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  • CommentaryWorn out
  • Katherine McKittrick (bio)

Worn down, in a debasement more eternal than apocalypse. But that is nothing yet.

—Edouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, p 6.

When LaToya Eaves asked me to write a commentary on black geographies, I was in the midst of teaching two courses: a graduate level seminar called Black/Geographies/Liberation and a third year undergraduate course called Black Feminist Thought. At that time, I thought: this will be easy, look at all you have read and taught and discussed over the term; look at everything that is black and feminist and geographic. The books in these courses included Black Feminist Thought, If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, Butch Queens Up in Pumps, Souls of Black Folk, Freedom as Marronnage, Trumpet, Kindred, Dark Matters, The Black Atlantic, Golden Gulag, Black Girl Dangerous, Poetics of Relation. My easy comfort was disrupted when I noticed Demonic Grounds had turned 10 years old when LaToya made the request. The book is aging. I have never read the book myself. I have glanced through it, taught it (only once), read passages occasionally, thought about it, given presentations on it. But I have never sat down and read this book, cover to cover. I never liked the subtitle (Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle), which was recommended to me by the publisher. The book was originally named as my dissertation was: Demonic Grounds: Black Women, Geography, and the Poetics of Landscape. The original title couples Geography–the discipline and Eurocentric cartographic acts and the subversive geographies black women make–with the work of Edouard Glissant.

Glissant offers us a radical spatial politics that harnesses creative energy and the entanglements of world-wide relation engages the difficult project of honoring our collective inter-human lands without the mandate for conquest, without territorialization (Glissant, 1997, p 50, 31). So my ease unraveled into a terrible discursive burden with this old and aging book I wrote but have not read and a subtitle that erases black poetics. I have begun to forget parts of the book and in this have had to face the parts that are unforgettable. The auction blocks, for me, demand a kind of brutal unforgetting. The archives on slave auctions that I visited when researching the book–those sites delineated, sometimes with loud precision and sometimes through silence, practices of terror-making that require violent sexist anti-black dehumanization. Even as black women, men, and children are subverting and tearing down the dominant order [End Page 96] of knowledge at the moment of sale, the auction block makes the dehumanization of black peoples agreeable and profitable and delightful and awful and painful and desirable to witness. These memories need to be excised, forgotten. But of course they are not. The auction block as described by McKittrick in Demonic Grounds, I read somewhere, provides a way to think about the stage and about contemporary black performativity and black women’s role in popular culture. I want to forget this. The dehumanization of black peoples is agreeable and profitable and delightful and awful and painful and desirable to witness. How can I forget this? I don’t want it anymore.

The final book we read in the Black/ Geographies/Liberation graduate seminar was Dionne Brand’s (2002) A Map to the Door of No Return. In the beginning of the book Brand discusses the ways in which blackness and black subjectivities emerge from lost memories, forgotten stories, unknown places:

My grandfather said he knew what people we came from. I reeled off all the names I knew. Yoruba? Ibo? Ashanti? Mandingo? He said no to all of them, saying that he would know it if he heard it. I was thirteen. I was anxious for him to remember.

I pestered him for days. . .Papa never remembered. Each week he came I asked him had he remembered. Each week he told me no. Then I stopped asking. He was disappointed. I was disappointed. We lived after that in this mutual disappointment. It was a rift between us. . . The rupture this exchange with my grandfather revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds. It was a rupture in history...