2001 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

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    In Others' Words: Michelle Cliff's Epigraphical Black Atlantic Structure
    Erin McMullen

    "I am not what I seem to be" (Cliff, Land 19).

    "I grew up in a family obsessed with the past" ("Journey" 275).

    These statements encapsulate how Michelle Cliff conceptualizes her identity across gender, history, and nation, voicing her preoccupation with histories of resistance and oppressed people. In her work, she moves between elusive statements regarding her identity and forceful claims on a history that has been rubbed out or forgotten. Cliff uses fiction to rescue the past in No Telephone to Heaven, in which Clare Savage, tracing herself through her mother's line, returns to Jamaica after spending time in America, England and Europe. No Telephone rescues Clare's female lineage, but it also draws attention to the severed and disjunctive nature of Jamaican identity. The series of epigraphs in the novel negotiates Clare's production of an identity that resists choosing and passing. Each epigraph resonates with the particular subject matter of the chapter that it precedes, a traditional function of epigraphs in the Western literary tradition. However, the texts also recover Clare's multivoiced, transatlantic history because they are from the Caribbean, Africa, England, and Canada. The body of epigraphs produces an identity composed of disparate elements that resist resolution for Clare and for the novel.

    Cliff's use of epigraphs also resonates with the hip-hop and Jamaican-dub practices of sampling music, dropping a different beat behind the sample, pumping up the treble and the bass so that, while still recognizable as an original piece by an artist other than the DJ, the sample has been appropriated, forced to bear the burden of the DJ's message (Hebdige 83). Literally, this occurs when the DJ "toasts," or talks over the sample that he uses. Like samples, the epigraphs' voices remain distinctly separate, distinctly original texts, composed by a variety of authors, but put in context with each other and with Cliff's text, their meanings gain complexity; they represent a way to conceptualize a hybrid black identity without homogenizing that identity by fusing its discrete parts. One criticism of hip-hop is that it is intensely male oriented and dominated by aggressive male personalities. Cliff's sampling practice creates a body of epigraphs that foregrounds a syncretic black Atlantic identity and responds to the lack of female hip-hop voices. Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall theorize syncretic black identities through a rhetoric of necessity, demanding resistance to fusion when identities are actively formed across race and nation. We can use these theories while remaining mindful of hip-hop production practices to comprehend how Cliff's use of epigraphs demonstrates the potentially damaging and dangerous nature of syncretism.

    In The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, Paul Gilroy writes that the effects of the "new racism" that arose after WWII "aligned 'race' closely with the idea of national belonging" (10). Gilroy argues an alternative to conflating race and nationality: "cultural historians could take the Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis in their discussions of the modern world and use it to produce an explicitly transnational and intercultural perspective" (15). The image of "ships in motion across the spaces between Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean" conceptualizes a black identity constructed out of a multiple consciousness across the Diaspora (4). Gilroy does not mention Michelle Cliff in his list of black Atlantic intellectuals; however, her life, her travels, and the subjects about which she writes clearly reside in his concept of a transnational black identity. Cliff's body of epigraphs functions as a chronotope similar to Gilroy's ship in that it resists the strictures of linear time and fixed place by dialogically positioning African hymns, Victorian poetry, twentieth-century poetry and prose, and Jamaican proverbs into a transnational context.

    The chronotope also harmonizes well with hip-hop's art of sampling; both sampling and the black Atlantic accumulate distinct voices and place those voices in dialogue, in the same moment, with each other. Craig Werner discusses Yoruban influences on the structure of house music and hip-hop; his discussion of Yoruban culture applies to Cliff's text, particularly because she includes Yoruban hymns in her body of epigraphs. Werner writes, "The Yoruban people of modern Nigeria, whose traditions were transported to the Western Hemisphere during the slave trade, conceive of the world in terms of multiple overlapping energies" (283). The image of "multiple overlapping energies" applies to the ways in which Cliff's epigraphs interact with each other and with Cliff's text. These energies or presences are and remain separate in spite of their interactions, demanding syncretism, not hybridity, like hip-hop samples. These practices support the notions of a constantly and self-consciously created identity composed of influences across bodies of water.1

