Discussion of Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh- Emily Sisson

Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh

Emily Sisson


          In her presentation, “Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh,” titled after her forthcoming book, Tiffany Lethabo King PhD divulges several topics of Black and Indigenous land projects, with an emphasis on queer and feminist spaces. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to attend in person; However, The USD Humanities Center has made a recording available on their YouTube channel (see references). King is an Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Virginia. She specializes in research pertaining to Democracy and Equity, and is renowned for her authorship of Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies (Duke University Press, 2020). The forum introduces and expands upon her investigation of land efforts and color, and how these elements function in the modern world. Furthermore, An intertextual analysis of King’s speech and Freedom on My Mind (White) reveals a historical dimension to the subject, which must be critically analyzed in order to systematically dismantle. 

Despite their respective histories and cultures, Black and Indigenous peoples have intertwined legacies as a result of European-enacted displacement.  Any true effort at equity must take both of these axes into account, and consider their interactions with one another. The Black and Indigenous Feminist Futures Institute (BIFFI), a collective King subscribes to, states that their “approach to intersectionality focuses on relation as a key heuristic.” In other words, Blackness, indigeneity, and gender are in relation to each other at all times. For the purposes of this paper, I am going to relate King’s speech to African American history specifically. Doing so can cultivate a deeper understanding of the effects European settler colonialism had on both groups.

First and foremost, the need for black land is reactionary to a society that consistently targets black communities through explicit legislation and systemic barriers. Alongside other key issues, African Americans face disproportionate housing security through several legal tactics. For one, the process of redlining. Banks could deem black neighborhoods a “risky” investment, which barred African Americans from obtaining mortgages and loans. In turn, more money is spent on policing these neighborhoods, which contributes to Black incarceration rates. Furthermore, “Housing covenants, also known as restrictive covenants, are legal provisions designed to ensure that African Americans do not move into white neighborhoods” (Wiener). This devaluation of black people culminates into a faulty land ethic, one that can only be righted by an exterior community that uplifts the self determination of black peoples. Redlining and housing covenants are employed achieve the displacement of black peoples into designated communities in which they are subject to unjust treatment per white man’s law. This echoes the legacies of both slavery and Jim Crow.

          Black land projects promote the creation and preservation of land as a means to develop sustainable and self-sufficient communities. This concept is rooted in the historical African-American value of uplift– “the idea that racial progress demands autonomous black efforts” (Freedom on My Mind). Uplift began to take root in the early nineteenth century, and was mainly spearheaded by black educators and community leaders. Uplift implies unity, and collaboration toward the goal of improvement. In the post-civil rights era, the idea of uplift expanded to political activism at a local political stage. For example, after the passing of the Civil Rights Acts, the Black Panther Party aligned itself more closely with the needs of the black communities at grass-root levels. According to Freedom on My Mind, “Huey Newton [one of the founders of the Black Panther Party] acknowledged the new relationship in 1971: ‘We will work with the church to establish a community which will satisfy most of our needs so that we can live and operate as a group’” (965). This reflects a change in paradigm, as well as the necessity of black spaces. Uplift requires a degree of autonomy that is not afforded to black persons in traditionally white spaces. Hence why black peoples require space in which they can self-determine and address the needs of their communities properly.

          King has gained a unique perspective on matters of blackness and land while teaching at UVA, because the school was constructed by slave labor. She has a daily reminder of the foundation of the institute- an enslaved person’s fingerprint etched into a brick outside her office.  Thomas Jefferson founded the University in 1819 on the lands of the Monacan Nation- a tribe native to Northern Virginia. Jefferson proudly named “expansion” as a critical goal for his tenure- the encroachment on native land was no mistake. In doing so, he erased and infringed on Monacan life and labor. He rented out over 600 enslaved people to construct the school, and simultaneously partook in native genocide. Distinct subjugation was experienced not only by marginalized ethnic groups, but also by individuals who were at the intersection of blackness/indigeneity and femininity. Namely, through sexual assault. Enslaved women had no legal right to deny sexual advances from white men. In fact, a “recent release of DNA evidence [indicates] Thomas Jefferson probably fathered at least one child with his slave Sally Hemmings” (Fehn). This is revealing of the lack of privilege for anyone but rich white men, as evidenced by the behavior by one of the founding fathers himself. 

