When the Bones of our Ancestors Speak to Us: A Fugitive Conversation with Bayo Akomolafe

October 28, 2021

Earlier this year I interviewed the postactivist philosopher Bayo Akomolafe for Dark Mountain: Issue 19, our spring collection of art and writing on death, loss and renewal.  I had just completed his innovative online course We Will Dance with Mountains which has just begun again this month. 

I am preparing to leave a house I have lived in for 18 years. A gathering of starlings loop and swerve overhead in the falling light, and in the distance you can hear the grind and thump of the sugar beet harvesters in the winter-flooded fields. For the last two  months, as we pack up, I have been focused on a task with four strangers from different places and ports of origin (Manchester, Holland, Nigeria, Germany, Jamaica and London): to consider the fate and future inscribed in the bones of an unknown slave woman, unearthed from a burial site in the Port of Rio de Janeiro in 1996.

The archaeologists named her Bakhita (after the Sudanese slave turned Catholic saint) and all we know of her life is that she did not survive the Atlantic crossing to work in the sugar cane fields of Brazil alongside an estimated five million of her compatriots from West Africa. Our task is to rebuild the slave ship, set by the philosopher, writer and ‘recovering psychologist’, Bayo Akomolafe, as part of an online course he has been spearheading called We Will Dance With Mountains.

I wanted to speak with Bayo because this issue’s contemplation of death and dying also revolves around change; how, in times of fall, we allow a known world to collapse and reform from within. In no other modern thinker have I come across such a dynamic approach to undertaking that radical act of consciousness, embedded as it is in the startling imagery of the transatlantic slave trade.

Bayo works in intense metaphor, using metaphysical infrastructure to enable us to perceive how we are kept trapped by civilisation and how we might liberate ourselves from its invisible manacles. The building blocks of his lexicon include the slave ship (with three decks of colonisers, slaves, and Earth resources); the plantation, where we are set to work; and the fugitive who escapes the capture of both. Sanctuary is a gathering place where fugitives might flock and find other ways of being together.

Charlotte Du Cann: In the Bakhita Project, we have been meeting in the transformative space of sanctuary to consider the ancestral consequences of the colonial slave trade. Do you feel our legacies can ever be resolved?

Bayo Akomolafe: The legacies of the slave ship are yet-to-come. Modernity captures the slave ship in the same way it captures black bodies, white bodies, all kinds of bodies, and allots them prescribed ways of behaving and responding to crisis events, like the idea of racial injustice and climate chaos. It looks at the white body and says you are the enemy, and to black and brown bodies it says you are the victim here. Sanctuary is this emergent space which might be tethered to a post-modernist escape from modernity.

The slave ship was an instrument of oppression and capture, an instrument of horror, but when I lean into my traditions, when I listen to the tale of the trickster Èṣù and the tricksters of other cultures, such as Pan or Loki, the boundaries of what is supposedly horrific and evil, it is also shape-shifting. It is moving, productive, generative, and escapes our modern gaze. Our elders are asking us to look at the slave ship, not as a thing that is gone and done with but as a thing that is energetically present, right now.

We are all in a slave ship: capitalism is a form of slave-shipping and we are captured here, ontologically incarcerated – master and slave. The very architecture of the slave ship is hinted at in the ways we perform hierarchy and order bodies on a scale of worthiness – with the other-than-human world being below black bodies.

So, you might say that the invitation to rebuild the slave ship is to revisit the conditions of our incarceration, to look around us, to look again, and to see that these boundaries are never still, always movable. So I don’t want to make the legacies of the slave ship  OK. I want to make it sensuous, inviting, I want the wall to be porous, olfactory, membranous, I want it to be exposed and open, experimental, diffracting one thing into another. This is how new things are born.

I refuse to categorise artifacts of history as evil or good, because we do away with a lot of resources when we stabilise these things in those ways. When we name their colours too soon. So, to step into a space that is as troublesome as the slave ship is the trickster’s way, to play with trouble, and that might help us to transform.

CDC  This book’s theme is centered on death, dying and change. Is that collective space of sanctuary also where things can die and provide energy, or compost, for transformation?

