Following Broken Water: Decolonial Continuities and Therapeutic Emergent-cy


“…a map that articulates a view of the world from an oceanic perspective and that insists on the continuity formed by the four oceans commonly known as the Pacific, the Indian, the Atlantic, and the Arctic – a sole aquatic mass that covers 71% of the globe” [Illustration and quote from The Funambulist 2022 issue 39]

This map shows water as the main constituent. Materially, water is — mostly — what we are. Despite our 71% watery-bodies, we tend — or like — to think of ourselves as solid masses; fixed, separate shapes. As with the maps with which we are more familiar, a certain land-centredness prevails. 

Are you trying to locate yourself in this map? To find your familiar habitat; something solid; a place to stand; what you already know? I want to draw on the question not of what you know, but where you know from1, which is from Katherine McKittrick. Her webpage says she is interested in liberation and black creative texts. Me too. I practice as a therapist for liberatory, creative, black reasons. 

I invite you, as you look at the map, and listen, to soften — gaze; body; attachment to familiar maps, frames, solid states of being. To be watery; to flow with the problem.

1. I do not want to talk about diversity. 

2. When I agree to talk about diversity, I don’t know what to say. I have no title or direction. Eventually something comes to me in a dream. Follow Broken Water. This creates another problem — the risk of being seen as a dreamer; To me it is ancestral instruction but for you, who knows? A double consciousness2 wants me to be prepared to be seen as undisciplined, not proper ‘unscientific’. Black.

3. Am I expected to provide a solution? If there are no clear solutions by the end of this talk will you be disappointed. I hate to disappoint.

4. So little time to address so many problems. 

5. How can I talk about a problem without making it bigger? In Gloria Anzaldua’s words 

“how to write (produce) without being inscribed (re-produced) in the dominant white structure and how to write without reinscribing and reproducing what we rebel against?”3

6. I am feeling moody. I am in a forum that is discussing, by email, the possibility of the renaming of rooms. Some of the trainee therapists, having noticed that all of the rooms are named after therapists who are white (and mostly male), call for change. They ask for suggestions — black, brown and queer therapists whose names we would like to see above the doors. The list of suggestions starts with Frantz Fanon but takes a puzzling arc around to the final name proposed, which is that of another white male therapist. I am — in no particular order — furious, exasperated, curious, can’t be arsed, and broken hearted. Moody. Not in the mood to be talking about diversity.

Something from Sandor Ferenczi, student and penpal of Freud, helps me out. He writes in his book intro that he has been reluctant to publish and has sat on this work for some time;

“I had learned in school to consider it a fundamental principle of scientific work to keep strictly separated from each other the respective points of view of the natural sciences and of the mental sciences”4

He knows if he doesn’t keep things separate he will be seen as messy. He too, is afraid to be seen as unscientific, as psychoanalysis itself did not want to be considered unscientific. We know that ways of knowing and being considered ‘unscientific’ carry risk. People who live and know in ‘unscientific’ ways are classified primitive and unknowing. Primitive and unknowing is used to justify slavery and colonialism and the violence and terror with which they are enacted. Being ‘unscientific’ leads to trauma. No wonder we seek to enclose ourselves in the privileged (safer) space called ‘science’ and invest in diversity — and its percentages, algorithms and tick box categories — as scientific solution. 

Listening to Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, author of BECOMING HUMAN: MATTER AND MEANING IN AN ANTIBLACK WORLD, reminds me that “the solution is in the framing of the problem”5. Great, so let me reframe mood/moodiness as information; disappointment as direction — see disappointment as a portal through which we might emerge into less disappointing spaces.

Unlike Ferenczi, I make no apology for not keeping ‘natural’ and ‘mental’ sciences — or any disciplines — separate from each other. This is an unruly flow.


If I were Dionne Brand6, I would write you a ruttier — a long oral poem containing navigational instructions. Sailors learned ruttiers by heart and recited them from memory. The poem was a map containing information for finding one’s way at sea; routes and tides, stars, and even the taste of the waters — how cool or salty. With dream as map following broken water as methodology, I arrive in our first watery environment — the breaking waters of our mother’s wombs. Our oceanic planetary entry.  

Freud says, 

“the ego is originally all-inclusive, but later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present sense of self is thus only a shrunken residue of a far more comprehensive, indeed all-embracing feeling, which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world around it” 7

Freud conceptualises the oceanic here as a feeling; a primitive state. The source of religious sentiment. He proposes that healthy development requires differentiation; that we need to understand ourselves as separate from the external world; as individuals.

