- Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage
Ships were the living means by which the points within that Atlantic world were joined. They were mobile elements that stood for the shifting spaces in between the fixed places that they connected. . . . For all these reasons, the ship is the first of the novel chronotypes pre-supposed by my attempts to rethink modernity versus the history of the black Atlantic.—Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic
Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water. . . . Water is the first thing in my memory. The sea sounded like a thousand secrets, all whispered at the same time. In the daytime it was indistinguishable to me from air. . . . The same substance that carried voices or smells, music or emotion.—Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
And water, ocean water is the first thing in the unstable confluence of race, nationality, sexuality, and gender I want to imagine here. This wateriness is metaphor, and history too. The brown-skinned, fluid-bodied experiences now called blackness and queerness surfaced in intercontinental, maritime contacts hundreds of years ago: in the seventeenth century, in the Atlantic Ocean. You see, the black Atlantic has always been the queer Atlantic. What Paul Gilroy never told us is how queer relationships were forged on merchant and pirate ships, where Europeans [End Page 191] and Africans slept with fellow—and I mean same-sex—sailors. And, more powerfully and silently, how queer relationships emerged in the holds of slave ships that crossed between West Africa and the Caribbean archipelago. I began to learn this black Atlantic when I was studying relationships between women in Suriname and delved into the etymology of the word mati. This is the word Creole women use for their female lovers: figuratively mi mati is "my girl," but literally it means mate, as in shipmate—she who survived the Middle Passage with me. Sedimented layers of experience lodge in this small word. During the Middle Passage, as colonial chronicles, oral tradition, and anthropological studies tell us, captive African women created erotic bonds with other women in the sex-segregated holds, and captive African men created bonds with other men. In so doing, they resisted the commodification of their bought and sold bodies by feeling and feeling for their co-occupants on these ships.
I evoke this history now not to claim the slave ship as the origin of the black queer Atlantic. The ocean obscures all origins, and neither ship nor Atlantic can be a place of origin. Not of blackness, though perhaps Africans first became negros and negers during involuntary sea transport; not of queerness, though perhaps some Africans were first intimate with same-sex shipmates then. Instead, in relationship to blackness, queerness, and black queerness, the Atlantic is the site of what the anthropologist Kale Fajardo calls "crosscurrents."
Oceans and seas are important sites for differently situated people. Indignous Peoples, fisherpeople, seafarers, sailors, tourists, workers, and athletes. Oceans and seas are sites of inequality and exploitation—resource extraction, pollution, militarization, atomic testing, and genocide. At the same time, oceans and seas are sites of beauty and pleasure—solitude, sensuality, desire, and resistance. Oceanic and maritime realms are also spaces of transnational and diasporic communities, heterogeneous trajectories of globalizations, and other racial, gender, class, and sexual formations.1
Conceptualizing the complex possibilities and power dynamics of the maritime, Fajardo posits the necessity of thinking through transoceanic crosscurrents. These are theoretical and ethnographic borderlands at sea, where elements or currents of historical, conceptual, and embodied maritime experience come together to transform racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized selves. The queer black Atlantic I discuss here navigates these crosscurrents as it brings together enslaved and African, brutality and desire, genocide and resistance. Here, fluidity is not an [End Page 192] easy metaphor for queer and racially hybrid identities but for concrete, painful, and liberatory experience. It is...