Every possible story but the true one

This essay is greatly informed by analytical and ethical frameworks developed by Christina Sharpe, Frank Wilderson, Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Che Gossett and others along with Marcus Rediker’s historical research even where not directly cited though they cannot be blamed for my failings. Should you find this essay engaging please uplift their works, the directly influential ones being listed at the bottom. Special thanks to Megan Spencer for their valuable feedback on the draft and to both Megan again and Zoé Samudzi for being thought partners on the ideas while writing. I try to avoid detailing anti-Black violence yet found no way to escape implying or vaguely describing some easily imaginable and horrible scenarios so a HUGE CONTENT WARNING FOR ANTI-BLACK VIOLENCE AND AFRICAN SLAVERY is in order. Feedback whether constructive, destructive or other always welcomed.

 

The 2018 box office hit The Meg proved that the shark attack film remains a staple of the nature horror genre. The Meg has already a sequel in development and spawned a knockoff in the same year, Megalodon. These focus on groups of people under threat from one or many charcharocles megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew to over fifty feet long. Others in the genre look at contemporary species like great white and bull sharks, lab-created super genius sharks, sharks in unexpected places like the under sand or in Australian supermarkets, shark-cephalopod hybrids, sharks using storms to migrate and hunt, sharks from beyond the grave and more. It seems just about every possible and a great many more impossible stories of sharks eating people has been told in nature horror, except for the one time that people were regularly, dependably, for a long period eaten by sharks: the Middle Passage.

Most shark species cannot kill people and almost all those that can never think to try as we great apes largely do not register as prey items, not to mention that sharks struggle a bit to hunt where all people are very nearly all the time, outside of the water. The small number that do sometimes bite people largely do so while being harassed or out of curiosity (a light biting is a ‘what’s this?’ investigatory technique – though this can still be fatal). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey largely mistake people for more familiar mammals like seals or bite while attempting to procure something attached to a diver as with the catch on a spearfisher’s string. A couple of species are both capable of killing people and also generalist predators that likely register people as potential prey. Only three shark species are confirmed to account for more than ten total human fatalities, the great white, tiger and bull. A fourth, the oceanic whitetip, likely accounts for many fatal attacks in remote, open waters unlikely to be recorded.

Despite the rarity of attacks, sharks occupy a primary location in colonial productions of nature horror – a genre positing a perpetual threat to “man” from an Othered animal or vegetal being, think: animal attack movies or a less comedic Little Shop of Horrors. Sharks are imposing beings and larger species are capable of tremendous power and rending of flesh in the course of their feeding. And given that people do travel over or swim in waters where sharks live or frequent, let’s call these human-infested waters, the very rare human-as-calories tragedy is bound to happen. The potential for horror here is visceral and obvious. Val Plumwood’s essay “On Being Prey” reflects upon her experience surviving a predatory attack by a saltwater crocodile in the north of the Australian settler colony. She describes it as “an experience beyond words of total terror”. The idea of being killed and eaten, or being killed by being eaten, is necessarily horror. This would be the case even if colonialism did not create “a masculinist monster myth” of order being synonymous with human dominance, a “master narrative” of control over and distance from ecological systems, a counterposition of humanity-animality.

Yet for all the horror of the idea of being prey, there is a total lack of malignance in that fate even as many nature horror stories project ideas of diabolical intent upon attacking animals. They were hungry and there you were or, they were wary of your intrusion and you intruded. It’s not a malignant calculus any more than some chameleon has some grudge against some grasshopper. The violence is strictly mis/opportunistic and the individual creatures involved are incidental, just the right combination of lucky/unlucky that defines predator/prey encounters. This is not the case in the Middle Passage. Humans as shark prey in the Middle Passage has purposeful intent from the terroristic to the punitive to the arbitrary. The horror is malignant not by the sharks’ actions, but in how slavers made captive Africans into shark food. Think Jaws combined with Saw combined with Hannibal and you’re in the ballpark, albeit far less horrifying than the actual details which I recommend against investigating for traumatic reasons but also ethical ones around the drive to consume and reproduce anti-Black violence.

