the undercommons: Black ecologies and Atlantic portals

BY ameia smith | March 7, 2024 | Student Essay Awards

Smith’s powerful essay joins lyrical first-person writing with critical reflection in order to argue “for a remembering of the Atlantic through a return to the knowledge that it holds.” Building on critical theories of Black history and memory, the essay frames the Atlantic as a space that has long held collective hopes and bodies of knowledge—not just the devastating memory of the transatlantic slave trade. The essay was written for Prof. Sharad Chari’s Fall 2023 class, “Ocean Worlds.”

only to keep

his little fear

he kills his cities

and his trees

even his children         oh


white ways are

the way of death

come into the


and live

– Lucille Clifton, “after kent state”

i have been grounding myself recently in the truth that i don’t need to be in temple to pray. an elder of mine reminded me recently that divination can happen in many ways, that i am always in relationship to God through my body and through the elements. that if i am in need of clarity, or release, or flow, then anywhere i can make water move is a place i can call in Oshun, be it a river or a shoreline or a sink. on that note, Iyaa sent me home with an herbal rinse, a body scrubber, black soap, and instruction to pray.

so tonight, in the shower, i stand naked as a fish, the water sliding down my back, and i think of Iyaa’s words. i feel the day fall off my skin, and running my hands over my head i begin to pray: for softness, for sweetness, for love, for love, for love, for what is not mine to wash away, and for spirit to fill those cracks. i scrub my body head to toe with the bundle Iyaa gave me. watching my skin turn green with rosemary, i curse out the hands that had touched me where i didn’t want them, and the words that were stuck in my skin. i scrub and scrub until the herbs fall apart in my fingers. and then, eyes closed, i pour the rinse over my hair, letting it drip down to my feet; i pat myself dry, and i begin to dress. 

i clean the tub after, and in collecting the broken leaves and petals around the drain i remember Iyaa’s instruction to discard this residue far away from my house, and so within minutes i am driving to the marina with this tiny bowl of debris in my lap. when i finally walk down the dock, bowl in hand, i am suddenly aware of what i am carrying, and i feel strongly that it is soiled. it feels heavy with the weight of what has just been pulled out of my body. i empty the contents into the water, and watching them float away i can’t help but think of my family and wonder how generational this muck i have been carrying is. how many Black mothers and sisters have stood in the same way, showered with water, praying for deliverance, for their bodies to be cleared from the unwanted residue of someone who didn’t ask for permission. i wonder how many prayers have collected at the bottom of their feet to be drained out to sea. 

i am descended, in part, from trafficked and enslaved Africans brought to South Carolina. according to various maps and records of slave routes, they may have come from Angola, likely landing in the slave port of Charleston (Smallwood 184). i cannot begin to imagine what the lives of this first generation might have looked like, as what i know of them is only that they were marked by death. i cannot remember their stories (who they may have been, who they loved, what they dreamed of, where they found spirit; their hopes, their fears, their conversations…). yet with every ounce of my being i can feel so desperately the necessity of grasping them in  some way, “the necessity of trying to represent what [i] cannot,”  perhaps as an attempt to reconcile inside of myself the parts that do remember with the parts that don’t (Hartman 13). the parts of myself that know (feel) that the burden i carry in this body is passed down from a long line of women who themselves had to carry the weight of being abused—, with the parts of myself that can’t even fathom what that weight may have felt like. this is the “challenge to integrate pieces of a narrative that do not fit neatly together,” which is related to the impossibility of writing the stories of my ancestors who survived the Middle Passage and also related to the truth that at a certain point intellectualizing my trauma will not be what heals me. at a certain point i have to get in the shower with my herbs from Iyaa and scrub this shit off of my skin. at a certain point i must scoop the muck out of the drain and give it to the oceans, for surely they know what to do with it better than i.

to speak of the terror of the Atlantic for Black people across generations is to tell the truth, and yet i find myself returning to it, coming back to the ocean to find clarity, answers, truth, memory, God. i am not alone. far longer than it has been an ocean of terror, the Atlantic has been a holy place, and even through the terror of the Middle Passage, the Atlantic remained a portal, holding in itself the possibility for afterlife, refuge, deliverance. for many Black people, the ocean was salvation, and through it they could claim death as a ritual which might bring them back home. across the ocean and then back under it, to be held again in the realm of the ancestors: the ocean was and is a portal for “another form of maritime travel” to a (non)place safe from violence in the wake of slavery (Smallwood 186). 

