The Voiceless Speak

Grada Kilomba’s Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism reviewed.
By David Austin
Plantation Memories

Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism
Grada Kilomba
Between The Lines, 2021

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In the back-cover blurb for Grada Kilomba’s Plantation Memories: Episodes of Everyday Racism, I wrote the following:

Grada Kilomba’s Plantation Memories is a remarkably insightful and compelling book about the being and becoming of blackness. Once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop. Written in the spirit and tradition of bell hooks and Frantz Fanon, it is one of the most important books written on the sociology, phenomenology, and psychology of racism and colonialism since Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

Kilomba’s book is certainly written in the spirit of both hooks and Fanon, but a comparison of this kind is bound to raise eyebrows. In retrospect, although Plantation Memories represents a holistic and complex contemporary approach to the phenomenon of racism, the blurb perhaps contains a touch of hyperbole Reading it now, I too am a bit taken aback by my own grandiloquent claim, but I do stand by my statement that Plantation Memories is a very important book.

Grada Kilomba is described as “an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and theorist born in Lisbon, where she studied clinical psychology and psychoanalysis,” as someone who is “Strongly influenced by Frantz Fanon” and who is very much preoccupied with “memory, trauma, race, gender, and postcolonialism, and later extended her concerns to form, language, performance, and video installation.” She also holds a Doctorate in Philosophy from Freie Universitat Berlin.

In other words, she possesses the background to tackle the complex and multifaceted phenomenon of racism that, in terms of how it psychologically, spiritually and physically impacts the lives of the racialized, and particularly in this instance, people of African descent. And while the book is rooted in the everyday experiences of racism, Kilomba eschews more fleeting analyses of racial discrimination by firmly situating it within the plantation which not only grounds and historicizes anti-black racism within the phenomenon of enslavement and colonialism, but also in relation to the ongoing exploitation and negation of black labour.

The echoes of Fanon’s are evident from the beginning and could perhaps not be more obvious than Kilomba’s opening chapter, “The Mask,” which tells the traumatic tale of Escrava Anastácia. Anastácia’s pre-Brazilian origins are uncertain, though she may have roots in present-day Angola. What is certain is that she was forced by her Portuguese masters to wear a grotesque metal mask that “was composed of a bit placed inside the mouth of the Black subject, clamped between the tongue and the jaw, and fixed behind the head with two strings, one surrounding the chin and the other surrounding the nose and forehead.”

This particular mask was designed to prevent enslaved Africans from consuming sugar cane or cocoa beans as they toiled in the fields. But while it formally served this perniciously practical economic purpose for slave masters, it also served to render the enslaved speechless. For Kilomba, the mask “symbolizes the sadistic politics of conquest and its cruel regimes of silencing the so-called ‘Others.’” The counter to this reality, for Kilomba, is the act of black subjects reclaiming their voices, not in mimicry of the presumed master’s voice, but in a voice that holistically embodies the experience of the silenced Other.

Drawing on her background in psychoanalysis, Kilomba suggests that the mask also represents a projection of the master’s sadism on to the enslaved. The enslaved then becomes the object to be feared, as opposed to the master and the regimes of slavery, colonialism and capitalism whose power the master embodies. Kilomba captures the everydayness of this experience, and in the spirit of bell hooks, Kilomba uses everyday language and examples that articulate with clarity the simplicity and complexity of experiences that are at times rendered incomprehensible by verbose theorizing:

I, as a Black woman, write with words that describe my reality, not with words that describe the reality of white scholars, for we write from different places. I write from periphery, not the center. This is also the place from where I am theorizing, as I place my discourse within my own reality. The speak of the Black scholars then often arises as a lyrical and theoretical discourse that transgresses the language of classic scholarship. A discourse that is as political as it is personal.

In the face of silence, Kilomba poses the questions: “Who can speak? What happens when we speak? And what can we speak about?” These questions are reminiscent of the opening chapter/scene in Fred Moten’s In the Break in which he writes: “My argument starts with the historical reality of commodities who spoke—of laborers who were commodities before, as it were, the abstraction of labor power from their bodies and who continue to pass on this material heritage across the divide that separates slavery and ‘freedom.’” Moten is both critiquing and interpolating his own voice into Marx’s qualified remark in Capital, “If the commodity could speak they would say this….”

But Kilomba does not qualifying (“if”) the commodity’s voice but instead, in the spirit of Gayatri Spivak, centers the experience subaltern women. Without putting words in the mouths of commodities as Marx rhetorically does in his explanation of a commodity’s exchange value, Kilomba not only takes it for granted, as does Moten, that “commodities”—in this case the formerly enslaved and the colonized—can speak, but provides them with a platform to share their stories in their own words.

Anastácia’s story is symbolic of the “Black Atlantic” experience, anchored as it is in the political economy of the planation. The plantation is not a trendy abstract metaphor as the word is often marshalled today. It was the site where labour was extracted for profit and a crucial an integral part of the accumulation of wealth that contributed to the development of modern capitalism.

Rooted in both theory and qualitative research (interviews) and personal experience in Germany, Kilomba situates everyday manifestations racism within the historical context of slavery and colonialism. And because the plantation is Kilomba’s point of departure, she is well situated to describe the concrete character of racism as a social, political and economic practice that negatively shapes black lives.

But here is where the book somewhat falls somewhat short. Having introduced the planation and a historical phenomenon that has shaped the lives of people of African descent, she does not carry that analysis to its logical conclusion in terms of exploring the political and economic implications of the plantation phenomenon. That is to say its legacy both as a constitutive and constituent part of a system that continues to reproduce racial and other forms of inequality.

Drawing on the concept of racial capitalism, a term made popular by Cedric Robinson, Zophia Edward has eloquently captured the spirit of contemporary racism with the context of contemporary political economy. As she observes in a recent Monthly Review article, “Racial Capitalism and COVID-19,” the current pandemic demonstrates the extent to which social inequalities disproportionately impact the lives of people of African descent and other racialized groups: “People are suffering but not everyone is suffering equally. The current conditions are not surprising to those of us who take a racial capitalism approach to the study of global political economy.”

What Kilomba does achieve is to permit the seemingly voiceless to speak. Facilitating the reclaiming themselves as speech becomes synonymous with the possibility of freedom that is ultimately rooted in the everydayness of social and political struggle.

David Austin
David Austin is an author and editor.
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