Mapping Race & Rightlessness Across Deep Time

Mapping Race & Rightlessness Across Deep Time

What does a map of the future look like? Plotting the historical coordinates of dispossession, it is clear where the ongoing project of the dispossession of Native sovereignty entangles with African enslavement across the Western Hemisphere. Authors such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz have shown that the notion of the United States as a “nation of immigrants” does not ring true, considering the contours of internal and external migration globally—forced and voluntary—for Black and Indigenous people across time and space. In the contemporary moment, marred by increased carcerality and the state-sanctioned apparatus of modern-day deportations, the very definition of the border and longer histories of border crossings are again fraught issues. What sort of map could adequately represent the shifting nature of the border across disparate geographies and temporalities?

To consider this question, Shannon Gleeson and I invited a cohort of 30 professors, artists, postdocs, and advanced PhD students to engage—across deep space and time—in a speculative design experiment to map the terrain of the future of global racial justice using methods of critical and decolonial cartography. In the vein of countermapping, together we produced a speculative digital atlas, a podcast, and a series of essays. Shannon Gleeson is a professor of labor relations, law, and history at Cornell University who specializes in immigrant worker rights and the role the Mexican Consulate plays in negotiating citizenship across the US border. I also work at Cornell University, where I teach literary theory and cultural history and specialize in African and Asian diasporic labor histories in the Caribbean.

The participants were organized into five mapping clusters: The Lands Formerly Known as South Asia (Atif Khan, Austin Kocher, Christin Washington, Judith Salcido, Rewa Phansalkar and Ryan Persadie), Portals to Oceanic Kinship: Pacifica Atlantis (Andrea Chung, Heidi Amin-Hong, Juhwan Seo, Melanie Puka, Priyanka Sen, and Tauren Nelson), Exurbs of Aztlán (Citlali Sosa-Riddell, Esmeralda Arrizón-Palomera, Kelsey Moore, Lydia Macklin Camel, Mónica Bernal Ramirez, and Nancy Morales), Marronage – Quilombo: A Map of Fugitivity (Amanda Pinheiro, Ana Ozaki, André Nascimento, Christopher Roberts, Essah Cozett Díaz, and Reighan Gillam), and After the Interruption: An Invitation from the Ancestors (Anisa Jackson, Elspeth Iralu, Erica Violet Lee, Hashem Abushama, Nisrin Elamin, and Randa Tawil).

In our two-week summer institute, Cartographies of Racial Justice Beyond Borders: Territories of Dispossession and Migration, we collectively considered the long history of planetary human migration, the timeline of racial capitalism as an extractive dynamic, and the shape of geographies of dispossession. A series of keynotes and roundtables covered topics ranging from academic freedom to critical geography to Afro-futurist mapping, engaging the horizons of abolitionism, Indigenous futurisms, and decoloniality. Natalie Diaz, Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez, and Emma Dabiri, leading Black and Indigenous feminists on radical cartographies, presented the keynotes. The roundtables were presented by A. Naomi Paik and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Ariella Azoulay and Samia Henni. Five migration studies experts—Kevin Escudero, Kimberly Bain, Eddie Bruce-Jones, Samia Henni, and Derrick Spires—served as mentors on the theoretical stakes of the project for the participants. Shannon Mattern, David Garcia, and Alex Gil also provided mentorship on critical cartography and anticolonial methods in the digital humanities.

The result was a speculative cartography digital humanities project entitled The World We Became: Map Quest 2350. The atlas connects five imaginaries that rescript the geographic boundaries of what we currently understand to be South Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East, North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Situating the borders of the nation-state as recent constructs, this creative exercise used the natural environment as a model for imagining interspecies relationality and copresence. Intentionally produced in a multimedia format, the born-digital speculative design experiment features visual and audio components presenting a planetary vision of the year 2350 as an underwater future in the ruins of climate crisis.

The following essay springs from a reflection from week one of the institute, which culminated in a July 15 roundtable entitled Defining Race and Regimes of Rightlessness Across Deep Time. Two scholars, A. Naomi Paik and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, led the summer institute participants in dialogue about undocumented intimacies, the history of sanctuary coalitions, and marronage. From the present-day United States to 16th-century Hispaniola, Paik and Padilla Peralta unpacked the contours of intersecting imperialisms and the long history of movements of liberation across the Western Hemisphere.

Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an associate professor of classics at Princeton University, where he completed his undergraduate degree. He pushes for a new study of antiquity—one that broadens to study oppressed peoples—through his critique of the weaponization of Western and white-centered classics. Professor Padilla Peralta highlights the need to promote Afro-diasporic and Native American classicisms, on their own merits and as a reparative practice for counteracting and undoing this weaponization, if the field is to have any chance of growing beyond its historical and ongoing collusions with systemic racism. His teaching and writing are motivated by the conviction that, as Kandice Chuh has lately written, “the crisis confronting the humanities calls less for their defense and instead prompts the crafting of a vision of what a defensible humanities might be and do.” Padilla Peralta has published a book on how his identities formed his studies, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (2015), and was featured in the New York Times in “He Wants to Save Classics from Whiteness. Can the Field Survive?” He has also written on religious identity and state formation in the ancient Roman Mediterranean, in his book Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (2020).

Naomi Paik critically examines US imperialism and militarism, transnational women of color feminisms, and migration. She analyzes the foundations of US global power in her published work, such as Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the Twenty-First Century (2020) and Rightlessness: Testimony and Redress in U.S. Prison Camps since World War II (2016). All her scholarship and public-facing work calls for an abolitionist sanctuary movement to combat the state violence and capitalist exploitation inescapably embedded in US history. Currently, Professor Paik is developing another manuscript, “Sanctuary for All,” on the expansion of the migrant justice slogan to include nonhuman species and the planet. She is an associate professor of criminology, law, and justice and global Asian studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Figure 1: What 30% ocean protection could look like. Image Source: “30×30: A Blueprint For Ocean Protection,” Greenpeace.

This was the first time Padilla Peralta and Paik shared space formally in conversation. Though their fields may be disparate—classics and legal and cultural politics—in many ways the core concerns of their work overlap. Paik’s conceptualization of rightlessness offers a frame beyond forms of asylum that is in conversation with Padilla Peralta’s memoir Undocumented. The concerns of global Black diaspora and freedom movements even before the Haitian Revolution connect Peralta and Paik on the fractured Caribbean island of Hispaniola—home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. With shared futures, though different fates, Paik’s attention to Haitian migrant stories and Temporary Protective Status (TPS) dovetails with Peralta’s recounting of montaña marronage in the 16th-century Spanish Caribbean.

Professor Paik began the roundtable with a genealogy of sanctuary movements and a consideration of maps as tools for documenting in a landscape where opacity often is a form of refuge.

Figure 2: San Juan Valley and liborista territory (created by Kilia Llano), map 2.1 in Lorgia García-Peña, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction (Duke University Press, 2016)

Figure 3: Manieles de la Española siglos XVI–XVIII (CE), in Carlos Esteban Deive, Los Guerrilleros Negros (Fundación Cultural Dominicana, 1989)

In the virtual event and in these twinned short essays, we generate an intellectual dialogue that goes beyond critiquing coloniality to envision new futures by writing other potential histories and periodizations.


• Naomi Paik: The Teeming Shore: Shared Fates

• Dan-el Padilla Peralta: The State Fucks You Up

The Teeming Shore: Shared Fates—A Response to Dan-el Padilla Peralta

A. Naomi Paik

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The term “refuse” marks the migrant as discard, as excrescence, as effluvium; but from whose perspective? Animating this … exploration of the psychosocial scripts through which the figure of the migrant is variously narrated and pathologized as garbage, as abject, and as criminal is the hunch that such scripts thread through the long history of citizenship’s interplay with the notion of sanctuary, and that we would do well to confront these scripts and their tenacious hold on the present openly. In some of these scripts, the institution of sanctuary performs a kind of alchemy, turning trash into gold and the asylum-seeker into a “good” citizen; but the success of this alchemy hinges on command of the proper formulas, the speech-acts by which asylum-seekers credentializes themselves as deserving of the receiving state’s beneficence.

—Dan-el Padilla Peralta, “Citizenship’s Insular Cases, from Ancient Greece and Rome to Puerto Rico” (2019)

In this passage, Dan-el Padilla Peralta introduces a notion of sanctuary tied to state power. Such a notion contrasts with another approach to sanctuary he points toward in his analyses of maroon communities: sites that challenge and contest the powers of the colonial state.

Here, Padilla Peralta reads his own history and memory against the scripts hailing him and other migrants; this script was heralded by Emma Lazarus’s words etched into the base of the Statue of Liberty, that paradigmatic symbol of the mendacious US narrative as a “nation of immigrants.” As Padilla Peralta details in this essay and elsewhere, these scripts—tying the migrant to refuse—reach back millennia to ancient Rome and Greece. And they continue to shape liberal democratic nation-states and their approaches to migrants. True to colonial epistemologies, Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” reveals little knowledge or insight about migrants, except about what the US nation-state wants to believe about itself via its relationship to the abject migrant, tossed into the sea and floating to its shores like detritus. The United States works its alchemical magic, converting waste into gold, by offering sanctuary to the migrant and re-forming her into a subject fit for citizenship.