BA  We think of death too strictly I think, as this absolute terminal point. I am interested in spaces in culture, for gatherings, where we touch the traces of our unbecoming and notice where we are falling apart. Where we reimagine death not as something down the line, but a paradigm, a thick now, an immanent field of loss and creativity that is entangled with what we rudely tease out as ‘life’. Modernity is about putting things together neatly, proliferating still images, being coherent, noble, independent. Consider what might be produced if, instead of thinking of death strictly as a firm line or an isolated event, we find ways to experiment with how we are already falling away, and how, for example, your identity is dying, how you are nomadic, diasporic, constantly moving, even when the habits of my perceiving you compel me to see you as a white woman. If we had  practices to notice the ways where our names, our bodies are changing and giving way to something else. How we are actually ghosts.1

I think dying well is about becoming with our traces and learning to touch the traces of our falling away. In a literal sense, I am leaving my cells here and there, I am less or more than I was a few minutes ago. Maybe a practice like this is the urgency of the hour. This is what I mean by fugitive exile, about leaving the plantation which reproduces images and instead helping us to see we are beyond static images. We are not as photographic as we think we are. We are abroad in ways that escape the ‘Man’, the head of the pyramid, of the capitalist structure. And that is the invitation of a constellation, of processional relational ontologies.

CDC  Your teaching of ways of being and becoming in many ways echoes one of the principles of Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation: taking that Man out of the centre and letting life be in the centre. You have called it ‘a constellation of fugitive technologies that allows us to meet the world differently’. Could you name a few of those that most urgently need paying attention to?

BA  By fugitive technologies, I refer to sites of encounter where we might be met by the world in return, where we might learn to listen and cultivate humility in the face of a world that exceeds us, a world that never receded to the background of human ascension, even when we pretend that it did. And it is very difficult to talk out of context about what this constellation of practices might mean for different communities, which is why I have hesitated to frame making sanctuary as a universal, ahistorical process that I can plant anywhere I want.

Someone told me that poetry doesn’t appeal to this moment and that we need facts. And I countered by saying: poetry is the spirituality of fact. Facts vibrate at the speed of mystery and poets are attuned to that, that facts are not as stable as you think. When people hear about fugitive technologies, they say: well, here is a practice that if I do, I might be saved. Here is a product, let’s call it ‘racial healing system’, here is an app for emancipation, here is an idea, a concept that is already neatly packaged. The very presence of the word fugitive dismantles that. The fugitive is a figure that is constantly moving, so I am not talking about the arrival state, the Coca-Cola at the end of the factory line. I am talking about the methods of dis/inquiry; I call it dis/inquiry to remove ourselves from the centre of the inquiry. The inquiry is how to get lost. The question of the fugitive is how do I lose my way? How do I lose this plantation? How do we get as far away as possible? So, these technologies I speak of are not fixed products one can scale up; they are cartographies of lostness, rehearsals in losing one’s way in order to meet the world anew.

Making sanctuary is a gathering place, a village of these technologies. The Bakhita Project is premised on post-qualitative/post-anthropocentric research, decentring the anthropological figure as the central researcher and storyteller and learning to listen to the world. What might that do to us? The idea of becoming lost is to become otherwise by virtue of encounters with the more-than-human world. This is not research that is intended for us to be better, or to get back to business, to our shiny ivory towers.

I might ask, right now, for the purposes of our conversation: how is Charlotte learning to trace her ghostliness, the legacies made in her name? What are the recipes for your undoing? How are you noticing the extraordinary that is packed within the ordinary? How are you sharing these recipes of your undoing around you so that we form a politics of mutual undoing?

So, my sister, it has to do with dis/inquiry, the methodologies of exile.

CDC  You talk about a state of betweenness, finding the cracks, a state that is neither inclusive nor exclusive. Is this engaged with by oneself or with others or both?

BA   I am very wary of individual journeys of salvation or emancipation, of personal enlightenment workshops. I am not sure what the ‘individual’ is anyway anymore, when we find microbial communities living in our guts, and viruses living within bacteria. Post-humanist processes are always involved. Even if you deem it fit to focus on yourself as a separate entity, you would need physical resources to do that. Thought is not always as internal as cognitive scientists would have us believe. I feel it is environmental and ecological and that you are pulling on outside resources, even as you turn to your navel.

