In Wynton Marsalis's Pulitzer Prize Winning oratorio, Blood on the Fields, he condenses US history in this bit of poetry that forms the song's refrain and gives the work its title:
Blood on the fields
King Cotton grow
Brown soil yields
White up above
Red down belowMarsalis produces a chilling portrait of the entangled violence and forced labor production that made the US a financially independent nation. In Marsalis's words, a shadowy, unknown force wields the whip and attacks black women's bodies: the blood is already on the fields. If we were to personify these metaphors, it would seem as if the brown soil of black female bodies is giving birth to cotton instead of children. In the lyrics that precede the refrain I quoted, we can see black hands (male and female) "picking, hoeing, feeding, and seeding." In this imagery, enslaved African America births a white supremacist nation ("white up above").
|A depiction of cotton-pickers in Texas. Source unknown. http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/images/45173000/jpg/_45173825_187e10b7-bab0-4070-86b8-72dd5e42c3fa.jpg .|
But what of this racial hierachy: white above, red at the absolute bottom with a layer of brown soil between? Black workers and mothers are dramatically present, while the presence of white masters and overseers can be inferred. Indians, however, are already disappeared. While Marsalis's oratorio begins with a wordless chant "To call the Indians out" -- the only place of the so-called "red" people in Blood on the Fields would seem to be in a past that runs quite literally underground: "Red down below." Any blood on the fields would have to be that of tortured African Americans; North America's indigenous peoples are not onstage in this racial conflict, their presence is subterranean, subtextual.
Marsalis's poetic history forms an interesting contrast with Dessalines, the revolutionary general and former slave who is said to have had this reflection on the achievement of Haitian independence from France in 1805:
We have avenged these true cannibals war for war, crime for crime, outrage for outrage; yes, I have saved my country. I have avenged America.Bucking Columbus's insistence that flesh-eaters were around every corner when he landed at Hispaniola--Dessalines insists that Europeans who decimated and enslaved were cannibalistic in their use of other human beings. But, in reviving the first inhabitants' name for the island, calling the new "black Republic" by the Arawak name of Haiti, was he asserting kinship with an injured but still present people? Or was he promising that blacks would carry on in the name of a cruelly extinguished Amerindian population? In other words, was Dessalines trying to make political connections in the present, or was he lending luster to the first black postcolonial nation through association with the nobility of a vanquished people?
I ask these questions about black uses of the Indian past to open up another question related to a particular conversational habit I've encountered. You might say it's a move akin to that made by whites who would prefer to "talk about class" than about race. Where I posed some pretty stiff rebuttals to that false substitution, I have to say, this one leaves me genuinely perplexed.