in populated air
our ancestors continue.
i have seen them.
i have heard
their shimmering voices
– Lucille Clifton, ‘in populated air’
Tightly tucked away in the bowels of ships, captive Africans laboured to breathe; they endeavoured to live. Annotated slave ship maps detailed how to pack human cargo most efficiently into the cramped holds. The Regulation of the Slave Trade Act of 1788, for example, permitted the British slave ship Brookes to transport 454 captives. The allocated space for each person was apportioned as 6 feet (1.8 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each man; 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 m) by 1 foot 4 inches (0.41 m) to each woman, and 5 feet (1.5 m) by 1 foot 2 inches (0.36 m) to each child. During illegal voyages, the Brookes secreted upwards of 600 captive Africans at once. Anguished screams and sighs no doubt filled the air of the crowded ship holds. Hunger, seasickness and infirmity seized the captives’ bodies. The Middle Passage from African coastlines to the New World was a harrowing journey, during which losses of the kidnapped Africans were anticipated and accepted risks.
In one of the few, known, first-person accounts of the Middle Passage, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Equiano, a captive from Benin, details the sensory excesses aboard slave ships on which crews notoriously dumped the dead, the dying, and sometimes perfectly healthy Africans overboard, ridding themselves of the perceived burden of care. On the upper decks and in the hold below, shipmen brutalized women, children, and men. ‘The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome,’ Equiano writes, ‘that it was dangerous to remain there for any time, and some of us had been permitted to stay on the deck for the fresh air; but now that the whole ship’s cargo were confined together, it became absolutely pestilential. The closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.’
In response to these conditions, first there was a song: ‘Kum buba yali kum buba tambe / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe’. And then, there was flight. An early iteration of the Flying African story from 1803 holds that, in rejection of the future that slavery had proffered for them, captive Igbo Africans sang together and then took up flight from the single-masted ship on which they had theretofore languished, jumping into the Dunbar Creek off St Simons Island, Georgia. Though this act appeared to be a mass suicide, the radicality of the unified movement was in the Igbos’ determination to escape the bonds of slavery. They opted to return to their homelands in Africa in a kind of reverse Middle Passage, flying or, as some versions describe, walking across the Atlantic Ocean. It was not the first recorded instance of such an act of resistance. In his 1788 testimony before the British Parliament, Dr Ecroide Claxton testified about slave ship crew members’ responses to flight as a form of enslaved people’s resistance that quite literally sent enslavers’ speculative investments up into thin air:
The captain in order to obviate this idea, thought of an expedient viz. to cut off the heads of those who died intimating to them that if determined to go, they must return without heads. The slaves were accordingly brought up to witness the operation. One of them by violent exertion got loose and flying to the place where the nettings had been unloosed in order to empty the tubs, he darted overboard. The ship brought to, a man was placed in the main chains to catch him which he perceiving, made signs (which words cannot express) expressive f his happiness in escaping. He then went down and was seen no more.
Fugitive flights as executed by these unnamed, jubilant Africans were perplexing to Claxton at sea and carried over into white plantation owners’ disbelief that their property would flee on foot as well. The slipping away into the unknown, seemingly unchartered and permanent future, drowning in the Atlantic’s oceanic necropolis, or into the darkness of the night, or into dangerous forests and across bodies of water, led to a medical diagnosis: drapetomania. Drapetomania, the idea that enslaved people who ran away or who could not be convinced to discontinue their attempts at flight had a mental illness that kept them on the move. Doctors and enslavers used this condition to rationalize enslaved people’s unhappiness with their lot – as if the horrific violence and dehumanization that enslaved people experienced had gone unnoticed, unfelt.
