Tombstone says George Jackson is right!: on the liminal settler self-awareness of being an apocalypse

For Chris Geovanis, one bad motherfucker who hosted me while I wrote some of this and also once saved my life.

If it’s possible to have spoilers for a popular film that has been around for decades, this essay definitely does. I rely heavily on the works of Christina Sharpe, Sylvia Wynter, Vincent Brown, Joy James, Bedour Alagraa, Patrick Wolfe, Sekou Sundiata and George Jackson even if not all are directly cited. Anything useful in what follows should be credited to them, blame for the rest lies with me. Special thanks to Zoé Samudzi and Briana Ureña-Ravelo for insight into the Christians! Feedback whether in-, con- or de-structive is always appreciated.

The 1993 film Tombstone opens with a group called “The Cowboys” – that a narrator tells us is an early example of “organized crime” in the US – killing several police who had previously killed a couple of the Cowboys. A priest at the site of the killing quotes the Christian religion’s biblical Book of Revelations, “Behold the pale horse. The man who sat on him was Death. And Hell followed with him.” The full verse in the King James biblical edit reads, “And I looked, and behold, a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.” This scene sets up the film’s last act where, in the opposite of subtext, Wyatt Earp rides a horse while killing people by the dozen in order to establish “the law”.

Tombstone was officially directed by George Cosmatos, unofficially co-directed by lead Kurt Russell, from a script by the originally intended director Kevin Jarre. It tells a story of Wyatt Earp (Russell) and his brothers as they head to Tombstone, Arizona colony, in 1879 seeking riches from the colonial silver mines and the economic boom surrounding them. There they find conflict with The Cowboys – Hollywood shorthand for the Cochise County Cowboys – and the Tombstone Sheriff affiliated with them. The Earps and the Cowboys provoke each other into increasingly violent encounters leading the Earps to become cops and use their state power to kill some Cowboys at the now famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral). The Cowboys take revenge by shooting one of the Earp brothers, and killing another one. Wyatt Earp then gathers a posse and carries out a slaughter of dozens of Cowboys. Through all of this Wyatt is in the process of cheating on his wife and his friend Doc Holliday is fighting a losing battle with tuberculosis. The film ends with much of the cast dead as Earp and his new wife dance giddily in the magical snows of Colorado as Holliday takes his last breaths and a narrator celebrates the death by overdose of Earp’s cast aside ex-wife.

Tombstone has a devoted following and has had a second life in memes and GIFs but is uneven and unremarkable as a film. It does have elements to recommend. First are the mustaches. They’re terrific and frequently have more charisma than the people wielding them. Sam Elliott just oozes his Virgil Earp character and Val KIlmer rightfully garnered praise for his performance as Doc Holliday. Really though, it’s mostly the fine mustaches the performers grew that carry the day. Otherwise it’s an overwritten and overacted chore with its fandom primarily based on rather absurd posturings of frontier masculinity and the occasional cute piece of dialogue, mostly from Kilmer as Holliday. There is a lot of men-dominating-men with a studious unacknowledgement that the homoerotic tensions didn’t have to be resolved with a murder spree. It’s only “homoerotic tensions” at play and not also a material conflict between rival frontier gangster capitalists because, in the film, the Cowboys are called “outlaws”, but it’s never even inferred what their criminalized acts are. In material history it was mostly cattle rustling. In Tombstone they’re just kind of assholes which is lazy storytelling and, for the audience that adores it, lazy storywatching.

The film is historical in the limited sense that it has to do mostly with people who existed, but it’s concerned with mythologizing those people and not telling plausible tales of their being. For example the Earps were a gangster capitalist enterprise who captured the backing of a section of the colonial government, just like the Cochise County Cowboys did with Sheriff Johnny Behan in a different section. The only hint of this in the film is very early on, where Wyatt repeatedly strikes a faro dealer, steals his job and, with that violence, procures 25% of the profits in the saloon where the dealer formerly labored. The film portrays this as heroic and oh so macho. In the film the Earps are hero lawmen and it neglects to mention that Doc Holliday and Wyatt finish the film in Colorado colony because there were murder warrants out for them in Arizona stemming from their rivalry with the Cowboys. Wyatt Earp made friends in Hollywood in the autumn of his life which helped shape the later misunderstanding of him, along with becoming the subject of at least three, substantially fictional, lionizing biographies. Had Behan or Ike Clanton made those connections instead, Earp’s image would be much the worse. When Wyatt Earp died he was known, to the limited degree he was known publicly at all, mostly for his role in rigging the 1896 Fitzsimmons vs. Sharkey heavyweight boxing fight, since, by then, regional memory had long faded of his earlier years spent pimping in Illinois and Kansas.

Despite this, Tombstone has a lot of truth to it that it seems largely unaware of. Or, perhaps, Tombstone knows something is going on but thinks it’s something more superficial than what it actually is despite thinking this superficiality to be profound. So what is going on? 

Tombstone is set during the Closing of the American Frontier, a period of colonization where the form of colonial war in the USian West finished shifting from conquest and enclosure of territory to counterinsurgency and enclosure of populations. As Vincent Brown notes in Tacky’s Revolt, this, a long war ongoing for centuries before the current Long War that it prefigures, was put into place first in the construction of the plantation. Which is to say that framing Tombstone’s narrative requires engaging both the destruction of the native world(s) and construction of the anti-black one(s) despite all characters with significant speaking roles, apart from Paul Ben-Victor in brownface as Florentino Cruz, being white settlers.

The central narrative backdrop of so many western genre stories is “the law coming” or another type of institutional regimentation like a railroad or other industrial capital. The television show Deadwood was backdropped by both the threat of the law or army arriving as well as industrial capital represented by George Hearst. Sergio Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West has a railroad bringing pacification. But what is being pacified if, in so many stories covering this period, the native population is narratively absent entirely or rendered peripheral and there are few to no black characters? It’s the “frontier rabble”, the violent packs of settlers of which both the Earps and Cowboys were a part. Per Patrick Wolfe:

Rather than something separate from or running counter to the colonial state, the murderous activities of the frontier rabble constitute its principal means of expansion. These have occurred “behind the screen of the frontier, in the wake of which, once the dust has settled, the irregular acts that took place have been regularized and the boundaries of white settlement extended. Characteristically, officials express regret at the lawlessness of this process while resigning themselves to its inevitability.”

