Introduction for Sites of Memory, a Language for Grieving, featuring M. NourbeSe Phillip, Sonya Posmentier, an Ibrahima Seck, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, April 5, 2017


I am Lauren Russell, Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and a research assistant professor in the English department here at Pitt.


I have been dreaming of this event for over a year, since my interview for this position, before I knew if I would get the job, before I knew what the Center would become or much about the logistics of making this happen, before I had any idea of what political moment we would now be inhabiting or what losses I might now be grieving. When, as a candidate for the position, I was asked what events I’d like to see at the Center, I said, “Has anyone read Sonya Posmentier’s essay in The New York Times?”


In that essay, “A Language for Grieving,” Posmentier describes her visit to the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, a “site of memory” focused on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and labored there. The museum’s director of research is Ibrahima Seck, who is also a professor in the History Department of Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal. “In turning the plantation into a memorial site and reorienting it to highlight the perspective of the enslaved, the owner and museum director constructed an architecture for grief,” Posmentier writes. “Can poetry do the same?” She goes on to discuss how by “making violence strange and unfamiliar,” poets like M. NourbeSe Philip “have gone beyond merely repeating its effects, like a viral video of a police shooting, and beyond the realm of the evidentiary to that of the imagination, where we might not only observe violence but mourn and counter it.”


M. NourbeSe Philip’s extended poem cycle Zong! is based on the text of the legal decision Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only extant public document related to the murder of 150 Africans aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781. In an interview in Room Magazine, Philip writes that “archives are often very one-sided—having been constructed and preserved by the very people who were responsible for destroying the cultures and histories of so many peoples.” She continues, “Hence my interest in the archive of silence, the archive of the gap, the archive of the space, the archive of the erased space, the archive of the rupture.”


My Readings in Contemporary Poetry Class has been discussing Zong these last couple weeks. In a discussion board post, one of my students wrote that books like Zong are “not just going backward to ‘the archive’ and dancing with or confronting archives, but are also establishing themselves alongside them, and becoming part of something that is still being created and continuing to go on.” When this idea came up in class discussion, another student got up and drew a graph on the board: If the Y axis is the present, dividing the X axis into what has occurred in the past and will occur in the future, she said, then “imagination” is another field that exists off the board, influencing, and influenced by, the activity on the graph, while existing in its own dimension.


Today, a moment that has leaped from the dimension of the imagination right onto the Present point where the axes meet, we welcome M. Nourbese Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck, to consider questions of mourning and imagination and the challenges of working with one-sided archives. “How might the archive (as a site of memory) provide (or fail to provide) an architecture for grief?”


My colleague Imani Owens, Assistant Professor of English, will introduce Sonya Posmentier. Sonya will be followed by Robert Bland, Visiting Assistant Professor of African American History, introducing Ibrahima Seck. Dawn Lundy Martin will introduce M. NourbeSe Philip, and after NourbeSe reads, she will join Sonya and Ibrahima in a moderated discussion followed by a Q&A.


There are books for sale in the anteroom, and a book signing will follow the reading.


Please join me in welcoming M. NourbeSe Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck to the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the University of Pittsburgh.