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"Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown": Pastoral Return and African American Culture

John Jacob Niles Gallery, Lucille Little Fine Arts Library
Speaker(s) / Presenter(s):
Stefanie Dunning, Miami University Ohio

"I asked the boy beneath the pines.

He said, “The Master’s gone alone

Herb-picking somewhere on the mount,

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”

—Chia Tao, “Searching for the Hermit in Vain”

I argue that the "return of a lost commons," to cite Jared Sexton's term, is insufficient to address the bondage of the modern world. Looking at the television show Queen Sugar and the novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, I show that notions of land ownership and philosophical notions of the "self" under Western society fail to redress the wounds of slavery and land theft experienced by Native Americans and, by extension, after the Civil War, by African Americans. Instead, I build on abolitionist rejections of Western notions of the human as well as regimes of property in order to show that a method of non-ownership and no-self are articulated in Zen ideology. I align this alternative framework with the philosophies of Zen Buddhism, showing that the "life of homelessness" for the purpose of ego death, aligns with an abolitionist ethos. In doing so, I connect Afropessimism with Zen philosophy, in order to schematize methodologies of personal and collective liberation. In this talk, I will point to the maroon communities of the Caribbean as embodying an abolitionist ideology and reference the work of black Zen teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in her forthcoming book The Shamanic Roots of Zen, connecting all of these epistemes in a framework that destabilizes capitalist progress narratives and suggests radical possibilities for imagining freedom beyond the hold. 


Stefanie K. Dunning is an Associate Professor of English at Miami University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of California, Riverside, and a Ford Fellow. Her first book, Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same-Sex Desire, and Contemporary African American Culture, from Indiana University Press, was published in 2009. Her latest project, Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture from the University Press of Mississippi was published in April 2021. In addition to her published books, she has been published in African American Review, MELUS, Studies in the Fantastic, and other journals and anthologies. She also has a podcast, called Black to Nature: the podcast, available for listening on all major platforms.