In a storytelling genre sense, westerns like Tombstone seem at first glance to be post-apocalyptic, bringing order in the wake of the violences of settler conquest. But it is not like the settlers returned the land to apocalypsed populaces; there is no post to the apocalypse’s effects. And in destroying native worlds to build anti-black ones, it is in the wake of settler conquest and also, per Christina Sharpe, in the wake of the slave ship. So this genre is apocalyptic but it is not post-apocalyptic, rather it is the apocalypse’s ordering. It is the shift from the fires of conquest to the “long war” of counterinsurgency. The apocalypse shifts from something the settler society inflicts to something it lives. And the western genre through its focus on the law coming describes the shift from the violent events of the colonial encounter to their structuring into colonial rule.

Tombstone does this structuring by having Wyatt Earp and his posse massacre the Cowboys, over twenty in the film’s final act. It is portrayed as heroic even as they kill Cowboys at the barber, the opium den and other decidedly non-combat locales. The film begins this at a train station where the Earps who survived the Cowboys revenge are on a train out of town. Some Cowboys lie in ambush to kill the remaining Earp gang members. Wyatt, revealing himself to be newly deputized a US Marshall, kills one Cowboy – who is also a Cochise County Sheriff deputy, then screams at another who lays disarmed on the ground:


Hell comes with the law. Two decades before Tombstone was released, George Jackson wrote about this scene where “the law” begins to massacre a competing faction for the plunder of frontier pacification:

Every time I hear the word “law” I visualize gangs of militiamen or Pinkertons busting strikes, pigs wearing sheets and caps that fit over their pointed heads. I see a white oak and a barefooted black hanging, or snake eyes peeping down the lenses of telescopic rifles, or conspiracy trials.

The law in the western genre story is the arrival of the counterinsurgent violences of the plantation, the ordering of the apocalypse the settlers will then live. Calgacus described the Roman Empire’s plundering as “they make a desert and call it peace.” If we include Brown and Sylvia Wynter’s insights into Calgacus’s formulation, we might say of the US settler empire, “They make a desert and call it piece,” or pieza, the Spanish system of ordering the African slave trade.

Tombstone relays explicitly only part of what is above but that still teaches us something about both the film and its audience. Specifically it teaches us that the US settler society has at least a liminal knowledge that it is an apocalypse and celebrates itself on those specific terms with imagery like Wyatt Earp’s revenge ride. The Christian Book of Revelations and the story of the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – of whom Death with his Pale Horse is the final – is popularly known at a superficial level at least in the United States. They appear in song as with Johnny Cash’s 2002 ballad “The Man Comes Around” and in popular television shows like Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and in professional wrestling with The Four Horsemen and the Horsemen of Apocalypse in Marvel comic books. These Christian pop culture adaptations are before even considering the dispersal of biblical knowledge of the Book of Revelations through church sermons, study groups and leisurely reading.

The US settler society broadly understands Death and his Pale Horse as cataclysmic, as apocalyptic, whether as allegory or prophecy, whether superficially or studiously. When Wyatt Earp and his gang on horseback slaughter over twenty people while he brings “hell with [him]”, he is fulfilling the apocalyptic role foretold in Tombstone’s opening scene. But Earp, representing “the law”, is not bringing nor ending the apocalypse, but ordering it in a way meant to make the apocalypse heroic to its audience. Through ordering the apocalypse, Tombstone and similar stories (re)produce a timeline where settler violence was solved rather than ordered, keeping settler self-awareness of being an apocalypse at the periphery of knowledge. Sekou Sundiata described this as how power says. “That was then, this is now. Take time off-line. Break the bridge.” By imagining the ordering of the apocalypse as its end, Tombstone helps invisibilize the counterinsurgency that succeeded conquest. But the law coming doesn’t bring peace and Tombstone doesn’t hide this. Indeed, the film agrees with George Jackson; fascism is ‘the law’. Thanks for reading.

A Colonizing Anarchism

AK Press in 2009 published James Horrox’s A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement, an examination of European anarchism’s influences on Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine that aspires to locate anarchism in Israeli kibbutzim. His efforts instead expose failures of the European Left canons, a misstep from a respected Left publisher, and a willingness to embrace colonial violence and anti-semitism if it can be read as vaguely anarchistic.


Horrox’s text contains numerous factual errors as when he writes that Bar Giora “grew out of an organization known as the Hashomer” (p.20) and not the other way around. These inaccuracies are less a problem than how Horrox immediately follows writing Hashomer’s “members were, from an early stage, ‘motivated by a conviction that the commune was the best way of life for themselves and their families.’ The group developed an ‘alternative model based upon cooperative settlement,’” (p.20) without noting Hashomer’s primary motivation was establishing settler relations of force to create a racialized labor caste of colony guards. Their idea of a “commune” was explicitly defined as one without Palestinians. Horrox’s idealized spaces are settler sovereignties created through and in order to extend ethnic cleansing.

Horrox notes in the introduction that “Many see the kibbutz’s very existence as predicated on the forcible displacement and subjugation of the region’s native Arab population, and would consider any progressive ideals of equality and social justice that the kibbutzim profess to hold nullified by the massive inequality on which the practical manifestation of these ideals has come to be based,” [emphases in original] (p.8-9). He immediately dismisses the harm kibbutzim enact writing, “Throughout history, all projects attempting to self-organize have been caught in different types of power networks that have complicated their existence. The kibbutz is no different,” (p.9). Horrox doesn’t elucidate which projects he is talking about but surely not all of them create the “power networks” that othered populations are then “caught in”. 

