Poetry is defined as a type of literature or artistic writing that attempts to stir a reader’s imagination/emotions. It can help us understand issues that occur not only in the present but in the past as well. In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! the author composes a found poetry book with a complex writing structure throughout. In the acknowledgments, the author discusses how the book is inspired by “Black Ivory” written by James Walvin. Walvin is known for writing about slavery in the British Empire. With this, readers can expect the book to be connected to slavery in multiple ways. We can get a little taste of the theme that will be prevalent throughout the book.
It’s clear when we read to the first section of the book how the writing is a little difficult to follow/understand. For me, I had to read the poems out loud in order to try to get a grasp on what was being written in order to comprehend it. In fact, this happened to be the first time I across a poem that allows the readers to read the poem in multiple ways as a result of the way it’s structured. In other words, there is no clear way to read the poems, would you agree?
On another note, the first poem has an emphasis on the idea of water as you can see on pages 3 and 4:
The water being a main element in the first poem made me think about why the author would decide to start off the book this way. I started to question the importance of the water, and how it had anything to do with race. Water can symbolize a series of things such as life, birth, a right of passage, or refreshment. After doing some research on slaves and water, I found some of the history behind it.
Zong was the name of a ship that was headed toward Jamaica in 1781. The trip was approximately 12 weeks long and on the ship, there were 417 slaves. Toward the end of the voyage, there was a shortage of water and an outbreak of disease. With no clean water or food, it was going to be very difficult for the slaves to fight off the sickness. As a result, the ship’s captain claimed that the slaves were going to die anyway, so in order to save money and himself, he threw slaves who seemed very sick off the ship. He knew that all of the voyages were insured, but didn’t insure sick slaves or those killed by illness. It did however, ensure slaves that died through drowning. 54 Africans were chained together and thrown overboard while another 78 were drowned over the next two days. By the time the ship had reached the Caribbean, 132 people were murdered. When the ship returned to England the owners claimed they should get their money back for all the slaves lost. The case was taken to court and the jury decided since it was allowed to kill animals for the safety of the ship, it was ok to kill slaves for the same reason. Eventually, this became known as the Zong Massacre. It’s clear the poem is alluding to this historical moment as Philip writes, “The some of negroes … over… board” (6) and “Justified a throwing of property (16), which is a clear indication of the slaves being thrown off the ship. Below you can find an image of this moment.
Finally while reading the poems, I noticed the phrase “negroe” is often repeated. This phrase has a clear connection to the Zong massacre as this was a word African American slaves were called. This language shows the theme of racism and how there was racial prejudice during the 1700s. In addition, it shows how those of color lives were not valued or cared much about. It’s sad to say in today’s society the Zong massacre still exists in its own ways. For example, police brutality against those of a Black/Latino race is still prevalent, and those of color face unfair punishments every day.
With that, I leave a few questions for you guys to think about:
- How was your experience reading the book? Did some of the complex structures confuse you while reading?
- How does this Zong massacre image make you feel? What comes to mind when you see this image?
- Have you ever witness a discriminatory act? If so, how did it make you feel? Did you do anything about it?