Imani Jacqueline Brown
In what I am calling the weather, antiblackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies. – Christina Sharpe
I along with others think the Anthropocene is more a boundary event than an epoch. – Donna Haraway
Some saw in the Black [human] the salt of the earth, the vein of life through which the dream of a humanity reconciled with nature, and even with the totality of existence, would find its new face, voice, and movement. – Achille Mbembe
The war against Blackness, begun 500 years ago,
is the event horizon of planetary extinction.
Beyond the boundaries of a billion Black anthropocenes1
exist infinite Black ecologies.
Through our bodies, we can learn a thing or two (or infinitely more) about integration:
Ecologies are assemblages of integral relationships between bodies.
Bodies are bits of matter and energy
that unite to become humans and microbes,
ponds and planets,
communities and worlds.
Our bodies are ecologies;
ecologies are bodies of bodies of bodies…
Bodies nest ad infinitum, interdependent, indivisible.
Each body is a point; each point is a threshold;
each threshold opens onto an ecology.
Each Black body points to a line of code drawn in sand and skin; each line is a boundary
that obstructs movement across ecological thresholds; each boundary hypoxifies both the Black body and the world’s ecology.
To return oxygen to humanity, each bounded Black body must be named; each name must be known.
There are too many names to know.
But Black bodies are not doors of no return.
Naming and acknowledgments are necessary, but they are just the openings
that enable us to make offerings.
Rupturing the boundaries around and within Blackness,
which holds all bodies and all names,
Through them, we can sow the seeds
of other ecologies-of-being(s).
To open a wormhole, we must:
a. Locate a boundary drawn through our ecological body:
But where to begin?
1452?2 1492?3 1619?4 1682?5…
There are too many boundary dates to note,
but I propose descending through this one:
1758. Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus publishes the tenth edition of Systema Naturae. This “seminal” scientific text transplants a system of classifying Earth’s plant species onto the human species. In the name of “science,” Linnaeus dissects Homo sapiens with a system of social categorization6 raised from the demonic grounds7 of slave plantations and, through the inscription of ironclad nomenclature into abstracted flesh, he animates a racialized chimera of stratified bodies: Homo…
Americanus: reddish, choleric, and erect; hair—black, straight, thick; wide nostrils, scanty beard; obstinate, merry, free; paints himself with fine red lines; regulated by customs.
Asiaticus: sallow, melancholy, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, avaricious; covered with loose garments; ruled by opinions.
Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; hair—black, frizzled; skin—silky; nose—flat; lips—tumid; women without shame, they lactate profusely; crafty, indolent, negligent; anoints himself with grease; governed by caprice.
Europeanus: white, sanguine, muscular; hair—long, flowing; eyes—blue; gentle, acute, inventive; covers himself with close vestments; governed by laws.8
European men anoint themselves with Sylvia Wynter’s capital “M”9 and conjure a cosmology10 they call Enlightenment. Enlightenment exploits the subjective murkiness inherent to ecological existence to sanction capitalism’s foundational enterprises of genocide and slavery after the fact.11
Man orders himself as the height of existence—as WhiteHuman—and us as its bottom—as Blackinhuman. Fearing the force of White and the pitfall of Black, Others become equatorial, folded into the unsettled gradient of the Brown in-between,12 striving toward the northern pole. The ecology of Humanity enters a state of dysbiosis.13
b. Open a wormhole to other ecologies:
Conflating phenotypical darkness with phenomenological darkness, darkness with the unknown, and the unknown with fear, Enlightened Whiteness casts a surgical light. With each shadow banished, new shadows are revealed; within each particle, smaller particles are found. Yet, the new forms of knowledge gained are half-starved.14 With each body annihilated or enslaved, assimilated or segregated, the less the Enlightened know about themselves. Each person, place and particle split sounds the bell for the planet’s splintering.
And yet, and still, and therefore, through the alchemical fusion of the phenotypical and the phenomenological, darkness of flesh is imbued with the dark power to reintegrate the world.
