Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.
– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
In the 2017 graphic novel, Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves, Marcelo D’Salete dramatizes the war over Palmares, the seventeenth-century maroon settlement (or quilombo) that flourished in the hills of northeast Brazil for nearly a century before it was destroyed. A federation of a dozen mocambos (smaller communities) made up “Little Angola,” as Palmares was sometimes called, where historians estimate that as many as 30,000 fugitive Africans, Amerindians, and other ethnic groups lived in the late 1600s.1
At the heart of Angola Janga is the quilombo’s leader, Zumbi dos Palmares, the celebrated warrior-king who lead the resistance against Portuguese and Dutch colonizers until he was killed in 1695. While the historical epic rages with the violence of slavery and rebellion, D’Salete’s storytelling aesthetic favors long contemplative sequences and images that are rich with pensive silences, much like his previous comics: Noite Luz (2008), Encruzilhada (2011), and Cumbe (2014).2 The latter work anticipates Angola Janga in its collection of stories about Black resistance to slavery and shares the artist’s distinctive chiaroscuro compositions that appear, at times, as if the black-inked illustrations are etched into the surface of the page with ash and smoke.
Yet it is not Zumbi, but another self-liberated Afro-Brazilian named Antônio Soares whose story frames the comic. Soares and his friend, Osenga, are fleeing a sugar cane plantation when they pause in their search for the hidden trail to Angola Janga. A square panel closes in on six small scars that stretch vertically and horizontally across Osenga’s cheek. “This ritual scar is from my homeland, my people in Ndongo,” he remarks, then points to the gashes on his arms. “These are from when I got here.” The perspective turns to Soares’s body and the two Xs burned into the skin near his collarbone, just beneath a cowrie-shell necklace. Osenga continues, “You’ve got the brand of the plantation, too, Soares. A mark that doesn’t wash off” (26).
The duo’s brief exchange invites a deeper awareness of how D’Salete tracks the path to Angola Janga on the skin as an “ambiguous terrain at the boundary between self and society.”3 Scarred Black bodies appear on nearly every page. Sharp, thin lines crisscross between shoulder blades and down backs, across the chests and arms of “blacks marked by hard work and punishment,” as one character describes them (25). The scope of this brutality is amplified in the way that the precision of the Xs branded on Soares’ chest juxtapose the chaotic whip marks that fleck his limbs. Across his left eye, another prominent scar comes from the butt of a gun. A flashback shows him collapsing to the ground as the overseer snarls, “This new brand should teach you your place” (19). The faces of white settlers, by contrast, are often unmarred by such encounters, making the mark-that-doesn’t-wash-off emblematic of a racial hierarchy that inscribes blackness as blighted cicatrization.
Still, Osenga reminds us that not every scar is forged by cruelty. The ritual marks on his face are a common scarification pattern in West Central Africa.4 They testify not only to the social and cultural significance of skin modifications, but to the existence of another material reality, another place and time before the transatlantic crossing. Mindful of this legacy, D’Salete surrounds his characters with Andinkra and Chokwe iconography, and sets them among the syncretic patterns of the Brazilian landscape. The tessellated half-moons of ocean waves, the shapes of a spider’s web, even the delicate coils of Soares’ hair – all hint at older, more profound spiritual forces at work.
The arrival of Angola Janga’s warrior-king adds another dimension to the comic’s indexing of scars. Zumbi was born in the quilombo, but he was kidnapped as an infant and delivered to a priest in Porto Calvo in 1655. Although he fled the church as a teenager, Zumbi’s unconventional past as an enslaved boy who learned to read Latin rather than milling sugar raises some suspicion, even during his later years as the leader of Palmares. A young woman named Andala asks, “Was he a slave, Soares?” The reply – “Not like the others” – prompts a pointed question about Zumbi’s scars, distinguished by two intersecting lacerations on his shoulder. Soares reassures her, “Those scars aren’t from punishment. They’re from doing battle” (201).
Rather than lauding Zumbi’s actions and aspirations as exceptional, scenes such as this one read the enslaved collectively through their bodily markings as warriors who have spent their lives readying for combat. Whether or not they find the path to the mocambo – or if, like Osenga, they are killed along the way – their unjust suffering becomes part of a diasporic allegiance borne from the toughened skin of healed wounds. The conversation about Zumbi anticipates the battle for Palmares that is to come, but it also introduces a new frame of reference that discursively transforms the reader’s understanding of a fugitive body into a freed one.
Images of Zumbi, Soares, Osenga, and Andala encourage us to linger over their “battle scars,” often through wordless panels that may recall the daguerreotypes once used by abolitionists to document the physical abuses of slavery. In Martin Berger’s discussion of the widely-circulated 1863 carte de visite known as “The Scourged Back,” he observes that, to generate empathy among northern liberals in the US, anti-slavery advocates made a point to decontextualize the captions and visual cues surrounding the subject. This staging shifted attention away from the individual to focus on the illustrative, and ultimately “to equate the sitter’s identity with his victimization.”5
D’Salete uses the comic form’s distinctive interplay of words and pictures to take a different, less simplistic approach. Much like the inked lines on the page itself, each scar that he sketches accrues meaning within a situational context, while also giving shape to broader visual narratives of racial trauma and testimony. The succession of images, the introspective moments and deliberations about the body together form a sequence that moves beyond victimization to raise questions about Black agency, insurgency, and the ingenuity that made a kingdom of runaways.
This is one of four essays from the ninth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.
Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black Cinema, Flash Art, Unwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.
- Marcelo D’Salete. Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves , trans. Andrea Rosenberg (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2019), 416. Subsequent references will be noted in text. Aline Helg, Slave No More: Self-Liberation before Abolitionism in the Americas (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 50-51.
- Cumbe was published in the United States under the title, Run for It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom, trans. Andrea Rosenberg (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2017).
- Enid Schildkrout, “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33, no. 1 (2004): 322, doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143947.
- Marcos André Torres de Souza and Camilla Agostini, “Body Marks, Pots, and Pipes: Some Correlations between African Scarifications and Pottery Decoration in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Brazil,” Historical Archaeology 46, no. 3 (2012): 105-7, 111, https://www.jstor.org/stable/23345199. Garve, R., Garve, M., Türp, J.C., Fobil, J.N. and Meyer, C.G., “Scarification in sub‐Saharan Africa: social skin, remedy and medical import,” Tropical Medicine & International Health 22 (2017): 708-9, doi:10.1111/tmi.12878
- According to Berger “The Scourged Back” featured a daguerreotype of a Mississippi freedman named Gordon, seated with his back exposed to display the gruesome mesh of whipping scars on his skin. The image was originally taken by New Orleans photographers McPherson and Oliver in 1863 and reproduced as a woodblock engraving for Harper’s Weekly. Martin A. Berger, Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 44.