Jenny Davidson Talks to Tiffany Lethabo King, author of The Black Shoals

JMD: Your book explores “the ways that Black and Native death are intimately connected in the Western Hemisphere,” confronting “the ways that conquistador forms of discourse, like colonial and settler colonial studies, attempt to mediate discussions between Black and Native peoples, Black studies, and Native studies” (xiii). In order to show these interconnections, you foreground the concept of a shoal and the process or activity of shoaling: “Black thought, Black study, Black aesthetics, and Black expression function as a shoal that interrupts the course and momentum of the flow of critical theories about genocide, slavery, and humanity in the Western Hemisphere” (xv). That shoal in turn illuminates “the ways that White humanity and its self-actualization require Black and Native death as its condition of possibility” (21).

When and how did you arrive at the concept of the shoal as the unifying metaphor for your analysis?

TLK: Thanks for the question, Jenny. I was actually three-quarters of the way through the first draft of the manuscript. I found myself dissatisfied with the geography of the shore as an organizing metaphor from which to think Blackness and Indigeneity together. There was something about the shore that was just not sitting right with me. One reason I was dissatisfied was because the littoral, or shore, was already being imagined in some discussions as the proverbial meeting point for land (Indigeneity) and water (Black diaspora). Another reason for my discomfort was that there was a kernel of the normative lurking and lying in wait with the littoral. Shore and shorelines more specifically are often incorporated into territories like nation-states. They are easily capturable. Finally, I wanted something a bit more elusive. The shore did not really align with the kinds of invisible Black geographies that Katherine McKittrick speaks of in Demonic Grounds (2005) and certainly did not align with Sylvia Wynter’s notion of the demonic and the open-endedness and indeterminacy that it gives us. I was looking for something that emerged, moved, shifted, disappeared and sometimes functioned like a horizon just out of reach.

In the preface of my book, I talk about a drive that I took home from work. I took the downtown or business route from Georgia State University to East Atlanta. This route took me to Flat Shoals road. During this period of time, my mind had been in the mode of searching for a metaphor, and some of my better ideas had been coming during mundane moments like household chores or right before sleep. I think that while driving my mind became more attentive to the smaller details that I had never attended to on my regular drive. On this particular day while driving and glancing at the sign, which I had seen countless times before, I finally became curious enough to pose the question, “what’s a shoal?” Later that night, I researched the word, and to my pleasant surprise I realized that I had stumbled onto the nautical term that I needed. It was a gift. The shoal evoked the ephemeral and shifting nature of the ecological sites and Black and Indigenous relations that I hoped to explore in the book. Like many scholars, I am truly grateful for the quiet and down times when our creative capacities are really active in ways that often feel effortless. These moments are important parts of the thinking, creating, and writing process.

JMD: The book demonstrates essential continuities between America’s centuries of slavery and settlement and the earlier violence of Indigenous genocide instigated and perpetrated by the conquistadors and those who followed them. I found this an especially moving statement of the book’s credo:

At this contemporary juncture, many Black and Indigenous people in this hemisphere experience the current political moment as one marked by mass carnage. Everyday life is marked by grotesque interludes with Black and Indigenous death in the streets or in the plains. Even as Black and Indigenous people and the world bear live witness––on the street, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook––to the real-time murder of their kin and relations, liberal political commentary, the academy, and the White left continue to use a form of speech that refuses to name the quotidian spectacle of death as conquest. (11)

Can you gloss this last point more fully for the readers of The Rambling? What is that form of speech, and how does your book expose that rationale of conquest at the heart of present-day critical theory?

