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“I soon found shoals everywhere. The crease on my forehead between my eyes that felt different after receiving the wisdom and witness of an Anishinaabe friend became a shoal. It slowed or shoaled my movement. It gave me pause” (p. xv).
finally sat down to read The Black Shoals in the winter of 2020. I bought the book shortly after its release but had moved across so-called Canada to tkaronto shortly thereafter. As I adjusted to a new place, I felt reinvigorated by the Black, Indigenous, and Brown intelligence and power that electrifies this city, by the people who create it every single day. As I immersed myself in new surroundings, I found it difficult to ask my body to sit still to delve into the entirety of a book, particularly one that would require my mental, emotional, and spiritual energy.
I finally sat down one Sunday morning in February, before heading to a demonstration. It took me a long time to get through the 7 pages of the preface. I kept re-reading sentences over and over again, making sure I would take in every carefully curated sentence that King obviously labored into each page of the book. Reading this text on the Westside of tkaronto that sunny but crisp cold morning, I felt the warm embrace of King’s words: “I write this because I still need to heal. And my own healing, Black healing, is connected to Indigenous healing” (pp.xii).
I was late for the demonstration.
King’s thinking, her method of writing, literally “slowed or shoaled my movement” (p. xv). Her words allowed me to release the joy and pain that had built-up in my body over the last several months. In a way, she gave me permission to start processing my return to tkaronto. As I slowly made my way through the book, I returned to events I attended in the city: demonstrations and teach-ins in solidarity with the Wetsu’wet’en nation’s struggle to protect their ancestral lands and waters against the Trans Mountain pipeline; the release of Desmond Cole’s book, The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power, a powerful text chronicling anti-Black racism and Black life in Canada in the year of 2017; the Free Gaza & All Political Prisoners teach-in on prison abolition organized by Students Against Israeli Apartheid at the University of Toronto (UofT). I returned to these spaces as I witnessed Black, Indigenous and POC folks coming together, supporting one another in humble and non-appropriative ways. These were spaces that arose from a culmination of years of ethical relationship-building across BIPOC communities, and a collective consciousness that understands how our struggles are entangled, and how our freedom is contingent upon one another.
As I moved through the text, I also thought of the brilliant BIPOC students I have had the honor of learning from at UofT over the past year, as they unapologetically drew on their genealogical wisdom to build some of the most honest, humbling and caring conversations I have had on freedom and liberation. In March, I had the privilege to build on these conversations by delving into the nooks and crannies of King’s work with graduate students in a seminar on decolonization and liberation, but we had only just begun to process the abundance of King’s thinking. In this review forum, I can only offer preliminary reflections of King’s work as I will be digesting her care-full brilliance for years to come. In doing so, I want to acknowledge the aforementioned people and places that I continue to return to, as they give life to the metaphorical and material meaning of the shoals, teaching me and holding me accountable to our shared struggles for abolitionist and decolonial futures.
“This book’s methodological approach is a practice in listening for, feeling for, and noticing where things have come into formation together, or where they are one” (p.27).
As King eloquently theorizes, the shoal is a place of juncture, a crossroads that cannot be neatly categorized. It is a metaphorical place that provokes us to dream for a world that has yet to come, even though Black and Indigenous peoples have always embodied the roots and relationalities of that world, whether that be in the stories that constitute our lives, or in the worlds that Black and Indigenous artists bring into being through the creative fortitude of their imaginations. In its metaphorical state, the shoal is a place that asks readers, specifically Black and Indigenous readers, to trust our visions for freedom by “stretch[ing], pull[ing] and link[ing]” (p.29) our genealogies and epistemologies that have sometimes appeared to be seemingly out of touch, or too different to bring together. The shoal is also material, although neither solely land, nor water, or even the shoreline. Rather, it is an emergent formation before the shore that slows us down, that forces us to pay attention to the “accumulation of granular materials (sand, rock, and other) that through sedimentation create a bar or barrier that is difficult to pass and, in fact, a “danger to navigation” (p.2). These granular materials tell the stories of Black and Indigenous life, as they become entangled and “caress each other” (p.13), both embodying intelligence that arise from intimacies with water and land, molding futures that “exceed full knowability” (p.3).
