Emergent ecologies: in the tense of Black and Indigenous ‘Future-Now’

Written by
Shelby Sinclair, Departments of History and African American Studies
April 26, 2022

On Tuesday, April 12, 2022, the Effron Center for the Study of America hosted the 2022 Anschutz Lecture. Tiffany King, the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies and a visiting associate professor in the Program in American Studies, delivered the talk.

King is an asssociate professor of women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2020) and co-editor of Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Black Racism (Duke University Press, 2021).

King structured the lecture in two parts. In the first part, she offered reflections on how the concept of “futurity” has been animated in her Spring 2022 course, AMS 351: Black and Indigenous Feminist Survival and Experimentation in the Americas. The course embraces a multi-modal model of inquiry and experimentation. Students encounter the work of a broad range of Black and Indigenous scholars, artists, and cultural workers including Karen Recollet, Laura Harjo, Karelle Hall, and D. Soyini Madison.

King revealed that the course is not merely an intellectual undertaking for students, but also an invitation to praxis. “Futurity is an action,” King reminded the audience. “It’s a practice.” One assignment in the course asked students to develop a land acknowledgement that functioned as a declaration of justice. The assignment, a provocation to privilege the voices, needs, and experiences of the Lenni Lenape people, provided students with an opportunity “reconfigure the now.” Students rethought both the form and function of land acknowledgements, noting that they should be accessible, connected to histories of slavery, and steeped in understanding of the creation story of those for whom the territory referenced is a traditional homeland. Other students imagined land acknowledgements as iterative, dialogic, and connected to active fundraising for land return to Indigenous stewards.

“The Future Ecologies Project” helped students resituate their body-mind relationship to the Earth and the ecological. With instructions to document how they reacquainted and reoriented their connection to non-human life forms, AMS 351 students designed expansive projects that included writing meditations on the kinetics of rowing, recreating the soundscapes of childhood, and propagating an elder’s plants to access stories of the land in Georgia.

King’s work, like the student projects from her course, embraces Black and Indigenous feminisms to imagine alternative orders of being and relating. In the second part of the lecture, entitled “Black Mountain Song,” she reflected on a personal experience performing Black ecological subjecthood. A Black ecological subject is one who is capable of ecological thought, of responsible action, and of self-representation to achieve ecological inclusion. Working at the intersection of Black Indigenous feminisms, Black geographies, Black ecologies, disability studies, and sound studies, King resolved to climb Stone Mountain in Georgia and feel and write through her relationship to the mountain and her body. The experience was at once somatic, embodied, and experimental.

King recalled that her observations of Black people’s orientations to the mountain ran the gamut. She witnessed performance of Black mastery, Black respectable enactments of fitness, Black capitalism, and practices of Black prayer and communion. Harkening back to the work of scholar Karen Recollet, King noted that soundscapes were especially important in her observations from atop the mountain and in the nearby community.

Black sound disrupted relations of domination on the mountain and in the community nearby. King recalled a transformative moment during her tour of the city that reshaped her orientation to her environment. Throughout her introduction to the town, she resisted a neat narrative of Georgia’s transformation from a haven for white supremacist groups and Klan members to an increasingly Black community. A proliferation of Black owned businesses along Main Street were not convincing. But when a Black community member drove by in a convertible, playing “A Little Spice,” a 1985 release from the Black British band Loose Ends, King changed her mind. The song engendered a sense of safety, a testament to the power of music to exceed the dangerously flat narrative of Atlanta as an exemplar of Black capitalist triumph. This, King insisted was evidence of Katherine McKittrick’s argument that music “allow[s] us to glean that reinventing Black life anew is bound up in cognitive schemas that envision and feel Black sound outside of normative structures of desire.”

Historically, Stone Mountain was a site for Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings. Three variations on the Confederate flag stood at full mast at the start of the trail. The Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the artist who carved Mt. Rushmore to sculpt Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson into the North side of the mountain. “The carving is a massive wound in the side of a granite erogeny that rises 1,686 feet above sea level,” King lamented. But the Confederate connection is not the only history of the mountain nor is “the wound” the only evidence of community ritual at the site. Long before 20th-century white supremacist gatherings at the site, the mountain was neutral territory for the Creek Federation and the Cherokee. It was primarily a sacred, ceremonial space throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, a site of community gathering and a home for kinship practice.

King bore witness to “multiple missions of the sacred that collided on the mountain”: the Mvskokee Creeks, the white supremacist defacement prosperings, and Black and brown practices of care, healing, and reinvention. “Collisions produced the erogeny,” she told the audience. So when the sound of a Black person playing a guitar in the distance drew her attention during a moment of rest along the trail, King grappled with how to best adopt a critical listening positionality, one that attends to Indigenous listening practices. Following scholar Dylan Robinson’s musings in Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, King asked, “How might I listen as a respectful guest and in ways that do not seek to extract and apply a particular… listening practice but nonetheless listen in relation with [Indigenous] knowledge systems?” Decolonial listening practices animated King’s exploration of the Black song’s sound labor. “The Black song that emanated from the top of the mountain is an act of reinvention, it is a form of rebellion that saturates the air with Black music, Mvskokee presence, and waveforms that reconfigure the intended order,” King insisted.

King closed the lecture by introducing the audience to two land-based experiments, DO.DECA.HEDRON in Georgia and Medicine Bowl in North Carolina. 

Lively and generative discussion followed the lecture, with undergraduates, graduates, and faculty in conversation with King about the tense of futurity, geological time, soundscape production, and communities of care.