A Black Aquatic: An Artist Explores the Relationship Between Black People and Water

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I was shipwrecked once. Boat wrecked? Marooned. On St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. The unfortunate end to a failed romantic encounter—we slept on a rocky beach until sunrise, leaving a borrowed dinghy behind. My skin was textured with so many mosquito bites that I’ve retained a lingering immunity for more than a decade; a handy trick, having returned to my Florida homestate. The hike back to the eco-resort where I was participating in a work exchange program was purposefully… unchatty. “It’s just around the bend,” he said. “It’ll take no more than 15 minutes,” he said. “Can you call the Coast Guard?” he said. I was grateful for the full moon as the sun slipped beneath the horizon leaving the water a vast undulating black surface. The boat felt two sizes too small. And, of course, it started to rain. The neighboring Tortola loomed closer than I’d ever seen it. Officially we were in international waters. Cell phone dead. I recall his weak attempts to include me as a co-pilot, but I’d set out with sex on the brain and left my glasses in the cabin. Fortunately, I was so damn mad that it edged out the fear outlining the scenario. I cussed him out goodt.

I was mostly mad at the sea, though.

Like many, I’ve been on a jet more times than I’ve been on a boat. And paid good money for the privilege of the inevitable bit of turbulence that comes along with it. Practiced at keeping my face calm as the sphincter contracts. Babies crying, foil bagged snacks, popping ears—alternately and simultaneous. But this liquid leviathan that looked so lovely in the daytime or sparkling with bioluminescence along the shore at night, could easily gobble me, and Whatshisname, up. Without a trace, or belched and blanched, sandy side. On a plane, I can always blame the vehicle, the pilot, the weather. But the ocean can kill you just by being what it is. Kind of like the IZM. I be mad at that too.

More than a few years ago The Innanet algorithimed me a message through a picture. In black and white, with Blacks and whites. Fully dressed Huite police officers in frothy conflict at St. Augustine Beach. I liked the picture. It was sublime, even when I deciphered what was actually going on. Protest. Pugilism. Peckerwoods. Poetic. Absurd. Colored. Chaotic. Choreographic. It’s a place I’ve been to many times. An Atlantic sunrise service for Easter, a day trip through Palatka or Starke (of Old Sparky infamy and while-you-wait concealed weapon permits).

You can go either way; it’s an hour-forty-five from Gainesville, irregardless. These waterfront Civil Rights Era confrontations were called Wade-Ins, and, similar to the lunch counters in Carolina, lots of folks ended up ‘wet.’ Not that there weren’t beaches for Black folks, or lakes, or springs, but leisure is a kind of learning too. Brown v. Diving Board of Education. Archival snaps of red-faced motel managers dumping acid in pools, a conditioned response to black gold in the cement pond. You never realize how ridiculous wingtips look poolside until you see it. Anyway, I like the beach shots better. More angry instead of scared. I always wondered why the one first-person account that I remember, from a kidnapped and imprisoned African, details the Middle Passage mostly in terms of depressive sadness, not a hint of rage to be found. Still, too many grown Black folks are relegated to wading. Members of the can’t-swim-crew. Feet gotta touch the bottom, and taste level at the waist level. Lest your hair revert kinky, in the age(s) before waterproof wig glue and microbraids.  Maybe that’s what that anger, tamped down in 18th century text, looks like generations later: maximum depth, three feet.

