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.
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.