After the coronavirus, what is the shape of decolonial horizons? This article puts two decolonial collectives, Dark Laboratory and Electric Marronage, in conversation, drawn from the digital event #ElectricLaboratory, a virtual roundtable of Black feminists on freedom, land, the body, and the archive, which took place on January 25, 2021. Close to three hundred people from across the world joined online, sharing their location within and beyond colonized and unceded territories, from Lenape land to Ohlone. The x in “Dark Laboratory x Electric Marronage” signifies the amplification of each other’s collectives, multiplied through our engagement with recent books and essays at the new horizon of what Black studies is in 2021.
Four professors—Tao Leigh Goffe (Cornell University), Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez (Michigan State University), Jessica Marie Johnson (Johns Hopkins University), and Tiffany Lethabo King (Georgia State University)—combine their powers and analysis on the intersections of Black and gender and sexuality studies to celebrate and read one another’s work. The conversation was moderated by two young artists and scholars, lab technician Tatiana Eshelman (Dark Laboratory) and assistant editor/Electrician Kelsey Moore (Electric Marronage). Back and forth, Dr. Goffe and Dr. King, representing Dark Laboratory, and Dr. Figueroa and Dr. Johnson, representing Electric Marronage, sat with one another’s words and the textual love languages, the broken spines of books, and highlighted passages. Here, each professor has selected one quote or insight from another of the group, sharing what inspires or empowers them about their colleague’s work.
Both at the event and in this collection of short essays, the goal is to generate electricity and Black feminist energy from the creative friction of disparate archives—which conjoin questions of freedom, fugitivity, and sexuality—from the geographies of New Orleans, Jamaica, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Taking seriously the questions of archives and accessibility, we mark here the ephemerality of moments and the archival work we do.
Our two collectives are specifically engaged in digital work and creative technology. Here begins our marking of the possibilities that the digital affords us: to annotate our words beyond the margins; to juxtapose audiovisual media and art, so as to electrify our written words with full sensorial possibility.
Founded on Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, Dark Laboratory is an engine at the crossroads of race, ecology, and deep collaboration, centering on creative digital technology, such as filmmaking, videogames, and virtual reality. The trailer for #ElectricLaboratory features the song “Lessons in Rhythm,” an original composition by producer Jesediah, a former student of Dr. Goffe’s. It is an example of African and Indigenous sonic creativity that is fostered at Dark Laboratory; the music draws on polyrhythms in Haitian music, vocal chops in Dominican music, and the African sounds of the banjo and the Amerindian instrument the charango of the Andes.
As a laboratory devoted to humanistic inquiry, Dark Laboratory examines entangled debates regarding stolen lands and stolen life at the crossroads of the university in relation to surrounding ecologies and communities. We consider the centuries-long deep and clandestine itineraries of Native and Black people in coalition across the Americas, at the edges of the plantation. We “play in the dark” in the vein of Toni Morrison in order to investigate ecologies and archaeologies, such as the Underground Railroad in upstate New York as an ongoing site of and monument to Black fugitivity and resource.
Born out of the exigency to plot points of escape in 2018 and debuting to the public in 2020, Electric Marronage is a digital collective bound together by four rules of fugitivity: escaping + stealing + feeling + whatever. Inspired by the petit marronage of our ancestors, kin conspirators Jessica Marie Johnson and Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez founded this electric kin to steal away, share our journeys, and offer what we find along the way.
“Bound together, ‘electric marronage’ emblazons a language of resistance and refusal to the prescribed ways of life placed upon black/brown bodies; it is inherently charged, its frequencies are explosive, subversive, and fugitive,” writes Halle Mackenzie-Ashby in “A Collective of Insubordinates.”
A group of Black, Brown, and queer writers and artists, “the Electricians,” leads those daring enough to indulge in the otherwise. Creating fugitive movements, maps, and meditations, Electric Marronage surrenders to the possibilities of waywardness.
A Response to Tiffany Lethabo King
Jessica Marie Johnson
What my unnamed ancestors knew of slavery was life- and world-altering. They knew of a terror that exceeded the memory and understanding of what we think we know of slavery. I do not believe that genocide and slavery can be contained. … Slavery and genocide do not have edges.1
This quote calls me, as a historian of slavery, to ask: What are the compartments that have been placed around how we understand slavery and genocide and its impact on our lives and the world? For me, this query and the answer are structured disciplinarily by what shows up in the archive.
I spend all my book Wicked Flesh (2020) grappling with the archive: what we find in it; how it relates to what we know about African women and women of African descent beyond the archive; sitting with the null value—the empty spaces in the register, which register as silence to some and profound possibility to others—and conjuring a different story of contact with our Indigenous relatives, vis-à-vis a history of Black and Native entanglement on the Gulf Coast. I try to contend with readers out loud on these questions.
