Catastrophes, wishes, and provision ground ideology

“…Catastrophe may reemerge from memory in the shape of a wish.”—Joseph Roach

Radar image of Hurricane Hattie at peak intensity prior to making landfall on British Honduras on October 30, 1961.

I feel that this is a quote that we have not yet unpacked so deeply in class. Even so, this piece of Roach’s discussion on performance, autochthony, allochthony, and origins stuck out to me. Maybe it’s partially the elegance of the phrase: the juxtaposition of starting with the heavy consonance and lexical drama of “catastrophe” and ending with a wistful “wish.” Plus, the evocations of “wish”, for me, are almost magical—of blowing out birthday candles and of coins dropped into fountains—and I think of our most treasured hopes and dreams.

Yet I do not want my love for Roach’s language to allow me to evade the conceptual (although I acknowledge how they work hand-in-hand.) For me, right now, this statement may mean different things, depending on who is performing the memory. One reading is that memory allows one or a group of people to transform the painful parts of an individual’s or group’s history into a glimmer or even celebration. Here, we could call to the contemporary context of the Mardi Gras Flambeaux Tradition. Yet another reading is that catastrophe can be evaded or even forgotten by the transformation of that catastrophe into a sentiment or abstraction to be used for a larger purpose. For this, perhaps we could call to the notion of using indigenous cultures to perpetuate certain nationalisms. I outline these contrary possibilities in order to highlight the both/and in our current discussions of memory.

I speak about Roach’s discussion of catastrophe, memory, and wishes in order to contextualize the poem we read on Monday, “The Hurricane Hits England.” The last line of Nichols’ poem implies that the rare North Atlantic hurricane, the “sweet mystery,” has “Come to let me know/ That the earth is the earth is the earth.” This poem—which recalls the destructive Hurricane Hattie that pummeled Central America in 1961—posits the North Atlantic hurricane as a sign of the power of nature and movement. Or, in other words, it notices “Old tongues/ Reaping havoc/ In new places.” These apparent evocations of the African diaspora, for me, also recall the concept of provision ground ideology.

Provision ground ideology was coined by Jamaican novelist and theorist Sylvia Wynter. It describes the way in which enslaved Africans claimed connection to plantation land based on the idea of sustenance—therefore allowing them to craft their own agency, articulate their humanity, and defy the “official ideology” that phenotypically defined their bodies merely as work tools. Much of this connection was harvested through song, dance, and celebration. In Nichols’ poem, the allochthonous hurricane about to strike the British coast is a sort of a wish, as it exemplifies the way that even the allochthonous can become autochthonous. This concept is central to provision ground ideology, since it parallels the way that enslaved Africans celebrated the land in they worked and lived as “the earth is the earth is the earth,” asserting their ownership to that land, too.

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