I saw a man arise, an he was big an black an powerful---but his head was caught up in th clouds. An while he was agazing at th heavens, heart filled up with th Lord, some little white-ant biddies came an tied his feet to chains. They led him t th coast, they led him t th sea, they led him across th ocean an they didn’t set him free. The old coast didnt miss him, an th new coast wasn’t free, he left the old-coast brothers, t give birth t you an me. –Jean Toomer,"Esther," Cane
...what I was trying to do as a cultural historian was to narrate a certain impossibility, to illuminate those practices that speak to the limits of the most available narratives to explain the position of the enslaved. On one hand, the slave is the foundation of the national order, and, on the other, the slave occupies the position of the unthought. So what does it mean to try to bring that position into view without making it a locus of positive value, or without trying to fill in the void? –Saidiya Hartman, "Position of the Unthought"
Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur (With the name changed, the story applies to you).
We begin with the word "archive" and what Derrida names as its archive: arkhē, the name that enfolds both the place where things "commence" and the place where "men and gods command." Continuing in “Position of the Unthought” (2003) the archival critique she began years earlier with Scenes of Subjection (1997), Saidiya Hartman condemns as "obscene" the research of scholars in the 1970s and 80s who essentially commanded slavery's archive to reveal the "agency of dominated groups" and interpreted the archive's contents as evidence of what Hartman contends never existed: an autonomous space that the enslaved “could carve out of the terrorizing state apparatus in order to exist outside its clutches." For instance, John Blassingame's The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1972) interprets "folk tales and secular songs" as evidence that the "rigors of bondage did not crush the slave's creative energies." Similarly, Sterling Stuckey's Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (1987) reads the ring shout and other sonic and kinetic practices as spaces beyond white people's reach. And Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (1987) concludes that "enslaved persons “created and maintained a world apart which they shared with each other and which remained their own domain, free of control of those who ruled the earth.” Hartman contends that such scholarship represents and feeds an ongoing national desire “to still feel good about ourselves” amid the “ravages and the brutality of the last few centuries." Even worse, she avers, is the fact that the work refuses to recognize the “paradox of agency” that informs the captive’s “existence in the space of death.” For Hartman, in other words, the archive reveals one thing over and over: bondage so limited agency that “negation” became the “central possibility for action.” "[V]ery few political narratives can account for that," Hartman acknowledges. Very few can actually handle it.
As art, however, Percival Everett’s Zulus (1990) anticipates Hartman's conclusion. Not only does Zulus handle the archive's negation, but the novel brings readers to literal grips with it as well. Rewriting Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) and Frederick Douglass's 1845 and 1855 autobiographies, Zulus traces protagonist Alice Achitophel's quest for agency through archives made of mud, music, waste, and more. Forcing her to endure jumbled versions of the gendered anti-black violence that impels Toomer's and Douglass's texts, Alice's quest through archives transforms her into an archive produced through her very flesh and compels her to serve all at once as what Derrida calls the "house arrest," "institutional passage," and "substrate" necessary for the archive to "take place." Pressed thus into archival service, Alice is compelled forever to learn that in the space of death, negation of the human agent reads as the only agency possible. This archival truth sets no one free, for to finish Zulus is to actually close Alice within the book's covers, to catch her within and as the novel's A-Z archive. In the end, then, Zulus suggests that those who would attempt to command slavery's archive must confront the captivity of those who remain in and whose remains are the archive: wound unhealable and void unfillable.
Zulus’ critics explore the novel’s investment in a vast array of human themes and concerns. Keith B. Mitchell, for instance, attends to how Everett imagines a Bakhtinian carnivalesque whose tragicomedy both “interrogate[s] corporeal and identity politics that often paint overweight and pregnant women as inhumanly grotesque” and signals a grand archive comprising the works of François Rabelais, William Shakespeare, Lawrence Sterne, and Miguel de Cervantes. Examining the novel’s sporadically scrambled words (e.g., “lavendor” for “lavender”; “condickshun” for “condition”) that masquerade as mere typos, Sylvie Bauer reads Zulus as inquiring into “the place of language in a world doomed to die.” And Patrycja Kurjatto-Renard concludes that Zulus’ circularity guides readers to “the motif of the dead end--dead both in the literal and in the metaphorical sense” that paradoxically represents the “only way” that Alice may exit the Platonic “cave which stands for the world.”
Even when attending to the dead end, however, contemporary scholars have tended to overlook how Zulus rewrites Cane, the composite novel powered by a romantic, messianic archival drive. Recording a culture “leaving, soon gone” during the Great Migration as an “epoch’s sun declines.”Cane loops from rural south to urban north and back again in an attempt to transform slavery’s bloody archive into red-glowing vitality. Southern sunsets flame upon brick-colored Georgia clay. A scarlet moon presages a slit throat and fiery lynching. Slavery-sourced blood invigorates Washington, D.C. whiteness but provides no “crimson-splashed” rebirth for black people who have fled north. Interpreting this sanguinary archive as gorgeous lyricism is the book’s redemptive, preservationist narrative perspective, that of a just “in time” messiah driven to save what slavery left behind: an archival “last plum” that might be coaxed to yield “[a]n everlasting song” and “singing tree” transforming bloody “songs of slavery” into forever fruitful beauty.