It’s telling that Horrox cites Gershon Shafir’s 2002 work (with Yoav Peled) Being Israeli but not his celebrated 1989 text Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict that directly contradicts Horrox’s thesis about socialist ideologies being the driving factors in the Zionist settler colonial forms of the kibbutz and moshav. Horrox contradicts himself, seemingly without knowing, throughout the text on this. “In 1909, a strike broke out when Kinneret’s Jewish workers decided they could no longer put up with the oppressive, arbitrary administration,” which sounds like something we hope anarchists would do. The sentence continues, “and the use of hired Arab labor,” (p.17). Oops. Doesn’t seem so anarchistic now. Settlers refusing to share the same labor fields as Palestinians is the point of Avoda Ivrit (Hebrew labor). Because Palestinian laborers had lower costs of living due to kinship networks, subsistence farming and, especially, because large landowners and agricultural interests already exploited Palestinian labor and depressed their wages, Jewish settlers could not compete with Palestinian labor. Instead of organizing alongside Palestinian laborers fighting exploitation, non-Palestinian Jews cooperated to exclude Palestinians from labor fields to increase their bargaining power by creating exclusive labor castes. Separation was the goal, not cooperation. Horrox even quotes Nachman Syrkin on this but finds different meaning. “In the planned cooperative settlement, the question of Jewish labor will find a solution, because the main problem, that of labor and capital, will be solved,” (p.16).

Separation as the source of settler labor prosperity is the topic of an influential thesis by Chaim Arlosoroff, a major Labor Zionism intellectual who Horrox cites throughout the text as an anarchist figure and thinker. Arlosoroff’s 1926 essay “On the Question of Joint Organization” argues for Zionists to follow South African settlers’ Color Bar – later termed apartheid – programs of labor separation instead of struggling jointly with Palestinians laborers on the railways, post offices and other British colonial infrastructures. Arlosoroff writes that wherever Jewish settlers labor in Palestine, they do so “in the shadow of cheap Arab labor,” a “primitive rival” whose “needs are little more than zero.” Arlosoroff both naturalizes the pre-Zionism exploitation of Palestinian workers while justifying settlers displacing them. For all of Horrox’s waxing about how Gustav Landauer and Pyotr Kropotkin – both of whom opposed Zionism – heavily influenced Arlosoroff, A.D. Gordon and others, he fails to note that the Second and Third Aliya settlers he idolizes aimed for, in their own terms, the “conquest of land” and not the “conquest of bread.” Zionists sought to enclose the land from the indigenous Palestinian peasantry. Claiming anarchism or not, this is an enclosure, not a creation of commons. This is the narrative gap Horrox constructs when noting the excitement over “workers cultivating publicly-owned land” (p.19) while not mentioning that Palestinians are neither the “workers” nor the “public” in that sentence despite being the vast majority of Palestine’s pre-Nakba population.

As a Living Revolution continues its major conflict is not settlers espousing anarchism while dispossessing Palestinians but settlers espousing anarchism losing ground to settlers espousing Marxism in Zionist discourse and colonization. Instead of the common Colonizer Left trope of the revolutionaries and capitalists fighting for control over colonial plunder, Horrox has sects of a Colonizer Left fighting for the ability to guide colonial plunder. This is more akin to how Budour Hassan finds many anarchists fetishizing the “Republicans of the Spanish Revolution [while neglecting] Spanish colonialism in North Africa.”

Horrox reproduces another oppressive formation in endorsing European anti-semitic ideas of Jewish degredation. Horrox writes of Zionism as the “reconstruction of an entire people,” the “Jewish renaissance” (p.2), a “national revival” (p.13) and “regeneration” (p.25). But what is wrong with we Jews that requires “renaissance”, “regeneration” or “revival”? Anti-semitism presupposes that something is wrong with Jews and this is evident in the writings Horrox cites as well as his own text. Horrox spends copious pages on A.D. Gordon as an anarchist. Ze’ev Sternhell, whose The Founding Myths of Israel Horrox cites only to ignore, quotes Gordon writing that Jews are “broken and crushed … sick and diseased in body and soul.” That “we are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil; there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost nonexistent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other peoples either.” Horrox slightly cleans up this crude anti-semitism in one of the brief moments he even mentions Palestinians in the text writing that Gordon was “anything but naive about Arab resistance to Zionism, which he viewed as a perfectly understandable reaction to Jews’ westernized and rootless lifestyle,” (p.27). This and Horrox writing that his anarchist settlers “felt that the First Aliya Jews had succeeded merely in replicating the exploitative socio-economic structure of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews worked in clean jobs, far from the point of production, and relied on other groups to do the so-called dirty work,” (p.17). Either Horrox doesn’t understand that Zionism’s “New Jews” are an anti-semitic idea or he’s ok with the anti-semitsm. It’s an anti-semitic text either way.

Colonialism and anti-semitism are foundational to European fascism so it makes horrible sense that Horrox celebrates the white supremacist eugenicist Arthur Ruppin and the early Revisionist Zionist Josef Trumpeldor. He mines their work for anarchist influences in the same way that Jacobin recently printed a hagiography for fascist Eduard Limonov. These decontextualized, highly selective readings do nothing to expand the reach of liberation movements but instead attempt to rehabilitate fascism, colonialism and ethnic cleansing and pretend they are not oppression. This mining has more in common with the Israeli military using Derrida, Deleuze and Gautari to plan attacks on Palestinians than it does anything remotely progressive.

Could this mess have been avoided? Horrox describes “anarchism’s social vision” at the beginning of the book and begins with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who promoted genociding Europe’s Jews as part of his political philosophy. At least 150 years before Proudhon was born, and 200 years before A.D. Gordon, kidnapped Africans in Jamaica had already secured their freedom and established agricultural communities in the Blue Mountains in opposition to African Slavery and capitalist agricultural exploitation. Three years before Marx was born Black fighters at Negro Fort inside Seminole sovereignty raided southern Georgia for supplies and to free kin in direct opposition to the US settler slaver empire. Where are these communes in Horrox’s canon? Why are settler colonial geographies like the agricultural kibbutzim in the canon but the anti-colonial fugitive agricultural communes established in the Great Dismal Swamp ignored? The works Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Zoé Samudzi and William C. Anderson, Marquis Bey and others are doing conceive resistance lineages and practices that do not need to do like Horrox with the kibbutzim or Jacobin with Limonov and try to crop out the horror to create the image of revolution. Instead they create and learn from resistance lineages established in opposition to capitalist, colonialist, anti-Black systems.

The latter two examples, Samudzi & Anderson and Bey, I note above are also published by AK Press the same as A Living Revolution which remains in AK’s catalogue. A few years back investigators showed that one of AK’s authors, Michael Schmidt, was espousing white nationalism under the rubrick of anarchism and AK reacted swiftly to cease publishing Schmidt’s works and remove him from their catalogue. They should do the same with A Living Revolution. Thanks for reading.

