The Writer's Page: Decolonizing the Imagination

The door is a place, real, imaginary and imagined. As islands and dark continents are. It is a place which exists or existed. The door out of which Africans were captured, loaded onto ships heading for the New World. It was the door of a million exits multiplied. It is a door many of us wish never existed. It is a door which makes the word door impossible and dangerous, cunning and disagreeable.

—Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return    

The Secret GardenI am an immigrant. I grew up in a former British colony, dreaming of magical wardrobes and secret gardens. Doors figured rather prominently in my imagination, and books were indeed windows into other worlds. They were not, however, much of a mirror for my young black female self. I learned early on that only white children had wonderful adventures in distant lands; only white children were magically transported through time and space; only white children found the buried key that unlocked their own private Eden.

Perhaps the one benefit of being so completely excluded from the literary realm was that I had to develop the capacity to dream myself into existence. My imagination went into overdrive trying to picture a girl like me living inside my beloved books. By the time I was twelve, I had discovered Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. I started high school that same year, and my essays took on a formal tone and were sprinkled with archaic words (such as gaoler for jailer). When asked to make a picture book in my senior creative writing class, I wrote a story about a white family that neglects its youngest member; when little Violet goes outside to play with the wind, she grabs hold of a neighbor’s kite and is swept away.

Looking back on those days now, I marvel at the girl I once was. Why would a plump, brown-skinned girl with an Afro embark on a quest to read all the books she could find by Frances Hodgson Burnett? Was I an Anglophile in training, or was my taste in books (and music, and clothes) a way of rejecting popular representations of blackness, which fit me just as poorly (if at all)? Up until grade three I started each school day by singing “God Save the Queen,” so perhaps my taste in literature was the inevitable result of Canada’s colonial legacy.

Whatever the reason, I have since made peace with my past self. I accept my own hybridity, which is too often reduced to the fact that I am mixed-race. (There is a common misperception that mixed-race people exist solely for the purpose of bridging the racial divide.) I am an educator, so I do have a professional obligation to teach others to respect and value difference. As a writer, however, I have a somewhat different mission. Unlike our unfortunate president, who is attacked whenever he dares to broach the topic of race (and even when he does not), my goal isn’t racial reconciliation. Instead it is to expose and explore what Canadian writer Dionne Brand calls “the fissure between the past and the present”; with my writing I aim to reveal “a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being…a physical rupture, a rupture of geography.” Brand explains:

That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast. In some desolate sense it was the creation place of Blacks in the New World Diaspora at the same time that it signified the end of traceable beginnings.

Migration is in my blood. When he was fifteen, my father migrated to Canada from a small island in the Caribbean; after forty years in Toronto, he moved once more to start a new life in New York. My mother’s maternal ancestors were African American slaves who bought their freedom and arrived in Ontario in 1820. I left Canada at age twenty-one not because of political persecution but because I was unhappy and could only envision a better future for myself somewhere else. In a way, I was seeking asylum when I moved to the United States, but I was also aware that the circumstances behind my decision to leave were not dire. I was not a refugee; I wasn’t fleeing the prospect of starvation as my Irish ancestors had in the late nineteenth century. I spent one summer with my father in Brooklyn and determined to build a life there. It was my choice, my dream.

But what differentiates me from most other immigrants — and what binds me more closely to my black ancestors — is the fact that I am also a descendant of those enslaved Africans who were forced to pass through that infamous Door, one of dozens found in the fortresses that once dotted the west coast of Africa. The First Family visited Cape Coast Castle during the President’s 2009 trip to Ghana; an African American tourist who witnessed the Obamas’ visit testified to the power of that moment: “The world’s least powerful people were shipped off from here as slaves. Now Obama, an African American, the most powerful person in the world, is going to be standing here. For us it will be a full-circle experience.” For Brand, returning to one of the physical sites of the Door in no way “completes” the traumatic journey that began five hundred years ago.

The Door of No Return is of course no place at all but a metaphor for place…A place where a certain set of transactions occurred, perhaps the most important of them being the transference of selves… To have one’s belonging lodged in a metaphor is voluptuous intrigue; to inhabit a trope; to be a kind of fiction. To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction — a creation of empires, and also self-creation. It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself… There is the sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in.

