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Regards croisés sur les Afro-Américains

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Claude Julien

The Caribbean and the Mainland

Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise1: Writing the Americas as Crossroads

Andrée-Anne Kekeh-Dika

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  • 1 All references following the FE abbreviation will be to the following edition: Free Enterprise, 19 (...)

1Michelle Cliff’s Free Enterprise reads as a narrative concoction of “ingredients from here, there, and everywhere” (FE, 5) used to make a textual crossroads. The author reworks official literary, historical or mythical versions of “America” to reconstruct a New World. Cliff’s use of the crossroads as narrative pattern iterates her urgency to offer a “babel” translation of America (FE, 5), one which contests and complements what Cliff’s narrator calls the “official version”, the version sustained by the “European imperial Gaze” (FE, 7-8). The novel is about making new sense of America as the recurrence of the term “mean” seems to indicate. As such, the narrative embodies a political as well as a literary endeavor to capture the diversity of America. Such a task implies an intricate and thorough questioning of the modes of representation and the “enterprises” of the American continent, an uncovering of the unofficial, secret and subterranean voices. The purpose of the book is to organize and inscribe encounters, often conflictual, with other texts, other tongues and languages. Free Enterprise delves into and rereads the trajectories and destinies of the histories of the American continent; it questions its languages and stereotypes as well as the diverse stories of all the people who have built and continue to populate the American landscape. In this regards, the crossroads pattern is an adequate emblem for a multi-faceted story which stands out as an involved “enterprise” speaking to the multiple sides of the New World. As a consequence, a dominant vision of America as monolithic, imperious and homogeneous breaks down, or symbolically unravels.

2Conflating myth, story, history, and memory, fusing past and present, combining fictional and “real” characters, Cliff’s crossroads narrative runs counter to the linearity, homogeneity and surface simplicity of dominant history. “The official version entertains. Illumines the Great White Way” says the anonymous narrator at the beginning of the book (FE, 17). Cliffs own version does not entertain: it is a disruptive, meandering “free enterprise” whose purpose is to recover all the components, vestiges of memory and history of the Americas, to unveil alternative stories, those of the silenced and the oppressed of all kinds.

  • 2 . Mary Ellen Pleasant was a millionaire and an activist who financed the African Methodist Episcopa (...)
  • 3 Mary Ann Shadd Cary (note the difference in spelling) was a 19th century abolitionist and feminist (...)
  • 4 “We are New World people, and we built this blasted country from the ground up. We are part of its (...)

3The book’s title, Free Enterprise, can be read as a polyphonic embodiment of the crossroads image, a term that signals layers of embedded significance. Free Enterprise stands out as a variation on the word “enterprise”. The novel unfolds the different connotations of the word and points out variances in the term meanings from the perspective of the individuals and groups who have shaped the Americas. The narrative recounts the ambiguity and instability of the concept “enterprise” in the history of the American continent. When it first appears in the novel, “Free enterprise” is the name of a black restaurant, the place where the main two female figures of the book, Annie Christmas and Mary Ellen Pleasant meet; but the term also conveys other nuances that the novel deploys. The word refers to the “enterprise of slavery” (FE,, 77-8), the many-faceted trade which has built America. At some other point, it ironically designates the American frontier, “the greatest enterprise the continent had ever witnessed” (FE,, 105), but it also alludes to the invisible struggle for freedom in which Mary Ellen Pleasant,2 Mary Shadd Carey3 and many others are engaged. In a similar fashion, the term also points to the subversive labor of the unknown but “enterprising slave” (FE, 71), to the ways of women who have either aborted or killed their children to resist slavery and who have left no trace in history. Throughout the narrative, “enterprise” appears in different guises, speaking to and about unacknowledged and secret voices, gestures or signs which offer alternative textualities and histories of the Americas.4

  • 5 The following statement uttered by one of Cliff’s characters points to the difficulty to grasp his (...)

4Two female voices dominate, giving sense and direction to Cliff’s discontinuous novel: those of “real” Mary Ellen Pleasant and fictional Annie Christmas, the Afro-American activist and the Caribbean exile who has left her island and chosen to combat slavery on US soil. Reuniting these two female figures, Cliff deliberately chooses to set her narrative at the intersections of history and fiction, of “real” life and “invented” life as if the “truth” were to be found in the interstices between those two narrative modes.5 By allying the Caribbean female subject to her African-American counterpart, Cliff also seems to be willing to rehabilitate and foreground the broken links between Caribbean and American history at large. As one of the personae puts it in The Land of Look Behind: “Our connections are limited by silences between us.” (Cliff, 1985, 36).

