Originally published in the July 2022 issue of The Baffler.
THE WRITER AND SCHOLAR Saidiya Hartman opens her 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts” with an admission about the challenge she’s taken on: to give life to the story of the “Black Venus,” the “emblematic figure of the enslaved woman in the Atlantic world,” present in the archives in various forms, but never as a full person. “I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive. I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives on the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration,” Hartman writes. “Listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.”
Hartman carefully details the process of archival discovery: while she has encountered her two Black Venuses in a legal indictment against a slave ship captain, many others can be found in ledgers, overseers’ journals, or in a traveler’s account of brothels. Circumstances notwithstanding, the end result is the same—an unnamed Black woman, deprived of the ability to tell her story, reduced by a white man to a commodity or a tawdry sexual exploit. Aiming to engage in a reparative exercise, Hartman asks: “How does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?”
She continues: “Can we, as [M.] NourbeSe Philip suggests, ‘conjur[e] something new from the absence of Africans as humans that is at the heart of the text’? And if so, what are the lineaments of this new narrative? Put differently, how does one rewrite the chronicle of a death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counter-history of the human, as the practice of freedom?” Hartman’s goals surpassed the disciplinary bounds of history, which would limit her to the scarce documented facts. Her approach, which she termed “critical fabulation,” is more delicate and subtle—“a history written with and against the archive”—a speculative space exceeding “fictions of history.” With her methodology, she would add dimension and heft to the precarious archives.Continue reading