Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora.


Young, Hershini Bhana. Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.

Illegible Will is of epistemological significance in the areas of African studies, African history, and African diaspora studies. It expands upon the methods, scope, and modes of interpretation across these fields. The text is mainly developed through telling the narratives of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, Tryntjie, Joice Heth, and victims of land mines in Angola. It also draws upon literary works about the experiences of many other vulnerable women caught up in very wide networks of bondage, suffering, and abuses. Youngs book is awash in theoretical approaches that border on radical interpretations that question the elevation, or privileging, of archival documents that undoubtedly are oblivious to the manifold shades, forms, and nuances of the human experience.

Archival sources are so deficient with regard to black people and other disadvantaged groups that Young argues for the consideration of mundane performances, gestures, postures, movements, and actions as alternative sources. These provide a varied range of shifting and creative responses to powerful human systems of control. Young argues that this range of performativity constitutes "equally valid outlines of history's afterlife" (4).

Furthermore, Young is quick to make the caveat that her work is not necessarily a project in search of the "will" of black folks within the absences and silences of hegemonic or entrenched archival and historical sources, although they are a "willful" people, given those limitations and constraints. Rather, her scholarly effort postulates that there is a crucial need for "performative critical engagements" with those absences and silences. In other words, "the will of black diasporic bodies must be imaginatively and critically performed rather than simply unearthed" (23). Young does not insist on what could be a potentially fruitless gleaning of factual evidence that will be of little help in filling the void; she instead calls for a dabbling in "urgent narrations or informed critical conjuring" earmarked by an "engagement with the material imprint of archival evidence as a recalcitrant event" (3). She asserts that gestures acquire a life of their own as they migrate, repeat, and accrue new meanings; thus, a gestural archive lives within human actions that is instructive in understanding diasporic performances.


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