It’s time: Let us make sanctuary
Bayo Akomolafe, PhD
I am very excited to share that my course, We Will Dance with Mountains: Let us Make Sanctuary, is now open for registration. If you are receiving this note, it is because you signed up to receive announcements about things I am up to, or because you were one of the many that recently opted to receive crucial updates about the course.
You can learn almost everything about the course by heading over to the course website now. Before you do, I thought I’d sit again with the nagging question (as I did when this year of shocking upheavals and seismic shifts began): “Why do a course now?” What is it for? What do you stand to gain?
In yet another curious instance of receiving answers long before their questions have been articulated, I heard the call to do this course when I spoke with an African American man late last year. He had written to me, wanting to speak. He felt he needed to share something with me. I honoured his invitation and got on a Zoom conference call with him.
On that call, I heard a story that widened my eyes and slackened my jaw. A scholar and businessman, this not-to-be-named man told me he had had a dream. In this dream, he found himself facing a large tree, through which he clawed his way into the hull of a slave ship. This emptied out belly, once filled up with captive African bodies, appeared to him like a large endless hall shrouded in a curdling (yet inviting) darkness. He kept walking into the shadow in front of him, deeper and deeper into the hull, until he arrived at another opening that was flanked by a guard, whose outstretched arm pointed at the door carved into the side of the hull.
Walking through that passage, my friend came into an even more expansive hall – a throne room – where an African king and his queen sat at a prominent place while being attended to by others. He approached the king, who suddenly burst into a confession of his misdeeds. The king told my friend that he didn’t realize how costly his participation in the slave trade was to be to his people; he regretted selling prisoners to their white abductors. My friend listened.
And then the king said: “Ask for Bayo Akomolafe.”
My friend woke up, confused. And then scoured the internet for this person he was asked to seek out. He found one of my talks on YouTube – actually the first video that pops up when you type out “Bayo Akomolafe” in the search bar: a talk I gave in Victoria BC early in 2019. The day before that talk, I also had a dream about slave ships. I can’t remember the details (I’m not a very lucid dreamer, and find it fascinating that people can coherently narrate their dreams as if they were readily available stories). But I decided to give my talk about the slave ship as a site of ironic emancipation. About revisiting that sea-bound figure as a decolonial practice. About noticing that we, all of us, black- and white-identified bodies never left the slave ship and are still trapped within its wooden ontology.
My new friend, still entranced by the message of this ancestor from his “shamanic vision”, listened to the talk, convinced something strange was at work. He found his first words in his email to me: “…I write you under somewhat strange circumstances.”
This story is not why I am doing this course, but it is one of the active ingredients in a meal to be served by many hands. By regretful ancestors reaching across time. By connections we cannot explain. By geological unrest opening up cavernous depths to the shamanic. By mythological invitations at the edges of the water to seek out the otherwise. By microbial activisms queering human claims to exclusive agency. By the soft recognition that forward movement is not possible, and that some of us may have to disappear. A meal at the end of time.
I feel that most of us are living in the wake of yet another world-end. For sure, the world has ended many times before, an alien one sprouting from the compost heap of the previous. In these racially charged 2020 moments, characterized by a pandemic, protests, poisonous partisan palace politics, and climate loss, we might begin to find that our sphere of interactions is increasingly crowded by strange others, strange questions, and strange provocations. Suddenly, there are others in the room, invisible but no less real. You know another world has died when there are ghosts walking about the place, when you feel haunted, when order feels out of joint, when time feels tyrannical, and when eloquence gets in the way of what wants to be said.
This course is a gathering of the awkward, a kind of fugitive research, a meeting of the manifold at the end of time. It is a fragile conjuring of the new, not a confident realization of the new or revelation of the complete. This course is an invitation to play, to experiment with our edges, to weave a weird politics, to frame sanctuary for ourselves and for the others who have been rendered homeless by the gigantic shifts in the moment.
This is a meeting of many voices. And these voices remind us, using the words of sci-fi writer Octavia Butler that though “there is nothing new under the sun…there are many suns.” There is now a need to exile our bodies and find those new suns beyond the intelligence of the familiar. This is the time to fly, to create, to investigate, to listen, to invent together. Justice may no longer be enough.
Perhaps this is why that royal ancestor sent my new friend to me: not because I have answers, not because I know the way, but because I don’t.
And I’m guessing – if you’ve made it this far into this piece – you also do not know the way out of our collective mess. What if that ancestor’s call was also for you? What then? Will you gather with us underground? Will you host these other bodies? Will you descend into the hull of the slave ship, where the most pressing work awaits? Will you make sanctuary with us?
Art by Jon Marro