From Where Do We Draw Breath? Air’s Absence and Blackness

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Amid an ongoing global pandemic that targets the respiratory system, access to air, to breath, and to life has become a metaphor for ongoing systemic inequalities and exclusions.1I am grateful to Ethan Madarieta for helping tease out the underlying discourse that simultaneously racializes the stowaway and excises them from discourse. It is a moment, as Achille Mbembe notes, that renders breath a “fundamental right to existence” that cannot be “confiscated and thereby eludes all sovereignty” (62). Yet, as the fundamental ground on which human life is premised, breath has—during the transatlantic slave trade, through regimes of colonialism and imperialism, and continuing through the present in state-sanctioned murders of Black women, men, and children by the police—functioned historically as a site of racial terror. In other words, the deprivation and weaponization of breath and air often constellate at the Black body. Kimberly Bain observes that Black breathlessness is nothing new, and that its violence echoes repeatedly across the capture of slaves, the hold of the ship, and the repeated forms and structures that deprive Black people globally of air and breath (241). In this essay, I interrogate how the Black body has been figuratively and literally deprived of air. I compare how air’s absence is structured into the architecture of the transatlantic slave trade with the narrativization (and later spectacularization) of African stowaways on airplanes. By focusing on the language of the stowaway as accruing a racializing index that bears the traces of transatlantic slavery, I argue that at the foundations of airlessness and breathlessness is the fact of blackness, an ever-expanding archive that converges at the global border.


Air and its absence structure the unfolding of Black existence in an anti-Black world. Thinking the air as preeminent in forming a genealogy of Blackness means interrogating how air is harnessed to manage the environment and conditions of captivity during transatlantic slavery, as well as how the repeated deprivation of air from Black people in the “afterlife of slavery,” is a primary motif through which a global Black condition can be animated and theorized (Hartman 9). Eva Horn argues that by shifting our analysis of air from “mere mass” to “medium,” air is expanded to incorporate the “movement and perception (hearing, sight, and smell), as well as communication, travel, situatedness, and dislocation…and climate” (Horn 9). Horn posits the possibility of a different epistemology of air which advances a kind of simultaneous dilation and contraction of the traditional scales of analyses, from communities, nation-states, and continents to the body, speech, and breath. In this way, glossing over the air or forgetting the air, as Luce Irigaray accuses Western metaphysics of doing, also glosses over how our access, or lack of access, to air has been a catalyst for the creation of narrative and representational tools, forms, and rituals that shape how people live and die. Irigaray shows the air to be the “unthought of being” in Western metaphysics, by depicting its prevalence in Eastern metaphysics and practices such as yoga and meditation (14). What Irigaray forgets, however, is that air, like other seemingly universal concepts, is “disfigured by blackness” (Douglass and Wilderson 119). Blackness destabilizes or forces into being a dis-ease with universalities that sideline the immensity of slavery and its ongoing innovations. This is what Saidiya Hartman (in a conversation with Frank Wilderson III) calls “the position of the unthought,” a position occupied by the slave (185). If air and the slave are both ‘unthought,’ then conventional analysis must be viewed through the prism of Blackness to account for the intersection of air and the grammars of slavery. Therefore, a study of air or breath must exceed (not overlook) the scientific discourse on atmosphere and the related anthropogenic effects manifested in the study of weather and/ or air quality.

One approach to air that understands it as a medium is Ghanaian poet Kwadwo Opoku-Agyemang’s poetry collection, Cape Coast Castle. In the collection, the architectural structure of transatlantic slavery—the slave castle with its underground, cavernous structures—are depicted as amplifying the violent mechanisms and techniques through which captured Africans were funneled into a category distinct from their captors. This transmogrification, where enslaved Africans were treated like chattel and commodity to enforce a growing epistemological formation and invention, sought to emphasize the fundamental distinction between white masters and Black slaves. Emphasizing biological difference was a necessary foundation on which to solidify an epistemological racial structure. As the global economic hierarchy of transatlantic slavery supported a political and social order, so too the architectural structures which warehoused the enslaved were designed to reinforce their difference from their captors. Thus, as Opoku-Agyemang’s collection shows, the absence of air in the slave dungeons is not solely an architectural oversight, but forms part of the technique of dehumanization that was sustained in discursive practice.