Folklore across the African diaspora maintains that captive Africans were born with the ability to fly, with some versions suggesting that they only lost their capacity to do so if they consumed salt in the West. In the 1939–40 Georgia Writers’ Project (GWP), a division of the Works Projects Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, the US government paid out-of-work writers to travel to locations across the US South to collect narratives from formerly enslaved people, most of whom had been children at the end of the Civil War. On the Sea Islands, informants shared dozens of narratives with GWP workers that recalled the Flying African myth as it had been passed down in the informants’ respective Gullah-Geechee families. Mose Brown from the Tin City village near Savannah, Georgia, recalled: ‘My gran use tuh tell me bout folks flyin back tuh Africa. A man an his wife wuz brung frum Africa. Wen dey fine out dey wuz slabes an got treat so hahd, dey jis fret an fret. One day dey wuz standin wid some udduh slabes an all ub a sudden dey say, “We gwine back tuh Africa. So goodie bye, goodie bye.” Den dey flied right out uh sight.’4 On the island of Carriacou in Grenada, locals have for generations celebrated the Big Drum, a musical ritual in which the ancestors are venerated during a nation dance. In the Bongo dance and song, there is a recognition of the descendants’ inability to travel back to their ancestors’ villages to reunite, though they indeed yearned to return home:
Oyo, Mama, Bel Louise oh
Nu kai alé nâ ginî pu
kotwé pawâ mwê
lame bawé mwê
We shall go to Africa to meet
The sea bars me.
What became clear to African people across the diaspora is that the literal skill of riding the air was not the only way in which enslaved or otherwise persecuted people could take control of their bodies or their imaginations. Actively remembering and recreating cultural elements of the past to commemorate forebears – maintaining some control over the range of their psychic mobility – became a significant way to elide Western mores. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s fugitivity was compelled by his understanding that his ‘only chance for life was in flight’, not via bodily ascension into the air but by running away on foot or various other modes of transport.6 For Douglass, flight also became a way of living; it was about the creative uses of the imagination to free himself and eventually agitate on behalf of other enslaved people to ensure their ultimate freedom and full citizenship rights. In his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Douglass not only describes flight as an epistemology through which to live, but also offers stunning insight into the stakes of movement away from and within the institution of slavery:
I would keep the merciless slaveholder profoundly ignorant of the means of flight adopted by the slave. I would leave him to imagine himself surrounded by myriads of invisible tormentors, ever ready to snatch from his infernal grasp his trembling prey. Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him; and let him feel that at every step he takes, in pursuit of the flying bondman, he is running the frightful risk of having his hot brains dashed out by an invisible agency.
For an enslaved woman turned abolitionist such as Harriet Jacobs, flight meant establishing a loophole of retreat, a space of respite in which to secrete oneself away – in Jacobs’s case, in her grandmother’s attic, to which she escaped for several years to protect herself from her master’s sexual harassment and to make plans for her and her children’s futures. And for the untold numbers of enslaved people who successfully fled from plantations and created maroon communities or entered free states in the United States, Canada or Mexico, and for the millions of Black Americans who fled the South for better job opportunities and less hostile places in the US North and Midwest in the early and mid-twentieth century during the first and second waves of the Great Migration, flight was about the creation of alternative existences across relatively unknown geographies.
In more recent years, conversations in Black visual art and culture, literary studies, and a range of Afrofuturist projects have quite steadily centred on the history of the Middle Passage and notions of flight to offer access points toward liberation. These speculative works engage with elements of fantasy, abstraction, science fiction, technology, cultural myths and historical re-narrativization to create new worlds for Black lives, inverting the power of financial speculations in slavery, colonialism, empire, and their continuations.
‘No one flies the Middle Passage no more,’ laments the Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho. In the introduction to his 1993 collection of poetry, Ancestrallogic & Caribbeanblues, Anyidoho charts his travels from his native Ghana en route to the United States, focusing on his deliberate stops throughout the Caribbean to acknowledge the connectedness of people of African descent via the
Middle Passage. In several pieces within the text, Anyidoho lyrically recreates and acknowledges the dispossession and painful histories wrought by slavery and colonialism, and gestures toward the possibilities of cultural restoration through the logic of speculation. About the stakes of his travels through the Middle Passage, he writes:
It is the quest for a future alive with the energy of recovered vision, a future released from the trauma of a cyclonic past and from the myopia of a stampeded present… The wounds must be sought out and washed clean with the iodine of pain. The trauma of death must be transformed into the drama of life, the destabilized soul purged of the heavy burden of permanent sorrow and of recurring seizures of rage.
