Black haunts in the Anthropocene

A few weeks ago on io9 I chanced across an article featuring some date visualizations of 19th c. shipping routes, taken from a post by Ben Schmidt on Sapping Attention, which takes up matters of data visualization and humanistic thought. I’ll be coming back to Schmidt’s post another time, since it’s helping me think through some work we do on shipping and insurance logs at the Schomburg Center, in my Representing Slavery class.

But the io9 version of the article caught my attention in two ways— not only I am always interested in different ways of thinking about Diasporic migrations, but there was something incongruous in the pairing of the starkly compelling image and the post title’s somewhat strong assertion: “A Map of 19th century shipping routes and nothing else.”


I understand what the title is getting at, and the images are indeed striking in their minimalism, with dark strokes illuminating the wisps and flows of air currents circulating the globe, the wind made inky and black. These currents are important because they have historically helped ship captains to determine their ocean routes. Air is energy. When away from the sea we seldom think about such things because we seldom connect breeze to wind to storm, until we must remember what happens when it fuels itself: gales, hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes.

These images are interesting to me because their inky flows remind me of wind’s dark power, that wind is both fuel and engine, an element in every sense. And the headline feels wrong because the images contradict it so fully— the images actually “say” too much.

Or maybe not. Maybe the headline is right, and there is nothing here: I find the images haunting, but the dark lines of the triangle trade are not sooty from centuries of moving Africans into new world slavery, nor from moving the fruits of their labor to fuel others’ growth. They are dark because those sea roots were there before the slave trade. This fact gives me a feeling of a timeless before and after, which is difficult to reconcile with any sense of enduring historical impact.

My feeling of double displacement— first out of the present, and then out of the world itself— reminds me of the Swedish sculptor Roland Persson. Last year, as my preparation for a writing project, Nicholas Smith sent me a book of Persson’s work, “Nature Doesn’t Care About You.” The title stuck with me, and I often find myself citing it in various settings, most recently when #blerding out with my son, watching a Nova about the 2013 typhoon, Haiyan, and earlier in the semester in a class I teach on Jean Toomer, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison, when talking about the sublime and Dewey Dell in As I Lay Dying, a conversation in the wake of Toni Morrison’s “Future of Time” essay

My being moved by the wind image is an effect of my sense of the world having been shifted: long before my arrival, but nonetheless shaping me. It makes me feel passive with a side of Wordsworth, simply waiting to be “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course/ With rocks, and stones, and trees” (Holla humans!). But these images show that the world does not shift just because we are in it, even when we do terrible and unimaginable things to one another.

This is not at all to deny the meaningfulness of the history and memory of slavery. That world historical sense of things will always be there, even if only because it refers to events that have shaped the very possibilities of my me-ness, and that of so many others.

At the same time, when looking at these images I am reminded that even human enslavement is only a human event. Rather than be haunted, perhaps I should feel liberated. Even despite their immense violence, the men pushing and pulling bodies across the Atlantic were only men, hoping for a good wind. A bug on a leaf, torn from the tree.

And in the spirit of Mark Johnston, who wonders if human life might not just be a Ponzi scheme, I would accept the truth of even myself as so small, casting about on the currents– if so thinking means divesting others of the power that has come with the historic durability of their execrable logic, and thus better freeing myself.


Roland Persson, 2013 @ Örebro konsthall, Stockholm

BUT still, we can also unfortunately imagine a convergence in the future: Climatological excess— relentlessly produced through the logic of the same proto-industrial world that grew out of the triangle trade— might indeed eventually change the earth’s material history. As the seas rise, those paths might shift, themselves re-mapped by the human, Roy Scranton’s Anthropocene.

(Though I must admit, when it comes to the Anthropocene, the era wherein we must live through the geological force of the human, the long cascade of unintended consequences, I can’t help but be reminded of the now oft-cited plaint, that as soon as black people got hold of bodily ownership, the body came to be understood as no longer existing…)

There is more to say on what it might mean to think about the Anthropocene alongside other currents in African American thought. Since they are both concerned with taking convergences between past and present and projecting them into a vision of the future, what might it mean to think the Anthropocene alongside Afrofuturism?

I’ll save that for next week. For now, a poem from the past, and an image. Wordsworth, because he was already worried about the Anthropocene, long before such worry had become trendy. And an image from Pumzi, Wanuri Kahiu’s short sci-fi short film set in a Kenyan future wherein a scientist tries to germinate seeds in the dead Earth.  “Pumzi” is Swahili for breath. You can hear the breathing in this poem, in the sibilance

A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;

I had no human fears:

She seemed a thing that could not feel

The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;

She neither hears nor sees;

Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,

With rocks, and stones, and trees. [1799]




5 thoughts on “Black haunts in the Anthropocene

  1. This is a really interesting and compelling thought-piece. I have a kind of associative logic comment about the antropocene and the idea of slavery (and other history altering catastrophes) as, in your words, “only a human event.”