Brand echoes W. E. B. DuBois’s idea of “double consciousness”: as an African American you see yourself as yourself, but also as the distorted image others have constructed in their minds. In this country of immigrants, the fact of one’s untraceable origins in Africa exists as what Brand calls “a visible secret,” something that is at once apparent yet remains unspoken in daily life. My goal as a writer of speculative fiction is to engage the tropes of captivity, migration, and transformation in a narrative that is thrilling, compelling, and revealing. Some bemoan the seeming abundance of “slavery stories,” arguing that African American historical fiction only dredges up an abject past that shames young black readers, but I believe speculative fiction generates the kind of narrative possibility that enables us to revise, re-view, and reclaim the past. What happens when a fictional character confronts or creates a portal, a doorway to another world? Can time and space be shaped by an author to satisfy needs left unfulfilled by an unjust reality? Perhaps literature offers us both a way out of and a way into the liminal space represented by the Door of No Return.

In my time-travel novel, A Wish After Midnight, doors are of the utmost importance. My main character, Genna, yearns for a different reality and vows not to be shut out of the American Dream simply because she was born black, female, and poor. Her sanctuary is the nearby botanic garden, and when she flees there late one night after a fight with her mother, she makes a fateful wish that opens a portal and sends her back to Civil War–era Brooklyn. Believed to be a fugitive slave, Genna narrowly escapes being sold down South and instead is taken to the black community of Weeksville to recover from her wounds. The portal in the garden, like the Door of No Return, initiates “the transference of selves”; Genna first believes she is dreaming, but gradually must accept that she is trapped “inside and outside of herself ” in a city — and a body — she no longer recognizes. When she miraculously reunites with her boyfriend Judah (a Rastafarian youth who was also sent back in time), the two teens must decide which way freedom lies: overseas in the newly founded nation of Liberia, or in the United States where, even after the war, so many doors will remain closed to blacks.

Now, as I write Judah’s Tale, the sequel to A Wish After Midnight, I am thinking once again of those British novels I adored as a child. It is no coincidence that the portal in my first young adult novel opens in a garden; though I have consciously worked to decolonize my imagination, the influence of (and my affection for) those early narratives persist. In this novel, I am hoping to expand upon my use of Afro-urban magic, elements of which I introduced in my picture book, Bird. In Bird, when young Mehkai struggles to understand the drug-related death of his older brother, Uncle Son tells him a story passed on to him by his grandmother about enslaved Africans who lifted themselves up into the sky and found freedom by flying back across the sea. Mehkai learns that by tapping into his own creative potential, he, too, can transcend the perilous city streets that claimed his beloved brother.

According to Dionne Brand, this particular folktale, which recurs with some variation throughout the Americas, demonstrates “a mastery of way-finding” among the enslaved (Virginia Hamilton’s retelling of “The People Could Fly” is the best known example in the United States). In order to reach freedom, “no known map is necessary, nor any known methods of conveyance;” the enslaved turn instead to an assortment of signs, rituals, and religious practices informed by West African belief systems: “The North Star, the Big Dipper, a dark sky, a clear night, a rabbit’s foot, a juju bag, maljo beads, holy water, water of compassion, success powder, single bible leaf. Signs of rescue.” Over time, Africans in the Americas developed hybrid identities that retained aspects of their African roots yet still enabled them to adapt and survive in their new, and often hostile, environment. “Way-finding” manifested in the Great Migration of the early twentieth century as millions of blacks left the rural South for northern cities; today immigrants from across the African Diaspora continue to join these urban communities, infusing vital energy into existing cultural practices. “Way-finding” celebrates tradition and innovation, and thus is central to my Afro-urban project, which seeks to represent the various ruptures and responses that shape black history and identity.

Many years after leaving Canada, I realized that I never believed anything magical could happen to me there. Whether I attribute that to a failure of my own imagination or to external factors, the result was that my dreams took root in a foreign land. It is important to me that African American youths know they need not look to a castle in England to find magic; there are wonders to discover and adventures to be had right here at home (and in other parts of the globe). I don’t regret my early immersion in British literature, though I wish there had been more balance in the books I consumed as a child. I am gratified to know that my fascination with doors now enables me to contribute to a rich storytelling tradition that celebrates my ancestors’ resilient humanity. If we do not create stories that expose the beauty and complexity of our varied realities, we will indeed remain trapped by the “fictions” created by those outside of our cultures and communities.

From the March/April 2010 Horn Book Magazine. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.

Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott is a Black feminist poet, playwright, and author of picture books Bird (Lee & Low) and A Place Inside of Me (Farrar) and the Dragons in a Bag series (Random), among others.

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