  • 6 Cliff fictionalizes the life of Marian Hooper, the wife of Henry Adams who was called Clover and w (...)

5Along with those central voices that produce narrative coherence, the novel creates space for the gendered stories of many women, including Rachel de Souza, the Jewish immigrant whose ancestors fled the Inquisition in Spain, Clover Hooper, a 19th century American female photographer,6 Quasheba, the warrior-woman and mother of Pleasant. The narrative also rings with masculine speech: Captain Parsons, Pleasant’s father, tells parts of his story as a resisting seafarer who outwits “England Trading” (FE, 7) by conducting contraband Africans to freedom, or the reader can overhear John Brown arguing with Mary Ellen Pleasant over the legitimacy of their “enterprise” to
dismantle slavery she calls the peculiar institution. As a whole the novel sounds like a polyglossal space filled with famous voices and a number of other anonymous tales, those of the unknown people, the “gens inconnu [s]” of the Caribbean as the narrative puts it in French (FE, 6), of all of those who have remained in “the silence” (FE, 62) and in the background of history. Indeed, if primacy seems to be given to orality, one must not forget that Cliff’s novel also attempts to capture what has been silenced because it was considered too trivial or ordinary to be part of History. That is the reason why lists of objects, foodstuff and names saturate Cliff’s novel (FE, 45, 55-56); making lists of terms appears as a textual and strategic way of compensating for what has been lost or “dissembled” (FE, 192). One of the central purposes of the narrative is to circulate, pass on and (re)translate what has thus far been maintained in limbo between the different accounts of the Americas. The various intersecting stories that emanate from the colony of lepers are significant in this respect, and illness may be viewed as a metaphor of silenced but resurgent discourse. As such Cliff’s book skillfully confronts the loud and “official version [which is] in everybody’s mouth.” (FE, 17).

  • 7 See how Michelle Cliff stages a futuristic encounter between “hologrammatical” Malcom X and Mary E (...)

6The multiple voices of Free Enterprise are set against a broken, non linear narrative which counters chronological time and circumscribed space. The story of Annie Christmas and Mary Ellen Pleasant roughly takes place between 1858 and 1920, but the narrative alternatively jumps back in time and refers to the “discovery” of the New World and the time of Columbus or Magellan, or jumps forward into a time period which has not yet occurred.7 Cliff also explodes spatial boundaries: ignoring the unity of space, the narrative moves in a disorderly fashion from one place to the next. The novel’s setting is not limited to US soil but convenes the whole of the American continent, and also gestures to all the countries that, in one way or another, have participated in the slave trade. The fragmented structure, along with the multi-layered and multi-voiced texture of the novel read as Cliff’s formal attempt at conveying the crossroads quality of the Americas. It is a way of textually embedding the intricacy of the New World and to show how the “here and now”, the “there and then” ceaselessly intersect and interweave with one another (FE, 210). Cliffs deliberate collision of different time periods, minor and major voices, and spaces not only encodes and expresses America’s hybridity and polyphony; it also echoes back to the unending power struggle and collision of interests at stake in the construction of the Americas. The author’s mention of the difficult negotiations between languages in the New World is a good case in point: “Tongues collided. Struggled for hegemony. Emerged victorious, or sank into the impossibly blue waters, heavy as gold” (FE, 6). One might also argue that Cliff’s will to disrupt the stability of the narrative also points to the impossible task of writing about or fictionalizing the origins of the Americas and its history in a linear and univocal way. Retrieving and accounting for plural history can only be done through a heterogeneous or miscellaneous process. In this regard, Annie Christmas’s “bottle-tree” which is decorated with bottles and “ingredients, from here, there and everywhere” (FE, 5) might be the emblematic embodiment of such a process. No wonder then that Cliff’s textual fabric is made of dissimilar materials such as drawings, paintings, excerpts from poems, novels, essays, letters and lists of names that the author represents and reinvents, and which coalesce with the stories of Pleasant and Christmas. Hence, Cliff’s inter-textual purpose seems to be making an extensive inventory of America and its various materials and tales, to extend beyond the borders of fictional and historical narrative, to address, contest and dialogue with meta-texts, and to question the myth of America’s oneness.

  • 8 The novel has four parts, each of which is divided into an unequal number of subparts: Part I has (...)
  • 9 “And when the smoke cleared the name officially attached to the deed was John Brown. Who has ever (...)