    I think that this poses an interesting set of terms for rethinking time. Ecological time’s expanse is nothing like the finitude of human time; we die, the earth will be fine even if we humans go extinct. Yet, the point of the anthropocene is that they cross and make something new, now and in this moment. The flow of history is more than the finitude of human projects, however multi-generational they might be. And yet the finitude of radical, catastrophic action changes the long-present in such fundamental, foundational ways. So the fusion of radical finitude with something that, while not quite infinite, is more than what we’d call finite, makes this sense of time hard to name. Do we live in this sense of time as a hybrid temporality, as a fused temporality, or maybe as a chiasm whose next verse, so to speak, is unknowable?

    I like the latter, the chiasmic, precisely because it would sustain the peculiar ambivalence you express about memory of slavery. There is a crossing. But also another verse. One never reads the next verse without the previous in mind – there is no next moment without memory of the past – but that doesn’t mean it’s linear, continuous, or closed off to unexpected ruptures.

    Of course, too, it makes me think about Glissant’s comments in the opening of Poetics of Relation. He’s watching a boat race. The sea is beautiful, he says, because it’s the Martiniquan coast. The boats are beautiful, too; racing in style. But, as Walcott put it, the sea is also history. Glissant’s word is simple, but rich: honor the boats.

    • John↑: “The flow of history is more than the finitude of human projects, however multi-generational they might be. And yet the finitude of radical, catastrophic action changes the long-present in such fundamental, foundational ways. So the fusion of radical finitude with something that, while not quite infinite, is more than what we’d call finite, makes this sense of time hard to name.”

      Me: Much of what I was thinking was indeed about what you are referring to as ‘radical finitude.’ In its conception my post began with my feeling that the wind charts could ultimately bring comfort, because the wind’s trails across time mark the limit of human reach, finitude. Thinking of the self as having a possibility outside of human time is a pretty traditional African American take, I guess: infinity qua timelessness trumps human earthly machination.

      And I agree that the Anthropocene would introduce a profoundly uncomfortable hybridity, if only because it would disallow so many of the ways we are used to finding hope in the future. When we take the growing sense that climate change is real, coupled with the sense that we are already too late to do anything about it, the Anthropocene becomes a narrative about what happens when human action indeed touches the earth and thus transforms the future of time itself, a kind of obdurate materiality that flies in the face of those old, black spiritualities. (This by the way, is something I’ll be talking about in my Afrofuturism and the anthropocene post: the African American tradition has always been Afro-futurist. What is interesting is the moment when the future is made synonymous with departure from the Earth– Astrofuturism. What else can we do with thinking black diasporic traditions as post-ecological time?)

      Rather than the futurist or the astronomical, without a future that can at least want to erase the past, and without a willingness to begin preparing our departure from this plane, we would be stuck with the present. I’m moving a bit afield of her concerns but, in “The Future of Time,” Toni Morrison is in some ways working through what it would mean to actually, really, live in our present. She speaks of “divergent imaginaries,” of what we might generate in the space between “the sadness of no more time, of the poignancy of inverted time — time that has only a past — of time itself living on “borrowed time,”” and growing hopelessness in the face of “time with a relentless future.” And indeed, how many large scale narratives do we have about hope in the present?

      I also read Mark Forester as helpful in all this, which is maybe why I’m so obsessed with his “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme?” essay in The Boston Review:
      “The fact is that however the future of humanity goes, human life has already been a natural miracle. Indeed, it is against this established background that we find the great historical human evils to be atrocities—horrific violations of an existing order of appropriate valuing and caring.

      Letting the thought of the eventual end of humanity demoralize us would thus be a terrible mistake. It is in large part because many human lives have been flooded with self-standing goods that humanity is not a Ponzi scheme. The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future. Take a look and see: both the weaker and the stronger claim seem refuted by manifestly legitimate joy, which is one form, indeed a highly valuable form, of the recognition of value here, already, in our lives.”

      The idea of self-value in the present is difficult, however, to reconcile with black traditions of hopefulness in the future, especially when set against the facts of being haunted by the past. At the same time, this difficulty itself offers a way for us to think about better ways of living, of celebrating liveliness itself, without nostalgia for past or future.

      In the middle of her essay, Morrison quotes one of my favorite novels, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters:
      “In The Salteaters,Toni Cade Bambara opens this brilliant novel with a startling question: “Are you sure you want to be well?” Are you sure you want to be well? What flows from that very serious inquiry is a healing that requires a frightened modern day Demeter to fathom and sound every minute of her and her community’s depths, to re-think and re-live the past — simply to answer that question.”

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