- Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic by Michelle Commander
Perhaps it is fitting that I experienced most of Michelle Commander's Afro-Atlantic Flight while flying on airplanes to various locations. With each new ascent, I was transported into Commander's macrocosm, which deftly theorizes the meaning of flight for subjects of the Afro-Atlantic world. On one of my flights, a fellow black American passenger, noticing the book in my hands, expressed interest because he was taken by the title and the arresting cover, which features Donovan Nelson's Ibo Landing 7. The image depicts the aftermath of an 1803 revolt of enslaved subjects in Dunbar Creek in St. Simmons Island, Glynn County, GA. The revolutionaries sought to return to Africa via water. The haunting image depicts veritably identical black subjects half submerged in water, eyes closed, bodies perfectly still without a clear indication of whether they will eventually emerge from the water or sink into it. As the black American man probed me with questions about the contents of Commander's book, we drifted into our own preoccupations with the concept of home and whether or not a reconnection to Africa was possible for black subjects descended from slavery. The gentleman expressed his fear that the psychological and physical disconnect of black Americans from Africa will never be bridged, yet he was resolute that such attempts were necessary.
At various points in Afro-Atlantic Flight, the thoughts expressed by the gentleman sharing my flight enter into Commander's conversation. Holistically, the book also moves its readers through various ideological positions of black Americans who are negotiating their identities in relationship to Africa. Charting a range of literary, filmic, and experiential speculative returns to Africas (the plural indicating complex and myriad imaginings) by black Americans, Commander's Afro-Atlantic Flight facilitates deeper contemplation of the legacies of the speculative myth of the Flying Africans in the post–civil rights era. Commander's work advances a growing body of cultural production that grapples with the resonance of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and chattel slavery for contemporary black subjects as well as ongoing feelings of non-belonging experienced by many black subjects in the US and arguably throughout the West. For these reasons, Afro-Atlantic Flight makes a valuable contribution to a number of fields that take up subjects such as the contemporary politics of black American belonging, travel, and speculative narrative traditions in black expressive culture. It also provides fertile ground for greater exploration of similar methods of what Commander terms "Afro-Atlantic speculation"—the narrative and experiential imaginings of return flights to Africa—enacted by black subjects in nations throughout the Western world.
The territory covered in Afro-Atlantic Flight is wide-ranging and dynamic. Using formal acts of narrative in novels, films, and memoir by black American creatives as a launching point, Commander uncovers prevailing tropes that inform her subsequent [End Page 301] readings of the various geographical sites that aim to facilitate a return to Africa. The book moves spatially through Ghana, Bahia, Brazil, and the US South where we experience through Commander's eyes the layered psychic experience of the quest for "home" or belonging for descendants of the enslaved. Unique in its conception and execution, Afro-Atlantic Flight demonstrates the potential for literary and cultural scholarship to navigate the constructed boundaries between academic and personal narrative, reminding us that performing the neutrality of the objective observer often obscures the stakes of the work we do. Commander's work walks the line most effectively between her existence as a scholar and participant in this critical project.
Chapter 1 initiates Commander's exploration in its focus on black American literary and filmic imaginings centered on travel and the concept of return. Focusing on texts and films such as Thomas Allen Harris's É Minha Cara/That's My Face, Maya Angelou's All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, Octavia Butler's Kindred, Haile Gerima's Sankofa, Eddy Harris's Native Stranger, Paule Marshall...