chapter  3
34 Pages

Re(-)fusing the New World in Accounts of the Middle Passage

Since the memory of the middle passage was not widely and reliably recorded by survivors in the first place, the matter becomes further complicated by the new slavery fiction's authors' focus on the inheritors of the crossing. Rather than focus on African characters who actually experienced it, and rather than amplify upon the

crossing itself, the authors refer to the crossing's significance and aftermath. In their brief though intense treatments of the middle passage, perhaps the authors do everyone a favor, because, as the brief sea sequences in the film Amistad (1998) prove, a few details suffice to haunt the imagination, even though Steven Speilberg kindly refrained from including a cast of sharks. Andre and Simone Schwarz-Bart, Maryse Conde, Manuel Zapata Olivella, and Charles Johnson scarcely furnish the narrators or the implied readers with the power to sustain their gaze upon the horror of slave ship passage. The sacred origin of the real and mortal people of color in the Americas is not to be so easily reduced to print; powers of language and reason did not emerge from the ship's hold with the sutviving deported Africans, as the Schwarz-Barts show and as Zapata and Johnson suggest. How could the narrator or the reader come to any better understanding' Much of the detail of the slave groups' suffering is left to the reader's imagination. The Schwarz-Barts, Zapata, and Johnson very carefully choose the perspectives by which they relate the horrors below deck, in order to use this featute of the past to show how it did or did not have an impact on the survival of African culture in America. None of these authors supplies detail to manipulate the readers' sympathies or to feed anyone's taste for emotional and disturbing content. The authors who tell of the middle passage in their new slavery novels seem to be saying: even though the impulse to remember and to commemorate survivorsor, more precisely, survivals-certainly is purposeful and right, real memory itself of the middle passage may be only impossible or absurd, because people today, regardless of their sympathies, can never imagine what the victims knew.