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  • Introduction: Unsettle the Struggle, Trouble the Grounds
  • SA Smythe (bio)

The interrelated quest to map the unknown—the geographic unknown, the corporeal indigenous/black unknown—sets forth what Neil Smith calls “uneven development,” albeit from a very different analytical perspective: the systematic production of differential social hierarchies, which are inscribed in space and give a coherence to disproportionate geographies.

—Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds

We, to paraphrase [Kamau Braithwaite], can make here, on these broken grounds . . . something torn and new . . . , a communal future of wholeness.

—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, “Kamau Brathwaite: The Voice of African Presence”

As Black feminist Barbara Smith notes in Marlon Riggs’s iconic film Black Is…Black Ain’t, “There are as many kinds of Black people as there are Black people to be. There are so many variations on this theme.” And for as many kinds of Black people as there are to be, there are also many kinds of relationships to place and to belonging. The study of the African diaspora—of the practices and experiences that teem across language, histories, and other attachments—points to an origin: to Africa or “the continent.” However, to those not committed to its study, this reference is often reduced and ideologically bound to enslavement and departure. This special issue is instigated and organized around this observation, and wonders: what to the African, Black, and Afro-descendant is indigeneity? What, to the Indigenous, is Black(ness)? We know well that the stakes of considering Blackness and Indigeneity together in epistemological relation are high, and certainly not singular. Nor are they discrete, despite the efforts (be they concerted or a result of ideological neglect) to make indigeneity cartographically and thus epistemologically implausible or unthinkable in a specifically Black African context.1

This inability to trace landed attachment to places perpetuate the notion of Afro-descended people’s nonbelonging, and the question of sovereignty and self-possession becomes ephemeralized. In this settler imaginary, who owns the land (which is already a white supremacist conceit: many Native authors have argued over generations that relation to rather than possession of land is the deeper intention of land acknowledgments or even Land Back demands) is utilized as a coercive cudgel with which to determine who is made to labor on the land and who can form and maintain knowledge over the land and place writ large as well as let themselves be known/knowable.2 Here we see the connection between racial capitalism and settler colonialism, as epistemological-material projects of genocide, super exploitation, and dispossession are always already linked. The representation of Africans as un-landed in cartographic renderings like Native Land is one of the proliferating examples of how Indigenous belonging has been removed from Blackness and Black people. This informs the tenuous relationship of Africans in the diaspora to Indigenous claims (for example, of Afro-descended peoples in places like the colonial United States where Africans were considered enslaved people and not people with Indigenous identity and the policing of those lines continues to impact our present day perceptions of incommensurability).3 Continuing down the path of unsedimenting the relationship between Blackness and landedness and the delimiting relationship of Indigenous peoples to their lands as the only measure through which to understand and afford or experience sovereignty is to trouble the grounds—to disturb the tasks, the conditions, and the terrain—of understanding and knowledge production on which Blackness and Indigeneity can be thought in multiscale and dynamic relation.

Situated as the contemporary vanguard of this settler structure of knowledge production, obstruction, and maintenance is the academic industrial complex in the United States in particular, which is founded on genocide, anti-Black racism, and other ongoing modes of dispossession. We see these formations in the land grant institutions built on stolen lands (such as the University of California) and in the fact that across Turtle Island, Black Studies and Native Studies programs and departments are forced to compete for the same scarce resources and encouraged to remain discrete units and bodies of knowledge, despite the realities on the ground and their shared relational histories. The matter of funding and employment also reveals the university’s commitment to racial capitalism, as...

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