TLK: I think there is a tendency within the academy, particularly the portions of the US academy that identify with the white American left, to come just shy of naming the violence that structures our social relations. For example, settler colonialism and more specifically the term settlement does not even begin to describe or explain the violent and humiliating ways that white self-actualization requires the violent murders of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Chantel Moore (First Nations). I argue that white settler colonial studies traffics in euphemisms like settlement and elimination in order to disavow anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence and crowd out Indigenous and Black modes of speech. In my research I found Black and Indigenous scholars who were exasperated by this refusal to name the ways that the United States, Canada and nation-states in this hemisphere sustain themselves on the deaths of Indigenous and Black people. For example, Lenape scholar Joanne Barker argues that settlement is not harsh enough of a term to describe social relations on Turtle Island. Similarly, in Afropessimist scholarship sustained attention is given to the ongoing gratuitous forms of violence perpetrated against Black people in order to maintain the boundary between Blackness and humanity. In light of the ways that COVID-19 and police violence are ravaging both of these communities, I find the language of settlement and settler to be impoverished terms of description and analysis. Conquest, genocide, murder, humiliation, and carnage seem more apt descriptions of what Black and Indigenous communities face in the contemporary moment.

JMD: The book’s argument is built around an unusual constellation of materials: a 2015 photograph of the statue of Christopher Columbus in Boston’s North End that was covered with red paint simulating blood and tagged with the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER!”; a curious and highly elaborate 1757 map of the coast of South Carolina and parts of Georgia where indigo was produced; Julie Dash’s novel and film Daughters of the Dust, and her depiction of the blue-stained hands of the formerly enslaved people who process indigo in the Sea Islands; Tiya Miles’s novel The Cherokee Rose, an instance of what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation” in which Miles imagines new endings for the enslaved women and Cherokee women on the plantation whose stories she has also researched as a historian; the Black Canadian artist Charmaine Lurch’s wire sculpture “Revisiting Sycorax.” Each artifact on this list is connected intimately to all the others, but in some ways the nexus is William Gerard de Brahm’s “1757 Map of the Coast of South Carolina and Parts of Georgia.”

Your chapter on the map offers a virtuoso reading of this image, with its quadrants and its lines, its tabulations and the cartouche that includes the map’s only representations of human bodies: the close-up of enslaved Black people processing indigo on a lush Atlantic coastline. On the copy you consulted in Special Collections at Davidson College, which had been folded and stored many times over the years, “a ghostly imprint of the cartouche floats upside down above the original cartouche” (82). Your reading of that palimpsest is enormously evocative, as is your attention to every detail of the map’s figuration. How did you first encounter this map, and did you know early on how important it would be for the book as a whole?

TLK: I first encountered this map while doing archival research for my dissertation. One of my dissertation chapters focused on the eighteenth century colonist and slaveowner Eliza Lucas Pinckney. Her letterbook contained a reproduction of the map’s cartouche. While dissertating I did not have the time or interpretive tools to attend to the map in the way that I wanted. I also did not have a sense of how important it would be until about two years later.

I like that you imagine the map functioning as a nexus for the artifacts in the book. I tend to think about the two images that bookend the text, Columbus and Sycorax, as my anchors or as the poles that pull and guide the readers around and through the objects in the book. However, I do appreciate the way that you are thinking about the map and the work it might do for readers. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the map for an episode of a podcast. As I prepared for the talk, I had to prepare to explain the context for the emergence and commissioning of the map by eighteenth century Georgia colonists. The cartographer William Gerrard De Brahm was recruited to the colony of Georgia because of his training as a military strategist, surveyor, and designer of forts because they were necessary for defending the colonists against Cherokee and Catawba raids and slave insurrections like the 1739 Stono Rebellion.

While I was not theorizing this while writing the book, De Brahm’s map enables one to draw a through line from the emergence of eighteenth-century militias, slave patrols and military technologies like maps to the evolution of present-day policing and the police state that kills Black and Indigenous people today. Activists on the ground are articulating that centuries-old military formations, like the eighteenth-century ones that commissioned the map, were the prototypes for the contemporary police. I think that the history of conquest (of nature, Black and Indigenous people) that the map depicts echoes and reflects the violent order that activists want to abolish.

