Arts & Culture / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 2 No. 4

Be (In) Water: A Note on the Black Otolith

Bethany Collins, Too White To Be Black

Image Credit: Bethany Collins, Too White To Be Black, (2014). Graphite, charcoal, and latex paint on Arches paper 29 × 41 in.
© Bethany Collins, Courtesy of Patron Gallery, Chicago.

The first time that I heard the word “otolith” was in a brief video from the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London. In it, their “curator of fish,” James Maclaine, demonstrated the new scanning technology that would allow him to examine the undigested stomach contents of the Museum’s rare, preserved anglerfish. My curiosity, piqued by this strange deep-sea creature, led me down a rabbit hole in exploration of a part of the world that I never anticipated I’d seek. The mention of otoliths in the video stopped me cold; my sense of its utility was immediate. Though ostensibly used in singular reference to natural science, it’s the philosophical and political potential of this language that, for me, sets about the continual practice of understanding Black becoming.

Though delivered from the depths of the ocean, the anglerfish otolith is a bridge to an alternative expression of our devastating present on land. Otoliths, according to the video, “help fish detect which way is up in total darkness” (NHM).1 I was drawn to this description not simply in awe of what nature has produced, but also in recognition of the dangers of humankind. Rife with the thick confrontations and contradictions between a white- supremacist vigilante state and a principled and ungovernable Black insurgency, the contemporary political moment of violence is modeled as a viable future by the intransigence and lies of the current president. The field of discourse is therefore as treacherous as that of our political mobilizations, which are densely policed and surveilled for their polyphonic calls to defund and abolish.

Because we’re starved for light by the forces of deliberate and delighted ignorance and hatred, by the oligarchic theft of land and resources, by rampant yet unevenly experienced eco-warfare, we shout into the darkness. Without state, land, or home, and with disappeared kith and kin, we feel our way forward carrying only our stealthily preserved knowledge and traditions, which are conveyed not only by but also in our bodies. At the intersection of cultural strategies and muscle memory is the possibility of the Black otolith, an element of our sensory system fine-tuned over centuries of faint illumination. As up and down, Left and Right, winning and losing slowly but surely bleed into tragic indiscernibility, we recall the means and methods that keep us moving and the reasons why we dedicate ourselves to the fight for buoyancy. The exacting praise song from June Jordan that ends with the declaration “we are the ones we have been waiting for” reaffirms the intuited understanding that we’re on our own and the reassurance that we’re all we need (Jordan 43).2

Water Ways
The coerced movements of and labor demands on African peoples globally created a repertoire of response that touched every known mode of resistance and then, for good and necessary measure, created more. Water was another terrain of struggle, made over the thousands of miles from western and central Africa to the eastern and interior Amerícas, on and from boats through mutiny and sacrifice. Once the boats eventually stopped, the dark waters of the ocean and gulf and sea continued to loom large in the practices of those Africans who knew well the kinetics of that resource. “From the age of discovery up through the nineteenth century,” argued historian Kevin Dawson, “the swimming and underwater diving abilities of people of African descent often surpassed those of Europeans and their descendants” (Dawson 1327). Learned over generations, their facility with the water became a line item in their sale and purchase, which, in turn, changed their bodies. “Many Africans developed large lung capacities that permitted them to remain submerged for considerable periods. Travelers frequently noticed the Africans’ underwater diving abilities” (1337). New World Africans, already described by strangers as animals, grew closer to fish, being forced to submit their changing bodies to capital. As marine salvagers and pearl divers, these captured people developed finely tuned aquatic skill. The more successful they became in the water the more questions they raised. For all their talents and strength, one wonders “that ever a rebellion can be suppressed” amongst them, as an eighteenth century witness wrote (Dawson 1343).3 They, like the rest, were a threat.

The resistant objects transformed their capital-generated adaptations into powerful biotechnologies, holding and preserving air in the depths and, as a result, learning how to orient themselves in the dark. The Black otolith guided and informed methods of escape through waterways large and small, through swamps and jungle into maroon communities and Indigenous lands, where protection and further strategizing became a way of life. Though rarely remarked upon in text-based archives, the ability to be in water—to, over time, be water—is a movement tradition of continued significance, not least for its popular theorization by Chinese martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. His instruction for those who would fight successfully was to “be formless, shapeless, like water,” demonstrating an elasticity that would take one’s opponent off guard. The Hong Kong protests of 2019, in which the leaderless “flash mob” of anti-government demonstrators aimed to destabilize law enforcement by “being anonymous, spontaneous, flexible, and also evasive,” explosively modeled the tactical principles—that is, the political advantage—of being water. Online fora, protest placards, and city walls bore the slogan as a reminder of the fight’s long duration as well as their power (Zhou and Wong).4 Water as current, swell, and force can change the terms of struggle.

Water as memory recalls protests in Michigan over years of organizing against the toxins piped into the homes of Black families. Odorous, sewage-infested water from the Flint River—a river so toxic with commercial and landfill waste that it has reportedly caught fire twice—was the cost-effective tap option for the bankrupt city in 2014. Again, capital changed Black people’s bodies. This time it was, and it remains, disproportionately injurious to Black children whose life chances are ordinarily compromised through encounters with long-term, debilitating disease. These children became the rancid water as state and federal agencies refused to act humanely (Denchak).5 So, under banners that said “Flint Lives Matter,” the water used to poison them was delivered in bulk to the statehouse as protestors called for the resignation of then-Governor Rick Snyder.

Since then, water has streamed from police cannons as a deterrent to rebellion all over the world. Water has also been mixed with baking powder to protect the tear-gassed eyes of protestors in Portland, Oregon, and then launched back at the police, who in turn terrorize and disappear those protestors (Associated Press).6 Water has lifted and carried Black people away from New Orleans and Puerto Rico. It has also encircled Indigenous and Black organizers in collaborative future visions of sacred and liberated lands. The Black otolith imagines the moment of precarity, danger, and darkness, and, rejecting these anti-Black logics, places it in context and suspends the holder and their people long enough to locate true gravity. Alignment then prevails. From there Black people learn how to move in, and as syncretic form and from the inherited endurance that sustains and animates our transformation to water.

1 Natural History Museum, “3D scans reveal deep-sea anglerfish’s huge final meal | Natural History Museum,” November 6, 2013:
2 June Jordan, “Poem for South African Women,” Passion: Poems, 1977-1980 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980), 43.
3 Kevin Dawson, “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1327, 1337, 1343.
4 Viola Zhou and Alan Wong, “Be water: the Bruce Lee philosophy behind Hong Kong’s Protests,” Inkstone, August 6, 2019:
5 Melissa Denchak, “Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know,” Natural Resources Defense Center, November 8, 2018:
6 Associated Press, “‘Suspicious’ Substance at Protest was Water, Antacid,” VOA, August 4, 2020:

Works Cited
“3D scans reveal deep-sea anglerfish’s huge final meal | Natural History Museum,” YouTube, Natural History Museum, November 6, 2013,
Associated Press. “‘Suspicious’ Substance at Protest was Water, Antacid.” VOA, August 4, 2020,
Dawson, Kevin. “Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World.” Journal of American History, Vol. 92, Issue 4, March 2006, pp. 1327-1355.
Denchak, Melissa. “Flint Water Crisis: Everything You Need to Know.” Our Stories, Natural Resources Defense Center, November 8, 2018,
Jordan, June. “Poem for South African Women.” Passion: Poems, 1977-1980. Beacon Press, 1980.
Zhou, Viola and Alan Wong. “Be water: the Bruce Lee philosophy behind Hong Kong’s Protests,” Inkstone, August 6, 2019,

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