    Cliff draws epigraphs from Caribbean writers living in the Caribbean (Derek Walcott), in Canada (Dionne Brand), and briefly in Paris (Aimé Césaire); a Romantic English poet (Elizabeth Barrett Browning); a Jamaican proverb; Yoruban hymns; and a description in more scientific than poetic language of the distinctly Jamaican phenomenon ruinate. Although geographically and temporally diverse, the writers collectively express a preoccupation with re-membering history and bringing to cognizance rubbed-out or covered-up moments in time. The epigraphs call and respond to each other, resonating with Hall's présence Africaine as well as with the function of hip-hop samples. They also recover women's voices in this silenced history, evinced by the inclusion of Browning, a Césaire poem about a Maroon woman, and Brand.2

    The inclusion of Elizabeth Barrett Browning exemplifies Cliff's preoccupation with recovering women's voices in history. One of the most celebrated Victorian woman poets, Browning wrote on Italian politics, the horrific conditions of child labor in England, and the slave trade in America, in spite of her birth into a privileged family that shielded her from physical involvement in various contemporary issues of social injustice (Taplin 54). Her political stance lends added authority and resonance to her voice in the collection of epigraphs.3 In addition to the social causes she addresses in her poetry, Browning also imaginatively explores the necessary negotiations that a woman must perform in order to gain independence in a phallocentric world. Cliff uses "Aurora Leigh," Browning's most ambitious work, for one epigraph; the long poem deals with the independent and artistic woman's place in the world. Browning's preoccupation with the woman's function and voice in the world specifically resonates with Cliff's desire to recover a history across nations through the female voice.4 Browning represents the European presence in the novel's epigraphs, a presence located in fragmentation and doubleness. As Hall states, the European presence "is nowhere to be found in its pure, pristine state. It is always-already fused, syncretized, with other cultural elements" (400). Significantly, the European presence, while part of the black Atlantic identity, is impure, a concept that opposes the ideologies of colonialism and modernity. Significantly then, Cliff appropriates Browning's text in a way that changes its meaning from that of its original context. This potential doubleness, or "overlapping energies" (Werner 283), illustrates the inability to regard the European presence as pure and untouched by cultural exchange. The doubleness also connects to hip-hop sampling, in which artists may appropriate materials in such a way that they take on new meaning in context with other samples. This action proactively includes and manipulates other's words, forcing them to bear the burden of the syncretic production's meaning (whether that production is a hip-hop song or Cliff's text).

    The passage included in Cliff's text of "Aurora Leigh" describes a moment in which a child begs for emancipation from a mother, drawing on female lineage like Cliff, in order to become a more independent person. The context of the novel, specifically Clare's journey to England--to the "mother-country," as she calls it in the text--illustrates this point (Cliff 109). Clare's migration represents an attempt to connect to the English-educated, white part of her identity and history. When she arrives in England, she realizes how oppressive and unwelcoming it is to her and begs to be free of it--effectively, to be freed of the colonizer's influence.5 Contextualized through other epigraphs instead of the original poem, the mother metonymically represents England and the colonizer; therefore, the child represents the colonized. When the child pleads, "'God, free me from my mother' [and then shrieks], 'These mothers are too dreadful'" (Browning qtd in Cliff 107), the child/colonized desperately recognizes the damaging nature of the connection between herself and the mother/colonizer and demands emancipation. Cliff's use of Browning's poem strengthens the collective intent of the epigraphs to foster connection with that which has been covered up and forced to remain silent, by appropriating the colonizer's ideology and language to express a need for liberation from the colonizer. Cliff appropriates the English text to resonate with the meaning of being free from "the mother-country," using the text to express a syncretic identity that is partially composed of whiteness and Englishness.

    Cliff invokes a Caribbean element in her text through Derek Walcott's poetry. Walcott has remained in the Caribbean for the majority of his life; defending his decision to stay, he told Carl Jacobs in 1966, "provincialism itself is not without certain advantages [because it gives me] a 'deeper communion with things that the metropolitan writers no longer care about [. . .] attachments to family, earth, history" (Walcott qtd in Hamner 298). The European literary tradition in which he was educated informs Walcott's poetry, though his subject matter is most often the Caribbean. Combined, his education, employment, mixed heritage, and subject matter inevitably foreground identity as a theme in his work that "transcend[s] race, place, time" (Hamner 292). Placing Walcott in dialogue with Brand, Césaire, and Cliff reconnects Caribbean writing (and different approaches to this writing) across the Diaspora.

