On Water, Salt, Whales, and the Black Atlantics


This conversation between Christina Sharpe and Alexis Pauline Gumbs was a dream of ours for this issue. Both of their works engage with the Atlantic Ocean in relation to Blackness and, in the case of Alexis, marine mammals as well. In this epistolary dialogue, they exchange about their respective works and those of their Black Atlantic community of thought, as well as on the relationships between bodies, water, and salt.

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Map created by Léopold Lambert for this issue (2021).

Dear Christina,

Gratitude for a safe enough transatlantic journey back west and I hope that your transition back into teaching has been as peaceful as possible. It was a gift for my mother and I to listen to your words and watch you reading them through the lens and obstacle of Torkwase’s brilliant installation Liquid: A Place. In that place, the bottom floor of Pace, we watched your shoes, we glimpsed your face through the black reflective curve of Torkwase’s sculptures. We watched you around and through the amplified and changing body of the brilliant dancer, GAIKA(?). And it happened. Torkwase did it. I did feel something of the experience of embodiment of water, how partially submerged in water my body remembers it is non-linear, existing as it does in multiple worlds. Remembering a time of the womb when breathing submerged in fluid was not even a thought. So you spoke about your mother, and felt grateful to sit next to my mother, on what happened to be the day after her birthday. Because since 2019 there has been an ocean between us.

I did not see the ocean on my flight across the Atlantic to London, and I also did not see it on the way back. When I glimpsed out the window I only saw clouds. Those giant filters. I didn’t spend much time looking out the windows, I also hadn’t chosen a window seat. I usually do, (cit. Erykah Badu) but on such a long flight my priorities were hydration and release. That’s the method the activist Roxanne Lawson (former policy director of TransAfrica Forum) taught me for obliterating jet lag. 1. drink a gallon of water. 2. forget what time it was or would have been, stay in the present. So far it works. Some collaboration between time and the fluid within me. I wrote a short story once, when my sister traveled to England, about haunted reverse transatlantic crossings. Now she and my mom and my nieces live there full-time along with generations of our cousins descendants and survivors of the Windrush generation of migrations from Jamaica. My nieces, age 5 and 3 insist that I not take a boat when I come to visit them. They aren’t thinking about carbon, they are thinking about convenience. Also, they informed me, they are working on a pink glitter spaceship to travel around the planet even faster. As I write this they are with my sister on an airplane for the first time since the pandemic started. Stay hydrated! Is what I want to remind my sister over whatsapp. The way I drink the distance is different and related to what Torkwase means when she studies the middle passage through all of her work, but in particular I Can Drink the Distance.

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Rorqual by Maya Mihindou (2020).

Sharon Bridgforth says “Those things that you know but you don’t know how you know them, are true.” And I know that marine mammals witnessed the transatlantic capture, containment and sacrifice of Africans. I believe that there were/are forms of accompaniment and communication happening there that I am still working through. I choose to believe that there is more kinship there than the shared threat of capture and use for the reproduction of capitalism. I believe that there is a form of breathing out of the soft birth crowns of our heads that dolphins and whales reminded those captives in the bottom of ships to use. I think there is something about that crown chakra breathing that was important for those who survived. And in Undrowned I write about the intimacy of Atlantic Gray Whales who became extinct shortly after the era of the transatlantic theft complex and how the bones of those who did not survive, who were thrown or who jumped, became part of the sediment gray whales filter into the basis of an underwater ecosystem.

Among the Sangomas there is a group of priests who belong to the world at the bottom of the ocean, they have spouses and families there. And that’s who I should really be asking as I work this through. I personally think the singer Moses Sumney is such a being, but I have never heard him say that. So far, in my one conversation with an actual priest of this order she explained that her kind have to be careful near water. There is always something pulling to reclaim them. I know there are many versions of this knowing, this story, this way of understanding along the west coast of the African Continent and around the world. What I mean to say is that a non-anthropomorphic understanding of the ocean can flow, and has flown creatively and spiritually in part from the fact that humans and marine mammals need not be understood as separate beings. They can co-exist in the same bodies, the same psyche, the same breath.