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. Specifically I use Rediker’s historical scaffolding in his essay “History below the water line” which I abuse to talk about shark attack movies. 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 otodus megalodon sharks, a species extinct for over two million years that grew as large as 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 under the 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, over 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 to hunt outside the water where all people are very nearly all the time. 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 to people). The even smaller number that on rare occasions attack intending to prey often 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 can sometimes 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, especially animal attack movies. Sharks are imposing beings and larger sharks 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 inevitable. 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 a chameleon has a grudge against a 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 surviving 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 context 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 shark cannot 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 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 science 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 native worlds to build the anti-black ones 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 future 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, Hawai’ian 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 forumulation, 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 and 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 “raising awareness”. It’s part of the continual construction and (re)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?


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. 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”

Casting a Spell of Settler Normativity


The 2016 film Dr. Strange is a paradigmatic example of how the settler society naturalizes settler colonialism in the imaginary universes it produces. The film studiously avoids political discussion so the coloniality is only implied, albeit quite heavily. Folks who followed Dr. Strange’s production will remember problems in the film’s production related to both the orientalist narrative and whitewashing of the cast . But this is not where the film’s racism ends. As noted previously on this blog, the US settler society produces imaginary universes that share it’s premise of indigenous removal. The Marvel universe is no different than the material universe in this regard. The United States destroys the native world through constructing the anti-Black one.

We learn towards the end of Dr. Strange that there are three “sanctums” operated by the Masters of the Mystic Arts. One is in Hong Kong and the second in London. Neither of these are obvious historical choices for a mythology supposedly stemming from the Tibetan plateau. But both have had human populations for several thousand years. So let’s chalk it up to drift. The third is in New York City. Why should this be? Why would this ancient sect set up shop in such a young city? How long has it been there? Were/are the sorcerers settlers? Did native Masters of the Mystic Arts prior to European colonization operate the sanctum? No matter how we answer these questions they exemplify settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one is naturalized in settler discourse.

If the Masters of the Mystic Arts set up the sanctum as part of colonization then “defending the planet” from extradimensional threats means defending the settler’s world, defending a colonial cosmology; the destruction of the native cosmos is already including in their very settlerness. If they were there before colonization, why did they not defend the native cosmos from settler invasion? From what little we’ve seen there is no question of ability. Through making portals they could’ve simply rerouted ships back towards their own lands or to Antarctica or beneath the ocean surface, all that before considering their superiority in potential violence. Dr. Strange’s cosmos explores neither of these because it cannot. To explore either one is to question the premise of the settler cosmos. Instead it goes unasked. Like all basic questions of settler colonialism, it is simply naturalized in discourse at a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made. The comics offer a little more information on this but it’s really more of the same, naturalizing indigenous removal in the narrative as a natural progression from native to settler. The dispossession of natives is as fundamental to settler imaginary universes, including the settler fantastic, as it is to the material settler colony. This also shows yet again the limits of improved representation alone. The question of settler normativity is structural, not representative and basic changes to the Marvel universe are required to address this spell of settler normativity.

“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 Herero and Nama Genocide and Germany’s Non-Reckoning

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government announced plans to formerly apologize for the 1904-07 Herero-Nama genocide in the Deutsch-Südwestafrika (DSWA) settler colony in Namibia. Germany’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sawsan Chelbi said “We are working towards a joint government declaration with the following elements: common discussions on the historical events and a German apology for the action in Namibia.” Chelbi continued, “On the question of whether there could be reparations or legal consequences, there are none. The apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it.” Instead Germany is considering “development” projects in Namibia.

This is not Germany’s first formal apology for the Herero-Nama genocide. In 2004 Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, offered “an apology from the German government.” Wieczorek-Zeul said, “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time,” and noted that, “The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.” An unofficial but still significant apology came from Lothar von Trotha’s descendants in 2007.

Von Trotha was the colonial governor who ordered and oversaw the Herero-Nama genocide. He issued in 1904 a Vernichtungsbefehl – “annihilation order” – that read, “The Herero are no longer German subjects,” (“Die Hereros sind nicht mehr deutsche Untertanen.”). Von Trotha then offered rewards for turning in Herero leaders with the highest reward for Samuel Maharero (“Ich sage dem Volk: Jeder der einen der Kapitäne an eine meiner Stationen als Gefangenen abliefert, erhält 1000 Mark, wer Samuel Maharero bringt, erhält 5000 Mark.”). Von Trotha then asserted that any Hereros remaining in DSWA would be massacred. “The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them. These are my words to the Herero people,” (“Innerhalb der Deutschen Grenze wird jeder Herero mit oder ohne Gewehr, mit oder ohne Vieh erschossen, ich nehme keine Weiber und Kinder mehr auf, treibe sie zu ihrem Volke zurück oder lasse auf sie schießen. Dies sind meine Worte an das Volk der Hereros.”). The Nazis named a small Munich street after von Trotha in 1933, thirteen years after his death.


Lothar von Trotha’s annihilation order

Following von Trotha’s order German troops through both direct killing and forcing fatal conditions upon killed around 80% of the Herero population, some 65,000 people, and drove thousands more into neighboring lands. Germans forcibly dehydrated many to death by driving people into the Omaheke desert and preventing them from leaving. In short order the Germans carried out this same process against the Nama people killing some 10,000 more (about 50% of the Nama population).

Survivors were placed in concentration camps. Both women and men endured forced labor in the camps and (mostly though not exclusively) women were raped and kept as sex slaves. These are the events for which Merkel’s government will apologize. While the Herero-Nama genocide is the most well known, it is not Germany’s only colonial genocide in Africa nor even the only one in DSWA.

I am guided by Festus Tjikuua’s question, “Our people’s demand for a structured constructive dialogue aimed at bringing about a restorative justice to the victims of the German colonial wars remains unanswered. Why and for how long should we wait?’” and the late Alfons Maharero’s demands for reparations. In this context, Germany’s position as delineated by Chelbi is multitudinously problematic. Specifically Germany is pursuing recognition of a genocidal event without any accountability for it nor a historical reckoning.


