Literature 7-8-2022

Noting the Throat/La garganta, anotada

Thinking through speech and power with artist Allison Bolah and writer Zahra Patterson: how the legacy of colonization shapes how mouths form consonants and vowels, and how Diasporic Black artists activate polymorphic uses of language

Person with dark skin and slightly open mouth, photo cropped between their top lip and their throat.
1Allison Bolah, No Accident, 2012. Video still. Courtesy the artist.

In 1517, the Spanish missionary Bartolomé de las Casas, taking great pity on the Indians who were languishing in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines, suggested to Charles V, king of Spain, a scheme for importing blacks, so that they might languish in the hellish workpits of Antillean gold mines. To this odd philanthropic twist we owe endless events…

Jorge Luis Borges

It is not the Black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience.

James Baldwin

I’m Venezuelan by birth, though I’m told that as a little kid I had a Mexican accent; they dub children’s television in Mexico City. It was not until I moved to the United States that I consciously trained myself to drop my Ss like other Venezuelans. Because of cognates, my English is closer in tone to Frasier’s. I have a strong accent, and a small speech impediment. I do not sound like many other people.

There’s an absurdity to the essentialization of language: it’s a little frivolous to correct the noises made by the mouth to re-imagine one’s inner rumblings. There’s something even more absurd in the rectification of children’s voices. Even as a child, I was aware of an elusive sadism in the way I was corrected. This kind of culturally-sanctioned chastisement carries a record of communal relationships—parent to child, teacher to child, child to child, etc.

Allison Bolah, No Accident, 2012. Courtesy the artist.

The artist Allison Bolah engages with different, competing notions of community and aesthetics. The video installation No Accident takes us in alphabetical order through the “correct” pronunciations of common words. Like an ironic exercise in an accent and stutter reduction course, the frame does not allow the viewer to focus on anything other than Bolah’s mouth. We are left to observe various oral motions: the rounding of the O’s, the peaks and valleys of the U’s, the sharp kah of “cat,” and so forth. There’s a series of primary word associations, and through them there’s an eccentric poetry, one that underlines the absurdity of the exercise.

Through an examination of the middle-class roots of her accent, Bolah’s No Accident is able to discuss the (very) American circumstances under which Black people’s accents are formed and understood:

“…A ‘neutral’ North American accent is either prized for the doors it might open or reviled for its seeming alliance with whiteness. Indeed, accent as a marker of or challenge to ‘Blackness’ remains a significant dimension of my experience in all of the racialized spaces I encounter. As a child I was admonished for adopting my parents’ Caribbean accents and made to repeat Ts, ‘th’, and other sounds precisely.”1

In North America, being middle-class is understood as a personal achievement2 rather than a socioeconomic position. Because of its perceived virtue it is granted a prestige in democratic rhetoric.3 The original concept of a middle class, however, is designed in the specific image of the European “middle classes” that formed and expanded through the industrial revolution. It stands to reason that the public education systems of these countries (and subsequently that of their empires) formed in conversation with mass mechanization and mass consumption, essentially as managerial schools. This is apparent in the way that classes are structured. The caveat is that both in the United States and the Americas, education was, and still is, widely understood to be the “legitimate” path to the middle class, how that class aesthetic is properly absorbed.

It’s important to highlight ideas of class within the various discourses about language. “In my view—” notes Bolah about No Accident, “communication, and thus any language of art, is bound to community and context; creating and reading a work of art depend on both.”4 She elaborates that “To identify with a particular community is to consciously engage in the politics of one’s relationship to that community.”  

Unlike their English counterparts, there is a gap within the (white) North American mainstream discourses on the subject of class and voice. Asides from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History or The Goldfinch, I have not readily come across popular American literature that explores the role of syntax in American society. This is a particularly (and conveniently) odd neglect if one is to consider how a considerable sum of the white middle class audience is only three generations or four removed from refugees and economic migrants, and that those families often only had access to higher education after the G.I. Bill opened university doors to most white males of the G.I. Generation. In the many different Black artistic and literary discourses, however, the subject of voice appears and reappears. Bolah herself links her work with that of other Black writers and artists like Toni Morrison, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, and Kwame Anthony Appiah while simultaneously emphasizing her particular position:

“I think of myself as ‘diasporically’ Black and belonging to many communities throughout the African diaspora, particularly those in the Caribbean, North America, South America, and the United Kingdom…By excerpting, excluding, annotating, or otherwise altering them, I ponder the influence of the patterns or narratives of these shared places/spaces on community members’ lived experiences. Indeed, I have come think of my work as comprised of acts of citizenship within my various communities.”5

Diasporic recalculations of race have a particular relevance in the Caribbean, where plantation economies are constantly reinvented.6 It’s misleading for me, an individual, to speak for (or to) 30 million realities. Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that we as Venezuelans have a complex relationship to the concept of an African heritage:7 our history is clear, delineated through our cultural output. It appears we would like for it to be less so, and for the Black role to be limited to a distant cultural heritage that we’ve assigned.8 It’s a question of aesthetics: an inherited repudiation of our own Black aesthetics.