The basis of a fugitive politics-to-come always involves an irreducible collective of bodies, humans and more-than-humans, even when a single ‘individual’ is in focus. I am interested in framing a project that does not privilege humans as the starting point, how bodies are forced to think by the environment, by happenings in the world. So for me the instigator of thought isn’t human. A virus has forced India to rethink education. Because of the pandemic we are forced to go in a different direction.

I think making sanctuary is gathering those who have been disarticulated by cracks in the environment to work with those cracks, rather than patching them up and returning to normal. Are things awkward for you? You don’t know how to proceed with work? You have existential questions with politics? If you feel that despair, you are not alone. Let’s gather here and instead of trying to run away and fix the problem, let’s move away from those solutionisms and stay with the trouble with our dis/inquiry. Let’s do research which might be ecologically framed and culturally framed as katabasis. Going under and finding ways to go deep into the ground and honour ancestors, to listen beyond ourselves. We can call it individual or collective work, or human and non-human. But I just feel nothing is as isolated as we think it is. Sanctuary is making space for the world to exist.

CDC  I feel civilisation has held us in a fixed grip for thousands of years, beyond even those centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, and when you consider this and the fact that slavery still exists widely in the world, you ask yourself the bigger question: why have human beings been slaves, or commanded them, for so long?

BA   I’m very shy about responding to why questions! The standard official explanation for what happened over 400 years to black bodies is that it was due to (human) evil or wickedness. I understand the legacies of such responses, but it does not feel generative for me. It’s a conversation-stopper and doesn’t do anything except label people, and might perpetuate the dynamics of the slave ship that feels so horrific to the imagination.

But if we consider that things are assemblages, acting upon other assemblages, suddenly there’s somewhere to go that does not necessarily terminate prematurely at a moral judgment. When I touch the assemblage of the transatlantic slave trade that features heavily in my work, if you look at the ingredients that made it possible – the Catholic enterprise of rationality that emerged from the Enlightenment, its ideologies and philosophies; sugar cane and its metabolism within human white European bodies; the climate that drove people away from chilly Europe to the sunny Caribbean – and how assembling the pieces together and noticing how those ingredients interacted together became the conditions for slavery, it might free us and liberate us in ways that go beyond just answering why.

It helps to ask: if sugar was an active non-human agent in the proliferation of that economy, that arrangement of master and slave, then what kind of moves can we make today to make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we talk beyond just active legislation, or healing people of their evil. We talk about meeting sugar cane, the idea that we are framed in unmasterable fields and forces that go beyond the liberal humanist project.

We need to create rituals of humility to know we are not masters of ourselves. Just framing it as something beyond us, without belittling accountability. Framing it as something that is more than human. That is what I am interested in as ‘postactivism’.

CDC  It could be said that Dark Mountain was founded as a postactivist project, in that the art and writing it hosts is created by sitting with the trouble rather than fighting it. How do you define postactivism and how do you see it as a force within culture?

BA  It’s a pervasive myth that we are independent thinkers, that I think my thoughts, Charlotte thinks her thoughts, and that there are as many thoughts as there are people on the planet and that we all have our separate thoughts, that we act from some volitional force or agency that comes from within.

What escapes that analysis is that we are connected in very sticky ways. We actually think territorially, ecologically, we run, we hide, we look at people like us and we congregate together. And patterns and sticky formulas are at work that are occluded when we think of ourselves as individual activists. I bring that up because when we talk about activism today, it seems activism is colluding conspiratorially with the world it is trying to change. The way we tend to see it in the ‘developing world’, in the Global South, is that the very solutions passed down to us only deepen the problem we want to get rid of, so we tend to be stuck in a cycle of repeatability. The IMF comes down and says here is a structural readjustment programme, here is austerity, something to help your people, let’s buy laptops for African children, so they can learn. And the laptops come and introduce new problems of their own.

I read somewhere that the ‘West’ exports psychological and pathological categories. As a clinical psychologist I have gone into villages in Nigeria and been told: you are the expert, tell me what’s wrong with me. What they were in fact saying was that since I was trained in Western psychology, I was superior to them, and their own indigenous experiments with being and becoming were discardable. The solution of my discipline and my expertise was supposed to cancel out the problem. It was just an allopathic response that compressed the problems and left the sickness intact.