Cape Coast Castle meditates on Black existence as an absence of air, one engineered through the architectural structure of transatlantic slavery. Air and breath bifurcate the enslaved from humanness and facilitate their incorporation into or out of capital.2Saidiya Hartman in “‘The Belly of the World’: A Note on Black Women’s Labors” begins with the assertion “The slave ship is a womb/abyss” and examines how gestational language, when applied to Black women’s reproductive labor during slavery and later coupled with the Marxist notion of the worker/labor, obscures the peculiar nature of Black women’s reproduction. Christina Sharpe adapts this language to assert that the hold of the slave ship is the womb of that birth’s Blackness. I want to position the slave dungeon as a site between capture and the slave ship where the captives’ position to the human is recalibrated, entering discourse, and becomes part of the epistemological structure. The deprivation of air permeates the past and present actuating a confrontation with the “vast dark cave[s]” of slavery. This deprivation functions not only as the absence of freedom but as a practice that deprives the enslaved of a basic need for bodily survival, air, as the means to curtail any “meaningful human expressions” such as speech. Describing the slave dungeon in the introduction to Cape Coast Castle, Opoku-Agyemang reads air’s absence as fundamental to the ongoing trauma of slavery. It is the catalyst for what he later describes as the “victim society” of the modern African state:

These vaults, mysterious underground holds, cramped, cavernous, dark, musty and airless, could contain over a thousand captives at any one time as they awaited the Middle passage. Many died from lack of air. The airless darkness within the dungeons is the metaphor of a modern predicament whose vehicle is trauma. (30; emphasis mine)

The absence of air in the dungeons in Cape Coast Castle is literal, and the airlessness of the slave dungeon resonates throughout the life of the enslaved, and in the precariousness of Black existence. These airless dungeons, as Saidiya Hartman shows in her reading of Ottobah Cugoano’s 1787 antislavery tract, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, forced enslaved people to breathe in a certain way. Hartman notes how the overbearing stench and filth of the dungeons meant that captured Africans learned to take shallow breaths (123). The deprivation of air in the slave dungeons is a constitutive part of what Achille Mbembe characterizes as necropolitics and/or necropower, which is to say the “weapons deployed in the interest of maximum destruction” that create “unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead” (40).

Keeping the slave in airless dungeons underneath the castle and in airless holds underneath the slave ship, deprives the slave of a basic claim to humanity, to do what they are biologically constructed to do, to draw in breath, to live, to speak, because speaking is “moving air over muscle.”3I borrow this phrase from Cynthia Oliver’s dance piece about Caribbean male desire and sexuality, Virago-Man Dem, performed at the Columbia College Dance Center, Chicago, on November 3, 2017. The relationship between speech and air remains particularly resonant in this project because the ability to produce sound relies fundamentally on the ability to move air with/through the organs of speech. By inhibiting breath, speech is also inhibited. The biological process of producing speech involves bringing air from the lungs to the larynx (respiration), where the vocal folds may be held open to allow the air to pass through or may vibrate to make a sound (phonation). The airflow from the lungs is then shaped by the articulators in the mouth and nose (articulation). To speak, one must have air, thus if one is not a breather, one is also not a speaker.

Throughout the collection, Opoku-Agyemang contends that Cape Coast Castle is ruled “by silence,” and it is this silence that is its source of power as well as its seduction. In many of the poems, speaking is deferred to the castle itself, or the sea, or is constrained in some way. For instance, in the first poem, “Introit,” which begins, “AND THE SEA cackled, foaming at the mouth/ Till dry cracks ploughed the waves back;/ Hope, said the sea, is not a method/ There are too many sad stories/ carved in indifferent stones,” it is the sea and the stones through which history speaks (ll. 1-5). In another poem, “The Watch,” the persona waits for freedom to come and for their “mouth to be cleared of all weed”; and in yet another, “Supplication (Equiano’s Mother),” the persona states, “No place is safe, not even my own mouth” (ll. 8; ll. 48). These repeated images of speechlessness or constrained speech gesture towards a discursive exclusion precipitated by the transatlantic slave trade. They reinscribe constraints in breathing. Taken together, speechlessness and breathlessness construct a kind of narrative imposition that dictate how the Black body enters into and is engulfed by discourse. While the kind of violent constraints on speech and breath that Opoku-Agyemang describes might seemingly have ended with the emancipation proclamation and later the end of colonization, Cape Coast Castle as an edifice of slavery and silence is a metonymic sign of the continuing abjection of Black being through their exclusion from, and subjection by, discourse. Through the figure of the stowaway, as I elaborate below, the descriptive economy of slavery and its afterlives, and the interplay between speech and airlessness, find new grounds.


Stow away–”A person who hides in a ship in order to escape payment of passage-money, to get to sea unobserved, or to escape by stealth from a country. Hence also, one who steals a passage by aeroplane.”4The Oxford English Dictionary online.

