I keep coming back to Barthes’ assertion that what power imposes in the first place is a rhythm (of life, thought, discourse, time). In this book, Zadie Smith explores this idea but gives it a spin: Black people had a place and a rhythm—the TA slave trade robbed black people of them. And of course that meant the imposition of other rhythms (capitalism, white supremacy, destruction of the earth), but those would reverberate globally, in an indefinitely unfolding manner. And how to you steal the rhythm of a people? Capturing their bodies.

Smith’s novel seems to suggest this: that the slave trade was a replicable instance of an ongoing act of capture, and that this act has to do with imposing rhythms and controlling bodies. And time. The replicas are not like the original—the slave trade no longer exists in its original form—but they are capable of infinitely reusing the same patent.

The theme of time interested me, because it appears to be the source of a subtle but ubiquitous anxiety in the book. Time meaning, its passing and its irretrievability, time as an expression of loss. Somehow I see this topic as inextricable to the treatment of an African diasporic subjectivity in this book. As a people, African diasporic subjects are always marked by the fact of their rhythm having been stolen, and here rhythm may also signify the possibility of retrieving the past by relying on a sense of consistency over time. Everything that disappears in the creation of a diasporic people, a violence against their time and their bodies.

But history has other temporalities, and these are, in contrast to History, available to black people. History can be heard and sensed and, of course, danced. This is what the protagonist is suggesting when she says:

“I think voices are like clothes,” I said firmly, as if it were an idea I’d been thinking about for years rather than something I was at that moment pulling from the air. “So if you see a photo of 1968 you know it’s ’68 from what the people are wearing, and if you hear Janis sing, you know it’s ’68. Her voice is a sign of the times. It’s like history or… something.”

Smith goes to obvious extents to ensure we don’t take the protagonist’s words—or her existence, really—very seriously. And yet something in the way she seamlessly demonstrates the knowledge necessary to place Janis’ singing voice in 1968, a small but telling intervention, gives away the importance of this comment. It seems to be saying: the relation between voice and historical time is so obvious even an accidental comment has room for it.

But history for someone like the protagonist of this book (semi-autobiographical?) is first and foremost something that happens in and is known and transmitted through the dancing body:

The kind of information I was looking for, which I felt I needed to shore myself up, I dug out instead from an old, stolen library book—The History of Dance. I read about steps passed down over centuries, through generations. A different kind of history from my mother’s, the kind that is barely written down — that is felt. And it seemed very important, at the time, that Tracey should feel it too, all that I was feeling

I ran all the way to her house, burst into her room and said, you know when you jump down into the splits … you know how you jump into a split and you said your dad can do it, too, and you got it from your dad, and he got it from Michael Jackson, and Jackson got it from Prince and maybe James Brown, well, they all got it from the Nicholas Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers are the originals, they’re the very first, and so even if you don’t know it or say you don’t care, you’re still dancing like them, you’re still getting it from them.

This made sense to me when i read it, pre Pugh, but a lot more after reading Pugh.

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