I think activism is as materially complicit in the problems we are trying to solve, and as entangled as anything else. Postactivism is not a superior, spiritual way of responding. It is not saying here is a stream of thinking and acting, a way of behaving that will guarantee you utopia or a place of arrival. Postactivism is a democratising of responsivity. It’s saying we have been stuck on a highway of responding but there are other ways that are not tethered to this highway, where we can investigate and which might lead to another kind of transformation.

So postactivism is in alliance with a different theory of change. We have thought change is what humans do. We are burdened with the idea of change, and feel we need to change the world. Posthumanism comes into the picture and tells us humans are not central to the world, we have never been central to the world, we did not create the world. We are always immersed in a field of differential becomings, what Deleuze would call ‘transcendental materialism’. We are not stable things. We are diffracted, porous and transcorporeal.

Postactivism is based on posthumanism. It is my way of saying that change is not human, it is not our work. We can only ally and build stronger coalitions for change with the world around us (and not just with humans). Postactivism is the opening to this. It is about cracks and faultlines and fissures. It is like a hungry teenager, who asks: what can we do with this crack? How might this help us to build a partnership with this alien over there, in order to ask complex and new questions about the world we are in? It is not about solutions, though solutions are welcome. It is about wonder, building new alliances for becoming different. Touching the material body of activism and allowing it to shudder.

CDC  You said at the beginning of your course you deliberately pivoted its enquiry not within the United States, but in Africa. What was the reasoning behind this?

BA  Empires colonise conversations about change. They capture conversations that might redeem it from what you call the holding station, and then take these conversations and put them in the family way. Soon the ways we speak about decolonisation and racial justice, which might otherwise ring true for other people and cultures and lead to new sites of shared power, become about how do we appeal to the powers that be, or use certain languages or phrases to signal I am woke, or woke enough.  Soon, the nuances and complexities of navigating a difficult world are reduced to a few codes, a few linguistic choices, which Empire selects, and which others must adhere to in order to be righteous. So it becomes very territorial.

I am looking for conversations that are fugitive, that escape, that grant themselves permission to do what they want to do, and do not look towards the plantation, saying can you allow me to be seen? The fugitive does not want to be seen. And America is the most visible trope.

As such, I did this decentring for me, and to let our brothers and sisters in America know that they are not central to the world. You are not carrying the burden of change, you don’t have to change us. The boundaries of America are not the boundaries of the world, you are just a small aspect of what is happening. That should be liberating. So I think I am being hospitable when I say it is not about you.

CDC  What often happens regarding any conversation about race, or slavery or emancipation, is that it centres on the United States and thus limits our imagination and allows people to say in Europe, for example, well it didn’t happen here, it happened in the colonies. As a result we don’t get to look at this properly. So having the pivot of inquiry in Africa allows other kinds of knowing and awareness to happen. Which wouldn’t have happened within a North American frame – it would have become stuck in what you call the ethical monoculture, a Christian duality of right and wrong.

BA  I don’t think the pivot is even in Africa. It’s off the coast of Africa, maybe somewhere off the Bight of Benin, in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s definitely in the waters, where things are rippling and diffracting. That’s the site of the course, where there is no land yet.

The kings in Africa also sold the slaves; we also sold our brothers and sisters into slavery. That is one part of the conversation we need to have – not that I am trying to create an equal culpability situation here. We are entangled in this as well.

CDC  I sometimes find writers shy away from metaphysics or the work of transformation while those who are focused on consciousness work resist putting it into a creative or physical form, holding their knowing in a kind of abstract cloud. I feel everything needs to be spoken out loud, or danced, or cooked, earthed in some kind of way to be effective, to let these approaches become entangled as you say. Do you ever feel hemmed into a role of spiritual teacher?

BA  I think people use me, as you use the future or food or a pen. The people that I sometimes work with use me as a magical Negro (laughs) because of the way I appear and because of my experiences as a black person. There is often a sense of ‘just listen to what Bayo says’ which could be patronising. I don’t want to be trapped there, into being a spiritual guru. I like to have a conversation, pose questions of my own. This is not a transmission from some ancestor, or angel, or alien, but a diffracted meeting of each other in the middle.