7The titles of the subparts and chapters of Free Enterprise8 echo the “enterprise” of the novel’s title and are also about unraveling official and less official meanings, about organizing dialogues between dominant and more hidden voices or texts. Each chapter or subpart is organized around its title and illuminates, contradicts or expands it. The enigmatic title phrase, “She was a Friend of John Brown”,9 is gradually elucidated in the course of the book. It refers to the epitaph that Mary Ellen Pleasant, a comrade-in-arms of John Brown, has had inscribed on her gravestone. Thus Mary Ellen Pleasant symbolically comes to the foreground of the text, getting space and prominence in the title. “The axe is laid at the foot of the tree” is also one of those seemingly “meaningless” titles whose forgotten significance is unveiled in the novel —a fragment of the last message of Mary Ellen Pleasant to John Brown before he was defeated:

When he was captured there was a piece of paper in his pockets, with my words on it. “The axe is laid at the foot of the tree. When the first blow is struck, there will be more money to help.”
Not much of a farewell, but at least a promise.
In the end our conversations wafted into the ether, meaningless.
Meaningless, but to me who repeats them over and over in my head. (FE, 151-2).

8Thus fictional discourse uncovers traces, fragments, voices and perspectives overlooked by institutional history and iconography. Free Enterprise addresses the issue of loss, but it also collects and gathers the remains of history, memory and myth with the aim of making sense of the Americas and re/membering it (FE, 191-2). This is a vital and urgent “enterprise” since as the last chapter suggests, the ocean has lost and erased all the traces: “The ocean closed its books, darkness revealing nothing” (FE, 210). In order to recover “a history sunk under the sea” as Cliff puts it, it is all the more necessary for the author to once again delve into the voices, languages, and experiences of the known and unknown people that have made the Americas. Resonating with numerous sometimes antagonistic voices, Cliff’s novel is made into “a talking book” (FE, 211) whose purpose is to compensate for the fragility and unreliability of the written word.

  • 10 This is a discursive strategy Cliff uses extensively in The Land of Look Behind.
  • 11 I’m reworking Michelle Cliff’s title, “A Journey Into Speech.” (Cliff, 1985, 11-18).
  • 12 This seems to be the point of the various lists of food names of foreign origin that pervade the n (...)

9Strategies of naming and translation are keys to Cliff’s fictional articulation of the crossroads idea:10 they enable the writer to organize unsuspected linguistic encounters and connections. This is in keeping with Cliff’s desire to unveil both the secret and public subtexts of the Americas. These discursive practices reveal the underside of history. One of the ways of translating America is to journey into tongues.11 Cliffs use of words other than English shows that America is a linguistic crossroads where “tongues” have always struggled and negotiated with one another in order to achieve supremacy. The novel is interspersed with words borrowed from French, Spanish, Latin, Yiddish, or African languages (Mande, Akan, Bambara, Ewe). Sometimes, meaning is given to the reader in parentheses or through paraphrase; sometimes it is not. The writer’s refusal or inability to provide translation forces readers to cooperate with the text in an active way, and to engage in the arduous quest of recovering meaning by themselves. In order to capture the true meaning and essence of the Americas, readers must be able to move through and decipher “foreign” signs and retrace the origins of terms that have been confiscated by the English language.12 The author’s strategy also suggests that translating the Americas as a whole may prove impossible because meaning has been lost. The novel includes for example a number of arcane signs which Annie Christmas and Captain Parsons are unable to translate because they point to too distant an African past: “She looked closely and saw markings, foreign to her, etched on the dangling tongue, suddenly disembodied” (FE, 21). Thus, making sense of America is a comprehensive practice which implies journeying back through space and time past, and being also able to decode European history and sites of memory (such as painted by Turner, for instance) as well as African sacred figures like Dan, the snake.

10Free Enterprise touches upon cultural translation and the original significance of words, names, or emblems. There are many references to historic places, moments and events to be recognized if one is to grasp full sense of the narrative. The overwhelming presence of first names of figures whose last names are not given strongly engages the reader’s “capability” (FE, 13). Reading Cliff’s novel is a demanding “enterprise”: one has to be aware of the implicit significance and resonance of the names and nouns which Cliff disseminates lavishly through her narrative. The naming practice becomes a strategy to assert existence or to rehabilitate forgotten presence. Indeed, the novel reinvestigates proper names (the known and the less known), domestic objects, foods, all the official and less official memory sites of those who have become the “New World people.” Free Enterprise seeks to retrieve the origins of names in a “confused” (FE, 6) universe where chief “Powhatan” has been reduced to be simply the name of a horse (FE, 177), and where the term “Caribbean” solely designates the “perfect sea” (FE, 116). Cliff’s fictional inventory of the Americas enlarges history and the English language and is meant to welcome back words, materials and characters from “everywhere”.