With this lens in mind, I admire certain notions of Pan-Africanism. Rather than regale to the distant past, there are non-Africans open to engaging with the continent without making a fetish of said place.9 The American writer Zahra Patterson’s Chronology, one of such engagements, highlights the personal conflicts inherent in an honest exploration of translation.

Beige book with bookmark on white surface.
Cover of Chronology. Photo courtesy the author.

Inspired in part by the Korean American artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictée, Patterson uses the personal—her friendship with the late Lesothan writer Liepollo Rantekoa—to explore the politics of the written Sesotho language and its translation within the 20th and 21st centuries. It is not simply a critique of orthographic politics because Patterson, through her diaries and personal emails, submits herself to evaluation.

As implied by the title, the book challenges sequential time: it opens with a 2011 email from Rantekoa and travels back, in diary form, through South Africa in the end of the noughties, and then, through library research, back into the early 20th century, to return to 2013 and beyond into the late 2010s. The fragmented narrative resembles some of the ideas behind paintings of American artist Julie Mehretu, in that in Patterson’s writing, like Mehretu, there is not an immediately apparent focal point from where one can comfortably relate back.10 The “correct”-ness we crave is absent.

The prefix in postcolonial implies a teleology, a “leaving behind” through a movement of time and thought. This subtle implication that through the postcolonial lens we can somehow move beyond the legacy of the colony is one of the many ways in which we, as thinkers, explicate ourselves from the dynamics that shaped our world. 

Can we leave the colony? Maybe. maybe not.

At the root of their conceit, American countries are colonial, and we as individuals and ethnic communities react in relation to that legacy. Who looks at a map and thinks otherwise? We tend to react with an idealism that might not be at all useful in retiring these structures: we carry so much of them; like the bacteria before us, we live in colonies. For us writers, the streams with which we traditionally come to knowledge seem to always have a muddy European tint. This, as Patterson points out, is reminiscent of the way that European linguists indexed South African languages in the early 20th century:

“One of the first reactions of the European explorers and colonists, on being confrontedb y a world that was wholly novel and outside the bounds of their experience, was to reorder it according to their existing structure ofk nowledge. This entailedi mposingt heir intellectualg rid on the unfamiliar masso f detailt hat surroundedt hem. Linguistic and otherb ordersa nd boundariesw ere erectedi n ordert o restructuret he Africanw orld in a way thatw ould make it more comprehensiblet o Europeans. Once linguistic expertsh ad anchoredl anguagess patially b y erecting b ordersa round regulationso f their grammar and vocabulary, t hey sought to stabilizet hem over time by tracing their historical roots.”11

If in their logic our counterarguments reflect their European origin, with absolutist claims to universality, are we unconsciously replicating that claim? Postcolonial theory has many addendums, and they conveniently get lost in translation through the undergraduate version that our most fashionable writers expound. In the game of justifying ourselves, we reproduce enough of the colony to keep on seeding the doubt: is the way that I speak, in fact, real?

A more useful action—Bolah and Patterson’s—for when we find ourselves in this state of being is to interrogate: what is my function? How are my values being reflected in what I’m reading? Like Saint Augustine before her, the most resonant moments in Patterson’s Chronology are not in theology but confessions. Towards the end of the book she has a “conversation” with theorist Gayatri Spivak. Patterson, in a state of doubt about her relationship to Sesotho, a language she does not fluently speak,12 asks questions to the paragon: “Gayatri, do you condemn me?” Spivak responds through quotes: what resonates to Patterson in the pages of “The Politics of Translation.” Suffice it to say that Patterson-Spivak castigates.13

Hand holds paperback book open.
Zahra Patterson in “conversation” with Gayatri Spivak. Photo courtesy the author.