Maybe Torkwase is helpful again, as is the Togolese artist Komla Eza with their study of state change. How water becomes breath, how sky becomes ocean and sky again. The next time I cross the ocean (in a few weeks actually) is for the Black Atlantic symposium with Paul Gilroy and Ruthie Gilmore. So maybe I should write more about that next. But I’ll stop here for now. It’s time for me to get changed and go to the forest.

How do you feel in water? How do you feel in flight? How did you feel in the womb of the gallery?

Much love and admiration and gratitude always,



Dear Alexis,

Please forgive my long delayed response to this letter. Time seems both more elastic and more unforgiving than usual. Hours turn into days that then turn into weeks. While here, now, on the West Coast of Canada, another atmospheric river has arrived, and today’s grey rainy day seems interminable. A collaboration between time and fluid—.

I get seasick. I am wary of boats, though when I was younger, I did not get seasick, and I did go on boats during summers with friends. But I have never gone on a cruise. I don’t think I ever will, I cannot shake the hold. Your nieces don’t want you to take a boat—it takes too long. Sometimes when I fly, I think that a boat would be better. There would be time for the body to adjust instead of that sharp, careening into another time. But I know better.

I keep forgetting to drink water; time and liquid are in (a strange) suspension.

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The Door of No Return in Ouidah, Benin. / Photo by jbdodane (2013).

On the day of the first set of performances of Torkwase Dyson’s Liquid A Place at the Pace Gallery in London, I watched two women enter the dark room. One of the women seemed so familiar to me but I dismissed it. I thought that that woman could not be the person who I imagined she was because we were in London, England and as far as I knew, the woman I took her for was not. Then the performances ended, the lights came on, and the women approached me. The woman did turn out to be who I thought she was—the woman was you and with you was your mother, Pauline. What a lovely surprise to meet you there. So unexpected and so right.

The dancer was named Rowdy SS. And I was moved by their own watery response to the work—Torkwase’s massive sculptures and also the words I read that Rowdy asked to read in order that they might stay with them in the second performance. In order that they might manifest them (counter to the logics of those slave ship manifests) in their own intention to wade into, around and through all that all of our work made present. Rowdy was so lovely, and I was moved by their fluid movement and practice, by how they moved through Torkwase’s sculptures and how they moved in Shani Ha’s wearable soft sculptures.

In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne (Brand) writes, “Water is the first thing in my imagination.” In the conversation that Rinaldo Walcott and I had with the dancer and choreographer Nia Love as part of A Map to the Door of No Return at 20: A Gathering, we showed Nia’s film Undercurrents. Bioluminescence, whale calls, ancestors, free diving, galaxies, all of this is there. As we were talking, I said about her work, and yours, that there is a certain kind of dwelling that we, black people, keep trying to do. This dwelling is sometimes written off as a refusal to be in the present but it’s not that, it’s an insistence on moving, always, toward a bigger understanding of blackness (in life and death). This understanding is not only mourning — this is an understanding of the immensity of the rupture of chattel slavery and how we live it in the present. This is what we are trying to open up to meaning making, to feeling, to knowing, to acting. I feel this in Nia’s work, I feel this in your work. In Undrowned you write, “And if the scale of breathing is collective, beyond species and sentience, so is the impact of drowning. The massive drowning yet unfinished where the distance of the ocean meant that people could become property, that life could be for sale. I am talking about the middle passage and everyone who drowned and everyone who continued breathing.

But I am troubling the distinction between the two. I am saying that those who survived in the underbellies of boats, under each other under unbreathable circumstances are the undrowned, and their breathing is not separate from the drowning of their kin and fellow captives, their breathing is not separate from the breathing of the ocean, their breathing is not separate from the sharp exhale of hunted whales, their kindred also. Their breathing did not make them individual survivors. It made a context.”

It made a context.