  • 13 “I know they mean (meant) well—that phrase!! but supplication was not our mode, and divergence was (...)

11Offering a new version of the Americas also means interrogating the slogans, the clichés that are part of history and popular discourse (FE, 15). Free Enterprise questions the ways in which stereotypical discourse tends to displace names and to obliterate an individual’s true nature. Thus, Mary Ellen Pleasant is lost to historical reverence and popular discourse defines her, at best, as a “Mammy” or a “vodoo queen”; the fluctuating and false identities given to her negate her role as an “entrepreneur” and a resisting historical agent (FE, 18). In the same line, Cliff’s narrative suggests that Sojourner Truth’s position has been reduced to a cliché: “Am I not a woman and your sister” (FE, 70); this has de-emphasized her political “enterprise” and transformed her into some kind of accommodationist character.13 Ceaselessly, the novel draws on common topoi, searches through them in order to break them down and to restore their hidden nuances and origins.

12Free Enterprise is a search to uncover hidden monuments. Cliffs renewed fictional construction of the Americas tries to see through the sites and moments of history which have been canonized in the “official version”. Her account of the “false” nature of photographs (Clover Hopper’s work, FE, 87, 94), paintings (Turner FE, 71-75) and sculpture (Saint-Gaudens, FE, 159-165) is significant because it addresses issues of representation, interpretation and distortion, and the sometimes dubious collusions between art and dominant history.

  • 14 See Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead.” 1964. Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw memorial pays homage to Lieute (...)

13As Robert Lowell did before her, Cliff draws Saint-Gaudens’s Bobert Gould Shaw Memorial into her fictional space.14 Her account of the genesis of the sculpture implies that aestheticized rendering of history can alter and betray the suffering and the authenticity of the experiences of the powerless. The narrative retraces the elaboration of the “Shaw Memorial” through a series of letters exchanged between Saint-Gaudens, his sponsor and one of the black survivors of the 54th regiment. The letters show how the artist gradually discards the war testimonies (letters, pictures, stories) of the surviving soldiers because he is solely concerned with aesthetics; thus he chooses to reject historical “truth” and use living models who have nothing to do with the historic event and the soldiers to commemorate.

  • 15 “The thing [the Zong incident] is behind us; surely we can enjoy the art it engendered. The man [T (...)
  • 16 One could argue that Cliff’s argument may also work against her own literary enterprise. After all (...)

14Cliff pushes this issue further in the chapter devoted to Turner’s painting, “Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon Coming on”. Faced with the ambivalent response of a 19th century audience,15 Mary Ellen Pleasant strongly questions the link between aesthetics, a history of abomination and capitalism: can art remain apolitical? can the Middle Passage and the slave trade become mere aesthetic objects or capitalistic commodities?16 Pleasant does not force any answers on the reader, but Cliff’s forceful insertion of the photograph, the painting and the monument graphically articulates her desire to interrogate the meaning of the foreground and the background in official cultural representations of history.

15The recurrence of the preposition “behind” that she used to title her first story collection encapsulates Cliff’s concern for those who have remained in the background. Her narrative is like a palimpsest through which she tries to illuminate who has been lying in the background or on the edge (FE, 3, 171). Cliffs revives for example the unknown woman who led John Wilkes Booth to the site of Lincoln’s assassination (FE, 86). However, the author skillfully avoids privileging one “heroic” version (FE, 49) over the other; her book addresses and qualifies the over-romanticized and “purified” (FE, 51) translations of history offered both by the colonized and the enslaved people of America: “What my great-grandfather told me, what he carved into this bone, was the heroic version, the one he wanted to become history. But the real story is not as colorful, not as tidy; it never is.” (FE, 49). Cliff tries to integrate all the pieces into the overall history of America following a crossroads pattern, which seems to be in keeping with what she sees as her specific practice and crossroads position as a Caribbean writer. In an interview with Judith Raiskin, Cliff suggests that coming “from a culture that is not mainstream” may give the Caribbean writer more room and latitude to experiment with form, style and genre and to escape from “dichotomous” representations. Towards the end of the novel, the unidentified narrator says, “The official version is for public consumption-in both senses of that word.” (FE, 138); in many ways, Cliff’s “anarchic” (FE, 45) and over-rich version of the Americas is meant not to be digested easily. The author’s use of the fragment and her disjointed narrative which borrows from many sources and materials symbolically tell about the urgency to break down the boundaries of nation and narrative, to question the narrow-mindedness of national history and mythology and to rebuild a comprehensive and plural story/history for the “New World people”.

