The Weather

After Jean-Michel Basquiat, Now’s the Time, 1985

Slavery suffuses our present-day environment in an afterlife called the weather. An excerpt from In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, November 2016.

IN all kinds of weather, the ships came and went from Saint Louis, Bristol, Rhode Island, New York, from Senegambia and offshore Atlantic, from West Central Africa and St. Helena, from Southeast Africa and Indian Ocean islands, from the Bight of Benin, from the Bight of Biafra, from Liverpool and Lisbon, from Bahia, Havana, Marseilles, Amsterdam, Port Antonio, Kingston, Rio de Janeiro, and London. The ships set out one in the wake of another. Five hundred years of voyages of theft, pillage, and bondage. Some of the ships made only one trip; others made multiple trips under the same and different names, under the same and different owners, under the same and different flags, and under the same and different insurers. The ships kept going and coming; over thirty-five thousand recorded voyages. I find their names in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Voyages Database: Antelope, Formiga, The Good Jesus, Diligente, Black Joke, Bonfirm, Mercúrio, The Phillis, Alligator, Voador, Tibério, The Amistad, Africa, Africain, Africaine, African Gally, Africano Constitucional, Africano Oriental, African Queen, Legítimo Africano, Vigilante Africano, Agreeable, Agreement, Aleluia da Ressurreição e Almas—the names went on and on.

There were rebellions aboard many of those slave ships. Other ships were intercepted or claimed at sea or in port by one jurisdiction or another. One such ship was the Antelope, about which it was recorded that the “original goal”—delivering the 259 surviving abducted Africans on board, 64 percent of whom were children, to the port where they would be sold—was “thwarted”; “reason: human agency.” The Antelope and those other ships and what occurred before them, on them, and in their wake are repeated in Morrison’s novel, Beloved, and they are Weather. They haunt as Sethe gives birth to Denver in a “wrecked and wretched boat” on which she hopes to cross the Ohio River.

In Beloved, the weather comes, breaks, changes quickly; it “let[s] loss,” it is remarked upon and forgotten; it is. In my text, the weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate; and that climate is anti-black. And while the air of freedom might linger around the ship, it does not reach into the hold, or attend the bodies in the hold. Recall Margaret Garner, on whom Morrison’s Sethe is based. Margaret Garner, who first breathes Ohio’s “air of freedom” when she is seven years old and who, twelve years later, on the evening of January 27, 1856, escapes from Kentucky and heads back to Ohio. With her are her four children, her husband Robert, and his parents, Mary and Simon. Of course, six years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, in which “free air” of a “free state” is denied to those in the hold who would take their freedom, slavery is enforced as the law of the entire United States. Its atmospheric density increased; slavery undeniably became the total environment.

By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather… Just weather. (Toni Morrison, Beloved)

Remember that Margaret Garner is recaptured, and in her attempt to deny ownership to those who would claim her and her children as property, she succeeds in killing her daughter Mary. After which she is recaptured, held, tried, and put on the Henry Lewis, that ship that will return her slavery, this time to New Orleans, a place from which almost no enslaved people managed to escape. Margaret Garner marked for that ship, stowed on it with her husband and her baby daughter, Cilla.

As the Henry Lewis set out on its trip to Gaines Landing in Arkansas, it collided with the boat the Edward Howard. Margaret and Cilla Garner were thrown or jumped overboard. Twenty-five people died in that accident, and the Garners’ infant daughter Cilla was among them. Cilla was the nursing daughter whom Garner had unsuccessfully tried to kill in order to prevent her re-abduction into slavery. When The Liberator and the Cincinnati Daily Commercial covered this, they did not report on the weather, or on the speed of the boats, or on the traffic on the sometimes-crowded river. The papers reported that there was a collision and that it caused Cilla’s death. The papers reported “Margaret Garner’s expression of joy” upon learning that the journey by ship had succeeded in killing Cilla when she had not. (Another one of her children would be spared the hell of slavery.) The papers reported that “a black man, the cook on the Lewis, sprang into the river and saved Margaret whom it was said displayed frantic joy when told that her child was drowned, and said she would never reach alive Gaines’ Landing in Arkansas, the point to which she was being shipped—thus indicating her intention to drown herself… Another report is, that, as soon as she had an opportunity, she threw her child into the river and jumped after it… It is only certain that she was in the river with her child and that it was drowned.” The only certainties are the river, that weather (anti-blackness as total climate), and that Cilla, “it,” as the newspapers misname her, was drowned. (That oceanic ungendering repeats.)

In the wake, the river, the weather, and the drowning are death, disaster, and possibility. They are some of the impossible possibilities faced by those Black people who appear in the door and dwell in the wake. Here is Edwidge Danticat on this: “The past is full of examples when our foremothers and forefathers showed such deep trust in the sea that they would jump off slave ships and let the waves embrace them. They too believed that the sea was the beginning and the end of all things, the road to freedom and their entrance to Guinin.”

It is some of these impossible possibilities that, in Beloved, Sethe wants to keep from her daughter Denver. She wants to keep Denver from standing in the place where it was and is and will be; she wants to keep her from being overtaken by the past that is not past. Sethe wants to protect Denver from memory and from more than memory, from the experience, made material, of people and places that now circulate, like weather. What Sethe describes is the afterlife of slavery, and it is a “thought picture” that is out there “waiting for you.” As Sethe tells Denver, memories reanimate the places and spaces of slavery after nominative emancipation. Rememory is Sethe’s word for it, and it is out there, waiting for you: “What I remember,” she says, “is a picture floating around out there outside my head.” What Sethe remembers, rememories, and encounters in the now is the weather of being in the wake. It is weather, and even if the country, every country, any country, tries to forget and even if “every tree and grass blade of [the place] dies,” it is the atmosphere: slave law transformed into lynch law, into Jim and Jane Crow, and other administrative logics that remember the brutal conditions of enslavement after the event of slavery has supposedly come to an end.