A more recent iteration of air’s absence is through the figure of the stowaway. The stowaway as a figure of unsanctioned and unlawful mobility summons images of transcontinental ships on which African travelers hide to gain access to Europe and the Americas. In the current era of high-speed air travel, stowing away signals both an unwillingness or inability to pay the steep fares of transcontinental flights, as well as the uneven and unequal structures of global migration. The decision to hide in the wheel-well of an aircraft, or to get on a boat crossing the Mediterranean, are not merely reactions to current economic and social hardships. These decisions form part of an ideological tapestry that positions Europe and North America as places devoid of harsh inhumane conditions, and the global south, and Africa in particular, as the epicenter of hunger, failed political states, corrupt institutions, and a breeding ground for refugees, migrants, and displaced people. This pervasive and persistent reasoning renders some nation-states preferable and others less so in various gradations of preference and/or desire according to an unspoken matrix of race, class, and history.

Thus, when one encounters Themba Cabeka, a South African man who survived stowing away in the landing gear of a British Airways flight from Johannesburg to London, in a Unilad YouTube interview,5 it is not a new plotline. Indeed, it is expected. Themba explains in some detail how he and his friend Carlito arrived at the decision to stow away. He details their dire circumstances in South Africa, and how after successfully hiding in the wheel-well, he lost consciousness and awakened as he tumbled to the tarmac at Heathrow airport. There are stills of Themba’s long recovery, and a brief explanation of how his fall permanently injured his leg. The physiological effect of traveling outside the insulated cabins of an airplane is hypoxia, a condition caused by the lack of oxygen and the extreme cold of the wheel-well. For those who survive, the capacity of their bodies to redistribute oxygen to keep them alive has led to discoveries of human biological capabilities to survive in extreme oxygen-deficient conditions, resulting in “a state reminiscent of hibernation” known as “poikilothemic condition” (Véronneau et al. 4). While there seems to be no clear indication as to why one person survives such extreme conditions and why another does not, the figure of the stowaway that Themba embodies continues to be reified in such accounts, and this time it will have a long virtual life, breathing and speaking long after he is no more. At the end of the Unilad YouTube interview, the camera swiftly zooms in on Themba’s still face and the words “A STOWAWAY” appear in white across the screen.

Themba is not the first to stowaway on an airplane, he will certainly not be the last. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration, between 1947 to February 2020, over one hundred and twenty-eight people around the world have stowed away in the under carriage of an airplane. About eighty percent of airplane stowaways die.5See Sirin Kale, “Out of thin air: the mystery of the man who fell from the sky” in The Guardian, April 15th 2021. Also see the Office of Aviation Medicine report written by S. J. H. Véronneau, A.L. Pennybaker, B.C. Wilcox, and F. Sahiar entitled, “Surviving at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers.” The writers conclude by saying that there might be some successful stowaway passengers who are unknown because they encountered a “good samaritan” upon arrival, and there might be many who fall into the “ocean, or into remote land areas” (4). I take issue with their recommendation of additional security since that does not resolve the structural issues that render travel prohibitive for some and easy for others. Labeling Themba a stowaway, in the manner of the documentary, assimilates his attempts to escape what he deemed a life of unbearable poverty by whatever means possible with the more classic cases of stowaways who slip into and hide on transcontinental ships in order get to the greener shores of Europe, or North America. At the same time, it places a Black African face as the quintessential embodiment of the stowaway. It forgets the long and often complicated history of stowaways hailing from various parts of the world and reinforces the trope of Africans as desperate individuals who would risk anything for the possibility of escaping the continent. When Themba is cast as the figure of the “stowaway,” it re-emphasizes the extremes to which life in Africa will drive a man (or woman). Conditions so unbearable, so unlivable, that the possibility of a gruesome death outweighs living. As Themba himself states rather fatalistically, “it is better to die trying.”

