Jonathan M. Howard

Andrew W. Mellon Undergraduate Fellow in the Humanities

20092010 Forum on Connections

Jonathan M. Howard

African Studies, English

College '10

The Atlantic Unimaginary: Sitting at the Dock of the Bay

National Anthems are for citizens. What song is there for men with no country? Otis Redding roamed 2,000 miles to make the dock his home. There he sang a song that might qualify, claiming no flag except the sails of the ships rolling in and away again. The sea overlooked by Otis’s dock is marked space of liminality. It is here that all of man’s constructions, having been so thoroughly naturalized, come to a startling and abrupt end. Here, man is faced with the world, so unlike that which he imagines for himself, for there is not a single flag, constitution, or anthem. Man’s encounter with this oceanic space is generally of two sorts. Those who knit the flag peer into the sea just enough to see their civilization reflected in it. Those who picked the cotton for its fabric conceive a different, more rigorous use of the sea. It was while sitting on the dock of the Chesapeake Bay and gazing at “those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white,” that Douglas concluded his “sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.” Thus, Douglas and Otis turn to the sea as those in Plato’s cave turn from the imaginary to the real—to flow past and un-imagine the boundaries that preclude them from complete access to humanity. My project, then, will examine the re-visitation, re-imagination, and re-appropriation of the ship and the space of the Atlantic more broadly as vehicles for identity construction in African Diasporic cultural production.