“Someone else’s “story bearing” informed me that there was more to the experience of slavery” (pp. x)
I had the privilege of attending a session on The Black Shoals at the 2019 American Studies Association’s Annual Meeting in Hawaii with some collaborators who continue to push my thinking on ethical relationalities across BIPOC communities. The session brought a number of Black scholars into dialogue with King and her work, including Shona Jackson, Sandra Harvey, and Chad Infante. The session was intended to focus on Black Studies’ responsibilities to Indigenous Studies but, as an Indigenous scholar – as a Cree woman – sitting in the audience, I understood this to be a space that was much more comprehensive than ethical relationship-building within the sphere of academic knowledge production. More than this, it was a space that was committed to creating dialogue on Black and Indigenous life, on our humanities, and how they depend on one another. At the end of the session, Jackson asked fellow panelists and audience members what real recognition between Black and Indigenous peoples would look like: “What would it mean to recognize the theft of skin and land? What would it mean for Black and Indigenous peoples to ask one another, ‘What has been stolen from you?’ “, and to begin to truly understand and see each other.
“The erotic is a powerful space in which, Lorde suggests, we engage the threat and our fear of difference to come to a place that allows us to be with and for one another” (p.147)
Inspired by the works of Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers, King considers how Black and Indigenous peoples might begin to heal from those thefts, and get to place where we can collectively imagine new modes of humanism. These new modes of humanism come together as Black and Indigenous peoples recognize the white supremacy of conquest that unites anti-Black racism and Indigenous genocide. More than this, they are formed by the ways that Black and Indigenous peoples are open to being shaped by one another, an openness or porosity that lies in the power of the erotic. This is one of the most powerful aspects of The Black Shoals.
As King argues, the erotic holds the potential to bring Black and Indigenous peoples into a chaotic space that unmoors us, and moves us closer to new forms of knowledge and ways of relating with one another. She powerfully elucidates the use of the erotic by bringing Audre Lorde’s thinking on the erotic into dialogue with Billy Ray-Belcourt’s discussion of sex, as she examines new modes of humanism that are activated in The Daughters of the Dust (1991), a film directed and produced by Julie Dash, and The Cherokee Rose (2015), a novel by Tiya Rose. In doing so, King highlights the limitations of coalition-building that avoid embodied conversations of theft and recognition, as discussed in the ASA session, but also of the “people [we] choose to love, have sex with/fuck, build a life with, and bring into the work toward a decolonial future” (p.148). The erotic, King insists, is crucial for those who are committed to working towards decolonial and abolitionist futures, as it painfully calls attention to the intimate ways that people work out (or don’t work out) their daily struggles.
From this standpoint, King asks whether Indigenous theorizations and embodiments of sovereignty, self-determination and nationhood are pliable enough to activate a porous notion of the self, one that is open to being molded by Black life, and asks, “might a new grammar emerge at the erotic shoals of Black and Native porous futures?” (p.151). As I return to King’s text, I am drawn to the grammars and ethics that can continue to build across Indigenous communities as we bring Indigenous and Black feminist and queer thinkers into generous and humble dialogue with one another. I was grateful to see King engage with thinkers such as Mishuana Goeman, for example, who continue to push my thinking on the ways that Indigenous peoples limit or bound ourselves through rigid conceptualizations of territory, nationhood, community and self. In recent years, I have increasingly felt the need to think through the expansiveness of what it means to be Mushkegowuk, specifically how Mushkegowuk life is shaped by not only our roots in muskeg lands and waters, but by our movement to other places, and to the people we encounter there, who shape us in transformative ways. I have thought a lot about the impossibilities of writing about Mushkegowuk life without recognising the intimate relations with Anishinaabe people that have shaped my community and family, and the Coastal and Interior Salish peoples and places who shaped me during the several years that I lived on the lands and waters of the Saanich, Songhees and Esquimalt peoples, the Duwamish peoples and the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. I am also shaped by Black, Latinx, Palestinian and POC thinkers, collaborators and friends who have simultaneously shaped these places, and who have opened up my visions for freedom through the genealogies of resistance and power that they come from.
The ways that I have been shaped are not neat and completely coherent. Rather, tracing the human and non-human relations that shape me can seem quite chaotic at times, and it becomes incredibly difficult to capture the fullness of these relations on paper. King reminds me, however, to embrace this chaos and incoherence, and to translate consciousness into (re)newed ways of Indigenous and Black peoples working together. These ways of relating harken the intimacies embodied by our ancestors, yet are emboldened by visions of futures that we still do not fully see, know or feel, but that we must trust, as Black abolition and Indigenous decolonization “offer new forms of sociality and futurity” (p. xv) that will set all of us free, into a space that has always been emerging and close by.
Michelle Daigle is Mushkegowuk (Cree), a member of Constance Lake First Nation in Treaty 9, and of French ancestry. She is an Assistant Professor in the Centre for Indigenous Studies and the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto.