Winkiel and Slavery Papers

Winkiel comments on page 523 that, “Negro was deeply invested not only in breaking from narratives of Western progress and bourgeois complacency but in presenting an alternative history, that of color.” I found the phrasing here to be particularly interesting, especially her use of the term “alternative history” which others black history. Indeed, Cunard just by putting together this anthology and naming it Negro, she ignores the fact that Western history and African history are inextricably tied together. Negro: An Anthology, presents a “their history” and “our history” situation. This is strange because some of the documents presented in the anthology actually suggest otherwise.

One of the documents I chose to look at was the Slavery Papers, which combines first hand accounts of the horrors of the slave trade along with some commentary by Edgell Rickword, an English communist poet. Rickword’s forward clearly lines up with Winkiel’s claim that Negro sets out to debunk certain notions of Western history. Rickword opens the piece by referring to the “impetuous insolence of Europeans” and follows up moments later by pointing out that the slave trade really grew out of greed. Slyly working his communist agenda into the anthology. Rickword’s project with this compilation is generally without any demerits. He says he is out to show the basic inhumanity of the slave trade and indeed succeeds. It heavily contrasts in a sense with the uncomfortable (for the reader) observational style musings of Cunard’s Harlem Reviewed piece. The recounting put on display in this piece is almost too horrible to approach the idea of being fetishizing.

But even when mere facts are listed, they are still coded by the context of both the anthology’s production and the situation of the reader. One would think that the objectivity of this document would be clear, but in reality it is just as muddied as everything else in the anthology. Rickword clearly sets up some ideas of white culpability in the horrors of certain black experiences. However if we think about Zora Neal Hurston’s opinon as voiced by Winkiel that, “rather than inscribing these remnants onto a premodern past, Hurston demands that they be understood as a confrontation of dominant narratives of modernity in the present moment.” then Rickword’s piece becomes less powerful. He is so focused on presenting an alternative history and ascribing blame for past actions that he, and Cunard, fail to trace the problems of their present to these artifacts that Rickword is presenting.

And much in the way that Hurston explains the white adoption of black music, we can read Rickword’s piece and the entire anthology as whites “adopting and reinterpreting” black history. Rickword practically turns his forward into an anti-capitalist treatise. Had a black writer constructed the forward the context of the slavery papers would feel much different. Instead, we still have a white writer being the one with agency, presenting and interpreting purely black experiences. Moreover, much of the first person accounts from slave ships are from white witnesses who for the most part only account for what they can see, but occasionally attempt to assign motive or emotion to slaves, which is a troubling endeavor.

Slavery Papers certainly sets out to, as Winkiel says, break “from narratives of Western progress and bourgeois complacency.” It also succeeds at this, both in presenting a history that could otherwise be silent and being disturbing enough to shake some of that complacency. However, as Robert McNamara says, both seeing and believing are often wrong, which makes the project of developing “alternative histories” difficult. Rickword is trying to expound on something he really doesn’t have a firm grasp on and furthermore, the whites giving this primary accounts are troubled by their privileged point of view. Slavery Papers is still told through a white lens by nature of the forward and being in Cunard’s anthology. Yet, despite all of the problems surrounding the context of the piece, it remains an extremely powerful read. Rickword succeeds at laying bare the horror of the slave trade in a way that shakes and effects the reader. He ends up fulfilling the first half of Winkiel’s claim, but on the second account the situation remains much less clear.

– Julian Rosolie


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