In the early 2010s, and perhaps unaware, Bolah and Patterson collected and synthesized voice: its modifications, and their relation to a Diasporic Black identity. In a challenge to notions that appear concrete, they both speak to a specific concern about the role of individuals in the (polymorphic) presentation of language: the ideas behind how our throats are categorized in our public and private histories.

In short, please stop lecturing me about run-on sentences. I am aware.

Pages: 1 | 2


  1. Allison Bolah, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Community-Sourced Narratives and a Praxis of Contemporary Art, 2014. p.1

  2. Unlike in Britain, France, or all Latin American countries, where traditionally one is recognized as being born into their class and defined through it.

  3. One need only tune into C-SPAN to hear Democrats and Republicans alike discuss what can be done to protect the middle class, as though any real middle class made up the American polity.

  4. Allison Bolah, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Community-Sourced Narratives and a Praxis of Contemporary Art, 2014.

  5. Ibid., 2.

  6. From the exploitative tourist industries of the Antilles, to the literal plantations of Central America, to the Venezuelan economy’s dependency on oil, etc.

  7. On my mother’s side even more so, though often not acknowledged. Someone on that side of the family from a few generations ago was “Italian” long before the post-war European migrant boom. Maybe the alabaster skin tone of my upper-middle class maternal family, who have proudly been in the country since its inception seven or eight generations ago, quietly points to what Venezuela has been. Alternatively, in Jessica Mitford’s memoir, Hons and Rebels, Mitford points out how her aristocratic English father, Lord Redesdale, was not “prejudiced” in the contemporary sense of the word, as in his absolute contempt for all ethnic groups he was indiscriminate: “…In fact, he was in general unaware of distinctions between different kinds of foreigners. When one of our cousins married an Argentinian of Pure Spanish descent, he commented “I hear Robin’s married a black.’”

  8. Here, like in the Spanish edition of this article (although within a slightly different context than that edition) I am attaching a discussion that August Wilson had about how actions are understood in relation to race:


    “The Social Contract White America has given Blacks says ‘if you want to participate in the society you have to deny who you are; you can’t participate in the society as Africans. You can’t come and bring that African stuff’…  And I think if, in order to participate in American society, in order to accomplish some of the things which the black middle class has accomplished, if you have had to give up that self in order to accomplish that, then you are not making an affirmation of the value of the African being. You are saying that in order to do that I must become someone else, I must become like someone else.

    The example I always use is I was in the bus station in St. Paul, and I saw six Japanese Americans who were sitting down, having breakfast. And I simply sat there and observed them. And they chattered among themselves very politely, and they ate their breakfast. They got up and they paid the bill and they walked out. And I sat there, and I said, what would have been the difference if six black guys had come in here and sit down? What is the cultural difference? And the first thing I discovered is that none of the Japanese guys played the jukebox. So the first thing when six black guys walk in there, somebody’s going to go over to the jukebox, they’ll go and put a quarter in the jukebox. Somebody’s going to come up and say, “Hey, Rodney man, play this.” And he’s going to say, “No, man, plan your own record.” You know. “Hey, I ain’t playin’ with you. Don’t play my record, man. Put your own quarter in there.” And the second thing I noticed, no one said anything to the waitress. Now, six black guys, “Hey, mama, what’s happening, what’s your phone number?” “Naw, don’t talk to him, he can’t read, but give me your phone number.” The guy’s going to get up to play another record, somebody’s going to steal a piece of bacon off his plate, he’s going to come back and say, “Man, who been messin’ with my food? I ain’t playin’ with you all, don’t be messin’ with my food.” When the time comes to pay the bill, it’s going to be “Hey, Joe, loan me a dollar, man.” Right?

    So if you were a white person sitting observing that, you would say they don’t know how to act, they’re loud, they don’t like one another, the guy wouldn’t let him play the record, the guy stole food off his plate. But if you go to them six guys and say, “What’s the situation here?” you’ll find out they’re the greatest of friends and they’re just having breakfast the same way the Japanese guys had breakfast, but they do it a little differently. This is just who they are in the world. They cannot not do it like that, because that’s who they are.”

  9. My Latin American readers will no doubt be familiar with the type of American authors (Anglo-Saxon, Latino, or Black) who enforce their fetish in Latin American politics. There’s a family of traits that identifies a fetish: a celebration of the “liberation” politics of governments that are clearly dictatorships (audible cough), an emphasis on a particular political lens that eerily resonates the truisms of American politics, a disinterest in counter-testimony and dialogue, a romantic drive through Havana, Guayaquil City, or a non-descript Brazilian favela, an ambiguous interest in Cold War politics, etc.