As an apparatus through which to connect African peoples worldwide, AfricanaAirways becomes Anyidoho’s imaginary vessel to provide direct transfers and Pan-African connectedness between the diaspora and Africa. In his poem, ‘HavanaSoul’, Anyidoho expresses his frustration with the proliferation of airlines that require layovers in Europe before one is able to commune with one’s ancestral pasts, and he comes to the realization that in order for African-descended peoples to understand each other, they must utilize the ‘common alien tongue’. In Anyidoho’s poetry, elements of the blues music tradition with its mourning – the sitting with and articulation of the losses experienced – and the temporal flights afforded by AfricanaAirways, serve as the fantastic means by which all African-descended peoples can attend to the trauma, dispossession and disconnections caused by slavery. He writes about the potential for reverse Middle Passages:
… from Ghana to Havana to
And and [sic] on and on to Savannah
in Georgia of the deep deep South.
With AfricanaAirways we can
renavigate the Middle Passage, clear
the old debris and freshen the waters
with iodine and soul-chlorine.
And our journey into SoulTime
The distance between the Eye
and the Ear
As the Trinidadian-Canadian poet Dionne Brand explains about such imaginative flights back to Africa, ‘One may not call these ways practical but they certainly suggest a mastery of way-finding. So much so that no known map is necessary, nor any known methods of conveyance. Except escaping the body.’ The idea of return – mythic, psychic, or physical – is a liberating philosophy that has been taken up by people of African descent, whether their ancestors were in diaspora or remained on the African continent proper, in reaction to the cultural breaches caused during transatlantic slavery and the arduous passages on which millions suffered cruel fates over the several centuries. From nineteenth-century repatriation efforts to the cultural nationalist and Pan-Africanist sentiment that arose in the twentieth century to present-day decolonization movements, efforts to reclaim the African homeland and its attendant cultures have been a feature of the diasporic experience.
Returns to the Motherland
A few summers ago, a group of Black tourists eagerly awaited their journey to explore remnants of the transatlantic slave trade, including the Doors of No Return in Cape Coast and Elmina, Ghana. As diasporans, they viewed returning to the imagined motherland as the ultimate occasion for confronting the loss, trauma and memory of the initial injury that had haunted their kindred for generations. As they exited their plane in Accra and passed through the immigration desk and customs, they were greeted by a group of Black American expatriates who had committed themselves to initiating what they referred to as a ‘clapping ceremony’ to applaud and welcome newcomers to their imagined ancestral home. Ghana has been a significant symbolic Africa for homeland returns to the Black American cultural and political imaginaries since the 1950s, when President Kwame Nkrumah sought out Black political figures, artists and professionals to assist him in building the fledgling nation. Nkrumah’s brand of Pan-Africanism, a philosophy concerned with the worldwide uplift and well-being of African-descended peoples, attracted this group of Black Americans who were fascinated by Nkrumah’s ability to defeat colonialism, as they, too, were in the midst of a centuries-long freedom struggle back in the States and felt that there were many lessons to be learned from Ghana’s inspiring example.
Motivated by news about this cohort of migrants to Ghana, the Black American writer Leslie Lacy explained his decision to go into self-imposed exile there in the early 1960s: ‘I had applauded a speech in which President Nkrumah said he was black first, African second, and socialist third… I needed a community of people that could afford to be patient, and I did not believe that I could escape the taunts and attacks of America’s racial madness in another American city. And Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois … was black and radical, and in his life was the back-and- forth political pattern which was beginning to characterize mine… He was going to Ghana. “A socialist Africa is the future,” he said.’ Lacy travelled to Ghana in 1962 on a specific mission to better understand his identity as an African in America.