          The University of Virginia has attempted to make amends for their legacy by erecting the “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers”, which tells the stories of several individuals who were involved with the construction of the school. UVA also includes a “land acknowledgement” before all official University proceedings, which essentially recognizes that the University sits on stolen land. These “land acknowledgements” are becoming more and more commonplace at Universities throughout America, including the University of San Diego. Despite being a (very small) step in the right direction, King calls these attempts performative because there is no rectifying action to match the apologetic sentiment. They are watered down and compartmentalized, with minimal effort to properly address the issue. Virtue-signaling, if you will. Furthermore, at the UVA, black space-making often has had to contend with Monacan place-making practices, even though the University has not made any attempt to redistribute land to the Monacan nation. Why should it be one or the other? Why is it being made a black problem when they were not the ones to displace them? 

          King touches on another dimension to this initiative- Black ecological desire and belonging. This phenomenon of stewardship for nonhuman life is naturally a response to imperialism, and the exploitation of land and people for profit. Colonialism thrives on the production of normative European individuals at the destruction of Black and Indigenous bodies, and land itself, all for the sake of capital.  African-Americans have a historically unique attachment to ancestrally cultivated land- in more ways than one. In the literal sense, black peoples cultivated the land through their involuntary labor in plantation agriculture, construction, and mining. In a more abstract (but just as real) light, Black peoples cultivated the economy and country at large, and are due the right to self-govern external to systematic oppression. Therefore, land initiatives provide Black individuals with an opportunity to connect to the land and heal alongside it. Both the land and black peoples have been exploited for profit, and black peoples should be allowed the opportunity to return to and mourn alongside the land. Furthermore, Freedom on My Mind states that “Land held a spiritual significance among West African peoples, who regarded themselves as custodians of the land of their ancestors rather than as owners of any particular plot” (82). Since the majority of Africans captured and brought to America during the trans-atlantic slave trade originated from West Africa, there are remnants of this land philosophy that persist today in Black spirituality and epistemology. This concept also aligns closely with Indigenous spiritualities, which highly revere and venerate the earth and  land, and recognize inherent value apart from it’s profitability. This distinction between ownership and collectivity is what sets Black and Indigenous peoples apart from European settlers and colonizers. 

          Another facet of the black liberation struggle that King touches on is the reclamation of labor. Historically, black humanity has been separated from their labor as a means to dehumanize and take advantage of their work. Therefore, in order to uplift black humanity, labor and contribution must be recognized alongside it to fully appreciate the intersections of labor, identity, and social justice. That is, the immense sacrifice and labor from Black Americans must be considered within the context of their humanity, not within their role as a laborer- enslaved or otherwise. Still, there is dissonance in the public recognition of black labor. For example, we celebrate the black labor that made white progress possible, rather than the labor done by black peoples to disrupt and deconstruct slavery and segregation. To put it differently, black labor is only esteemed when it serves to strengthen white existence. This is reminiscent of Marxist ideals that assert the importance of worker-boss relations as a common site for exploitation. The cycle is made worse by the racialized capitalist system in America, which disproportionately views black people as objects to be used for gaining capital, rather than as human beings with inherent value. This section of the seminar can be viewed as a call to action, and a call to refigure American economic systems that allow for the exploitation of colored peoples for capital.

          All in all, Tiffany King PhD’s seminar “Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh” provides an insightful synthesis of land-projects, and how axes of gender, blackness, and indigeneity influence the spectrum. Through the unique lens of UVA’s legacy, King effectively divulges the intersections of power and privilege, namely through Thomas Jefferson’s tainted legacy. She also touches on black labor recognition, and the alignment of blackness and ecological desire. King’s presentation concludes with a call to action, a call to space making, and a call to listen to black, queer, and native persons, because only they can provide the insight that is necessary to topple the institutions that made these projects necessary. 


Works Cited

“About Us.” Black/Land Project,


Bruce Fehn, Thomas Jefferson and Slaves: Teaching an American Paradox, OAH

Magazine of History, Volume 14, Issue 2, Winter 2000, Pages 24–28, https://doi-org.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/maghis/14.2.24

“Illume/Knapp – ‘Red and Black Alchemies of Flesh’: An Audience with Tiffany Lethabo

King, PhD.” YouTube, YouTube, 5 Apr. 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq3ihGTku-g.



“Sally Hemings: Life of Sally Hemings.” Sally Hemings | Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,


Weiner, Melissa F. “Restrictive Housing Covenants.” The American Mosaic: The African American

Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2023, africanamerican2-abc-clio-com.sandiego.idm.oclc.org.sandiego.idm.oclc.org/Search/Display/1407073. Accessed 9 May 2023.

White, Deborah G., et al. Freedom on My Mind a History of African Americans, with

Documents. Bedford/St. Martins, 2021. 

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