A Black Aquatic: An artist explores the relationship between black people and water

“A Black Aquatic” by Kenya (Robinson) is an essay commissioned by PROTODISSPATCH, a new digital publication featuring personal perspectives from artists addressing transcontinental concerns, filtered by their location in the world. It was originally published by the international non-profit organization Protocinema and appears here as part of a collaboration between Protocinema and Artnet News.


Through a hyperlinked lyrical essay and month-long social media takeover of Protocinema channels, Kenya (Robinson) explores the relationship between Black people and water – both fresh and salt – as an essential part of telling the story of the United States.

I was shipwrecked once. Wrecked boat? Abandoned. On St. John, US Virgin Islands. The unhappy ending to a failed romantic encounter – we slept on a rocky beach until sunrise, leaving behind a borrowed canoe. My skin was textured from so many mosquito bites that I maintained lingering immunity for over a decade; a handy tip, having moved back to my home state of Florida. The hike back to eco-station where I was on a work exchange program was deliberately… not very talkative. “It’s just around the corner,” he said. “It won’t take more than 15 minutes,” he said. “Can you call the Coast Guard?” ” he said. I was grateful for the full moon as the sun slipped below the horizon, leaving the water a vast, rippling black surface. The boat felt two sizes too small. And, of course, it started to rain. The neighbor tortola appeared closer than I had ever seen. Officially, we were in international waters. Cell phone dead. I remember his feeble attempts to include me as a co-pilot, but I left with sex on my brain and left my glasses in the cabin. Luckily, I was so angry that it outpaced the fear describing the script. I insulted him.

I was mostly mad at the sea, though.

Like many, I’ve been on a jet more times than on a boat. And paid a lot of money for the privilege of the inevitable turbulence that comes with it. I practiced keeping my face calm as the sphincter contracts. Babies cry, snacks wrapped in foil, ears popping, alternately and simultaneously. But that liquid Leviathan that looked so beautiful in the daytime or sparkling with bioluminescence along the shore at night, could easily swallow me, and Whatshisname, up. Without a trace, nor belched and bleached, sandy side. In a plane, I can always blame the vehicle, the pilot, the weather. But the ocean can kill you just for being what it is. A bit like the MIZ. I’m angry about that too.

Over a few years ago, The Innanet messaged me via a Photo. In black and white, with blacks and whites. Huite policemen fully dressed in a frothy dispute at St. Augustine Beach. I liked the picture. It was sublime, even when I deciphered what was really going on. Demonstration. Boxing. Peckerwoods. Poetic. Absurd. Colored. Chaotic. Choreography. It’s a place I’ve been to several times. An Atlantic sunrise service for Easter, a day trip across Palatka or stark (of Old Sparky Infamy and concealed weapons permit while you wait).

You can go either way; it’s an hour and forty-five from Gainesville, whatever. These waterfront civil rights-era confrontations have been called Wade-Insand, as in the food counters of Caroline, many people found themselves ‘wet.’ Not that there are no black beaches, or lakes, or springsbut leisure is also a form of learning. Brown c. Education Diving Board. Archival snapshots of red faced motel managers spilling acid into swimming poolsa conditioned response to black gold in the cement pond. You never realize how ridiculous the wingtips are by the pool until you see it. Anyway, I prefer beach photos. More angry than scared. I always wondered why the one first person account I remember, of a kidnapped and imprisoned African, details Middle Passage mostly in terms of depressive sadness, not a hint of rage to be found. Yet too many adult blacks are relegated to wading. The crew members cannot swim. Feet should touch bottom and taste at waist level. Lest your hair become frizzy again, at previous age or ages waterproof wig glue and microbraids. Perhaps this is what this anger, contained in an 18th century text, looks like generations later: maximum depth, one meter.