So much of our sense of our own Black selves is tied to what we think we know, based on what we and others have found in archives. And we’ve also been kept from so much knowledge about histories of slavery and diaspora and Black radical movements, knowledge that would connect Black diasporic people across empires, countries, territories. So it makes sense that when and where we do find knowledge written down and written out, we cleave to it.
But archival documents have edges. There is no other way to describe it. These edges are made up to allow, justify, and enable genocide and slavery. They are maintained by slaveholders and conquistadors and would-be slaveholders and people who think that they are white. Who are we to hold up their mantle? To do their work for them? We cannot afford that.
Empire works by circumscribing us away from one another. The Black Shoals begins with an acknowledgment and a realization that empire has kept us from this truth; it begins with a ceremony that says there is no edge, that this violence is edgeless, that the boundaries between us are false; that the difference between us is made up by empire. This opening is devastating, revelatory, necessary, healing, and unmooring.
We aren’t building coalitions out of some made-up affiliation, some fantasy of relationality. We aren’t building coalitions at all. The coalition is there. Relation is already there. Kinship is the fact, not the fantasy. Slavery and genocide have no edges.
A Response to Tao Leigh Goffe
Jerk has survived over the course of 500 years by evolving, and it is not only a testament to African retention. On the contrary, jerk is a product of Black-Indigenous relationality, of the fraught indigenization that was more of a treaty than anything the British enforced upon the Maroons in the eighteenth century. Jerk connects two entangled presences we were told by the British no longer existed.2
In her essay “Kitchen Marronage,” Tao shows how jerk foodways were made possible by adapted techniques, which are, likewise, archives of Black and Indigenous survivance. In underscoring Afro-Indigenous Caribbean ties to land, memories of place, and histories of subterfuge, another form of resistance is marked: the defiance of myths of annihilation. While lauding the development and survival of this food practice, Tao warns us that to romanticize marronage is to foreclose other, future forms of fugitivity.
And indeed, the history of the cimarrón is vexed. As we consider their embodied resistance, we too must reckon with the matrix of exclusion, compromises, and complicity within which Maroons were forced to negotiate. Tao’s richly layered essay ends with a recipe for jerk, which includes material, temporal, and affective ingredients. It asks us to add to our dish a bevy of fury: opposition, refusal, petit and grand marronage, Taino gastronomy, four centuries, and Fanonian Black waiting.
Tao’s “Unmapping the Caribbean,” meanwhile, links the fleeting histories mined in “Kitchen Marronage” to the modes, technologies, and pedagogies of the unknowable Caribbean. By thinking about the Caribbean through these other sensibilities, we can attend to Maroon logics. Tao asks us to consider what Maroons saw, heard, and smelled; she also asks us to remember that they cooked underground, so as to remain undetected, opaque, fugitive, unknown, and unmapped.
The insistence on mapping/unmapping the Caribbean with sonic, visual, and digital modalities understood through pedagogy is a necessary contribution to scholarship on teaching, on learning, and on designing decolonial digital-humanities projects. This generous and deep study of the Caribbean is attentive to the distinct legacies of empire and the ongoing cartographies of coloniality. In having students listen and imagine otherwise, the course prompts them to geolocate the Caribbean, while remembering that it is unmappable.
Ultimately, Tao’s essays are rich works that take us into a rigorous imagination, which moves in diasporic, archipelagic, and fugitive ways. Both “Kitchen Marronage” and “Unmapping the Caribbean” link Tao’s concepts of “gastropoetics,” “decolonial echolocation,” and pedagogical practices in ways that attune us to genealogies of resistance. I am moved by how the corporeal and terrestrial are sutured together in these essays as unmappable spaces: we are asked to consider our inheritance of refusal and to locate our own fugitive possibilities.
A Response to Jessica Marie Johnson
Tiffany Lethabo King
In September of 1746, Jeannette, a négresse libre, stood before the Superior Council to be reprimanded. Jeannette hosted nighttime gatherings of slaves and servants. As a free woman of African descent, Jeannette did not risk nearly as much as the enslaved who participated in these “assemblies.” Article 13 of the 1724 Code Noir forbade slaves belonging to different masters to assemble at any time, day or night, and threatened whippings, brandings, and death if the offenders were caught. However, Jeannette would have known how tenuous and contingent her freedom and privileges truly were. She would have known this well before she invited and catered to the African and indigenous women and men, and poor white women and men, who appeared at her gatherings. And yet she persisted. Now, summoned before the Superior Council, Jeannette waited as colonial officials “reprimanded and admonished her” for her behavior, ordering her not to repeat her mistake or risk further penalty. Within a year, Jeannette would be condemned to return to slavery as punishment and payment for “back debts.” Black pleasure played a central role in the logic of black femme freedom.3
It’s the “And yet she persisted” that ruins me every time I read this passage. I seek out being ruined by Black femmes and their practice of “ecstatic black humanity.”4 Turned inside out, around, wrecked, crashed, shoaled, floating above the state that I think is myself; and, yet, looking for more. Wicked Flesh offered me succor as I watched Kamala Harris, an Afro-Indian Jamaican American woman, assume the office of vice president of the settler-colonial state we call the United States. Jeannette’s pursuit of a freedom beyond what the Code Noir’s forms of manumission could grant or take away allowed me to honor my refusal to perform Black joy on inauguration day.