Sarah Jane Cervenak examines enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s writing in relation to the ocean. Kant describes reason as “…an island, enclosed by nature within unalterable limits. It is a land of truth…surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean.” The ocean is conceptualised as a danger to (and outside of) reason. Cervenak — linking the enlightenment age, the transatlantic slave trade, and the unconscious — describes the ocean as “unruly environment for reason’s colonial kinesis”8

In these examples, ocean and oceanic are conceived as sites and psychic states to grow up and out of, or to keep at bay. From the perspective of Black and intersectional feminisms, oceanic is more — is not something to separate from (if indeed that were possible) but rather a space for thought, care and relation. Some brief examples; 

In Christina Sharpe’s IN THE WAKE; ON BLACKNESS AND BEING, she illustrates how Black lives are swept up in and animated by the afterlives of slavery (the wake). She focuses on care, including thought as care and how living in the wake — the zone of non/being — “avails us of particular ways of re/seeing, re/inhabiting and re/imagining the world.”  

Re/see. Re/inhabit. Re/imagine.

In the magazine with the water map, Sharpe exchanges letters with Alexis Pauline Gumbs9, another black feminist whose work also engages ocean and ocean life;

“And if the scale of breathing is collective, beyond species and sentience, so is the impact of drowning…I am talking about the middle passage and everyone who drowned and everyone who continued breathing. But I am troubling the distinction between the two. I am saying that those who survived in the underbellies of boats, under each other under unbreathable circumstances are the undrowned, and their breathing is not separate from the drowning of their kin and fellow captives, their breathing is not separate from the breathing of the ocean, their breathing is not separate from the sharp exhale of hunted whales, their kindred also.”10

For Astrid Neimanis11, writing on hydrofeminism, the ocean is speculative meeting place where she puts the work of Sharpe and Gumbs in conversation with that of Adrienne Rich. The goal is not ‘diversity’ (the achievement is not simply to have black and white women in a shared space) but to stage a conversation between black feminist poetics and white feminism and see what emerges. Here the ocean becomes the space where environment, ecological destruction, gender and anti-blackness (in Sharpe (2016) as weather and climate12) can meet — and where we can think about them not as separate issues (not categorically different) but as manifestations of the same problem. 

I re/see, re/inhabit and re/imagine; meet the broken water and find in its brokenness what is unbroken, undifferentiated, and inseparable. I hear Fred Moten quoting Glissant on blackness as ‘consent not to be a single being’. I want to consider the diversity of practice that emerges from this space, where the scale of breathing is collective.

And let me drop in here the question that Andrea Ballestero13, author of A FUTURE HISTORY OF WATER  asks; What would it be to recognise water not as resource, but as relative?

Our breathing as not separate from the breathing of the ocean.

In the room re-naming discussion, someone has raised a concern — not about the names so far, but about the process of deselection. They want us to be mindful about who gets ‘chucked out’. Who gets ‘chucked out’ has deep resonance for people — is revealed as a shared (we might say oceanic) concern. The fear of being chucked out is voiced. Some people object to being ‘lumped together’ under the term ‘white’ when they also hold minority identities. Others speak of their non-black intersectional identities that also attract marginalisation and disadvantage. No one wants to be forgotten; nobody wants to be chucked out — a point of consensus in a stormy ocean. What seems to have been lost — what we do not know, because it is not mentioned — is what the respondents felt or thought about the context of the initial request; What did they make of the erasure and invisibility of blackness; of the wake; of the call of the undrowned? 

A call for inclusion rises, circles, and returns; replicates and reproduces the problem that it was attempting to solve.


The magazine includes a conversation with Marcus Rediker14, a professor of Atlantic history. He talks ships, architecture, and the specific features by which slave ships could be identified. These included; beneath the main deck,  a lower deck — or hold; holes carved out of the hull so that the human cargo could breathe; a barrier behind which the crew could retreat in the event of an uprising; and nettings installed round the ship’s rails to prevent people from jumping overboard.

We follow broken water to the ship Zong! which in 1781 is full with people — 17 crew members on main deck and more than 400 Africans chained in the hold. 

Deck. Hold. Water; differentiated spaces with relative breathability. 

