“Voids are complex because they are nothing at all, and yet everything at once,” writes Kris Manjapra in his new book, Black Ghost of Empire: the Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation. As can be inferred from the title of the book, the particular sort of voids that Manjapra has in mind here are those reflected back when peering into history, and thereby those that go haunting on into the future—voids that are synthesized, as it were, by those who create that history, an act which he specifically defines as “the cunning practice, adopted by whole societies, of ‘unseeing’ the plundered parts, and ‘unhearing’ their historical demands for reparative justice.” When we talk about history, in other words, we’re always already appropriating it as something which exists with narrative form, and therefore necessarily deciding which parts of it we grasp by means of interpretation.
Starting from this as his point of departure, what Manjapra undertakes in the short but powerful work is a sweeping epic which leaves very little from the past five centuries lying outside its scope. As its primary occupation is unveiling darkened parts of history, Ghosts begins promptly with the conspicuous absence of slavery in the northern United States in the mid-1800s, which he inextricably links to its commercial interests in southern slavery, without which the existence of industry in the north would be unthinkable. The author demonstrates how, through the precise manipulation of networks of capital, as well as failed half-measures of legislative emancipation, the arms of western conquest fabricated what he spends the rest of the book referring to as the “ghostline”: that which “separates the history of man from the history of his voids,” the line which is drawn “between those said to be present and those designated as present-absences.” What appears to us to be missing, then, is in fact the presence of a more systematic dislocation or removal, as in the southern practice of slavery by which the north was able to build its fortune—there is no one at all who goes untouched by the haunting.
Consequently, the mode of Manjapra’s historical approach is appropriately fixed on the particular, with heavy emphasis paid to the primary source material: he begins by opening up the narrative like a zipper, zooming in on the ‘familiar’ to show how the contradictions in one historical context can and do lend themselves to the existence of another similar moment on a different continent. Whereas the myth of Western history as it typically presents itself takes on the form of a singular march toward the liberation of peoples, Ghosts shows how false such an understanding requires itself to be, by using as his instruments the granular materials of a vast array of historical moments. Rather than take up the narrative of expansion, enslavement, and the gradual loosening of restrictions, instead Manjapra compels us to look into the precise arrangements of society which led to such atrocities as the brutal colonization of Haiti, its subsequent bloody revolution, and the financial bondage by which it’s been strapped ever since; he brings us eye-level with the incrementalist emancipation efforts in the United States, efforts by which property rights over Black bodies were legally installed by federal courts, thereby emancipating enslaved peoples into indentured labor; he provides a broad historical framework against which we can better understand the conquest of the British Crown into the heart of the African continent and its seizure of a domestic slave trade which it mobilized into a global network in the service of Empire.
Within the covers of the book, of course, there awaits much more—the contents themselves read as a thorough survey of Western exploitation. But across each historical moment that falls into his reticule, Manjapra richly reconstructs the contextual atmosphere by taking great pains to highlight by name a wealth of individuals, each of whom would otherwise exist in time as voids, glossed over as they so often are in the telling of Western history. Manjapra demonstrates masterfully how Black thought from within the system of Empire extends to us through time, was in fact the principle motor of historical movement, and therefore compels us to reckon with it as a necessary part of history—he shows, in other words, how Black thought makes a demand on us to think it in terms of its historical necessity. Never has Black consciousness been a product, but “the nature of those held in the void to see the recurring nature of withheld reciprocity.” We must grasp how the struggle for reparative justice is inseparable from the work of doing justice to history.
Black Ghost of Empire is a book which reflects deeply on what it means to speak with historical forces through time as though through a tunnel. If the study of history is not only that of “social currents that flow across time,” but equally the “search for signals that tell us about the interdependence between these currents,” then there is an operative mode by which communicating with the past is a function of seeing it reciprocally, understanding existentially the life which lies behind the illusive veil of time’s passage. It forces us to recognize that history can be rightly told only as the composite telling of a multiplicity of narratives, forcing the need for each to be preserved in its singularity. What Manjapra has written is a remarkable mechanism that works not only to wrench lost histories from the broader historical void but also says a great deal about the inner workings of historical consciousness, as a book that’s acutely aware of its reciprocity with its subject matter.
- Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation by Kris Manjapra is published by Scribner Book Company (£20.00). To order a copy go to www.penguin.co.uk
Lake Markham is a writer and musician who lives and works in Nashville, TN. Deeply rooted in continental aesthetic theory, his work focuses on the relationship of the artist with their art, postmodern alienation, and the hermeneutic continuity of existence.