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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Note from the Editor-in-Chief and JTAS SF Editor

SPECIAL FORUM: Archipelagoes/Oceans/American Visuality

“Our ice-islands”: Images of Alaska in the Reconstruction Era

Abstract: Over the last two decades, scholars of Reconstruction have expanded their focus beyond the traditional regional and temporal boundaries of the campaign in order to situate the postbellum reconstruction of the South within a broader process of national consolidation unfolding across the continent. Though this perspective has reinvigorated Reconstruction scholarship, it has done so by excluding archipelagic spaces. In order to move beyond a continental model of Reconstruction, this essay explores the era’s representations of Alaska, focusing specifically on the popular image of the territory as a chain of icebergs or “ice-islands.” The first section of this essay traces the origin of this image in the political cartoons of Harper’s Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast and others. The second section analyzes the reverberations of this image in Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story of Reconstruction Florida, “The South Devil,” which juxtaposes a subtropical swamp with a shattering field of arctic ice to question the integrity of the continent and the national reunion narratives predicated on it. The controversy surrounding the 1867 Alaska Purchase reveals that Reconstruction was always debated in terms that exceeded the continent. Greater attention to the Alaska Purchase can decontinentalize our perceptions of Reconstruction while enhancing our understanding of the scope of US imperialism in the nineteenth century.

Cartographic Sea-Changes in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick: Ahab, Charles Wilkes, and the US Exploring Expedition

Recent attention to the intersections between literature and geography has yielded productive new readings of old classics like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, though developments in scholarship on deep time, the Anthropocene, and archipelagic and oceanic studies bring new exigency to Melville’s frequent allusions to mapping in the novel. This article brings the novel’s engagement with cartographical practices at sea into clearer focus through a series of close readings framed by the extraordinary ideal of precision guiding the cartographic agenda carried out by the US Exploring Expedition (US Ex. Ex.) in the South Pacific and Antarctica from 1838 to 1842. As metaphors for land, the captured and pursued whales in the novel reflect the surveying processes undertaken by the US Ex. Ex., which sought to establish an imperial presence in the South Pacific by bringing cartographic order to the region. In addition to emphasizing the representational failures of cartography and shortcomings of nineteenth-century cartographic processes, the novel exposes the fatally-flawed ambition of the US Ex. Ex. on two fronts: first, by revealing a contradictory imperative for imperial powers to both represent and shape the cartographic subject, which often obscures (rather than clarifies) subjects surveyed in imperial relations; and second, by demonstrating how attempts to dominate the ocean and indigenous peoples through cartographic representation expose the surveyor to cartographic counterattacks. By capitalizing on the difficulty of organizing the sea into charted order, the novel issues an ominous warning for the nation, unsettling its geography and expanding borders by envisaging latent threats within representations conveying geopolitical visibility and order.

Caught (and Brought) in the Currents: Narratives of Convergence, Destruction, and Creation at Kamilo Beach

This paper visits, interacts with, and listens to place. Rather than ascribing narratives and frames to the spaces we study, it encourages scholars to take pause and to sift through the many layers of complex histories of and from place to uncover the stories not being told. As an example, this paper will focus on Kamilo, a beach located on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, that has become known (in recent years) as “Plastic Beach.” It will use the beach as a means of grappling with issues of accessibility and (in)visibility and the dangers of colonial framings, and will reposition the beach not just as a place of crossing, but one of destruction and creation. It will also propose that working with and on spaces requires a consideration of the responsibilities that researchers have to the places they work in. This paper will not only uncover stories but will tell them, circling between personal experience, research, and critical reflection.

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“Perfection with a hole in the middle”: Archipelagic Assemblage in Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning

