Terraqueous Black Ecologies of the ACF River Basin

The Apalachicola Bay, taken at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (June 2023).

The drive from Atlanta, Georgia to the Apalachicola Bay in the Florida panhandle closely follows the flow of the Chattahoochee River as it joins the headwaters of the Apalachicola River. I was taken through the city of Atlanta, where I now live, through the farmlands of Southern Georgia, where peanuts and cotton are grown, and into the Apalachicola National Forest, where longleaf pines on both sides create a shroud around the road. This is the region of Tupelo honey, cultivated by bees in the swamps of Florida and Georgia through the pollen of the White tupelo tree. This drive ends in Apalachicola, where the deeply held connections between the Apalachicola Bay and the Eastern Oyster are palpable: piles of shells processed by the few remaining open seafood processing plants line the working waterfront. Through the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin (ACF) terraqueous Black ecologies are impossible to ignore. The watershed tells a story of Southern Black foodways, labour, and multispecies connection clearly and poignantly.

I’m at the beginning of my dissertation research in a summer of preliminary investigation. I am motivated by untold histories and narratives of Black ecologies and natural spaces in the Southeastern U.S. I’ve come to ACF Basin through the lens of oyster. A serendipitous connection at a conference called Oyster South, which focuses on Southern states and oyster aquaculture, has turned into thinking broadly about watersheds and the Black Ecologies that permeate through them from the rivers to the sea and back again. Black feminist scholar and speculative historian Sadiya Hartman asks, “Is it possible to exceed to negotiate the constitutive limits of the archive?”[1] In thinking through this watershed, the multispecies relationships within environmental history that highlight kinship between the trees, bivalves, and insects in the Southeastern U.S. and the foodways and lifeways of Southeastern Black Americans can redress the historical silences present within the hegemonic archive.

The headwaters of the Chattahoochee, known to be haunted in popular lore, begin at what is known today as Lake Sydney Lanier. We can join Christina Sharpe in noting that there is a haunting in the wake of slavery of stories untold, Black lives left ignored and uncentered.[2] The damming of Lake Lanier began before its physical construction, perhaps with the “racial cleansing” motivated by a sexual assault, when white mobs drove out 1,100 Black American from Forsyth County.[3] Oscarville was flooded in the 1950s to build Lake Lanier, but perhaps these events of the past were not washed away but rather buried within the sediment at the bottom of the lake, and later drawn up with the upwelling of nutrients to the surface waters.

The Black ecologies of the ACF River Basin represent part of the complex hydro-social relations that should be considered in the continued water conflict management within the region. The ecological history of ACF Basin tells not only of Black foodways and freedom through multispecies connection; it also represents a legacy of infrastructure development under racial capitalism and water insecurity that exists in our impending collective future.[4] Its waterways take a journey through Georgia, Alabama, and Florida and empty into the Apalachicola Bay on the Gulf of Mexico. To trace the ACF Basin is to trace a deeply connected history of environmental destruction, racial violence, and industrialization. The African American lifeways which have persisted despite these conditions are a guide for collectively building future worlds.

As we follow the curves of the Chattahoochee it takes us to the city of Atlanta, where conflicts in water usage represent large environmental and social issues across the United States. The water conflicts in Atlanta and across the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River system are deeply tied to race, representative of infrastructure development under racial capitalism.[5] The water wars of the ACF Basin include a complex set of relationships, one that also marks the disenfranchisement of Black farmers and Black fishers in the Apalachicola Bay. As we envision a future of protection for both people and waters, it will be imperative to think in terms of watersheds, of the events that have marked histories of dispossession and acts of liberation, and of the multispecies relationships that have defined Southern Black life along rivers and into the ocean’s waters. Waterways themselves and the aquatic and terrestrial species along them function as an archive of Black history and futurity.

[1] Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in two acts. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism12(2), 1-14.

[2] Sharpe, C. (2016). In the wake: On blackness and being. Duke University Press.

[3] Kerns, S. (2022) The truth behind Oscarville and the violent removal of Black residents from Forsyth County years before Lake Lanier was built. [4] Milligan, R., Adams, E. A., Wheeler, C., Raulerson, S., & Vermillion, N. (2022). The hydro-racial fix in infrastructural regions: Atlanta’s situation in a regional water governance conflict. Territory, Politics, Governance, 1-18.

[5] Ibid.

*Cover image: The Apalachicola Bay, taken at the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve, June 2023. Photo by author.

[*Cover image description: View of a body of water, sand, and a short vegetation near the water. At the top half of the picture, blue sky with a few clouds.]

Edited by Lívia Regina Batista, reviewed by Evelyn Ramiel.

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