By the end of the Cane-closing play Kabnis, however, the redemptive drive fails. Kabnis casts that failure not as the fault of the uninterrogated drive but of the inexperienced, “weak and afraid” (112) Ralph Kabnis, northern poet who has become figuratively “stuck” in Georgia’s “red mud” and “cant (sic) get out." Kabnis longs to use beautiful words to represent the archive’s “dead things moving in silence,” but he cannot get free of ubiquitous southern “pain-pollen.” He perspires fearfully at the very rumor what Hartman would recognize as the “terrorizing state apparatus” that in Kabnis renders black life fungible and black labor a tautological, fruitless something to do amid overwhelming violence about which little can be done. Kabnis trembles upon learning of lynchings and the fact that the state’s white vigilante surrogates stand capable of flaying the pregnant Mame Lamkins and nailing her fetus to a tree. At the same time, however, he believes romantically that the archive can be made to yield something beyond terror and death; indeed, he demands as much from the immobilized Father John, the old man whom the play figures as “symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past.” As this living but “dead already” archive, Father John sits, archived, in a basement “hole.” He says nothing but the word “sin” over and over in an unchanging loop that infuriates Kabnis, who presumes that the elder stubbornly withholds some magic that will transform both the poet and his art.
Cane suggests that Kabnis could draw such magic could be drawn from Father John, but only if Kabnis could exercise enough agency to unite with Lewis, the northern stranger whose cerebral cool complements Kabnis’s fleshly, perspiring heat. Lewis is himself drawn to Kabnis. But like the almost-touching paratextual arcs that preface Kabnis, the men fall short. Kabnis suppresses a “sudden need to rush into” Lewis’ arms. And when Kabnis holds a grotesque basement party with “no good-time spirit,” Lewis finds the revelers’ pain to be too much to handle, a realization that sends him "plung[ing]...out into the night." Lewis is thus not around to guide Kabnis the next morning when Father John finally reveals the long-desired more. Much to Kabnis’s rage and disappointment, however, the old man utters only a different version of what he’s said all along: “Th sin whats fixed…upon th white folks—f tellin Jesus—lies. O th sin th white folks ‘mitted when they made th Bible lie.” Black death and white culpability for the fatal wound is the truth that only Father John accepts. Even Cane itself turns quickly away from it as Kabnis in the final scene leaves the old man behind as “nascent mother” Carrie K calls upon Jesus and rosy sunrise “sends a birth-song slanting down gray dust streets and sleepy windows." Birthing itself in perpetuity as fruitful lambency born of obscenity, Cane’s lyricism insists in “THE END” that readers (and perhaps Toomer himself) move on and forget Father John—slavery’s archive archived—remains in the basement alone.
Zulus shakes and deranges Cane's characters, representations, images, and structure as if Toomer's novel is merely a cache of so many archival objects. For instance, Zulus also elegizes a dying humanity “leaving, soon gone,” this time as a result of chemical and nuclear war. Reversing Cane’s geographic loop, Zulus churns dizzyingly from city to country and back. Where the former turns within a series of non-verbal paratextual arcs, the latter spins beneath 26 abecedarian chapter headings alluding to everything from Mediterranean antiquities to Abrahamic religions. From “A is for Achitophel” through “Z is for Zulus,” this allusive archive testifies as Cane does to the circulation of Atlantic slavery’s philosophical and religious foundations, records the peculiar institution’s centrality to modernity, and oversees a plot oozing with archival red. For example, a deep landscape “scar” filled with “blood mud” grips like Georgia clay and slashes the liminal zone between city and country to record war’s afterlife. A sky stained permanent red presides over blast and ruin, testifies to humanity’s metaphorical sunset, and distributes war’s atmospheric record through toxic airborne particles that are ubiquitous as what Toomer termed southern “pain-pollen.” Repeating and revising Cane’s sanguinary haze, Zulus both envisions a successful coming to grips with the archive and confronts the limits of that success, as well.
Towards this doubled aim, Zulus jumbles Kabnis’s constituent elements (including gendered ones) and restages them as the revised drama of Alice Achitophel, protagonist who struggles with an absurd archival messianism. Much like Ralph Kabnis, Alice is both insider and outsider in a world where state violence transforms life into fruitless tautology. Chapter A (“for Achitophel”) introduces Alice as a timid person dwelling alone in a nameless city where state-sponsored billboards remind war-stunned people that they “NEED SOMETHING TO DO.” In that she exists on tea, government cheese, and the occasional contraband (rotten) fruit that lures state “goons,” Alice goes through the motions exactly as other citizens do. At the same time, however, she experiences a far different relationship than most do to institutional violence. A fertile, fat woman who refused to report for state-mandated sterilization, Alice alone fears discovery and punishment because the government claims that her “enormous and state-ridiculed body” takes up too many resources in a scant world. But when terrifying events make Alice a fugitive, she paradoxically becomes possessed with romantic dreams incommensurate with the awful evidence before her. As the book opens, a man rapes Alice, who perceives immediately that she is experiencing a pregnancy accelerated by war’s effects. Mournfully, she predicts the birth of a lonely “Messiah” girl, the last fruit of a violent world that has made children into past memory. However, pregnancy also prompts Alice to fantasize “a rebel mountain camp” overflowing with agency. Inspired by the vision, Alice destroys a supercilious neighbor’s property, but her paroxysm of resistance soon dissolves into terror when the neighbor threatens to call the police. She fears that the city government will imprison her, cut the baby out, and “kill it, kill everything.”
Alice's not-unjustified terror impels her to run, reversing Cane's geographical trajectory and embarking upon a series of looping labors that confront her repeatedly with the archive's truth. "Tiny" rebel Theodore Theodore, "perfect" paramour Lucinda Knotes, and "black man" Kevin Peters help the "fat woman" flee towards a rural rebel camp. To avoid government patrols, the travelers enter the scarlet canyon of the scar and daub themselves with its camouflaging “blood-mud.” Because it thwarts state helicopter surveillance, the scar's deep repository of “smoldering earth, time, flesh, and dreams” seems to promise that the archive offers freedom “outside the terrorizing state apparatus.” But when Alice becomes drawn to and repelled by the scar's “red juices” and “bright, fresh red silt,” Zulus marks the promise as dangerous. Ralph Kabnis gets stuck figuratively in Georgia clay, but Alice Achitophel gets stuck literally in the bloody channel. She cannot move, so Kevin Peters tries to extract her. An experienced traveler long familiar with the scar, Kevin bears a chest-spanning dehiscence recording a suicide attempt after his family death during the war. With comic resourcefulness, he claims that a hand thrust forth from the archival “red slime” grasps Alice’s neck. She surges with terror and bursts free from the gucking vaginal walls in a birth-like liberation that seems testimony to agency, including the sometimes-humorous, improvisatory resistance celebrated in the research that Hartman criticizes.
