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Dan Bird: On Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and Anthropos as whiteness

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We are living in the Anthropocene: humanity’s impact on the earth now equates to us marking a new epoch to reflect our influence. Future agents will be able to look at the sedimentary strata of the planet and highlight the influence of Homo sapiens, geologically. But what conception of “the human” does Anthropos refer to? Kathryn Yusoff has commented on how the very formulation of Anthropos implicit to the epoch, ‘is predicated on whiteness as the color of universality’: ‘Whiteness became established as a right to geography, to take place, to traverse the globe and to extract from cultural, corporeal, and material registers’. Here, Yusoff makes clear the means through which the history of colonialism is intimately bound up in the expansionist logics of global Capital, and how these have led to the current climate emergency.

Humanness is no longer a noun’, writes Sylvia Wynter, ‘Being human is a praxis’. This praxis, as it pertains to whiteness, is a politics of expansionism and extraction: the use of natural resources, slavery and the use of the colonised. Viewed as such, these manifestations of whiteness bring about a categorisation of what constitutes Anthropos. ‘Whiteness designates not actually existing groupings’, Alexander Weheliye argues, ‘but a series of hierarchical power structures that apportion and delimit which members of the Homo sapiens species can lay claim to full human status’. Looking to the work of Yusoff, Wynter, and Weheliye, it becomes evident that the Anthropos of the Anthropocene is premised on whiteness, and the destructive, supremacist logics implicit to the ‘hierarchical power structures’ of the West.

Drawing from such critics, I’m suggesting our discourse continues to mask the extent of white supremacy, the extent to which Anthropos continues to be a totalising moniker, predicated on whiteness. Moreover, I’m suggesting that this stems from a broader notion of the human as praxis: that this, too, is premised whiteness, and curtails one’s identity. These are not new ideas, of course. However, with recourse to Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and their interviews that coincided with the novel’s publication, I aim to, briefly, sketch the way in which Emezi queers the relationality of white supremacy, further exposing the logics underpinning our conception of “the human”, or Anthropos.

Emezi has spoken of how Freshwater has a ‘non-human centre.’ This is most apparent through the novel’s engagement with Igbo ontology. Ada, the novel’s central character, is ọgbanje. Ọgbanje, as Emezi has noted, are ‘tricksters’: they ‘are children who die over and over again […] torturing their parents who hope they will stay alive’. As such, ‘reality’ is, for Ada, deemed to be ‘a difficult space for her to inhabit […] what with one foot on the other side and gates in between’. But this connection to something on ‘the other side’ of ‘reality’ is, as Emezi has made clear, not a situation in which Ada is ‘possessed’ by the ọgbanje, nor vice versa, rather, ‘these things are collapsed’. The multiple narrative voices of the text flit between several manifestations of Ada as ọgbanje, refracting her character through numerous lenses, whilst also, at times, ascribing to a totalising, normative conception of Ada. The ọgbanje are said to be hidden ‘in the pit of her stomach, between the mucus lining and the muscle layer’, ‘inside the walls of her vagina’, ‘stretched […] from one of her shoulder blades to the other, draping […] over her back’. That is, the ọgbanje (as a spiritual/nonhuman presence) and Ada (as human) are collapsed into what Emezi has called ‘a singular collective and plural individual’.

The ‘non-human centre’ of the novel is here manifest on two levels: the molecular gaze disrupts the very notion of “the human” as subject, rendering Ada a subject-object, ‘a singular collective’. Then, there are the ọgbanje themselves. As Ada is ọgbanje, so too does Emezi frame their own being in relation to Igbo ontology. The novel, which is itself ‘a breath away from being memoir’, gives voice to those ‘who have been inhabiting realities that aren’t considered valid unless they’re pathologized in Western or religious terms’. Emezi is trans, as is Ada, though the novel does not explicitly say so. The ọgbanje allow for an articulation of Ada and Emezi’s identity that not only escapes the pathology of western social and medical discourses, but also the binary logics of Western logics more generally (male/female, for Ada and Emezi; human/other, for the ọgbanje).

Amrou Al-Kadhi has recently written on the means by which ‘transphobia is tethered to the malign structures of white supremacy’. Al-Kadhi notes how British imperial rule led to the oppression of ‘the transgender Hijra people of India’, as well as how ‘European colonists, when invading the Americas, pointed to the transgender Two-Spirit traditions of its indigenous people as proof of their primitivism’. Similarly, Emezi has written of how ‘the legacy of colonialism’ denotes that the ‘Igbo spiritual world’ is ‘juju’, ‘superstition’. That is, Igbo ontology is deemed to be less than human, when held against Western logics. The ọgbanje, as either ‘a gender themselves or without gender’, are ‘a distinct category’ that marks Emezi’s transition to a position not ‘located within human categories at all’: ‘the surgeries were a bridge across realities, a movement from being assigned female to assigning myself as ọgbanje; a spirit customizing its vessel to reflect its nature’.

