Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Nicholas Mirzoeff reviews River of Dark Dreams and Unfathomable City

Walter Johnson. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2013. 526 pp.

Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker. Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 166pp.

Review by Nicholas Mirzoeff

When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson on 9 August 2014,  Marcia Chatelain, who teaches history at Georgetown, launched a call for #FergusonSyllabus. What at first might have seemed to be a single terrible moment has expanded into a renewed questioning of race and white supremacy in the United States, and it has become clear that we need new histories, new methods, and new approaches to consider these sadly old problems.

Two beautiful books (one by Walter Johnson and the other by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker) offer one way to make this happen. When Langston Hughes told us “I’ve known rivers” in 1920, he heard the “singing of the Mississippi.” Now the rest of us can too. Johnson retells the history of racial capitalism in the United States from the perspective of the cotton kingdom. It is a story of the blood, sweat, and tears implied in the phrase “forced labor.” It tells us how a single plant, the cotton varietal known as Petit Gulf (Gossypium barbadense), reconfigured a continent in ways “at once imperial, ecological, economic [and] moral” (p. 3). Hands were shaped by its “pickability,” just as a “carceral landscape” was formed from its geometric plantings.

Read Johnson as you would a nineteenth-century novel, slowly and with attention. Each page jostles with detail and passion, based on readings of sources as diverse as cotton planters’ almanacs, Herman Melville short stories, maps, and the testimony of what Johnson pointedly calls “enslaved human beings”—meaning that no one is a “slave,” and that, as we would say today, black lives matter.

His single-authored scholarly volume neatly intersects with the resonant New Orleans Atlas, collectively produced in the spirit of mutual aid by a team led by Solnit and Snedeker. The atlas contains twenty-two original maps, each rendering a conceptual crossroads. The seventh map is “Of Levees and Prisons.” It shows how, in Lydia Pelot-Hobbs’ words, a place “that is the most incarcerated city, in the most incarcerated state, in the most incarcerated nation in the world” (p. 55) is formed by the junction of two infrastructures for the containment of people and of water.  At the same time, the atlas reverberates with love for this impossible city, making you miss New Orleans, even if you’ve never lived there. Its great generosity is that the intersectional map is a method anyone can use at any level, as an activist tool or as a scholarly method.

This book you read a map at a time, burrowing into the details, in the belief that “if you walk a city, if you love a city …the city will reveal itself to you” (p. 37). This love is not simple adoration. New Orleans here is polluted, endangered, and segregated.  Map 21 shows high levels of lead in African American neighborhoods, showing that Flint is not an exception but part of a pattern. But it’s also the place of bounce, of parades, of rhythm and resistance, not just evoked but mapped and described.

These volumes are both refutations of the e-book—books to hold, to treasure, and to own—and then to share, widely. In a time when dark dreams are all we have, books are beacons of hope and insight that together allow us to imagine otherwise.