Nobody Likes Dolphin Meat, but Times Are Hard

December 14, 2021   •   By Akua Banful

Featured image: Dolphin in transit, near Dixcove. Photo taken by Solomon Kenyenso.

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The beach brings news —
A sighting, of a rare siren:
One half Mayan Goddess,
The other, a great whale’s tail.

This apparition was the breaking point
Of the paradox of our sprawling sands:
Some burned to kiss this goddess;
Others saw, in her tail, their supper.

Oh, this unequal world.

— Gilberto Gil, “A novidade,” trans by author. [1]

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ON APRIL 4, 2021, two mammal parties, one human, the other dolphin, had an encounter. Ankobra, on Ghana’s Western coast, is a resort town, and that particular morning, the beach was teeming with humans enjoying the holiday weekend; it was Easter Sunday, after all. The humans were dancing, laughing, playing soccer. The mood among the dolphins, I imagine, was more somber: a party that large, in waters that shallow, in April of all months, was a sign of unholy activities out at sea. That fateful morning, close to 200 dolphins and an uncounted number of other marine species beached at Ankobra and its environs. What ensued was, quite literally, a feeding frenzy.

Before I proceed to tell you what happened, I must pause and remind you that this essay’s title is not idle: nobody likes dolphin meat, but times are hard. None of the people in this story, whose names I could not capture, set out to become eaters of dolphins. For many coastal peoples, there are taboos surrounding the consumption of dolphins, sea turtles, and whales; for those whose cosmologies contain no such prohibitions, culinary avoidance has historically been a question of taste: the consensus is that sentiment and spirituality aside, dolphins don’t taste great. Many people, given a choice, would rather eat something else that is actually, technically, a fish. With that said, I resume my telling.

It was at this point that Eric, a local conservationist who got his start working with sea turtles, arrived at the beach. The morning’s merrymaking had been replaced by an industrious dolphin transportation scheme. Several dozen unlucky cetaceans were tied up, hauled onto trucks, and in the process of being carted away by local dolphin meat vendors. In the company of two policemen, Eric tried to convince people on the beach, many of them members of his community, not to transport the dolphins. His success was modest; he managed, maybe, to protect 40 lucky cetaceans from the smokehouse. A call had been made to the Fisheries Department. As with any call to a government bureaucracy, the conventional wisdom goes: Try holding your breath and it’ll go faster.

Amid this chaos, a local politician turned up. She seemed interested in lending a hand. A local TV crew soon followed, and Eric imagined, briefly, that help was on the way. She began to tie up dolphins, too. He tried to explain that if she tied them up by their tails, which is what she was doing, they would die. But it turned out that she wasn’t there to help: her reason for tying them was to stage a dolphin naming ceremony for the cameras. She was there for a photo-op.

I had never heard of a dolphin naming ceremony, and so at this point, I did what a good interviewer should not do: I interrupted Eric. There are important variations in naming ceremonies among Ghana’s various ethnic groups. It is considered bad luck to share the name of a child prior to their eighth day in this world; before then, there is no certainty that they have come to stay and will not return to the spirit world. After that threshold has been crossed, a ceremony is held, and the child is named. Why this politician wanted to name the dolphins, I do not know. But, what had gotten me interested in marine mammals, several years ago, had to do with another traditional practice (on which, more later), so I interrupted Eric to ask whether the people of Axim, where he’s from, had a practice of naming dolphins. His answer was that this was nothing more than one politician’s newfangled folklore.

By the time a crew from the Fisheries Department arrived, the dolphin steaks were well done. The matter had, by this time, drawn the attention of the metropolitan chief executive; the word from the Fisheries bigwigs and from nearby university researchers was that the dolphins had probably beached as a result of noise or chemical pollution. Odds were, the meat was toxic. So, Eric received another call. This time, he was asked to go into the community, where the trucks had taken the dolphin’s corpses earlier, into the homes and smokehouses that were now hosts to dolphin meat and plead with people not to eat what they hadn’t already devoured.