Yet there is also magic in the depths. Escape. Secret missions and the smell carried away by hunting dog chases and Requisitioned Confederate ships. The Underground Railroad™ wasn’t just up north, dependent on abolitionists with ulterior motives, histories obscured by narratives of power. Florida census records from the early 20th century recognize a hidden history of self-manumission that rivals that of more popular tales. With a large indigenous population and many topographical and geographic features to recommend it, the state became a satellite in the Deep South, a constant challenge for European colonial powers until its statehood in 1845. The Journey of the southern fields to Florida was not nearly as long compared to The North™, and the mild weather ensured relative ease of travel year-round, but most importantly, blacks could avoid relying on whites to foster their journey. All positive logistics to “fly” yourself. Sometimes you’ve set off along Florida’s more than 1,350 miles of coastline or traversed more than 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and waterways in the state. Maybe if you were Gullah or Geechee, or James Brown, all you knew was water and rice; island life. Or you just went back to the indigeneity which was stolen from you by the Dawes Rolls or the five dollar entry fee, or the evaluation of hair texture as identity, Mississippi Goddamn. Sometimes you have gone even further, only to return a hundred years later as an immigrant from Mexico, Cuba or the Bahamas, experiencing self-determination.

I patched minnow to YMCA swim safety during a 9-year-old summer visit with my dad to Hampton, VA. I had this lavender bathing suit on, spots radiating from a leopard’s face on my chest, and a collection of black rubber bracelets spread over both wrists. It was the 80s. I could hold my breath underwater, so I assumed I could swim. After failing the assessment test, a flotation belt was tied around my middle. Three polystyrene blocks, then two, then one. So none. There is magic in the deep end. Plastic rings sunk to the bottom for recovery. This is where the mermaids liveaccording to Disney, and its subsidiary, Touchstone Movies; disappeared in 2017, the same year as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

My birthday is in a few days, at the cusp of Gemini and Cancer. Air and water. It’s no surprise that I head to the beach in St. Augustine. But me and Atlantic got beef. I indulge in it occasionally for sentimental reasons. My mother from Easter Sunday Sunrise services passed away in 2011. I much prefer the Gulf. It serves the fantasy reality with its sandy beaches and clear waters. My father lives there now. In St. Petersburg actually, near where there is an inexplicable monument to Tadeusz Kościuszko, the unwitting Southern Planter Lifestyle sponsor of Thomas Jefferson. My dad keeps a folding chair in the trunk of his car these days, his skin now a bronzed caramel, after years of high-yellow high latitude. Originally from Florida, he tells me that his first visit to the beach (Daytona), at age 25, was a date he had arranged for my mother. One in a collection of firsts, apparently. I am my parents’ only child. I mime his hobbies, seaside resorts, as often as I can. For me, and for my mother too; grief sometimes reads loss as a sacrifice. Might as well complete the ritual by living well. There are several photos from that day. My dad isn’t in any of the photos, just his shots of my mom in a pale fuchsia bikini. The camera venerates her, like the eye behind her. She is the nymph of the sea and the goddess of the sable. My Grandma Wata. Silver spoon, rings and bracelets, water droplets clinging to its free form. She was the one who told me that European sailors mistook manatees for mermaids and indulged in my streamside fantasies – imagined creatures formed from the exposed clay deposits I found there. She was the one who explained to me the origin of my birthstone, “the only living gemstone”, she said, formed by irritate the inside of an oyster. Told me about the tether between the moon and the tides, explained the Doppler effect of cars with booming systems. Chevy box and Cutlass Supremes. Landlocked in Gainesville, we were still tracking hurricanes thanks to the coordinates broadcast by the evening newspapers. Grid maps printed on the sides of brown paper grocery bags.

“Drink the water and mind your own business,” says the black American vernacular’s memory capacity. But the black interns, who work for solar companies on the outskirts of Alachua County, only drink stuff with a -ade at the end. I know because I play house aunts for their Airbnb summers. I offer a bit of unasked advice, suggesting that hydration from the water cooler housed in the kitchen is freer than the bottled stuff. I’m not even talking about our high quality city punch anymore, aquifer-fed. And the pool key hangs there week after week. Heat Index 101. Yet when I go to Indian Rocks or Siesta Key, Daytona or Clearwater, St. Pete or St. Augustine, I look for bejeweled water beads on frizzy hair. I tune my ears to music so basic that I can’t remember learning the words I sing. Delighting in the collective vulnerability of swimsuits. Fed in the mix of it all; sparkling and fine.

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