However, Zulus quickly exposes the folly of such romance by indicating that expulsion from the scar augurs nothing but Alice’s [re]birth as a captive to be flayed. As the fugitive group nears its destination, Theodore reports that he hears that the camp is a paradise where people neither wander fruitlessly “from place to place for meaningless assigned tasks” nor fear goons or punishment. Such rosy stories invoke Cane yet again, resembling as they do the labor agent narratives that during the Great Migration drew to the north black people who had already been expelled by southern terror. When the travelers first see the place, it seems indeed to be as advertised. Within a “valley of rowed trees and streams” nestles a village replete with smiling “black and white and Asian and Indian” people, brightly painted houses, farm animals, and fresh fruit abundant enough for gift baskets. It is a lush outpost that represents a welcome, vital reprieve from the city’s grey desperation and banal “CHEESE, OUR FOOD” billboards. Tellingly, Kevin Peters refuses to enter the outpost. His refusal is soon revealed as wise, for the camp's fruitful veneer belies the rebel truth. Like the city dwellers, the rebels endure fruitless sex. And they offer no haven from state violence. Indeed, the rebels are nothing but state violence. For contrary to Alice’s romantic, organic fantasy, the rebels have an “insurgent government” known as the Body. Composed of Body-women and Body-men, black and white, the Body is symbolized by flesh: “a large animal’s hide, nailed wide and flat, flesh-side outward and hide smeared with alum and salt." At one level, the hide recalls the outdoor arts (e.g., woodcraft, fishing, hunting) referenced frequently in Everett's work. But when considered through Cane’s archive, the hide’s flesh recalls anti-black terrorism, including the actual 1915 Georgia lynching of the pregnant Mary Turner, the crime upon which Toomer based Mame Lamkins' story. Through such nested allusions, Zulus foreshadows how Alice will be transformed from an individual person possessed of a stigmatized, targeted body to fungible, flayed flesh. Ontologically, Alice will be changed into a slave.
There is interpretive danger here, of course. Everett’s notorious and self-described “cranky” authorial utterances have been read as warning readers to avoid using slavery’s archive as an interpretive framework; at the same time, though, those same utterances suggest that refusing the hermeneutic may be more problematic still. It is true, of course, Everett has excoriated editorial, critical, and market forces that attempt to compel black writers to hew to easily commodified representations of “inner-city” life, “rural farmers,” or “slaves.” It is true as well that within Everett’s oeuvre Zulus stands as one of the works that does not identify the protagonist's putative racial identity; indeed, Zulus refers repeatedly to Kevin Peters as “the black man” but provides no information about Alice’s “race” other than to imply that she is not black. It is also true, however, that Everett has lambasted what he calls “simple-minded” reading unable (or unwilling) to “read symbolically” and recognize his novels’ general themes of “alienation, the division of and search for a family and a search for spiritual location” as “central to the African-American experience." And so even as it remains important not to reduce Everett’s aesthetic- and culture-spanning work to essentialist preconceptions of what black writers should and do write, it is also important not to avoid slavery's archive as among the many archives from which Everett draws his art.
Casting such avoidance as repugnant and impossible, Zulus asserts that slavery reads as so central to modernity that the state will attempt to preserve itself by using the archive to reanimate some version of the ancient art, revised for current circumstances. Moreover, Zulus warns, the state will do so through a particularly modern process, one that "lose[s] at least gender difference in the outcome": that which Hortense Spillers terms the “pornotroping” that transformed black “personality” into ungendered thing: the “property” of flesh. To illustrate this point, Zulus demands that readers witness how Alice endures unmistakable echoes of the nonconsensual medical violence to which questing, methodological white doctors subjected black women. Specifically, the Body submits Alice to a violent, shaming examination redolent of what Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid document as the anti-black foundation of modern gynecology amid slavery’s longue durée. Zulus here revises Cane once again. In interpreting southern sights and sounds, Kabnis had presumed that all incipient violence would be aimed at him personally. But when Alice appears before the skinned hide that symbolizes the Body, she does not understand that the sign might be aimed at her. She does not entertain the possibility that violence will turn her personhood into fungible flesh whose very existence will be read as requiring investigation and what the text terms “gauging.” Using the language of modernity’s legal and medical method, Body-women and Body–men interrogate Alice, learn of her pregnancy, and demand that the condition be “verified.” This “validation”  comes from doctors who, ignoring the fact that Alice wants to bathe, turn around to claim in disgust that she smells. Leering at her belly’s “size” and “promise,” they cut away her “bloomers” and enter her vagina with all of their hands all at once. Derisively, they declare her “intact” and “normal enough inside.” They do all these things without consent, without empathy, and, in archival language, “without note” for the fact she is crying. In these ways, the Body begins to turn Alice into a repository of “seared, divided, ripped-apartness” that, according to Spillers, became modernity’s “primary narrative” of captivity and commodity bound and packed within a single, enigmatic clause. “[B]efore the ‘body,’" Spillers writes, "there is the flesh.” Because before churns with temporal (i.e., preceding) and spatial (i.e., in front of) polysemy, Spillers’ formulation illuminates how blackness has been made to serve both as modernity’s precondition and its continual, structuring, (di)splayed abjection. Both “fat” and a woman state-stigmatized and state–targeted, Alice already feared being sent to a “reduction” camp; the experience of being black, however, was beyond her. But the exam reduces her humanity in a way that Zulus indexes explicitly to slavery’s archive. [Re]producing and reducing what they see as Alice's vast body as nothing but flesh, the Body inaugurates a process that brings Alice ever closer to what Christina Sharpe has termed the “shame, violence, etc. that black bodies are made to wear." Covering Alice with “the shadow of blackness,” the Body, to borrow Sharpe’s words, begins to “blacken” her, not physically but ontologically.
