The Black Shoals offers an audacious upending of multiple conceptual maps. A dyad of questions orients Tiffany Lethabo King’s text: How might Blackness trouble our conceptualizations of conquest and genocide? How might Indigeneity trouble our conceptualizations of race, embodiment, and the formation of the African diaspora? Deftly weaving her title concept throughout the text, King’s shoal morphs from its more circumscribed geologic origins — an offshore constellation of rock and earth submerged in water — to a methodological and ethical demand, an invitation to slow down “hasty stories” about Blackness, Indigeneity, and the intertwined legacies of conquest, past and present (2). King broadens the notion of conquest to a larger terrain encompassing and necessitating both slavery and genocide, and she unsettles its most abiding temporal and spatial markers (66). For King, the auguring moment of conquest is 1441, rather than 1492, and the originating place is along the coast of present-day Senegal, rather than what would become the Americas (18). Ever cautious of land and water as “totalizing metaphor[s]” of Indigeneity and Blackness, respectively, King stages a deliberate appropriation of ecology — empire’s field science [1] — to provide a range of alternate ecological renderings (8). Here, King is part of an emergent cadre of scholars thinking deeply about ecology and Blackness beyond the abiding oceanic metaphors of traditional African/Diaspora Studies [2]. King’s methodological “gathering” travels across continents and disciplinary conventions, engaging novels, memoirs, maps, films, and sculpture (12). Numerous spatial coordinates orient the text, as the author moves from sitting in community with an Anishinaabe storyteller, to driving along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, to artistic experimentation in Toronto. Conceptually, King situates the birth of the Americas within the Caribbean and draws on the concepts of tidalectics from Kamau Braithwaite, terra nullis from Sylvia Wynter, and erotics from Audre Lorde. A Black geographic writing practice sharpens the work, as King names unthinkable violence — the “bloody trail” of “self-actualization” through which some ascended to humanness — without erasing Black and Indigenous “livingness” (71, 87). What I find most notable and exciting about the text are its clear, boldly stated ethical commitments, even as King does not elide the challenges or discomfort her work is bound to provoke. 

In this review, I would like to spend time with the notion of porosity, a concept that enlivened and, at times, confounded me. In her treatment of Julie Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, King rethinks the archive of conquest. Attending to the central protagonists of the film, members of the Peazant family who were formally enslaved on an indigo planation, she offers a detailed reading of Dash’s “African American realism.” King describes the blue hands of matriarch Nana Peazant as simultaneously a unit of plantation-settlement and “an ecological constellation” of flesh and plants staining over time (130-1). Through the overlain violences of making hands blue, King charts genocide and slavery in the pores of these Black women (131). The stained hands of the Peazant family index the porosity of bodies beyond labor. The emphasis here on Black embodiment “in the flux” of the plantation unsettles both Marxist and Lockean emphases on labor through a different analytic of the pore (113, 115). Moreover, the text further asks what blue-Black hands reveal about the ecologies of the New World, about displacement, and about living in spite of. Thinking Blackness and the porosity of bodies offers new conceptualizations of habitability. The noxiousness of the indigo plantation/processing site stands as “a zone to be avoided, but also a place of solitude and perhaps pleasure” (138).  Drawing from the work of C. Riley Snorton and Katherine McKittrick, King further elaborates the “unthinkable geographies” that enable anticipatory Black life and the ways that “…Blackness refashions life where human life is not supposed to thrive” (122, 139). Engagement with the porosity of bodies further points to the porousness of concepts, categories, and political claims. 

The concept of the pore also provides a reminder about the “affectability” of individual bodies (87). King finds an elaboration of this affectability in Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic. Lorde famously theorized the erotic as “…sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy…forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the bases for understanding much of which is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.” [3] The erotic challenges conventional notions of sovereignty and selfhood. And King turns to queer Cree scholar Billy-Ray Belcourt on the transformative, disorienting “chaos” of the erotic (143). Belcourt suggests: “Sex talk makes us talk about states of fragility. Unlike sovereignty, it engenders a discourse about the future that hinges on the tenuousness of being beholden to others in determining one’s sense of a livable life.” [4] Furthermore, taking seriously insights from Afropessimism, The Black Shoals elucidates the ways that the mutual survival of Black and Native communities requires an embrace of multiple interrelated “‘grammars of suffering.’” (152). But an acknowledgement of the “death-bound” or death-proximate does not foreclose futurity (154). King holds fast to McKittrick’s enjoinder about “livingness” and an insistent “what else” (79, 170). The text elaborates a productive and life-giving erotic between the death-bound, as sovereignty comes into contact with, and is perhaps undone by, abolition, a total unmaking of this world.

