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King’s The Black Shoals seeks openings for Black and Native people and politics: to negotiate Whiteness otherwise; to forge lives illegible to Enlightenment humanism in order to know one another differently. Formation is King’s imperative, but via disruption. One central unsettling is the intellectual impasse between Black and Native studies (King, Navarro and Smith 2020). Should convivialities be emphasized and, if so, what violences and thefts of bodies and land, does this erase? Tracing instead the fractures productively delineates anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, genocide and enslavement, and brings to light the varied, grounded and historically specific complicities of Black and Native subjects in White violence. Still, what are the possibilities for solidarity, when Humanist claims to national sovereignty or personhood repair one, only at the expense of the other? These paths, taken in isolation, obscure other possibilities for relation, connection, engagement and, not least, they erase Afro-indigenous subjectivity. Via a series of shoaling moments, King directs us elsewhere, forging a broadly imagined “ethics of erotic encounter” (p.253).
These shoals - metaphor, method and ontology for King – are broadly imagined. They form molecular, performative, more than human modes of freedom. The bloodying and tagging of a sculpted conquistador interrupts colonial ideals of humanity. The afterlife “play and errancy” of Black figures in de Brahms cartouche make them unknowable despite Euclidian best efforts. Indigo production and its chemical oxidations decompose the boundaries of nature and culture - a molecular erotics at work in Nana Peazant’s stained pores. The moves to love of her great granddaughter, Iona and St. Julien Lastchild offer, via desire, a powerful alternative to coalition politics. Moreover, at last, an artist’s slow exilic tracing of Caliban’s mother Sycorax transgresses the nationalist hegemonies of U.S. Black studies. Her intellectual compass for these performative moments is Wynter’s Caribbean-grounded philosophy on the human, and its limits. Her orienting horizon is Wynter’s open demonic space - there, “beyond our present mode of being/ feeling/ knowing” (1990, 364 in King 2019, 184). In these shoaling spaces, as King notes elsewhere “Blackness refashions life where human life is not supposed to thrive” (2016, 1036).
I take up two strands of engagement here. First, King’s work undoes Marxist braids of labor, production, and social reproduction, pushing me to think beyond the embodied operations of capital. This is useful to me as my own work examines women traders in Kampala, Uganda. I interrogate how Ugandan women traders are impacted by new global retail investment signalled by major new luxury malls imbued with capitalist finance and urban planning imperatives that simultaneously drive the demolition of historical retail spaces like Kampala’s downtown Park Yard market. This space served as a vital source of income for Ugandan women, particularly over the last three decades of austerity that have disproportionately targeted them. There is much that a postcolonial feminist critique of capitalism offers our understandings of urban livelihoods for women traders in Kampala. It makes visible women’s caring labor to build, maintain, repair and make profitable market space across the city. At the same time, postcolonial feminist insights make visible the devaluation of that labor, and the women’s traumatic eviction from urban space via devastating perhaps-intentional market fires. Through observations of their strategies of resistance, this work asks how colonial antiblackness bleeds into contemporary urban planning regimes (Faria et al 2020).