This ontological processing presents both Alice and Zulus’ readers with hermeneutic dilemma: how ought one to read the human violence recalled by archives in general and slavery's archive in particular? Like the earthquakes that rattle the rebel camp, this crisis shakes Alice’s faith in herself, state power (including her mistrust of it), and interpretation. We do not employ the word “faith” idly here, for as J. Kameron Carter observes, the anti-black transformation of body into flesh is an essentially religious and theological process that reads as a “kind of transubstantiation.” Imagining how the poisoned world might affect the baby, for instance, Alice considers if the government was right in mandating sterilization. She ruminates uncertainly on the unexplained “something important” that Kevin Peters knows about the Body, a something that causes him to refuse them “in spite of their glowing adoration, in spite of their smiling and cheering and chanting his name.” Messianically, she fancies her child as a savior who would “reign in some fashion” at the same time she wonders anxiously if the rebels would “nail her enormous hide to the Body Chamber wall” after they removed from her “the life they sought.” In other words, Alice is torn, a divided emotional state that foretells imminent physical flaying. But despite the situation's urgency, she cannot read the auspices. Indeed, to see rebels bearing torches, tree limbs, and other “debris” brings Alice only mild anxiety that prompts her to ask Lucinda if the camp has “any religion. Later, Kevin Peters will immediately recognize the signs of “religious frenzy,” the kind that has spurred Maenads and lynch mobs to dismember limbs of flesh as well as wood. But Alice cannot see what's on the horizon. In the city, she lived as person and citizen, illusory statuses that arguably sheltered her from historical knowledge and experience that would help her discern what the toxic sunset heralds. Shame, ridicule, rape, and flight have failed to provide the needed hermeneutic, and thus when Lucinda responds to the fugitive’s question with an ominous “Not yet” Alice does not realize that she should again run.
But when the slavery language of the state flays and [re]births Alice's flesh as the archive itself, run she does. Returning once more to echo and revise examples of white supremacist violence against black women, Zulus invokes Mame Lamkins and represents the archive’s violence as stomach churning and heart rending, literally and figuratively. After the rebels lock Alice in a small building resembling Kabnis’ Georgia cabin, Body-woman Rima flatly transforms the captive’s unique personhood into fungible property, and does so in stark, "simple" language that, invoking the experience of pornotroped flesh, cannot be paraphrased:
You are a vehicle and nothing more, an anywoman, and you just happen to have been raped, you instead of some other unfortunate. It was fat luck, Alice, and no promise of specialness of yours. You will be treated as the thing you are and we will take the life you offer.
Rima’s predicates emphasize the Body’s agency and the captive’s abjection. Passive and acted upon, Alice can neither “treat” nor “take.” She simply is: object, commodity, thing. Zulus drives the point home when Alice yells “I’m not a slave” and furthers her disavowal by imagining herself not as “adipose” that someone else may discipline and dispose of but instead as botanical “meristem” that she may divide according to her rational, generative agency.
But Zulus vitiates her resistant fantasies: the Body's words force Alice to become an actual meditation upon Spillers’ “Before the body, there is the flesh….” Rima’s discourse causes Alice's body to pull apart and explode skin and organs all over the room. Her heart drops to the floor and splays “elongated and darkened” by “her stomach, which lay flat now without food, churning and stirring the stench of rancid fats"; doubling in size, her liver and spleen “engorge[ ] with blood and yellowish infection, pulsing in rhythm with her heart.” Amid, within, and on these viscera lies the archive of humanity, ancient and modern. Carved violently “into the fat-walls of her cavity,” the archive resembles a “deep and wide and well lighted” museum that features Lascauxian “pictures of houses arranged neatly in rows, of stick figures herding cattle and sheep, of men and women copulating, of crosses and arrows and swastikas and stars.” Thus “seeing into her gut, observing the terrain of her interior,” Alice herself becomes the archive of humanity since its beginnings. But she also becomes the archivist faced with the violence that the archive cannot contain. Immobilized like the living yet “dead already” Father John, she exists as “symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past” and beholds antiquity-rooted modernity’s record. But unlike the old man, Alice has not yet been forced to sit with that record or accept its evidential “crosses and arrows and swastikas and stars.” Instead, she tries to wield agency, tries to change the record by creating “thoughts” that sluice “shards of her brain down her body and into her lungs.” She conjures conjure visions of “sparkling cities, bubble-covered cities, fat with the hope of success and clear of the poison-planet air which she sucked in.” Put another way, Alice attempts to transform bloody evidence into life beyond the “terrorizing state apparatus.”