When you write here and in Undrowned about the “intimacy of Atlantic Gray Whales who became extinct shortly after the era of the transatlantic theft complex and how the bones of those who did not survive, who were thrown or who jumped, became part of the sediment gray whales filter into the basis of an underwater ecosystem,” of course I think of residence time. And what I was trying to think through with residence time, about how those falls of people, and those falls of whales were each becoming part of that underwater ecosystem that is with us still. With us to this very day, with us long past our living and our possible, even probable, extinction.

This is what I found so breathtaking and breathgiving in Brand’s Verso 55 in The Blue Clerk. The ancestors’ surprise, their utter, delight that we who were never meant to survive, “are still alive, like hydrogen, like oxygen.”

We are still alive like hydrogen. Like oxygen. Molecular, cellular, gaseous, and fluid.

You quote Sharon Bridgforth, saying, “Those things that you know but you don’t know how you know them, are true.” Every part of me knows this to be true.

I am always grateful for what and how you know. By your many practices of being present. You asked me three things:

How do you feel in water? How do you feel in flight? How did you feel in the womb of the gallery?

I love and respect water, need to be near it more often than I am, but I do not feel at ease in it. I am working on that. In flight I feel amazed, always amazed, at the fact of it, and then the clouds. In the womb of the gallery, with all of you there, and Torkwase’s care, I felt held and held.

Alexis, may your next movements across the ocean be ones of ease. I want to hear all about The Black Atlantic Symposium.

I was preparing for A Map to the Door of No Return at 20: A Gathering. Perhaps, I will say more about that soon.

With warmth, love, and so much gratitude in these times….


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Vicissitudes by Jason deCaires Taylor in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Grenada. / Photo by Oblivious Dude (2016).
Gumbs Sharpe Funambulist 2
Salt farms of Guérande on France’s Atlantic Coast. / Photo by Kamila Koziol.

Dear Alexis:

I am still on the West Coast of Canada, writing this letter from Burnaby, B.C., from a glass house that overlooks a rising Deer Lake. I am here as a writer-in-residence for a month. And in the almost two weeks that I have been here there have been 3 atmospheric rivers. Before I arrived, there was another one that caused massive damage, mudslides, and that cut off parts of B.C. from the rest of Canada. Today is one of the first days since my arrival that it has not rained, and while one expects constant, even considerable, rain in Vancouver, this rain has been something else altogether. Catastrophic.

This state of disaster, death drive capital when the once in a century event happens four times in one month?

I have also slowly been writing this letter over the course of the three days of the throwing overboard of the slave ship Zong in 1781. One massacre among many massacres. One that enters history because of that court case and the 2-page decision.

I am thinking still about the ways that this throwing overboard happens on sea and on land. Those actuarial decisions on the worth and worthlessness of black flesh—

I am thinking about those 27 (and more) people who drowned in the English Channel on November 24, 2021.

27 (and more) people dead in the Channel

27 (and more) people allowed to die in the Channel

27 (and more) people driven to death in the Channel

27 (and more) people who die in the Channel because their deaths are necessary to maintain this world.

The headlines this week, the headlines every week, shake me. The people on that ship phoned for help. I read in the Guardian that “They said that two people on the boat who speak fluent English made at least two calls to the UK, begging to be rescued.”

I had just taught Mati Diop’s short film Atlantiques (not the longer feature length Atlantics). Atlantiques has stayed with me since I first saw it in 2017 at the SMFA in Boston where it was part of a show called The Oceans after Nature. I wrote at the time: What is the time of the “After” in After Nature; What is the time of the After for the Oceans (After Nature)? Are we in the time of the after? And if so, when did this time of nature’s after arrive? Did it arrive, was it ushered in, with the unnatural and seismic ruptures of Atlantic and Mediterranean chattel slavery, what Morrison calls that “overweening event,” and does it endure, now, in their longue durée? That film wrecks.

