The Meaning of Death


I have been busy, again, this month. UTAS – the University of Tasmania – has been offering free units and one in particular piqued my interest.

The Meaning of Death:

“This subject will take you on a rich, challenging and stimulating journey through Literature, Philosophy and History. We explore some of the many ways in which death inspires great art, determines history and defines life.”

It looks like it’s going to be an interesting one – considering death from not only a philosophical standpoint, but also a literary and historical one as well, and in my first week I am not disappointed. But what has been the most amazing has been the parallels with my own writing and recent research. Of all the possible subjects, our first lecture is entitled “Death and the Black Literary Imagination”. The “Black” here is African-American, not Tasmanian Aboriginal, and yet I suspect that many of the issues faced are experienced on both sides of the Atlantic.

The matter in particular that interested me was the way in which death comes across in African-American writings. Death is not seen as an end to life, as many in our Euro-Western world would see it. Rather death is seen as an escape, a freedom from the intense hardships of life, a passage into the life-that-comes-after.

I suspect that most, if not all, readers know at least something about African slavery, and the way in which the slaves were treated by their white masters, and the horrific conditions they lived in (is this a generalisation? Were there ‘good’ masters, ‘good’ living conditions? I don’t know enough about the topic to be so specific). It was not uncommon for African women to become pregnant by their white masters. As I have learnt this week, many women killed these children whilst still in the womb.

What readers may not know about is the experiences of the Tasmanian Aboriginal women, stolen by the Sealers – a group of men living on the Bass Straight Islands, occupied in the task of killing seals for their oil and pelts.

The men were left on the islands for months at a time, dropped off by larger ships and left to their own devices, the ships returning to pick up the ‘catch’ and drop off much needed supplies. And how did these sealers survive? They stole (and in some cases, traded for) women from the Aboriginal bands all along the north coast of Tasmania. These women were treated as slaves – often receiving brutal punishments for not obeying the Sealer’s orders, and generally used however the Sealer saw fit.

The Tasmanian Aboriginal women also fell pregnant to the sealers, their white masters. There are reports of these women beating at their stomachs to kill the child within. There is no explanation sought or given as to why they would do this – aside from some assumptions that they hated ‘mixed-blood’ babies. For example, Nicholas Brodie notes one instance of an Aboriginal tribe supposedly so strongly disapproving of a ‘half-caste’ child that they threw the infant on the fire. (‘From ‘Miss Dalrymple’ to ‘Daring Dolly’: A life of two historiographical episodes’ Aboriginal History: Vol 38 Shino Konishi (ed.), (2015, Canberra) p.90)

On the other hand, there are accounts of why the African women killed their babies; because life was so unbearable, and death was seen, not only as an escape from the terrible life of slavery, but also a passage home, to Africa. Our lecture included readings of poetry by Grace Nichols – from her book ‘I is a long-memoried woman’ – heartwrenching poems of mothers who chose to set their unborn child free rather than bring them into a life of hopelessness.

And so I ask myself – did the Tasmanian Aboriginal women have the same reasoning? Was it not a ‘hatred’ of mixed blood children, but rather a desire to ensure their children did not face the same existence they themselves had been trapped in?

And finally, here is a quote from one of the readings for this first week:

“The point is too important: for black and white… writers, in a wholly racialised society, there is no escape from racially inflected language, and the work writers do to unhobble the imagination from the demands of that language is complicated, interesting, and definitive.” Toni Morrison, ‘Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination’ (1992, USA) pp.12-13

I love that idea – writers ‘unhobbling’ the imagination from the constraints of language – and I can only hope that I have been successful in that task in my own writing.

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