Axim is a trilingual town; it lies at the point on the Ghanaian coastline that looks a little like an upturned boot, caught between Cape Coast and Takoradi, trailing toward the Ivory Coast. I suspect that, like many people from Axim, Eric speaks all three: Fante, Ahanta, and Nzema. The way he pronounced my first name, with an “E,” rather than an “A” — a pronunciation that I have always secretly preferred — cast a Fante accent over our English conversation that I rather enjoyed. His language skills proved crucial when the Fisheries authorities finally arrived: somebody people knew and trusted needed to speak to people in the various languages they understood. Many of the dolphins who had made landfall at Ankobra beach that morning had had a wild and tragic ride: from an oceanic pack, to a festive beach, to the back of a truck, to a slaughter or smokehouse, into someone’s pot, and finally, onto the village refuse heap.

The dolphin meat vendors were furious. The university scientists who accompanied Eric on his community entreaty campaign spirited away samples to their labs to conduct tests. The “investigations” continued, but whether the public will ever learn their results remains open to conjecture. What we do know for sure is that something sinister happened at sea; something macabre happened when the dolphins made landfall; and, for all Eric’s efforts, many did consume what can only, in many senses of the word, be described as morally and, in all likelihood, chemically tainted meat.

“Seven Minutes Later, All Done Cool Down, Broda” [2]

On the other end of the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps around the time the Fisheries Department had seen fit to arrive at Ankobra beach, I awoke to a series of texts from friends and family in Ghana about mass marine deaths on the Western coast, near Axim. Because I was waking up to this news in a different, later time zone, goings-on in my homeland had already progressed by the time I began my deep dive into all the videos and articles that I could find. Although most of the news articles, especially those in international media outlets, focused on the staggering numbers of beached dolphins on the Western coast, they were not the only species that had found themselves stranded on the beach that morning: there were also eels, stingrays, and an assortment of unidentified fish. As Fisheries authority officials surveyed the littoral detritus, they noticed clear traces of human scavenging. This was the euphemistic language used by the internet videos I could get my hands on. Perhaps, they were trying to shield the eyes of the world from the feeding frenzy that had broken out on the coast that morning; “scavenging” seems a rather antiseptic way to describe what I now know to have happened. And yet, I understood the defensive gesture: why invite gawkers to an already depressing spectacle? Better to forget. Or, better yet, find some humor in the whole sordid situation.

A traveler who arrives in Ghana might remark on the friendliness of the locals; one who stays a little longer may notice, too, that they seem guarded. Both those perceptions are instances of misprision: we appear to be cheerful folk; perhaps if you understood the ins and outs of our myriad languages, you would notice that the cheer is that of the scaffold; it’s gallows humor. Watching the videos that morning, staring out onto Harlem from my bedroom window, I stumbled on a video so dark it dragged me out of ecological dot-connecting and plunged me, instead, into gallows laughter. I have already mentioned that care of the time difference. I was already several hours late to the punch; lunches had already been made of some of the fish. Initially, the fishing authorities denied that anything was amiss, although anyone with an awareness of the situation was sensitive to its abnormality. Hours later, they sent out a warning that they certainly knew was too late: “Don’t eat the fish! Let us study it first.” So, barely stifling their laughter, local TV crews went looking for people who had already eaten the probably poisonous, likely distressed catch to, well, ask them what they ate. The attitude was: We might as well ask them whether they fried the fish, right? What made me double over, alone in my room that morning, was the blasé attitude with which one woman described how her child brought her a healthy-looking fish: it was still moving, it was fresh, she said. She had, in fact, heard something of the beachings, so she wasn’t entirely sure how the fish would taste. For that reason, she did not, in fact, fry it. She put it in some palm nut soup; it was very tasty; she held up her pot and took a bite of the leftovers for some flourish; she was, after all, on camera. I laughed so hard I cried, and after a minute or so, I couldn’t tell which of the two I was actually doing: laughing or crying.

