The UC Santa Barbara’s Women’s Center hosted a lecture from Tiffany Lethabo King, assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality at the University of Virginia, titled “Black Aesthetics: Representing Relations of Bodies, Land and Ecologies” on Nov. 10. The lecture explored the representation of Black and Indigenous peoples in relation to physical landscapes in North America.
King spoke about her research, which focuses on intersections of slavery and settler colonialism, as well as abolitionist and decolonial traditions. She began the lecture by addressing topics from her first novel, “The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies.”
In the book, King conceptualizes the shoal — a submerged geologic formation — as a space where Black and Indigenous traditions can meet in their own unique perspectives and offer alternative insights to understanding how slavery and anti-Blackness can structure white supremacy.
“In the political moment, I was writing for some Black feminists who are working with some land-based projects, particularly Black farmers,” King said about the background of her work. “I want to talk about the stakes of representing Black people who are descendants of the enslaved on landscapes.”
She also examined “Daughters of the Dust,” a 1991 independent film directed by Julie Dash, which follows three generations of African-American women living in the southern United States.
“I use ‘chafe’ to reference the irritation caused by one’s own skin rubbing against itself, as well as to gesture toward the space of a difficult encounter, perhaps another shoal,” King explained as she analyzed the movie in her book. “I also invoke the self and one’s own skin to merge the individual and the collective.”
King focused on the director’s decision to stain the characters’ hands blue while working on the indigo plantations, where the color would come about due to the forced contact with the plants and the toxic solution released during the production of dye.
“I zoomed in on this flesh,” King said. “I zoomed in on this vision of flesh that has merged into compliance and lie as a way of tracing the violence of slavery beyond a narrative of forced labor to mark the making of a new kind of more than human body.”
Initially, King said she believed she had adequately captured details of colonial and anti-Black violence through the form of stained flesh in her analysis but later realized her work was incomplete and lacking in the perspectives of Black feminists.
“I think that some of the problems that some Black feminists have had with my representations of black, porous, fungible flesh was that they could not be recognized under a range of available signs, for instance, under the sign of workers, producers, stewards, growers, farmers, healers and activists,” King said.
She reflected on her work in “The Black Shoals” and acknowledged how her interpretation of the Black laborer could be further developed. King’s forthcoming book, “Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh: Conjuring A Decolonial and Abolitionist Now,” considers feminist and LGBTQ+ insights in examining how creating intimate relations with the land can connect to decolonial and abolitionist histories and futures.
Recent movements from the National Black Farmers Association and the National Black Food & Justice Alliance inspired King’s interest in Black ecologies. The introduction of the Justice for Black Farmers Act of 2021 addressed discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and called for systemic reforms to restore and protect the land of Black farmers. This shifted her perspective from viewing these laborers as beings inseparable from histories of stained flesh to actors of political and social change.
“As I look back at Black cultural production and Black organizing communities, when I wrote [The Black Shoals] between 2016 and its release in 2019, I realized that I was writing the scenes of fungible into those same bodies, in a moment when important campaigns for Black farmers are being waged and Black food justice and land movements are getting momentum,” King said.
King also examined the “aesthetic productions” of the political campaigns by Black farmers, which come in the form of commercials, television shows, movies, documentaries and novels. According to King, these pieces of media attempt to humanize the people behind the movements and create social normalcy.
Interested in Black narratives in land stewardship and how they’re recognized in popular culture, King analyzed “Queen Sugar,” a 2016 drama television series based on Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name. The show follows Ralph Angel Bordelon, a Black farmer who has recently gained ownership of his father’s sugarcane farm as a descendant of enslaved plantation workers.
“Over the arc of the show, Ralph Angel seeks redemption and the trust of his family through his work on the land and being a dutiful father and partner,” King said. “And what I’m interested in exploring in black mirrors of land stewardship are the forms of recognition it seems to promise.
She referred to an interview with Baszile in which the author spoke about how farming is connected to socioeconomic progress for Black people. According to King, Baszile saw farming as a way to develop one’s health through growing fresh food and accumulating wealth by passing down land to future generations.
“Baszile says the following: ‘We have to think about this really in two ways. We have to think about this literally, the literal connection to the land and all the positive effects that come out of being connected to the soil. You have everything from the benefits to your health and well-being of being out in the open air out in nature,’” King said.
“When you have something that you own, that you can pass on to the people who are coming after you, that’s bigger than just putting your hands in the soil. That’s about providing assets for your family and for people in the next generation.”
However, King did not fully endorse Baszile’s perspective because it didn’t consider the potential relationships with Indigenous people in a conversation about land in a settler nation such as the United States, emphasizing the overlaps of land ownership between Black and Indigenous communities.
“So for Baszile, farming is tethered to this teleological movement or progress, progress as health and wealth accumulation but still does not mention Indigenous people or desire to develop to develop ethical relations with Indigenous people in a settler nation, and I didn’t necessarily see her articulating this politic even within we are each other’s harvest in the interim,” she said.
During her research, King said she became familiar with Afro-Indigenous land projects such as Soul Fire Farm in New York, which established the first cultural respect easement in cooperation with the Mohican Nation, working to bring the communities together with respect to each other’s ancestral land.
“The easement grants all citizens — current and future — the right to the land forever in perpetuity. Soul Fire’s bylaws also grant nature veto power. Its cooperative framework is diametrically opposed to some of the politics professed by Baszile herself,” King said. “The roots began with relationships with Indigenous communities.”
The second part of “Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh” examines the intimate and erotic relationship one has with the earth itself and the earth’s appetite for humanity.
“I want to dehumanize internal sense or the capacity for desire and sensory perception and confer these capacities to the earth,” she said. “However, what I find more interesting is the land’s capacity to dehumanize or reorient the practices of being human outside of the mandates of productivity, purposefulness, recognition and proper subject formation.”
King focuses on geophagia — the intentional act of consuming dirt, soil or clay — in Black populations in the 18th century, when slaves in the South and the Caribbean refrained from eating food and instead chose to eat dirt.
“To engage in earth eating interrupts slavery and capitalism’s mode of production, and rearranges normative desire or hunger and disrupts normative notions of human mastery over the earth. Those that succumb to geophagia — usually Black — are governed by the force of the earth rather than human systems of order,” King said.
According to King, geophagia is an embodied practice in the history of these communities, existing far before colonial settlements and practices.
“These dirt eaters passed on knowledge and minerals about an older system so that the descendants may know something more about the world than [what] treaties, proclamations and certified borders could tell them … Economically empowered white communities arduously invent religions or national identities out of opposing dirt as well as create industry out of possessing it on Black and Indigenous people,” she said.
King said she hopes to establish and affirm the relationship these communities have with the land as something that runs deeper than advocating for reparations.
“These projects [by Black and Indigenous communities] emerge from years of organizing with Indigenous peoples and thus do not start off by making claims to Black territory or wealth,” King said. “They respond to the pull of the earth and, therefore, their own appetites for healing.”