  10. Opening-Day Talk: Julie Mehretu in conversation with Glenn Ligon and Kemi Ilesanmi, 2021.

  11. Zahra Patterson, Chronology, p. 67, citing “The Roots of Ethnicity: Discourse and the politics of Language Construction in South-East Africa.” By Patrick Harries, African Affairs, vol. 87, issue 346, p.26.

  12. Patterson’s unsuccessful translation of the writer Lits’oanelo Yvonne Nei’s “Bophelo bo naka li maripa” is one of the points of origin for Chronology.

  13. My own favorite Spivak quote is from an online article: “[Wearing a t-shirt of the Mona Lisa with a maatha patti and a nose ring] This shirt is horrible. Someone gifted it to me on the way here. I don’t have anything else to wear to the gym. It’s all wrong. Its politics is all wrong.”

  14. Allison Bolah, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Community-Sourced Narratives and a Praxis of Contemporary Art, 2014. p.1

  15. Cuando Bolah habla sobre la “comunidad” se refiere a grupos étnicos conectados por experiencias comunes.

  16. Tradicionalmente en los EE. UU. la literatura a sido segregada por sus razas prominentes. Por ejemplos y clarificación sobre este fenómeno y sus efectos culturales uno puede leer Black Literature and Literary Theory (tr: La literatura negra y la teoría literaria) del académico Henry Louis Gates Jr.

  17. Libros como The Great Gatsby, The Other Side of Paradise, The Goldfinch, o The Secret History.

  18. Allison Bolah, Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Community-Sourced Narratives and a Praxis of Contemporary Art, 2014. p X-2.

  19. Como vehículo turístico, petrolero, etc.

  20. Tengo una amiga (llamémosla Maite) con la que atendí la universidad aquí en los EE. UU. Fuimos (casi) los únicos venezolanos en el instituto, lo que conllevo a una amistad más espontanea de la que quizás hubiéramos tenido naturalmente. Maite tomo un examen de 23andMe. Le sorprendió que 93% de su composición genética era derivada de Europa. La confusión tenía en parte que ver con la idea que se nos presenta de niños en Venezuela sobre el ser mestizo.


    Mi papá, por el otro lado, también se considera como mestizo criollo, y no se necesita examen para confirmarlo. A él le causa confusión la afinidad que presento con la negritud estadounidense. En la cultura en la que yo crecí y que ha influido mi modo de pensar (la americana) no soy negro, pero tampoco no soy negro. Si mi familia fuera gringa, por mi color de piel sería considerado afroamericano.

  21. Si existe algo como una Latinoamérica unida, existe en la historia distante: Se podría argumentar que yace en relación con la economía del sistema de hacienda, a la breve esclavitud y subyugante marginalización de los indígenas, y la esclavitud común de los negros. La idea del mestizaje como un aspecto celebre de la cultura latinoamericana tiene sus bases en los discursos intelectuales de la segunda y tercera década del siglo veinte. Tome un curso en donde tuvimos que leer el texto originario del mestizaje: Escrito por José Vasconcelos, La raza cósmica, aparece poco después del fin de la revolución mexicana (1925), y en contra de la teoría eugénica de la raza, describe la “quinta raza” mestiza que existe como la emergente síntesis perfecta de las razas mundiales. No toma Nostradamus para ver el conflicto de interés. La lógica es que la mezcla racial naturalmente disminuye los rangos “inferiores” de cada raza. De nuevo, no toma Paul Bocuse para ver como esta influyente antítesis al racismo se cocina en su propia grasa.

  22. No quiero implicar que sean cosmologías completamente diferentes: Los Estados Unidos es, después de México, el segundo país con más hispanohablantes del mundo. Las idiosincrasias de los varios países latinos le añaden otro componente a la raza en los EE. UU.

  23. Mis lectores latinoamericanos sin duda reconocerán el tipo de autor norteamericano (sea él o ella anglosajona, latina, o negra) que presentan fetiches personales como si fuera latinoamerica. No hace mucha falta explicar, porque sin duda si no los conocen, los pueden llegar a conocer.

  24. Zahra Patterson, Chronology, p. 67, citando “The Roots of Ethnicity: Discourse and the politics of Language Construction in South-East Africa.” por Patrick Harries, African Affairs, vol. 87, issue 346, p.26.

Alcibíades Elián

Alcibíades Elián reads books and writes about art. …   read more