradle.

—Charles Péguy, Morceaux choisis (1928)

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “every man is a quotation from all his ancestors” (28) is an adage James A. Emanuel would not disavow, so much is his poem entrenched in a logic of kinship and generational ties: “I can HYP-NO-TIZE myself rememberin’ Grandma’s chair; / she had slave-girl mem’ries, and she rocked and hummed’em there: / her daddy’s neck and legs in chains, his own vomit in his hair—” (ll. 8-10). The motif of comfort (grandmother; rocking chair, and stories), abruptly cancelled out by one of discomfort (great-grandfather; chains, and vomit), cannot be [End Page 327] allowed to remain, simply, a disturbing memory or an event of the past, for Grandma prophesies that: “When you grow up, you be a Middle Passage man” (l. 18). Such words enclose the narrator in a predetermined, fateful condition. Thus Emanuel offers nostalgia in its literal etymological sense: a return home (nostos) mixed with pain (algos), which accounts for the narrator’s blues. Furthermore, the use of the past unreal conditional in the first stanza suggests both the narrator’s resignation and assimilation of the lessons of the elders: “If I’da been a sailor on the Seven Seas / I’da sailed the seven ENDS and let the MIDDLES be… . / But if I’da been a sailor, I’da still been black” (ll. 3-5). Resignation; assimilation; but also volition since the narrator chooses self-induced hypnosis. And it is after the initial pleasure derived from such a state that the narrator runs through the successive stages of fear (“and suddenly I’m runnin’-runnin’-runnin’ …” [l. 13]), psychosis (“Middle Passage mem’ries … they in a dungeon in my head” [l. 19]), self-acceptance (“I ain’t runnin’, I’m just standin’, but I had to have a plan” [l. 28]), and finally control and transformation of the legacy...


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