Over the years, Ghana has maintained a similar courtship with the diaspora through what developed decades after the Nkrumah era into a tourism market that attracts tens of thousands of heritage roots tourists each year, who hold on to similar hopes as Lacy that they will somehow become endowed with a philosophy for negotiating their Blackness under global racism, and particularly as they settle back in their homes in the West after their travels in Ghana. The Ghanaian government’s 2019 Year of Return and 2021 Beyond the Return initiatives attracted thousands of musicians, artists, entertainers and everyday people travelling to Ghana to engage with the vestiges of slavery that remain there – a sobering way to reckon with slavery and the re-emergence of aggressive forms of racial animus, and to imagine their futures outside of the West some four hundred years after the first British slave ship arrived in what is now the United States.
Black Artistic Flights and/as Technologies
The filmmaker Haile Gerima has referred to the institution of slavery as ‘a scientific adventure, an attempt by an industrialized society to create a robotic or mindless human being, pure labor… [T]he plantation school of thought believed [resistance and rebellion were] always provoked by outsiders, that Africans were not capable of having that human need.’13 Through their leaps from slave ships, determination to escape slavery through fugitive flights, embrace of collective rebellion on plantations across the Atlantic world, and artful uses of the imagination to create Black futures, enslaved people and their descendants have established a sustainable, collective politics of refusal by assuming defiant postures in the imminence and immanence of death. They have inaugurated standpoints for actively rejecting the ways that they are historically relegated to spaces and places in which they could not and cannot truly survive. As the history of slavery and speculative, surrealist methods continue to influence writers, filmmakers, visual artists and other creatives, a question arises: Is Black art technology? Technology is typically thought of as that which makes science practical – that which recognizes a deeper purpose and whose creator should have in mind the ways that their apparatus will render life easier for the user. The writer Amiri Baraka affirms that art is an apparatus that might serve sensory, aesthetic and narrative purposes, but also operates as a tool by which to represent and ultimately free Black lives. Certainly, this is not a wholly novel proposition. One only needs to recall the (US) American fugitive slave narrative tradition and its significance as the genre that gave rise to a long history of Black authors using their works to protest and properly represent the interiority of Black people’s lives. In contemporary speculative cultural productions, Afrofuturism emerges as a liberating philosophy through which to construct more imaginative interpretations of, and oftentimes radical responses to, the environmental issues that plague societies.
In his essay ‘Technology & Ethos’, a cultural nationalist polemic based on the teachings of Maulana Karenga, Amiri Baraka argues that, in order to realize freedom, Black people should reconfigure how they understand the function of technology and science:
Machines, the entire technology of the West, is just that, the technology of the West. Nothing has to look or function the way it does. The West man’s freedom, unscientifically got at the expense of the rest of the world’s people, has allowed him to xpand [sic] his mind– spread his sensibility wherever it cdgo, & so shaped the world, & its powerful artifact-engines. Political power is also the power to create–not only what you will–but to be freed to go where ever you can go–(mentally physically as well). Black creation–creation powered by the Black ethos brings very special results[.] Think of yourself, Black creator, freed of european restraint which first means the restraint of self-determined mind development. Think what would be the results of the unfettered blood inventor- creator with the resources of a nation behind him. To imagine–to think–to energize!!! How do you communicate with the great masses of Black people? … What are the Black purposes of space travel?
In this final question, which is truly one about the stakes of flight, Baraka makes a fascinating, revolutionary call for Black creators to question the function of European-derived artistic thought. He articulates a desire for Black technologies that might offer everyday people psychological ascension over societal circumstances: his is a speculative proposition rooted in centuries of Black strivings. Baraka explains that, unlike the reality of the technology of the West, Black technology ‘must be spiritually oriented because it must aspire to raise man’s spirituality and expand man’s consciousness. It must begin by being “humanistic” though the white boy has yet to achieve this. Witness a technology that kills both plants & animals, poisons the air & degenerates or enslaves man.’ For Baraka, Black art should not seek to imitate that of the West; indeed, as a speculative technology, Black art must liberate – freeing lives, articulating the truth, and making space for difference.
