Flesh and Blood Relations

Thomas Glave, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh (New York: Akashic, 2013); 224 pages; ISBN 978-1617751707 (paperback)

• November 2015

Blood marks Thomas Glave’s writing. His latest book, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh, might be read as part of a bloody discourse that we can trace to his earliest work. Yet if in Glave’s earlier writing bodies and blood primarily symbolize terror, torture, and death, here the bloodpeople of Glave’s title also share solidarity and mourning shaped through intertwined experiences of suffering and survival. It is a kinship formed of blood, though decidedly not genealogical. And while Glave, in two of the essays, addresses those “people of shared DNA, shared genes . . . facial likenesses, and . . . surnames that confirm the blood shared between you long after slavery” (24–25), throughout the book he consistently unsettles and resists fixed and heteronormative formulations of bloodpeople relations.

The book is divided into four sections, each engaging with the central concept of the bloodpeople in manifold, allusive, haunting ways. The term operates as an expansive and shifting signifier for an assemblage of relational, queer, and diasporic meanings. The first essay, “The Jamaican Family: The Word and Dreams,” for instance, contrasts the people of shared ancestral blood (an ancestral line inhabited by loss, disinheritance, suicide, depression, and sicknesses, which he later writes about movingly in “The Bloodpeople in the Language”) with that “other/ Other family[,] . . . the family of men who press against each other and women who hold and kiss each other” (25, 26). Glave discusses these queer intimacies as bloodpeople relations and narrates how they emerge from bloody histories and contemporary realities of violence that, at once, enable and necessitate alternative networks of belonging. Three of the essays in this first section focus on violence against queer bodies in Jamaica. However, two largely represent acts of restatement: “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Jamaica (June 2008),” both in its epistolary form and its thematic content, echoes “Towards a Nobility of the Imagination: Jamaica’s Shame,” published in Words to Our Now (2006), while “Towards a Queer Prayer” returns to the discussion of the formation of JFLAG and the murder of Brian Williamson recounted in “The Death and Light of Brian Williamson,” also published in Words to Our Now.1

The bloodpeople gathered here also include those whom we might call literary relations. Among these are the writers of Our Caribbean, the anthology edited by Glave and discussed in the essay “Again, a Book of Dreams.”2 He revisits questions and concerns articulated in his introduction to Our Caribbean and reflects on its production and subsequent reception. Here, Glave writes of that book as collaborative dream-making: “We are each other’s people. Each other’s blood” (84).

Other connections with Caribbean writers emerge in section 2, which includes Glave’s introduction to the 2009 reprint of Andrew Salkey’s 1960 novel, Escape to an Autumn Pavement. And Glave’s account of a visit with the Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris provides the starting point for “Against Preciousness.” However, this section also importantly situates Glave within a wider company of “living and many dead bloodpeople in the language” (70),  such as Nadine Gordimer, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, whose writings Glave discusses as marked with “bloodfury” (123) and to whom he pays tribute for risking blood in their literary production and political commitments.

Glave’s turn to these figures moves this work beyond the Caribbean-focused lens of section1. His reflections on the body in section 3, “The Body and Its Conflicts,” and in essays such as “Against Preciousness,” from section 2, additionally serve to locate this book in the context of a recent turn in black studies to examine distinctions between body and flesh as critical to our political and social understandings of discourses of the human. This development is perhaps best exemplified by Michelle Ann Stephens’s Skin Acts (2014) and Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus (2014), both of which retheorize Hortense Spillers’s earlier articulation of this distinction in her “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (1987).3

But if Weheliye, in particular, is critical of diaspora as a framework for theorizing blackness, Glave in this book turns to diaspora not as the comparative methodology that Weheliye critiques but as a relational concept that might offer a more expansive understanding of “we.” In “‘But What Kind of Nonsense Is That?’ Callaloo and Diaspora,” Glave offers this nuanced rendering of black diaspora: “The creature named ‘diaspora’ might not even be—indeed cannot be—‘black’ as the idea of ‘blackness’ is popularly understood (and often unthinkingly accepted by and propounded by) many in the United States; for what about the realities of creolization and syncretism applicable to the Amerindians of South and Central America and to black Europeans. . . . The ‘We’ of our present and past grows larger, bolder and more generous” (48). Glave’s engagement with this diaspora question is evident not only in this essay but also in his later reflections on his experiences in England. Section 4, “From England: Dissent, Joy, and the Past That Is Never Past” (along with “Against Preciousness”), narrates Glave’s time as a Visiting Fellow at Cambridge. But the shift in focus is not just spatial, it is also discursive. If Words to Our Now, his previous collection of essays, was marked by a fierce critique of US imperial practices, here Glave confronts the persistence and legacies of British colonialism.

The final essay, “The Bloodpeople Redux: Just a Few Short Notes on Memory,” offers Glave’s fullest examination of British colonial histories of terror, camps, and genocides. Working through anecdotes that highlight a cultural insistence on forgetting, Glave examines how this willed colonial amnesia operates to signal “that African lives, black people’s lives, are of less value than the lives of those who died in European concentration camps” (203). His articulation of this history of expendability finds resonance in recent social movements that, once again, have needed to affirm that “black lives matter.” Glave’s recollection of the history of colonial labor camps and their role in the narrative of colonial terror and genocide also participates in a conversation, extended by Weheliye’s more recent examination of the historical relations between the modern concentration camp, colonial violence, and bare life.

While in Among the Bloodpeople Glave arguably writes a history of blood, he also throughout traces its relationship to survival, one that is queer and diasporic in its practice and that, as he puts it, “lopes towards another sort of future—a wider more daring one” where “family and bloodpeople become something else” (25, 26). It is this survival and “something else” that Glave insistently calls our attention to here. And yet this “something else,” in many ways, eludes definition. His articulation of the bloodpeople, like the related concepts of queerness and diaspora, remains more suggestive, unfinished, and expansive than definitively traced out in this work. However, this expansiveness, I would argue, is more than simply a result of the coming together of multiple meanings and resonances in this concept itself. It is also a product of a text that is necessarily polyphonous in its registers and that brings together various public addresses, letters, rememberances, and a calling of names across a range of constituencies of relation. What Glave offers in this work are notes, images, echoes, traces—a series of relational connections, toward an understanding of the bloodpeople, demanding further fleshing out.

 

Ronald Cummings teaches queer and postcolonial literatures at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. His current research focuses on queerness, marronage, and Caribbean writing.

 


Thomas Glave, Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

Thomas Glave, ed., Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

Michelle Ann Stephens, Skin Acts: Race, Psychoanalysis, and the Black Male Performer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 65–81.