An examination of Black “ecologies” and the complex interplay of Black death and Black vitality
J.T. Roane | Transformations
When I first began to drive, my older brother moved to an area called Indian Neck—a rural stretch of houses on the back roads between Essex and King and Queen Counties, in rural Virginia. I asked my father, “How do I get there?” My father said, “Just go past the old Corbin Store….” That was but a hulk of an abandoned building, yet the reference landed and I eventually found my brother’s new house.
My senses of seeing and writing about matters of place were configured in rural Tidewater Virginia, where people invoke a different register of temporality in their negotiation of territory. Structures consumed by fire long ago are regularly and casually invoked to orient someone in need of directions. Drivers honk to honor a young innocent killed in an accident by the roadside, and turn down loud music as they pass a graveyard to avoid disturbing holy ground. This landscape in which I was reared, inhabited by the past and present, offers me a narrative frame to examine Black ecologies and the complex interplay of Black death and Black vitality—and the opportunity to envision futures outside the historical matrix of dominion, slavery and ecocide.
Clean cars—not just absent of dirt, but clean in the Tidewater vernacular that means detailed with tinted windows and a sound system—begin to file in heavy, kicking up a steady, rolling dust. My brother and I pitch a small tent behind my new ride to escape the blaring heat. My sister-in-law perches forward in her folding chair careful not to spill on her glorious white outfit the subtle but powerful punch she is mixing for us to sip. We begin to make small talk with our neighbors who have also used their SUV hatchback and a tent to create a reprieve from the fiery sun. We note the people that we share in common.
The first couple of GoGo bands play, the percussion of the set and the congas ricocheting in the woods surrounding the secluded clearing. We know some of their members from Tappahannock, so we take turns standing in the open where they can see us from the stage. We rotate into and out of the grassy dance floor so we don’t faint—the sun is still clawing the horizon and the humidity makes the air thick. A third band we don’t know takes the stage and we take the opportunity of a lull to get on the fish line to get a platter of golden fried perch and whiting with sides. We eat and drink slowly back by the tent while the next band sets up.
Before my brother and sister-in-law invited me to this yearly event in Caroline County, Virginia, I hadn’t been to a live GoGo in years. I listen to GoGo at least once a week to muster the energy and inspiration to clean my apartment, yet since I moved away from home the only way I can recollect the sound is through recordings. GoGo, the post-funk sound originating and anchored in Washington, DC, before its demographic transition, is primarily a live genre—requiring call and response and other modes limited if not impossible with me listening to old 1990s and 2000s classics.
GoGo sonically embodied my aspirations for rebellion. My two sister-cousins and I used to drive to GoGos in Westmoreland County at the now dilapidated Civic Center and party until the painted wood floor was slick from the cold night air meeting the heat of 200 Black teens rocking with the DJs and bands. We never told our parents, or my grandmother Elsie who raised my two sister-cousins, about where we were going—and in part that is what made it liberating. GoGo even drew us to Fredericksburg and down the treacherous backroads of neighboring Caroline and King and Queen Counties for festivities our elders did not approve of—because they were late at night, and because they did sometimes involve violence.
Defying the prohibition combined with the bodily expression GoGo opened for me, as a queer teen repressed and bent by small town life. It wasn’t until much later that I began to take full stock of the homophobia in GoGo culture. Around the ages of 16 and 17, though, as a country Black youth seeking to erase all evidence of my “funny walk” or adolescent “girly” voice, the GoGo allowed me to feel my body and get lost in the ecstatic live, nearly religious experiences. Against the constraints proscribing rural Black teens’ vitality and imagination, I felt fleetingly alive.
The following summer in 2018, I walk up as a woman and her grandfather sit together on low chairs between a table and two sizzling vats of hot grease in deep fryers. The woman drags the pre-soaked, seasoned fish through a mixture of cornmeal and flour, places the fillets gently into the oil, and periodically turns the fish and shakes the frying basket so that each piece is “fried hard.” Once they reach their golden brown, the granddaughter removes the pieces of fish from the darkening grease, placing them into neon-colored hard plastic serving bowls lined at the bottom with paper towels to catch the oil. Inside the small American Legion hall, an elder is appointed to bless the food and everyone bows their heads to show appreciation to God for the blessings of the occasion—the promise of new life in a baby born before his baby shower—as well as some good food. With the closing “Amen” an orderly line begins to form, everyone hungering for the fried perch. Alongside the fried foods everyone piles their plates with deviled eggs, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, pasta salad, baked beans and corn pudding. The flavors run together and the plates grow soggy.
The bumble and buzz of the crowd gradually quiets. The quiet sharing of food is not without its sounds: the musicality of southern talking is punctuated by the guttural sounds of mastication, swallowing, and digestion, displacing for a time laughter and chatter. Then the DJ fades in a stream of R &B classics—first off, “Before I let go.”
This feast and celebration replays the rituals grounded in fugitive commensality: the complex social worlds forwarded through Black women’s labor to procure, prepare and share food in the context of original plantation ecologies in Virginia. Abundance, embodied on thin paper plates as foods run together and flavors combine, is not a straightforward sign of affirmative identity and connection given the history of anti-Black violence in the region. Under slavery, Black people in Tidewater communities experienced quotidian hunger punctuated by the forced merriment of holiday feasts and other celebrations from the masters’ calendars—events that accentuated, rather than ended, privation and starvation.
Between Reconstruction and the 1920s, Black people in significant numbers held autonomy over land and built churches and other institutions in which feasting and abundance represented their autonomy. Between the collapse of agriculture prices in 1920s and the 1970s, Black farmers all but disappeared as land was drawn into increasingly large-scale ownership. The abundance of feasts continued, however, to have powerful resonance.
