By Invitation
Unsilenced: Decoloniality, Diaspora, and Writing the Impossible

“The task of writing the impossible (not the fanciful or the utopian but ‘histories rendered unreal and fantastic’) has as its prerequisites the embrace of likely failure and the readiness to accept the ongoing, unfinished and provisional character of this effort, particularly when the arrangements of power occlude the very object that we desire to rescue.”

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” (2008)

How does one tell impossible stories or write impossible histories? Scholars who research histories of chattel slavery—and those of dispossessed, minoritized, marginalized, exploited, and silenced people throughout human history—grapple with these questions. Telling these stories appears impossible for multiple reasons. First, the lives and deaths of such individuals are marked by the darkest, yet devastatingly prevalent patterns of oppression. The human ingenuity poured into dispossession, minoritization, marginalization, exploitation, and violence is staggering. Shining light onto these realities is difficult for a scholar, caught between a sense of duty to recover human histories and experiences, a desire to restore due dignity to these people, and an awareness of the intimidating, at times soul-crushing search for scraps of information about individuals and communities who have been silenced. The realities of this labor—methodological, ethical, emotional—turn enthusiasm into entropy and exhaustion, making the work seem impossible.

Second, as I have intimated, the archive itself renders this research impossible. Over the past decades, from Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Michel Foucault to Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, Jennifer Morgan, Marisa Fuentes, and others, humanists have acknowledged the paucity and refracted violence of the archive as a history-making technology, one created and compiled by those in power (colonizers, slaveholders, state bureaucrats, etc.) to replicate arrangements of domination and subjugation.[1] As Fuentes has written, “enslaved women appear as historical subjects through the form and content of archival documents in the manner in which they lived: spectacularly violated, objectified, disposable, hypersexualized, and silenced. The violence is transferred from the enslaved bodies to the documents that count, condemn, assess, and evoke them, and we receive them in this condition. Epistemic violence originates from the knowledge produced about enslaved women by white men and women in this society, and that knowledge is what survives in archival form.”[2] Simultaneously at a loss and irate in confronting this inequitable, nay sickening structural occlusion of the past, scholars across the humanities have taken on the task of asking with Hartman “how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?”[3]

This search for humanity and for redress animates me in the decolonial methodology that I have developed for my current project, From Slavery to Stardom: Family, Freedom, and the First Black Celebrity, Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George, my third book on African diasporic identities in the era of chattel slavery. This methodology is geared toward advancing a new kind of history and historical writing—a poetics, in fact—that allows me to unearth the lives of people long silenced, telling their stories for a broad public while at the same time making interventions across multiple scholarly fields, including Critical Black Geographies, African diasporic studies, Atlantic and European history, histories of race, gender, sexuality, performance, celebrity and more.

The life of the Black celebrity in question, Joseph Bologne, chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799), is a legend untold, one of the most remarkable Black lives virtually wiped from the annals of history [Figure 1]. Yet in his time, his astounding talents and meteoric ascent from slavery to stardom made him a household name across Europe and the Atlantic world: written about by the second U.S. president John Adams, championed by Queen Marie-Antoinette and the Prince of Wales, jealously admired by Mozart himself. Born on a sugar plantation in the French colony of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles, Saint-George was the product of an illegal coupling between the socially ambitious white plantation owner Georges de Bologne and a beautiful teenage enslaved girl named Nanon. These three individuals became an anomalous family, structured within by differences in race, gender, communal ties, and the power of money. Those familiar with Annette Gordon Reed’s seminal histories of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship to—and children with—his African-American enslaved concubine Sally Hemings may see an apt point of comparison.[4] Like Jefferson and Hemings, the Bologne de Saint-George family stayed together for many years, taking their first perilous transatlantic voyage when little Joseph was just two years old, thereby attaining a nominal and fragile freedom for mother and child. 