Because Alice's rape-spawned, last-fruit, maybe-reigning baby is born right after her hopeful archival vision, readers might find themselves expecting that Zulus’ revision of Cane’s “birth song” arc will bend not only towards a reproductive future but also towards good feeling and, as the saying goes, justice. But Zulus quickly dissolves that expectation in further loops of fugitivity and captivity. Specifically, the novel confronts readers with the nigh-indescribable something that the redemptive archival drive leaves behind. At the heart, so to speak, of the exploded-flesh archive and exhibited tellingly within archival glass arises the baby: a fully-grown, thinner version of Alice herself who flees the camp with “proper terror” as soon as she gains awareness of her condition. Anterior to the new Alice in both time and space is the mother-flesh, captured in a loop also explicitly figured as archival. For the rest of the novel, this left-behind “enormous discarded shell” of flesh serves as a portal through which the fugitive daughter-Alice perceives both the archive of her former flesh and the Body rebels who stroll as museumgoers through ooze and organs. Zulus takes the archival metaphor further still when rebels sever the old Alice's head and place it in a glass display case. Condemning the head to “just stare at the walls of her insides,” they set the glass case within Alice’s “body, in the Flesh House,” an act that loops her ever more intricately as the bloodied archivist within the bloody archive. She sees that inscribed along her exploded flesh walls is “the alphabet, A-through-Z, speaking to her and playing, toying with her."  This alphabetic accumulation is a terrible sight perhaps characteristic of what Hartman elsewhere has termed “the dead book,” the slave-ship ledger that recorded the enslaved’s “falling away of the flesh” in blood, flux, mucus, and pus. Alice Achitophel’s ripped-apart, fallen-away flesh constitutes the A-Z archive that makes up Zulus, and her death-in-life captivity stands as that archive’s most basic abecedarian foundation, what Derrida calls its "substrate." When readers begin to read Zulus, readers read Alice. They hold her captive within and as the book’s record. When readers finish reading Zulus, they close the book upon her–archive archived–even as she cries within the glass case in hope of filling it “with her salty tears and drown her vision away from the view." Flesh-archive Alice wants to drown herself to get away from the archive. However, she cannot, for as the narrator tells us "she could even live as a severed head, so she would not drown.” The implication is clear but terrible. Whether pleasure, knowledge, confusion, fear, empathy, or disgust, that which readers ‘get’ from reading Zulus (or any book for that matter) comes from Alice’s undying captivity. It is a realization akin to one that Hartman herself desires to refuse in Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle when she learns that the very slave dungeon floor on which she stands comprises “compressed remains of captives–feces, blood, and exfoliated skin. Much like those obliterated human beings and much like Father John in the basement hole, Alice Achitophel is left behind as modernity’s captive foundation, a wound that no redemptive archival drive can heal.
Even as Zulus establishes Alice’s camp-bound mother-flesh as the A-Z archive, the novel depicts Alice’s [re]birthed daughter-iteration as embodying another sense of the word abecedarian, one that means a novice. Even as the rebel body pursues her as their property that she has stolen, Alice-as-novice must begin all over again. She must learn that though the archive may yield flashes of both pleasure and play, it cannot provide the longed-for “everlasting song.” Towards this education, Zulus provides Alice with teachers, Virgilian guides to musical, scatological, digital, and funereal archival forms that all contain what Hartman calls “fleeting, disabled, and short-lived practices [that] stand for freedom and its failure.” And they all yield the same truth: the archive shelters no magic.
As Alice’s first guide, Kevin Peters anticipates Hartman and encourages the fugitive to reframe her romantic messianism to understand that death is their “central possibility for action." After escaping the rebel camp, Alice and her thinner body take refuge in Kevin’s rural cabin. Here, the black man accepts his friend's new appearance and impossible story, and the pair make tender, mutual love. Tellingly, Alice attempts to interpret this beautiful but brief respite as a sign of sustainable freedom and agency. When the torch-bearing rebel mob that pursues them indicates otherwise, Kevin wishes to flee through the scar; he tells Alice that its red record is “important to know.” Remembering her entrapment in that "blood mud," however, Alice refuses, desiring instead to “do something”: “take away” Kevin’s pain, “break open the fat camps,” “free the city people of cheese” and “the race of sterility.” News that she and Kevin have conceived in a pregnancy that proceeds as quickly as the first further intensifies her agentic messianism. In another callback to Cane, Kevin behaves as sober, sanguine Lewis to Alice's excited, inexperienced Kabnis. Compassionately acknowledging her desires as “good things to feel,” he asks if love “fits in this world.” The plot affirms that Kevin knows that the answer, of course, is no, and it's an answer he knows as surely as he knows the scar in the earth and the one on his chest. He knows as Lewis does that the archive’s pain is “too much,” and he knows that in city and country alike, the state will pursue Alice unceasingly, permit sanctuary never and nowhere, and use their child “like breeding stock.” Knowing all of this, Kevin leaves, but not in Lewis’s pain-avoidant plunge. Instead, he departs to embrace death head by planning “big killing” that brings archival truth to fruition.
With Kevin’s absence, Zulus prompts Alice to confront painful archival truth once more, and does so by taking the piss, as the English would say, from Alice. More precisely, the novel accords Alice a second guide who literally makes her take, collect, and archive piss. Danger grows daily, her newly thin body will show the pregnancy soon, and anyhow, the city billboards are right: she does need “SOMETHING TO DO.” And so despite her aim-driven fantasies, Alice decides to camouflage herself in work's tautology, an act of resistant marronage that, as with Oedipus, ironically brings her ever closer to that which she tries to avoid. Helping Alice to mask herself with a fake work permit, Kevin’s friend Geraldine culls a new identity for her from the cemetery, that archive of the dead. Geraldine selects the name of a dead baby named Esther, a nod to Cane’s eponymous vignette about a naïve, isolated woman who is herself ridiculed for having aim-driven delusions. With her name changed to Esther, Alice secures a hospital job supervised by one Sue Kabnis, whose surname stands as the most obvious of Zulus’ myriad Cane allusions. Alice is excited to think that her supervisor is a rebel, but Sue hides the unromantic truth: rebelling against the city's practice of sealing the dead above the ground in pastel containers, Sue steals corpses from the hospital and buries them. Sidestepping Alice's questions, Sue sends the curious employee to “the piss department” where she "won't have any questions at all," for she will do nothing but collect urine samples from “as-good-as-dead-patients.” Alice, of course, believes she is being entrusted with bracing rebel work, but to her surprise, the archival act of "collecting vials of piss and putting them in a cart and pushing that cart to the lab across the hall," means nothing more than the bare fact that urine is being collected. Alice collects piss, people die, and then it is "new piss." Sue does absolutely nothing with the collections. She does nothing, either, with the medications that she later tells Alice to take from dead patients except shove the pills in a drawer. Alice thus does nothing, too, or at least no more than the “gathering together” that Derrida says lies at the heart of the “archontic principle.” And yet she struggles against taking the “piss hour-in, hour-out” point. She “cringes” at the “wet-cold vials” of urine, tries “not to look” at the warehoused patients “smelling of excrement and death,” and “wonder[s] what interest their urine held for anyone.” With far more compassion than Esther receives from Toomer's Cane, Everett's Zulus gently ridicules Alice’s refusal to accept that the archive means little beyond mere accumulation of waste.