Contextualizing Genocides

The Herero-Nama genocide must be contextualized in both earlier and later German history for Germany’s apology to be meaningful. German oppression of Herero people didn’t begin in 1904 with the genocide. This genocide, like all genocides, did not take place in a vacuum. It is part of German settler colonialism in Namibia that began in 1884.

The late Patrick Wolfe noted settler colonialism has a “logic of elimination.” In short the “logic of elimination” refers to inherent native dispossession under settler colonialism. Every five acres of Virginia is five less acres of Tsenacommacah. Every five dunam of Israel is five less dunam of Palestine. Dispossessing natives for settler land bases was a fundamental part of realizing DSWA. Deprose Muchena notes, “Many Germans who came to settle in Namibia such as ex-soldiers, artisans and technicians, called for the appropriation of African grazing land to obtain sufficient land for their own farms.” The Herero and Nama anti-colonial rebellions that were suppressed with the genocide were launched primarily in opposition to dispossession. Muchena continues, “In 1930, the German imperial commissioner declared that 75% of the land owned by Africans had to be sold to Europeans, and that the remaining 25% had to be proclaimed native reserves.” Dispossession followed by inevitable resistance followed by genocide is as clear a descriptor of settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination” as is to be found.

Native land dispossession was policy before and after the genocide. Killing uncooperative natives was policy before and after the genocide. Gendered violence was practice before and after the genocide. Before and after the genocide DSWA created a labor regime that forced native populations into the settlers’ capitalist economy creating a cycle of poverty, further institutionalized during decades of South African occupation, that persists today. Muchena writes, “Between 54 and 60% of [households where Khoisan-languages and Rukwangali are spoken] are affected by poverty. On the other hand, German and English-speaking households are hardly affected by poverty at all. In terms of consumption, the poorest 15% of Namibians account for only 1% of national expenditure while the richest 5.6% account for 53% of expenditure.” Restricting the window to just events in the DSWA settler colony, the Herero-Nama genocide has causes and legacies. It is not a stand-alone aberration during settler rule in Namibia. It is built into settler colonialism.

Germany’s apology does not account for any of this apart from naming the killings. Instead it starts and ends the historical harm with the mass killings and leaves the structure that mass produced Herero and Nama death uninterrogated. Here Germany denying reparations is especially acute. The present tense of past German settler rule demonstrates the historical harm of German policies, including but not limited to the genocide(s). There is perhaps no clearer example of the Herero-Nama genocide’s structural presence than the present day fight for descendants of those driven out during the genocide to return to their ancestral lands in Namibia from Botswana and South Africa. To repeat Tjikuua, “Why and for how long should we wait?”


From Namibia to Treblinka

Walter Benjamin killed himself near the France-Spain border in September, 1940, choosing his manner of death rather than be turned over to the Nazis. Not long before he died he composed his Theses on the Philosophy of History which has important lessons for contextualizing oppressive systems. Benjamin writes,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. […] The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge-unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Benjamin didn’t refer to the Herero-Nama genocide but his offering can go places he does not. In this read German fascism’s practices, including the holocaust, can only be surprising, can only be an aberrant moment, if one’s view of German history does not include German colonialism in Africa. Benjamin was not the first nor last to argue that subaltern perspectives, the “tradition of the oppressed,” should be the fundamental units of social and historical analysis. Here he is in the same ballpark as Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “Can the subaltern speak?” Or Edward Said’s demand for “permission to narrate.” Or bell hooks’ call for feminism “from margin to center.”

Anti-colonial activists and scholars contemporary with Benjamin noted this gap in understandings of Nazism as it was unfolding and in its immediate aftermath. Aimé Césaire noted in his 1955 Discours sur le colonialisme that what the European Christian “cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.”

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The World and Africa in 1947 that “there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women, or ghastly blasphemy of children – which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folks in all parts of the world.” Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon would more famously make this connection, as would Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in their formulations of the ‘boomerang effect’. Despite these interventions both popular and scholarly understandings of Nazism including the holocaust rarely link Nazism and European colonialism.

For this reason scholars and pundits represent the holocaust as something mystical, aberrant or incomprehensible. As one example, Volker Berghahn, author of Imperial Germany, 1871-1914 (1994), writes that, “There may have been times when students of the Holocaust thought they were getting a handle on the incomprehensible; yet the more detailed the evidence that continues to emerge, the more difficult it seems to be to comprehend it.” Julia Klein noted in The Forward last year that, “In two generations, we have witnessed a massive shift in our attitude toward the Holocaust: from regarding it as incomprehensible, defying human understanding, to trying to construct rigorous, often competing historical explanations for its causes and contours.” The examples she gives do not touch upon European colonialism and some, like Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, obfuscate from structural understanding entirely seeking explanations in mass German pathology instead. Many of these are distinctly neoliberal (mis)understandings that treat anti-semitism through metaphors of viruses, something that spreads through individuals rather than being produced by a system and discourse. The supposed incomprehensibility has increased, rather than decreased. The further analysis of European fascism and the holocaust gets from anticolonialism, the further it gets from the “tradition of the oppressed,” the more incomprehensible the holocaust becomes.

German imperialism and settler colonialism in DSWA did not create anti-semitism, not even its racialized version. Variants of Judeophobia predate European colonialism by centuries. Nor is DSWA unique in using genocide (or mass killings less than genocide) to suppress anti-colonial revolts. But the connection between DSWA and Nazism is not limited to generalized genocidal practices. Mahmood Mamdani writes that the link between the Herero-Nama genocide and the holocaust is “race branding, whereby it became possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience.” Benjamin Madley writes more specifically.

In 1908, while Herero and Nama were dying in concentration camps, [Eugen] Fischer arrived in German South West Africa and began a pseudo-scientific study of 310 children. He aimed to gather two kinds of data from each child: physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, and measurements of intelligence. Fischer then compared these two data sets and fabricated correlations between physical traits and intellectual acumen. The children Fischer studied were Basters, members of an Afrikaans-speaking Namibian minority descended from intermarriage among Boers, Britons, Germans, and Khoikoin. His findings, published as [Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen (The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation Among Humans)] in 1913, had a tremendous impact in Germany. According to Henry Friedlander, ‘This study not only established [Fischer’s reputation] but also influenced all subsequent German racial legislation, including the Nuremberg Laws’.”