This essay uses frameworks derived from Archipelagic American studies to examine Tiphanie Yanique’s novel Land of Love and Drowning and the United States Virgin Islands on the 100th anniversary of their transfer from Denmark. Yanique’s vision of a specifically USVI literature is necessarily archipelagic in that it participates in inter-island exchange based on circuits forged by colonial practice that have been dynamically revised through global black freedom struggles taking place in archipelagoes of the Virgin Islands in conjunction with the continents that comprise their diasporic communities. The archipelagic perspective exposes the circuits of connectivity between water, land, human, animals, and commodities that travel through the submarine routes of the Atlantic basin. Using a strategy of literary assemblage to build a diasporic mythology that is nevertheless grounded in the specific ecologies of the USVI allows Yanique to counter trenchant stereotypical portrayals that reify the VI’s historical invisibility in American culture. More urgently, she draws attention to the islands as a forgotten U.S. territory in times of crisis such as the wreckage of hurricanes Irma and Maria. One manifestation of Yanique’s literary assemblage are her fictive hybrids, her “ocean grown” folks; I read Land of Love in Drowning alongside Wangechi Mutu’s Nguva na Nyoka (Sirens and Serpents) and St. Croix-based artist La Vaughn Belle’s video installations/counternarratives of Danish slavery to further illuminate the archipelagic nature of Yanique’s narrative assemblage, which demands a interartistic perspective that considers multiple mediums and modes of exchange and encounter across national and natural boundaries. As Yanique’s generational tale coalesces around the commemoration and nostalgic unease of Transfer, her image-based thematics resonate with Belle’s and Mutu’s visual reckoning with the hybridity of splintered identity that results from an accumulation of colonial legacies and diasporic sensibilities.

Telescopic Relationality: Visualizing the Archipelagic Americas in Burn!

This essay examines the narrative feature film Burn! (1969) to name a relation wherein the telescope serves as a tool for envisioning possibility rather than hierarchy. It argues that the film positions the telescope within its diegesis as a provocatively paradoxical tool of sight: characters use the optical instrument to magnify a vision of the archipelagic Americas without necessarily crystallizing the perceived image’s meaning. Approaching the practice of filmmaking as a symbolic telescope in its own right, the essay suggests that the broader implication of Burn!’s telescopic relationality is, once again, seemingly counterintuitive: it is a film that shows the Caribbean and imagines what it may look like after a revolution precisely in order to emphasize the phenomena of not seeing and not knowing. The film’s counterintuitive use of the telescope ultimately implicates viewers and compels them to understand islands in terms of alternative American connectivities rather than through discourses of insignificance.


Feeling Oceanic: Racial Identity and Postbellum Drift

Abstract: In this essay we draw a historiographical line from J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (1840)—a representation of the Zong massacre—to Charles Chesnutt’s novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Turner’s optical opacities render black bodies faceless and fragmentary while also pulling the ground out from under the nominal spectator, an effect that joins typical period representations of black slaves and sailors with a self-reflexive counterpressure that implicates viewers (and readers) in sense-making operations that dissolve as much as they congeal. We offer a transatlantic reading of the painting that foreshadows postbellum concerns about the raced subject as it contends with identitarian drift. In Chesnutt’s narrative we find an unexpected intrusion of the oceanic (through a shipwreck nightmare) into the life of a Reconstruction-era woman who must come to grips with the specter of the sea’s between-space as the fluctuating nonsite where racial identity and ideology is formed and potentially re-formed. Olivia Carteret’s dreamscape coincides at the novel’s climax with the 1898 Wilmington riot, a white supremacist takeover of the local government. Shipwrecked and floating on the open water with her son, she encounters her mixed-race half sister Janet on an approaching boat. As a major conceit of the dream’s narrative, Olivia’s understanding of the legal and social stability of her son’s whiteness and the legitimacy of his inheritance is thrown into crisis as she is forced to recognize Janet as kin. We examine this scene in more detail to show how postbellum writers and artists appealed to the oceanic as an affective medium or canvas upon which negotiations of raced and gendered identities play out, especially those of subjects explicitly caught between national and ethnic imaginaries.


Pretty in Pink Polypropylene: Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s Surrounded Islands

Response to Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Surrounded Islands (1983)

Floating Island Reflections: Relationalities from Oceania and Manna-hata

This response engages archipelagic thinking and etak/moving islands theories to rhetorically analyze Robert Smithson’s Floating Island (2005) in relation to other poetic and experiential artifacts. It considers how Indigenous cartographies and oceanic concepts maintain connections, movements, and relationalities that traverse waterways from peoples and places of Manna-hata and Oceania alike.

A Pool of Water: Backyard Borders between Cuba and the United States

Response to Glenda León’s installation artwork Sueño de verano (“Summer Dream,” 2012) and Juana Valdes’s installation artwork, Te-Amo (“I-Love-You,” 2007)



Ocean Seeing

Response to Mary Mattingly's Triple Island and Humberto Díaz's Espejismo

when we dance the ocean, does it hear us?

