Unsung Hero: Simon Gikandi

Simon Gikandi is Robert Schirmer Professor and Chair of English at Princeton University, where he is also affiliated with the Departments of Comparative Literature and African American Studies and the Program in African Studies. 

Simon Gikandi is a professor of English at Princeton. Gikandi writes about the relationship scholars have to historical archives, and questions whether it is possible to separate our reading of the past from our desire for a coherent, singular historical archive. In particular, Gikandi problematizes the status of the archive as it relates to the slave trade. At one level, there is the challenge of understanding the origins of the slave trade without the voices of Africans within the archive. Enslaved Africans were denied the ability to document their experiences, and thus they were denied the ability to participate as witnesses in the construction of shared memory. However, Gikandi is also skeptical about the tenability of the very idea of a historical “origin.” Understanding history as unfolding from origins, Gikandi thinks, depends on a flattened and false conception of the temporal structure of the archive. Against this conception, Gikandi proposes that we understand the archive as structured by three temporal modes: the time of the event, the time of the documenting or writing of the event, and the time of receiving or interpretation that recording. This structure complicates the idea of an origin: from the beginning, a historical event exists as witnessed and as reinterpreted, and our histories repeat that gesture of witnessing again and interpreting again. Perhaps the problem of the slave as witness marks not only the exercise of power, but also the instability locating origins in the archive.

“In spite of Baquaqua’s attempt to privilege the slave ship as a beginning, the literature of witnessing was always framed by three temporalities with different demands: there was the time of enslavement, then there was the recall of this time in writing, and then this time was reimagined in the scene of reading. Confronted with this tripartite structure, those trying to discern the point of Black beginnings in the Americas come face to face with the problem of the slave as a witness: where is the voice of the witnesses to be found?”

(Gikandi 90-91)

Suggested Readings: Rethinking the Archive of Enslavement (Article)


Thank you Katherine Fennell for another fire suggestion and write-up about a dope author!

Jayanne Forrest