Jeannette’s inner resolve in 1746 that “this”—this impoverished state of freedom—was not enough speaks so deeply and powerfully to me throughout Johnson’s Wicked Flesh. Johnson absconds with the Black femmes, for whom manumission was not enough. Her text teaches us that “freedom” remains an unresolved and unfinished project. Truth be told, freedom is a horizon that we will always be reaching for.
Jeannette’s “free status” was not just tenuous, because the Code Noir could always find a loophole of capture. It was impoverished, because Jeannette—along with many other women of African descent in 18th-century New Orleans—did not understand themselves to be free without their kin.
Jeannette, and Black femmes like her, made me try to imagine what it would have felt like to be free when your children, lover, parents, and kin were not. It took me to the metaphysical and enduring question: What might it feel like to be a Black person free and alone, while other Black people remained enslaved? Jeannette’s and other free African people’s dilemma helps me better understand what unsettled the manumitted Black abolitionist during slavery, as well as the 21st-century abolitionist on the outside that the prison does not hold—for now.
It was the conditions that made slavery possible that trapped Jeannette. How could she, and how could I, possibly fully feel the caress of the nighttime sky and the pull of the moon on the flesh without kin?
I include the song “Makeda” (1998), written and performed by the Cameroonian French sister duo Hélène and Cèlia Faussart, known as Les Nubians, as a soundscape for Jessica Marie Johnson and the Black femmes who inhabit Wicked Flesh. The Black femmes of the 18th century “live in me”!
A Response to Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez
Tao Leigh Goffe
Many of the women in the novel, especially those who are prepubescent or pregnant, express a craving to consume earth, dirt, and land. In fact, destierro is tied to women’s bodies and to the development of their erotic selves. In one scene, Rebecca recalls her teen years in the Dominican Republic, when she would sneak out of the house to a quiet place and masturbate while chewing on grass: “The movement of her hands massaging the tender flesh between her thighs; the bitter taste of a blade of grass tucked between her teeth.”5
This passage from Decolonizing Diasporas (2020) captured both my attention and that of Tiffany Lethabo King. It found us as we collectively marked up pages, sharing our annotations of Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez’s powerful new book on radical mappings of Afro-Atlantic literature.
“Landback,” as a movement and rallying cry, denotes a relation to the land familiar to Black and Native peoples living across the hemisphere. It is not simply a demand; it is also a philosophy of land reclamation, which takes form in grand and quotidian acts of reclaiming territory beyond coloniality.
To study these ecologies (as Tiffany, Jessica, Yomaira, and I do) is impossible without the register of the erotic. The poetry of Afro-Dominican writer Loida Martiza Pérez’s novel Geographies of Home—captured here by Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez to encapsulate what she terms destierro—speaks to the erotic as a desire that is also a hunger, which must actually be fulfilled here by eating earth. Geophagia, the practice of ingesting and incorporating the land, the soil, the earth, within, need not necessarily be pathological (pica). The erogenous zone of relation—between the “tender flesh” and the taste of the “blade of grass”—is the space of possibility that perhaps cannot be mapped: “between her thighs” and “between her teeth.”7
The tender flesh is also the historian’s wicked flesh, as Jessica Marie Johnson shows us in her Black femme archive. Johnson’s text, like Yomaira’s, is also a radical cartography of Black and Indigenous ecologies. In both I see a kindred sensibility with the work of art “Angel’s Trumpets, Devil’s Bells,” by Afro-Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons, which depicts a woman from behind literally sprouting with the plant life of Cuba; the body is an archive of herbalism.
- Tiffany Lethabo King, The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2019), p. x. ↩
- Tao Leigh Goffe, “Kitchen Marronage: A Genealogy of Jerk,” Funambulist, no. 31 (2020). ↩
- Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), p. 177. ↩
- Johnson, Wicked Flesh, p. 3. ↩
- Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, Decolonizing Diasporas: Radical Mappings of Afro-Atlantic Literature (Northwestern University Press, 2020), p. 100. ↩
- Audre Lorde, “The Use of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sexualities and Communication in Everyday Life,” edited by Karen E. Lovaas and Mercilee M. Jenkins (Sage, 2006). ↩
- Loida Martiza Pérez, Geographies of Home (Penguin, 1999), p. 205. ↩