Soon after settling in Paris, young Saint-George skyrocketed to fame in boyhood as a fencing and violin prodigy, nicknamed “the inimitable.” In an era when philosophers such as David Hume denied that Black people had the ability to reason and write, Saint-George earned his place in the most rarified circles in France through his military and musical prowess. He became the first Black man to hold several major military commissions, including as a member of the king’s royal guard at Versailles and the commander of the first all-Black unit in the army of the French Revolution. Astonishingly, Saint-George simultaneously pursued his martial duties and his career as a virtuoso violinist, concertmaster, and classical composer whose creations were among the most celebrated of the eighteenth century. Mozart, who initially refused to meet the chevalier because he was Black, ultimately stole some of Saint-George’s most scintillating melodies and incorporated them into his own pieces. Yet, in the culmination of numerous racial injustices in his life, Saint-George’s military career was forgotten and he became a nameless shadow to Amadeus, remembered only as the “Black Mozart.”

Etching of The Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Mather Brow, 1789.
Figure 1: Etching of The Chevalier de Saint-Georges by Mather Brow, 1789.

Despite Saint-George’s embattled fame and fortune, his story, let alone that of his enslaved mother Nanon, is preserved only in scattered archival fragments. Nanon left no written trace because as an enslaved woman whose first language was Guadeloupean Creole, she likely could barely read or write, if at all. And despite his fame, elite education, and remarkable career, Saint-George—though he could read and write in French at an advanced level—left no correspondence, no personal papers, no writing of note whatsoever outside of a handful of documents relating to military operations and commissions. The story of their erasure, as my research shows, was the result of purposive and repetitive efforts that stretched from their lifetimes in the eighteenth century through today. Calling Saint-George the “the Black Mozart” is an infuriating part of the problem, so let us call this man by his name!

How does one tell this family’s story, despite its layers of impossibility? Ongoing, unfinished, and provisional as such efforts may be, I remain optimistic that this work can and must be done. Each case lends itself differently to this tall task, but in all cases, we must bring boldness and creativity to make the impossible possible.

Grappling with method is a central challenge, perhaps deceptively so in some ways. People have said “Saint-George was famous, an exception to the rule of the hundreds of thousands of people born into slavery. Isn’t this project just a straightforward, classical biography?” I have found myself rushing to say “no” for a number of reasons. Part of the knee-jerk reaction stems from the fact that many of us, myself included, have been indoctrinated to think of biography as a “lesser form” of history and literary analysis, one that is incapable of conveying “the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”[5] As David Nasaw put it in his introduction to the 2009 American Historical Review roundtable on historians and biography, “biography remains the profession's unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riff raff.”[6] There is, however, a much more paradoxical trend in the perspectives and popularity of the genre. On the one hand, in the AHR forum and another one in French history published in 1996 in the journal French Historical Studies, contributors announce the death knell of the triumphalist biographical tropes of the moral tale (hagiography or mirror of princes) and the “life-and-times of such and such great man.”[7] These approaches purportedly grew unpopular in direct proportion with the rise of the Annales School, postmodern approaches to identity, and the linguistic turn. Yet, judging anecdotally on the continued robust production and popularity of “great man” (and sometimes woman) biographies—just check The New York Times bestseller lists—this style of life writing is far from dead. It remains, rather, a perennial favorite of the international reading public and, for the public humanist, a way to engage a broad and robust audience in the project of telling history.

With this in mind, in From Slavery to Stardom I am working to tell the impossible history of  a “great man” while shattering the traditional biographical mold of the “great man history.” First and foremost, I have refused to construct my book with a sole focus on the chevalier. Such a history would be unfaithful to the intersubjectivity and interdependence that characterize human life in society. As much as superhero and underdog tales of struggle and triumph of a singular human agent battling against all odds, in reality, we are far more connected to, influenced by, and dependent upon one another as well as the chronotopic situatedness of our existences. The few archival remnants available make clear the ongoing, crucial role his parents played in his life. What is more, writing Saint-George’s mother out of his life’s story would not just be unfaithful to reality, it would be a replication of her lived experience of violence and marginalization as well as the subsequent epistemic violence that removes her from the archive almost entirely. It is in my book as it was in the history I am telling: the saga of Black womanhood and motherhood under slavery, the unflinching ambitions of a slaveholding Creole father to his biracial son, and the brilliant talents and tenacity of the Atlantic world’s first Black celebrity are all inextricably conjoined.