Response to Yuki Kihara’s Siva in Motion (2012) and Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s Ongo Mei Moana (2015)



What the Island Provides: Island Sustainability and Island-Human Relationality


In this essay I examine three artworks featured in this issue: Chris Charteris’s Te ma; Maile Andrade’s Hana ka Lima; and Ibrahim Miranda’s Isla laboratorio o 7 maravillas or Island Laboratory of 7 Wonders. Following descriptions of the artworks and their materials, I assert that each piece emphasizes what I refer to as “island-human relationality,” which recognizes human interconnections and kinship with the island. Such kinship, I argue, entails the human adoption of an ethic of island sustainability, of humans receiving what the island provides, while also ensuring the island is not exploited or abused for its resources.


Archipelagic Environments

In this micro-essay on the artists James Cooper (of Bermuda) and Jamilah Sabur (Miami-based, born in St. Andrew Parish, Jamaica), I explore both artists’ portrayals of the subaqueous landscapes of the Caribbean. Both strive to convey the complexities of tropical land- and seascapes sedimented with the detritus of human cultures and histories. In these landscape ecologies, residues provide tactile pathways back to the island past.

Special Forum Visual Art Appendix

Appendix of art works curated by Christopher Lynn and Fidalis Buehler for the JTAS Special Forum Archipelagoes/Oceans/ American Visuality, edited by Hester Blum, Mary Eyring, Iping Liang, and Brian Russell Roberts. Appendix design by Christopher Lynn.

SPECIAL FORUM: Transnational Black Politics and Resistance: From Enslavement to Obama

Transnational Black Politics and Resistance: From Enslavement to Obama: Through the Prism of 1619

Introduction to the Special Forum edited by:

Frank Obenland

Nele Sawallisch

Johanna Seibert

Pia Wiegmink


German Abolitionism: Kotzebue and the Transnational Debate on Slavery

This essay challenges the notion of an absence of German abolitionist awareness in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment. Furthermore, it highlights the lack of a scholarly engagement with historical German debates on slavery and abolition in the media and the public sphere. In this regard, I investigate the transnational significance of German abolitionist discourse based on the work of August von Kotzebue (1761–1819). For this reason, I explore the formulation of Kotzebue’s antislavery trajectory by illustrating intertextual instances involving his play Die Negersklaven: ein historisch-dramatisches Gemählde in drey Akten 1796 (The Negro Slaves: A Historical-dramatic Painting, in Three Acts 1796). In so doing, I demonstrate that Kotzebue makes a substantial and significant contribution to transnational abolitionist discourse of the late eighteenth century in the form of an abolitionist text that discursively and polemically condemns slavery as an inhumane institution. My analysis makes the case for a revised understanding of German-language contributions to this transnational debate. In addition, I expose a marginalization and scarcity of scholarship on German-speaking abolitionism and abolitionist efforts within German Studies, which is of similar relevance to transatlantic American studies, that usually does not consider German-language contributions. Therefore, this study widens the discipline’s scope by an inclusion of additional voices with regard to the context of slavery and abolition that traditionally belong to the spectrum of American literature and history.

Restructuring Respectability, Gender, and Power: Aida Overton Walker Performs a Black Feminist Resistance

Aida Overton Walker, a premier vaudeville entertainer, engaged in a calculated, career-long process to restructure and re-present how African Americans, particularly black women in popular theater, were viewed and perceived in American society. Through a feminist lens this essay will demonstrate her awareness of her visual presence to perform black resistance by embodying the ideological practice of racial uplift—the response delivered by the African American, educated, middle-class elite to the anti-black racist environment prevalent in the early 1900s.

The goal of this essay is to elucidate Overton Walker’s understanding of her image and her onstage performance career—choreography, dance, comedy, and drama—as powerful, subversive tools that countered the virulent racist portrayal of blacks rendered on the vaudeville stage through minstrelsy, and the damaging imagery persisting from slavery, white supremacy, and the prevailing Jim Crow regime. She enacted her brand of feminism to utilize her onstage and offstage likenesses to perform and proselytize for racial uplift, work traditionally designated almost exclusively for the black male elite.

Overton Walker’s transnational forms of black resistance reside in her direct engagement in Britain and her indirect and imagined connections with the African continent. She is an understudied figure in the era of the New Negro. This essay will illuminate and consider her contributions to racial uplift in context to the US and abroad. Overton Walker’s transnational links between the African continent, Great Britain, and America were transformative performances in popular culture, and in context of an emerging American modernity.


