Lost and Found in Translation

Illustration by Wura-Natasha Ogunji. Cover design by Point Five Design.

By Michael Jackson

In the Fall of 2013, a doctoral student, Michael Lesley, gave me a Muzsikás CD on which several Romanian folksongs recorded by Béla Bartók in 1910 and 1912 alternated with the orchestral compositions he based on them. The folksongs stirred and affected me deeply. Bartók’s Romanian Dances had been background music to my life at twenty-one. But now, hearing these poignant, heartrending voices from a hundred years ago, from a world we know will be obliterated in the mid-twentieth century, I was overwhelmed. These blackbirds whistling in a summer forest, that remote voice struggling to be heard above the static of an inadequate recording machine, made me aware that even though our lives become lost in the ocean of history, something of our lifeworld survives, albeit fragmented, amputated, and transformed. For almost forty-five years, my ethnographic sojourns among the Kuranko of northeast Sierra Leone have provided me with similar insights into this uncanny phenomenon of cultural survival—folktales still told in Kuranko villages that reached the New World through the memories of Mande-speaking slaves, becoming part of the corpus of so-called Brer Rabbit tales, collected by Joel Chandler Harris and first published in 1868 and 1869; Kuranko field songs that instantly evoked a memory of Robert Johnson’s nasalized singing of the blues; a Kuranko word (barana) from which our word ‘banana’ derives. The contents of this current Bulletin bring home to us how much of Africa survived the Middle Passage and the centuries of degradation that followed. Though we will be forever haunted by the millions of lives destroyed in the process of creating a New World for a privileged few, significant strains in our traditions of music-making, preaching, divinatory and healing practices are traceable to West and Central Africa. Indeed, it is not far-fetched to claim that the Euro-American world is indebted to Africa for its very existence. Yet, while Africa’s vital presence is still felt in contemporary America, so the music, religion, and popular culture that flourished on this side of the Atlantic has found its way back to whence it came, finding expression in the Afropop, Rap, and Reggae you hear on the streets of Freetown, or the “jazz cosmopolitanism” of Accra that leads Ghanaian musician Nii Noi Nortey to declare, “John Coltrane is Africa,” adding that though Coltrane never got to visit Africa, he visits it spiritually every time local musicians play.

Through these Bulletin essays on the two-way traffic of the Black Atlantic, we realize that movement and migration have defined the human condition from time immemorial. Along with all living things, we move through life. By this I mean not only that we are all bound to die (it is only a question of when) but that we were all once migrants (again, it is only a question of when). Whether planned or accidental, desired or dreaded, the passage from one place to another, one life stage to another, or one state or status to another, often figures centrally in the stories we tell about our lives. Though we may hanker after hard and fast differences between self and other, human and animal, man and machine, male and female, these boundaries get blurred, transgressed, and redrawn. We morph and migrate, in and out of our bodies, in reality and in our imaginations. Our moments of rest are soon enough disrupted, our settled states disturbed, our minds distracted.

Although movement, metamorphosis, and mutation are in the nature of things, change does not merely befall us, like a bolt from the blue; it is often chosen and embraced, in the hope that we may be carried into a more fulfilling relationship with the world. Whether we construe the wherewithal of life as having wealth or health, fresh water or self-worth, love or lebensraum, food, family or a future—it tends to be characterized by scarcity. As a limited good it must be actively sought, struggled for, salvaged, and safeguarded. Critical to these processes of capturing or commanding life is a capacity to move to where life appears to be most abundant and accessible, or to orient oneself in such a way as to see what other possibilities may exist where one is. Migration, therefore, is but one expression of mobility as a survival strategy. And while mobility may cover activities that range between transhumance, nomadism, asylum seeking, and physical exercise to the movement of labor, capital, knowledge, music, stories, commodities, viruses, and medicines across the face of the earth, it also applies to phenomena like “social mobility” and those forms of the imagination in which we entertain such notions as the transmigration of souls, karmic rebirth, religious conversion, the cybernetic fusion of bodies and machines, or escape from a stultifying situation. Even when people agree on what constitute the minimal requisites for life—water, food, and shelter—these basic elements are conceptualized in widely divergent ways. No one lives by bread alone, and human beings will risk or even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of symbolic goods whose meaning cannot be reduced to the kinds of adaptive behaviors that enabled survival two hundred thousand years ago.

Mobility must, therefore, be understood existentially as well as phylogenetically. It is a metaphor for freedom as much as it is a means for accessing life-giving resources, and we learn from these essays that respect, recognition, honor, trust, prestige, autonomy, agency, love, and the ability to share one’s experience with others all emerge as vital sources of life. Equally compelling are the minor, fugitive, and often unremarked events that momentarily change a person’s experience of being-in-the-world—an expression of care or concern, an offer of sympathy, a small gift, or time spent with loved ones. Clearly, human consciousness itself is fluid, which is why we associate emotion with mood shifts, states of affective agitation, and sudden changes in our environment. The telling of migrant stories stirs deep emotions in the teller, but we are also moved, for such stories unsettle and problematize many of the discursive conventions with which we render the world intelligible, while broaching critical questions concerning the political, moral, and legal orders we invoke in laying down the conditions under which our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness is best guaranteed.

Michael Jackson, Distinguished Professor of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School, is the Bulletin‘s faculty advisor. His recent books include The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being (University of California Press, 2013) and Lifeworlds: Essays in Existential Anthropology (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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