But when the novel unfurls audacious wordplay through Lucinda Knotes's name, Alice's disavowal begins to fall away much as her former flesh did in the Body’s house. Redemptive fantasies spark once more when Geraldine invites Alice out to hear music, the cultural repository that floats throughout Zulus’ toxic haze much as spirituals do throughout Cane’s “pain pollen.” For instance, the rural rebel camp lacks music, save for the “Ke-vin, Ke-vin, Ke-vin” that residents chant rhythmically when the black man nears the realm that he refuses to enter precisely because it lacks music. In fact, desiring little but to “live near people who make music, just for a day,” Kevin owns a cherished saxophone upon which he squawks the rudimentary song that prefaces his first lovemaking with Alice. Like sex, music in this moment provides good feeling, but Alice once again mistakes temporariness for sustainability; indeed, Geraldine’s mere mention of “music” causes Alice to imagine that Kevin has gone to "claim the horn," not to kill the world (as Jared Sexton might recognize). But the journey to the underground club dissolves her dream as Alice realizes that paper, kinetic, and sonic archives all represent little more than negation. In the city’s shuttered library that smells of urine, people burn the collected books for heat, activity that Alice believes should yield “some glow of life” until she recalls warnings about the toxic dust created by “billions” of wasted pages. The club’s vital promise likewise fades when Alice perceives that, like Kabnis' spiritless revelers who move without affect, the dancers make “exaggerated and unattractive” motions to music that Zulus describes literally as “tones played one after another” and the “sounding of hollowed out brass and wood.” As suggested prophetically by Lucinda Knotes’s name (say it three times quickly), dance and music alike have become bereft of feeling, interpretation, and connotation. These arts are denoted and de-noted, with human vitality losing, loose in, lost in the archival notes. Alice had disliked Lucinda as soon as she met her, a reaction she attributed at the time to jealousy of the tiny woman’s relationship with Theodore Theodore. But in the library’s [dead] light and the club’s [dead] music, Alice's jealousy reads as misrecognition indicating her unwillingness to both abandon a Cane-like faith in archival redemption and accept that in the face of state terror, play–whether of bodies, music, or words–offers nothing sustainable. The archival evidence lays before and as her, but only now does Alice begin to avow it.
The audacious archival play extends to the digital realm when Zulus introduces Alice's third guide, who finally convinces the fugitive that “fighting death, playing with death, [becoming] comfortable with death” reads as necessary precondition (“and if that”) to being “comfortable with life.” At the hospital, Alice meets immobilized, emaciated, and terminally ill June Imhotep, a tumbled, mixed-up revisioning of Father John, Cane’s living-dead archival truth teller. In Lucinda Knotes’s nominal wake, June’s surname recalls the ancient Egyptian genius whose attributed writings form the first known record of medical diagnosis. But the Imhotep surname also invites perverse mispronunciations that suggest further piss jokes that constitute both fleeting respite from and grim reminders of the archive’s deathly waste. For Imhotep translates to “he comes in peace,” which can be read as sliding slyly to “he comes and pees.” And when pronounced creatively using four syllables rather than three, Imhotep also sounds like “I gotta pee.”
True to her name’s venerable and yet potentially scatological lineage, the bedridden June engages similarly in playful yet mordant resistance that Hartman would surely recognize as “radical refusal of the terms of the social order.” Believing that she is being killed by the digital monitor gathering her heartbeats, June refuses to die how “they want me to” and contorts Father John’s declaration that white folks made the Bible lie. Instead, June “make[s] the machine lie.” More precisely, she disrupts the glowing monitor waves with her heart and replaces them with circles, loops, and squares. One morning, June creates a “green written” equation:
Alice interprets the equation as magic, proof that June’s agency creates a space outside of terror and killing. But when Alice asks what the equation means, June gives an answer that sounds like the explanation Sue Kabnis provided about piss collection: the work is secret but meaningless. For the equation references the same thing that the conventional monitor waves did: a Gaussian (or “normal”) distribution, the classic bell curve that precludes agency by presuming mathematical convergence to the norm. In other words, the equation mathematically expresses something that looks like each of June’s heartbeats, beats that for the dying woman are “leaving, soon-gone” like the human beings fleeing Cane’s blood-soaked southern soil. When appearing in a continuous, traveling signal, those heartbeats seem to defeat death: they flow off the screen to be preserved in the digital archive without degradation. But the lack of degradation is illusory. Were a heartbeat to be seen in real time as a single pulse, the curve would peak and then spread; put another way, it would indeed degrade from its original functional form. But to interpret the screen’s series of heartbeats as a continuous wave form is to construct a cohesive fiction that makes sense of the beats in terms of one another. In reality, even though those heartbeats still drift across the screen, they no longer exist. When June changes the heartbeats' expression from wave fronts to static equation, she intervenes in the fiction, foregrounds already-present impermanence and degradation, and refuses to disavow death. Changing and yet not, June’s archival monitor tricks all express the same thing a little differently: the negation with which Alice will come figuratively and literally to grips as Zulus hurtles towards its close.