Yet, as King notes “Labor hides more than it reveals. Specifically, labor as a governing frame obscures other processes, relations and symbolic economies that Black bodies and representations of Black embodiment produce and sustain” (2019: 118). Instead, King extends Black feminist thought on fungibility, via Spillers and Hartman. This work complicates Afropessimist readings that erase gender and delink Blackness from (even radical, more-than-human) subjectivity. Instead, she engages a notion of fungibility where, “Black porous flesh and its connections with plants and non-human forms of life confound Enlightenment orderings of the world” (2019: 130). King’s writing gives me pause, making visible the edges of labor’s possibilities; how Marxist models - even where they are molded, disrupted, kicked into shape by postcolonial and decolonial thought - leave women’s lives incomplete, unthinkable beyond their exploitation by capitalist regimes of urban placemaking and labor. I have theorized women only as they are inculcated into a system that seeks to formalize, modernize, and civilized them via urban planning, or if it cannot, to erase them from the city. Instead, King’s Black feminist engagement offers "other ways to discuss human relations to the land and nonhuman life forms." (p.33). Thinking of Ugandan women traders as King approaches say, Nana Peazant - as fungible, porous and fugitive subjects - not simply as labor, offers “counter-sites where new possibilities for (more than) humanness and freedom are articulated” (2016, 1036). This means attending to intimate moments of connection. For Nana, it is with a newborn, braiding hair, making food, practicing Yoruba cosmologies. For my work, it means seeking out these other “undersides” of freedom in the lives of the women I work with. To look for the “what else happened” of Black life (King 2019, citing McKittrick 2016) in their relationships with families, the stall tarps they carefully repair, the second-hand clothes they refashion, the wider rhythms and ecologies of the city beyond the reaches of global capital and city planners’ blueprints.
Second, and via these intellectual engagements, King’s shoals orient me in new ways to Guyana, to other formations of land and water, and to my father. I wonder, about the shoals’ capacities to reimagining Black and Native relations to other racialized subjects. In colonial British Guiana, “Portuguese” people, arriving in the early to mid 19th Century, embodied a disruptive yet regressive role. They were never white enough for the British, but aspirationally so - reinforcing and benefitting from a racist order, while confusing white Protestant colonial supremacies with their brown skin, their Catholicism and their indentured Madeiran roots. In striving for whiteness, they made devilish deals. Bookers, a British wholesale food and shipping company, and one of the largest land and property owners in colonial and postcolonial Guyana, paid my dad’s scholarship to Leeds University in the U.K. in the late 1960s. He would study to be a chemical engineer, trained and paid to process sugar in the plantation factory, separating and reusing the bagasse fibers, evaporating and clarifying the sucrose. Sustaining chemical balance and cane’s colonial afterlife.
When we visit, we often turn to talk of Guyana. He shares photos from a recent trip, his first in 40 years. While there, he visited the Uitvlugt Estate, where he first worked. One photograph depicts his managerial housing. It is white, high on stilts and set in lush, manicured gardens. After work, he says, they would play tennis past dusk, nothing else to pass the time. “Who worked the fields dad?” I ask, only half pretending not to know the answer. In response, he shows me another image. Agricultural workers carry cane to wide sugar canals. Brown with silt, these canals carve up the landscape. They return me to King’s work with land and water. King’s Black feminist engagement richly spatializes these canals.
“Black fungibility illuminates the ways that British colonial conceptions of Blackness mediated the ways the natural world could be imagined as manipulable and an open landscape in flux...[it] recognizes the violence of the plantation and its afterlife…” (2016: 1023)
Her lens pushes me to consider the brutality of their construction and what they made possible: indigenous genocide, land-theft and co-optation; African and Afro Guyanese enslavement; the almost uninterrupted flow for centuries along those canals, of capital into the hands of white landowners, aspirational managerial classes, and institutions like Bookers; the foundational asymmetric political-economies of raw material export that would keep British Guiana as a nation subservient to the U.K., and then as Guyana, to the global north more broadly; the environmental devastation those canals wrought as they reduced natural aquifers, eroded soil, promoted monocrop-disease and destroyed diversity (LOC Digital ID 1210). Today, in their afterlife, sugar canals elsewhere are new circulatory systems for capital, offering tourist tubers the “sweetest jungle adventure” (Danger 5/23/2016).