Images from the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster continue to haunt. In his 2006 mixed- media painting Katrina, Katrina, Girl You’re On My Mind from his Traumanauts series (fig. 1), David Huffman tends to the agony that the hurricane wrought in the US Deep South a year prior, using astronaut and space iconography to recall and engage with that fateful moment. In the news media coverage in the days leading up to and after the storm, beautiful Black faces flashed across television screens, their expressions pained by the knowledge that their city, state and country had left them to fend for themselves, as many of those left behind were poor or working class and therefore deemed unimportant. In some cases, bus transport that should have been used to shuttle these poor and working-class community members never arrived. And so families stayed together at home or alone to wait out the storm, the water rising so powerfully that the levees gave way. When television crews arrived during this environmental disaster, cameras scanned across a sea of Black faces, not unlike my own. In interviews, survivors bore witness to their struggles to navigate the deep waters that had invaded their homes, breaking down at the terror they were experiencing. The fortunate ones made it to the rooftops and spray-painted signs to those flying above that they needed food and help. Many had nothing to eat for days before finding shelter. Many of us who watched this heartrending spectacle over several days wished that some force could somehow swoop in and save the day, save lives.
At the Superdome in New Orleans, where New Orleanians could receive a measure of safety if they were fortunate, citizens whom the media quickly began to refer to as refugees, as if they had no country, clamoured for airtime, announcing the names of missing family members or drawing the world’s attention to those who had passed away in the sweltering conditions, their bodies abandoned at the site of demise, in the middle of a sidewalk or on a highway overpass. The unforgiving heat, lack of water, food and care, the ways in which the dispossessed were packed into buses days later and sent to places unknown – the sheer irreverence with which they were treated – recalled some of the most appalling elements of slavery.
Huffman explains that his traumanauts are ‘the psychological personalities coming from the rupture of slavery for Africans. I would label them a TRAUMAnaut, rather than an astronaut, because of this traumatic rupture of existence. From being captured, brought to America and parts of Europe, as workers, as slaves, there’s a cultural identity that’s been decimated. The traumanauts are constantly looking for a location, for home.’ As captured in Katrina, Katrina, the traumanauts appear in this reimagined scene as mystic presences in a setting that recalls outer space, but whose geographic and temporal bounds are unknown. The traumanauts are scattered throughout the landscape, their puffy white spacesuits nearly glowing against the bleak, abstract background. In the midst of rescuing others, seeking help from rooftops, or, more soberly, floating in the water (lifeless from drowning), the traumanauts’ placement in similar postures to those that were seen in New Orleans forces the viewer to see the connection. The traumanauts are a kind of performative empath, determined to make plain the suffering and loss that occurred. Huffman situates the Katrina catastrophe in a longer history of environmental injustice and, through his theorization of the futuristic traumanauts as always travelling, always in diaspora, he stresses the necessity of deliberate movements to the preservation of Black bodies, Black life. The water brought us. We must remember to ride the air. Perhaps Huffman’s traumanauts sang just before taking flight: ‘Kum buba yali kum buba tambe / Kum kunka yalki kum kunka tambe’.
Excerpt from IN THE BLACK FANTASTIC, ed. Ekow Eshun, used by permission of MIT Press
Michelle D. Commander, Ph.D., is a scholar of slavery and memory, Black geographies and mobility, and the speculative arts. She is deputy director of Research and Strategic Initiatives at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Commander’s books include Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic and Avidly Reads: Passages. She is the editor of the anthology Unsung: Unheralded Narratives of American Slavery & Abolition. She recently served as the consulting curator for a new period room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled Before Yesterday We Could Fly, which opened in November 2021 and is currently on view. She is at work on Seizing Black Space, a book-length project on Black mobility and slavery’s geographical afterlives that is under contract with Viking Books.
Ekow Eshun is a writer and curator based in London. Formerly director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, he is the author of Black Gold of the Sun and Africa State of Mind.
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