These desperate and determined attempts to eke out another way of life by any means possible carry with them the shadows of the disruption in the world that Zakiyyah Iman Jackson identifies as created by transatlantic slavery. Jackson observes that the fundamental purpose of slavery was not to vacate the enslaved from the category of the human, but rather to “engineer” a kind of being that is distinct from the liberal humanist (46). The effect of that remaking is not limited to the temporal (or even spatial) bounds of slavery alone. Indeed, part of the technology of slavery, as Sylvia Wynter and others have noted, was to create a continent that could signify powerfully as the antithesis of Europe.6Sylvia Wynter has made a similar claim in “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/ Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3, 2003, pp. 257–337.; and “1492: A New World View.” Race, Discourse, and the Origin of the Americas, edited by Vera Lawrence Hyatt and Rex Nettleford. Thus, slavery’s “plasticization of the human” where the “black(ened) are … impressionable, stretchable, and misshaped,” as Jackson notes, allows the creation and maintenance of the familiar signification of Africa that other scholars have identified (11). For instance, at the beginning of On the Postcolony Achille Mbembe asserts that Africa and the lives of the people that live therein are seen as marked by “all that is incomplete, mutilated, and unfinished, … reduced to a series of setbacks of nature in its quest for humankind” (1). In asserting slavery’s invention of Africans as a peculiar kind of human being in the world, I do not seek to reduce the vastness of the continent into a few tired and repeated tropes. Rather, I want to suggest that the vision of Africa that Themba has imbibed and disseminates is a vision of Africa that Europe and the rest of the world expects and sustains.

In Themba’s assertion, his situation in South Africa was so dire that he could only envision two possible pathways. One, a continuation of his life of poverty, and two, risking his life to reach the United Kingdom (UK). He and his friend, like many others before them, chose the latter. While the details of his planning and execution are vague (this is most evident in the many queries and questions that attempt to figure out how Themba and his friend, Carlito, were able to get past airport security, onto the tarmac, and ultimately into the landing gear), there is no doubt that Themba (and Carlito) were deprived of oxygen leading to their loss of consciousness. In his Instagram account, @helpingthemba, on March 2021, Themba posted a video promoting the release of the UNILAD short documentary about his experience, as well as his upcoming track release. In the video, he is animated and smiling and generally in a good mood, while Gabriel, his friend and the one at the forefront of the campaign to raise awareness and funds about Themba, can be heard in the background interjecting with video directions and laughter. Gone from this is the specter of his friend Carlito, who fell to his death as the plane approached Heathrow. While Carlito’s story is forever subsumed under his friend’s miraculous survival, he, like the many unknown and unknowable people who perish, remain minor characters in the endless stream of migrants simply disappearing among the living and breathing (Véronneau et. al. 4). This is, in part, a result of the continuing deprivation of air that would enable speech and thereby entry into discourse about blackness and Black being in postcolonial Africa.

Themba embodies the reified subjectivity of the “Black stowaway” that results when the Black body is constituted in discourse as an abject human by being rendered speechless and thereby placed out of the realm of discourse. Themba, Carlito, and the many unknown others are thus excluded from where they might rupture such ontological framings because of their subsumption in extractive capitalism, where survival not only means risking one’s life to become a “viable” part of “the world order,” but also, by their action, re-tell the story of Euro-American utopia (the result of an incessant and ongoing colonialism, which disappears in such discourse). One is then caught in an aporia where continued survival means successfully marketing the body for continued extraction, that is, entering the body into racializing discourse as a marketable object. This continued abjection is a coerced position enforced through strategic deprivations of air, engineering the Black body as an object that speaks because—and foremost—of its exclusion from the discursive practices of becoming Human.

Works Cited

  • Bain, Kimberly. “Didn’t Need, To Know.” Literature and Medicine, vol. 38, no. 2, 2020, pp. 239-241.
  • Douglass, Patrice, and Frank Wilderson. “The Violence of Presence: Metaphysics in a Blackened World.” The Black Scholar, vol. 43, no. 4, 2013, p. 117-123.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V. Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route. 1st ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
  • Hartman, Saidiya V., and Frank B. Wilderson. “The Position of the Unthought.” Qui Parle, vol. 13, no. 2, 2003, pp. 183–201.
  • Horn, Eva. “Air as Medium.” Grey Room, vol. 73, 2018, pp. 6–25.
  • “How I Survived Falling from a Plane.” YouTube, uploaded by LADbible, 14 March 2021,
  • Irigaray, Luce. The Forgetting of Air in Martin Heidegger. 1st ed., University of Texas Press, 1999.
  • Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. New York University Press, 2021.
  • Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, vol. 15, no. 1, 2003, pp. 11–40.
  • —. On the Postcolony. University of California Press, 2001.
  • Mbembe, Achille, and Carolyn Shread. “The Universal Right to Breathe.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 47, no. S2, 2021, pp. S58–S62.
  • Opoku-Agyemang, Kwadwo. Cape Coast Castle. Afram Publications, 1996.
  • “Stowaway, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2021,
  • Véronneau, S. J. H., et al. “Survival at High Altitudes: Wheel-Well Passengers.” United States Federal Aviation Administration Civil Aeromedical Institute, Office of Aviation Medicine, October 1996,
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