Mark Rifkin

Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation

Duke University Press, 2019

336 pages 


Reviewed by Rhya Moffitt Brooke

True solidarity between contemporary political groups can be a challenging feat to achieve. In Fictions of Land and Flesh: Blackness, Indigeneity, Speculation, Mark Rifkin puts forth an investigation of how to deepen solidarity between Black and Indigenous groups. He uncovers areas where solidarity between the two can be especially difficult, and he argues that embracing and remembering the differences between the struggles of Black Americans and Indigenous communities can be a means of deepening connections between them. Intervening in Black studies and Indigenous studies while keeping his argument grounded in political activism, Rifkin turns to speculative fiction by Black and Indigenous writers to further explore the potential tensions of Black and Indigenous activists. Ultimately, Rifkin argues that Black and Indigenous projects should be politically linked but distinct. He seeks to avoid the risk of conflating the unique struggles of both groups by distilling the “political imaginaries as that of flesh and of land, a contrast between a focus on the violence of dehumanization through fungibility [Black communities] and occupation through domestication [Indigenous communities].”

In his first chapter, “On the Impasse,” Rifkin outlines the ways he thinks through Blackness and Indigeneity. He draws on Sylvia Wynter in thinking about Blackness, and he considers Glen Coulthard to conceptualize the needs of Indigenous communities. He argues that a common strategy for thinking about the relations between Indigeneity and Blackness is to position settler colonialism and enslavement within a single system, since both resulted in “uneven distributions of power, resources, and life chances.” Rifkin posits this as a pitfall, because it flattens the differences between the two systems and elides the unique impacts they have on Black and Indigenous communities. He is careful, therefore, to think of Blackness and Indigeneity as separate and with distinct needs. Édouard Glissant’s foundational concepts of relation and opacity become particularly influential in this regard, enabling a theorization of solidarity that also embraces difference. Rifkin highlights the violence of the settler and the need for Indigenous sovereignty as necessary elements of Indigenous solidarity that tend to be effaced in interethnic solidarity movements. He finally turns to speculation, arguing for the value of speculative fiction as a genre. Here, he argues, “Futurist narratives allow us to see divergent ways of conceiving and perceiving, variable frames of reference through which to understand how things work in the world. Seeing them as framings—as possible ways of describing what was, is, and could be—allows for the potential for there to be multiple modes of understanding that all may be true while also being nonidentical.” 

In Rifkin’s second chapter, “Fungible Becoming,” he considers racial embodiments as “a reduction to flesh.” Rifkin analyzes how Black people are dehumanized in terms that leave them reduced to their potential—“not simply objects for ownership and sale as chattel but as the vehicle for manifesting economies, geographies, and modes of personhood for whom others will serve as the subject.” In response, Rifkin wonders about the potential for both Black and Indigenous communities to reject the categorization of the human altogether. Ultimately, through analysis of Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987, 1988, 1989) and short stories by Native futurist writers Drew Hayden Taylor and Mari Kurisato, Rifkin concludes that while eschewing a claim to personhood has been theorized for Black communities, that same process for Indigenous communities would also entail a simultaneous rejection of “place-based peoplehood,” thus alienating possibilities for “engagement with Indigenous sovereignties.”

In his third and fourth chapters, Rifkin considers two types of flight as sites of resistance. In “Carceral Space and Fugitive Motion,” Rifkin examines mass incarceration of Black communities, and with it, the increased surveillance of Black neighborhoods. He argues that captivity in relation to flight is a useful tool for Black communities, but he also addresses the tensions around flight and collective emplacement when considering the importance of land for Indigenous communities. Rifkin reads Walter Mosley’s Futureland: Nine Stories for an Imminent World (2001) and The Wave (2006) and Daniel Wilson’s Robopocalypse (2011)to trouble tensions between collective placemaking, territoriality, and fugitivity. He furthermore turns to a consideration of flight and collective emplacement together through “The Maroon Matrix.” Maroonage has served as a hallmark of resistance to slavery, whereby groups of enslaved populations literally fled plantations and established their own communities; it has also been thought of as a “process of indigenization.” Rifkin features Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape (2006), Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s Oracles (2004), and Stephen Graham Jones’s The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto (2003) to“highlight the difficulty of conceptualizing how Black projects of placemaking and of Native self-determination might articulate with each other in ways neither superintended by the state nor predicated on an indigenizing politics of analogy.” 

While Rifkin draws on theory and fiction to support his claims, his project is ultimately one of praxis. Rifkin bookends his provocation with contemporary social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL, in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as two locations for Black and Indigenous solidarity. He considers solidarity between these groups particularly urgent because of the various oppressions that impact them both—thinking, for example, of environmental racism and access to clean water in Flint and #NoDAPL. In his coda, Rifkin also acknowledges the work already done in solidarity to unite the movements. He specifically praises Black Lives Matter for their use of land acknowledgements that thank Indigenous populations for “hosting” them. Considerations like these are what is at stake in his argument, rooting it in political activism of today. 

Rifkin’s book is a salient reminder of the challenges of interethnic solidarity and the pitfalls to which well-intentioned activists and scholars might succumb in attempts to make connections between groups. Thus, Rifkin’s deep dive into the specific dangers of conflating Black and Indigenous struggles is both timely and essential. Additionally, Rifkin’s suggestions for considering Black and Indigenous struggles as distinct whilst encountering and engaging one another provides a framework for contemporary political activists in both groups. Rifkin’s turn to speculative fiction is an interesting choice in that it elevates the novel as a tool for theorization and legitimizes the political power fiction can have. It is essential, however, to consider its limits and the concessions that must be made when considering the novel as a genre for political action. What are the practical methods by which political activists might engage with it? While Rifkin suggests that certain novels can provide new ways to think through contemporary issues, further theorization might consider a process of turning such thought into political action that is accessible to activists situated in more public work. Rifkin has started an important conversation around the ways Indigenous and Black solidarity might be thought of together. His work is essential for those interested in engaging interethnic solidarity without erasing the differences between the communities for whom they advocate.