As I have worked over the past few years to find ways to better love and care for my friends of color (including my long-term partner), I have largely been guided by a mantra that they have repeated to me throughout the years: “Make it personal.” What I believe they are saying is that it is crucial to see all of our complicities and complexities, to all work to participate responsibly in a communal effort of creating compassionate alternatives to both systemic and individual injustices, and to interact with the large ideological concepts surrounding race and oppression at an intimately invested level that corresponds to the urgency, individuality, and particularity of such concepts. I am reminded of the quote (typically credited to Lilla Watson, but she prefers viewing it as a collective effort from Aboriginal activist groups in the 1970s): “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Liberation in this sense is, seemingly, as personal as it gets.
It is this joint question of the personal and of liberation that I keep returning to in Zong!. For whom can this text be considered personal? Who has personal stakes in this text? Is it irresponsible or immoral for some readers to consider this text personal to them? What does it mean for a white reader (like myself) to see themself in this text, especially to see themselves in the murder victims and not in the murderer-captain? Who can be liberated by this text? Can anyone? How individual is liberation?
I’m afraid I only have conjectures, not solid answers to my above questions. I do, however, think that Zong! holds a special key to investigating them in that Nourbe’Se Philip seems to attempt to make this work personal for the reader—or at least to provoke empathy in the reader as much as possible. In naming the victims, she makes this work personal. In mimicking drowning through language, she linguistically embodies the physical act of drowning, making the work personal, especially in a bodily sense. In choosing to use different languages, she also makes the work personal, writing a specific individuality in the cultural terms that have shaped such an individuality. Furthermore, Philip seems to draw upon many different levels of understanding. For example, even if a reader does not recognize the specific African names or have a personal context for them, the act of naming is something many people can understand. Similarly, though many readers likely will not have a context for the specific horrors of these specific murders, many readers may have some personal understanding of what drowning is like, or murder, or enslavement, or racialized violence. And though many people will not understand the specific languages used, they may understand what it is to speak in one’s native language and the personal profundity of using this language. And when the words, and language itself, are broken down to sounds and syllables, it becomes even more accessible—how many of us, at some level, can experience a sound or a syllable (Zong! notably works as both a performance and a written work, which makes for a work that could presumably be experienced at some level too by those who are not literate, nonverbal, deaf, blind, etc.)?
This would seem to suggest that Zong! is in some ways an especially accessible text. But still there are politics of accessibility at play. One wonders if some of these ‘connections’ are too tenuous to hold any significant weight as legitimate shared struggles/understandings/potential points of liberation. Furthermore, Baraka and Philip have both made it clear that their works are not for unlimited white access or consumption, and compassionate, respectful, responsible readership in my mind necessitates a consideration of these foundational principles of their writings. If I am honest, certain aspects of this text feel accessible to me, while others certainly do not. I do not have a personal context for the African names or languages, nor for enslavement, nor for the direct personal impact of systematized racial injustice, nor for racialized violence. These are not parts of my individual narrative. However, English, French, and Spanish are part of my personal narrative, as is grief and loss, and perhaps these provide opportunities to ‘make it personal.’ But perhaps the strongest personal connection I have with this text is that I am the American daughter of a British woman and a French/Dutch/German man, and I specifically carry a name of Dutch nobility: “Van Cleave”. I have many murderous empires embodied in me, and I honestly don’t know exactly how I relate to that captain or to those crewmembers. This also seems to be a means of making the text personal, but making it personal within the realm of historical contextualization and an attempted hard look at complicity. The danger, seemingly, is in the “We’re all African” model of ‘personalization’ that some people such as Meryl Streep (or Shakira, or Rachel Dolezal) have offered, often as a means of ‘explaining’/‘justifying’ their appropriation of African cultures or their perceived connection to those cultures. Perhaps this is why the quote from the aforementioned Aboriginal activists is so helpful. Our liberations are not all the same; maybe they are not even necessarily shared. I am not you, you are not me, and we are certainly not all Africa. But maybe instead, our liberations have points of contact that make it possible for one’s liberation to be “bound” to another’s. And maybe it is through that lens that we can start to make something personal, responsibly.