During the Middle Passage, slavers fed murdered and living Africans to sharks as a convenient disposal of murdered remains and troublesome persons, to terrify living captives against escape or suicide overboard, to punish captives involved in insurrections and more. Slavers describe all of that in their contemporary narratives as well as Africans escaping ships to unknown fates including repatriation and liberation as well as death by shark. Slavers murdered at least two million Africans during the Middle Passage and discarded nearly all into the Atlantic. Sharks did not consume all these souls, but they consumed many. If sharks consumed just 1,000 of those dead or living – I found no estimates, reliable or otherwise, but 1,000 is at least a factor of ten below a wildly conservative guess if their frequency in slaver narratives is representative – that would still be nearly 20% higher than all combined fatal and non-fatal shark bites/attacks in the Florida Museum global database hosted by the University of Florida that tracks shark attacks since 1582, and 85% higher than the total verified fatal shark attacks. By any measure, the Middle Passage accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of cases of people being consumed by sharks. The percentage, though unknown in detail, is sufficient to say that it is the the “normal” way sharks eat people with all other examples being statistically peripheral. (This if my readings of shark ecology are correct in concluding that most historical ocean-going ships travel too fast for sharks to pursue longer than briefly or are otherwise not attractive to sharks leaving lesser probabilities for shark predation in the event of shipwreck, even incorrectly assuming a historically and geographically flat population density of sharks per square kilometer and oceanic shipwreck distribution).

The Meg, it’s knock-off Megalodon and its pending sequel, 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon and an earlier Megalodon from the same year, 2012’s Jurassic Shark, 2009’s Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus or any of the Mega Shark franchise, 2011’s Super Shark and the 2001 Antonio Sabato Jr. vehicle Shark Hunter account for ten of the feature length films about an extinct shark hunting people, a species that never once encountered any great ape in its millions of years of existence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. Sci-fi doesn’t have to have much sci in it to be a fun or good story. Over ten impossible megalodon films but not one involving the predominant political geography of material world consumption of people by sharks. Why are our imaginary universes so rarely grounded in material violences like the Middle Passage? This isn’t just the sci-fi shark attack stories like The Meg, Sharknado and 2-Headed Shark Attack.

I earlier argued that nearly all shark attack films are sci-fi in that sharks are not, as a rule, capable of consuming as much food as they do in shark attack movies. An adult great white is not plausibly likely to eat hundreds of pounds of people in two days like in The Shallows, much less in minutes as with Jaws 2. But even in those films portrayed as real-world like Jaws, I’m aware of none that take place in or reference the only historical geography where shark attacks on people were common and predictable. There are films like Frenzy and Open Water with divers and boaters marooned in remote areas in the face of hungry sharks but none of actual marronage from both slavers and their accompanying sharks. This has always been the case in film and tv but not always in other mediums.

 

Petition of the Sharks of Africa

Petition picture from the University of Virginia website

Scottish abolitionist and radical James Tytler produced in 1792 an early modern fantastic fiction work in his “The PETITION of the SHARKS of Africa” addressed “To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal of Great Britain, in Parliament Assembled”. In the petition, sharks collectively beg Parliament to not heed the demands of abolitionists as it will deprive a “numerous body” in “a very flourishing situation” of “many a delicious meal” of “large quantities of their most favourite food” over “the specious plea of humanity” that is abolitionism. Abolitionists made much out of the horror of slavers feeding captive Africans to sharks.

Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on

JWM Turner 1840 painting: Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on. Picture from Wikipedia

J.W.M. Turner’s 1840 oil on canvas Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (also called The Slave Ship) horrifically foregrounds a slave ship rollicking in heavy seas with sharks setting upon “the dead and dying” Africans-made-into-commodities thrown overboard. There are other pamphlets, poems, paintings, media accounts and more.

