The Complications of History

Through her writing, M. NourbeSe Philip expresses the many layers of material that history carries on its back. While reading her poems, one could analyze multiple layers of context. The style that Philip writes in depicts the thoughts and feelings of the Africans on board the Zong. As she relies on the written law of the Zong case to write her story, Philip humanizes the African who had previously been dehumanized by being considered property, which is “not capable of being murdered” (Philip 191). The African people on board the Zong were stripped of their own names, only referred to as “negroe woman, man, or girl.” Their financial value for insurance purposes were recorded instead (Philip 194).

By relying on the Gregson vs. Gilbert case, Philip “tells the story that must be told” (Philip 189).  The story that is such a monstrosity but is not necessarily taught in schools or made known, besides through the poems that Philip strategically pieced together. The slave ship, Zong, set sail from the West Coast of Africa in 1781, heading towards Jamaica and steered by Captain Luke Collingwood. Due to navigational errors, the voyage took nearly an extra two months (Philip 189). This setback caused the ship to deplete in water and food supply. Once slaves began dying of dehydration or throwing themselves off the ship, the Captain gave orders to forcibly throw slaves overboard. 150 Africans were then thrown into the seas, in hopes to collect insurance money due to the “loss of cargo”.

When reading the first poem, confusion and panic immediately erupts. Trying to understand the meaning while rereading and arranging words is equivalent to the senselessness of the slave trade. Philip breaks down these sentences and words to convey the true feelings and thoughts of the Africans who were being sold off against their will. The spaces in the text represent the absence In the Africans voices, freedom, and bodies.  The fragmented text symbolizes the mutilation that slavery brought upon Africans lives (Philip 195). The random selection of phrases or words represents the random selection of Africans for enslavement (Philip 192). Philip compares the interest that slave owners have in their slaves working together with her interest in her randomly selected words working together (Philip 193). The style of poem requires the reader to make sense of them, leaving questions unanswered, and forcing meaning into the fragments.


What do you think that Philip is trying to convey through her style of writing these poems?

What feelings or emotions do you experience when reading?


9 thoughts on “The Complications of History”

  1. I agree with you that through this unique writing style, Philip is able to say more with the distinct lack of words, than if she had tried to explain the intended message. The fractioning of words, and the random selection shows the chaos, and cruelty that was involved with slavery. While reading through Philip’s poems, there was an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness for the Africans, who had been taken from their homes, and stripped of everything that defined them; from their possessions to their names and families. The more that was taken away, the more overwhelming this feeling became. When the order was finally given to throw the 150 slaves overboard, the emotion of hopelessness was replaced by an empty feeling, much like the fragments of texts Philip used in her poem.

  2. I like that you mentioned the confusion in the style of the poems. For example, the first line, “w w w w” is confusing, as the reader had no idea what is going on. This likely mimics the confusion that the slaves felt. They were thirsty and wanted some water, but instead were punished or killed for such a basic request. I think this is what Philip is trying to display with her poem. Both the confusion of the slaves themselves, as well as the reader trying to comprehend how such a tragic event could take place. Feelings of both disturbance and confusion were felt as I read this poem. Disturbance because of the way it was set up so strangely, almost as if it were begging for something. Confusion because it is so hard to follow, and some of the words are not even words at all.

  3. What feelings or emotions do you experience when reading?

    While reading Zong, I felt many similar emotions as you while reading. When you wrote “Trying to understand the meaning while rereading and arranging words is equivalent to the senselessness of the slave trade.” I agree with this statement because the chaos of the violent act of throwing slaves overboard is well represented by the placement of words. One particular emotion I felt while reading the book is hopelessness. This emotion is is shown by how empty the pages are.

  4. M. NourbeSe Philip’s work evokes a deep-seated sense of confusion within me. This kind of confusion often leads to misplaced anger and annoyance. While reading the poems, I had to fight back these feelings. I understand that the poems were meant to be chaotic. I especially liked how Philip used blank spaces to portray the “many silences within the Silences of the text” (191). Still, I found the poems grueling to read.
    I would like to point out that in the second paragraph you say, “By relying on the Gregson vs. Gilbert case, Philip ‘tells the story that must be told’ (Philip 189).” I think it is equally important to emphasize the author’s desire to tell the story by not-telling. The author delicately weaves this form of not-telling throughout all of the poems. Silences sometimes say more than words, and in this case, silences are used to reinforce the confounding and tragic nature of the Zong.

  5. The feeling of these poems are confusion. While reading the first poem, it was necessary to write the letters down as reading it because of how difficult it was to read. Scattered letters turned into “Water was our water good water oh on one won day da dey ah ay one days water”(3). After reading others it gradually started to make more sense, and it becomes more noticable that she is talking about slavery. Zong #3 initiates the mood of this whole book, and the reference to water and thirst is made again. It talks about how the slaves were thrown over board and drowned, in just a short 24 scattered words. These are the feelings M. Nourbese Philip wanted us to feel, confusion and then sorrow. This is most likely because of the context of the book, and maybe our feeling while reading it relates to the initial feeling the slaves had before thrown overboard. This book might be difficult to understand, but it seems that gradually as it continues, the poems start to make sense.

  6. As soon as I opened to page 3 in “Zong!”, I was immediatly confused by Philip’s style of writing. I really like how you said that the confusion and panic of reading these poems is similar to the emotions felt of those involved in the slave trade. I realized that words like “water” and “negroes” were used often throughout her poems. Like you mention in your blog post, slaves were being thrown overboard into the water if they weren’t one hundred percent healthy. They were thrown overboard because it was better for white people to not have to sell them but instead just drown them. White people believed that if the slaves were not healthy, no one would buy them and it would cost more money for them. Philip writes, “the some of negroes / over / board / the rest in lives / drowned / exist did not / in themselves / preservation / obligied / frenzy / thrist for forty others / etc” (Philip, 6). These lines are all over the place and confusing to read. Like the slaves being thrown in the water to drown, they were confused and in a state of panic. Philip tries to get the readers to feel for slaves through her way of writing. I will never understand the true feelings that these slaves felt but through Philip’s writing, I get the chills and feel horrible for these people. It makes me open my eyes and realize what really happened in our history.

  7. M. NourbeSe Philip uses an unique form/style of writing, in order to make her writings more abstract and to make the reader think. The style she uses helps the reader become able to feel and think what the slaves were feeling and thinking when they were on the Zong. The style evokes sadness as well as confusion to the reader. For example, Zong uses blank spaces to show the reader the “many silences within the Silences of the text” (191). Overall, all of Zong’s techniques are used to try and really show the reader what the slaves went through and display exactly how they felt.

  8. Some feelings that I felt while reading were confusion and emptiness. Philip writes in a way where most of the pages are blank space which is the opposite of what I am used to reading. The lack of words on each page makes me feel like I’m reading an empty book. It’s confusing reading this style of writing because the words are scattered across the page. It isn’t your normal left to right and top to bottom reading. On page 3 Philip writes “w w w …w…a wa…w…a…wa…” (Philip, 3). At first, these scattered letters seem to make no sense but later after rereading a couple time you realize that the author is trying to spell water. I am looking forward to reading more of Zong! and understanding the author’s style of writing better.

  9. I agree with you, and understand what you mean when describing what schools leave out in lesson plans. As a history major last year, I learned what is left out by teachers to shield kids from the horrors of the past. This is also specific to region, even in our own country. For example, the north and the south of the country teach the civil war completely different. History is also told by the winners, so it is constantly being told and studied biased to who won wars and what philosophies succeeded throughout history.

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