Epistemologies of the Coast: From Columbus to Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”
Keywords:Imperial Atlantic science, scientific iconography, Black ecology, neoslave narrative, Esi Edugyan
In this essay, I put two distinct periods in conversation, namely the modernizing era (1500-1850) and the recent present, to offer a very brief history of an Atlantic coastal imaginary over the long durée. I first look at how the European iconography of Atlantic coastal encounters developed in the early modern period, redefining the geography and the epistemology of divine-human relations and participating in the invention of racial difference. I then look at how a contemporary Black historical novelist, Esi Edugyan, working in the genres of the neoslave narrative and the scientific adventure tale in her 2018 novel Washington Black, uses circumatlantic coastal locations to imagine the making of a Black naturalist—a naturalist who, importantly, shifts the definitions of knowledge, race, and the sacred he has inherited from imperial British science. The essay thus offers two glances at coastal transformations, the first at European promises of Atlantic expansion offering divine redemption, and the second at a contemporary story, written during a time of rising coastal peril, of how historical Black risk-informed knowledge might help us reimagine our relation to the nonhuman world now.
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