Yet fantastic fiction canon bibliographies do not mention Tytler’s text. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that displays Turner’s painting describes it as “a striking example of the artist’s fascination with violence both human and elemental” but does not mention the sharks in the painting, no matter that the foreground dominates the canvas. It goes beyond this. The Florida Museum worldwide historical shark attack database linked above does not, as best I can determine, account for a single Middle Passage attack. The Wikipedia pages for “Shark Attack” and the various geographical “List of fatal unprovoked shark attacks” pages do not mention the Middle Passage nor any of the documented African murders and deaths by shark during it. I could not access the entirety of every Discovery Channel Shark Week production but from what I could access or review through secondary sources, the Middle Passage is absent from its documentary coverage as well as that of Blue Planet and other NatGeo, Nature, Nova, BBC and other wildlife documentaries about or featuring sharks. Much like shark attack cinema, every possible and impossible shark attack story can be told except for the ones that comprise the vast preponderance. Why should this be?

Marcus Rediker writes about tall ships in perfect analogy to shark attack cinema in his 2008 article in Atlantic Studies, “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”.

Recently I have been studying one kind of tall ship: the slave ship. During this time I discovered the limit of the romance [with tall ships]. It extends to all tall ships except the most important one. The slave ship is so far from romantic that we cannot bear to look at it, even though it was one of the two main institutions of modern slavery. The other, the plantation, has been studied intensively, but slave ships hardly at all. The rich historical literature has much to say about the origins, time, scale, flows, and profits, but little to say about the vessel that made it possible, even though the slave ship was the mechanism for history’s greatest forced migration, for an entire phase of globalization, an instrument of “commercial revolution” and the making of plantations, empires, capitalism, industrialization. If Europe, Africa, and Americas are haunted by the legacies of race, class, and slavery, the slaver is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.

Rediker was writing prior to Christina Sharpe’s monumental 2016 volume In the Wake: On Blackness and Being and the research and work it inspires along with some preceding work but his point remains largely true. In Fred Moten’s phrasing, the Middle Passage is “the interpellative event of modernity in general.” It establishes ways of meanings through which we understand the world. The answer to the above questions about investigating every possible and impossible scenario in shark attack movies except for the main one is in Moten’s phrasing. The Middle Passage and African Slavery are frames of reference through which we experience the contemporary world. Settler colonialism destroys the Native world to build the anti-Black one and in this building creates ways of meaning, frames of reference, interpellations, discourses, normativity. As the “interpellative event” the Middle Passage is what creates the world in which shark attack movies are imagined. The narrative gap between the world that creates shark attack movies and the world they purport to portray lies in the difficulty of finding, or thinking to look for, a frame of reference with which to observe our frame of reference.

The 2007 sensationalist documentary Sharks on Trial opens asserting that “sharks terrify us” and “trigger our deepest primeval fears”. “Primeval” in this context is weirdly appropriate in how it suggests the Middle Passage as the “interpellative event of modernity in general,” how it is world building. Some colonizing empires, geographies or proto-states had earlier descriptions or cultural and linguistic representations of sharks but lost them during the Medieval period. José Castro writes that “Large sharks were known to the Greeks and Romans, and references to large sharks of the Mediterranean are found in the writings of classical writers from Aristotle to Aelian,” but that “Large sharks are conspicuously absent from the medieval bestiaries that described the then known fauna as well as some imaginary animals.” The word shark enters the English and Spanish languages through the Middle Passage. Rediker writes that “the English shark thus seems to have entered the English language through the talk of slave-trade sailors, who may have picked up and adapted the word ‘xoc,’ […] from the Maya in the Caribbean.” Castro notes the “Spanish borrowed the word tiburón from the Carib[s].” Understanding the Middle Passage as modernity’s “interpellative event” means sharks are part of creating the modern world, a synonym for the anti-Black one, making consciousness of them “primeval” indeed.

