Reclaiming Time On Blackness and Landscape
Why do I now want to talk about the woods? Afterall, I grew up surrounded by woodland. In Coffee Grove, the village in Jamaica in which I spent my early childhood, I was surrounded by farmland, by animals, and by the bush. Why then had I never felt this urge to stand still in the woodland, or walk placidly, contemplating it? I realised, as I express in the poem ‘Walking with the Word “Tree”’, that for my family, nature was functional. As farmers, my grandparents shaped the land, waited for its yields, saw their living as connected to the earth. They were not contemplators of scenery; their hands were in the earth. These were environmentalists without a title.
Later, at the age of five, I went to live in a town with my mother who was a school teacher. All of a sudden I was propelled into a different lifestyle. We would continue to be ‘poor’ but now at least we lived in a small town. We never got ‘coming out of the bush’ to coincide with ‘upward social mobility’, which became a source of frustration. Poverty can create feelings of enclosure. I believe it is, first and foremost, an affect (the absence of commodities and resources does not in itself equal poverty). We were living a half-rural, half-urban life, always with the aspiration of leaving the rural behind, because the rural was perceived to be an index of poverty. On the one hand we were trying to escape the rural, elemental lifestyle; on the other hand we couldn’t afford the trappings of middle-class lifestyle. We went to the beach once a year, for example…
Now that I think about it, the whole idea of middle class in Jamaica is about turning your back on the elements. The middle-class ideal entails distancing yourself from the natural, the woodland, any space associated with the ‘primitive’ – and that includes folklore and myth, in which the woodland is the space of spirits, ‘duppies’.
Given the attempts to distance Africans from ancestral practices, Blacks in the New World were forced to internalise a colonial epistemology of nature. The fact, for example, that African spiritual practices (including pharmacopeia and various healing practices) were viewed as suspect by the colonisers rendered more problematic an already complicated relationship to the land. The urban space is the locus of progress. Nature belongs to the rural, not the urban. Nature is disorder, ‘dirt’, that which drags us down. There may well be links here with nineteenth-century Europe, in which there emerged the utopia of doing without nature, of replacing soils with a kind of chemical soup, since nature, it was thought, needed to be controlled, even eliminated.
So in the small town of Porus where I lived from the age of five, people often pave over their front lawn. There is this obsession with covering the green. Modern upward mobility is concrete. The fracture that we experience between ourselves and nature, the desire and obsession to put distance between ourselves and the natural world, is rooted in slavery and colonialism. We try to distance ourselves from the ‘poor condition’ of living with the earth. To compound matters, violence and criminality deter us from venturing into the outdoors. Landscape and the possibilities of landscape are underpinned by socio-economic dynamics rooted in a colonial history and its afterlives. History – the past and present of social violence – make the woodland in Jamaica anything but a place of leisure. We live in a deepseated social fracture that keeps us distanced from the natural.
The question of Blackness and landscape is a complex one. For the Black body, walking is complicated, and to walk in a dark, veiled place is seldom an innocent act. Histories of the hunted Black body form part of the collective memory of the African diaspora. If the city often proves to be a dangerous space for Black people, as recent events have demonstrated, the fact is that, in the Black imaginary, it is the city that is perceived as the site of relative safety, while the outdoors continue to be associated with the ‘constant necessity and activity of running away, of flight’, as Fred Moten puts it.
How then do we walk? How then do we inhabit leisure? What is ‘nature’ to us?
I am thinking about spatial enclosure. To what extent are my past experiences and feelings of enclosure rooted in colonial ideologies and histories? My current poetic project is one of writing (against) enclosure.
Allow me a slight detour away from poetry, the better to underscore the concerns I engage in my poetry. While thinking about these issues, I encountered the work of photographer Ingrid Pollard. I have been particularly interested in a series of photographs Pollard took and exhibited in the late 1980s. It is quite interesting that the issues Pollard was grappling with in the 1980s are still just as present today.
In ‘Pastoral Interlude’, Pollard takes familiar sites and makes them legible in new ways, playing with the viewer’s sense of what seems natural or not so natural, forcing us to give attention to the ideological workings of landscape. The photographs involve ‘reading’ the ways that land has been marked, culturally speaking.
In the first photo, a Black woman, perhaps the artist herself, sits on a stone wall. Behind her a fence marks one boundary of a landscape of rolling hills. She is clad in white jumper, beige trousers tucked into mid-calfheight green socks; her head wrapped in a green scarf. She sits with a camera on her thigh. Her eyes look intently at something outside of the frame; whatever it is, she seems to be watching it with curiosity. The caption
P o e m s / A l l e n P a i s a n t