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“Afro-Atlantic Histories” Belong to All Black Folk Everywhere

During the pandemic, I joined a new social media app.

I needed to join something, as I suppose most of us did. (I live on an island and had started naming the boats anchored in the ocean outside my window.) The app was originally a hangout for venture capitalists, but Black folk had turned it into something special. Navigating it felt like wandering through a dimly lit hallway at a party, craning my neck to catch snippets of new conversations happening in every room. The app focused on connecting people via live audio—and there we were, leading industry conversations on fashion and wealth-building and album art, staging poetry readings, and talking about Black celebrities (just when one might randomly drop in).

Barrington Watson, Conversation, 1981, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Jamaica, gift of Workers’ Savings & Loan Bank. © Estate of Barrington Watson

It was Barrington Watson’s Conversation. It was these women pausing their washing to chat something sweet, as sweet as their facial features, delicately rendered; something sharp, like their clothes, like their poses, like the angular display of light and shadow and line against a whitened background. The conversation does not seem to make everyone happy. It is satisfying, but also disturbing. It is discordant.

And so were the Black folk on this app. Lovingly, sometimes. Sometimes not so much. For example, whenever we were compelled to protect our belongings—even from each other. We debated whether Daniel Kaluuya, the Black British actor, ought to play Fred Hampton, once the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party, in Shaka King’s now award-winning film, Judas and the Black Messiah. But also: Cool Runnings.

And in the conversation’s heat, I found myself answering questions that stunned me. Some believed that it was impossible for Black folk to truly understand each other’s experiences, by which they meant pain, because slavery affected us differently—with the implication, even, that slavery had been less harsh in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean folks were in uproar, the American folks were in uproar. Some relented, some stood in the middle. I am not an expert on many things, but as a Caribbean Black person who has lived between Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and the United States, standing in the middle has become something of a specialty of mine. I’ve come to see it as a gift, the ability to choose geography the same way some people choose family. Raised by an immigrant mother in Trinidad, my view of nationhood was as shaky as my mother’s grip on the letter h. (Ask a Jamaican to say the word “ice,” then ask them again.) As soon as I could leave the smallness of my island home, I did—leaning on scholarships, my family’s savings, and whatever odd jobs I could find on Craigslist.

The Varied Experiences of Black History

I bounced around from dorm to sofa to eventual apartment, country to country, collecting understandings of things. My American friends taught me about appropriation, a thing I had no language for as I grew up in a place where everyone seemed to celebrate Diwali, saris and all. Trinidad and Tobago is roughly half Black, half Indian, with a solid population of folks who are not either/or, but both. To be honest, I still argue with myself about how well that word fits the Caribbean—“appropriation.” It’s an uneasy topic to broach with Black folks who do not live in the Caribbean. But better the discord than the silence. Because when we as Black folk refuse to understand each other’s histories—or even worse yet, when we simply choose not to see them, not to believe they exist—how much of ourselves do we lose? How much do our movements for justice atrophy if we minimize what “our” means?

This is why Afro-Atlantic Histories, plural, is so important. Black history is so often geographically and thematically segregated—conflated with the grimness of slavery and limited to what happened in the United States. And this makes sense to me. It is easy for white supremacy to disregard Black people and Black culture if they are reduced to a singular topic, to a sharpened point; for racism to spread if it is based on a simple (mis)understanding. If Black history is slavery, then Black history is gruesome. If Black history is gruesome, then Black history is unteachable. But Black history is vast. And unruly. And multilingual. And elusive. Our people span the world.

The spruce-green silhouette of a broad-shouldered man standing among palm fronds looks up at a faint red star against a field of green circles radiating out from the horizon in this abstracted vertical painting. The scene is made with mostly flat areas of color to create silhouettes in shades of slate and indigo blue, lemon-lime and pea green, plum purple, and brick red. To our right of center, the man faces our left in profile. His eye is a slit and he has tight curly hair. The position of his feet, standing on a coffin-shaped, brick-red box, indicate his back is to us. He stands with legs apart and his arms by his sides. Terracotta-orange shackles around his wrists are linked with a black chain. A woman to our left, perhaps kneeling, holds her similarly shackled hands up overhead. A line of shackled people with their heads bowed move away from this pair, toward wavy lines indicating water in the distance. The water is pine green near the shore and lightens, in distinct bands, to asparagus green on the horizon. On our left, two, tall pea-green ships sail close to each other at the horizon, both titled at an angle to our right. Concentric circles radiate out from the horizon next to the ships to span the entire painting, subtly altering the color of the silhouettes it encounters. To our left, a buttercup-yellow beam shines from the red star in the sky across the canvas, overlapping the man’s face. Spruce-blue palm trees grow to our right while plum-purple palm fronds and leaves in smoke gray and blood red frame the painting along the left corners and edge. The artist signed the painting in the lower right, in black, “AARON DOUGLAS.”