Works like Thomas Peschak’s 2013 text from University of Chicago Press, Sharks and People: Exploring Our Relationship with the Most Feared Fish in the Sea studiously ignore the medieval pre/proto-European break in shark knowledge instead asserting that “Historians have traced fear of sharks back to ancient times, as far back as the the civilizations of Greece and Rome.” Leaving aside the glaring absence of Kru, Polynesian and other non-European coastal and seafaring populations’ shark narratives — including those from the populations from which colonizers took words for sharks — filling in an appropriately blank spot to draw an ahistorical lineage obscures the Middle Passage’s founding role in colonial understandings of the shark as horror fodder. Peschak’s book is geared toward the noble goal of shark conservation while dedicating just one-half of one paragraph amongst 286 pages to the Middle Passage, the only modern period were there was anything close to parity in the numbers of people eaten by sharks and sharks eaten by people. As opposed to today when sharks comprise roughly 99.9999958% of the annual deaths in fatal human-shark encounters and humans around .0000042%, primarily through capitalist enclosure of seascapes and commodification of sealife for rents and profits. Anti-Blackness, this formation of a humanity-animality binary with Black people positioned as, in Frank Wilderson’s terms, commodifiable sites of accumulation and locations for gratuitous violence, provides the grammar for the mass shark slaughters, for making monsters of sharks, that Peschak and others so justly campaign against. Leaving the Middle Passage out of this narrative reduces the legibility of what creates both anti-Blackness and mass shark slaughters through capitalist fishing.

Just as shark attack cinema is colonial cultural production, the Middle Passage sharks are a part of a colonial ecology. Their desires were for a mix of shade from the hot tropical sun and the convenient food that often accompanies large, slow moving, floating objects, but slavers deployed those impulses as part of a terror regime. Rediker quotes one source saying

the master of a Guinea-ship, finding a rage for suicide among his slaves, from a notion the unhappy creatures had, that after death they should be restored again to their families, friends, and country; to convince them at least some disgrace should attend them here, he immediately ordered one of their dead bodies to be tied by the heels to a rope, and so let down into the sea; and, though it was drawn up again with great swiftness, yet in that short space, sharks had bit off all but the feet.

Other sources narrate kidnapped Africans being fed alive to sharks for the same purpose of terrorizing others. Sharks then, formed the exterior perimeter of The Hold and were purposefully recruited for that function. Redicker quoting again, “Our way to entice [sharks] was by Towing overboard a dead Negro which they would follow till they had eaten him up.” For colonizers the origins of shark chumming was not to catch sharks but to attract them as predators for the purpose of horror, for the purpose of a living fence.

Christina Sharpe writes, “The belly of the ship births blackness.” The slave ship’s Hold is the indigenous geography of Blackness including it’s construct of Black Captivity. The Hold’s geography of Black Captivity intended totalization. If The Hold is where Blackness is born, sharks are its birth attendants. One slave ship passenger wrote, per Rediker, “we caught plenty of fish almost every day, especially Sharks, which wee salted, & preserv’d for ye Negroes.” He continued, “They are good victuals, if well dress’d, tho’ some won’t eat them, because they feed upon men; ye Negroes fed very heartily upon them.” Thinking again of Plumwood’s “experience beyond words of total terror” at being crocodile prey, escape overboard from The Hold is exactly this yet compounded with Black Captivity. Death and/or consumption by shark may not offer any freedom from The Hold but could mean being very literally fed back into it or nourishing one’s former captors, mediated by sharks. One’s physical being put to work after biological death is a level of totalitarian control difficult to approach. While the sharks themselves offer no malevolence, they are mediators for slavers’ cruelties, desires and hungers. Almost all shark attack movies aspire towards horror but none approach this, not in topic nor terror. Not even those that make out sharks as illegible monsters, as ‘here be dragons’.

Despite everything written above, I’m neither interested in nor calling for movies or stories about sharks eating captive Black people in horror cinema and television. Social media, cinema, TV and carceral systems are already chock full of Black death and pain intended for consumption, often under the ruse of “wokeness”. It’s part of the continual construction and production of anti-Blackness. Inside of anti-Blackness there is no revolutionary potential in this kind of production of cinematic Black death. But grounding our imaginary universes inside material violences does not necessitate reproducing them. Part of cinematic horror, including nature horror, is the relief that comes with the end of the horror affect, as when someone is finally rescued from or kills an attacking shark. In shark attack movies this can mean sharks as secondary terror elements in Middle Passage revolt, survival or escape stories. Or even sharks as intentional allies in vanquishing slavers – an inversion of The Hold as a location of Black captivity, instead its wanton destruction becoming what Wilderson describes as “gratuitous freedom” – and so many more possibilities. This second example where the cruel sharks of nature horror can similarly plot in hypothetical Middle Passage stories applies equally to antecedents of other fictional aquatic beings like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Madison from Splash, Aquaman and Namor in comics and others. Where, in their universes, were their ancestors during the Middle Passage? Like the imaginary villainous sharks of nature horror with their bottomless stomachs, their peoples necessarily encountered the Black Atlantic during the Middle Passage. What happened next?

