Poems in Black Water Ecologies (Text Only)
by Hannah Jo King
Me as Water
Although I am an Earth sign (Virgo)
I live my life like a River
In moments when I pool—getting stagnant or coming
In moments when I rush—energizing each day with
purpose and love
I wonder to the ones who fly above me
And thank the stones who still the path below me
I imagine towards my origin, and my destination
The ocean, the sea, our common destiny?1
All Waters exist in a cycle. They move. They drain.
We may be like a glacial lake or an underground
aquifer, far from that so-called “common source.”
But what is the source? Are not the “isolated”
reserves the source? Are not the headwater springs
the source? Are not the rains the source? Is not the
ocean the source?
Me as Water
Nothing more than moving in rhythm with the world
[Caption of photo: Black femme-presenting woman walks on rocky beach.]
Figure 1. Me, Hannah Jo, out with my sister Trisha (the photographer) near Northside Valley in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Just a few miles northeast of here are Hams Bluff and Maroon Ridge, where lived an African community who escaped from slavery. (Photograph by Trisha King [@froladyfashion], 2021.)]
What can Water teach us about Black life? And what can Black life teach us about Water?
The poems in this booklet are largely inspired by my experiences during the spring and summer of 2021. During these months, I was a Water Protector in the Stop Line 3 Movement. This is an Indigenous-led movement resisting the expansion of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Anishinaabe lands and treaty territories of Northern Minnesota. All the people in this movement, both Native and non-Native, have given me deep lessons about loving Water, who is Nibi in Ojibwe and Mni/Mini in Dakota. In particular, I want to offer thanks to the women who organize with Rights of Mississippi River. You are my teachers, my friends, and a deep well of subconscious healing. At the same time I was organizing to Stop Line 3, I was taking my first Black Studies classes since I was 18! It was amazing for me, a student of environmental sciences, to be enmeshed in topics of Black diaspora cultures, stories, and worldviews. I felt like I’d been called home. Moreover, I found it truly intriguing and validating to notice just how many folks were writing about Water. While my Nibi activism was centered on Anishinaabe worldviews, here I could see Black theorists centering Water too. To explore these connections further, I decided to produce a Black Water Ecologies zine for my final class project in Black Feminist Thought (available at hannahjoking.com). In the zine, I explored relationships between Black life and Water at sites such as memory, ceremony, queerness, resistance, oppression, and freedom. These sites of relationship continue to inspire me and can be found running throughout the poetry in this booklet. I am excited to present these poems to my peers, who I hope will share in the emotional experience of remembering and regenerating Black Water Ecologies with me.
Sunday for Water
Monday for Earth
Tuesday for Air
Wednesday for Fire
Thursday for Other Beings
Friday for Self
Saturday for Stars
Sunday for Water
arrests were happening
and I was off on my own
“calming down” except not
this is illegal
– this is illegal!
do you know what your job is?
– do you know what your job is!?
my own words echoing in my head
words I shouted, louder than my voice has ever been before
at the police who came
to force Water Protectors away
the worst drought in 50 years
and they took 5 billion gallons3 of water
residents were asked to conserve
and water out of our garden hydrant barely flowed
but 5 billion gallons
they took 5 billion gallons
they keep locking life away
Water is queer
People keep telling me that the Moon is feminine
And the Sun is masculine
So I’ve been thinking about it
And Water is queer
Water is hella non-normative
Living inside us
Cracking open rocks
The very definition of wet
Water expands; Water contracts
Water is erotic
We simply can’t put Water in a box
Levees break, dams overflow, even your drink in the freezer explodes
On the banks of Mississippi River
At our Line 3 encampment
You can’t say where Water ends and Land begins
They are so closely bonded
In fierce reciprocity
That’s how Water kept learning us
Showing us frac after frac3
By lifting up mud
Evidence of the construction-destruction4
Of their violent penetration of the Earth
Because we were literally living in wet-lands
Water led the words we chanted
Mni—Wi—coni! – Water—Is—Life!
Water inspired the songs we sang
Water connected us to Indigenous relationships with life
Water was our reason to fight
My mate, my shipmate, my lover, my girl
Linguist remnants of the slaves’ journeys
Words that were foreign to me
Now swaddle me in bed
As we dream together
Of life beyond
An ice sheet that cracked
A crack that grew
As Waters surfaced and spewed7
She opened something inside me
Tinsley said that queerness is “a praxis of resistance”8
She gave me love in the darkness
Queer is the how in how we disrupt and resist
She humanized the horrors
Queer is the how in how we love through the normative violence
Queerness can’t be quashed
You simply can’t put Black life in a box
“Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic”9
Dreams: for my niece and nephew
I was out in New Jersey staying at your house
Chatting with your Mom and Dad on the living room couch
When I glanced out the back window
And into the yard
And was shocked instead to find
A pool and a bar!