JMD: One of many arresting observations in The Black Shoals comes during your discussion of Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You have just identified both Díaz and Toni Morrison as “grammarians of the Black vernacular of conquest” (46), and after noting that “[t]he novel’s backdrop of Black and Indigenous violation and death colors the arc of each character, especially that of Yunior, whose joy, ambivalence, and pain are associated with a quest for a deferred and patriarchal (conquistador) masculinity,” you go on to say this:

I once thought that the words of Díaz, the historian turned fiction writer—especially “fukú”—rang too blunt, shallow, transparent, and trite in their attempt to evoke the depth, the horizon, the feel of conquest. “Fukú,” I thought, was too taut a word to describe the kind of stretching, oozing, and ever present, gratuitous violence it denotes. However, since members of the literary community alleged Díaz had lurked among them as a sexual predator, his choice of the term “fukú”—to be fucked or cursed—has acquired new meaning and significance. (47)

You consider the 2018 article in which the author writes about having been sexually abused as a child and the ways that experience haunted his own relationships with women as an adult, adding that rather than centering his own trauma in his fiction, “he transfers (and projects) his experiences of rape and sexual violation onto the bodies of Black and Indigenous women,” mapping his own “embodied trauma onto the history of genocide and the Middle Passage” (48), You are explicit that you’re not attempting “to excuse, rescue, or celebrate Díaz,” but that it’s essential to discern this history in order to understand the stories the novel’s really telling.

One thing I love about this moment is that you have found a way to represent, in your critical prose, the ways that our readings can change over time. Would you be willing to reflect more on this particular example, or on any other artistic or cultural artifact that you have experienced in a similar way, with a first take replaced or even reversed by a later one? Or if you prefer, you might tell us more about what it means to take on a difficult and highly sensitive topic (you also consider R. Kelly) and how to navigate the potential for distress and disagreement that discussions of such topics court.

TLK: Yes, I was more than crestfallen when I found out about the accusations against Junot Díaz. I was frustrated because I was really beginning to understand him better as a writer and appreciate the way that he centered the violence that took place in the Caribbean as birth pangs that marked the emergence of a particular kind of modernity in the Western Hemisphere. Díaz was also helping me find a new language through the curse, or the fukú, that travelled beyond the realm of secular liberalism and much of the academic discourse that attempts and fails to explain genocide, slavery, conquest and coloniality. The accusations from Women of Color writers forced me to make a major decision about chapter one very late in my writing process. It was unsettling.

I thought about abandoning Díaz’s text altogether. I feared that including Díaz’s novel would betray the Women of Color writers who were calling for a process of accountability. Thankfully, I talked to my editor Elizabeth Ault, who talked me out of that decision and convinced me to take on the accusations and what they might mean for re-reading his text. The challenge became how to include a potentially anti-feminist figure in my book and read their work within a Black feminist tradition. I began to read essays by writers who articulated contradictory feelings of anger and admiration, sorrow and gratitude. I also realized that I had models for thinking about how oppressed communities are comprised of people who are both perpetrators and survivors of violent acts. Finding Katherine McKittrick’s and Alex Weheliye’s essay in Propter Nos titled “808 and Heartbreak” was such a gift. The article modeled how to grapple with perpetrators of violence like R. Kelly through an examination of the conditions of possibility that make his violence possible. McKittrick and Weheliye modelled a way of dealing with R. Kelly as a subject by plotting him, his own experiences with abuse, and his acts of sexual violence along an axis of the sexual violence that structures slavery. They achieved this partially with the help of Hortense Spillers’ work, which was particularly useful as Spillers is a key text in my first chapter. Kelly and his violence are structured by enslavement and its afterlife. This kind of balancing act is something that abolitionists who practice transformative justice have to strike all of the time. I look forward to hearing more from readers about how I handled this issue.

JMD: The origin story you give the reader at the end of the book sets the project’s genesis in the mesh of political struggle and Black creative invention you found when you came to Toronto in 2006. “Resisting the Canadian project of Indigenous genocide and colonialism is a part of the pulse of Black radical politics in Toronto,” you observe, and you link that acknowledgement of Indigenous genocide to “an acute diasporic sensibility of being in exile” (190). Many Black people in Canada reject identification with the nation-state, you note, producing “an orientation to the nation that troubles the fields of African diaspora and Black studies” (191), and you describe the “bodily and emotional discomfort” you experienced “with the new ways conquest touched [you]” on that Toronto arrival in order to show how the book engages in “a larger ceremony of healing” (206). Can you tell us more about the ceremony of healing The Black Shoals endeavors to perform? Why was that time in Canada such a powerful precipitating force for the project?

