In her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yussof (2018) describes a thick relationship between extractive capitalism, geologic time, and (anti)Blackness. She writes, “As the Anthropocene proclaims the language of species life – Anthropos – through a universalist geologic commons, it neatly erases histories of racism that were incubated through the regulatory structure of geologic relations. The racial categorization of Blackness shares its natality with mining the New World, as does the material impetus for colonialism in the first instance.”1
When I began this project, I was stuck on this question of the natal. Not natal alienation but rather where to begin. Across a range of her writing, Katherine McKittrick cautions us about how we place ourselves into origin stories, and there are many crossings that might narrate the histories of the Mississippi River.2 Where do you begin? Where do you begin to unfold a complicated set of relationships between Blackness, and water, and economy? In this project I try to bring that problem into the work, so there is no single point of origin for these stories. We instead are pushed into an oddness of movements. In the video, we begin with Chapter 2, in this introduction to the work, “Chapter None.” The visual narratives that I attempt to render here are assembled from the voices of the dead. They’ve known the land that I am struggling to know, they’ve known the water that I’ve been taught to fear.
The following text is brief and offers only a few accounts of the static and mobile geography called the Mississippi River.
The states that became Illinois and Missouri were colonized in 1682 by the French and between 1719 and 1743 imported more than 6,000 slaves from the French Caribbean colony, Saint Domingue, now Haiti.3 This is why, still, parts of the salt water territory of the Gulf are sometimes thought of as the upper Caribbean. There are millions of Black folks who have been bought and sold or migrated, forced or not, along this river, so my work often involves looking for them. Looking for them in the landscape.
From William Wells Brown, who said:
“Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing States, yet no part of our slaveholding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants, than St. Louis. It was here that Col. Harney, a United States office, whipped a slave woman to death. It was here that Francis McIntosh, a free colored man from Pittsburg, was taken from the steamboat Flora and burned at the stake. During a residence of eight years in this city, numerous cases of extreme cruelty came under my observation; — to record them all would occupy more space than could possibly be allowed in this little volume.”4
From Dred and Harriet Robinson Scott for whom the Supreme Court of the United States ruled:
“The words ‘people of the United States’ and ‘citizens’ are synonymous terms, and mean the same thing…They are what we familiarly call the ‘sovereign people,’ and every citizen is one of this people, and a constituent member of this sovereignty. The question before us is, whether the class of persons described in the plea in abatement compose a portion of this people, and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.”5
Dred, like me, lived at least some part of his young life in Alabama before encountering the Mississippi and Minnesota.
And from Toni Morrison who said:
“The act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”6
The work I am interested in is deeply indebted to ideas of archive, the quiet haunting voices of the dead, to Black geography and to literature. The work is in some way mental flight between one home and another, between Minnesota and the South, my own crossing that’s never quite complete. I am stitching together a sense of place that has allowed me to think about the relationship between one place and another.7 I have thought about the story of Igbo Landing, the folk legend from South Carolina, that describes Black folks walking on water to go home. I have thought about the river as both a fixed and unfixed space. For Black folks, the hold of ships, the water of oceans, rivers, and estuaries are deep spaces, “different layers of life and social landscape…sedimented onto and into each other.”8 I wanted to hold in this work some ways of seeing, seeing from below, and seeing above this still and moving landscape.
Gardner, T. 2021. “There’s Something in the Water.” AGITATE! 3: https://agitatejournal.org/article/theres-something-in-the-water/.
- Kathryn Yussof, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 2. ↵
- Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Duke University Press, 2014); M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Duke University Press, 2005). ↵
- Charles John Balesi, The Time of the French in the Heart of North America, 1673-1818 (Alliance Francaise, 1992). ↵
- William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (Anti-slavery office, 1847). ↵
- Roger Brooke Taney and Supreme Court of The United States, U.S. Reports: Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 19 How. 393, 1856), 404. ↵
- Toni Morrison, Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2019), 243. ↵
- In case it needs to be said, Alabama is not on the Mississippi River, so when I talk about the South, I am talking about an imagined place, or a set of places that are shifting and changing all of the time. ↵
- Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (University of Georgia Press, 2010), 214. ↵