jaws

A shark prop supposed to be a great white reduces the settler population by one. Screencap from Jaws (1975)

Instead of shark attack cinema reproducing anti-Black normativity through examining every possible story but the true one, it can offer different reference points for meaning. Instead of anti-Blackness being the frame through which the story is told, a different positionality can be the frame that breaks The Hold. A Black liberation shark attack story does not the revolution make, to be egregiously obvious. But each contribution towards ways of meaning not premised upon anti-Blackness creates a new potential hegemony, a new lens through which we engage the world and, in that, a partial end to the present world. It also turns upside down existing shark attack cinema, reframing colonizers being “victimized” by sharks as not horror. Sharks, following “the ghost ship of our modern consciousness” are the heroes haunting the settlers. I don’t want to overstate the potential individual enterprises like what a single shark attack movie against The Hold could do. But it’s hard to imagine action for real change without talking about things. And cinema is one form of conversation. And the nature horror genre can be part of that conversation when it stops giving us every possible story but the true one. Thanks for reading.

 

Works providing the basis for this essay

Saidiya Hartman Scenes of Subjection

Saidiya Hartman & Frank Wilderson “The Position of the Unthought”

Frank Wilderson Red, White and Black

Fred Moten Stolen Life

Jared Sexton “Unbearable Blackness”

Christina Sharpe In the Wake

Marcus Rediker “History from below the water line: Sharks and the Atlantic slave trade”

Val Plumwood “On Being Prey”

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“So Let It Be Done!” Of John Brown and White Anti-Racism

White anti-racists love to celebrate John Brown, normally at the expense of celebrating Black abolitionists. But does this appreciation value Brown’s actual deeds and words, especially with regarding to abolishing his subject position? For the most part, no. For all the talk about positionality there is relatively little discussion of subject position. John Brown’s life and actions are well narrated by many already. Instead here I want to focus on Brown’s statements at his trial and what they can tell us about white anti-racism and ally politics. I’m not a John Brown scholar and do not assert he would share my entire analysis. What follows is a selective reading, not a contextualization. Further this is not a critique of Brown. Both thoughtful and trash critiques are widely available including by Brown’s contemporaries.

Brown made a few statements to the court during his trial. His November 2nd 1859 address is only six hundred thirty-eight words long but offers some tremendous lessons.

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted – the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends – either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class – and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I her it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown starts confessing to earlier crimes by directly intervening through participation in the Underground Railroad as he had done for nearly a decade after founding the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts. Slavery was/is a social and legal institution, and as such freedom for the enslaved population was inherently criminalized. Actions against African Slavery were criminal acts and Brown embraces this criminality with both arms. Brown then critiques the master/capitalist class by noting if he had intervened through direct, armed action on any of their behalves he would be celebrated. Here Brown describes the misunderstanding that African Slavery imposes on the world. Systemic racism creates a discursive world where Black life can barely be conceived of, much less valued. The discursive break Brown offers is between one where only the freedom of the powerful matters and one where – how to put it – Black lives matter. That phrase is of course not Brown’s and Black revolutionaries have created diverse vocabularies, praxes and philosophies of resistance that long pre-date Brown and, in fact, inspired him to action towards Black liberation.

The most vital part of Brown’s insight comes when he utters, “I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!”