Through our bodies, we can learn a thing or two (or infinitely more) about segregation. Enlightened Bodies are as segregated internally as they are externally. The Human is segregated from the bacterium, even though ninety-nine percent of the DNA in the Human body is nonhuman.15 The Enlightened Human is segregated from the plants that provide him with the oxygen he needs to exist; the plants create this oxygen in turn from the carbon dioxide that the Human expels. The Human is segregated from the land which, as Frantz Fanon reminds us, is the most important value, because it provides us with bread and dignity.16
Beneath the Black human body is the body of Earth, whose flesh is Black with oil and soil—Black with life. Yet, classified as Black, Earth becomes extinction’s ground zero; as Black human bodies dis-integrate under the magnification of Enlightenment, the Black body of Earth disintegrates. A sickly rainbow of bodies and souls floats above Enlightened ecologies in ethico-eco-philosophical zero-gravity. The Enlightened Human calls this weightlessness Freedom.
Enlightened ecologies are spheres of existence flattened into two dimensions: Property and Profit. Enlightened ecologies are hierarchical rather than rhizomatic. They are latitudinal and longitudinal, surface and flesh, black and white.
The quintessential Enlightened ecology is the plantation. In plantation ecologies, Earth is emptied of Native peoples and knowledge through genocidal clearing; enslaved Black bodies are emptied of humanity; the indwelling value of the Black Earth is transfigured into a financial abstraction.
Plantation ecologies are invasive: Once industrial monocrop agriculture has drained life from soil, the oil industry spreads throughout the Black Earth’s fractal viscera; her skin crawls with prisons and petrochemical plants.17 Plantation ecologies are virulent: As capitalism advances and thickens like a strangling fruit,18 all the world becomes a plantation and all her streets bear strange fruit.19 The habituating force and raison d’être of the plantation ecology is Death.
The Black Earth asks me: What does it mean for Black people to fight for the rights of Nature when y’all are still fighting for your basic human rights?
In the light, the equation of existence appears reducible to division.
Darkness multiplies. In the light, knowledge of the world appears in sharp relief. Darkness holds a more intimate wisdom we are once again coming to sense:
What has been called darkness, the unknown, the void, the abyss, empty space,
we now know as dark matter. Dark matter is the glue that holds existence together.20
Perhaps we can think dark matter through another, older name:
I answer the Black Earth through my bodies:
The rights of nature and human rights must be won ecologically, in solidarity, as kin.
Perhaps we can think kinship through another, simpler name:
Little by little (or perhaps, from the perspective of the Black Earth, more rapidly) Enlightened Humanity is coming to recognize the need for the dark wisdom it worked hard to extinguish. More and more, Western scholars look with deference and humility toward Anishinaabe Original Instructions,21 toward Quechua Sumak Kawsay,22 toward Aboriginal dreaming.23 They spin the West around to face the rights of Nature: the eco-philosophical integrity of the world—the horizon.
But where is Black Africa and her dark diaspora? So great is the world’s disregard for the Dark Continent and her people that few have noticed the absence of our eco-philosophical voices within the rising chorus of environmental scholarship.
To survive climate change, humanity needs to get radical. To get radical means “to get to the root.”24 Black Africa is humanity’s root. Her uprooting seeds Enlightened ecologies. Her diasporic seeds are portals to other ecologies-of-being(s).
As Malidoma Somé, a spiritual philosopher from the Dagara tribe of Burkina Faso, affirms,25 the time has come for African philosophy to be recognized beyond the realm of anthropology. It is time for Black studies to be re-read ecologically and for the de-Enlightening world to sit quietly and listen rapturously to Black people’s perspectives on ecological re-integration.
