screaming as method

screaming as method

I had misremembered the passage. I thought it described a screaming woman—Aunt Hester’s scream echoes across geohistory. A persistent, terror-filled scream, moving across geohistory, from colonial Africa to the post-independent present. My scream would echo hers, tracking and extending her negating Africa to my negating Africa. I started with an error—of memory—and I will follow it.

Here is the passage that anchors that (t)error:

10 September [1931]

A day of rain—no tornado, but rain. As has been the case since we left Bamako, as soon as we enter a village the children run away. When they see us enter their huts many start bawling, distraught. However, this phenomenon is much less frequent than among the Bobos, where yesterday when we entered a storehouse, we found a woman hiding behind a silo with her face to the wall, singing at the top of her voice in fear at our approach, as if for a funeral rite. (Leiris, Phantom Africa, 157)

Michel Leiris, the diarist, loves the Africa incarnated as African children. He tells us so: “Here at last, I love Africa. The children give an impression of gaiety and life that I haven’t encountered anywhere else. It touches me deeply” (83). He loves children as informants—“Hectic work with the circumcised boys. . . . It is a factory, nothing more or less. Three investigators work simultaneously, and non-stop: Moucher at a table with two of the children, me at another table with the two other children” (139)—and children as workers—“Most of the laborers we have commandeered are children” (223)—except when he doesn’t—“A sudden flash of anger changes me, for the moment that it lasts, into a colonial brute: I strike a tall boy who is standing idle in the chain, constantly leaving the smallest boys to carry the big stones and refusing to take them. Knowing my biceps, my punch doesn’t hurt him much”  (223).

Colonial administration loves children. A colonial administrator in Toukoto proclaims to an assembled African crowd, “Now, you will go to bed and work hard to have babies! Because when there are lots of babies, there are lots of taxes!” One of the policemen repeats the formula to the interpreter . . . The interpreter scrupulously repeats the speech and everyone goes home happy” (115). In a groundbreaking article, anthropologist Maxwell Owusu described most colonial anthropology as “useless,” because the anthropologists did not understand African languages. How does Leiris understand what the interpreter says? Aware of power relations elsewhere in Phantom, how does he ignore the power embodied in the colonial administrator and reinforced by the policeman? An interpretation secured by law and force.

Again: “when there are lots of babies, there are lots of taxes.” We are “in the wake” (Sharpe) of slavery, where “‘kinship’ loses meaning since it can be invaded at any given and arbitrary moment by the property relations” (Spillers 74). When I was in primary school, the Kenyan history syllabus taught us about the hut tax, a measure introduced by colonial administrators to extract labor from Africans. One could only pay the tax with currency provided and recognized by the colonial administration. If memory serves, we did not pause to ask how ideas of home and house and family and kinship were transformed by the hut tax: “where there are lots of babies, there are lots of taxes.” Elsewhere, Leiris writes, “The natives kneel as we pass” (243). What terror produces this response? 

But African adults do not love children: “More often than not parents are happy to get rid of their children, as demonstrated by the eleven-year-old Dioula boy, just out of school, who worked as out interpreter during our visit to Bafoulable and who asked me on behalf of his father to take him along with us” (110). Locations blur. 

Do crying African children grow into singing African adults, singing “in fear . . . as if for a funeral rite?” How many centuries of terror populate the singing woman’s sorrow song?


A problem of method arises. Or, rather, re-emerges. Anecdote is needed. In a former career, as a student learning to be a scholar, I was taught to sneer at those who lacked critical and theoretical sophistication, those who insisted on asking what were framed—by some of my teachers, by the books I read, by the methods I absorbed—as simplistic and, worse, moralizing questions. Those who, shockingly, had not learned to frame pain and loss through the appropriate critical frames: psychoanalysis, trauma studies, S&M, torture-as-method. Those who had not learned to preface their observations and questions with the problem of the inexpressible, the untranslatable, the undecipherable, and many other negating prefixes: in-, un-, de-, im-.

Prefixes needed a method. If one dared to mention pain, one was asked if one’s method was phenomenological and, if so, whether one understood the problems of that method. One might be asked if one was thinking about pain through affect studies and, if so, whether one understood the problems of that method. Hover too closely to queer studies, as I did, and one might be asked about if one had considered the relationship between pain and pleasure, and about the ethics of vulnerability. Had one considered the sound of pain through sound studies? And if one had worked through one method, had one thought about combining methods to produce a richer account of negating prefixes: in-, un-, de-, im-?

Part of my detoxing from the U.S. academy—I promise, I am returning to Leiris, albeit with a half-choked scream—has been to ask about the roles of complexity and sophistication as critical and theoretical aspirations. Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory” is my constant companion. Kieran Healy’s “Fuck Nuance” has been incredibly clarifying. I might even learn to drop that incredibly annoying critical stance: “it’s more complex than that.”


Bawling. Singing loudly in fear, as if for a funeral rite: a soundtrack.

27 March [1932]

Many men and women flee as soon as our car draws up. A child, from whom we buy a pineapple, hardly dares to hold it out to me, and he is so scared of his hand touching mine that I have to throw him the money.


But, I will be reminded, Leiris regrets his actions later on, musing, “some of what we did was very wrong” (translator, 19). And, I will also be reminded, “the book remains invaluable precisely as a rare document of what one might call the common sense of ethnographic practice under colonialism: the moral sense of ‘mission’ (in all the senses of the word) and the stratagems of self-justification that underlay so much of what went on in the field” (translator, 19). Perhaps, I muse, I am simply not the audience for this book. After all, I live in a country where the so-called “best and brightest” have learned to fetishize colonialism, to grant whiteness complexity and sophistication and wisdom and insight, and where those who continue to remember and speak against the colonial violence we still inhabit—the colonial penal code, colonial modes of education, colonial methods of land acquisition and allocation, colonial police, colonial legal system—are the wretched of the earth and the few—very few—radicals who are ignored. Here, colonial whiteness is granted psychic and moral complexity. African blackness is not. I resent being asked to grant colonial whiteness even more psychic and moral complexity.


Bawling. Singing loudly in fear, as if for a funeral rite: a soundtrack.


What does this (t)error of memory permit me to read? How much? With what tools? What will critical sophistication demand that I read and bear? I grow tired of being asked to be a complaining native. Yet, let me be this native again.

16 February [1933]

I have packed away my papers in the filing chest, locked my suitcases and put out my clothes for tomorrow morning. I am writing these lines in my bunk. The ship is rocking gently. My mind is clear, my chest calm. There is nothing left to do except to close the notebook, turn out the light, lie down, go to sleep—and dream.

If the bawling children and the singing woman—as if for a funeral rite—have been my reading soundtracks, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa” has been the spoken word accompaniment. His question there: what are we to do when faced with aesthetically and intellectually accomplished work when it is subtended by the unhumaning of Africans? Unhumaning is my word, not his. It is a question that forces choices about what pleasures to enjoy and what terrors to ignore. I am avoiding the critical sophistication that would claim that choice cannot be made. Faced with that choice, I listen for the bawling children and the mourning woman.

Works Mentioned

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa.” Massachusetts Review Vol 14  No. 4 (1977): 782-794.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Cultural Critique No. 6  (1987): 51-61.

Healey, Kieran. “Fuck Nuance.” Sociological Theory Vol. 35 No. 2  (2017): 118-127.

Owusu, Maxwell. “Ethnography of Africa: The Usefulness of the Useless.” American Anthropologist 80 (1978): 310-334.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke  University Press, 2016.

Spillers, Hortense. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American  Grammar Book.” Diacritics Vol 17 No. 2 (1987): 65-81.

3 thoughts on “screaming as method

  1. “His question there: what are we to do when faced with aesthetically and intellectually accomplished work when it is subtended by the unhumaning of Africans? Unhumaning is my word, not his. It is a question that forces choices about what pleasures to enjoy and what terrors to ignore. I am avoiding the critical sophistication that would claim that choice cannot be made. Faced with that choice, I listen for the bawling children and the mourning woman.”

    There was an exhibit of racist movie posters for films shot in Kenya (among other places) from the 1930s-1970s that I saw recently in Nairobi. This captures what I saw and felt. Bravo!!!!!!

    1. I’m sorry you experienced that.

      A lot of damage is done through such careless exhibits. Do we really need to taste poison to know it will harm us?

      1. I wonder the same thing. After every regurgitation I kept wondering.

        There was indeed a heavy hope to appreciate the art at the expense of my humanity. As if the screaming you describe was misheard (as jubilation maybe) and can possibly be ignored.

        (It was just random fate that took me there but it was also not what I expected to find anywhere here. Left me fairly confused and hurt.)

        Thanks for sharing and giving words to these experiences.

Comments are closed.