In the United States, slavery is imagined as a singular event even as it changed over time and even as its duration expands into supposed emancipation and beyond. But slavery was not singular; it was, rather, a singularity—a weather event or phenomenon likely to occur around a particular time, or date, or set of circumstances. Emancipation did not make free Black life free; it continues to hold us in that singularity. The brutality was not singular; it was the singularity of anti-blackness.

Singularity: a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole. (Merriam-Webster Online)

In what I am calling the weather, anti-blackness is pervasive as climate. The weather necessitates changeability and improvisation; it is the atmospheric condition of time and place; it produces new ecologies.

Ecology: the branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings; the political movement that seeks to protect the environment, especially from pollution.

We read in Beloved one ecology of the ship that continues into the present: “In the beginning, the women are away from the men and the men are away from the women; storms rock us and mix the men into the women and the women into the men.” The weather trans*forms Black being. But the shipped, the held, and those in the wake also produce their own ecologies out of the weather. When the only certainty is the weather that produces a pervasive climate of anti-blackness, what must we know in order to move through these environments in which the push is always toward Black death?

IN 1982, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates “provoked an outcry from civil rights advocates when he said that blacks might be more likely to die from choke holds because their arteries do not open as fast as arteries do in ‘normal people.’” Nine years later, but only seven months after the March 3, 1991, almost-to-death-beating of Rodney King in which we marveled that he was still alive (“like hydrogen, like oxygen,” Dionne Brand, 2015), “some Police Department tactical experts now see the videotape of officers striking Mr. King fifty-six times as an opportunity to convince the public the choke hold is actually safer and a more humane way to subdue suspects.” In New York City, though police chokeholds were banned for over two decades, “the Civilian Complaint Review Board has seen 1,128 chokehold cases over the last five-and-a-half years, and complaints about the practice ‘persist and appear to be increasing.’”

“I can’t breathe.” On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was on the street in Staten Island when he was approached and stopped by an NYPD officer “on suspicion of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes.” Mr. Garner is (and I am reading/hearing echoes of Margaret Garner in all of this) approached by the NYPD, and he responds to the stop by saying, “For what? Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. This stops today. What are you bothering me for… I didn’t do nothing… I’m just standing here. I did not sell nothing. Because every time you see me, you want to stop me, you harass me… I’m minding my business, officer. I’m minding my business; please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone.” Then two other officers approach Mr. Garner and he repeats his pleas not to be touched: “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me, please.” And then the first officer, Pantaleo, puts Mr. Garner in a chokehold and takes him down to the ground. Eleven times during this assault Mr. Garner says, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” until he stops breathing. And though paramedics have arrived on the scene, they give him no assistance. No aspiration. The city medical examiner ruled Mr. Garner’s death a homicide, and despite audio and visual evidence, the NYPD maintains its claim that the cause of this murder (for which they will find no one, save Mr. Garner, responsible) was not a chokehold, and once again, Mr. Garner’s murderer was not indicted. The list of non-indictments in the wake of state murders of Black people continues to grow: Michael Brown, John Crawford, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Sandra Bland, Jonathan Ferrell, Miriam Carey, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, *. Again, Black being appears in the space of the asterisked human as the insurance for, as that which underwrites, white circulation as the human. Always, Black being seems lodged between cargo and being.

Wake: in the line of recoil of (a gun).

Wake: the track left on the water’s surface by a ship.

Wake: the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the dead person.

It was soon after Eric Garner’s murder on July 17, 2014, that the jury in the trial of Ted Wafer returned a verdict of guilty in the case of his murder of nineteen-year-old Renisha McBride. The previous July had seen the all-(non Black)woman jury return a verdict of not guilty for George Zimmerman, the murderer of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. The verdict in the Wafer trial brought, perhaps, a little breathing room before the next onslaught, the next intake of air, the held breath. In the weather of the wake, one cannot trust, support, or condone the state’s application of something they call justice, but one can only hold one’s breath for so long. “We revolt simply because, for a variety of reasons, we can no longer breathe” (Frantz Fanon).

Day after day the stories arrive. Fifty people suffocated in the hold of a ship; three people suffocated in prison over the course of a weekend in the United States. To explicate Fanon, it is not the specifics of any one event or set of events that are endlessly repeatable and repeated, but the totality of the environments in which we struggle; the machines in which we live; what I am calling the weather.

Slavery, then, simultaneously exhausted the lungs and bodies of the enslaved even as it was imagined and operationalized as that which kept breath in and vitalized the Black body. We are now living in the wake of such pseudoscience, living the time when our labor is no longer necessary but our flesh, our bodies, are still the stuff out of which “democracy” is produced. Back to Fanon, who wrote in Toward the African Revolution: “There is not occupation of territory, on the one hand, and independence of persons on the other. It is the country as a whole, its history, its daily pulsation that are contested, disfigured… under these conditions; the individual’s breathing is an observed breathing. It is a combat breathing.”

What is the word for keeping and putting breath back in the body? What is the word for how we must approach the archives of slavery (to “tell the story that cannot be told”) and the histories and presents of violent extraction in slavery and incarceration? The calamities and catastrophes that sometimes answer to the names of occupation, colonialism, imperialism, tourism, militarism, or humanitarian aid and intervention? What are the words and forms for the ways in which we must continue to think and imagine laterally, across a series of relations in the hold, in multiple Black everydays of the wake?