Black ecologies travel with the Black body on tides of cellular memory and seed the gaps between worlds. Their ancestors are the brown bodies of wetlands—fecund cradles of more-than-human life, which the Enlightened Human classifies beneath whiter sands and bluer waters; which the Human carves up, drains of vitality and disappears to make way for industrial development; and which, despite this degradation and debasement, remain merciful hosts to migrating maroons of all species.26
Black ecologies wink into existence as resistance to plantation ecologies. Ecological resistance emerges from the cypress trees in whose crowns we crouch, muskets over shoulders, listening for dogs; the Indigenous nations who welcome us into their families; the handfuls of Europeans who join us, refusing the role of Colonizer;27 the parakeets who nest near us, fleeing their own deaths on plantations;28 the mud sinks who grab at the legs of slave catchers, stealing their balance; the mosquitoes who bite at us all, knowing that the sweetness of flesh is not carried in color; and the soils who cocoon our bodies while the worms and roaches return us to freedom in oneness with the Black Earth.
Black ecologies know our suffering, struggle and survival.
They are our suffering, struggle and survival.
Black ecologies persist today as the human bodies that block pipelines and petrochemical plants. They are cultivated by human hands, stained with shadows of indigo,29 oil, and blood, which plant marsh grasses in humble rituals of repair. They blossom, as memories of plantation plots,30 in community gardens and in secret jars in solitary confinement cells.31 They flourish, as Great Green Walls32 dreamed up from African sacred groves.33
Black ecologies are syncretic: Like resistance to slavery, which often germinated in the spiritual grounds of vodou, santería and candomblé, they generate systems for mutual living—living systems—by synergizing poetry and science, past and future, teachings from North, South, East and West, networking the many into the one. Black ecologies are diasporic: They spread to the rhythm of grandma’s knitting needles, weaving the world’s loving reintegration. Whatever their scale, they are expansive because they photosynthesize the wisdom of more-than-human ancestors.
Black ecologies cannot decompose Timothy Morton’s plastic Dark Ecology, a philosophy of “coexistence” that holds no space for the repair of racism.34 Nor are Black ecologies fooled by the Cartesian logics that tell us that Black is the lowest point on the spectrum to White. Black ecologies laugh with deadly gravity at the confusion of Enlightened Human Reason:
Black is not the absence of light;
Black absorbs light, holding it close to its bosom.
Black ecologies are the nadir to Enlightenment’s zenith.35 Enlightenment has lifted us to unthinkable heights of madness; Black ecologies reorient us intuitively toward the Black Earth. Black ecologies don’t upend the hierarchy that places Black people at the bottom of Humanity and Humanity above the Black Earth, shifting Black to the top and White to the bottom, but rather explode it outward from the base. Humanity will horizontalize, lying prostrate as humble human, not just big toes36 but whole bodies pressing into the ground in a sublime encounter with our planet, with our kin, with ourselves. Black ecologies will hold us all.
This is why Black bodies
are key and coup
in Humanity’s war against existence.
Black bodies can jump the broom
over and beyond dishonored Humanity
not as Human, but more-than-human,
not as thing, but everything.
Black ecologies multiply;
they are migratory;
they resist ecologies of extinction.
Don’t be frightened;
Black ecologies won’t replace you,
they will repair you;
they will restore Us.
Reparations for racial capitalism are owed,
but not only through financial settlement.
Landscape reparations are owed,
but not only through the removal of racist monuments.
Land restitution is owed,
but not only through the acknowledgment of Indigenous names.
The reparations that are owed
will return land to people
and people to land
and both to ecological being(s).
Black ecologies are the sacred relations
through which ecological reparations can be offered to our segregated Earth.
Through the cultivation of Black ecologies,
the wholly Enlightened Earth37 may yet become a Black whole.
This essay was first published in MARCH 01.
Imani Jacqueline Brown is an artist, activist, and researcher from New Orleans. Her work investigates the continuum of Extractivism, from settler-colonial genocide and slavery to contemporary gentrification, fossil fuel production, and police and corporate impunity. In exposing the layers of violence and resistance that comprise the foundations of US society, she opens space to imagine a path to ecological reparations. Among other things, Imani is currently a researcher with Forensic Architecture and a visiting research fellow at the Center for Research Architecture, where she received her MA with distinction in 2019.