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Stuart Hall Library reading group discussion post, 11 October 2012


The reading group returned this Autumn after an extended hiatus, and Library staff were pleased to welcome back existing participants, and greet new and curious ones.

Thanks to everyone who attended. A recording of the discussion will soon be available via the library website. You can also listen to recordings of our previous reading group sessions.

We discussed Jenny Sharpe, ‘The Rebels Old Obeah Woman: History as Spirit Possession’, in Ghosts of Slavery: a Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives (University of Minnesota, 2003).

The text was chosen to offer a closer insight into one of the subjects of the Queens of the Undead. It highlights the processes of contested forms of history, and the way in which written and oral histories relate to one another.

The title of Kimathi Donkor’s exhibition ‘Queens of the Undead’ echoes Sharpe’s theorising in her study of enslaved women as figures that ‘haunt’ the present – as Sharpe puts it, p.xi, ‘What if the ghosts of the past are spirits that are doomed to wander precisely because their stories have not been told […] slavery continues to haunt the present because its stories, particularly those of slave women, have been improperly buried’.

Sharpe’s focus in the book as a whole is on the condition of the lives of enslaved women, and the possibilities that existed for gaining agency and autonomy over their lives. She is also interested in the way that the women are represented in the archives and in present day culture.

A section from the introduction: ‘Nanny is a figure of resistance, whose significance as a rebel woman is bound up with Jamaican national independence. It is an indication of her symbolic value to national self-identity that she is the most celebrated woman from the era of slavery in Jamaica. Her powers have become legendary through their embellishment in oral histories, her literary embodiment in poems and novels, and her designation as a national hero’.

‘It is also a sign of the localized effects of knowledge production in decolonised nations that Nanny is relatively unknown in Great Britain and the United States […] Nanny’s authority is not simply the transportation of West African gender roles to the New World but also an outcome of the Middle Passage’s disruption of tradition and the embattled conditions of maroon societies that allowed black women to assume new authoritative roles’. P.xvi-xvii, introduction

The discussion took the text as a starting point: initially Nanny’s representation as a historical figure was considered, including her mythical status, an issue that parallells Sharpe’s analysis of the contested accounts relating to Nanny in Maroon oral histories and in the archival accounts produced by British colonialists: ‘While the British records on the first maroon war derogatorily refer to her as “the rebels old obeah woman”, maroons respectfully remember her as “da great scientist” (p.3).

The nature of Jamaica’s perceived national characteristics were also considered, particularly in relation to Nanny’s modern status as a Jamaican National Heroine, established in the United Nations International Women’s Year, 1975. Sharpe mentions the reasons why Nanny may have been seen as a controversial choice of role model for women, and reading group participants elaborated on her claims, citing the sometimes conservative, often deeply religious sections of Jamaican culture that would have viewed Nanny’s ‘powers’ as being incompatible with their beliefs.

From this, a wider discussion of cultural identity and (self) knowledge ensued, with participants drawing on their individual standpoints and ideas of culture and memory to contribute.

Next meeting: Thursday 15 November, 6.30-8.00. We will be discussing
Andrea Stuart’s extract from ‘Sugar in the Blood’, in Granta: the Magazine of New Writing, 119 (Spring 2012).

You are welcome to visit the Library to make a photocopy of the text. If you are having any problems obtaining a copy, please contact us and we will make this available to you.

Email the library for further information or to book your place: library@iniva.org