Fischer stole Herero body parts for his eugenics research and still today Hereros are fighting, successfully, to have the remains repatriated. He also co-wrote what Friedlander calls “the classic text of the science of race, the Grundriß der menschlichen Erblehre and Rassenhygiene (Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene).” Friedlander continues, “The Grundiß deeply influenced the development and application of the science of race. [Julius Friedrich] Lehmann, the publisher, gave a copy of the 1923 second edition to the imprisoned Adolf Hitler, who read it and used its ideas in Mein Kampf, and later the authors of the official commentaries on the Nazi racial laws quoted the work as their scientific basis.”

Madley draws out further connections. For example Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo, head of the Luftwaffe and leading Nazi official said at his trial at Nuremberg after World War II that “’the position of my father as the first Governor of Southwest Africa’ as one of the four more important ‘points which are significant with relation to my later development’.” Other prominent Nazis too had first and second-hand connections to DSWA like Nazi Reichstag member Franz Ritter von Epp who was in “one of the first waves of volunteer soldiers sent to suppress the Herero Uprising.” (emphasis mine)

It is impossible to say whether the holocaust would have happened without the Herero-Nama genocide. What is indisputable is that the racial formations developed during German colonialism in Africa informed those deployed against Jews, Roma and other Others during the Holocaust. Anti-semitism preceded German colonialism but the prohibitions on interracial relationships in DSWA were developed during a period of partially successful, albeit tenuous, Jewish assimilation and emancipation struggles in Germany. The way the “boomerang” returned fed colonial racial formations back into Germany’s already existing anti-semitism which the Nazis then embraced as their core ideology. An honest reckoning with the Herero-Nama genocide would necessarily transform Germany’s holocaust education and change how we contextualize it. Listening to the Herero and Nama revolts against DWSA and the genocide that suppressed them answers Arno Mayer’s theological query, “Why did the Heavens not Darken?” The heavens did not darken come the holocaust because they could not, they were already dark. Nothing in the described apology for the Herero-Nama genocide points in this direction.


Willful Ignorance

Munich’s Von-Trotha-Straße was, “after a fierce and emotional discussion,” renamed Hereroßtrase in 2006 as part of Germany distancing itself from Lother von Trotha. The Munich city council has since heard debate on renaming more streets that “recall leading persons or villainous events from the German colonial era.” Many citizens support the renaming but only the Left Party voted for it in Munich council. One opponent to the renaming said, “If one were to go by today’s standards everywhere, one would have to rename every fifth street in Munich.” This symbolizes exactly the kind of reckoning Germany seeks to avoid.

What exactly a German apology should encompass and which Herero and Nama narratives should be part of German education is not for me to say. These have been made amply clear by Herero reparations activists and leaders. The German government’s insistence though, that the “apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it,” gives lie to any claimed earnestness. If the apology does not address, through reparations, the harm still being caused today as well as a return of the plundered wealth, then it is empty symbolism. And if the apology does not introduce changes to how Germany contextualizes the holocaust with colonial history then why should anyone believe Germany means it? All those lost to the camps, in Namibia and Eastern Europe, deserve better.

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.


Anti-Zionism isn’t anti-semitic, but Zionism is

Thanks to Tom Pessah for editing suggestions to make this coherent.


This week the University of California Board of Regents issued a paper on intolerance that focused on anti-semitism. Early drafts explicitly conflated anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. But as the Electronic Intifada reported , “pressure force[d an] amendment” to the paper whereby only anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism where to be disallowed. Whether this provides a safeguard for anti-Zionist organizing or is more of a slippery slope for anti-Zionism to be categorized as anti-semitic isn’t yet clear.

Anti-semitism isn’t rare in Palestine liberation organizing because anti-semitism isn’t rare in society and everything wrong in society also shows up in movement spaces, if less common or differently articulated. In the U.S. at least, it is not as common as settler colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism and anti-Blackness in movement spaces but it still shows up enough to notice.

What seems weird at first though is that anti-semites oppose Zionism in the first place because Zionism itself is anti-semitic. Of course in anti-semitism everything Jews do is wrong because it is Jews doing it, no matter what ‘it’ is, even if ‘it’ is being anti-semitic. For anti-semites the mere presence of Jews is sufficient cause for anti-semitism. Thus Israel, a settler colony ideologically premised in part on anti-semitism, can still be worked into anti-semites’ fantasies.

Shlilat ha-Galut

Joseph Massad writes about Theodore Herzl that:

Herzl and his followers insisted that it is the presence of Jews in gentile societies that caused anti-Semitism. Herzl put it thus in his foundational Zionist pamphlet Der Judenstaat: “The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.” Sharing this diagnosis with anti-Semites, the Zionists called for the exit of Jews from gentile societies in order to “normalize” their “abnormal” situation, transforming them into a nation like other nations.

Rejecting this “abnormality” in Zionist ideology is called shlilat ha-galut, the negation of exile. Eliezer Schweid writes that shlilat ha-galut “is a central assumption in all currents of Zionist ideology.” Ha-galut, exile, is the “abnormal” condition in question. Ha-galut in this construct is what non-Zionist anti-semites simply call being a Jew. In anti-semitism, Jewish presence amongst non-Jews is unnatural, a concept fully embraced by Herzl.

Shlilat ha-galut disavows Jewish cultural production and history outside of Zionism. In its most crudely anti-semitic, shlilat ha-galut perfectly mimics European anti-semitic imagery of Jews as spiritually, morally and even physically weak, parasitical, effeminate and defenseless. Herzl was not alone in this. Prominent early Zionist A.D. Gordon, for example, espoused such views. Zeev Sternhell quotes Gordon:

[W]e are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil, there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense, but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.

Those notions fit comfortably alongside the crudest articulations of the neo-Nazis. Also not neo ones.

