Cruelty and Money

In Zong M. NourbeSe Philip repeats a line “This is a story that can only be told by not telling.”(191). How is a story told without telling? Philip uses different techniques to tell this without actually telling it. Philip humanizes her writing “I mutilate the text…I murder the text.”(194) She is saying this because it was how the African people had been treated on the ship during the slave trade.

The fact that these people were objectified and had been listed as cargo was demoralizing. These were human beings that were put on a ship and became an object of trade. Many of the slaves on the ship were not accounted for and were categorized as if they were produce, the slaves had names that will never be remembered because they were considered objects. Philip states “They would be paid for murdering 150 Africans… Neither captain Collingwood nor those who had helped in the massacre could be charged with murder, since what was destroyed, being property, was not capable of being murdered.”(191). They had the ability to kill people without any consequences, basically killing innocent people for money. The way people were turned into objects showed how little they cared about these human beings just because the color of their skin and where they from.

The way this book is written is quite confusing, in Zong 1 the writing starts with the repeating of water and one day. Is it someone asking for water or is it describing the sea surrounding the ship? Many of the African people on the ship had died from thirst and starvation or other natural causes, but mostly they were killed for insurance money.


  1. What could the names at the bottom of the pages mean?
  2. Does Philip’s technique of writing have a different effect when reading? Why or why not.

13 Replies to “Cruelty and Money”

  1. Hi Chris! I agree that the way this book was initially set up was confusing. In the first 20 pages, I began to notice a theme of water (thirst), a ship (overboard, drowning), and an ominous atmosphere (there were many mentions of death and running out of time). I was very confused about what all of this meant. However, I made a note that the poems aren’t supposed to make sense, because racism doesn’t make any sense. I think the author’s goal was to confuse and disorient the reader.
    In the second part of the assigned reading, everything came together and started to make so much more sense. It was revealed that “The Zong” was a ship that carried many slaves. These slaves died of thirst, or from throwing themselves overboard and drowning. I thought that the use of this historical background combined with artistic and confusing poetry was a very interesting literary decision.
    The black people on this ship were killed for financial gain. They were seen as property, not people. Philip states “…neither Captain Collingwood nor those who had helped in the massacre could be charged with murder, since what was destroyed, being property, was not capable of being murdered” (191). I literally cringed when I read this because it was so disgusting. These people were stripped of any identifying traits, and seen only as a way to make money.
    Lastly, the thing I found most interesting about the reading was when Philip was discussing how she was going to go about writing the very book we are reading. On the bottom of page 193, she lists multiple options: whiting/blacking out words, mutilating the text just like the lives of the black people were mutilated, or murdering the text, which she describes in great, gory detail. I really appreciated the use of these metaphors in comparison to the many people who died.
    I definitely started off disinterested and confused with the writing, but by the end, I was angry and passionate and upset. I truly think that Philip has created a work of art with this book and her collection of poetry, coupled with devastating historical background.

  2. Hey Chris I really enjoyed your blog post!! I agree with you about them being seen as cargo and I am shocked that these people were treated as if they were nameless and even in a way faceless. They were seen as complete objects that were never respected as anything else. I had no idea there were names at the bottoms of the pages and I find that to be powerful, perhaps it is to show how little these people felt and to represent their unimportance. I think a valid quote that supports this claim as well is when the author states, “There was the this, the that, the frenzy, leaky seas, and casks negroes of no belonging on board”(29) These people belonged to nothing and truly felt like nothing it’s just so sad to even think about. This book is definitely different and difficult to read since the words are pretty scattered but I do like how unique it is and I can’t wait to read more!

  3. Hey Chris, I like how your blog focused on what ways Philips is connecting us and disconnecting us from the texts. I think from the very first page it seems confusing and as if we the reader are, “working to pull the page and larger ‘meaning’ together” (192). It is difficult to imagine long pages going on about a disgusting act of violence like this so for Philips to turn it art is really a brave move. By blocking out the text and only giving us these key words to follow page after page, we are forced to slow down and think about what is really going on here. The spaces on the page, “within the boundaries established by words and their meanings there are silences” (195). These silences are so important and it is forcing us to reflect on and respect the work being done on the pages with only just a few words and a lot of room for thought.

  4. Hi Chris, nice blog post! I agree with the fact that the author mutilated the text and utilized a hard-to-follow technique in order to demonstrate the way in which the lives of the slaves were mutilated. To answer your second question, the writing style definitely has an important effect on the reader. The poetry is fragmented and oddly spaced as a means of making it appear massacred, much like the slaves in the story. It is purposefully confusing because racism is hard to understand, and represents bits of memory from different perspectives. For example, in Zong! #5, each page formulates a circle out of short phrases in order to symbolize a never-ending cycle or feeling. The author writes, “water & weeks,” speaking about the victims overboard that we later learn about (8). It is the strange introductory sections that allow the reader to come to an overwhelming understanding at the end of the story when the details are filled in.

  5. Hi Chris! The book seemed super confusing to me too when I started reading the first few pages, but then it slowly came to me that this style of writing is actually very unique. Philip is trying to recount essentially, the massacre of the slave ship Zong, where slaves were thrown overboard in order for the captain to collect insurance money. The initial style of the book convinces me that the slaves are almost talking to me through the book. Their short and desperate cries are seen on the very first page, where ‘they’ can barely form a word, nevermind a sentence. However, i could truly hear their despair when they said “of months, of weeks, of days, of sustenance lying dead” (9). The lack of words and the tremendous amount of space is unique here. it is as if Philip is trying to convey that there is no amount of words he, the author can say in order to properly communicate the idea of despair during the tragedy. Instead, Philip works with the idea that only minimal, meaningful words are worthy of conveying the story of this happening.

