📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
This past April, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), an international network of telescopes, produced an image of a black hole that exists 55 million light years away at the center another galaxy, Messier 87. The image produced by the EHT was fuzzy as hell—it looked like somebody took a picture of a bonfire with an old Blackberry phone. NASA reported that the black hole is 6.5 billion times the mass of our sun. Its technical category is "supermassive." Considering our sun is 333,000 times the mass of the Earth, supermassive feels appropriate. This photo essay is an exploration of black holes as a way to understand the long-standing absence of holistic depictions of Black folks (Black Wholes), particularly in the South.
A quick Google search will return the following fact about black holes: According to NASA's website, "a black hole is an astronomical object with a gravitational pull so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape it." Imagine a black hole like a small dense ball. Imagine stretching out a blanket between two poles and then placing this small dense ball on the blanket. The ball sinks into the fabric creating a divet such that the ball descends slightly below the surface of the surrounding fabric. The "surface" of a black hole is called its event horizon. The event horizon is the boundary beyond which nothing can escape the black hole's gravitational pull, not even light. This means that black holes themselves are actually invisible, but evidence of their impact can be detected on objects, space, and even time, as you get closer.
Your average black hole is created when a star burns out and is crushed by its own gravity. However, origins of supermassive black holes like the one recently imaged are still a bit of a mystery.
Though mysterious, black holes can no longer be regarded as a myth. The images from the EHT prove that black holes are real! Using black holes as a parable to help discuss and acknowledge the existence of Black folk, though often doubted, we know that our experiences, pains, joys, histories, futures, perspectives, and worldviews are real—that Black Wholes are real. Black Wholes are the complete human experiences of Black people that sit just beyond the event horizon of the dominant white imagination.
What goes unseen is how the weight of our own daily encounters with inequity in almost every arena—from health care and education to housing and incarceration—is added to the collective mass of our ancestors' past trauma. As we sink further into our wholes, grieving and wrestling with the realities of our painful histories, our bodies stretch, becoming thinner and thinner as the gravity at our toes becomes considerably more intense than the gravity at our heads. When this happens inside a black hole it's called spaghettification. When it happens in the lives of Black folks, it's called the social, cultural, and genetic effects of racial trauma. Under these intense conditions, eventually our bodies and minds stretch, narrow, and divide into parts until we're reduced to atoms. We add our mass to the gravity of Blackness.
This means that black holes themselves are actually invisible, but evidence of their impact can be detected on objects, space, and even time, as you get closer.
The more we hold, the more of what we hold is pulled further from visibility. Time and space warp as whole neighborhoods and communities change around us, getting whiter and wealthier. Our experience of this phenomenon seems to happen at a slower rate than it does for the other actors involved. The closer they get to our Black Wholes, the less our realities make sense together. The pain of displacement adds to the weight pushing inward on the invisible whole.
Stephen Hawking noted in a 2008 lecture titled "Into a Black Hole" that it is theoretically possible for particles to escape a black hole, though they would have to move faster than the speed of light and survive the miracle of atomic surgery to do it. In any case, it is extremely unlikely that anything could ever escape a black hole in the same form in which it came in. Nevertheless, surviving the extreme conditions of a black hole is theoretically possible. What does this mean for us?
Private, secret, and deeply interior, the pressures and complexities of our experiences reshape us in creative and miraculous ways. The hope of Hawking's hypothesis about black holes is borne out in the lives of Black People. The truth is that we are not destined to compound racial trauma into an unknowable void for an eternity. No, the weight of our experience is so large, so dense that it will cause a rupture in the current social fabric. It is full of so much unknowable information that the particles of our truth have already begun to leak out—new, never before seen, irrevocably transformed, a new matter. Out of what was seen as emptiness, a bang.
Black Wholes are the complete human experiences of Black people that sit just beyond the event horizon of the dominant white imagination.
It is predicted that a supermassive black hole exists at the center of every galaxy. Our known universe has more galaxies and galaxy clusters than we can realistically perceive or conceive of. By this logic, black holes are not an anomaly. They are inexorably tied to the functioning of our universe. At the core of every galaxy is an engine driving it towards a new reality, transforming it by reducing it to its base particles in a place where time and space are taking unknown shapes.
With the raw material of an entire galaxy, anything can be molded or manifested. Black Wholes in all their unknowability also carry the fate of transformation and limitless possibilities. Some of this nation's most vibrant and beautiful cultural productions have come from Southern Black Wholes succumbing to the pressure of their experiences and allowing a new thing to be birthed—from the Blues and jazz to landmark civil rights shifts. The hope that lives in this inevitability is that Black pain ain't for nothing. As it spaghettifies and invisiblizes, it is also readying for a new birth.
The hope of Hawking's hypothesis about black holes is borne out in the lives of Black People. The truth is that we are not destined to compound racial trauma into an unknowable void for eternity.
If we are to truly birth something like, say, a free Black future, what rearrangement of previously bifurcated atomic particles would it take to manifest these new Black possibilities? What experiences can we consume and make our own? If Black experience becomes invisible, what liberatory praxis can we utilize as we participate wholly in the reshaping of the world?