Zong!, Cultural Materialism & Poststructuralist Literary Theory: Deconstructing the Text

Zong!, a collection of contemporary poems written by Tobagan lawyer- turned- poet M. NourbeSe Philip, is an effort to bring existence to a group of African slaves that were altogether erased from human history as a people and instead immortalized in a single legal document as disposable commodities. The Zong, a slave ship carrying 100+ slaves destined for Jamaica in May of 1781, but whose voyage was extended due to a mistaken landing in what was then called “Hisaniola”, suffered collateral damage and was unable to properly sustain itself throughout the unintentionally prolonged trip(Philip, 189, 210). As compensation for lack of resources and loss of profit, the ship’s captain allowed his crew to overthrow the cargo of approximately 150 of 470 negroes into the sea in order to collect insurance money on lost/ damaged goods post- voyage.

The only available record of this incident can be found in a single court case document entitled “Gregson v. Gilbert”, which NourbeSe Philip came across in her legal studies. The story of the Zong struck Philip, and inspired her to literally take the poem apart and piece it back together as dictated by her muse Setaey Adamu Boateng. This set of poems, comprised of the torn apart and reconstructed words of the historical legal document, mimics the dehumanization and destruction of the black lives lost aboard the Zong and is NourbeSe Philip’s attempt to leave a fictional legacy, but a legacy nonetheless, that speaks to the agony and injustice that those nameless souls turned sales endured at the hands of a slave ship crew. This effort to render existence by means of dissecting and re- creating language, and narration in both the voices of slave owner and slave, can be considered an engaging performance in Cultural Materialist and Poststructuralist deconstructive literary theory. It takes the original text and creates disunity within it in order to create a multiplicity of meanings(Barry, 56) .

Poststructuralist theory seeks to “reveal the repressed unconscious of the word”, thus “revealing the unconscious of the text” through means of de- constructing language(Barry, 54). A text has the potential to give way to a variation of meanings and interpretations, which M. NourbeSe Philip makes clear through her cut- and- paste fashion poetry. In the Notanda, or something to be noted(onlinedictionary.datasegment.com), a section at the end of Zong! that explains her reasoning behind the structure of her poems, Philip states that she metaphorically mutilates the text “as the fabric of African life” was mutilated(Philip, 193). She writes “I murder the text, literally cut it into pieces, castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles… overboard” and purposely deconstructs the text until her hands are bloodied, just as the hands of the Zong’s crew were bloodied and tainted with the blood of innocent free blacks made slaves(Philip, 193- 194). Yet, this savage destruction of that text gives way to a completely different reconstructed text that exposes the unconscious telling of the initial, which is that it in essence killed off an entire people by drowning a number of them and offering them no identity or voice.

In reading the Notanda prior to Zong!, we as readers are able to make this underlying connection between what the structure of the text means or performs in relation to the story of the Zong ship. Taking these words, first purposed for legal documentation, are re- purposing them for Zong!’s poetry unveils what the text says through what it doesn’t say. The way in which the slaves are referred to in Gregson v. Gilbert, negroes who died for “want of sustenance”, objectifies them and dehumanizes them as lost cargo that could be replaced by money(Philip, 211). They are never mentioned as people with names, nor is an account of the incident written on their behalf in the court case. How could there be, when most of them are dead at the bottom of the ocean, and the other part of them don’t speak any language than any “proper” law- abiding white person would know. Not only are they unable to have a voice based on language, but just based on the fact that they literally cannot speak from the depths of the sea- now or ever. The only place these people exist are at the bottom of the ocean, or in one’s mind as the author of Zong! creates fictional names for those lost. Philip pieces the words of the original document together to show this inability to speak, at all or in a mother tongue as Africans in Zong!

Page 1, in its spacing and its lettering, when performed or read, mimics or invokes the imagery of drowning in water. The various strands of “w” and “a” spaced out across the page tries to write out the word “water”, but is also typed in a fashion the connotes slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean, where language is lost(Philip, 1). In reading the Notanda first and starting Zong! knowing its history, we recognize and understand the comparison between the drowning of the slaves and the “sinking” of the words and gurgling of dying voices attempting to cry out. This “loss” of people and language is not so clear based on the original text from which these words derive. One must pull apart and delve into language beyond its surface, or in this case beyond the surface of the sea, to understand what else Gregson v. Gilbert might be saying about how what the relationship between whites and blacks in the time period did to the existence of the black body.