Bibliographie

Works cited

Boime, Albert, 1990. The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century. London: Thames & Hudson.

Cliff, Michelle, 1994 (1993). Free Enterprise. New York: Plume.

-----, 1985. The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca, N. Y.: Frirbrand.

Gidding, Paula, 1985. When and When I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Morrow.

Hausmann Shea, Renée, 1993. «Michelle Cliff» Belles Lettres 9.3.

Raiskin, Judith, 1993. “The Art of History: An Interview with Michelle Cliff.” The Kenyon Review 15.1:51-71,58.

Thompson, Jerry L., 1989. Memorial to a Marriage. New York: Abrams.

White, Hayden, 1980. “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality.” Critical Inquiry, 7.1: 5-27

Notes

1 All references following the FE abbreviation will be to the following edition: Free Enterprise, 1994 (-1993). New York: Plume. I would like to thank V. Havan (U. Le Havre), H. George, W. Gleeson, J. Mayes (Syracuse U.) & J. Merchant (Paris 2) for their help and suggestions.

2 . Mary Ellen Pleasant was a millionaire and an activist who financed the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church and the Baptist church in San Francisco and supposedly helped John Brown finance his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va. in 1859. See Gidding, 1985, 73. Michelle Cliff became interested in Pleasant through a reference to her in Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters (1980). See Renée Hausmann Shea, «Michelle Cliff.» Belles Lettres 9.3 (1993).

3 Mary Ann Shadd Cary (note the difference in spelling) was a 19th century abolitionist and feminist who was involved in the suffrage movement (Gidding, 1985, 69-71).

4 “We are New World people, and we built this blasted country from the ground up. We are part of its future, its fortunes.” (FE, 151).

5 The following statement uttered by one of Cliff’s characters points to the difficulty to grasp historical truth: “The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.” (FE 51). “For some, this is fantasy; for others, history.” (FE 29). On the significance of silence, see also Miles Davis’s epigraph to Cliff’s book: “I always listen for what I can leave out.” On the value of narrativity, see White. 1980, 5-27.

6 Cliff fictionalizes the life of Marian Hooper, the wife of Henry Adams who was called Clover and who had a strong interest in photography. Mrs Hooper committed suicide in December 1885. See Jerry L. Thomson (1989); the book includes a few pictures by Marian Hooper. I’m indebted to H. Perrin (Paris 8) for this information.

7 See how Michelle Cliff stages a futuristic encounter between “hologrammatical” Malcom X and Mary Ellen Pleasant (FE, 76-7).

8 The novel has four parts, each of which is divided into an unequal number of subparts: Part I has three subparts, Part II has two, Part III has seven and Part IV has five. Such imbalance in the structuring of the book may be an expression of the author’s will to disrupt and counter the pseudo-harmony and balanced order of the “official version” of America.

9 “And when the smoke cleared the name officially attached to the deed was John Brown. Who has ever heard of Annie Christmas, Mary Shadd Carey, Mary Ellen Pleasant? The official version has been printed, bound, and gagged, resides in schools, libraries, the majority unconscious.” (FE, 16).

10 This is a discursive strategy Cliff uses extensively in The Land of Look Behind.

11 I’m reworking Michelle Cliff’s title, “A Journey Into Speech.” (Cliff, 1985, 11-18).

12 This seems to be the point of the various lists of food names of foreign origin that pervade the narrative.

13 “I know they mean (meant) well—that phrase!! but supplication was not our mode, and divergence was inevitable.” (FE, 70).

14 See Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead.” 1964. Saint-Gaudens’s Shaw memorial pays homage to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who headed one of the first black regiments (54th Massachussetts Regiment). Most of the regiment was exterminated in a gallant, though suicidal charge against Fort Wagner (S. C.). See Boime, 1990, 199-219.

15 “The thing [the Zong incident] is behind us; surely we can enjoy the art it engendered. The man [Turner] had a brilliance about him, with form, color.”(FE, 74). See Boime, 1990, 67-70.

16 One could argue that Cliff’s argument may also work against her own literary enterprise. After all she is also fictionalizing and commodifying a history of horror.

Auteur

Université de Paris 8

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2003

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540

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