Theoretical Meditations
on the Afterlives of Slavery

Afterlives and New Lives:
Bearing Witness to Epochal Shift

Deborah A. Thomas
University of Pennsylvania

My obsession over the years has had to do with processes of coloniality in the Western hemisphere. When Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France set sail to the so-called “New World,” they inaugurated a shift that generated new systems of economic production and consumption, new forms of social hierarchy, and new kinds of political relationship. These transformations led to the rise of the modern West and, through white supremacy and imperialism, the global dominance of Western civilization. I have been grappling in different ways with the following questions: If the modern West was built on Indigenous dispossession and slavery through development of plantation-based agriculture, and if both Indigenous and African-descended populations were excluded from modern personhood, then what could it possibly mean to be human – politically – in the wake of the West? How have people confronted the unpredictable afterlives of colonialism and slavery, nationalism and state formation in ways that perform not only a material transformation but also an affective one? What does sovereignty feel like? These are the questions that have been haunting me over the past many years as I have been developing archives of the relationships between sovereignty and violence in Jamaica.

The “Tivoli Stories” project is, in many ways, a visual representation of the afterlives of the plantation, of a modern political organization created in, through, and against coloniality. It is a representation of our contemporary condition that speaks through the discourse of “crisis” – the collapse of liberal democracy, the evisceration of a civil public sphere and of the notion of rights, and the erosion of the very health of the planet and any certainty regarding our environmental futures. But I have also been wondering over the past couple years about what it would mean to frame an understanding of our contemporary condition in the language of epochal shift rather than crisis. If we know that imperialism and slavery have many afterlives, what would it mean to assert that this moment constitutes another epochal shift, the death of Western modernity? And if this is true, how would we investigate this death ethnographically? How do we capture the everyday-ness of epochal shifts? What forms of evidence can we mobilize to perceive shifts that aren’t always understood as world-changing while they’re happening, when they sneak up on us, or, conversely, when they seem to appear suddenly in our faces? And how will we understand the work racism will do in a new epoch, and identify the avenues through which people will refuse and resist it?

In thinking about how people are currently engaging the intensified Chinese presence in Jamaica (China’s Caribbean hub), I have been probing three kinds of archives and spaces; rumors and discourses that circulate regarding the Chinese presence; the forms of activism that have developed in relation to Chinese development initiatives; and visual and sonic evidence (or the lack thereof) of the large-scale logistics projects that have been announced. Over the past several years, there has been a breathlessness to the “Belt and Road” language, to the assertion that Jamaica will be a central part of a new global maritime Silk Road made up of new urban forms that generate new jobs and training opportunities. This is a future that appears as if it is just beyond the horizon. Yet what is new also contains palimpsests of prior imperial moments, moments that constantly interrupt plans already begun. And even when projects seem to be underway, even when it looks like the government is going to take your land, or that you’ll be trained for a job in aviation services, you can never be sure these plans will fully materialize.

While we might imagine that an epochal shift necessarily inaugurates novel relationships to concepts and experiences of sovereignty and security, we must also be attuned to the ways new global articulations of political and economic power enable new forms of struggle (and therefore new channels toward accountability), while also disabling others. If this is the end of the world as we know it, the death of western modernity and the rise of…something else, then let us be attuned to the new dispositions of racism, security, and control beyond the plantation.

Black Art in an Antiblack World

Tavia Nyong’o
New York University

Cruel optimism is not just an obstacle to flourishing but an obstacle to thought. When we are attached to the persistence of things that are bad for us, that attachment can also block access to the needed resources for thinking our condition otherwise. The presence of such an obstacle supplies one motive for aesthetic experience. Not only can art give expression to what would otherwise remain inexpressible, it can provide an atmosphere in which our attachments to the given are suspended long enough to rearrange our relationship to the unacceptable. When it comes to black art — which is to say art — this atmosphere can unravel routinized habits of thought, logic, and reason, infusing other modes of corporeal and inspirited cognition. But this disturbance of rationality should not detract attention from the rationality of the disturbance that black art is and makes. The way an antiblack world thinks (about us) may be the condition of our art, but it can never be its cause. Or maybe this is just to say that we have just cause: that when it comes to making art, we have our reasons. It’s not just silly games.

There is a scene in Steve McQueen’s recent film Lover’s Rock (2020) that resonates with my claim that black art provides an atmospheric detachment from the givens of an antiblack world. As the deejay of a house party cuts the track he has been playing, Janet Kay’s 1979 hit “Silly Games,” the party goers keep dancing and singing the lyrics in an impromptu, ecstatic chorus. The camera lingers on one dancer who repeatedly reaches for the high note on the final “games,” and pans across another, older man, singing in deeper tones, who is none other than Dennis Bovell, the song’s original writer. The density of this moment thus confounds the diegetic frame of the film, which centers on an all-night “blues” house party in West London in 1981. The set-up — Martha, a teenage girl (played by Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) from a god-fearing household sneaks out of her window to go to the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) — is seemingly borrowed from any number of black American screwball comedies of the 1990s. Her return to that same bed in the final shot of the film, just as she is called for church, seems to secure the affinity of Lover’s Rock with its comic premise. But between dusk and dawn Lover’s Rock traverses a whole affective spectrum of black social life, plunging into both the thrills and the transgressions of the dancefloor. But if McQueen’s and Courttia Newland’s screenplay is our guide into the nocturnal depths where romantic anticipation, erotic desire, and spiritual bliss somehow meet for the black Londoners crowded into this house, the shapeshifting sound of “Silly Games” is our guide out of it.

On Translating the Afterlife of Slavery:
Black Latinidad, Migration and Belonging in the face of Global Antiblackness

Lorgia García Peña
Harvard University

My intervention today is born from my own experience as a Black Latina immigrant scholar who lives in a constant vaivén (coming and going) between belonging and unbelonging. It emerges out of the necessity to hope radically, as Jonathan Lear urges us to do, for another way of being — for a future being, free from colonial exploitation.[i]

Translating Blackness proposes Black Latinidad as an epistemology, as a way of understanding and producing knowledge from the site of unbelonging from “the unfinished project of emancipation.”[ii] That is, I read Black Latinidad not as an embodied identity nor a social construct, but as point of entry and set of methods that allows us to go beyond concepts of homogenous racial and citizenship exclusion; it denaturalizes the nation as a site of belonging, and invites us instead to learn and know from a productive detour, both away from and in contradiction to the colonial order that sustains national notions of citizenship and belonging. To think through Black Latinidad is thus a project of Black possibility, of Black living, of Black being for the ‘unfinished’ implies the availability of an opening, a space for re-shifting: that which is not finished is still in the making. The process invites possibility. Translating Blackness is thus also a political act that interrupts the presence of colonial structures that force so many of us to live in the afterlife of slavery and erases the possibility of our humanity from the streets to the archives. Central to Translating Blackness is a concern with the colonial structures that link anti-immigrant racism and anti-blackness in the twenty-first century, producing globalized categories of human beings that are “susceptible,” in David Hernández’s terminology, to exclusion: ethnic minorities, immigrants, and racialized non-white subjects. Contradicting the practices that often separate the work of racial justice from the work around immigrant rights, what I am hoping to do with this work is to grapple with the multiple ways that people who are deemed to “unbelong” create collective possibilities of being and belonging through cultural and political acts of alliance-building that translate historical experiences of colonial exclusion (such as slavery and segregation) into present-day political contestations of immigrant-minoritized human belonging (#Blacks Lives Matter, #no human being is illegal).