A Naming Ceremony

Dolphins are what one might consider charismatic megafauna of the aquatic variety. What drew sporadic international attention in April was the scale of the stranding; what drew attention in the capital, at least among the educated, is what I, borrowing anthropologist David Scott’s phrase, refer to as “the tragedy of colonial enlightenment.” [3] People in coastal communities were taken aback by the fact that dolphins were ashore in April, and not July when the waters are more to their liking; people in the capital were astounded to learn that dolphins swam through our part of the world at all until they washed ashore bearing traces of foul play. The tragedy in question is as follows: fishing communities have retained ecological knowledge, and with that, a respect for the nonhuman world, that comes from a reliance on it for sustenance; people in the capital, people whose background I share, are frequently cut off from that knowledge and respect for the natural world because of their educational advantages, which usually correlate to their economic, administrative, and political dominance.

The particular species that had died en masse on resurrection day in the company of eels, stingrays, and several other schools of fish were a curiously named species of dolphin known as the melon-headed or little killer whale, the peponacephala electra. Contrary to what a lay etymologist might surmise, the electra in this dolphin’s scientific name has little to do with the vivacity of its movements. Probing the Greek, I wondered if the name had more to do with Elektra, a minor character in the saga of the Trojan War whose claim to fame happens to be her vengeful and murderous relatives: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes. Compared to those three, one might consider her something like a little killer whale. The origins of the melon-headed whale’s electra are more morbid: when the esteemed and prolific British taxonomist John Edward Gray turned his attention to this particular species of “whale,” he distinguished it by the melon-like shape of its head, and by the amber hue of its bones; electra, it turns out, is also Greek for the color amber: an omen of vivacity in death, perhaps.

Melon-heads are a tropical species whose preference for deep waters means they are rarely seen close to shore. Pack mammals, they travel in groups that can number in the hundreds. They are something of a marine festival, not only traveling in the company of one another but in the company of other marine creatures; they take the party with them wherever they go, so to speak.

Tail-tied. Dolphins near Axim. Photograph by Eric Quayson

This Aquatic Economy

This story makes landfall, is beached if you will, on April 4, 2021. Perhaps, by the time it makes its way to you, the 40-odd melon-headed whales who were rescued from that sordid encounter on Ankobra are swimming in deep tropical waters, and untraceable. But the story’s beginnings lie elsewhere, almost 15 years prior, in the Ghana of 2007. This Ghana is a nation enjoying unprecedented prosperity, rounding the 50th anniversary of its independence with great pomp and circumstance. A nation that has just discovered considerable offshore crude oil deposits. A nation with a business-savvy government that has, to the relief of its private sector, opened up its exclusive economic zone to foreign capital-backed industrial fishing ventures. The triumph in the air is considerable, even moving. In 2001, after the first peaceful inter-party transfer of power, this new government had taken an honest look at the state of the national coffers, abandoned all pride, and gone to the IMF to open debt forgiveness negotiations; it emerged from these talks with a label so shameful local talk radio saw fit to translate it, and the staggering sums we owed: we were HIPC, a Highly Indebted Poor Country. So, the sense of prosperity that accompanied the 50th anniversary of the nation’s independence held special resonance; it felt like we had fought long odds with literal “poor means” and won. [4] Finding oil offshore, controlling and tapping natural resources without restraint, felt, at the time, like the icing on the cake of this underdog’s triumph.

Of course, with hindsight, the story looks somewhat different. What was happening underneath the water, as this story of triumph was being told, was an instance of what the scholar Rob Nixon has termed slow violence: “[A] violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” [5] The intermingling of oil exploration and industrialized fishing produced slow yet unmistakable seismic shifts in the marine and human ecosystems of the Gulf of Guinea that have slowly made themselves perceptible, in fits and starts, over the last 15 years. The first among these shifts has been the most noticeable: a dearth of fish and an uptick in desperation.

