Monday, March 7, 2011

Kevin Young Representing Cinque

In an early review, Publishers Weekly noted that Kevin Young's Ardency is "a big and varied book." I'm going to say that the size and variety of Young's work has prevented me from writing more about it sooner. Well, that's the story I'm going to stick to for now.

I'm enjoying Ardency overall, but the section on Cinque - the most well-known figure involved with the Amistad - is really special. Young takes on the persona of the leader of the rebellion and really stretches out in multiple directions.

The Cinque section, entitled "Witness," is the longest portion of the book and includes seven sub-sections: I. Processional; II. Passages III. Captivity; IV. Conversions; V. Merica, a minstrel show; VI. Manumissions; and VII. Benedictions.

How fitting to call Cinque's section "Witness" when we consider the significance of narratives of enslavement, liberation, and the Middle Passage in black history. Your mind might move all over the place just imagining what he saw and experienced.

Cinque grew up in Sierra Leone, was enslaved, and traveled across the Atlantic to Cuba as a captive. Later, he led a rebellion and was imprisoned in New Haven, Connecticut. He was taught English, introduced to Christianity, and eventually granted freedom and passage back to Africa.

In "Witness," Young works to retell the story from Cinque's perspective. We end up with a wonderful speculative narrative in verse about what Cinque may have experienced and thought.

In "Processional," Cinque reflects on the terrible voyage in the belly of a slaveship where he was surrounded by his fellow captives' "Misery," "the wails / that 'most swallowed / me up--" and "all night the cries / of chillens" (58).

Ah yeah, the pun on "wails" (whales) that almost swallow him. Perhaps, the play with language during the retelling of the horrors of the Middle Passage would seem strange. But then, there's some purpose in presenting language in slippery and nuanced ways given that Cinque and the other Mendi captives were rightly uncomfortable with this English language that was thrust upon them.

Throughout "Processional," Cinque offers recurring lines about not being aware "of the Lawd" or Christianity during his time "in the wilderness" of Africa and later shackled aboard a slaveship. Is he suggesting that he and other enslaved black people would have understood the pain and suffering a little easier if they were already Christian?

Questioning the roles of Christianity and Christianizing in Cinque's life and more broadly in the lives of enslaved black people seems to be a major, subtle idea.

The uses of and struggles with the English language and Christianity throughout the book and exemplified through the voice of Cinque is a really compelling feature of Young's Ardency.

Multi-threaded Comments on Kevin Young’s Ardency

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