    An excerpt from Walcott's "Laventille" opens Cliff's novel. This epigraph states a purpose and preoccupation of the novel--the recognition that something has been lost, but the inability to recover that elusive thing. Throughout the poem, Walcott depicts the nearly indescribable poverty in the Caribbean through lush imagery. Cliff excerpts Walcott's ending, in which the speaker of the poem repeatedly calls attention to the nebulous quality of what he feels he and the poverty-stricken people about which he speaks must attempt to grasp.6 The speaker states, "Something inside is laid wide like a wound," but he does not specify what this is exactly. He continues with "some open passage [. . .] some deep, amnesiac blow [. . .] somewhere a life we never found," emphasizing the nebulous nature of this condition. The wound that is not readily visible but damaging nonetheless becomes a call for healing. The poem and epigraph end darkly, with the notion that Caribbean people are still bound up in the place made for them by European colonizers, a place devoid of "customs and gods that are not born again." The speaker recognizes that something is missing and that the Caribbean people have lost their life, religion, and culture. The "deep amnesiac blow" prevents the Caribbean people from recovering a history that has resisted retelling. Walcott refers to this imposing and damaging force as "swaddling cerements [in which] we're still bound." Cerements are burial garments, but swaddling connotes the wrappings around an infant. "Swaddling cerements" mixes infancy and death, an image applicable to the epigraph as a whole; life bound up in death, a continued bondage, forces the Caribbean people, in the face of death, to remain in a state of infancy--a process of life thwarted, denied. Walcott's poem effectively presents the text's preoccupation with the recovery of a blotted-out past; this recovery will overcome what has divided its victims and caused them to forget what they were seeking. Within the collection of epigraphs, the excerpt from "Laventille" recognizes a continued European influence and counters that influence by connecting with Caribbean and African pasts, constructing identity across a black Atlantic through the discovery of what has been hidden.

    Cliff also includes two excerpts from Yoruban hymns in her body of epigraphs, representing an African presence in the syncretic cultural identity of the epigraphs. For Hall, the African presence contains a sense of origin, even though the black Diaspora cannot return to this Africa of origin (399). In Caribbean culture, the African presence "remains the unspoken, 'unspeakable presence'" (398). Although Césaire's and Walcott's epigraphs from "Laventille" and Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal reference Africa this way--identifying it, but not directly addressing it--Cliff's inclusion of Yoruban hymns gives voice to this "unspeakable presence," which further complicates her text's black Atlantic identity. Craig Werner discusses the importance of Yoruban society and religion in American music, a discussion applicable to the function of Yoruban hymns in Cliff's epigraphs. He writes: "When the Yoruba tell stories about the orisha [spirits], they're initiating discussion, not presenting role models [. . .] the Yoruban process requires call and response" (Werner 66). This Yoruban practice applies to Cliff's collection of epigraphs because they exist in a call-and-response format, both with each other and with the text before which they appear. In "De Watchman," Cliff's text calls to the Yoruban hymn about Ogun, thereby actively mythologizing Christopher by drawing parallels between the two. In other words, the Yoruban sample (re)names a character in the DJ's (Cliff's) creation. Ogun cuts a figure of terror in the opening passage; he "kills the husband on the face of the fire/ He kills the wife on the hearth/ He kills the little people who flee outside" (qtd in Cliff 177), mirroring Christopher's murders. In this passage, call and response functions doubly as a poetic and mythologized responsive description of the murders that Christopher has committed, as well as a partial response of an African voice that Césaire's, Walcott's, and Brand's epigraphs invoke.

    The body of epigraphs negotiates Clare's struggles with coming to terms with her identity, how to express it, and how to construct it. However, the very nature of this body--its nonlinear nature and its refusal to be connected to a specific nation--problematizes its usefulness to Clare. Because she cannot physically exist across time and place, the body of epigraphs presents her with a solution that will inform her perspective on her identity but not her understanding of her physical body. Harry/Harriet's words advise Clare and, potentially, the novel's form, on this solution: "the time will come for both of us to choose. For we will have to make the choice. Cast our lot. Cyaan live split. Not in this world" (Cliff 131). In light of the hip-hop structure of the epigraphs and their relation to Cliff's text, here the text speaks to the epigraphs and to itself; the polyphonic construction speaks to the text about the difficulties of heeding a multivoiced creation.