The creation of an exclusive economic zone in 1986 and the introduction of industrial fishing practices into waters previously dominated by artisanal fishing practices were predictably followed by a decline in fish stocks. The combination of technology, rapacity, under-regulation, or, at times, the lack thereof, and resource decline is a tale as old as time. As larger, industrial vessels hauled their catches off to processing plants and export markets, and the country’s balance of trade inched upward, artisanal fishermen, who rarely factor into these sorts of macroeconomic calculations, dragged in smaller catches. Somebody was enjoying the dividends of these fecund tropical waters — it just wasn’t them.

A loose sketch of the situation is as follows. Barely regulated industrial fishing vessels use a combination of trawlers and too-fine fishing nets out at sea and so they reel in unsustainable catches. Many of them are foreign vessels, and much reporting has pinned the blame on Chinese investments in West Africa. The truth is somewhat more complicated. Although the principal characters of this heedless extraction are Chinese fishing vessels, these conditions have been made possible by a lack of resources and then by lax enforcement. In fact, some local “titans of industry” have gotten in on the action too, and their vessels, although smaller than those built by foreign firms with access to more capital, engage in the same harmful fishing practices that translate into scant fishing yields downstream for the artisanal fishermen who have been doing this work for generations. The thorny issues of geopolitics, and China’s role in Africa aside, the fact remains that many, though not all, of those entrusted with legal and administrative power still fall under the long shadow of the tragedy of colonial enlightenment: there appears to be a lack of understanding or respect for the natural world upon which our sustenance and survival depend. But, perhaps, this predicament is not a particularly Ghanaian or postcolonial phenomenon: one need look no further than increasingly devastating hurricanes that continue to make landfall in the Americas, or to the seas catching fire around us, and to how our governing classes fail to grasp the enormity, the existential stakes, of the situation with which we are faced. (While the Ghanaian government itself might quibble that it has taken some measures in an attempt to address marine ecosystems collapse, they do not match the scope of what is, in Ghana, and the wider Gulf of Guinea, a deepening crisis.)

Where does all this rapacious deep-sea fishing leave the artisanal fishermen, whose canoes are no match for the scope of a trawler? Well, they, too, have embraced technology. In Silent Spring, the text that launched the modern environmental movement and brought DDT into a non-scientist’s lexicon in 1962, Rachel Carson made a reference to Greek mythology that is both tragic and timely in this aquatic economy: she likens these chemicals — systemic insecticides in particular — to Medea’s robe, a beautiful and deceptive garment whose “wearers […] suffer a violent […] death by indirection.” [6] Some artisanal fishermen, after years of bringing home empty nets, have turned to fishing with DDT, high-wattage electricity bulbs, dynamite, detergent. A fish caught with DDT, or detergent, is not a robe, but like Medea’s sorcerous creation, it burns its recipient’s mouth: it sets a “delayed dying” [7] in motion, and lodges cancerous toxins in an unsuspecting eater’s system. This is a sweeping and tragic cycle of slow violence.

I Will Make You Fishers of Men

Perhaps because of this essay’s snarky title, I believe this tenet merits repetition: for many coastal peoples, there are taboos around hunting and eating whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. The steady decline in fishing stocks has eroded the taboos, and in some cases, the distaste surrounding the consumption of dolphins. There’s a reason most people who resort to eating dolphin meat opt to smoke it: the preparation masks its taste, and so they can forget what it is they are eating. This is a matter of scarcity, not of preference. The term that I have come across as I have sifted through papers written by cetologists, oceanographers, and aquatic scientists — people who might (perhaps cheekily) be referred to as the fisheries scholars — in reference to how coastal communities once viewed the unfortunate dolphin found tangled in their nets: “unwanted bycatch.” As catches have dwindled, however, they have come to see things differently. Does it really matter that a dolphin technically isn’t a fish when it’s the only thing in one’s net? Does it really seem unwanted then? Nobody sets out to eat a dolphin. It is bloody business. But let us not be naïve about what any of us would do, hemmed in by hunger, ecological collapse, and a net empty of any desirable fish: nobody likes dolphin meat, but times are hard.

