Biking alongside Manhattan’s West Side Highway two winters ago, I ran into a group of demonstrators. That evening Officer Daniel Pantaleo had been acquitted, after infamously choking Eric Garner to death just a few months earlier. The sight of the highway stuck me as a future scene—crowded as it was with people and not with machines—foreshadowing some eventual elimination of commuter traffic. Armed police hovered about; that night, I would later read, around two hundred people were arrested. As the protestors staged a “die in”—symbolically laying their own bodies flat on the pavement, mimicking death—I joined them, kneeling alongside my bike in a strange and uncomfortable compromise. After half an hour I got back on the bike and rode home. As I rode, I wondered: had I contributed to the protest by stopping, or had my alternative, car-less transit allowed me to beat a simple retreat?
Some answers may emerge once one further detail is shared. In my bag at the time was Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, a novel set on a slave plantation in Jamaica at the turn of the 19th century. The interplay between violence and retaliation drives the narrative in a brutal circle. In the novel’s opening chapter, a slave named Lilith uses a cutlass to fend off (and ultimately kill) a lecherous slave driver. Covered in her victim’s blood, Lilith is hidden in the basement of the main house by a mysterious slave woman named Homer.
In The Book of Night Women, violence committed on behalf of the Montpelier Estate by its agents—slave drivers, overseers, masters, and mistresses—produces equivalently violent, equally retaliatory forces. Through the rape of slave women on the Estate, overseer Jack Wilkins creates the “Night Women”: a brood of powerful, rebellious slaves plotting an island-wide rebellion in the spirit of Haiti’s own bloody revolution.
Just as brutality—and brutality’s consequences—command events on the Montpelier Estate, so too do they govern New York City. Following the murder of Eric Garner, the city waited anxiously for a verdict. Officer Panteleo’s acquittal spoke to many of the violence rooted in the fabric of the country. But a system reliant upon police brutality may also, inadvertently, produce an opposing force: one not necessarily violent and yet in direct proportion to unjust violence. That is at least one way to interpret the bloom of demonstrations, protests, and radical groups who have recently reacted against law enforcement. Such resistance—as made clear by the story of the Night Women—is not caused only by recent events. Instead, reaction to injustice comes with a much deeper historical understanding: emerging from a rage long buried, from patterns established over centuries. “Every Negro walk in a circle,” writes James, echoing the cyclical nature of violence as well as the inevitable return of history.
Had I contributed to the Protest by stopping, or simply beat a retreat?
In The Book of Night Women, no circle is ever cleanly walked. Lilith, the protagonist but not (in any straightforward sense) the hero of the novel, joins the Night Women under Homer’s direction. Yet despite joining what we today might see as the ‘right’ side, Lilith remains far from a simple character. She is complicated, intractable, and individualist: both an accidental member of a black feminist underground and a preening, approval-seeking house slave, flaunting her beauty to gain the attentions of the master. Lilith’s ambiguous loyalties alienate her periodically from the Night Women. When she begins a romantic relationship with a white overseer, it appears to some that she would rather sidle up to power than join the struggle. Lilith’s special relationship to power insulates her from many of the realities of slave life; thus rendering her enigmatic and suspect to both her lover and her comrades. And the irony of her romance with an overseer—or backra—who continues to whip, kill, and buy slaves is lost on no one. Homer articulates the ludicrousness of this position explicitly: “How far,” she asks, “backra must ram up you pussyhole before you see that he fuckin’ you?”
As resistance erupted in the city, my timely encounter with James’s novel took on a whole new meaning. Even when the lines between right and wrong seem clearly drawn, other lines—between affiliation and participation, identity and complicity—become entangled. At that time I was still in college, completing a thesis on the political ideology of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Despite my belief in the Panthers’ ideals, my privileged security, protected by a prestigious university—my “special relationship” to what an earlier generation called merely another “loci of power”1—surely complicates any radical relationship I have with the Panthers. Not to mention my radical hopes for the movement I saw that day.
I wonder whether James’s novel contains instruction for the present. In The Book of Night Women, he writes, “When nigger gang working they is one, but when them stop they is sixty … Sixty negro eye times two.” The rebellion at the novel’s heart begins when the slave women of Montpelier drop their cutlasses and cease working, becoming an army of 60 instead of a single instrument of production. The protests on the West Side Highway could be interpreted as an analogous refusal of pattern and discipline in favor of collective—and yet, also, individual—expression. Hundreds of individuals simulating hundreds of deaths, temporarily refusing to conform to the anonymity and complicity of daily routine; refusing to get back to work, and demanding that other commuters stop, as well.
My role in this particular scene of refusal, compromised as it was by compliance with order, strikes me as distressing and logically circuitous. I was, for example, in the midst of my commute before joining the protest, and quietly resumed commuting after leaving. My response to the protest—simply returning to my original commute—seems wanting. And yet it was only in commuting that I chanced to encounter the scene. Not to mention that it was my “commuter lit”—for I acquired the book mainly to entertain myself during train-commutes—that helped cultivate my newfound awareness. Literature that I may not otherwise have read had I not commuted! Walk in a circle, indeed.
A racially fraught, brutally violent era traps its inhabitants in cycles of oppression and retribution, captivity, and escape. James’s work is perfectly at home within our own time, yet within the novel itself these realities are awash with historical significance, immobilized as if for contemplation. Considering this, shall I regard my “commuter lit” as an escape from the anguish of reality, or a solipsistic burrowing into the quagmire of its themes, in literary technicolor? I might have solved my problems by skipping work altogether; by either staying inside or running into the street, killing both contradiction and commute with one stone.
- Students for a Democratic Society (US), “The Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society, August 1962,” Links to Resources from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Related Group Activities (accessed February 5, 2016). ↩