The relationship between whites and blacks during the 1700s and history as a whole is also a subject matter essential to the Cultural Materialist theory Zong! performs in its being read in the current day. Cultural Materialism focuses on the study of “historical material (which includes literary texts) within a politicised framework, this framework including the present which those literary texts have in some way helped to shape”(Barry, 121). M. NourbeSe Philip wrote Zong! from both the point of view of both oppressed and oppressor. Taking Gregson v. Gilbert as the catalyst for Zong! gives it origins in white, Eurocentric society that gave no recognition to or account of Africans other than being manufacturers of commodities or commodities themselves, as clearly expressed by the willingness of the ship’s crew to throw a hundred and some odd blacks overboard in possible exchange for money.

The historical context for Zong! is further reflected in its publishing, as NorbeSe Philip whites out, or blacks out certain words or phrases in order to create this dual narration(Philip, 193).

In certain sections of the text, such as page 115, depending on which direction one chooses to read in, we receive various interpretations of the text that reflect its inbred racial tension. In reading up and down, we get phrases such as “”un ange noir… i am ex… of satan”, as if the enslaved Africans, who see themselves as blacks anges(angels) are reflecting upon how they are viewed as evil by white society- or we get phrases like “niger from the niger… is now a body… many the ship”, which sounds as if a white slave ship crew member were discussing the niggers from the Niger area who have been diminished to nothing more than bodies or cargo taking up space in the hold of one of many slave ships that crossed the sea during the time of slavery(Philip, 115). In reading across, messages like “appears a pig… toyed water… their fate us” continues this shamed slave voice, while “& guns this age… nègres ignore the age” sounds like a critique of blacks subject to gunshot at whim in a “technologically advanced” white age(Philip, 115).

We also see the emergence of broken African language, English and non- English words on page 75, as well as others throughout the text, which could either signal the time that the slaves aboard the Zong were forced to abandon their mother tongues in exchange for those of their captors in order to survive, or could be interpreted as the voices of the captors themselves. Not only was language lost, but it was abandoned, mutilated and replaced in the process of its deconstruction.

In juxtaposing the non- literary text of the court case and creating this new text of poetry, NourbeSe Philip is able to expose the racism and abuse that existed in the making of the original text and still exists. As a woman of color in a society that at this very moment faces life threatening race- relation issues, in the Notanda she questions her own relationship to the lost blacks lives of the Zong ship. Part of how Zong! performs literary theory is how this hundred year- old court case resurfaces in the world of the 2000s and the different readings it invokes based on the functionings of current life. Cultural Materialism brings into consideration the long rooted histories of racism and slavery that helped connect the story of the Zong to the poetry of Zong!. Cultural Materialism as a type of literary theory is also linked to poststructuralist theory, as both methodically take apart and bring together this one text to re- analyze it and interpret it differently, as to uncover new meaning.

As a poem, Zong! throws readers for a loop as they try to find the hidden meaning behind the words, language and structure of the text. If you are someone who read the Notanda, which is located at the very end of the poem, and the legal document which inspired prior to reading the poem, then you go into reading Zong! with knowledge of what you are supposed to “look for” or “get out of” the text. In the Notanda M. NourbeSe Philip essentially spoon- feeds us the instructions on what to do with Zong! and how to interpret and understand it. We go into it from the perspective of an expert in the law and poetry. Philip’s initial occupation as an attorney, her personal history and her knowledge of history are what enable her to make this in- depth connection between the silent slaves and the ship’s insurance claims. Afterwards, she hands this knowledge down to us. But what if you read Zong! the way that it is intended to be read- by struggling through the botched text and knowing no context? That would derive and uncover a duplicity of meanings,that is completely separate from that of the informed reader, as it is up to you and where you are coming from as a person to determine what Zong! means and does as a poem. Only in reaching the Notanda at the end would the author’s meaning be unveiled.

This is what Zong! as a poem seeks to do- take you, everything you know or don’t know, and let that lead you to make your own interpretations and conclusions about the text. Literary theory seeks to do the same thing through its various forms. Different types of theory are simply different types of ways of reading and interpreting literary texts and sometimes relating them to non- literary texts and world/ personal experiences, as is the case with Zong!. There is no doubt that Zong! is a collection of deconstructed words, but it can be argued that this poststructuralist approach to language, coupled with the culturally historical importance of the social context from with it originally derives, is what makes a text as confusing and seemingly directionless and pointless as Zong! that much more meaningful and important; once we know the lense from which we are reading it and the lense through which it is offered to us, we discover its meanings.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.31.05 AM Zong! #1 Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.32.45 AM Page 115Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.32.45 AM Page 75

Works Cited:

Barry, P. (1995). Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory (Second

ed.). Manchester [England: Manchester University Press ;.

Notanda. (2013). Retrieved May 6, 2015, from


Philip, M., & Boateng, S. (2011). Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.


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