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Reflective Pathways: Geographic Readings of King’s The Black Shoals
Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies is a powerful and necessary text. King’s work intervenes into geographic thought during a time of disciplinary and global transformation. The multi-decade endeavor of Black geographies as a disparate approach to engaging space and place-making through Blackness continues to gain traction across the discipline (see Hawthorne 2019). Increasingly critical geographers call upon geography to delink itself from colonialism and racial violence seen both out there and in, the University. The simultaneous jolt of the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 uprisings against police brutality and the attempted erasures of Indigenous death, re-animate geographic conversations and scholarship across the world. It is within, this context at least, that The Black Shoals offers much to ponder and opens possibilities for change. The Black Shoals is a distinguished multi-layered and deeply analytical text that offers provocative interventions that when taken seriously provide a roadmap, for human beings, to be in better relation with one another and, as scholars, to engage deeply in questions of the human on the road to liberation.
King’s theoretical framework weaves Black and Indigenous geographic thought, highlighted by the works of Katherine McKittrick, Clyde Woods, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mishuana Goeman with a multidisciplinary convening of Native and Black feminist and decolonial thinkers. Undoubtedly integral in/to Black and Indigenous geographies, The Black Shoals reaches into the wider discipline along several facets. One way King does so is by pushing against the spatial familiarity of mapping and the comfort many geographers take in the assumedly static and scientific assurances of maps. Instead, for her, the map represents a spatial imaginary embedded with colonial anxieties and concomitant violence demonstrated through cartographic sketches and Cartesian erasure. Against such logics, King introduces a “Black geographical reading practice” to reinterpret the map through Black and Indigenous livingness and rebellion against conquest. The challenge to cartography goes alongside, or rather under the umbrella of, the discourse of conquest, cloaked in “modes of violent White/human self-making” (p. 31). King names conquest “as a lingua franca or shared dialogic space to articulate genocide and slavery as forms of violence that are essential to the emergence of conquistador humanism or what [Sylvia] Wynter names ‘Man1’” (p. 21).
King’s use of time is poignant. To anchor the shoal, and following Spillers, King utilizes a variety of archival texts and subjects that range from fifteenth century Portuguese exploration in Africa to Boston, and the 2015 defacing of a Christopher Columbus statue. This weaving of time and imagery make salient both historical and contemporary landscapes of White supremacy, Native and Black genocide, and enduring forms of colonial erasure in the making of the human. For King, the shoal serves in part as a crossroads, a juncture evoking “liminality, indeterminacy, and location of suture” (p. 4). Such entanglements bring together Black diaspora and Indigenous studies to create new space that, as she describes it, is “always in formation” (p. 8). In this way, King positions The Black Shoals as a pathway “to create an alternative site of engagement to discuss Indigenous genocide, anti-Black racism, and the politics of Black and Native studies” (p. 35).
The excitement of King’s work flows in the scholarly responses featured in this Forum. To begin, for his reading, Deondre Smiles agrees that the metaphor of the shoal in dialogue with Black and Indigenous Studies renders possibilities for an entangled Black and Indigenous liberation. Smiles signals the importance of the struggle to “reconcile Black and Indigenous epistemologies” in critiques of settler states. In addition, he takes seriously King’s provocation for readers to be self-reflexive and to sit with the words and approaches in the book that may “unsettle” and be unsettling. Smiles writes saliently, “I view King’s book as an open invitation for us as Indigenous scholars to dismantle the myopic settler-Indigenous dyad that is endemic in settler colonial studies, and to recognize and embrace the possibilities that can spring forth in the contact zones between Indigenous scholarship (especially Indigenous feminist scholarship) and Black scholarship and epistemologies. Like Smiles, Michelle Daigle’s piece is decorated by contemplation as she reflects on the multiple protests witnessed throughout 2020 and beyond. In Daigle’s words, she is “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…” Smiles and Daigle, through their thoughtful discussion of The Black Shoals, affirm the importance of Black and Indigenous entanglements not only to, and for Black and Indigenous liberation but, as a way to complicate how geographers continue to think about land, bodies, nature and an array of (un)freedoms.
Brittany Meche constructs her discussion of The Black Shoals as a methodology for rethinking “ecology”. With a focus on the concept of “porosity”, Meche cleverly recaps Kings treatment of Julie Dash’s 1991 Film Daughters of the Dust, as a method to mess with how we understand conquest. Meche’s engagement with “porosity of bodies” beyond labor, offers geographers in general and political ecologists more directly, a challenge. Implicitly Meche ask political ecologists (and others) to reflect upon what is taken for granted, and what is excluded, masked over by our assumptions of the “human” in human-environment relations in ecological analyses, political or otherwise. Similarly, King’s work nudges Caroline Faria to question geographic theorization of “labor”. Faria writes, “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 place making and labor.”
Indeed, there are many moments in the book where one is forced to pause, think, de-center, re-center and repeat. In fact, both Faria and Ramirez, in their own ways, eloquently question what a reimaging of Indigeneity and Blackness, and relations with and within these categories, might mean for other racialized peoples in the Americas. The complexities of what lies in between is a focus of Ramirez’s refreshing notes. The power of thinking with Black and Native epistemologies both contests, questions, and complicates Latinidad. Ramirez sagely writes, “Latinx geographies acquire meaning in relation [to] Blackness and Indigeneity, and so if Latinidad is to exist as a liberatory identity invested in futurities, it needs to value, sustain and nurture Black and Indigenous peoples and geographies. Latinidad and Latinx geographies cannot be grounded in mestizaje alone…”
Most would agree that The Black Shoals is a text for our times in particular for its power to disrupt. Still, however unsettling The Black Shoals may be for many geographers, King’s response to these brilliantly crafted pieces guides geography scholars back to a topic with which most are generally quite comfortable. Place. Because in the end, as geographers know best, where we write from materially, symbolically and discursively, shapes deeply how we have understand power and its multiple invocations. To this end, The Black Shoals offers new ground for both contemplation and revolt on a pathway to liberation.
Hawthorne, C. (2019) Black matters are spatial matters: Black geographies for the twenty‐first century. Geography compass. 13.
Sharlene Mollett is the Distinguished Professor of Feminist Cultural Geography, Nature and Society at the University of Toronto. Her work attends to the multiple power dynamics embedded in land control and land conflicts in Central America and is published in such journals as the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Antipode and Cultural Geographies.
LaToya Eaves is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research is located at the intersections of race, gender, diaspora, critical geography and queer studies. Eaves’ work is published in such journals as the Southeastern Geographer, Geoforum and Gender, Place and Culture.