Emezi’s identification as ọgbanje appears to locate them outside of ‘human categories’: they surmise their identity as ‘embodied but not human’. Emezi is moving from a position of ‘[estrangement] from the indigenous Black realities that might make some sense’ of their being, to an affinity with these realities which were ‘made unreal by colonialism’. As outlined in a letter to Toni Morrison, Emezi draws from Morrison’s position of being ‘stood at the border, stood at the edge, and [claiming] it as central’. By embracing a position as ‘embodied but not human’, Emezi is queering the relationality that whiteness asserts over Black people. In doing so, Emezi makes visible whiteness’ ‘universality’, as well as the manner in which it dictates a ‘praxis’ of what constitutes ‘the human’: rendering Black people as less than human, queer people as less than human. In other words, Emezi both makes clear and disrupts what “the human” constitutes under the destructive, ‘hierarchical power structures’ of whiteness.

Such a praxis is explored by Anohni on her 2016 album, Hopelessness, on which she moved to ‘[sing] the song of her body, as opposed to the song of [her] intention’. Through references to capital punishment and drone warfare, alongside a sustained consideration of climate change, Anohni embodies the death drive of whiteness’ logics: she considers the way in which the white body is enmeshed in, or tacitly perpetuates, the destructive logics of colonial capitalism. That she sings of extractive practices alongside the claim that ‘we are all Americans now’ on “Marrow” makes clear that Anohni’s position is one in which ongoing colonial endeavours are intrinsic to global ecological devastation. The violence implicit to US exceptionalism (with regards to the Middle East most focally on the album) equates to Yusoff’s tenets of whiteness: the ‘right to geography, to take place’ and to ‘extract’. When singing ‘the song of [her] body’, Anohni captures the human as praxis, the formulation of Anthropos that has both given rise to, and continues to propagate, the exploitative practices that have come to result in this new epoch: it is premised on the universality of whiteness, and it is Western, Capitalist, white supremacist.

I cannot do justice to the depth of Emezi’s writing, or the Igbo ontology they’re working with in so few words. However, what I’m hoping to achieve here is a provocation: that our engagement with whiteness, and the supremacist logics that come engrained within it, remains too shallow. Jason Okundaye has recently written on the way in which ‘whiteness is dependent on the subjugation of a racialised other’: without this subjugation, ‘whiteness as a category ceases to exist’, it ‘is not a biological reality’. What I’m gesturing toward here is that not only is ‘there is no way to extract or preserve whiteness from white supremacy’, as Okundaye suggests, but that this is a history that is epochal in its scope: that whiteness is inseparable from white supremacy which is, in turn, inseparable from the Anthropos of the Anthropocene.

Emezi and, in turn, Ada’s identity is defined in and through negation: reworking the moniker of being less-than-human, saying yes to an identity that isn’t rooted in the violent, totalising logics of whiteness. In Sara Ahmed’s terms, Emezi’s novel announces a ‘yes to what’s not’: a conception of self that had been dismissed as ‘juju’ by the praxis of the human espoused by whiteness. When we’re discussing not masking our history, perhaps this is something to consider: recognising that Anthropos, and many other terms like it, is but a veiled gesture to whiteness, and its history of extraction, oppression, and violence; recognizing the possibilities that whiteness has extinguished, and its stranglehold on what “the human” comprises. 

Amrou Al-Khadi, “How Britain’s colonial past can be traced through to the transphobic feminism of today”, in the Independent

Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (London: Duke University Press, 2010)

Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (London: Duke University Press, 2015)

Jason Okundaye, “Abolish Whiteness”, London Review of Books Blog, 16th June 2020

Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (London: Duke University Press, 2014)

Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018)

Note:

Anohni’s identity as trans feels focal to the power of Hopelessness, as a record, and the means in which it disrupts whiteness’ hierarchical power structures. However, due to the word limit on this piece, I felt unable to fully interrogate the nuance that this brings to her work here. Weighing up whether to mention that Anohni is trans came down to balancing mentioning it when it isn’t directly relevant to the point I was making, against whether failing to mention it was obfuscating her identity, that the assumption would be that she’s cis. This feels like further evidence of the means in which whiteness, and heteropatriarchy within it, is thought to be a universal, another instance in which it has a stranglehold.

Whilst my focus here is on Anthropos, as a term, this further points to the fact that these are not just theoretical concepts. The real world manifestations of whiteness as a totalising monicker – from issues of language, such as this, to the framing of an ongoing refugee crisis or the murder of trans people – all point to how we constantly centralise whiteness, and normalise its monopoly.

Dan recently completed a Masters in English Studies: Contemporary Writing at Queen Mary University of London. His work focused on interrogations of climate, precarity, (mis)use and species in contemporary culture. He works at Granta Books.

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