But if we think only through the lens of labor, or even an Afropessimist fungibility, King argues there is no space for other "cosmologies" or orientations that decenter the Human, that might make space for resistance and other kinds of relations to land, animals, plants and objects (p.119). There is no way to consider “Black fungibility [as] a resource for Black freedom.” (2016: 1023). Instead, via King’s shoals, and wider Black feminist thought, we can think around or with enslavement, land-theft, and ecological colonialisms in new ways. As she argues in 2016, “Black bodies in their fluttering, stretching, changing states become a symbol of unstable borders ...[Black fungibility] simultaneously acknowledg[es] the ongoing capacity for the making and remaking of Black life in the midst of plantation violence.” (2016: 1023). Her words insist I recognize in these canals colonial capitalism and the centrality of its sugary commodities. Still, this is not the only tethering force. Reorienting Black and Native connection elsewhere in these ways disrupts the clean lines of difference - racial, ecological, of humanity - that white supremacy demands. Then I can see the powerful ways that King's work make space not only for different forms of Black and Indigenous relationality, but for Afro-indigenous subjectivities who, in some sense, embody the Black Shoals (see also Mollett 2020). Do these shoals also offer ways to imagine relationships outside of whiteness, with other racialized subjects and spaces in Guyana: Indian, Chinese, Madeiran, and Creole - in new ways?
As a geographer so used to our discipline’s material and literal environmental grounds, King’s metaphorical engagement with shoaling is deeply provocative. This is a longstanding move in Caribbean, Indigenous and Black studies: Gilroy’s and then Tinsley’s Atlantic, Diaz’ moving islands, Sharpe’s Wake, Spiller’s Oceanic and Glissant’s Archipelagic (King 2019, e.g. 5 and 9-10). However, her work breaks ground in new ways, prompting relational theories that complicate the established earthly touchstones of Native and Black studies. Where first shackled steps are taken, stone and sea wash together, strong tides are chastised, new currents form, new forms are made, and new erotic, connective pauses are made possible. This imperative makes The Black Shoals a difficult, disorienting and generative meditation on race and relationality. It is, at once, a book for our time - one of disruption, openings, and exposed inequities. Also one that reflects on and brings new energies to centuries old engagements, aggressions, and convivialities. For my research on urban capitalisms in Uganda, it prompts me to ask how King’s scholarship intervenes more broadly in African geographies, where indigeneity, Blackness and settler colonialism shoal together in different ways and with different grounds. In connection, it provides openings to theorize other kinds of relational racial power inside and beyond White supremacy. New ways to look, with my father, at those photos of sugar canals.
Danger, T. 2016. Floating down the canals of an abandoned sugar plantation: Sugar canal tubing is the sweetest jungle adventure road trippers May 23 2016. [Accessed online June 30, 2020, here.
Faria, C., Katushabe, J., Kyotowadde, C. and Whitesell, D. 2020. “You Rise Up… They Burn You Again”: Market fires and the urban intimacies of disaster colonialism. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. [ahead of print, here].
Jackson, S.N., 2012. Creole indigeneity: Between myth and nation in the Caribbean. University of Minnesota Press.
King, T.L. 2016. “The Labor of (Re)reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly)” Antipode 48(4): 1022-1039.
King, T. L. 2019. The Black shoals: Offshore formations of Black and Native studies. Duke University Press.
King, T.L., Navaro, J. and Smith, A. 2020. “Beyond Incommensurability: Toward an Otherwise Stance on Black and Indigenous Relationality”. / Tiffany Lethabo King, Jenell Navarro, and Andrea Smith. In King, T.L., Navaro, J. and Smith, A. (eds) Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. Pp 1-26
McKittrick, K. 2016. Diachronic Loops/Deadweight Tonnage/Bad Made Measure. Cultural Geographies . 23(1): 3-18.
Mollett, S. 2020. Mollett, S., 2020. Hemispheric, Relational, and Intersectional Political Ecologies of Race: Centring Land‐Body Entanglements in the Americas. Antipode, available here.
Wynter, S. 1990. Beyond Miranda’s Meanings: Un/silencing the ‘Demonic Grounds of Caliban’s ‘Woman.’. Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean women and literature, 355-72.
Caroline Faria is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas, Austin. Faria uses intersectional feminist approaches to understand nationalism and neoliberal globalization in the Gulf-East African regions and is published in such journals as the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers and Annals of the American Association of Geographers.