Root Work Journal - Navigating the Ocean - Volume 1, Issue 2

In the Waste: On Blackness and (Being) Plastic

Christopher A. Lang





Christopher A Lang: I am 4th year PhD student in Environmental Studies. My doctoral research aims to reframe notions sustainability by intersecting food and waste studies, environmental justice, consumer behavior, and critical race and ethnic studies. As a Black/biracial scholar-activist and (former) marine biologist, I was deeply excited to receive notice of this particular call for submissions that interrogates power, Blackness, ocean health, and more. I have a wide net of interests and passions connecting human and non-human eco-social relations that span water and land. I have yet to publish any academic article, so this submission to Root Work Journal feels like a divine-timed and aligned opportunity. Thank you for creating this possibility!

“In the Waste: On Blackness and (Being) Plastic” is an homage and response to Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Sharpe proposes wake work as an analytic to methodologically reorient Black living in the afterlife of slavery, a “past that is not yet past.” Waste work here enters to explore the continuities of slave ships and plantations, genocidal clearings, toxic wastes, objects, and disposable bodies, providing an opening to re/consider the relationship between Blackness, animals and (other) abjects, namely plastic. If abjects can co-conspire in one another’s disposability, how can these fraught relations of ejection be reconfigured on new terms? By tending to the multifold deaths and disposals that exist along the subject-eject-object continuum in the wake of the slave ship and the extractive, settler colonial state, I argue that otherwise ways of living and dying emerge beyond the linear ecocidal model, perhaps ones that refuse disposability altogether.


On a Bahamian beach, I watched the ocean regurgitate what had been plundered and reconfigured. Errant, weathered objects migrating at the whims of wind and water, destined for shorelines or the ocean floor. Balloons, toy soldiers, buoys, solo cups, fishing nets. All wayward- ly adrift. Bobbing on the littoral, unsure if of the land or the sea. Is it gravity that pulls them to the depths or their longing for return to the belly of the world?3 The bottom of the ocean from where they were extracted. The position of the unthought and unseen.

Founder of the Bahamas Plastic Movement, Kristal Ambrose, notes the ruinous impacts of plastic on island nations, whose geographic orientation amidst ocean currents renders them a sink for marine pollution.4 In the case of the Bahamas, both the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Gyre serve as conveyors of plastic deposition. My sensitivities to waste were heightened during a year and a half when I lived in Bimini, Bahamas as a media manager for a shark re- search field station. The South Island served as the open-air, unlined landfill for both the North and South Bimini populations. Whenever it overf lowed, someone would burn it to make more space, sending a massive plume of black and brown smoke that could be seen for miles, and, depending on the wind speed and direction, smelled too. The vast majority of Bimini’s inhabitants lived on the North Island out of the smoke’s trajectory, but the surplus of waste served as a constant reminder; not just of the inevitability of toxic plumes, but in the everyday and every- where evidence of a tourist-tailored dependency on styrofoam and PET containers, cups, chip bags, wrappers, and straws. One could see such items, persistent in existence, both shiny and dull, entangled in mangrove roots, squashed alongside the road, half-buried under beach sand, and buoyantly bobbing on the water’s surface.

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