Writing in the introduction to his oral history of Black gay men in the South, Sweet Tea, E. Patrick Johnson writes, “oral histories… in some ways provide an easier route into the lives of sexual dissidents, especially in the face of archivists… and other holders of queer history who are reluctant or unwilling to allow access to materials” (7). While reading it, I was reminded of ZONG! Both of these works seek to displace authority from the institutions that house the knowledge and history that they represent. As Philip writes in the Notanda, “I function like the law whose role is to proscribe and prescribe, deciding which aspects of the text will be removed and which remain; I replicate the censorial activity of the law, which determines which facts should or should not become evidence; what is allow into the record and what now. The fact that Africans were human could not be allowed into the legal text” (199). Johnson is actively resisting the institution of historical archive, and even the academic discipline of historical research, by restoring the narrative subjectivity of Black gay men of the South and facilitating their telling of their own story. Similarly, Philip’s work is a restoration of narrative subjectivity from the law, and from the English language, to the Africans murdered onboard Zong—even if it’s a narrative Philip can only guess at, or one she must leave blank or empty altogether.
Johnson concluded through his work that despite stereotypes about the culture of the South, Black gay men were often celebrated and valued members of Black Southern community throughout the 20th century. Many Black gay men experienced violence and oppression, including two of Johnson’s friends who were killed in the South due to their sexuality. However, many of Sweet Tea’s interview subjects experienced a sort of protective and liberating silence kept in place by the social mores of politeness and respect. Black gay men of the south were able to live their lives, if with a level of discretion.
This also brought to my mind Philip’s use of silence between words or phonemes. Silence is not an act of violence in Zong! but rather a challenge to the violence of authorship and the fraught “certainty” that writing about an event like this might lay claim to. The silence of Zong! implicates the reader, in a way that both creates a communal event of the reading experience, blurring the line between reader and text, and also asks the reader to examine her own complicity within the history that Zong! represents. Similarly, Johnson writes that on the one hand, silence, “…upholds institutionalized forms of oppression. On the other, it provides a space in which to peacefully co-exist and/or sometimes, in a paradoxical way, affirm one’s identity…” (4).
Reading these two texts together, I’m curious how else silence can be mobilized as a tool of liberation?