The sentiment that dolphin meat isn’t particularly appealing is, incidentally, shared by Matthew Gregory Lewis, a British literary star and contemporary of Lord Byron and Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley; Lewis is somewhat less famous for his slave-ownership. On his voyage to Jamaica to survey the sugar plantations he had just inherited, the ship’s crew caught and killed a dolphin. He was so captivated by the beauty of the creature that he penned a poem about it; his poetic ruminations were also punctuated by dolphin taste tests:

I was called away from admiring [the magical sunset and its rose-colored moon] to ascertain whether the merits of our new acquaintance, the dolphin, extended any further than his skin. Part of him, which was boiled for yesterday’s dinner, was rather coarse and dry and might have been mistaken for indifferent haddock. But this having been steeped in brine, and then broiled with a good deal of pepper and salt, had improved him wonderfully; and to-day I thought him as good as any other fish. [8]

This might seem an obscure non sequitur, but I assure you it is merely a roundabout way of making my point. Ghana’s Western and Central coasts have been witness to the bulk of recorded cetacean strandings since the 1990s; this same portion of the coastline, now host to oil rigs and seismic exploration, was once the slave coast. Cape Coast and Elmina are the most trammeled sites, but traveling out west, especially toward Axim, one sees the stubborn outlines of abandoned slave castles with tufts of tropical vegetation poking out of them. It is also on the Western coast in particular that coastal communities have fallen to dolphin consumption. After much trial and error, they have found a few culinary applications that suit: smoked dolphin, stewed dolphin, soups with dolphin meat, each preparation designed to mask the taste of the meat itself.

What was wrong with the cetaceans that were stranded on the beach? When I started trying to figure out how to chase this story from an ocean away, someone close to me described them as having been asphyxiated. How does a dolphin, a mammal that can breathe underwater and on land for up to 10 minutes, suffocate? Did those 200 drown on shore? Coastal peoples are used to things washing up on their beaches: a dolphin, a whale, a human body. Should we think of these three things, all mammalian, as having drowned? Should we blur the species boundaries of who can breathe on land and who can breathe underwater? Asking all these questions, beyond alluding to the robust engagement with interspecies thinking and the more-than-human that characterizes the environmental humanities, is also an attempt to make room for the long afterlife of the Atlantic Slave Trade in this story of dolphin meat and ecosystem collapse. 

Parting the Waters 

Marine mammals visit the entire coast of Ghana, not just its Western parts, and I have, perhaps unfairly, buried my own stake in this story: I am a coastal person, too. Before I ended up on this side of the Atlantic, in Harlem to be precise, I was born and raised in Tema, in a house whose back was turned on the sea. Along the Eastern coast, near Tema, and in Prampram, the beach town where I first learned to sprinkle salt on avocados as a child, there have always been dolphins and whales. My mother has seen them; I have never been so lucky.

Tema is home to the port city and host to an impressive amount of shipping traffic that stretches out for miles at a time. Driving to my parents’ house on the Beach Road on the foggiest of nights, the entire sea is aglow with the lights of ships from Guangzhou, New York, Dubai, London, Bahia, and beyond. To the best of my knowledge, no oil deposits have been found on the Eastern coast, and the closest slave fort is at least an hour’s drive away: I appear to have grown up on a peculiar slice of the coast that either evaded or was forgotten by the forces of oil and the Atlantic Slave Trade.

All my interlocutors, and every text I have consulted, have been emphatic about a few details: cetacean strandings are becoming increasingly frequent all over the coast; the uptick is particularly intense in the West, and the oil industry’s activities are probably responsible; and nobody would dream of eating a whale. This is where the facts begin to diverge. In the East, taboos surrounding the consumption of dolphins and sea turtles remain robust. So, although the strandings are not as intense, eating these mammals remains out of the question. There is, of course, the question of cultural difference: cosmopolitan though Accra and Tema may be, these cities are on Ga land. The East is home to the Ga and Ewe people; the Central and Western coastal peoples are predominantly Fante, Ahanta, Sehwi, and Nzema. With these cultural differences come cosmological and culinary ones: taboos are not universal.