This statement is powerful poetry and inspiringly militant. He reframes what is – in the U.S. – wrong as right and right as wrong thereby inverting the relationship he describes in the prior section where the rich and powerful are the valued population. While I hold reservations about “on behalf of,” Brown’s “His despised poor” reorients the power of God through a Christian liberation theology that asserts, as in Matthew, that it is “easier for a camel to pass through a needle eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Brown’s focus is on the enslaved African and Black populations which is different than the working class vs. capitalist class but remains analogous to the Matthew verse. Brown’s key insight, however, offers a more fundamental break.

Assuming the Position

Inside of organizations of power like capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy and others, both individuals and status groups (“men”, “Blacks”, “natives”, “the rich”, etc.) are positioned on various axes. This is the subject position inside of power. One may hold a privileged subject position on one axis and a subordinate one on another which is a key insight of Black feminism’s intersectionality framework. For example, one may be working class vis-a-vis capitalism and thus in an oppressed position, while simultaneously being positioned as superior under white supremacy and patriarchy. This is the position of white, working class, cisgendered men for example. The class-oppressed and race- and gender-free positions are all equally true and not contradictory. The question of subject position is what separates Brown’s statements at his trial from white anti-racism.

White anti-racism is, with few exceptions, more “white” than anything else. The “white” subject position is formed by and predicated on an assumed superiority over “non-white”. The entire history of whiteness is produced towards this end. More specifically “white” was/is produced, originally, in counterposition to “Black” and “Native” providing the ethical basis for African Slavery and Indian Removal. Alternately put, white supremacy is inhered in whiteness and there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. This is to say that whiteness is defined by its subject position, not cultural production; it is the product of the colonization of Turtle Island and enslavement of Africans rather than an accumulation of traditions and influences. Whiteness’ only real tradition is white supremacy.

This presents a problem with the concepts of “white anti-racist” and “white ally”. “Ally”, specifically although not exclusively in the context of white people, is predicated on maintaining a subject position apart from the subordinated status group. To be a White Ally is to position oneself inside white supremacy vis-a-vis Blackness/anti-Blackness (as do, if differently, other settler but non-white identities). Self-identified white anti-racists have in common with neo-nazis and ilk a practice of organizing sociality around whiteness, which is again indistinguishible from white supremacy. “Ally”, “white anti-racist” and neo-nazi embrace whiteness while helping define the boundaries of the subject position. They are all attempts to be the Best Kind of White Person.

John Brown is frequently positioned as an ally par excellence. This, in my read, is a dramatic mischaracterization. Brown says, “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!” Four years before the term “miscegenation” was coined by the nascent worldview of biological racism and Social Darwinism, Brown discussed ‘mingling his blood’ from a fundamentally different point of view. Brown asserts that the mixing of the blood is done through struggle against African Slavery.

His declaration, “So let it be done!” defines abolitionism in a way rarely discussed. For most abolitionism refers to the movement to end African Slavery’s regime of forced labor and bondage. If, in the name of the “furtherance of the ends of justice” it is necessary to forfeit all the protections that whiteness usually provides that is not calling simply for the abolition of the coerced labor and captivity, but also whiteness. It is his very subject position that is deemed both expendable and necessarily forfeited to achieve Black freedom. I read Brown’s statements as calls to abolish the fundamental construct of African Slavery, not simply the forced labor aspect thereof. This means abolishing the subject position of whiteness rather than affirming it.

Brown had “white anti-racist” contemporaries who, though abhorred by slavery and very often militantly opposed to it, never conceived of struggling against their subject position. Their ideological descendants dominate what passes for anti-racism among white people today. At best “white allies” seem committed to navigating positionality without abolishing it. It is not just the neoliberal, individualist framework it so often produces. Actions like, progressive stack during discussions, focusing on whose voices are missing and including them, representation, etc., are vital but insufficient by themselves. Some common White Ally slogans reflect the gap in understanding. “White silence is violence.” True. So is ‘white noise’. They are both true because, again, there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. “White folk work.” Some Black, native and NBPOC both are good at and enjoy doing anti-racist work in white communities. Asserting something is “white folk work” is a way to preserve a white subject position. Were maintaining whiteness not central it would just be called “work”. Why not show up and do the work without centering our white settler identities?