Still, there is magic in the deep too. Escape. Covert missions and scent washed away from hound dog pursuits and Confederate ships commandeered. The Underground Railroad™ wasn’t only northbound, contingent upon Abolitionists with hidden motives, histories obscured by narratives of power. Florida census records from the turn of the 20th century recognize a hidden story of self-manumission that rivals that of more popularized tales. With a sizable Native population and many topographical and geographical features to recommend it, the state became a satellite within the deep south, a consistent challenge to European colonial powers until its statehood in 1845. The journey from Southern fields to Florida wasn’t nearly as long in comparison to The North™, and the mild weather guaranteed relative ease in travel year-round, but most significantly Black people could avoid relying on white folks to foster their journey. All positive logistics for “stealing” yourself. Sometimes you left along the 1,350+ miles of Florida coastline or traversed over 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and waterways in the state. Maybe, if you was Gullah, or Geechee, or James Brown, all you knew was water and rice; island life. Or you simply went back to the indigeneity that was stolen from you by the Dawes Rolls or the five dollar registration fee, or the assessment of hair texture as identity, Mississippi Goddamn. Sometimes you went even further, only to return a hundred years later as an immigrant from Mexico, or Cuba, or the Bahamas, knowledge of self-determination.

I minnow patched to YMCA swim safety on a 9-year-old-summer visit with my dad in Hampton, Virginia. I had this lavender bathing suit, spots radiating from a leopard’s face across my chest, and a collection of black rubber bracelets distributed on both wrists. It was the ‘80s. I could hold my breath under water, so I assumed I could swim. After failing the assessment test, a floatation belt was strapped around my middle. Three Styrofoam blocks, then two, then one. Then none. There is magic in the deep end. Plastic rings sunk to the bottom for retrieval. That’s where the mermaids live, according to Disney, and its subsidiary, Touchstone Films; made defunct in 2017—the same year as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

My birthday is in just a few days, the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. Air and Water. It’s no surprise that I’ll be heading to St. Augustine Beach. But me and the Atlantic got beef. I Indulge it occasionally for sentimental reasons. My mother, of Easter Sunday Sunrise services, died in 2011. I much prefer the Gulf. It serves fantasy realness with its sugar sand beaches and clear Clearwater. My Dad lives there now. In St. Petersburg actually, near where there’s an inexplicable monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the unwitting sponsor of Thomas Jefferson’s Southern Planter Lifestyle. My Dad keeps a folding chair in the trunk of his car these days, his skin now a tanned caramel, after years of high-latitude high-yellow. A Florida native, he tells me that his first visit to the beach (Daytona), at age 25, was a date he’d arranged for my Mother. One in a collection of firsts, apparently. I am my parents’ only child. I mimic his leisure, seaside, as often as I can. For myself, and for my Mother too; grief sometimes reads the loss as a sacrifice. Might as well complete the ritual by living goodt. There are a number of photographs from that day. My father isn’t in any of the pictures, just his snaps of my mother in a pale fuchsia bikini. The camera worships her, as the eye behind it. She the sea nymph and sable goddess. My Mami Wata. Silver spoon rings and bangles, droplets of water clinging to her free form ‘fro. She’s the one who told me that European sailors mistook manatees for mermaids, and indulged my creekside fantasies—imagined creatures formed from the exposed clay deposits that I found there. She’s the one who explained the origin of my birthstone, “the only living gemstone,” she said, formed by irritating an oyster’s insides. Told me of the tether between the moon and the tides, explained the Doppler Effect from the cars with the booming systems. Box Chevys and Cutlass Supremes. Landlocked in Gainesville, we still tracked hurricanes using the coordinates broadcast by the evening news. Gridded maps printed on the sides of brown paper grocery bags.

“Drink water and mind your business,” so says the meme-ability of the Black American Vernacular. But the Black interns, working for the solar companies on the outskirts of Alachua County, only drink stuff with an -ade on the end. I know because I play house auntie for their Airbnb summers. I offer up a bit of unasked-for advice, suggesting that hydration from the water cooler housed in the kitchen is freer than the bottled stuff. I don’t even mention our high-quality city punch anymore, aquifer-fed. And the pool key remains on the hook week after week. Heat index 101. Still, when I go to Indian Rocks or Siesta Key, Daytona or Clearwater, St. Pete or St. Augustine, I scan for jeweled water beads on kinky hair. I tune my ears for the music so elemental that I can’t remember learning the lyrics that I’m singing. Reveling in the collective vulnerability of swimwear. Nourished in the mixing of it all; frothy and fine.

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