The Declension of History in the Key of If, and Extensions of Time and Place, by M. NourbeSe Philip
Here, M. NourbeSe Phillip’s considers the archives’ use as a prism through which the future is called upon, called to. She affirms that aliveness is not only unfixed in place/time, but patiently waits in folds to be seen, in order to survive. – Tracie Morris
I am no more than three or four years old. I have accompanied my mother to the library in the largest town on a tiny Caribbean island. It is my very first time at a library and I am excited. I look, no I stare up and up and up—from my very tiny perspective the stacks that appear to go on forever . A sense of wonder fills me—-so many, many books! and I want them all.
I have always loved books. Will always love them and have recreated—to some degree—those stacks in my study. Books have been my life, not to mention lifeline to the past. And to the future. The written word the umbilical cord keeping me connected, sometimes unwillingly, to a matrix of some sort.
. . .
There was and is a history and a memory that connect me, a descendant of the Maafa, to an African living in Soweto. Just as it connects me to an African living in Brixton, Watts or New York, Port-of-Spain or Kingston.
The image of the sub-atomic particles also have bearing on the relationship between the past, present and future. Any change in one of these rhythmic time frames will affect the others. In other words, making a change in our present will, indeed, affect our past and our future. A change to our past will immediately affect our future, which begs the question of how or even whether we can even change our past. I’m suggesting that the work of imagining the past, the work of poets and writers and artists in general is a way of changing or bringing detail to that past, which in turn will affect our future.
African peoples have an enormous potential for forgiveness. Such forgiveness, and the healing generated by it, can only come with an acknowledgment—a public acknowledgement of the history of the crimes carried out by Europeans and Arabs against African people. It can only come when there is an acknowledgement that the pain of the African is the same—no less no more—as the pain of the European. It can only come with full reparations, which does not only mean monetary reparations. Indeed, there is no sum large enough to compensate for the losses and tragedies endured by Africans. If we understand what was broken and fractured by the trade, then reparations would naturally address those areas such as language, culture, genealogical records and so on. Forgiveness can only come with a genuine seeking of forgiveness by Europeans. It can only come with apologies. For the sin. That was the “of course iniquity” of the slave trade. The Maafa. While these are not forthcoming, the past and future will remain locked in a macabre dance with each other—the dance of death.
There comes a time in the individual life when the past becomes almost as important as the future. I continue, therefore, to imagine the past: I have the general outline and pattern of the event. Too many details are still missing, however, including accountability. In revisiting this essay, written at the dawn of the millennium, I have become keenly aware that my book length poem Zong! was an attempt on my part to imagine that past—to shatter the archival noise with the silenced sounds of those on board that fated ship. I remember the future in the gravely sweet face of Kalenjin. Her feet, when she sits, barely touch the floor.
“Are you writing about music,” she asks.
“Yes,” I answer, “the music of justice. And I write for you.”
Copyright © M. NourbeSe Philip
(excerpted from “The Declension of History in the Key of If,” pages 299 and 318 in Letters to the Future)
M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright who lives in the space-time of the City of Toronto. She practised law in the City of Toronto for seven years before leaving to write. She has published five books of poetry, including the seminal, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks (Casa de las Americas, 1988), one novel and three collections of essays. Her most recent work of poetry, Zong! (Wesleyan, 2011), is a genre-breaking exploration of memory, history and the transatlantic slave trade. Among her awards are the Pushcart Prize (USA), the Casa de las Americas Prize (Cuba), the Tradewinds Collective Prize (Trinidad and Tobago), the Lawrence Foundation Prize for short fiction (USA), as well as the Arts Foundation of Toronto Writing and Publishing Award. Her play, Coups and Calypsos, was a Dora Award (Canada) finalist. She is a Guggenheim Fellow in Poetry (USA), a McDowell Fellow and a Rockefeller Foundation (Bellagio) Fellow.
Photograph by Gail Nyoka.
FUTURE is part of KPI’s small experiments of radical intent series:Postcards to theFuture: Protest in Place that began during the BLM protests while on pandemic lock down in summer 2020. The series runs through August 2021 and focuses on the voices in Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing, with the intent to uplift and celebrate Black women’s voices.
The KPI Postcards to the Future: Protest in Place team included
Tracie Morris, Lisa Bowden, Desiree Maultsby, Denise Uyehara, Dulce Botello, Casely Coan, Liz Burden, Tina Howard