If, as white people committed to ending white supremacy in all its manifestations, we are serious, then we must consider our subject position forfeit. This is not the same as pretending positionality doesn’t exist and must not be carefully navigated. We must continue to undertake anti-oppression practices that somewhat mitigate our subject position’s power while doing the work to abolish it. Are we doing this while celebrating John Brown as an “ally”? Impactful opposition to white supremacy by white people has consequences for those doing the opposing. This is just as true in the cases of armed resistance like John Brown and Marilyn Buck as it is for the unarmed resistance of Charles T. Torrey. In these and other cases the cost included their freedom and health and lives as it so often does for Black and native people whether or not they are fighting the system. But being willing to pay white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ heavy costs daily born by Black people whether or not any specific person is rebelling is an important part of abolishing our subject position. The alternative is the maintenance of white supremacy.

The Atlanteans and the Middle Passage

This essay was inspired Nijla Mu’Min’s extraordinary film Deluge. Thanks to Amrah Salomon for feedback on the draft.

 

Superheroes have celebrated origin stories. Gamma radiation gives rise to shapeshifting rage monsters. Extraterrestrial parentage provides biological powers. A magician’s curse or a nibble from a radioactive arachnid can turn one superpowered. The story of how one gets one’s powers is a defining part of superhero stories. It is, after all, the sine qua non of any superhero’s existence. But what about the universes in which the superheroes operate? Why don’t we look at their origin stories? And what can those origin stories tell us about the comics universes and popular discourse? What follows explores the origin stories of the DC and Marvel universes through their respective Atlantean populations, focusing on a missing narrative fundamental of the world in which virtually all stories in the DC and Marvel lines happen: African Slavery.

The Marvel and DC universes take place, with some exceptions, in the United States settler colony. The United States has two systemic structures without which it does not exist: African Slavery and Indian Removal (or at least it does not exist in anything remotely resembling its current form). These are the bedrocks of settler colonialism on the continent. The simultaneous destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one define everything from many colloquialisms in White American English to property and land law to policing to the names of sports teams to holidays and comprise the preponderance of U.S. history, not to mention the entire physical geography.

Can this be less true in the Marvel and DC universes? They both have Black characters, albeit relatively few and poorly drawn – often in both senses of the term. Black as an identity (or, per anti-Blackness, a site of capital accumulation and location for gratuitous violence) is tied to the legacy of settler colonialism’s African Slavery. If there was African Slavery then there was transport of enslaved peoples from Africa to colonized Turtle Island (North America). So where were the Atlanteans of the respective DC and Marvel universes during the Middle Passage? Where were Aquaman’s and Namor’s ancestors when the first rebelling or newborn enslaved Africans were tossed overboard to drown, be eaten by sharks or drift slowly to the bottom of the Atlantic?

Exploring these ideas identifies dramatic narrative gaps in between the worlds where these stories purport to take place and the world in which they are told. That they are missing from the Marvel and DC universes exemplifies settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the settlers’ anti-Black one is naturalized in and baselines politics and society. Settler colonialism is the organization of power that accomplishes this simultaneous destruction/construction. It is how native Turtle Island becomes the anti-Black North America for example.

It also creates a worldview for its inhabitants. In the same way that men struggle to see sexism, instead just seeing ‘normal’, settlers struggle to see settler colonialism. This settler normativity is one of our very frames of reference. It is basic to our understanding of the world. It is why when we hear about the 49ers we think about the football team or the miners of the gold rush, not the populist genocide the actual ‘fortyniners carried out, despite the depopulation of native California by far being their most enduring and impactful legacy. To question settler colonialism is to question the very world the settlers make. We don’t ask where Aquaman’s ancestors were during the Middle Passage because African Slavery is naturalized in society. It, like men not seeing sexism, is a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made.

So where were Aquaman and Namor’s great-great-great grandparents when they first encountered African Slavery? What was their reaction? How would those reactions change the DC and Marvel universes? I explore some potential scenarios in the paragraphs that follow. Some of these fit inside the current DC and Marvel continuities, namely, the more horrible ones. Others disrupt the current continuities, including those that stop African Slavery in its infancy.

