Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

Samuel R. Delany’s Atlantis: Model 1924 and the Origins of Blackness

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history,
the dark ships move, the dark ships move

—Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage”

From now on, I come from all times before me-and all my origins will feed me. Some in Africa I get through my daddy. And my momma. And my stepdaddy. Some in Europe I get through the library: Greece and Rome, China and India-I suck my origins through my feet from the paths beneath them that tie me to the land, from my hands opened high in celebration of the air, from my eyes lifted among the stars…

—Lewy in Samuel R. Delany, “Atlantis: Model 1924”

The epigraph implies origin. As a literary device it often announces source material for a text, and it is a place where, presumably, the reading experience begins. The epigraphs I have placed above are modeled after the form that Samuel R. Delany uses for his 1995 novella “Atlantis: Model 1924,” which has two literary excerpts at the beginning of each chapter.[1] Four of the five chapters of “Atlantis: Model 1924” contain epigraphs from Robert Hayden’s poem about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, “Middle Passage.” In the excerpt above  Hayden imagines the slave ship as an implement of weaving — “shuttles in the rocking loom of history” — and it’s one of several images that Hayden uses in the poem to position the slave trade as the point of origin, for the American nation, for global capitalism, for African-American identity. The metaphor also implies movement back and forth, the slave ship as the shuttle in a rocking loom weaving individual threads into a singular fabric.  

The second excerpt above, taken from the last chapter of “Atlantis: Model 1924,” might seem like a contradiction to Hayden’s vision of the slave ship’s “voyage through death/to life upon these shores” as the origin of African-American life. The character Lewy, a friend of the novella’s protagonist Sam, asserts that yes, his black lineage traces back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade (“some in Africa I get from my daddy. And my momma”), but he also sees himself as a subject who originates from other times and places.

By using Hayden’s “Middle Passage” in the epigraphs to frame this narrative of a young black North Carolinian named Sam who migrates to Harlem in the 1920s, Delany signals the historical importance of slavery in the construction of black identity, even as he interrogates how this narrative of racial origin is provisional, contextual, and socially constructed. In “Atlantis: Model 1924” Delany reiterates the materiality of race, while also suggesting other ways of thinking about blackness, origin, and temporality. To read Delany’s and Hayden’s work together is to engage in both an affirmation of black history and a destabilization of genealogical understandings of race and origin.

The presence of an aggregate of black people upon the American continent (and in the Caribbean, as well as other locations) is largely due to the violent forced migration of millions of enslaved Africans to “the New World.” However, black intellectuals have also wrestled with, and resisted, this narrative of origin in slavery. In a trenchant essay published in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative Robert Reid-Pharr examines the problem of slavery as origin through what he calls the “Big Bang Theory” of black literature. As Reid-Pharr states, “There is perhaps no stronger impetus within the study of Black American literature and culture than the will to return, the desire to name the original, the source, the root, that seminal moment at which the many-tongued diversity of ancient West Africa gave way to the monolingualism of black North America.”[2] Reid-Pharr cites the changing nomenclature of blackness, “Colored, Negro, Black and finally African,” as an example of this search for origin: “With each renaming one imagines a people groping ever closer to the mystery of their collective truth, a truth always buried within an always heavily veiled past” (137).

On one level, this search for identity is an important political act for a people who were systematically stripped of their names, and their religious and ethnic identities, and told that they had no history prior to enslavement. Arturo Schomburg’s 1925 essay “The Negro Digs Up his Past” is an iconic example of how black historians engaged in this important act of recovery. But there remains an uneasiness among black intellectuals (from various perspectives) about the emphasis on slavery as origin, whether they are anti-essentialists wary of reifying racial categories (a belief that got Hayden into trouble with black nationalists in the 1960s), or whether they are Afrocentrists seeking to recover and disseminate histories of black people, and the African continent, before European conquest, and beyond the trans-Atlantic slave trade that began in the 1600s.[3]

But what if blackness is a question of “where” and “when,” rather than a “what” or a “whom”?  This is Michelle N. Wright’s proposition in Physics of Blackness. Like Reid-Pharr, Wright also invokes the Big Bang Theory and blackness, but she moves beyond the metaphorical to propose an understanding of blackness in space-time. When it comes to conversations about the truth-value of race, Wright challenges tired debates about biology versus social construction, or essentialism versus anti-essentialism. Instead Wright employs physics in her argument that understanding blackness requires an appreciation of the “phenomenology of Blackness— that is, when and where it is being imagined, defined, and performed and in what locations, both figurative and literal” (3). Wright problematizes “Middle Passage Blackness” as a paradigm in which the black person can only enter history as enslaved, can only enter history as an object. In this way, she joins other black intellectuals who question white supremacist temporalities that locate black people solely in relation to enslavement, and construct black people as “slaves.” Indeed, in recent years there has been a worthy push to reorient our language about slavery to refer to people as “enslaved,” to resist the white supremacist notion that “slave” is a natural condition for people of African descent.