Bringing to life the differing experiences of Saint-George, Nanon, and Georges requires triangulating archival study, intuitive and compelling speculation, and an experimental style of writing and reading. It also demands disciplinary transgressions that break through obstructive siloing and conventions. For this project, I am bringing to bear years of investigative archeological and archival research across three continents, creative methodologies, and a unique combination of pluridisciplinary expertise to turn impossibility into a wide-ranging, gripping history of family and freedom.

To realize this aim, I have devised a framework for this type of history that I am calling “geobiographical,” in which "geo," "bio," and "graphical" all signify.[8] The “geo” and “bio” parts of my formulation are tightly conjoined and foreground the essential role of space and movement in the lives of people like Nanon, Georges, and their son as they traversed pathways carved by empire and chattel slavery. The book’s narrative is chronological, but also spatially driven, reconstructing lived experience and relationships built in specific spaces and giving a sense of what it may have been like to survive in places that Saint-George and his family navigated. Each chapter plunges into a distinct eighteenth-century “world,” from the Caribbean sugar plantation to the royal palace of Versailles to the tiny Parisian city apartments in which Saint-George—and perhaps Nanon—died, poor and alone, during the throes of the French and Haitian Revolutions. This structure allows me to attend to much broader questions of the socio-cultural production of space and the ways that the individuals orient themselves in these spaces. Here, I am engaging in several areas of scholarly reflection: Critical Black Geographies, queer phenomenologies of “orientation” articulated by Sara Ahmed (who delivered the 2023 Marta Sutton Weeks Lecture at the Stanford Humanities Center), and the need to rethink the ways we conceive of Europe, slavery, and empire during the eighteenth century.[8]

In terms of critical geography, I am tracking the movement of the chevalier, Nanon, and Georges through the dialectics of what Katherine McKittrick describes as Black (or otherwise racialized) spatial knowledge, negotiations, and resistances on the one hand, and geographies of domination—colonialism, slavery, imperialism, racial sexual displacement, social class hierarchy—on the other.[9] Geographical and anthropological studies attending to race are haunted by colonial epistemologies from the time of their infancy in the era of colonialism, enslavement, and imperialism.[10] Critical, decolonial approaches not only require acknowledging this history and provincializing North America and the modern era in Black geographical thought. Black Europe of today cannot be conceptualized without an abundant sense of diasporic movement, cultures, consciousness, and deep histories of race, religion, and more. How can spatialities of diaspora as an intellectual and experiential framework allow us to understand Black lives as figurative and literal movement, marked by contingency, exploitation, exclusion, and violence, but also cunning, creativity, outsized courage, persistence, and love in the face of these forces? What does the early modern era teach us about Critical Black Geography & about diaspora?

To be more specific, the diasporic and decolonial method I propose shows how Nanon exercised diverse spatial practices of Black motherhood, transforming spaces within the confines of a certain possibility. It also allows me to illustrate how certain cultural phenomena, such as that of celebrity, operate differently in various places—Paris vs. Versailles vs. London vs. Lille—and how they reconfigure when inflected with questions of race, gender, and sexuality. Sara Ahmed’s queer phenomenologies and emphasis on processes of orientation are key to my efforts to recover the lived experiences of the chevalier, Nanon, and George as they managed disorienting movement (or lack thereof, forced or voluntary) and, from the standpoints of their positionalities, manoeuvered to orient themselves in various spaces. As a Black Creole woman who was enslaved then nominally freed, but living in servitude, Nanon’s experience of space and the objects that allowed her to orient herself were drastically different from those of the other members of her anomalous family. These varied experiences and the life trajectories of Nanon, Georges, and their son Joseph make clear that it is time to radically rethink the ways we talk about European history during the eighteenth century. Rather than referring simply to sugar, tea, and coffee, which have long constituted the main references to colonial manifestations on the European continent, we must accept that there were also people—thousands of people from Africa, the Caribbean, South Asia, South America, and beyond—in port cities like Nantes, on the streets of Paris and London, at royal palaces like Versailles. The whitewashed vision of early modern European history and its iconic spaces must be revealed for its falsity, a perniciously nostalgic fantasy of an all-white past that simply was not. Studying individuals like the chevalier and Nanon in situ as they move allows us to reconceptualize spaces and histories along with them.