Shlilat ha-galut led to anti-semitic riots on the part of the settlers. For example on 27 September 1930 an anti-semitic mob of Jewish colonists gathered in Tel Aviv and laid siege to the Mograbi movie theater for playing a Yiddish-language film. Arthur Ruppin, discussed below, thought Yiddish was a “degenerate” and “impure” language, a view widely held by the settlers. For example, future Prime Minister David Ben Gurion thanked a young Partisan and shoah survivor for sharing her story in with him in 1945 “even though it was told in a foreign and ear straining language,” Yiddish, Ben Gurion’s native language. Zionists frequently characterize the Nebi Musa riots and others as anti-semitic rather than anticolonial but the militant mob actions and later state repression of Yiddishkeit are virtually never portrayed as anti-semitic, no matter their replication of European anti-semitism. Shlilat ha-galut is portrayed as part of a Jewish renaissance instead of destroying Jewish culture.

Zionist anti-semitism’s other Others

Zionist anti-semitism is not just, not even mostly, the suppression of Yiddish culture, but of Mizrachi, Ethiopian and other Othered Jewish populations as well. Here anti-semitism meets anti-Blackness and Orientalism. Arthur Ruppin is a leading figure in Zionist history. He is called the “father of Jewish settlement in Palestine” and there are few important Zionist developments in Palestine between 1905-1940 that he wasn’t involved with at some level. Ruppin was also a dedicated eugenicist whose academic work in the eugenics field was fundamental to his settlement programs in Palestine.

For example, Ruppin rejected Ethiopian Jews as potential candidates for settler colonialism in Palestine. Etan Bloom quotes Ruppin as saying that Ethiopian Jews were:

N****rs, who came to Judaism by force of the sword in the sixth century B.C. They have no blood connection to the Jews. […] [Therefore] their number in Palestine should not be increased.

This was and remains Israeli practice, partially interrupted, though articulated less crudely today. Israelis forcibly sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish women should be read in the context that “their number in Palestine should not be increased”. Bloom writes further about Ruppin’s views on Mizarchim.

The radical decrease in the number of Sephardim is explained by Ruppin as being the result of certain deficiencies in their biological structure. As the most Semitic component of the Jewish race, they came to represent, in his analysis, a degenerate strain in the Jewish Volk. According to Ruppin, not only had the (Ashkenazi) Jews preserved their racial characteristics, they had also succeeded in improving them through a long process of selection which promoted the fittest amongst them: rich Jews married their daughters to the most brilliant students, thus ensuring the mental development of the race. The Sephardic-Oriental (Mizrachi) Jews, Ruppin concluded, were lacking this urge for self-selection, a fact that certainly damaged their “vital force”. Another factor which differentiated the Oriental Jews, according to Ruppin’s assertion, was that most of them were actually Arabs and Moslems who had converted over the generations.

Orientalist and anti-Black ideologies are not relics from Ruppin’s time but present tense phenomena. For example, Israel has stopped Ethiopian Jews from settling in Israel entirely several times and Mizrachim continue to be peripheralized in the settler society. This is not just orientalism and anti-Blackness. Specifically groups of Jews are targeted so it is also anti-semitism.

Yehudon and Galuti

Former Netanyahu advisor Aviv Bushinsky called U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro a yehudon, or ‘little Jew boy’ after Shapiro offered very mild criticisms of certain Israeli policies in the West Bank. Right-wing former cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi called former U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk the same thing. Other prominent Israelis called prior U.S. ambassadors the same thing. Sometimes these crude anti-semitic slurs are denounced by high officials. Less crude ones embodying shlilat ha-galut are not.

Israelis use the word galuti, exilic – of exile, as a pejorative often meaning ‘weakness’ or ‘softness’. Having a “galuti mentality” is a common response to criticism’s of anti-Palestinian policies. A typical example is here where the author castigates those in galut for supporting Obama’s very mild opposition to some Israeli policies. Galut is not geographic distance from the supposed homeland but ideological distance from Zionism. Again, the idea of Jews as weak beings is part of European anti-semitism. Tying weakness to ha-galut is tying strength to settler colonial violence in Palestine. Alternately put, in the ongoing nakba, the destruction of the Palestinian world is the construction of an anti-semitic one.

Through forced sterilization, language and culture repression and more, Israel and Zionism have worked hard for decades to destroy groups of Jews. But being a settler colony the first group of Jews Zionism’s “new Hebrews” targeted for elimination were Palestinian. Palestinian Jews were a vibrant community, one of many communities pre-colonial Palestine. Zionism tore Palestinian Jews from their indigeneity, including from their relationships with Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and articulated them instead to the settler society, turning them into Israelis.

Massad wrote of early Zionism, “Much of what anti- Semitism projected onto European Jews would now be displaced onto Palestinian Arabs.” Zionism’s history is first and foremost the history of removing Palestinians and conquering Palestine. But in creating anti-Palestinian geographies Israeli also created anti-semitic ones that rejected Ethiopian, Mizrachi and Yiddish Jewish cultures. None of this is to minimize or forgive anti-semitism in the Palestine liberation movement. Anti-semitism, like any bigotry or oppression, is never excusable. Instead this essay seeks to be a corrective contextualization of the criticism of anti-Zionism as anti-semitic. When Zionists make this conflation they are not criticizing anti-semitism, they are saying it is being done wrong.

France->Detroit->Algeria->Palestine: A spectre of settler colonialism

Detroit organizer, scholar and beloved comrade Kristian Davis Bailey is en route to France to discuss/further Black-Palestinian joint struggle and solidarity. French settler colonialism runs deep through both Turtle Island and Palestine and this little essay is inspired by his trip and efforts.


Settler colonialism and imperialism have linkages and traces across the globe. What follows shows linkages between Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians (and others) through the the spectre of French settler colonialism and imperialism, with various sites in France being host to discussions of Black-Palestinian solidarity during Israeli Apartheid Week this year.


Starting in Detroit where I’m writing, French colonization of Turtle Island was no less catastrophic than the British or Spanish, even if circumscribed by other imperial powers over time. Locally in what the settler society calls Detroit, the French under the leadership of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, started the destruction of Ojibwe society through the commodification of furs, introductions of European diseases, frontier homicides (though less common than the British later), and introduction of alcohol (a colonial history of alcohol is yet to be written though is direly needed).


Early French settlers brought African slavery with them during conquest. Alternately put, French settler colonialism built an anti-Black world as it destroyed a native world. As Bill McGraw writes for Deadline Detroit, “In 1750, for example, toward the end of the French regime, more than 25 percent of Detroit residents kept slaves.” He continues,Many roads, schools and communities across southeast Michigan carry the names of old, prominent families that owned slaves: Macomb, Campau; Beaubien; McDougall; Abbott; Brush; Cass; Hamtramck; Gouin; Meldrum; Dequindre; Beaufait; Groesbeck; Livernois and Rivard, among many others.”