“Atlantis: Model 1924” belongs among the most important fiction in Samuel R. Delany’s vast bibliography, precisely because it distills so much of what makes this black, gay Harlemite science fiction writer such a unique figure in American letters—including his family’s history, his thinking on race, sexuality, and gender, his artistic methods as a writer, and his creative approach to literary criticism. “Atlantis: Model 1924” follows the life of a 17-year-old black kid named Sam on his journey from North Carolina to Harlem in the fall of 1923. The character is based on the author’s father, and the storyline is based on Delany’s family history. Two of the fictional Sam’s siblings — Elsie and Corey in the novella — are based upon the famous Delany sisters, Sarah (Sadie) Delany and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, who became internationally known centenarians with their bestselling book Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years (1993).

The second epigraph above comes from a scene in chapter e, the last chapter of the novel, between Sam and his friends John and Lewy, on a day back home in North Carolina. This scene has been cited and parsed by previous scholars who have written about “Atlantis, Model 1924” including Ross Posnock, Jeffrey Allen Tucker, and Simon Dickel.[4] It is worth noting that this oft-interpreted scene is actually a meta-memory, a flashback to Sam’s life back in North Carolina within the memory of his early New York life that constitutes the main narrative of “Atlantis: Model 1924.” Lewy’s monologue takes place within an impromptu conversation with Sam and John about history and origins. The intellectual Lewy had a reputation for being interested in philosophy, theology, and history. He says, “Now, me . . . I’m going to originate everywhere…from now on. I’ve made up my mind to it” (114). As Simon Dickel points out, the grammatical construction of that phrase is futuristic, implying an unfulfilled utopian potential. (152). Lewy goes on to say,   

and I’ll go on originating, all through my life, too…Every time I read a new book, every time I hear something new about history, every time I make a new friend, see a new color in the oil slicked over a puddle in the mud, a new origin joins me to make me what I am to be — what I’m always becoming. The whole of my life is origin — nowhere and everywhere. You just watch me now! (115)  

Lewy’s statement here indicates his anti-essentialist attitude toward racial identity, and his metaphysical view of life, but he also turns toward the pragmatic: 

Look . . . Knowing all I really come from, that won’t stop anybody calling me a black bastard . . .That don’t stop anybody from calling you a nigger, calling Sam a black boy, calling me colored, calling you a redheaded African, calling Sam a Negro, calling me black. And I guess we’re what we’re called, no matter where we’re from. That’s what calling means—that’s all. It isn’t no more important than that. (116) 

And to that, Sam responds, “Well . . . it’s pretty important, what they call you, when it means where you got to go to school, even what you got to work at.” The reply from Sam is meant to be a bit of tough love for Lewy, reminding him that his self-making could lead to a naive escapism from the harsh realities of institutionalized segregation.

This conversation between John, Lewy, and Sam invokes Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation, a concept Delany has discussed in relation to black and queer identities. In “Some Queer Notions of Race” Delany speaks to the significance of interpellation for understanding identity formation, and also notes its limitations: 

Because interpellation only talks about one aspect of the meaning of “making”/”producing”/”creating”/”sedimenting,” it does not tell the whole story. It is simply one of the more important things that happens to subjects at the level of discourse.[5]

Lewy recognizes the marker of race is an important one, particularly in the way that he is interpellated as a subject who would have been enslaved in the past, as one who now belongs in the Jim Crow car on a train, (where Sam sat when he started his train ride from North Carolina to New York). At the same time, he also acknowledges other origins that run concurrently with that interpellation, and he embraces a sense of blackness that transcends such strictures by pointing out the provisional nature of racial identity. For Lewy, the naming that takes place as a tool of Jim Crow surveillance does not tell the whole story about his blackness, and, in fact, this reductive naming is one of the ways in which the full story is kept from being told, a story that includes his reading, learning, friendships, and experiences in the world that have made him who he is.

Reading Hayden’s evocative and moving slave trade poem “Middle Passage” along with Delany’s Great Migration narrative in “Atlantis: Model 1924” provides an opportunity to think about the complexities of identity and diaspora in black literary history, while reaffirming that the black artist’s engagement with racial identity, in all of its permuations and porous boundaries, constitutes a mode of resistance against white supremacist erasures and distortions of black people.

Samuel Delaney reads from “Atlantis: Model 1924.”

 


Notes

[1] “Atlantis: Model 1924” is a novella included in Samuel R. Delany’s Atlantis: Three Tales (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1995), 1-222.

[2] Robert Reid-Pharr, “The Slave Narrative and Early Black American Literature” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, edited by Audrey Fisch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 137–49, 138.

[3] Schomburg, Arturo. “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” in The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 231–44.

[4] See Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998; Jeffrey Allen Tucker, A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity, and Difference (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004); and Simon Dickel, Black/Gay: The Harlem Renaissance, the Protest Era, and Constructions of Black Gay Identity in the 1980s and 1990s (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011). 

[5] Samuel R. Delany, “Some Queer Notions About Race,” in Dangerous Liaisons: Blacks, Gays, and the Struggle for Equality (New York: The New Press, 1999), 259­–89, 285.

Comments