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase and partial gift from Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., The Evans-Tibbs Collection), 2014.79.17

Our people are the people of Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage, which reminds us that slavery itself was also a source of varied experience. That people even responded differently to their own exploitation. We can criticize the figures’ gendered responses to their enslavement—in Douglas’s painting, the central figure is a male hero, not unlike the strong, broad-shouldered heroes of his other works. He looks beyond his circumstances to a kind of north star that seems to commune with him especially. The feminine figure, on her knees, misses the star’s line of sight, but raises her hands in the air like a high priestess, shaking the scene with soundwaves—arcs that intersect with the star’s stream of light.

There is a compulsion to see the painting as sexist or as moralizing. As showing the viewer that only some of us, those of us who are remarkable, those of us who are strong enough, those of us who are men, are fit to lead. I’ve occasionally felt this sense of respectability (or rather, of superiority) from Caribbean people who are dismissive of the unique brand of oppression experienced by the Black folks who live in the United States. Some have never visited, while others live there but are intent on believing in an American dream that anyone can equally achieve. There are some Caribbean folk who are convinced that we are exceptional, just because we’ve always elected leaders who are Black. Who believe that racism cannot exist because the Caribbean has put our past behind us. Who refuse to see the police brutality that happens here, particularly when perpetuated against Black men, as connected to that past—the kind of past depicted in Richard Bridgens’s 1836 Negro Heads, with Punishments for Intoxication Dirt-eating—illustrations of torture from Trinidad and Tobago.

Richard Bridgens, Negro Heads, with Punishments for Intoxication and Dirt-eating from West India Scenery: With Illustrations of Negro Character, the Process of Making Sugar, etc. from Sketches Taken during a Voyage to, and Residence of Seven Years in, the Island of Trinidad, 1836, engraving, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Black Art as Black Justice

Afro-Atlantic Histories reminds me of my grandmother’s pressure cooker, rocking on the stove and about to blow, flooding the kitchen with the rank-but-delicious smell of pigtail. It is a compression of geography and time, showing Black folks as both subjects and masters of art, documentation, and narrative. I keep coming back to the curatorial decisions of the exhibition—the way Paulo Nazareth of Brazil either knowingly or unknowingly reached through time to communicate with Jean-Baptiste Debret of Paris; of the way Kara Walker speaks to Sidney Amaral of São Paulo. Afro-Atlantic Histories is an archive that belongs to all Black folk everywhere.

Paulo Nazareth, Untitled, from the series For Sale, 2011, Photo print on cotton paper, Galeria Mended Wood DM, São Paulo

Jean-Baptiste Debret, Mask Used on the Negros That Have the Habit of Eating Dirt, c. 1820–30, watercolor, Museus Castro Maya–IBRAM/MinC, Rio de Janeiro

Recently, I learned about the Merikins—a group of people who exist within my birth country, Trinidad and Tobago. They were formerly enslaved African Americans who fled the plantation, fighting in the war of 1812 on behalf of the British. For their efforts, they were given land in existing British colonies. Some of these people settled in Trinidad and Tobago, forming settlements and familial bonds that still exist today. Truly, Black folk are more connected than we think. What else will we uncover? Will we ever know the name, for instance, of the unidentified Nigerian artist who created the Portrait of Queen Victoria? Is the sculpture’s dour expression stylistic, in keeping with convention, or meaningful? What about its stout body and small hands—one, it seems, curved into a tiny, almost unremarkable, fist?

The fact that we may never know this artist saddens me. I am just as sad when I think about all the gaps in history we never recover. But I also wonder what would happen if we find everything we have lost in each other. If we consider how many master artists are still alive, scattered throughout the Americas and beyond, whom history will forget if we do not collectively, deliberately remember. Afro-Atlantic Histories has started this, but we must continue the rest of the work. It can no longer be a nice thing for a Black kid in Jamaica to aspire to be Kara Walker, or for a Black kid in the United States to stumble across the work of Boscoe Holder. It must be a necessary thing. If our movement for Black justice is global, it becomes uncontainable. What if what is ours is not a particular artist, or genre, or style, or continent, but, in fact, all of it? What if what we own is the world?

You can see the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition at the National Gallery through July 17.