On one level, the archive’s truth of negation is central to what Keith B. Mitchell and Robin G. Zander identify as Everett’s overarching concern with the “universality of what it means to be human, regardless of race.” In Zulus, Kevin Peters tells Alice that humanity is “the great wound.” And indeed, scratched into Alice’s flesh in the house of the Body stretches the bloody archive of humanity’s “assault relentless” upon the earth. This a record degrades into meaninglessness of “GICKICKIWEJUG.” Similar to that which appears on city billboards (e.g., “THE FIRST STEP IS ALWAYS THE FIRST”) and in Kevin’s woodland cave (e.g., “ANIMA/ SKIDOO”), such nonsense reflects humanity’s absurd from-the-start violence that modernity’s terrible chemical and nuclear weapons have amplified to planet-killing potential.
At the same time, however, Zulus forbids readers from taking refuge in the universals that whiteness and anti-blackness often deploy to foreclose attention to Atlantic slavery’s toxic “afterlife.” More precisely, Everett tumbles terms, players, texts, and names to draw readers to the threshold of concluding that everyone must eventually come to grips with slavery's afterlife. For inscribed on Alice’s camp-flayed flesh “tarnished with the stillness of blood,” GICKICKIWEJUG’s archival nonsense yields to sanguinary archival prophecy: “MUTATO NOMINE,” part of the Latin saying mutato nomine de te fabula narratur, or with the name changed, the story applies to you.
Overwhelmed by churning plot and spinning allusions, readers may not recognize that MUTATO NOMINE applies to Alice; they may have forgotten that Alice’s name already has changed to Esther. Reaching far past Cane, this nominal transformation immerses the novel most explicitly in slavery’s archive. More specifically, it invaginates Frederick Douglass’s famous retellings of his enslaved aunt’s flaying. The Narrative of the Life (1845) names her “Hester,” recounts the brutal whipping, and witnesses the crime through a closet portal termed the “blood-stained gate” that opens into “the hell of slavery” of which Douglass "was doomed to be a witness and a participant.” Ten years later, My Bondage and My Freedom repeats the story but changes the name “Esther,” an anagrammatic jumbling, Sharpe notes, of Hester. In what she calls this “H/Esther” version, voyeurism collapses into dread of imminence, for the “hushed, terrified, stunned” Douglass can do “nothing” but understand that his aunt’s fate “might be mine next.” From iteration to iteration, Douglass acknowledges the loops of captivity that cause him to be “[m]ade and unmade in the same moment.”
When Alice-cum-Esther reads MUTATO NOMINE writ on her bloody walls, Zulus positions her as Douglass and H/Esther simultaneously, applies their stories to her in ways she cannot disavow, and strips away the any remnants of the liberal fantasy that, as John Locke would have it, Alice owns property in herself. Jumbling genders, observer, and observed nearly beyond narration and comprehension, Everett rewrites Hester and Esther to situate Alice both at and as the blood-stained gate through which she can only watch while her captive flesh archive is “fucked over,” to borrow Sharpe’s words, “across time” and space. Readers might remember that earlier in the novel, Alice in the rebel Body's house had insisted that slavery’s narrative did not apply to her; she even went so far as to yell, “I’m not a slave.” Those familiar with Everett’s interviews might here prefer to conflate Alice's refusal of slave status with the author’s aversion to being expected to write about slaves. But when camp-flesh Alice becomes a portal through which city Alice perceives the rebels and they perceive her, those same readers must grapple with how Zulus locates its self-stealing fugitive protagonist undeniably within what Sharpe calls the “primal” and “quintessentially New World scene” of H/Esther’s flaying. After dreaming that June asks if she can hear “the hissing” and read the “writing on the wall,” Alice hears “some agent” enter. Foreshadowing chapter Z’s deadly Agent gas, these sounds also herald the arrival of Theodore and Lucinda through the archive. The pair reach through the writing on Alice’s flesh and into her city body to steal the daughter conceived with Kevin. Once again, the terrible play of Lucinda Knotes’s name churns to the surface. The tiny, perfect, and untrammeled couple rummage gratuitously through Alice's flesh notes. As suggested by their names (i.e., god’s gift and light, respectively), Theodore and Lucinda had at first served as angels for Alice much like Mrs. Auld did when she taught Douglass to read. They helped Alice to flee the city and in the rebel camp ministered to her body in an act that at the time felt to Alice like “cleansing, not a violation." But once the Body's questing hands and objectifying words change Alice into fungible flesh, man and woman both change as Mrs. Auld did under slavery’s terrible influence. They become serpentine pale masters, “free subjects.” They break at will into Alice's “mindless and floating, time-drowned and helpless” flesh, and they force her into serving as both witness to and victim of “the crime being done."
