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The Salt Bones: Toward a Slave Ship Ecology

  • Author(s): Leong, Diana
  • Advisor(s): Wilderson, Frank B
  • et al.

The Salt Bones explores the slave ship as a unique site for the formulation of modern ecological reason through close readings of eighteenth and nineteenth century abolitionist literature, and the contemporary creative works of poet M. NourbeSe Philip (Zong!), novelist Octavia Butler (the Parable duology), and director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild). In these diverse texts, the slave ship emerges as a matrix of ecological relations and resource regulations that continues to discipline populations in the present. These regulations underwrite ongoing environmental racism and point to an ideological investment in reproducing ecological precarity. My research reveals that this same structure of ecological relationships, if read against the grain, enables an unexpected intimacy with nonhuman entities, both organic and inorganic. As such, black literature, broadly conceived, offers radical possibilities for an environmental ethics that critically supplements the prevailing environmentalist paradigms of sustainability, conservation, and preservation.

While environmental theorists have not fully explored black literature as environmental philosophy, I argue that the history of racial slavery is fundamental to understanding the hierarchical distinction of humanity from the natural world. The Salt Bones asks, therefore, if the violent legacies of slavery persist in the margins of our most operative concepts of nature. Beginning with M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 poetry volume, Zong!, I explore how the deprivations of the slave hold produce new ecological models for managing racial difference. I then examine the infamous eighteenth century illustrations of the British slave ship Brookes to uncover how the codes of scientific objectivity and realist representation extend the objectification of black bodies imposed by the violence of captivity. My third chapter traces the spaceship trope as a critical rehabilitation of the slave ship in Octavia Butler’s Parable series, and elucidates how the precepts of Afrofuturism disrupt the dynamics of anthropocentric historical time. Moving from literary to cinematic production, my final chapter analyzes how Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild negotiates the ecological legacies of the slave ship through a multiracial politics of climate change resistance.

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