This essay concentrates on the relation between song and history in the lives of the enslaved and the afterlives of slavery, particularly by tracing the history of the song “Take Him to the Gulley,” which became known as “the famous slave song of Jamaica.” Thinking alongside Katherine McKittrick’s and Sylvia Wynter’s work on plantation geographies, the author argues that the gulley, a site of mass burial in the center of the song, was also a site of Black cultural expression and futurity—a place where death and life, torture and escape, enslavement and freedom collided and shaped each other. The essay traces the song as both a mode and a performance of history, in which, through the workings of reclamation, remembrance, and redress, an enslaver’s perverse punishment became a people’s history.
Not Dead Yet: Carrying History in a Song of Jamaica
Kathleen Donegan is associate professor of English and Daniel E. Koshland Distinguished Chair in Writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She is author of Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America (2014), which explores the relationship between suffering and violence in the early English colonial settlement period and argues that the first forms of colonial subjectivity and literature appeared out of this catastrophic relationship. She is currently working on a project titled “The Spectral Plantation: The Other Worlds of Slavery,” which traces the “other worlds” enslaved people created, having been unworlded by the conditions of their enslavement. It explores four modes of departure from within the plantation complex—haunting, madness, obeah, and music.
Kathleen Donegan; Not Dead Yet: Carrying History in a Song of Jamaica. Small Axe 1 March 2022; 26 (1 (67)): 55–68. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/07990537-9724051
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