The pool was unusual
It was more like a lake
Filled with turtles, and cattails, and other pool “mistakes”
I wanted to look closer
I wanted to know why
So I stepped outside—
And jumped into the sky!
Above the ground flying
I finally understood
Your pool was no pool
But a whole system of good!
Network of lake after lake
Stretched as far as eye could see
Through all your neighbors’ yards
So the turtles could swim far
The Sounds of a Lake
It transforms me
Immediately takes me places
To the docks of my childhood
Climbing into a motor boat that hoovers up and down, up and down
The smell of fishy things, the jingle of a tackle box
The unsteadiness, the excitement, and always the tired
As my cousins, siblings, and I settle in for a morning of fishing with
Our parents on Lake Little Wabana
The Great Lakes
So expansive and beautiful
The people sprawled across Chicago beaches
Teenagers, families, locals, out-of-towners
The sunbathers, the sunburns
The tiny bikinis. The cliques. The wondering if you’re gonna run into
anyone you know
Yes lakes have waves!
At least the big ones do
(And all the times I’ve had to explain this to my California friends)
The freshness of the water as I swim under
The desire to swallow that accidental mouthful I take in
The recollection of the garbage on the shore, the spitting it out
The recollection that this is my water at home, the swallowing it
The floating on my back until I see a ball whirl by and realize I’ve
drifted into someone else’s experience
Oh the sand!
The dunesy sand that builds up and up until life grows on it
First grasses, then shrubs, then trees10
The birds, the critters, and of course the people
And the persistence of the sand beneath my feet. The foresty sand…
until eventually it starts to mix with clay
The crickets. The cicadas
What is it about water that makes us want to sit there all day, til we can
watch the sunset?
That makes us want to go back in the middle of the night, even in the
freezing cold, to watch the stars?
Tourmaline says bathtubs are a portal11
Time travel, space travel, heart travel
It’s all a bathtub, lake, river, ocean, and thunderstorm away
Citations & Notes
Cover art by Hannah Jo King. Art accompanying “Water is Queer” by Hannah Jo King. Art accompanying “Dreams: for my niece and nephew” by Molly Schwartz.
1. I wrote this poem after attending a talk by Professor Roderick Ferguson. I suppose he planted below my conscious a question of Black diaspora and the sea. This poem is also musing about Middle Passage Epistemology, which wonders towards where, when, and how we situate origins in the Black diaspora. See Roderick Ferguson, “The Sea is History: Social and Environmental Justice and the Black Radical Tradition,” (virtual presentation, Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, University of Minnesota–Twin Cities, April 21, 2021, https://mediaspace.umn.edu/media/t/1_2n672ce3/197902193); Michelle M. Wright, “The Middle Passage Epistemology,” in Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
2. Enbridge received a state permit to appropriate 4,982,768,568 gallons of surface water and groundwater for Line 3 construction. Later, it was revealed that Enbridge breached three artesian aquifers and lost 262,000,000 gallons (as of March 2022) of groundwater during months of uncontrolled flow. See Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Water Appropriation for Trench and Construction Dewatering Amendment Decision, June 4, 2021, https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/features/line3/decisions/04june2021-update-trench-watering-decisions.pdf; Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, DNR Update on Line 3 Aquifer Breach Investigation and Enforcement, March 21, 2022, https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/line3/index.html.
3. Science for the People–Twin Cities, “Enbridge is currently attempting to install the Line 3 pipeline across the headwaters of the Mississippi River,” Facebook, July 26, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/SftPTC/posts/974690769771808.
4. My use of the phrase “construction-destruction” is inspired by Queen Quet, Chieftess and Head-of-State of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, who uses the term “destructionment” instead of so-called “development.” For more information, see CREATE Initiative, “St. Helena Island: Gullah/Geechee Nation,” University of Minnesota, ArcGIS Online, October 7, 2021, www.sainthelenagullahgeechee.com.
5. To listen to and learn about the Nibi Song, see Beatrice Menase Kwe Jackson, “Nibi Song,” Mother Earth Water Walk, http://www.motherearthwaterwalk.com/?attachment_id=2244.
6. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, “Black Atlantic/Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, nos. 2–3 (2008): 192.
7. This language is inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Subjectivity (Duke University Press, 2016).
8. Tinsley, “Black Atlantic/Queer Atlantic,” 199.
9. Tinsley, “Black Atlantic/Queer Atlantic,” 191–215.
10. To learn more about plant succession and the ecology of Indiana Dunes, see National Park Service, “West Beach Dune Succession: Indiana Dunes National Park,” ArcGIS Online, https://arcg.is/19KvSb0.
11. Tourmaline (fka Reina Gossett), “Long Live Our Mother Week 5: Refusal, Resistance, Existence: Trans Feminisms, Always Already,” IDA Stanford, uploaded May 1, 2019, YouTube video, 1:06:31, https://youtu.be/jRk1CeV_Vio?t=2261.