Harryette Mullen--Where The Bodies Are Buried

The Bay Area was treated to two appearances of Harryette Mullen in one weekend. On Friday night Mullen was part of a group reading in Berkeley and on Saturday night, she ignited Timken Hall at CCA in San Francisco. Mullen began the evening by explaining that she wasn't going to be talking about poetry but would talk about what she's been working on for the last couple of years, a project that entails, as Mullen said, finding where the bodies are buried. Harryette Mullen has been engaged in a genealogical investigation to document her family history. This is a fraught project since many of Mullen's ancestors are not well documented. Often there were no birth or marriage records for blacks. Prior to 1870, blacks were not uniformly included in the U.S. Census. As a result, Mullen's project has extended beyond her family alone. She's let this investigation expand sideways, revising her idea of what family is, including ancestral cousins as well.

One of the things Mullen discovers through this process is that in the 19th century, particularly for blacks, it is possible to find documentation of a person's life through death records only. For example there are databases that contain information about black union (and a few confederate) soldiers involved in the Civil War. One such database is the National Graves Registration Project maintained by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Other sources of information include insurance company lists of insured slaves. Slave-owners would often take out an insurance policy on slaves who were expected to die within a year.

Witness the difficulty of tracing family history when a relative is never recorded as someone--someone who was born, married, had children. Officially, they exist only in their dying, and sometimes not even then.

Here the official records--or their absences and omissions--and family history and knowledge rub up against one another, revealing contradictions, social and political histories, and trauma. Mullen discovered that the causes of death listed for some of her ancestors include conditions related to malnutrition and starvation, such as Pellagra.

The complexities and construction of race as a category assert themselves.
A census record might one year record someone as black, at another time, mulatto. The category of "race" and who defines and names and records it is tessellated and troubled. One of Mullen's ancestors was said to be Mexican. While Mullen suggested that this might be true, it seemed more likely an intentional ambiguity for a black family living in a largely white part of town in the late 19th century. Mullen's family tree, like a good deal of American family trees, includes both black and white ancestors. While some white relatives discovered by Mullen in Texas have embraced her, her inquiries have not been met always with such interest. Trying to locate the burial ground of one relative, Mullen contacted a white family in Alabama whose 19th century ancestors owned slaves, including, I believe, one of Mullen's relatives. The family sold one of these slaves (one of Harryette's ancestors) so that one of their white sons could attend medical school. Once they understood Mullen's project--her search for her ancestor's burial site--this family promptly cut off communication.

Names. Starvation. Lives. People owning other People. Resting places.

Harryette said that her project had not produced any writing--poetry or prose--that really satisfied her and she is unclear where the project is going and whether or not it will be more than a family genealogical inquiry, when it will stop. I think many in the audience were hopeful that the project would continue and take a form that we might encounter again. It is heart-breaking and important work.

I find so much of Harryette Mullen's writing to be engaged with history in so many different ways. Mullen has investigated slave narratives in her dissertation and her poetry dives into history and language's troubled archives. In the work collected in Recyclopedia, Mullen enables the sort of “activity of thinking and imagination that open[s] out vast possibilities not just of memory but of counter-memory; the moral idiom and semiotic registers of remembering against the grain of the history of New World black deracination, subjection, and exclusion” that David Scott describes (vi).* Such a process entails both identifying and preserving histories and experiences elided and prohibited from official discourses and simultaneously exposing such discourses’ bad faith. Rather than placing them under lock and key in order to solidify, arrest, and exclude racist and sexist discourses, Mullen re-makes the encyclopedia—the discourse and its attendant pedagogies—through her recycling of its material alphabets, grammars, metaphors, and other tropes. She interrogates and improvises, and then re-uses them, stretching them to their utmost. In the process, these discursive investigations reveal the often unmarked and unnamed structurings of various internecine ideologies.

Past perfect food sticks in the craw. Curdles the pulse.
Coops up otherwise free ranging birds whose plucked
wings beat hearts over easy. Flapping aerobically, cocks
walk on brittle zeros. They make and break and scramble
to get ahead. Whisk the yokels into shape. Use their pecker
order to separate the whites (S*PeRM**K*T).

Harryette Mullen shows us how even "bad" or contaminated, and half-erased traumatic histories might be made to speak volubly and differently. A poetics of history and knowledges. Discrepant interdependencies, crimes, pleasures, sufferings. There are wounds. And words. There are names: Hannah Strange, Flemming Mullen, Horace Dangerfield, Granville Spangler....

While it comes from a different register entirely, a portion of Jacqes Ranciere's The Names of History: On the Poetics of Knowledge, seems apt:

...this means nonhistory and history, the power of articulation of names and events that is tied to the ontological indeterminacy of the narrative, but that nevertheless is alone suited to preserving the specificity of a historical science in general. The revolution in historical study is the arrangement of a space for the conjunction of contradictories" (6-7).

I can't stop thinking about the evening.

*Scott, David. “Introduction: On the Archaeologies of Black Memory.” Small Axe 26 12.2 (June 2008): v-xvi.


Eleni Stecopoulos said...

Robin, thank you so much for this wonderful report and response. I especially appreciate it as I got there late and missed a lot of Harryette's talk.

Unknown said...

So sad I missed this talk, as the topic is as near and dear to me as Mullen's work, but very glad that you are such a documentarian! Thank you!

Sirama Bajo said...

Yes, Robin, fantastic! Thank you for such an intelligent account. So sad I missed her. You are truly in a wonderful place (the Bay Area). At least it seems that way. I have been slacking on you all but I should never do that again.

Your reader,