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Les Triangles de l’histoire et les systèmes de transaction (Triangles of History and Transactional Systems) by Togolese artist Komla Eza (2019). Each red triangle represents a different state for the water of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. Originally published in Nepthys Zwer and Philippe Rekacewicz, Cartographie radicale (2021).

In that film one of the characters dies while crossing the Atlantic to Spain for a second time. The character dies and the actor dies. His name is Serigne and when he appears in the film, he and his friends speak their care for each other and speak about why they will and won’t leave Senegal. We hear and feel their care and regard for each other and their families in the face of the depravity of fortress Europe, the utter monstrosity of a Priti Patel.

I am thinking about what Rinaldo Walcott calls the Black Aquatic: “Black peoples’ lived relation in and to bodies of water — as both self-constitutively historical and contemporary.”

I have been reckoning for twenty years with A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging’s insights on Middle Passage as a “rupture” to paraphrase Brand, in history, geography and being, on language and what it might do, on the shape and texture of dislocation, and what return might mean for those of us for whom leaving was never voluntary. Thinking as well about what the door might mean for those of us who did not leave through it, then, but whose staying was irrevocably changed. What do or might that aperture and that cognitive schema mean to and for those who leave, now, in those ships across the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic, across the English Channel, forced by war and climate catastrophe across the Sahara and the Rio Grande. Can these journeys be called migrations… “there is a sense of return in migrations.”

I think, too, of Komla Eza’s Map/Carte that you mention in your earlier letter and their study of state change and the Triangle Trade. The five changes of matter: Liquefication, Vaporisation, Condensation, Solidification, Fusion, Sublimation, which brings me back, again, to Dyson’s Liquid A Place and to Verso 55 and also to Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s theorization of blackened life as plasticized, not dehumanized. Perhaps Eza’s Map gets at that plasticity.

What do you think, Alexis? I think you have much more to tell us about return that is, perhaps, about states of being, about mutuality, and about relation within the circle (to borrow from Saidiya Hartman’s Notes on Method in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and from the first chapter of Gathering Moss when Kimmerer writes “the names we use for rocks and other beings depends on our perspective, whether we are speaking from the inside or the outside of the circle.”

I have more to say but perhaps this is a beginning and a place to close for now.

With every good wish in these times,



Dear Christina,

It is raining here in the basin of the Eno River, mother of the Occoneechi Band of the Saponi Nation paved as Durham, North Carolina. From my windows I see the black shine of a downtown street, but I am also in the Atlantic. Maybe some of the Blackness of Rinaldo Walcott’s aquatic is the way all water functions as a portal to all water. The other person I emailed this morning is NourbeSe because the Zong commemoration is happening and ancestors are speaking. Because I am in the salt. My face is its own aquatic site. Saltwater offerings because of the news of some deaths in our intellectual and creative community that I don’t even know how to grieve and breathe through yet.

Your letter is guiding me to think of this as being in the channel. Your witnessing of our kin, left to drown, compelled to risk is a frequency, it is in tune with Brand’s Inventory. It is a channel in another sense, an opening for messages, for refusals, for accountable possibilities that honor our drowned. Our drowning as the sky falls. The question of this day for me (and everyday at some point) is how to keep the channel open with all this salt. The salt of blood and tears and stolen sweat . Capitalism is saline, but not clean. My channel is open but not always clear. What does the heartbreak of witnessing routine cruelty do within me? How and when does it shut me down, when and how does it open me up?

Of course you, of course Torkwase of course Dionne and Rinaldo challenge and support my ongoing fluid meditation. And I also return to M. Jacqui Alexander’s theories of crossing. That the crossing is never once and for all and that the crossing is always a spiritual crossing. Even across and through a channel carved for capital. What is the spiritual energy that moves through the channel, the atmospheric river, the black woman in Durham crying in the early morning rain. And how is it more and less than the flesh that feels it?

I can’t write a satisfactory ending to our correspondence because thankfully our correspondence is not over. Not nearly. More soon. Same channel.



Dear Alexis,

There is no end to our thinking and feeling through this together. No end to our correspondence. I am grateful for your company.

With love,