In late July 2019, we decided to go to the beach that day at Gloucester Point, a spot just below the joining of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers that create the nearly mile-wide York River. We chose this spot because of a small, sandy public beach where the children can play, and a weathered wooden pier where you can fish without a license. After we set up the grill to char hotdogs and hamburgers for the kids, my cousin’s fiancé, my partner and I make our way with great anticipation out along the pier. We are not legally permitted to consume alcohol, but we don’t hesitate to pour cans of cold beer into red cups when we see other fishers drinking on the pier.
Eager to prove myself to my cousin’s fiancé, an avid fisherman, I eagerly cast my line. Almost immediately, my line gets snagged on what one passerby notes is an underwater cable. Embarrassed to have gotten my line hung up on the first cast, I switch sides and cast my line toward the beach.
At first, none of us catch anything; between high and low tide is a difficult time to get fish to bite. Within a half an hour, though, we begin to catch fish two by two. Most are spot and croaker, many of them not more than four or five inches in length, mere juveniles. Nevertheless, we keep most of the spot and pull in some perch since my cousins are preparing for a graduation party for our younger cousins, and crispy hot fish is on the menu. After they are cleaned, they will be brined and frozen until they are prepared. We’ve created a makeshift cooler by filling doubled plastic shopping bags half way with river water, in order to keep the perch from dying too quickly and souring in the waning sun before they can be cleaned. I attempt to put some of the croakers with their deep bellowing in, as well, but my cousin’s fiancé warns that they are illegal catches, too small to keep. So we throw them back in the water—or rather they leap from our hands back into the river.
Although the bloodworms we use as bait are meant to attract the fish, their pungent odor under water also attracts a number of blue crabs. One, a female, characterized by the orange tip on her prominent claw, refuses to let the line and hook go when I draw in my line. Frustrated with the crab yet unable to free the line from her grip, my cousin’s fiancé steps on the claw, pulling it off to secure the precious line. He intends to use the small crab for bait to attract bigger fish, but as soon as he pulls off the claw, the enraged but defenseless crab scuttles cleverly between a gap in the wood planks, escaping her fate and returning to the water.
Marcus Pitts and I went to school together.
My memory is foggy about how or when we met. He was always a part of the constellation of home that I recall across the tendrils of time and space that define my picture of that place. We all know each other—meaning we know something about the people each other come from.
In October 2016 Marcus was driving one of Essex County’s narrow country roads when he struck a large tractor-trailer hauling logs up a narrow stretch not more than a mile from my family’s home church—a 150-year-old building that blew away in February 2015 during an unnatural outbreak of tornadoes in winter.
Marcus died at the scene, god-pray instantly. Generally, the death-inducing effects of resource extraction are not so literal, but in this case, like far too many people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Marcus succumbed to what we euphemistically call an accident—a euphemism because the very infrastructures that create the conditions for the accident themselves embody inequality. Our medians aren’t as wide as they are in the parts of the state with larger tax bases and more political power. If we veer off the road, there are no bump strips to wake us up; no extra asphalt to catch our tires from swerving into the ditch and then the trees. Even for accidents that involve alcohol, of which there are many, the discourses of “drinking and driving” fail to capture the complex historical and compounding effects of the inadequate infrastructures that define these landscapes. Back roads are often too narrow to bear two regular-sized vehicles—let alone large eighteen-wheelers hauling logs at breakneck speed.
We take to the back roads in these spaces largely because main thoroughfares are defined by whiteness—and with it policing and vigilante danger—and because both historically and in ongoing ways Black people largely reside in the more rural sections of the county’s northern end.
In the wake of the drying up of agricultural and industrial work, policing the highways—always a racialized affair in Virginia—emerged as means of generating quick income for poor, post-agricultural counties. These include weekend road checks, which prompt even sober Black drivers to avoid main roads. Driving on the back roads is dangerous at night all the more, since the Tidewater woods are alive. Deer regularly leap across these small roads in groups numbering sometimes ten or more.
The curves and dips of roads are an abstraction of the forests and the fields—creating a shifting, chaotic ecotone of human and animal life that too often leads to carnage. As part of an affirmative identity free of white control, we continue to gravitate to the evening to make our lives. Traditionally in these towns, the thinly veiled history of racial violence has made the public and the day itself white—and therefore dangerous. We cling to the night to remain hidden and this partially explains why the roads, with their deep dips and sharp curves, are littered with our bones. In attempting to avoid racial violence, too many of us die trying to hold onto life after dark.
I found out Marcus died through a series of posts on social media that featured one of his last GoGo performances from the summer before his death. Over the haze of the intervening months and years, I can’t recall what he sang. But I can see the outline of the Marsh Street Public Pool building under which he and the other band members rocked. He wipes his forehead with a white towel to gather perspiration, his voice bellowing forth from his stocky frame deep, rich and beautiful.
After hearing of Marcus’s death, 20 or more people went to the scene of the crash, holding an impromptu celebration of his life—wishing his spirit off to the next realm and mourning his death by dancing and blocking off the road.
Why write narrative? Why tell stories of the place from which I come? The murkiness of the boundaries between the ecological and the social in the Tidewater; the ways our sense of connection to one another remains in unstated but ever-present intimacy with the water; the present ghosts lining the roads (fallow fields, empty buildings, lives cut short); and the ongoing efforts of my people to create vitality and possibility despite the conditioning of violent abstraction—these are the fundamental things that continue to shape me. I carry the drawl of the Black Tidewater in my writing, not only as an inflection of voice, but as grammar to make sense of place, ecologies, belonging—and life itself.
J.T. ROANE is assistant professor of African and African American Studies in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. He is outgoing senior editor of Black Perspectives and he leads the Black Ecologies Initiative in the Institute for Humanities Research at ASU.