The wealth from French colonialism on Turtle Island did not match the profits of French slave colonies in the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Yet the French fur and slave empire in Detroit is part of the colonial and imperial power that, over a century after France left North America after being expelled from Haiti in modernity’s most important revolution, brought France together with the U.K. to create the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up Southwest Asia between the U.K., France and Russia. Sykes-Picot created the basis for British colonialism in Palestine, a regime that facilitated Zionist settler colonialism. Without the wealth from selling African people as property and colonizing Turtle Island, France would have never had the power to participate in and shape Sykes-Picot.


Another key French settler colony, Algeria, began again to face decolonial opposition and organizing shortly after Sykes-Picot (though not because of it).  Over the ensuing four decades the French regimes brutally, but unsuccessfully, suppressed Algerian decolonial agitation and revolt culminating in the Front de Libération Nationale-led rebellion that ended French rule in 1962.


Israel has always needed a powerful sponsor and France played that role beginning in 1954. According to Michael Laskier, the Mossad created underground paramilitary units in Algeria that were active in fighting decolonial FLN actions against Algerian Jews (whom anti-semitic French colonialism had positioned as a privileged native caste, one ‘closer’ to European-ness than Algerian Muslims). Israel also supported French rule at the United Nations, repeatedly siding with France during votes on Algerian independence and nuclear weapons tests in the Sahara.


For its part, France provided Israel with advanced arms and helped it build an aircraft industry and nuclear weapons. France supplied the aircraft Israel used to invade Sinai during the Suez Crisis, the October 1956 joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. In 1959 France permitted Israel to build the Fouga Magister jet under license while over the decade, selling Israel even more advanced fighters like the Mystère. It was with French arms that Israel attacked Egypt and Syria in June 1967. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria and in the end Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Occupied Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Occupied West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.


Israel quickly built settlements in the Sinai hoping to prejudice any future talks by creating facts on the ground that would bind parts or all of the peninsula plus Gaza Strip to Israel. Israeli colonization led to inevitable Egyptian resistance. Surface-to-air missile systems took a heavy toll on Israeli aircraft during the War of Attrition. To confuse the anti-aircraft radars, Israel bought its first drones from the U.S. These were both decoy and spy drones. Drones at the time had still photography so returning drones had to be unloaded, the film developed and analyzed, before any intelligence was gained. Egyptian resistance combined with advances in data processing led Israel to modify the drones to deploy real time surveillance. The new drones provided real-time video thereby collapsing the time between reconnaissance and attack, allowing for on-the-spot battlfield adjustments. These new drones didn’t see much use in Sinai which was returned to Egypt in 1981 under Egyptian and international pressure. But all modern drones everywhere in the world can be traced to the Israeli colonization of the Sinai. It is there that drones became real-time surveillance platforms. It is the drones Israel developed there that led to the U.S. reinvesting in a technology it had largely abandoned.


France instituted an arms embargo on Israel after the 1967 war. Yet France today uses weapons Israel developed during the Sinai occupation (and deployed in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza). France uses a modified Israel Aerospace Industries Heron drone under the name ‘Harfang’ in the imperial ‘Global War on Terror’ and in unilateral and multilateral French invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, Mali and Libya.


In the latter two cases the technology Israel – a settler colony whose existance is partially dependent on the Sykes-Picot Agreement France helped create and implement – developed as a result of its French-armed attack on African soil reverses course and flows from former client to patron for its own invasions of African countries. In this way France profits immensely from actions it supposedly embargoes.


These are some of the entanglements of settler colonialism and empire that flow through France, Palestine, Detroit and Algeria.

Rise in Power: Patrick Wolfe

This morning I learned that Patrick joined the ancestors. It’s a loss to decolonial scholarship and devastating personally. Patrick was brilliant, kind and humble. Anything useful I write about settler colonialism or racism is at least in part due to his works. He offered clarity of insight of the kind that you shared out loud with others. And also shared his time so generously!

After two evictions and years without regular work a few years back I ended up, not by choice, squatting in a vacant on the West Side. I was still trying to write and Patrick offered encouragement to keep going, not just in writing, and feedback on what work I did do. With nurturing more than I expected or deserved he told me of his suggestions, “It’s from your corner,” and it actually felt like it. Can’t even tell you how much it meant to get such support from someome whose writings could make you say, “Oh dang. That’s what’s up!” on a regular basis. I just sent him an email last night with my latest little screed because I cited him twice. And now all of us whom he helped have one less person in our corner. Below please find PDFs for many of his writings. He always shared so generously, it’s the very least I can do in his memory. The very most we can do is decolonize. RIP Patrick Wolfe


Wolfe, Patrick (1991) “On Being Woken Up – The Dreamtime in Anthropology and in Australian Settler Culture

Wolfe, Patrick (1994) “Nation and MisegeNation – Discursive Continuity in the Post-Mabo Era

Wolfe, Patrick (1997) “History and Imperialism – A Century of Theory, from Marx to Postcolonialism

Wolfe, Patrick (2001) “Land, Labor, and Difference – Elementary Structures of Race

Wolfe, Patrick (2002) “Can the Muslim Speak – An Indebted Critique

Wolfe, Patrick (2004) “Race and Citizenship

Wolfe, Patrick (2006) “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native

Wolfe, Patrick (2006-2012 Arabic Translation) “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native

Wolfe, Patrick (2007) “Corpus nullius – the exception of Indians and other aliens in US constitutional discourse

Wolfe, Patrick (2011) “After the Frontier: Separation and Absorption in US Indian Policy

Wolfe, Patrick (2012) “Against the Intentional Fallacy – Legocentrism and Continuity in the Rhetoric of Indian Dispossession

Wolfe, Patrick (2012) “Purchase by Other Means – The Palestine Nakba and Zionism’s Conquest of Economics

Wolfe, Patrick (2013) “Recuperating Binarism: a heretical introduction

Lloyd, David & Patrick Wolfe (2015), “Settler colonial logics and the neoliberal regime