The book Christine gave me, The Longest Memory by Fred D’Aguiar opens with the line; ’The future is just more of the past waiting to happen.’ The words are spoken by Whitechapel a black slave. The year is not said but I’m guessing from the editorials taken from The Virginian (chapter 11) that it’s around 1810.
The story opens with the killing of Whitechapel’s only son caught after trying to escape the plantation. Whitechapel is forced to watch as the boy is whipped to death by Saunders the plantation overseer. It is Saunders father who raped the boy’s mother. Only later does Saunders understand that he has unwittingly murdered his own half brother. And yet even then he expresses no remorse. But the greatest horror and one which holds the narrative core is that the man who betrays the boy is none other than his father, Whitechapel. A betrayal carried out in the belief that only he, Whitechapel, can save his son. For Whitechapel a good slave, a happy slave, is the one that learns from observation and not through experiencing. The other, and his son is the other, is the slave who makes ‘the lot of every slave ten times worse.’
In my opening line I prefaced the words, ‘injustice and cruelty’, with the word, ‘the.’ And in doing so unwittingly framed my own relationship to those two words. As if this injustice and cruelty were somehow separate. An entity that lived not with me but with the other: those politicians, those other blind and bigoted men. But of course they are the other in me.
The Longest Memory is not filled with the other it is filled with me: I am the boy who does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps; the man who whips his own half brother to death; the righteous plantation owner who defends his superior beliefs – in the club that his father built; in the nameless men and women whose cold and self serving logic fills the editorial of ‘The Virginian December 1809 to June 1810’. And hanging above the narrative like some grim stain, Whitechapel a man who unwittingly betrays his son. As long as I remain blinded to my own privilege and rank and the power that goes with it I too am that man.
The poetics of poetry is, in the words of Robert Duncan, ‘a quest to extend our vision beyond the confines of the small room that excludes and hides our humanity. In The Big Room, I hope that I might learn to remember my own blindness for the sake of my son.