 

Scenario 1: Hotlantis

Those thrown overboard are rescued by Atlanteans and form an Afro-descendent Atlantean population or are assisted in returning home. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

Scenario 2: Successful Anti-Slavery Intervention

The Atlanteans intervene against the slavers and prevent the Middle Passage from happening. Scenario five can work in conjunction with this. This is, in the DC universe term, an Elseworld and is irreconcilable with the current continuities. Scenarios 3 and 4 show why it is irreconcilable.

Scenario 3: Post-Intervention A

Superman’s rocket lands in Pawnee country since there is no Kansas in which to crash without African Slavery. Superman is now a Pawnee hero. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 4: Post-Intervention B

Without African Slavery there is no such place as Gotham in which Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot to later be patrolled by their son Batman. They remain British aristocrats. If Bruce Wayne grows up to be a billionaire vigilante he does so in the UK. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 5: No Response

The Atlanteans first encounter African Slavery through the at sea disposal of newborns or rebelling Africans and either react only to the drowned bodies and not to the act of drowning or simply go about their business. Here the Atlanteans would be concerned with whaling ships more than slave ships (though the ecological damage of African Slavery is in fact substantial!), to the degree they’re concerned with surface dwellers at all. This does not require adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 6: Unsuccessful Intervention

The Atlanteans attempt to intervene and fail and the Middle Passage continues. This is the basis for the Atlantean distance from the surface dweller world for the next four hundred years until the eras of Aquaman and Namor. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 7: Complicity

Both Atlantean worlds are monarchies of one kind or another which suggests regressive politics. It is thus entirely feasible that Aquaman and Namor’s ancestors were complicit in the Middle Passage in some way. Was a tribute or toll paid to those who control the seas? Thus Atlanteans owe reparations of some kind and direct action at the Justice League headquarters is in order. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 8: Opportunistic/Humanitarian Intervention

The history of humanitarian intervention is dominated by the interveners integrating a crisis or oppressive system into their own politics rather than ending the crisis or oppression. Alternately put, humanitarian intervention is with few exceptions a tool of empire. Entirely plausible in an intervention scenario is Atlanteans taking over the slave trade rather ending it. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

 

An honest account of U.S. history means dealing with the ugly truths of settler colonialism. Settler society cultural production helps avoid these ugly truths by producing myths. Not myths as in, superpowered beings in symbolic grand battles. But myths as in, the United States settler colony somehow being post-colonial. As it stands, the most implausible thing about comics is not that some beings can fly without apparent means of propulsion, but that they take place in a United States without Indian Removal and African Slavery. DC and Marvel comics are not imagining a utopia without colonialism even if they may think they are. Instead they imagine a world where colonialism doesn’t matter or doesn’t matter anymore, mountains of facts to the contrary be damned.

Comics can do better. Comics can narrate the colonial present and retcon their respective universes to where settler colonialism, including African Slavery and Indian Removal, happen and impact the universes accordingly. Elseworlds-style stories are one way of accomplishing this. For example there is the as-yet not made story Superman: Alien where the Man of Steel’s rocket is found by Mexican migrant workers on a Kansas farm. He then gets deported with his adoptive parents and grows up to be a Mexican superhero. That is at least as plausible as him being found by the white farm owners. This and the more tragic alternate visions offered above veer away from the current continuities in that they contextualize events as if they take place in the universes they purport to.

The question is one of decolonizing comics. Not as in, comics were colonized and must now be decolonized. That is silly. Nobody colonized comics books. To the contrary, comics in the United States are part of settler colonial cultural production. So in decolonizing comics we seek comics that are decolonizing acts; that are decolonizing narratives and, potentially, tools. Some indie comics and zines already explore this. Yet mainstream comics can too play a role in subverting settler normativity through dealing with the world settler colonialism made, the world in which the comics universes exist. One possible story to tell in this direction is the one that tells the story of the Atlanteans during the Middle Passage. Aquaman’s ancestors have some explaining to do.