TLK: I actually had difficulty just standing on the ground in Toronto. I had trouble with having a violence that I was less accustomed to acknowledging, feeling, naming course through my body. I know the feel of thick anti-Black violence in port cities like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. I know how to absorb the horrific energy of the plantations in hinterlands in what we now know as Atlanta because of my own embodied familiarity with the landscapes but also the Black commemorative practices that prepare me to honor the dead and acknowledge the violence. While it does not happen enough, historical markers, sites, and cultural landscapes that mark slavery are easier to access than markers for genocide and anti-Indigenous colonial violence in the US. I am not used to the mourning and awareness that comes with that commemoration on an intellectual or embodied level. In 2006, when I left the US, people were not even doing land acknowledgements. There was not even a discursive gesture. The US did not prepare me for the violent Canadian landscape or for powerful ways that Indigenous/First Nations activists, artists, cultural workers and scholars named the everyday violence of Canada and commemorated First Nations ancestors. The Black Canadian activists and scholars were also working with a robust vernacular that clearly articulated the intersections of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity.

I had to absorb a groundswell of new ways of talking, experiencing and responding to historical trauma. My mind, body and spirit were not used to the new kinds of work that it had to do. Some of that work was spiritual and connected to healing. I was fortunate enough to have Black and Native women in the Toronto INCITE chapter include me in the work that they were doing, which included intellectual, artistic, and healing work. Many of our meetings and encounters were organized around or started with ceremony. I also met a number of Black artists, including Charmaine Lurch, in Toronto who were committed to artistic and aesthetic practice as healing. I really came to this project or inherited it from the dynamic and transformative work that First Nations and Black Canadian artists, activists and scholars were doing. I tried to carry on this healing work in The Black Shoals.

JMD: In the epilogue “Of Water and Land,” you place the book’s project of listening for the dialogue between Black and Indigenous people alongside two key movements taking place in the world during the time of your intellectual investigation, “two of the most visible mobilizations and standoffs with US state violence and state-sanctioned corporate violence, the Movement for Black Lives and the Standing Rock Sioux’s camp of Water Protectors” (208). In the ethical questions they pose about whose lives matter and which people can be considered human, you say, both these movements “require that nation-states reflect on how their very existence depends on and is made possible by the death of Black and Indigenous peoples” (208). Your final call is to Black and Native communities who may be in a position “remake reality and its relations on more just terms” (209). How have the events of the last few months affected your sense of the possibilities and hazards of that project?

TLK: I am amazed, as many people are, that word abolition is circulating in the way it is in mainstream media right now. To see the Columbus statue in Boston that I wrote about in chapter one beheaded last month and others felled in numerous cities gives me chills. It makes the decolonial and abolitionist politics that inform ongoing Indigenous and Black struggle visible and undeniable. While viewed by many as cosmetic, the toppling and eradication of symbols of conquest actually work to expose and undermine the fiction that the US project is an unproblematic and uncontested idea. The struggles over these symbols expose the US as a construction and that has real power. What I am most excited about is the way that this particular Black-led rebellion has energized and moved some Native/Indigenous struggles forward. Several Native/Indigenous activists have acknowledged the ways that recent wins like the federal court decisions to shut down the Dakota Access and Atlantic Coast pipelines and the banning of anti-Indigenous mascots could not have been achieved without Black struggle and the openings that the recent rebellion has created. It demonstrates the ways that Black and Native struggles remain connected and inseparable. I’m increasingly excited about how Black and Native struggles will inform how activists committed to social justice will begin to envision new possibilities in this moment of crisis.

Jenny Davidson is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She’s recently finished writing a book-length piece of criticism-memoir titled Broken Things: My Father, Edward Gibbon and the Ruins of Rome.

Tiffany (Lethabo) King is Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University. In addition to The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2019), King is co-editor of an anthology titled Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism (Duke University Press, 2020).

5 Questions with Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.

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