    Although Clare avoids passing and choosing in No Telephone to Heaven (placing her in a black Atlantic model for syncretic identity), she does not achieve that without incurring a certain degree of pain and danger. While arguing with Bobby, for instance, she coldly thinks, "She had a sense he didn't trust her in her skin, somewhere he didn't believe she was what she said she was--why should he?" (Cliff 152). Earlier, Clare separates her identity into one-word sentences that negate each other and leave her, ominously, with nothing (or too much?) to grasp: "She is white. Black. Female. Lover. Beloved. Daughter. Traveler. Friend. Scholar. Terrorist. Farmer" (91). Clare is and is not what she says she is, and this circumstance illustrates the dangers inherent in claiming a syncretic identity. In her novels, Cliff obsesses on the recovery of migration and the history of resistance, but she does not ignore the dangers and pitfalls of such a claim. While syncretism may incorporate disparate elements without silencing any of them, it also refuses harmonization of those elements. The samples never bleed into one another, even though their meanings and sounds affect each other. Cliff didactically expresses a need for a syncretic black Atlantic identity in the format of her text and in the epigraphs' expressions. However, her characters' actions express a need for resolution, even though they are not granted it. Clare Savage and Michelle Cliff are black Atlantic intellectuals, but they decide to neither adopt nor reject Gilroy's transnational conception of identity. The samples in the text speak all at once; Clare wants to choose a track to follow, and Cliff prefers to let the polyphonic creation soak in. This unending multilayered opposition illustrates the difficulties and dangers of syncretism along with its advantages and possibilities, consistently resisting resolution.

    1 Stuart Hall proposes that cultural identity is "a matter of 'becoming' as well as of 'being'" (394). Cliff's body of epigraphs illustrates how this continual, active construction of identity positions a person across Hall's three "presences" (Americaine, Européenne, Africaine) of the black Diaspora's identity.
    2 Cliff's epigraphs that specifically address a woman or are told in a woman's voice also represent each of Hall's presences: the Européenne through Browning; the Africaine, albeit obliquely, through Césaire; and the Americaine through Brand. Constructing a transnational woman's voice in the text demonstrates the importance of recovering this voice to Cliff's text.
    3 The irony is too great to resist including this additional biographical detail on Elizabeth Barrett Browning: her father made most of his fortune on his sugar-cane plantations in Jamaica.
    4 In the text of No Telephone to Heaven, Clare's female voice is the vehicle Cliff uses for retelling history. However, Cliff also uses No Telephone--both her text and the epigraphs she chooses--to bear the burden of her message, which calls for a negotiation of syncretism and a recovery of the colonized's past. The layers of expression presented here reside easily within hip-hop production practices that depend on multiple layers of meaning.
    5 Clare studies Italian art while at school in England. She realizes that she is not working toward anything that resonates with who she is (exposing the limitations of attaching herself to one part of her identity and ignoring the others). In opposition to her education, Clare quits school and takes up with Bobby, an injured, black Vietnam veteran, exchanging whiteness and Englishness for black America's experience in a neocolonial war. Clare cannot escape colonialism's influence, but she does negotiate which elements of it she chooses to recognize in her complicated identity.
    6 Because Walcott addresses the poem to V. S. Naipaul, he at times speaks directly to Naipaul (and, by association, indirectly to other Caribbean writers), this point being one of them. Thus, when the speaker of the poem calls for a recovery of memory, he is calling out to people in poverty as well as those (middle-class, mostly) writing about the Caribbean.

    Works Cited

    • Cliff, Michelle. "Journey into Speech--A Writer between Two Worlds: An Interview with Michelle Cliff." Opal Palmer Adisa. African American Review 28.2 (1994): 273-280.
    • -----. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1985.
    • -----. No Telephone to Heaven. NY: Penguin, 1996.
    • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.
    • Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Identity and Diaspora." Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia UP, 1994. 392-402.
    • Hamner, Robert D. "Derek Walcott." DLB. Eds. Bernth Lindfors and Reinhard Sander. vol. 117.
      Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1992. 290-312.
    • Hebdige, Dick. Cut n' Mix. London: Routledge, 1987.
    • Taplin, Gardner B. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning." DLB. Eds. William E. Freeman and Ira B. Nadel. vol. 32. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984. 53-68.
    • Werner, Craig. A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America. NY: Penguin, 1999.