Navigational errors mean the journey across the Atlantic is taking longer than planned. Supplies of fresh water are running out, which is a problem. The solution was, from the 29th November and for a period of 10 days, to throw people into the sea. More than 132 African people were chucked out — intentionally because the ship owners wanted to make a claim to their insurers. The policy would only pay out for slaves who drowned — not for any who died on board (say from dehydration). The insurers anyway did not want to pay. In the legal case that followed the question was not murder, but commodity and compensation. Who owned what and who will be paid. This is how it appears from on deck; a deck-eyed story. 

Water. Hold, Deck; Different seeings, different tellings, different stories.

1781 — also the year that Immanuel Kant published his most famous work, which Freud will later draw on. Kant writes of the “categorical imperative” — an ethical principle stating that one should always respect the humanity in others, and only act in accordance with rules that could hold for everyone. It forms the basis of law but from the way the law is applied in the case of Zong! we must conclude that what “everyone” actually means is everyone on deck. A deck-eyed story proposed as universal philosophy15.  

Here our attention is on psychoanalysis and its own embedded deck-eyed view, which is not to say that its theories and practices are irrelevant [unlike other disciplines, psychoanalysis also signals interest in what is submerged — the unconscious].  But without reckoning with and reevaluating its relation to knowledges situated in its un/seen spaces psychoanalysis cannot be other than colonial. The un/seen is what shakes the premise of diversity initiatives — the idea that black people for example, have not been included in the past and that this is simply rectified by including us in the present. But we are continuity. We have always been here. We have always been included, and it is our inclusion in specific locations — in the hold, in the water — that have powered this ship, and keep it afloat, and create the conditions in which, on deck, money and resources can be accumulated. 

In our room re-naming discussion the intention — seeking Black representation on deck — meets the fear of being chucked out, which is of course the experience that blackness already knows. Prentis Hemphill16 describes oppression as “how trauma is distributed” — questions of who inhabits the least and most precarious spaces. The redistribution of the trauma is not welcome. If diversity’s good intention is open arms to black bodies on deck, its fatal flaw is fear of, and refusal to share, the precariousness of black life. The water may want to flow but the ship shape is fixed. 


I am here for reasons that are liberatory, creative and black. Creative because how else, as Denise Ferreira da Silva asks, will we “emancipate the Category of Blackness from the ways of knowing that produced it in the first place”? Ferreira wonders about poetics as a means of freeing Blackness from science and history (not biology, not primitive or underdeveloped) and instead recognising it as a praxis of “wandering in the world with the ethical mandate of opening up other ways of knowing and doing?”17 What if we reframe diversity as other ways of knowing and doing? Make space for black ontology and epistemologies to inform our therapeutic project?

A few brief examples;

In DEAR SCIENCE AND OTHER STORIES, Katherine McKittrick asks us to think about how colonial science (let’s include psychoanalysis) cannot sufficiently describe us. Her proposal that the question ‘where are you from?’ might be replaced with ‘where do you know from?’ A liberatory practice. 

Poet Natalie Diaz18 reminds us that this language — modern english — is young; that it is too narrow to contain the worlds that it overwrote. Hence we struggle to describe ourselves and our psychosocial-emotional-spiritual realities in language that knows us as black and cannot know us as anything other than black according to the meanings it has already given to this word. ‘How can we be diverse?’ is less helpful than asking how we might make visible who and what has been overwritten, silenced, and erased. Like Diaz, I see poetry as a place of possibility — a way of making language more spacious; more able to hold what Diaz describes as the ‘allness’.

adrienne maree brown19, author of EMERGENT STRATEGY speaks of an ‘imagination battle’. To be Black is to some extent to live what blackness has been imagined to be (by racist science and history), but it is also to live in and in excess of the stories that science and history have told. Black life occupies precarious wake conditions (Sharpe’s imminent and immanent death) at the same time as being and making more than. In black feminist scholarship you might see this referred to as otherwise. Brown is one of many who propose imagination as a technology that supports otherwise, and with which we might shape more liveable, breathable futures.  

Imagination enables me to stage an encounter between Black feminisms and psychoanalysis here; and place them in the ocean, and outside of linearity, and see how they might find ways to breathe together. I think they both share a value of, and curiosity about imagination. When Jung worries about the danger of active imagination as method because “it may carry the patient too far away from reality”20 I call Gloria Anzaldua to respond, describing imagination  “…not as marginal nonreality nor as altered state, but rather, as another type of reality.” 

Another type of reality. Not unscientific. But another story of science. Can we let go of the deck as universal knowledge ground? Can we question the framing of the oceanic as marginal nonreality, or of the ocean, in Neimanis words, as “…an unfathomable elsewhere – the convenient dump for out-of-sight, out-of-mind discards, and the ultimate away-washer of all of our sins”?