I took this information in cautiously. I take umbrage at the word tribalism, but be that as it may, it would be a failure of due diligence not to entertain it as a factor. More than a few of the people I spoke to were Westerners themselves; there was so much cultural diversity among my interlocutors that I was inclined to believe that tribalism was, perhaps, not the elephant in this particular room. What I had not considered, until I found myself reading and meditating on Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, was that perhaps the elephant in the room was slavery.

Saidiya Hartman has written powerfully about the cultural forgettings that persist along the Atlantic Slave coast — my home. [9] I am a literary scholar by training; what now finds me several thousand words into an essay about dolphins and fishing, and the numerous other threads herein, dates back to a newspaper story about a whale funeral, also near Axim. My curiosity got the better of me, and the long arc of that story finds me in the middle of this one. Years ago, sitting in a remote village with the seer who buried the whales, I did my best, in the deftest and most idiomatic Twi I could muster, to pry the secret of why coastal peoples, particularly out west, buried beached whales like they did humans. It was a valiant but doomed effort: I was a stranger, speaking a strange tongue, trying to get a seer to reveal ancestral secrets. Who on earth (and, in other realms — he was, after all, a spirit man) did I think I was? When I read this passage from Gumbs’s poetic book, it made me wonder whether the burial of whales was a deep, tragic, mourning of the middle passage. She writes:

[I]f the scale of breathing is collective, beyond species and sentience, so is the impact of drowning. The massive drowning yet unfinished where the distance of the ocean meant that people could become property, that life could be for sale. 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 sharp exhale of hunted whales, their kindred also. Their breathing did not make them individual survivors. It made a context. The context of undrowning. [10]

Thinking of people who survived the Middle Passage as undrowned marine mammals set off a domino-like string of thoughts in my mind; I began to wonder whether the fact that slave trading appears to have been centered on the Central and Western coasts led to an erosion of the sorts of taboos that seem to have held cetacean feeding frenzies at bay in the East. If that was the case, then what of the whales? Why had the tradition of whale funerals survived out West? Why were they still venerated, untouchable? One reason might be size. You can toss a dolphin in the back of a truck and make a quick meal of her; doing the same to a whale is far less straightforward. Another answer ties back to Gumbs’s reflection on what it means to be undrowned and the why of whale funerals. For, I did, in fact, find an answer to my questioning all those years ago. Because the universe loves a good irony, this revelation did not happen in the seer’s airy structure as we danced in and out of idioms; it happened when I was speaking to a cetacean specialist at the University of Cape Coast whose wife happened to be from Axim.

Legend has it that there was a group of fishermen whose ambition drove them too far out to sea in search of a bigger catch. They never came home; they became whales.

Fragments of a whale’s skull, New Bahanta, Ghana. July 2017. Photo taken by author.

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A note of thanks: My work on this project has received a lot of encouragement, facilitation, and assistance over the years; my thanks to Rob Nixon, Dr. Charles Debrah, Raymond Ayilu, Alex Banful, Maame A. S. Mensa-Bonsu, Kofi Anku, Professor Ayaa K. Armah, Solomon Kenyenso, Eric Quayson, and Vanessa Mosoti for all their support.

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Akua Banful is a writer and researcher working through questions of climate, culture, and empire. She is the Andrew W. Mellon Pre-Doctoral Fellow in Climate and Inequality at the Climate Museum, and she is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.

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Notes

[1] Zé Paulo Gouvêa Lemos, Gilberto Gil – A Novidade, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F9NNawUy7Do.

[2] Fela Kuti, Sorrow Tears and Blood (Original Extended Version), 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41CB1PBoyXg.

[3] David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity : The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).

[4] “Nous avons lutté avec nos pauvres moyens, et voici, nous avons vaincu.” Aimé Césaire, Une Saison Au Congo (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1967).

[5] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[6] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[7] Nixon, Slow Violence

[8] Matthew Gregory Lewis and Matthew G. Lewis, Journal of a West India Proprietor: Kept during a Residence in the Island of Jamaica (Place of publication not identified: Murray, 1834). p 36

[9] Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother : A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).

[10] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Emergent Strategy Series (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2020).