Before I sat down to speak to Isaac Julien on a leather couch outside his installation “Other Destinies” at the Royal Ontario Museum, I crashed a class field trip where Julien gave a tour to a group of University of Toronto students writing about his work. He introduced the work before he guided us through it with terms and ideas that are now customary in the literature surrounding it over the past three decades: the tension between realist documentary and narrative cinema; making objects into subjects to reconcile with secret histories and make them perpetually contemporary; queering white history and white spaces through visual reparation; asserting the agency of the black body through images that have only ever signified ethnographically.
True North and Western Union: Small Boats, the alpha and omega of a trilogy unfolding between 2004 and 2007, share the same protagonist, Vanessa Myrie. Both non-linear, narrative films unfold across three screens—further disorienting an already-distracted spectator, Julien says.
True North subverts the whitewashing of history by focusing on the story of Matthew Henson, an overlooked African American man who was in fact one of the key figures in white American explorer Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition to the North Pole. The vast, frigid expanses traversed by the explorer—though the story takes place in the Arctic, Julien filmed it in Iceland—are reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Julien warps the passage of time: there are mere moments between the presentation of a glacier and its dissolution, between the protagonist trudging through tundra, her figure in the distance only a silhouette, and her fluttering, translucent white dress and bare feet on a beach awash with dissolved icebergs. Inuit throat singing punctuates moments of narration from Henson’s travel journal: “I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world.”
In the News
Jessica Marie Johnson March 6, 2017, Black Perspectives
(The introduction to Black Perspectives’ online roundtable on Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea)
The field of Middle Passage Studies comprises, as Sowande’ Mustakeem notes, a “small yet growing body of scholarship” dedicated to excavating histories of slavery from within the “wooden world” of the slave ship (p. 4). Mustakeem joins renowned scholars contributing to this harrowing and necessary intellectual enterprise–from Stephanie Smallwood and Marcus Rediker, to Emma Christopher and Eric Taylor.
Histories produced in the field of Middle Passages Studies follow a particular method. These histories view the Atlantic ocean as a site of violence and commodification, but also a site with a history. Slave ships, in this analysis, become more than ocean-going vessels. Slave ships become technological innovations, carceral spaces, and extensions of a project of transforming, un-gendering, and re-quantifying human beings into objects for sale. Marcus Rediker described the slave ship as “a strange and potent combination of war machine, mobile prison, and factory.” Everyone on board, from captains to crew to African captives themselves, played active roles creating or resisting the dismantling terror of the Middle Passage.
Middle Passage Studies scholars push the field of slavery studies to examine the individual and collective experiences of sailors and slaves, investors and merchants, Africans on shore at factories and ports along the Atlantic African littoral, and Africans in the ports and slaveholding societies of the Americas. The network of slaving invoked in Middle Passage Studies reveals how the slave trade “filtered within and beyond the ocean, irrevocably transforming bondpeople’s lives as well as the societies and communities into which they were imported” (p. 7).
Rachel L. Swarns, March 12, 2017, The New York Times
He was an enslaved teenager on a Jesuit plantation in Maryland on the night that the stars fell. It was November 1833, and meteor showers set the sky ablaze.
His name was Frank Campbell. He would hold tight to that memory for decades, even when he was an old man living hundreds of miles away from his birthplace. In 1838, he was shipped to a sugar plantation in Louisiana with dozens of other slaves from Maryland. They had been sold by the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests to raise money to help save the Jesuit college now known as Georgetown University.
Mr. Campbell would survive slavery and the Civil War. He would live to see freedom and the dawning of the 20th century. Like many of his contemporaries from Maryland, he would marry and have children and grandchildren. But in one respect, he was singular: His image has survived, offering us the first look at one of the 272 slaves sold to help keep Georgetown afloat.