Dole out the water!

A line from Zong! — a book length poem composed by NourbeSe Philip constructed with only the words from the text of the legal case that I mentioned earlier. This is liberatory, creative, and black — a method that names and witnesses trauma while not replicating or adding to the harm; That in its careful curation, draws on other ways of knowing and doing; makes space on the page to give air to the undrowned. Philip breaks and shapes words to, “tell the story that cannot be told”22 

An essential part, I think, of our therapeutic project.

Dole out the water

Is this what diversity is attempting to do? If so, it doles out to keep distant from the ocean; to ‘diversify’ while also keeping things the same; to practice inclusion without leaving the deck; to tell a story of colonialism as if it was then and not now. It fails to see the continuities — that the colonial and decolonial are as old as each other. Again we have always been here. There has always been insurgence and resistance; emergence and otherwise. The water, and the hold are continuous sites of theory-making and therapeutic practice. Water before resource was relative. What would it be to stop doling out water and let it in?

Neimanis concludes her hydrofeminism piece by inviting white feminism to welcome its own partial dissolution — “the beginning of a particular kind of dissolve.” What if the action required is less ‘chuck out’ and more ‘dissolve’?

Finally, in the room re-naming discussion, a change of mood. The person who raised the spectre of ‘chucked out’ returns to say that they have reflected on their initial reactivity. The furious, exasperated, curious, can’t be arsed, broken hearted of me takes a breath. I sense re/see, and the possibility of space for conversation; for  re/inhabit, re/imagine. The mood is dissolve.

My ruttier is unfinished, but I will share it’s beginning;

when the title for the talk/theory/practice you have not yet written or made 

comes to you in a dream 

welcome its science / run to meet it with all your ways of knowing / write into

stop doling water / practice a scale of breathing that is collective / what if the oceanic is

not to grow out of but into

notice how you cling / to the deck of reason / and how you let go

break / water / dive / listen to

the stories that cannot be told / find ways to tell them 

the solution may not be clear (or ship shaped)

feel the disappointment / the emergent-cy pulling at your edge



undrown yourself


1 McKittrick, K. (2021). Dear Science and Other stories. Duke University Press.

2 ‘Double consciousness’ as proposed by W.E.B. Dubois 

3 Anzaldua, G. (2015, 8). Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality (Latin America Otherwise). Duke University Press.

4 Ferenczi, S. (1938, 2). Thalassa: A Theory of Genitality. Routledge 1989

5 Jackson, I. Z. (2020). Imagine Otherwise: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson on Black Feminist Interdisciplinarity [Interview].

6 Brand, D. (2001). a Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Vintage Books.

7 Freud, S. (2004, 6). Civilisation and its Discontents. Penguin

8 Cervenak, S. J. (2014, 52). Wandering: Philosophical Performances of Racial and Sexual Freedom. Duke University Press.

9 Gumbs, A. P., & Sharpe, C. (2022). On Water, Salt, Whales and the Black Atlantics. The Funambulist, #39.

10 Gumbs, A. P. (2020). Undrowned. A K Press.

11 Neimanis, A. (2019). The Weather Underwater: Blackness, White Feminism, and the Breathless Sea. Australian Feminist Studies, 34(102), 490–508.

12 Sharpe, C. E. (2016). In the wake: On Blackness and being. Duke University Press.

13 Ballestero, A. (2019). A Future History of Water. Duke University Press.

14 Rediker, M. (2022) The Transatlantic Slave Trade Ships: Trajectories of Death and Violence Across the Ocean. The Funambulist, #39.

15 For more in depth study, specifically around how ethics and freedom have been theorised in the midst of slave-making, slave-holding societies without attention to these contradictions, I recommend the work of philosophers Charles Mills and George Yancy.

16 Hemphill, P. (Also in conversation with Gabor Mate – The Wisdom of Trauma. (2021). Science and Nonduality (SAND) 

17 Ferreira Da Silva, D. (2014). Toward a Black Feminist Poethics The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World. The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research, 44(2), 81–97.

18 A Language for Healing and Tenderness (Pen South Africa , S4E5 with Natalie Diaz and vangile gantsho)

19 Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. A K Press

20 Jung, C. G. (1996). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Routledge.

21 Anzaldua (2015, 37)

22 Philip, M. N. (2011). Zong! Wesleyan University Press.

Book soon to be published:

Unruly Therapeutic – Black Feminist Writings and Practices in Living Room Published by Norton Professional Books