We are all on this slave ship. You might be on the upper deck but we are all in this holding station that pegs our bodies in place. The gift of this paradigm of diffraction, or this idea that things lose their edges, this relational ontology, is that it allows us to meet each other. As I said earlier, activism can become very industrial. The way we think about transformation is very categorical. You are an artist, you do artist stuff; you are a dancer, you dance into oblivion; you write about this and that, and it becomes an industry in itself, and modernity is quite happy with that. It’s not scandalised about you doing your work.

CDC  Mostly, it doesn’t take any notice of it, Bayo!

BA  It doesn’t care, so long as you stay in your place. What scandalises modernity is when things spill. And facilitating spillage is good work. Diffraction allows me to read  myth, through quantum dynamics, through performativity. When we see things through each other, that is when the new has a chance to emerge. So that is what we need to learn today, to become citizens of diffraction, to become fugitives.

CDC  One aspect of the sanctuary which really grabbed me is that the site of transformation is where the real power is, where the change can happen, rather than  dominating forces of civilisation which activism is always trying to defuse or stop or take over from. It explained to me why writers have always had a very bad deal, because they bring that to the fore, that change is always possible in any moment, the fact you can change, or that you are porous, or that something can come out of nothing, or that the immanent god you spoke of is always becoming, is always creating within us. Which is why writers are silenced and flung into gaol, because they are trying to stop that change from disrupting the fixed control of Empire.

BA  In this quest to be seen, to be noticed, which in the Deleuzio-Guattarian literature might be indexed as the politics of recognition, can be found  a different power that isn’t tethered to being seen. There is historical precedent for this. When the slaves were crammed into a tight space, they tried to escape. There are accounts of their efforts to take over the ship and wrest power away from the captain, but the ships themselves were designed to keep them at bay; certain structures would demarcate where the non-citizens were, and those who needed rehabilitation and those who were embodiments of purity.

The slave ship worked against them. It’s almost as if their efforts to escape only enforced the trade, it made it stronger, because the slavers could get together and say, ‘why don’t we make the space smaller, dehumanise them further?’ To keep their property busy and sellable, they even invented practices like ‘dancing the slave’. The slavers did this both for entertainment and to keep these appropriated bodies economically viable.

The beautiful tradition of capoeira, the dance encoded with martial arts, which is famous in Brazil, could not have happened without the boot of the oppressor on the necks of the slave. The limbo dance is the slave trying to navigate the structure of the slave ship. And I can give many more examples of how oppression became the alchemy for transformation. How disarticulated bodies became portals for other ways of being: in dance, music, rituals, ways of interacting with the world, religions, spiritual systems.

This is why the elders said Èṣù the trickster, travelled with them. The trickster works in places you do not expect generativity. You expect death and dismal silence, but there life springs. So to go back to our original conversation about death and dying, modernity has framed death and dying as eternal silence. But through the eyes of the glitch, the eyes of the trickster, death is an invitation, a lively vocation to recreate, reformulate and use our porous skins, our disarticulated bodies, to become different.

Bayo Akomolafe is one of the keynote speakers for the upcoming Borrowed Time summit on death, dying and change, hosted by art.earth on 31st October 2021

Dark Mountain: Issue 19 is available from the online shop here


Teaser photo credit: Painting of the slave deck of the Marie Séraphique. By Desertarun1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=108838114

Charlotte Du Cann

Charlotte Du Cann is a writer, editor and co-director of the Dark Mountain Project. She also teaches collaborative writing and art, and radical kinship with the other-than-human world. In 1991 she left her life as a London features and fashion journalist with a one-way ticket to Mexico. After travelling for a decade, she settled on the East Anglian coast to write a sequence of books about reconnecting with the Earth. The first of these 52 Flowers That Shook My World – A Radical Return to Earth documents an exploration into the language and medicine of plants from the Oxford Botanical Gardens to the high desert of Arizona. Recently, Charlotte has written about activism, myth and cultural change for publications including New York Times, the Guardian, Noema and openDemocracy, Her second collection of essays and memoir, After Ithaca – Journeys in Deep Time, centred around the four initiatory tasks of Psyche, was published in 2022.

Tags: art as social change, decolonization, postactivism, slave trade