What might The Black Shoals offer us in this time of social, bodily, and ecological death? As King avers, none can escape the affectability of our own bodies as we live with the consequences of multi-species entanglements borne from the plantation (140). The urgencies of the present demand that we “…push through the abstract theoretical impasses between Black and Native Studies” in search of “…creative storytelling to build worlds where Black and Indigenous people have a future” (143). Here, King makes plain the fleshiness of futurity. In addition, her attention to the entanglements between the erotic and the ecological prompts a series of questions. With whom do we choose to build futures? What is the intimate sphere of our futurity? What are conditions under which we produce scholarship, from what sites and with what investments? How do we envision our embeddedness within human and more-than-human relations? Who/what is un-incorporable when these visions rest solely on categories of sovereignty, personhood, diaspora, and coalition? This is a key intervention of the text as it cautions against the abstracted grammars of political advocacy that often mask the sensuous stakes of living a life (147). 

Towards the end of the text, King takes up Julie Dash’s novel, Daughters of the Dust, a sequel to the film. In it, Iona Peazant eschews the urbane Black cosmopolitanism of Harlem to remain in the Sea Islands with St. Julien Lastchild, her Cherokee partner, and build a world of love in a swamp (159). King reads Iona’s decision as a defiance of the upward mobility purportedly assured through fidelity to the US nation-state and a move against the “territorializing impulse of settlement” in favor of a swamp (159, 163). This is a refusal of Black (American) citizenship, which furthers anti-Indigenous violence (173). King adroitly walks a conceptual tightrope, the line between the violence of Black North Americans being rendered as nationless or stateless and, what she takes from Dionne Brand and Rinaldo Walcott, an obstinate “gospel of no nation,”—a call to relinquish the dream of the nation as the apex of political struggle and to ultimately undo the discrete spaces of Canada, the Caribbean and the United States, even as they remain specifically sited and situated but not enclosed (191, 193). Alternatively, as King put it in a different forum, “everybody’s got to give up their flags.” King’s work calls on us to contemplate what it would mean to surrender a flag for a swamp, or a desert [5], or a longhouse [6], or a glacier [7], or a hush arbor [8]. With The Black Shoals Tiffany King offers an essential text for thinking about other kinds of relations, or otherwise ecologies, which make possible more tenable forms of living.  

[1] Peder Anker, Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order in the British Empire, 1895-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2009).
[2] Vanessa Agard-Jones, "What the Sands Remember" GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18, no. 2-3 (2012): 325-346; C. Riley. Snorton, Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017); J.T. Roane, “Tornado Groan: On Black (Blues) Ecologies,” African American Intellectual History Society Black Perspectives March 16, 2020, accessed 14 July 2020 here.
[3] Audre Lorde, Uses of the Erotic, quoted in King, 141.
[4] Billy-Ray Belcourt, "Indigenous Studies Beside Itself" Somatechnics 7, no. 2 (2017): 182-184, quoted in King, 146.
[5] Brittany Meché, "Bad Things Happen in the Desert: Mapping Security Regimes in the West African Sahel and the ‘Problem’ of Arid Spaces." In A Research Agenda for Military Geographies, edited by Rachel Woodward (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2019.)
[6] Meredith Alberta Palmer, "Rendering Settler Sovereign Landscapes: Race and Property in the Empire State" Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2020).
[7] Jen Rose Smith, “Cryogenics,” EdgeEffects, February 6, 2020, accessed July 17, 2020 here.
[8] Thank you to composer Imani Uzuri for helping me elaborate this point and for her forthcoming opera exploring the cosmologies of hush arbors. 

Brittany Meché is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Williams College. Brittany earned her PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and she is currently completing a book manuscript about transnational security regimes, environmental knowledge, and the afterlives of empire in the West African Sahel.