to imagine the Atlantic as such a portal is to imagine it as what Christina Sharpe might call a singularity, a point around which the fabric of space-time is infinitely distorted. it is in the terror of the Atlantic that we find “the ground of terror’s possibility globally,” as carried through the Black body (25-26).  the Atlantic is, in many ways, ground zero of the global capitalist project; it is the site of a great experiment of degrading bodies into flesh, of “unformed objects” and “deformed subjects.”in/out of the Atlantic, commodities are fungible and shipped (Harney and Moten 93). this kind of oceanic thinking is valuable, and yet, i want to theorize the ocean not just as a metaphor for spatial and temporal interconnectedness, but as an ecology in and of itself. the ocean is “the forgotten space of modernity” (Sharpe 25),  so we rush to remember its terror, but i think what i am longing to plot/map/write is not just the Atlantic as metaphor—for Black death and terror and shipping—but as life in its own right, which is not a metaphor, and which is inextricably connected with life outside of its bounds: materially, spiritually, necessarily. i suppose what i am reaching toward is an attempt to remember “the forgotten space” of the Atlantic as that human and nonhuman life which exceeds terror, which refuses it, and to remember the relationship between human and nonhuman life in that refusal. Moten and Harney tellus that “to have been shipped is to have been moved by others, with others”and that the shipped finds love “among his own in dispossession” (96-7);  so i am thinking about the human and nonhuman life on the ship as well as the human and nonhuman life in the saltwater–the seeds, the whales—and i wonder what they know of terror, what they know of refusal, what they know of love. might we understand the Atlantic not as terror but as witness to it? 

i want to argue for a remembering of the Atlantic through a return to the knowledge that it holds, which is forgotten, and which is found only through submergence. i want to return to the knowledge that comes from being in the presence of generations of drowned prayers and sunken dreams. i want to argue for an imagining of the Atlantic as a site of what Katherine McKittrick calls “Black livingness”(3) and as a (non)place which protects and preserves these prayers and dreams through the very nature of its forgottenness. i want to center the ways in which those “less-than-human being[s] condemned to death” (Sharpe 22)  insist life through the Atlantic, in that space where Man breaks down with his ships sunk by orcas[1]and where time moves in watery circles, and where those who fell off the ship never died but rather learned how to breathe salt. far enough down where light no longer travels, where still life thrives, drowned in that blackness. where our offerings and prayers and promises and memories are collected and kept safe.

i have not touched the Atlantic in some time now, but i have been having fantasies of what it might be to swim in it again. i wonder if there is a point in the ocean where all the muck from the leftover prayers collects, if there’s somewhere i can take a boat out and fall into, if there’s a place i can go to remember. maybe it smells bad, maybe the water is thick from all the discarded guilt and shame, maybe it’s a strange black pit in the middle of the ocean. anyway, i would like to go there and drown myself in it, just to remember. because, i imagine, alongside the muck there must surely also be all the memories that fell off the ship (Smallwood 144-5),  of recipes and romances and dances and gods and seeds and the ways of planting them, and all the memories of escape, of freedom, of secret commons and forest gardens and booby traps (Carney, 84), of “Black life insisted from death” (Sharpe, 17), and i would gladly throw myself in this mystery water just to “suture the jagged edges”of my own fragmented identity (Smallwood 205). yes, i would drown myself there if it meant i could know who i am. 

and so, in case this ever finds its way into the right hands, i will assert here that when it is my time i would, in fact, like to find myself in that black pit way far down and drowned in the  middle of the Atlantic Ocean, wherein i will dance and drink and eat and gossip with my  underwater kin, and when i am done i will gather enough memories to make myself a map with  which i can find my way back home, where, knowing me, i will find myself on a farm somewhere with my friends,

and my goats,




Beddington, Emma. “The Orca Uprising: Whales Are Ramming Boats – but Are They Inspired by Revenge, Grief or Memory?” The Guardian, July 11, 2023. ramming-boats-but-are-they-inspired-by-revenge-grief-or-memory.

Carney, Judith. “Maroon Subsistence Strategies.” In the Shadow of Slavery, 80–99. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019.

Clifton, Lucille. “after kent state.” Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir: 1969–1980, 57–57. Rochester, 1987.

Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Wivenhoe, United Kingdom: Minor Compositions, 2013.

Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small axe: a journal of criticism 12, no. 2 (2008): 1–14.

McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.

Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. In the Wake: on Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: a Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. 1st Harvard University Press pbk. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.

[1] in recent years there has been an increase in occurrences of orcas sinking yachts. some are calling this the “orca uprising,” and citing it as evidence of the oceans reclaiming their space. See Emma Beddington, “The Orca Uprising.”

Spring 2024 Award Winner