A Room with History


Arts & Culture

Door in shadow. Licensed under CCO 2.0.

One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives.

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

What is the matter of history through which Dionne Brand offers a guide? This history that arrives in the room with us is not the captor’s history, even as it is a history of captivity. It is not history as the project and handmaiden of Europe, or the plots and stories that create the fatal divide, the caesura between the West and the rest of us, or the self-aggrandizing romance of a nation, or even a narrative with fixed coordinates and a certain arc, no once-upon-a-time, no myths of origin or claims of autochthony. A Map to the Door of No Return is a philosophical meditation on the world created by the arrival of Columbus in the Americas in 1492 and of the Portuguese on the West African coast in the fifteenth century, inaugurating one of the largest forced migrations in history, described euphemistically as “the trade in slaves.” The book is a hybrid of poetry, memoir, theory, and history, and its recursive and nonlinear structure formally enacts the open question of the door and its duration: “nothing is ever over.” As Brand writes, there is no way in, no return, “no ancestry except the black water and the Door of no Return.” The door is less a place than a threshold of the brutal history of capitalist modernity. The door is the end of traceable beginnings and provides a figure for describing the psychic and affective dimensions of black existence in the diaspora.

There is no map to the door, no cartography that could graphically represent its space-time coordinates, because, as Brand observes, the door is not a place, an externality fixed in a particular territory, in an exact epoch or period, but rather the door is knowledge sensed more than acknowledged or fully conscious, it touches us but without fully emerging as an object of cognition. So then how might one write the disaster, the terrible history carried in our gestures, residing in our bodies, marked on our flesh, etched onto our retinas? Is history no more able or capable than the map of yielding an adequate rendering of the door, or, more important, of our lives before the door? Brand writes to intensify this crisis, not to resolve it. After detailing the impossible being of those lodged inside the metaphor, and describing the absent presence, the physical departure and psychic rending that is the door, after perceiving this tear in the world, after reckoning with the ordinary brutality that is its issue, Brand attends to its substrate—time itself in its entangled and durative registers. The durative conveys the character of the continuing, the incomplete, and the ongoing; the durative tense has been described as a tense of vision, in which the writer sees what has happened and describes the action as ongoing and unfolding before their eyes. In A Map to the Door, this durative tense or temporal inhabitation creates a web of dense associations that extends from the West African coast, to the black shoals of Guaya, to the Burnt River, to the dreams of revolution tumbling down a hill in Grenada. These intense zones of feeling, thickets of heartbreak and grief, eruptions of love, radiant moments of ordinariness, small spaces opening inside us, like those pools of red and undulating light in Beloved, engulf those who pass through them, they solicit and threaten to undo us. To encounter the door, to gaze at the Atlantic, to descend into the hold, to make the revolution and witness the counterrevolution, these are Brand’s pools of red light. We pass through these spaces, and all we have lost and the long history of our defeat fill us with a grief that is all but unbearable.

The question arises: how we might exist before the door, before not as an anterior or prior state, but exist in the face of it. A philosophy of time is articulated in a series of queries: “Leaving? To leave? Left?” These words are as heartbreaking as any in the text. Are we still in the hold of the door? Still departing and cast away? Are our lives still framed by it? Leaving—gerund, ongoing, durative condition. A permanent state or an irreparable one? To leave—infinite and anticipated, recurring, to leave again—again is implied, though not explicitly stated.

Left. Gone. Over. Declarative. Deceptive—as if the facts of or the lived experience of blackness could be explained by simple predicates, by past participles—the delusion and the lure of a state over and done with. Brand breaks and deranges this grammar of how we exist in time. How can we have “left” when we are still in the wake? “Language can be deceptive,” Brand replies to such doubts, emphasizing the crisis of how we survive and endure, how we inhabit what is uninhabitable, rather than resolve it.

What language would prove capable of conveying this rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being confirmed by the routine violence, the predatory extraction, the brutal accumulation, and the ordinary terror of our lives? Life spoken in the “blunt language of brutality, even beauty was brutal.” Yet Map is not a chronicle of brutality or a mere inventory of violence. So how is it able to convey us to the door and yet not break us?

The image repertoire, the sounds of life, whether the ocean or Coltrane, the beautiful assemblage of paragraphs, the composition of its sections and chapters, constitute a way of doing that provides no facile or simple answers, yet allow us to breathe in rooms saturated with history and red light. The distillation of time is a significant dimension of what enables us to endure the hold, yet not be asphyxiated. Even as this history is catastrophic and its damage ongoing, time is malleable and plastic. Brand explodes its continuum in her prose and poetics. Her now is filled with the then and the before and the not yet and the might be. Across her corpus, the acute rendering of what it means to inhabit this man’s world requires a shift of temporal perspective, so that time is on the move, as we are, not confined to the regulation of the clock or reduced to homogenized and empty units of duration and existence, or disposable lifetimes for purposes of accumulation and death. There are the more than and the might be rendered in its fold.

The sense of time—is to be simultaneously free of it/in the face of it/in the hold of it. Brand’s is a historical sensibility that is submarine and troubles the notion of an unfolding chronicle or the very idea that history proper might explain the door, rather than history being what the door has produced and its instrument—the chronicle of our dispossession, a fable of cause and effect, a tale of tragedy and triumph, a Bildung of objects becoming subjects and citizens, of errant and anomalous social formations domesticated and regulated in the family romance. These notes on belonging everywhere warn of the dangers of the origin story and the passport, and in its stead offer catachresis and prophesy rather than solution.

Those in diaspora exist in a place that is no place, inhabit an impossible metaphor. This rift of the Door and the Atlantic cultivates an alternate sense of time and event—as entangled, as compounded and synchronic, recursive and sedimented. This rupture as history, this tear in the world engenders a quality of time, an experience of time, distilled in the fullness of the moment, in the smallness of a gesture. One might say that it operates at another frequency, and one explored in the twenty years of work Brand produced since Map, especially in Ossuaries and The Blue Clerk.

The synchronic inhabitation of multiple presents defines embodied experience; sometimes it is the knowledge of the flesh, or a mode of perception and cognition that precedes language and the matter of identity, at least as it is marked and explicit. One example, a thirteen-year-old girl standing at the top of her street surveys the world that has made her:

I remember standing at the top of the street to my house when I was thirteen thinking, I will leave here and never return, I am not going to live here. Already the books in my mind were read, already I was forgetting faces and names.

The moment she proves able to name definitively, or to conceive, her street and her house, no longer as taken-for-granted atmosphere, as the environment simply there, but as the place of her worlding, she is solidly lodged in the postlapsarian. The girl experiences and perceives time in this separation from and falling away of world. This rupture and temporal implosion are conveyed by Brand’s distinctive narration, narration that eschews narrative in troubling the distinction between prose and poetry, in flitting across centuries, so in one moment we exist in a room with William Bosman on the Slave Coast, and in another are on a hilltop with Maurice Bishop on a small island replete with the promise of breaking the door, of freeing us from its hold. Map’s recursive and diffuse structure is an open-ended assemblage. Brand, like Denise Ferreira da Silva, is trying to unthink the world. She, too, questions: “How to release [the world] from the procedures and tools that presume everything that exists or happens is an expression of the human?” Before the thirteen-year-old knows what she knows, she feels and perceives that universal time is as much a sign of the damaged world as the general misery, the scarred face, the damaged limbs, the violated daughters, the tragic men brawling on the beach trying to destroy each other.

Is this how time unfolds—as the forgetting of all the things that are and were dear to us and that we cannot recall? The small space opening again and again. Is this anticipated loss, ready and waiting, another mark of the door and its terrible endowment, this ready drift toward oblivion, the ability to forget everyone, like the boy Douglass calling his mother a stranger, no longer remembering her face and having to learn again what a mother is, and as a grown man, negating the negated maternal function and wanting still to provide that boy-child with a mother; or Baby Suggs, with eight children gone and all she can remember of the firstborn is “how she loved the burned bottom of bread”? This thirteen-year-old suspended at the top of the street names her world and loses her belonging in the same breath. This acuity of detail and regard, while deftly attending to the magnitude of absence and oblivion, is Map’s achievement.

Now, in its fullness, can only be described inadequately with a series of placeholders: entangled, incomplete, manifold, a vessel of each and every moment, a now of the all and the everything. This time saturates the circumstantial account, and in this regard Brand’s maps and notes, her inventories, her verbless grammars of description, her archives of verso pages, her odes and nomenclatures are for the time being, for the meantime, for us in our dire need and in our beautiful terribleness, for these notes to belonging articulate our becoming and our existence in the catastrophe, in the ship’s hold and in the enclosure of the cognitive scheme, in the map and in the ledger, in the columns of credits and debits, and as well, and too, and also, and necessarily, and inescapably in and as the possibility of an opening to something else, in and as the contestation of the given, in and as the always escapes and the possibilities afforded by drifting and detour. Brand offers us a way-making to nowhere.

The girl stands at the top of the street, but the street is already a ghost. “I never returned to that street. The house with the hibiscus fence and the butterflies hovering over zinnias.” Is perception most acute precisely at the very moment when everything to which one has belonged falls away? Is this why “the mother country” is most sweet in the mouth of those gone, missing, left, taken, exiled? Is the moment one recognizes a home as the home the very same moment in which you lose it, like that girl floating at the top of the street recognizing all that she loves, and simultaneously being overwhelmed by the knowledge that she is destined to leave it, and that knowledge is tantamount to loss itself? Is that, too, knowledge of the door? Is nonbelonging the price of this regard, this perception that breaks her and breaks her away from what has been atmosphere and environment?

She will return to that street again and again, but only in imagination.

When I was nine and coming home one day, my street changed just as I stood at the top of it and I knew I would never live there again or all my life. The thought altered the afternoon and my life and after that I was in a hurry to leave. There was another consciousness waiting for a little girl to grow up and think future thoughts, waiting for some years to pass and some obligatory life to be lived until I would arrive here. When I was nine I left myself and entered myself.

In Verso Four of The Blue Clerk, Brand returns to that street, in an exquisite narration of time enfolding, not unfolding, but time held, embraced, doubled over, enveloped, clasped in one’s arms, cleaved, gathered, like a garment to be wrapped up in, to be in the surround of time, and in turn, to clasp, to circle, to encompass, to carry, to surrender to its hold. Time is like flesh folding back onto itself, like a trap or an enclosure, like a caress or an act of tenderness, like the door holding on to us and never letting us go.


Saidiya Hartman is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America; Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2019 . She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Society of Literature. She is University Professor at Columbia University.

This essay is adapted from an afterword to the forthcoming reissue of Brand’s The Map to the Door of No Return.