Featured Book: Kathryn Yusoff – A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None

A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None is available for purchase at The Commune for R115.00. You can also read it for free online here.

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None locates the origins of climate change in slavery while exploring the grammars of capture, extraction and displacement.

This short yet vital book could be summed up as a new history of the relationship between geology and subjectivity. This is by no means a novel concern – pre-black conscious writers such as WEB du Bois, black conscious writers including Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko, and their contemporaries and successors, for example Sylvia Wynter, Achille Mbembe and Kathrine McKittrick, have all grappled with the complex human-citizenship-land question. What makes Kathryn Yusoff’s book different is that it addresses these questions via contemporary concerns about the Anthropocene, the name given to the new geological epoch.

The main argument Yusoff makes is that the formulation of the Anthropocene contains a racial blindness that fails to take into account three important aspects. The first is the histories of slavery and its associated forced displacement. The second is the justification of slavery by means of the invention of race. These two aspects form the two pincers of what Yusoff calls a double dispossession – spatial dispossession, which includes issues of place, space and land; and the “dispossession of persons in chattel slavery”, which includes aspects such as citizenship and the “biopolitical category of nonbeing” (the inhuman or subhuman). The third aspect not accounted for in the current formulation of the Anthropocene is the ongoing effects this double dispossession has on black lives as seen, for example, in the so-called migration “problem”.

The mystification of these three aspects is achieved by deference to scientific social discourse: naming the Anthropocene a geological epoch hides the fact that it had its origins in slavery rather than in the invention of the steam engine and its affiliated acceleration in the production of greenhouse gases. In other words, recourse to geology allows whiteness to go unchallenged because it fails to acknowledge the dispossessing practices of subject-making in the history of what is now named the Anthropocene.

Instead of understanding the Anthropocene in the future tense, Yusoff calls us to see it in terms of the extinctions already undergone “by black and indigenous peoples”, and this precisely is what she calls “a billion black Anthropocenes”.

In her final chapters, Yusoff speaks “to the traffic between the categories of the inhuman in the white geology of transatlantic slavery and in its Anthropocenic present”, to which must be added the traffic of asylum seekers – the nonhumans (or inhuman) of our time. Following Wynter, she draws on the term “transplantation” to follow the alternative histories of black bodies and map the ways in which they reclaimed the right to geography within the confined spaces of plantations, mines and other similar places. Drawing on accounts of the blues, the dissent of miners and slave uprisings, Yusoff sketches a piercing line from the commodification of the black body, through the capture and captivity of black bodies, to futurity.

Read the full review by Chantelle Gray on the New Frame website: https://www.newframe.com/book-review-a-billion-black-anthropocenes-or-none/