This US offer of sanctuary has always been self-interested. The United States has long cast itself as an “asylum for mankind,” generously bequeathing sanctuary to others. But it has done so only insofar as it has shored up its own claims to sovereign power. For example, as Evan Taparata and Rachel Ida Buff note, the US state welcomed Canadian refugees who supported the American Revolution, but it offered refuge to these allies in ways that advanced its settler colonial project: forcibly displacing Indigenous nations and stealing more of their lands. For a country built on patriarchal white nationalism, this version of sanctuary is one tied to the interests of the state, its claims to territory, and, thus, its sovereign power. And this state sanctuary can be given only to those who can be made to fit its narrow definition of mankind, which excludes most of the world.

It is this promise to convert waste into citizen that induces the anxiety of the migrant: Will I be able to take “command of the proper formulas,” can I earn the capricious credentials demanded of me? Or will I remain discard in the eyes of the state, waste ready to be tossed back into sea?

But perhaps “the teeming shore” might offer a fecund space to think through alternative potentials of sanctuary. Such sanctuaries are not tied to the sovereign state’s interest; instead, their very presence challenges it. A “spatially liminal zone,” in Padilla Peralta’s words, the shore “teeming” with migrants from elsewhere stands in contrast to the seeming fixity and literal groundedness of the land and, thus, of the national territory and the state’s sovereign power over it. The shore manifests a border: between land and water and between the territory of citizenship and the unmoored, fluid space beyond it. Indeed, the ocean’s fluidity—its continual motion and intrinsic, nonlinear, circuitous flows—connects spaces separated by vast geographical distances and brings peoples, things, and other living beings into contact with one another. Its literal motion points toward how radically connected people are to one another, to other living beings, and to the habitats on which we depend for our mutual survival. In this way, the “webbed network” of the ocean beyond the teeming shore “challenges the coherence of all narrow nationalist perspectives,” as Paul Gilroy argues of the Black Atlantic.

In referring in his cartographies talk at the summer institute to “maroon designs” that “challenged the colonial state’s efforts at maintaining sovereignty,” Padilla Peralta also points to the potential of a different kind of sanctuary, one that emerges from the history and unruly connections brought together by the Black Atlantic. This sanctuary cannot but contest colonial state sovereignty. The very existence of maroon spaces defies colonial governance and economic exploitation. These spaces carve out communities of collective care among self-emancipated people. Indeed, maroon spaces disrupt the fiction that the colonial state ever wielded complete sovereign power over its claimed territory and all beings within it. Against notions of sanctuary tied to a colonial sovereign, like the US settler state, there exist other versions of historical and imagined sanctuaries divorced from any state, sovereign power, or narrow nationalism.

What possibilities unfurl by imagining sanctuaries unmoored from any concept of territoriality at all? What would it mean to create a sanctuary for all, everywhere, as the migrant justice slogans prophetically proclaim?

If we create a world where sanctuary exists everywhere, for all life, then there would be no need for a specific territory of protection, with guarded boundaries of refuge that simultaneously cast out everyone and everything else. How might the “teeming shore” stand not as a site of anxiety for the state or a point of initiation of the migrant, but rather as the paradigm for understanding the links connecting us all in a shared fate and shared future?


Jump to: A. Naomi Paik, Dan-el Padilla Peralta


The State Fucks You Up: A Response to A. Naomi Paik

Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Beyond its grounded interventions of non-cooperation and safe harbour, sanctuary already performs conceptual work that can undermine the criminalisation of migrants and other vulnerable peoples. Whether through official policies or popular struggle, sanctuary seeks to secure local commitments to all people living in a given community, thereby enacting a notion of citizenship that is not beholden to the sovereignty of the nation-state. Sanctuary policies exemplify the translation of supranational human rights discourses into subnational contexts. … Sanctuary thus not only marks a sub-national contestation of the federal policies that criminalise the mere presence of our neighbours, but also acknowledges that mere presence secures membership in our social and political community. It recognises a broader conception of citizenship beyond the legal status privileged by the state and communicates to undocumented people that legal status matters less than the fact that you are here with us.

