When I was a child of 7 or 8, I almost drowned. I still remember the sensation. The feeling of your lungs filling with water is a unique, heavy pain. It’s like being slowly engulfed by death. I’d fallen over a small bridge into a deep stream my mother had warned me not to play by. I distinctly remember seeing the sun becoming dark in my gaze piercing the water’s surface and thinking, “I’m dying.”
Luckily my sister saw me fall, heard me scream before I hit the water, and pulled me out – saving my life. I would fear water for years to come and avoid learning how to swim until I was in middle school. I flashed back to this moment when I was reading about the recent deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Black body is situated in a specific historical context when it comes to death by water.
It takes a special desperation to risk drowning – or any other kind of death – for a better life. The migrants who do so every day across the world don’t always have a choice. Some risk death as refugees because death is certain at home. One Eritrean refugee named Sofia summed this up well when she told a Guardian interviewer, “If I die at sea, it won’t be a problem – at least I won’t be tortured.” Brutal, violent death and “disappearance” are potential fates that cause many migrants to flee the places they were born and risk drowning. For the fleeing Black migrant, there is a special significance here.
The Black body is situated in a specific historical context when it comes to death by water. There are many parallels that exist between the situations of Black people in Africa and throughout the African diaspora around the world. The Haitian drowns trying to reach the United States. The Black New Orleanians drown awaiting rescue in the 9th Ward.
The ancestors of these Black people and their fellow Black Americans were enslaved Africans whose family members were drowned by their captors or chose to drown rather than suffer the rest of the middle passage. Those African ancestors were coming from the continent many of the Black migrants currently crossing the Mediterranean have died leaving.
The recent maritime migrant crisis neared the proportions of the Titanic’s sinking – without, of course, the same level of impact on the mainstream public psyche. Country of origin, race and class have all diminished the perceived importance of the ongoing crisis of migration out of Africa.
The regularity with which these migrants are drowning illustrates a lack of real concern on the part of the dominant powers. Over 3,000 migrants died in 2014, a number that is expected to multiply by 10 in 2015. Estimates point to around 30,000 people expected to die this year. This issue is not new, but the countries of the European Union (EU) and other privileged states are just now beginning to take notice.
However, the fact that they’re “taking notice” doesn’t mean these countries will substantively address the roots of the problem. Reception centers, migrant camps, and military action against Libya (which was destabilized by Western military action) have all been tossed around as “solutions.” Meanwhile, the deaths have already become a political football to be kicked around by politicians. In the midst of UK elections, Ed Miliband and David Cameron went back and forth on who is to blame. The whole discourse carries a tone of disdain and lacks any real concern or empathy for migrants.
A column by Katie Hopkins in The Sun last month described human beings crossing the Mediterranean as “cockroaches.” Despite some public outcry in response to her choice words, the policies and responses that drive migration to Europe reinforce her depraved view. For instance, Australia has recommended that the EU follow its lead and turn migrants away at sea, even possibly by force of arms. The EU is not immune to the tougher immigration policies that mar places like the United States and Israel.
But even when they are not advocating letting migrants die, the Western media almost entirely ignores the problem’s structural causes. The purveyors of propaganda and the governments that control them address the branches of a tree when it blossoms unwanted fruit. They seldom speak to the roots that they overwatered with destructive trade policy, war and unbending economic exploitation. They flood the homelands of people seen as “lesser than” and then complain when they have to collect the bodies that wash upon their doorsteps.
“I ask them if they would make the journey knowing what they know now, and they say ‘no.'”
The work of photographer Juan Medina portrays several aspects of the precursory social death that has allowed African migrants to be dehumanized to this point. Medina’s images reveal people sunbathing and walking casually down beaches as they pass corpses or near-drowned migrants. It is the waters of the Mediterranean that swallow and spit out these Black bodies – but the path to that death at sea is driven by forces that are far from natural, and those structural forces are manifested in how tragic migrant deaths are perceived on European shores. The waters have help.
Migrants might seemingly be abandoned by governments and dangerous media narratives, but there are people working to help these communities. Muhyadin Ahmed Roble, a Somali radio journalist, works to keep people from risking a journey that could take their lives. Roble is based in Nairobi, Kenya; he works with Radio Ergo. His broadcast is aimed at Somalis who are thinking about leaving in search of better opportunities. Roble spoke to Truthout about the purpose of his radio program, saying, “I talk to Somali people to increase awareness about the risks and dangers.”
Roble not only discusses those dangers – he interviews people who have actually experienced them and tried to make it to Europe. “I ask them if they would make the journey knowing what they know now, and they say ‘no,'” he said. Roble even interviews people who have made it to Europe and didn’t find what they expected: “Sometimes they don’t get jobs; people end up doing jobs they feel are beneath their education.” Roble spoke at length about people from highly educated backgrounds working low-paying jobs and being unable to secure jobs in their profession in Europe.
When Truthout asked Roble what he thought of the recent crisis that took the lives of hundreds of African migrants, he said, “We’re losing a young generation of future leaders; we’re losing people who could help Somalia.” That sentiment could be applied to many of the migrants from different countries looking north for a different life.
“The policy makers aren’t taking the issue seriously,” he said. “There is a big network of human traffickers, people are abused, tortured, women raped.” Those things seem enough to scare away those who look on from positions of privilege, but Truthout asked – why are people leaving to face these possibilities? Roble responded, “They feel kind of hopeless.”
Over a century after the transatlantic slave trade ended, Africans are being human-trafficked for their labor, and ending up enslaved. Over a century after the transatlantic slave trade ended, Africans are still being packed into boats, abused based on skin tone, and thrown overboard to drown. Over a century after the transatlantic slave trade ended – though circumstances have shifted – we are still faced with the pervasiveness of the drowning Black body.
With the impending possibility of economic onslaught via trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we should be prepared to hear about many more people being forced to leave Africa. We should expect more people to swallow their fear of falling into a blue abyss to never resurface. In a world that is supposed to be advancing in terms of recognizing our shared humanity, this reality should make it hard for everyone to breathe.
Alas, the Black body is one that still struggles out of the pits of neglect. Here in the United States, Black people have been explicitly told “Fuck your breath,” when we screamed, “I can’t breathe.” We cannot let an ocean separate us from our kin who cannot breathe as they sink with the anchor of “first” world apathy tied to their feet. Nor should anyone who is not of African descent feel any less obligated to confront a terrible situation that is being driven by the policy and practice of empire.
We must all be conscious of the ways in which we are letting others drown.