Re-Reading John Keene I

Annotations opens by invoking that most difficult ritual scene of African American letters: I was born. Here is Frederick Douglass:

I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.

Douglass is rumored to be his master’s child, and this matters for the opening of Annotations.

Here’s the first sentence:

Such as it began in the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, on Fathers’ Day, you not some babbling prophet but another Negro child, whose parents’ random choices of signs would disorient you for years.

Keene embeds his work within the long genealogy of African American birth narratives by Fathers, absent and present, desired and maligned. Fatherhood is a “supreme courtesy” within slave histories, as Hortense Spillers writes, and this “supreme courtesy” is figured in “Fathers’ Day,” as Keene writes it, not “Father’s Day,” as it is customarily known. This indeterminacy about fatherhood similarly invokes slave pasts. How much happens in the placement of an apostrophe.

Mother’s Day, an online source claims, arose in the aftermath of the Civil War:

The “Mother’s Day” we celebrate today has its origins in the peace-and-reconciliation campaigns of the post-Civil War era. During the 1860s, at the urging of activist Ann Reeves Jarvis, one divided West Virginia town celebrated “Mother’s Work Days” that brought together the mothers of Confederate and Union soldiers. In 1870, the activist Julia Ward Howe issued a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” calling on a “general congress of women” to “promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, [and] the great and general interests of peace.”

And was transformed into a “commercial holiday” in 1908.

Father’s Day came much later:

On July 5, 1908, a West Virginia church sponsored the nation’s first event explicitly in honor of fathers, a Sunday sermon in memory of the 362 men who had died in the previous December’s explosions at the Fairmont Coal Company mines in Monongah, but it was a one-time commemoration and not an annual holiday. The next year, a Spokane, Washington woman named Sonora Smart Dodd, one of six children raised by a widower, tried to establish an official equivalent to Mother’s Day for male parents. She went to local churches, the YMCA, shopkeepers and government officials to drum up support for her idea, and she was successful: Washington State celebrated the nation’s first statewide Father’s Day on July 19, 1910.

Father’s Day became an official, nationwide holiday in 1972.

Invoking Father’s Day, Keene inhabits the negotiated space of the recognized and the celebrated, the factual and the fictional, the sentimental and the commercial. Keene invokes a present yet to be, a 1972 whose past we inhabit and whose future his birth anticipated.

He also embeds his narrative in a now by yoking “Fathers’ Day” to “parents.” The impossibility represented by Douglass—knowing he had parents but being unable to name them as shared providers of care, being forced to frame them as bio-genetic, bio-material producers—is re-written by Keene in a different age, and for a different time.

History in the transition between small words.

And naming. That most crucial of things.

But a difficult naming, starting not with the (im)possible “I” of Douglass’s narrative, but by naming that (im)possibility: “you not.” From a writing now, one can only be a past “you,” caught in the logic of signification, produced as the difference between signifiers as “you not.” Throughout Annotations, Keene inhabits and circumvents signification, following its wayward tracks, its shout-outs, its meanderings, and also wandering back, returning to well-worn paths, making new paths and using old ones.

“You not” enters the world of signifiers created by the Moynihan Report of 1965, the same year as the “Watts” riots that mark the year of “you not” being born. Through Moynihan, “you not” becomes “another Negro child,” which is to say labeled, numbered, directed. But also undirected through parental choices.

Naming becomes central to disidentification: as a “random choice of signs” “disorient you for years.”

Am I that name?

If Moynihan’s work represents state surveillance, a cataloguing of race that demonstrates the afterlife of slavery as cataloguing, the “random choice of signs” similarly invoke a past of naming as disorientation. Much is called here: a history of slave naming, a history of freedom as re-naming, a history of struggle as naming and un-naming, a history passed on through naming, a history of assuming names as destiny, an unfolding future, and a disorienting present.

Am I that name?

That question lingers, persists, in the doubled “you” of the opening sentence. A “you” that points to the problem of writing then from now, of writing “I” from then, of what Freud termed “screen memories,” which mean that one’s “then” is always a composite of others’ memories, official and unofficial documents, photographic history when available, always taking flesh through others’ imaginations.

Am I that name?

And that hospital: the place that locates one within state surveillance as it records births, race, place. But I don’t want to yield to much to the state, as Keene does not.

Against, and alongside, a state logic, a different route to identity and identification:

Old folks liked to say he favored the uncle who died young, an artist. In that way, a sense of tradition was upheld, one’s place in the reference-chain secured.

Keene makes queer genealogy newly possible by embedding belonging within aesthetics and signification. One belongs through stories told by “old folks,” through visual similarity to “an artist,” and through tradition as a “reference-chain.” Queer belonging emerges as a multiplicity of strategies. Belonging itself is figured beyond (and alongside) the blood logics of direct descent, framed, instead, through sideways glances and memories of loss.

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