—A. Naomi Paik, “Abolitionist Futures and the US Sanctuary Movement” (2017)

In this and other publications, A. Naomi Paik has invited readers to imagine sanctuary’s possibilities and capabilities beyond the clutches of the sovereign state. Taking up this invitation, and in communion with autobiographical and journalistic entries in immigration literature—Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land: A Memoir (2020) and Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s The Undocumented Americans (2020) are personal favorites—I want to think with Paik about what “abolitionist futures” for sanctuary look like, and what their realization will entail. There’s no question, as far as I’m concerned, that the solidarity-premised “organising that must drive the sanctuary movement cannot rely on institutions to save us.” But is the more productively emancipatory move to blunt the violent force of existing institutions by creating new ones, or to ditch institution-building entirely, in favor of fluidly and radically decentralized alternatives? Without any pretense of a direct answer to this—the biggest of big questions—I’d like to test out some directions for travel.

Let me start with one takeaway from Hernandez Castillo’s and Cornejo Villavicencio’s respective works, each marvelously adept in its own way at bringing into focus the ravages of the immigrant-carceral state on migrant minds and bodies. The state really fucks you up.

Well, it fucks all of us up. But the magnitude of the destruction visited on the undocumented is incalculable and irreparable, in no small part because it compounds over time and across the generations. Here is Cornejo Villavicencio on the impact: “The twisted inversion that many children of immigrants know is that, at some point, your parents become your children, and your own personal American dream becomes making sure they age and die with dignity in a country that has never wanted them. That’s what makes caring for our elderly different from Americans caring for their elderly.”

One question that an abolitionist future for sanctuary will need to confront is how best to extend the mantle of protection across the generations. Relatedly, it will need to take stock of the ableism that creeps into those enabling metaphors and horizons of imagination that organize our organizing.

It is one thing to thread a history of/a protreptic to sanctuary through the mobility of the (presumed to be) young. This presumption is immanent to my reading of Phoenix’s biography in Homer’s Iliad Book 9 in “Citizenship’s Insular Cases”; it also stalks the attraction in “Maroon Cartographies” to the example of the rebel leader Lemba, “daring, clever, strong, brave” (atrevido, sagaz, fuerte, valiente). But what of the sanctuary-seekers who, unlike Phoenix, are rendered incapable of taking off in flight—or who, unlike Lemba, are not in position to lead physically an uprising of many years’ duration? My own father moved and moved and moved in ceaseless agitation, right until the factory injury that left him physically incapacitated for a while and psychologically incapacitated for much longer. But my reengagement with Phoenix and Lemba is also intended to query the spectrum of roles and responsibilities appropriate to an abolitionist politics.

How do we devise and populate, in the projection of an abolitionist future, models of leadership that do not orbit exclusively around youth and able-bodiedness? The scope of abolitionist sanctuary, as Paik laid out in her discussion of what a map of sanctuary looks like, extends beyond humans to “care for other living beings and habitats, like land, air and water, on which we all depend to live”; it’s a “capacious approach to sanctuary for all” creatures whose prospects for survival are being menaced by the Sixth Great Extinction.

What are the politics best suited to the enactment of this capacious approach? How do we organize with nonhuman beings? I ask because in my own daily strivings I find myself suspended between the affirming expansiveness of María Puig de la Bellacasa’s Matters of Care (“What does caring mean when we go about thinking and living interdependently with beings other than human, in ‘more than human’ worlds?”) and the deflationary negging of Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro—hammering away at the proposition that piety might be a kind of care.

Another question to guide the pursuit of an abolitionist future has to do with that future’s orientation to the past. One signature feature of “study and struggle” collectives is study—molded not infrequently around a curriculum that, sampling as it does the rich resources from different traditions of organizing, necessarily inclines the gaze of the organizing collective toward the study of the near (and in some cases the more distant) past. But I’m thinking of a more involved, because more emotionally and psychically exacting, form of cohabiting with the past and pastness: fahima ife’s “preternatural intimacy” with their dead grandmother in Maroon Choreography, for example; or Jean Casimir’s decision in the opening pages of The Haitians: A Decolonial History to declare not only his pride in his “ancestors, [who] as individuals and as a group, never stopped resisting slavery and domination,” but his resolve “to venerate them, to honor these captives reduced to slavery … despite their errors and their occasional failures.”

An abolitionist future for sanctuary will, I think, be incomplete without an accounting for and to the ancestors. We stand to learn from them some practices of resistance suited to our contemporary moment. And we have an obligation—especially for the many who did not reach, or only intermittently alighted on, sites of sanctuary—to welcome the ancestors into the sanctuary spaces that we’re attempting to build.

But here’s where I find myself tripping. A structure equally vested in pastness and futurity, gifted with the capacity to distribute care across space and time, and endowed with affective potency: Are we not approaching some of the properties of statehood?


Jump to: A. Naomi Paik, Dan-el Padilla Peralta


This article was commissioned by Tao Leigh Goffeicon

Featured image from the Encyclopedia Britannica (detail). Flickr / (CC0 1.0)

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