  6. Hi Chris, I found your blog post was very interesting. I agree with you when I read the first couple pages of the book I was very confused. I had to reread it multiple times to try to understand. After rereading and finally understanding some of it, I realized it was set up in poems rather than a book set up like in the other section. The poems had to do with a boat that had gone overboard and people have drowned. In Zong! #3 states, “the some of negroes over board the rest in lives drowned exist did not in themselves preservation obliged frenzy thirst for forty others etc” (6). I think the point of this poem was to show the hurt and the African American lives lost. This book brings attention to racism throughout poems but also from stories of the ship, Zong in the 1700s. The story of the ship demonstrates the realness of racism and how it has been a problem for hundreds of years. The way Philip writes can be confusing but very powerful because it leaves the reader up to their own interpretation and imagination.

  7. Hi Chris! I really enjoyed you diving into the text to try to understand the deeper meaning of why Philip makes the choices she does in her writing. I agree that this text is quite confusing to understand. An interesting and important point that you made was the demoralization of the people who were on that ship. This begs the question of why these people were thrown off the ship? That brings me to their motivation, money. It is unfortunate that these humans were completely taken advantage of for the purpose of advancement for others. A piece I found interesting was “over board the rest in lives drowned” (Philip #3). This is very thought provoking, forcing us to remember that the African Americans thrown off the ship were in fact, people. And every life matters.

  8. Hi Chris! I agree that in the beginning, this is not an easy ready. From the words of the poems being scattered across the page to the heavy subject matter, the poems are clearly drawn from a dark place. In the first 20 pages I started to see a water being used as a symbol. Philip writes “Water rains & dead” (8). In a literal sense, the water is referring to the actual water the ship is sailing in, and the water the slaves with be thrown into to. The water can also be viewed as a symbol as obstacles that lie ahead for the surviving slaves, and as an abyss of despair for the slaves thrown overboard.

  9. Hey Chris, I really enjoyed reading your blog post! I would fully agree that the story is attempting to be told in a manner which it is also not told… altogether working to create a rather confusing writing style. Also, when Phillip states, “This is a story that can only be told by not telling” (191). Phillip most likely wants to tell the story like that because if it was explained simply on how it transpired, it would sound much like a history textbook. However, writing the story in this manner may invoke much more emotion for the reader, this is because with simply telling the story the reader may eventually become distracted or disinterested. However, with this writing style, the reader must pay full attention to the text, making it much easier for the reader to become interested and express emotion towards the issue/topic.

  10. Hey Chris! I too did notice that the book was a little wacky in the beginning and I had a very hard time trying to figure out what it as all about. I usually feel that an author has a specific purpose to how they choose to present their material. In this case, Philip presents her text in this manner in order to show racism is. The text presented doesn’t make sense and neither does racism. One section that stood out to me was where Philip states “of months, of weeks, of days, of sustenance lying dead”(9), this makes me feel depressed. I can literally feel the drag and the wait that these individuals have heavy in their hearts. The spacing along the page also allows for this affect on the reader. I think after getting used to these poems being set up like this I will be able to understand the deeper meanings within the text.

  11. HI Chris! I really enjoyed your blog post because I also had a lot of the same thoughts that you did when I was reading the book. To answer your second question, I think Philip’s style of writing, found poem, is utilized to make the reader think more deeply about what happened on the Zong ship. Instead of just writing a novel about what happened, Philip decided to turn the legal documents into poems because “the resulting abbreviated, disjunctive, non-sensical style of the poems demands a corresponding effort on the part of the reader to ‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding…” (198). The way the few words are scrambled around the page makes the reader ask questions about what’s happening and forces them to come up with their own conclusions. She wanted them to feel confused and uncomfortable when reading because that is how the African slaves felt when they were on the ship.

  12. Hey, Chris. I really enjoyed your blog post! I also like how you use Phillip to connect to us and disconnect to us. To answer your second question, the purpose of Philip’s found poem was to make the reader think more deeply and think critically about what happened on the Zong ship. Instead of just writing a banal novel about the Zong ship, Philip decided to turn the legal documents into vivid poems because “the resulting abbreviated, disjunctive, non-sensical style of the poems demands a corresponding effort on the part of the reader to ‘make sense’ of an event that eludes understanding…” (198). Great blog post, and good luck on your facilitation!

    – Makense Garcia

  13. Hi Chris, I love how you said “Philip humanizes her writing” because I couldn’t agree more. Philip emphasizes how wrong it was the people were treated and labeled which is a huge tie into everything we have read until this point. Philip said “of months, of weeks, of days, of sustenance lying dead” (9), and this truly highlights the sadness and despair we here throughout every page. The sadness comes with every person that is treated poorly and every person that is labeled differently. It is sad to live in a world where that is common, and something apparent to our everyday lives. The names at the bottom of the page remind me of the names in Citizen: An American Lyric when there is a single page served as a memory to each name and each citizen who saw unjust far too often, and I think the names at the bottom of the page also symbolize people that have been lost.

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