Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV Introduction |

Black Estrangement: An Introduction

Dear Reader,

“How are you?” feels like an insensitive question in 2023. More so if you don’t sit down with someone or give them space to think aloud and find their footing. Over the past three years, most of our conversations have just been checking in. What has happened in your life since I last saw your face? Are you alive? Are you sure? We exchange self-care routines and fail to follow them. We remember each other’s birthdays. We send long voice notes and Instagram reels. A friend cancels our check-in; their brother passed suddenly. Another friend goes offline; they had to fly home, thousands of miles, for another funeral. In another country, my grandmother dies, and I don’t find out for months. What would you have done, my mother says, if you knew? I have no answer. I can only stare at the bones on my plate.

In his introduction to the Black Hauntology folio, Phillip B. Williams writes, “The dead remain with us in some form, regardless of our belief in ghosts, but haunting is not only the behavior of spirits.” I discovered this line in the summer of 2022, when I was also re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My first time through the novel, many years before, I read like a student rushing to meet deadlines; this time, I had to slow down and give myself several months, because I was reading as a teacher. I called a friend, a poet, to talk about ghosts. We talked for hours. They led me first to Williams’s folio, and then, over several conversations, to the work of Katherine McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter, and M. NourbeSe Philip. Thinking about the various estrangements in my own life (I could not help it), I became curious about how we, the living, haunt one another.

This project began in the fall of 2022, when KR offered me the opportunity to edit a special issue. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to highlight Black writers. In 2020, I had the honor of publishing a story in an Emerging Black Writers Issue of American Short Fiction, guest edited by Danielle Evans. Two years later, I wanted to pass it forward, to continue the tradition of Black editors highlighting the work of Black writers they love. I also wanted to ask my fellow Black artists, “How are you?” Finally, I wanted to create a space where they could acknowledge the helplessness, grief, and isolation of our recent years—and also acknowledge the helplessness, grief, and isolation inherent to our respective histories. So, I decided to focus on the theme of estrangement. How are we alienated from our communities, our bodies, and the systems that govern us? How are we left out of conversations around climate change? How do our bodies survive disaster? How do our minds? Who, and where, do we go to for reprieve?

In this special issue, you will find Black characters amid storms and trials. In Mississippi and Haiti, respectively, Leila Renee and Melissa Beneche immerse us in the lives of families fractured by natural disaster. In Nigeria, N.K. Iguh’s estranged Mother and Daughter attempt to find each other in a dangerous marketplace. And from Chicago to Tennessee, Rickey Fayne grapples with possession on multiple fronts.

In two innovative essays, b ferguson and Edil Hassan find solace in the works of Carl Phillips and Dionne Brand, respectively. While institutionalized for her mental illness, a young woman finds an unlikely community in Allison Noelle Conner’s novel excerpt. Erica N. Cardwell examines the kitchen table within the context of Black femininity and art. Jenise Miller returns to the archives to shed light on her relatives’ labor on the Panama Canal, and Ariana Benson chronicles the experience of a Black anime fan in a bold, experimental essay.

Other writers explore uncanny transformations in the bodies of Black girls and women. In postapartheid South Africa, Mathapelo Mofokeng inhabits the mind of an elderly divorcee, who is haunted by a voice emerging from her knee. Meanwhile, alex terrell introduces us to a world where mothers become trees, and Jeneé Skinner traces the path of a new mermaid in the Gulf.

These days, estrangement might feel like a ubiquitous experience, but that doesn’t make life any less disorienting. Toni Morrison once said, “The function of freedom is to free someone else.” And the past few weeks especially, I’ve found myself returning to her words. Because we cannot talk about the liberation of Black lives without talking about the liberation of Palestinian lives, and we cannot talk about genocide without talking about Congo, Sudan, and everywhere else the West has withheld its gaze. Our lives do not only matter when they go viral. And it matters who tells a story. So, wherever you are, I hope this folio encourages you to take a moment to listen. Listen to your neighbors when they tell you how long they have been dying, how long their voices have been warped or erased. Listen to the land, and all that it has endured.

With gratitude,

Elinam Agbo

Photo of Elinam Agbo
Elinam Agbo was born in Agona Swedru, Ghana, and raised in Central Kansas. She holds a BA from the University of Chicago and an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program, where she co-founded MQR Mixtape. A graduate of the Clarion Workshop, she was the 2021–2023 Kenyon Review Fellow in Prose. Her writing has appeared in Apogee, American Short Fiction, Nimrod, PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English-Creative Writing at Bucknell University.

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