Lastly, the “graphical,” poetic, writing dimension of my autobiographical approach has particular stakes. Critical fabulation as formulated by Saidiya Hartman has become a current, if contested, methodology of recovering and writing histories of the minoritized and silenced. In my project, I have assembled a corpus of documents that includes a plethora of archival and print sources gathered through research here in the States as well as in archives all across France (including Guadeloupe) and England. All of this lends scaffolding that is necessary for a speculative historical construction. Yet when the archival trail runs completely dead for certain periods in Saint-George’s, Nanon’s, and George’s lives, I turn to the past conditional tense to reconstruct what could have been.[11] In embracing a poetic style, I am doing decolonial work to dismantle what Michael Lambek has called “the tired and misleading dichotomies (real/mythical, objective/ideological) by which Western history has imagined its distinctiveness and rationalized its disciplinarity.” I am also calling attention to the fact that “any form of history is composed; it therefore has a dimension of poiesis (from the Greek poiesis, meaning productive creation).”[12] I contend that new ways of telling impossible stories and writing impossible histories become possible at the crossroads of analysis, emotion, language, imagination, memory, and a genuine connection to the unfamiliar. The impossible becomes possible in us, if we are willing.

[i] Happily, the list of scholars thinking through the problem of archive, voice, and the writing of history is longer now than it ever has been. These are a few foundational texts for reference: Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); Michel Foucault, “Lives of Infamous Men,” in The Essential Foucault, ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: New Press, 2003); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257-337; Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe (2008) 12, no. 2: 1–14; Jennifer Morgan, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021); Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[1] Happily, the list of scholars thinking through the problem of archive, voice, and the writing of history is longer now than it ever has been. These are a few foundational texts for reference: Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995); Natalie Zemon Davis, Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); Michel Foucault, “Lives of Infamous Men,” in The Essential Foucault, ed. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas Rose (New York: New Press, 2003); Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (20030: 257-337; Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14; Jennifer Morgan, Reckoning with Slavery: Gender, Kinship, and Capitalism in the Early Black Atlantic (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021); Marisa Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).

[2] Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives, 5.

[3] Hartman, “Venus,” 3.

[4] See Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008)

[5] Robert Schneider quoted in David Nasaw, “Introduction,” American Historical Review 114 no. 3 (2009): 573–578, at 573.

[6] Nasaw, “Introduction”: 573.

[7] Special Issue: Biography, French Historical Studies 19, no. 4 (1996).

[8] I would like to thank the members of the Postcolonial Spatialities group at the Stanford Humanities Center for their insights and encouragement when I presented this approach in February 2022.

[9] Ahmed's lecture was entitled “Losing Your Hand: Complaint, Common Sense, and Other Institutional Legacies.” Her book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) as well as her extended written corpus are vital to my project.                                                    

[10] Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. x.

[11] For an analysis, see Camila Hawthorne, “Black matters are spatial matters: Black geographies for the twenty-first century,” Geography Compass 13, no. 11 (2019): 1-13.

[12] Lisa Lowe discusses the importance of the past conditional tense in recovering the experiences of the oppressed in Lisa Lowe, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), and in The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). I want to thank SHC Fellow Eve Oishi for recalling this to me in a discussion of my project.                                    

[13] Michael Lambek, “The Sakalava Poiesis of History: Realizing the Past Through Spirit Possession in Madagascar,” American Ethnologist 25, no. 2 (1998): 106-127, at 106.

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