Published: 17 November 2014

Student blog: Thomas Glave and the Legacies of Slavery

Third year History student, Felix Goodbody, discusses the themes raised by Jamaican-American author and poet, Thomas Glave during his Flagship lecture.

“The flyer announcing the visit of Professor Thomas Glave to Liverpool shows the silhouette of a defiant black figure, draped in the rainbow colours of the instantly recognisable flag of the LGBT movement. The image, like Glave’s work, conveys the inseparability and composite identity of those confronting the legacy of slavery; a dual personality of what he calls ‘blackness and queerness’.

The influence of the sea

By exploring his own roots, involving tracing an ancestor that arrived in Jamaica from North Yorkshire, Glave evolves his ideas about the nature of what it is to be a black gay man in the Caribbean. The audience was invited to conceptualise spatial notions of slavery from what could be seen as a distinctly Caribbean, or (comparatively) small-island, viewpoint; that is to say one in which the sea itself plays a fundamental role.

glave posterUsing an awareness of the countless enslaved Africans who take for a gravesite the bottom of the Atlantic, the victims of the transatlantic slave trade in operation for centuries, Glave encourages a visualisation of this human material as a ‘sea of bodies’, a ‘sea of death’, and a ‘sea of transfiguration’ in which the human material combines with the barrier of water to create what he terms a sea of we.

Glave’s award-winning storytelling lays complex and often troubling human experiences over the theoretical ideas he expounds over race and sexuality. We were invited to imagine how a gay African couple, named simply ‘the beautiful man’ and ‘the laughing man’ might have experienced the middle passage (from freedom in Africa to enslavement in the Caribbean and Americas) and undergone a process of violation and dehumanisation aboard a slave ship.

In his collection of short stories Whose Song? (2000) similar themes of sex, violence and the struggle to find a stable identity in a hostile environment are developed, often culminating in a cathartic release of tension and energy. Once again the sea itself is used as a narrative device and conceptual lens; it is sexualised with a ‘muscular back’ and becomes the preserving liquid in which stories distil and rise from the dead bodies it shelters.

The talk closed with a consideration of the changing state of affairs in Caribbean attitudes towards race and sexuality. As co-founder of J-FLAG (Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals and Gays), Glave is in a perfect position to speak for and relate the experiences of the demographic and does so with eloquence, poise and an incisive style that pulls no punches and refuses to glaze over unsavoury details. In discussing the probable sexual violation of a black woman by his ancestor Glave revels in the use of an explicit, intimate vocabulary intended to drag his audience into the scene and thrust the image of the brutalism into the open.

Owing to their delivery, these oratorical tactics do not come across as accusatory or distant, but instil a collective consideration and remembrance.

In Glave’s conception of the Caribbean mentality the omnipresence of the sea is a source both of ‘collective amnesia and remembrance’, a double-edged sword that both erases the physical presence of the past and serves as a constant reminder of it. It is the mission of writers of both fiction and history to ensure that the stories of all enslaved migrants, be they of different sexuality, gender or background, constitute part of the treasure pulled ashore from the deep.”

Thomas’s visit was a collaboration with the Centre for the Study of International Slavery and the Miriam Allott Visiting Writers’ Series. Find out more about the University’s Flagship event series on the Diversity and Equality website here:

4.83 avg. rating (94% score) - 6 votes

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