Enduring this violence with her name changed to Esther, Alice understands at last how the red earth scar foretold her [re]birth not only as a slave, but also of a slave: the unnamed black daughter whose enslaved status unfolds in hypodescent this time not through the line of the mother but through that of the father. In Scenes of Subjection, Hartman explains how the archive reveals that the “bittersweet” and “fleeting” resistant pleasures practiced by the enslaved were inevitably “tempered by the perpetuity of bondage” that ceded those pleasures instead to the master. Hartman’s point illuminates how Alice had erred when she interpreted loving respite with Kevin as evidence of freedom, agency, and liberal subjecthood. A few pages earlier, Alice exulted in having a “special love-pumping ass of her own,” Alice presumed ownership of her body and its sensual pleasure. But violated once again, self-possession—her flesh, her body, her own, her baby—fails. And it fails, Zulus indicates, not because Alice hasn't tried hard enough but because such failure is a necessary precondition of the archive itself. For through the bloodstained, archival gate that is not hers at all, Theodore and Lucinda enjoy Alice as their property. Not only do they appropriate Alice's body unto themselves, but they also “obliterate” (the term is Nicholas Brady’s) her claim to her "last fruit" [black] daughter. As prophesied by MUTATO NOMINE, slavery’s “primal” story now applies to the name-changed Alice, a process that renders Alice not black but “blackened,” the term Sharpe uses to describe those who become “covered by the shadow of blackness” both because of their “proximity to blackness” and “the shame, violence, etc. that black bodies are made to wear.”
With Alice now “blackened” ontologically, Zulus accelerates towards that which Cane tried to leave behind: the sunset “western horizon” that begins “Karintha,” Toomer’s first vignette. Accusing June of knowing things, Alice demands the baby’s location, but June simply responds that “There is no magic here” and dies. Alice shadows her friend's corpse as it is taken from the hospital, and thus she learns that Sue Kabnis’ rebel “underground activity” does nothing more than bury the dead. This bleak realization causes Alice to reject Carrie K’s motherly call for a messianic sunrise “gold-glowing child,” request instead that any existing god “help us in death,” and embark on one last loop. She retraces her steps back through various archives. Passing the dead, urine-smelling library and travelling through the soulless music club, she finds herself at last in “the part of the underground into which [she] had not ventured”: a passage that squeezes her towards a single “point of light” revealed as a low-ceilinged room strung with hundreds of lightbulbs. The room recalls Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, yes, but also George H.W. Walker’s 1988 call for a “thousand points of light” volunteer corps, a joke that Everett drives home when the protagonist moves through a sea of “hollow-eyed volunteers" comprising “pink flesh and brown and black” who have gathered to kill the world. Staring at “huge cylindrical tanks,” they try to “muster the strength, the courage, the resolve…to get up and release” the poison gas Agent that will kill only the human agent. In this place, Alice finds Kevin, who has wasted away in his attempt to unleash the Agent himself
Through their tearful, loving reunion, Zulus maps with uncanny accuracy what Hartman will later describe as the captive’s “paradox of agency.” Speaking the language of a messiah, Alice expresses her still-extant desire to save their child. Speaking the language of slavery and social death, Kevin functionally likens the daughter to Cane's description of Karintha as a "growing thing ripened too soon." He asks if Alice would have their “dead before she was born” daughter “treated like breeding stock.” At first, these words cause Alice to “stiffen” in characteristic disavowal. But she can sustain the delusion no longer and shifts instead to words of negation that come “so easily, so perfectly weighted against her tongue and lips.” “We have to help her,” Alice declares. “Find her and kill her.” Alice understands at last: rendered before birth as abject slave who is “not a primary concern or interest,” their daughter ontologically has become “the foundation of the national order” and “the position of the unthought.” Having finally accepted slavery's rebirth through the archive, Alice joins hands with Kevin. Gripping the canister lever to release the Agent, they together complete the circuit that Kabnis and Lewis could not. The novel ends as chapter Z (“Z is for Zulus”) yields to negative space, a blank page, and recursive philosophical contemplation: free at last, the agencied Agent that “thinks[,] seeks out humans and chokes the life out of them"–that Agent emancipates the planet from modernity’s human agent.
Anticipating Hartman once more, Zulus suggests that even the liberation provided by the Agent produces no outside of the archive’s violence, no way to “feel good about ourselves,” except to know “the planet continues on,” as Everett tells an interviewer who calls the novel “bleak.” Certainly, we might refuse what Zulus presents as the archive's truth. We might try to find a way out of no way and achieve good feeling. Exploiting both the novel’s A-Z structure and its implied promise of a next time, for instance, we might insist that what anyone reads as Zulus constitutes merely one version out of untold recombinant possibilities. We might claim, in other words, that the interpretation provided here represents merely a single iteration of the archive’s endless and loopy churn. We might imagine Alice as the player rather than merely as the played. We might fantasize both that she rearranges the archive repeatedly to pass the time, and that in many of these arrangements, she is more agentic, her pleasures more sustainable, her daughter not already always dead. We might attempt to undo the reading that we have spent pages unfolding; we might defend ourselves against its implications and cite Everett's own declaration that any attempt to understand his novels is “misguided.”
But we find ourselves unable to do any of these things, for we are reminded that, as signaled by accumulating alphabet and page numbers, any profit (e.g., feeling, understanding, publication) taken from Zulus depends on violence. In other words, the novel forces us to accept the writing on the wall or, as Hartman puts it, to acknowledge that “the language of freedom no longer becomes that which rescues the slave from his or her former condition, but the site of the re-elaboration of that condition, rather than its transformation.” Returning to that which we might wish to forget, we confront the fact that in finishing the book we close it violently upon a void that our interpretive efforts cannot make into “a locus of positive value.” As living-dead and immobile as are Father John, Douglass, Hester, and Esther, Alice remains reduced to paper and to flesh, her remains like those who are “cataloged, embalmed, and sealed away in box files and folios” as “commodities, cargo, and things [that] don’t lend themselves to representation, at least not easily.” Deeper still, even that closing horror depends upon “the crime being done” to the black daughter who powers the plot. Helping Alice both to “step[ ] into someone else's shoes and then becom[e] a political agent” and “unveil the slave’s humanity by actually finding [her]self in that position” the daughter is herself destroyed before she can be emplotted or named, her fate, as Hartman might say, “the same as every other Black Venus: no one remembered her name or recorded the things she said, or observed that she refused to say anything at all.” But perhaps Zulus did.