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A Transatlantic Slavery Narrative: Work Sketches of a Nineteenth-Century Bristolian-Cuban Sugar Cane Plantation and President Barack Obama’s “Black Speech” in Cuba

After the Haitian Revolution in 1804, Cuba became the world’s largest producer of sugar and the United States its principal buyer. There was a close commercial relationship between Cuba and Bristol, Rhode Island, which supported an illegal slave trade for Bristolian-owned ingenios, or sugarcane plantations in Cuba.

This paper examines two outstanding testimonial accounts in the context of that shared transatlantic slave trade spearheaded by the United States. George Howe, a Bristolian manager of an ingenio, wrote in 1833 a work diary that recorded select operational details performed by enslaved workers. Howe’s travelogue provides the critical foundations for a literature of the plantation, a discursive narrative that served him well to reflect upon the impact of enslaved workers as the true underpinnings of Ingenio New Hope. American travelers to Cuba also documented racialized cultural practices. In President Barack Obama’s public address as part of his official three-day visit beginning on March 20, 2016, which impacted ongoing negotiations surrounding the US embargo to Cuba, Obama spoke about the racial heritage shared by both countries and stemming from slavery practices. Obama not only referred to the convoluted diplomatic relationship between both countries, but he also highlighted an Atlantic, Pan-American racial legacy.

Through a racialized narrative allusive to the impact of plantations, Obama set himself as an African-American, a hybrid identity through which he examined the colonial histories of both countries. The intertextual conversation between Howe's diary and Obama’s speech ultimately illustrates the latter’s own struggle with the negative heritage of a hideous slave trade.

Radical Resistance: Constructions of a Transnational Self in Angela Davis's and Cynthia McKinney’s Memoirs

To achieve a better understanding of the dynamic transnationalism at work in African American politics since the 1960s, this study compares the life narratives by Angela Davis and Cynthia McKinney, two transnationally active radical Black intellectuals known for their fierce opposition to mainstream US politics. Davis’s An Autobiography was first published in 1974, McKinney’s memoir Ain’t Nothing Like Freedom in 2013, which means that the texts were conceived at different points in African American, US and world history. Despite the temporal distance between the two autobiographical texts, they show some fundamental similarities in the construction of the self as both authors on the one hand evoke the history of slavery and slave resistance as their political ‘pedigree’ while on the other hand they emphasize their transnational perspective. They foreground political struggle and intellectual analysis rather than elaborating the details of personal life. Major differences arise from their different positions with regard to the political establishment. While Davis presents her life story as representative of the fight for Black liberation and Civil Rights, former Congresswoman McKinney describes herself as an uncompromising outsider and lone voice of resistance to mainstream US politics. As she targets government lies, she supports the credibility of her own stories by the excessive use of documents from photographs through hate mails to Congressional records, making her own activism transparent. Her outlook with regard to peace, justice, and the role of the Unites States in the world is, however, less optimistic than Angela Davis’s after her release from prison in 1974.

Visualizing Protest: African (Diasporic) Art and Contemporary Mediterranean Crossings

For Bisi Silva (1962–2019)


This essay surveys a number of contemporary artworks that address the recent migrations and perilous water crossings of African people to Europe, made by artists of the African diaspora. Paying specific attention to the deployment of photography, time-based media, and installation, we argue that artists like Isaac Julien, Alexis Peskine, Romuald Hazoumè, and others disrupt the photojournalistic portrayals of African migrant–refugees crossing the Mediterranean in overloaded small rafts and makeshift boats circulated by the international media. While the UN and its High Commissioner for Refugees have tried for years to call international attention to the situation of these migrant–refugees in Libya’s camps and those camps’ catastrophic violations of human rights, it has been only recently that public attention and discourse have begun to recognize these crossings as a “crisis,” primarily because a growing number of African migrant–refugees have succeeded in reaching Fortress Europe via Spain or Italy. The artists of the African diaspora considered in this essay have attempted to intervene in these public debates by offering counternarratives to often sensational and dehumanizing depictions of specifically Black migrant–refugee lives. In focusing on these counternarratives, we demonstrate how artists connect this contemporary mass migration from African countries to a longer history of forced migrations over water in the African diaspora. Artists have returned continually to the “chronotrope of the ship,” following Paul Gilroy, and have drawn on this long memory as a means to convey the contemporary crisis, thus addressing the sorts of “colonial amnesia” that conveniently ignore any prior entanglements.