zero is political

In mathematics by Moboluwajidide (Bo) Joseph

in the beginning: there is water; the world is without form, an empty void; a hen scatters sand poured from a snail’s shell as a god watches on; life is breathed into clay figurines; the sun emerges from a mound; order unravels from chaos; a great flood recedes from the land; matter coalesces from a big bang; there comes a word – let there be light

creation myths are ubiquitous across cultures and societies. in some of these, people have imagined that our very reality was birthed from a nothingness. this presupposes linearity, a movement from the point of non-existence to existence. it is from this culturally contingent understanding of our being that the very concept of a ‘zero’ is believed to have come. Robert Kaplan, professor of mathematics at Harvard, traces the origin of zero to a double wedge between cuneiform symbols meant to indicate absence, present in the Sumerian culture of Mesopotamia. elsewhere, it appeared in 4 A.D with the Mayans, and then in India around the mid-fifth century – here it is believed to have taken on its modern incarnation – it spread on to Cambodia near the end of the seventh, China and the Islamic world by the end of the eighth, and then Western Europe in the twelfth. while zero as a mathematical notation has its own linearity deciphered and made visible by historians, nothingness is nigh universal. as zero is foundational to STEM, the conception of a ‘before’ is to culture and storytelling. we have always wondered where we began – and tried to imagine what lies beyond that. 

in the beginning: there is water; the world is waves beating a relentless rhythm against the shore; a bird spies from above the billowy white of sails slicing towards palm trees; figurines woven from raffia are left in the sand; the sun is covered by a cloud; chaos supplants the calm order of farm life; ships recede from that land; grief is birthed as gunshots break; there comes a new song – the clank of chains

where we start our stories are a political choice. to say the world begins here at ‘x’ is to give ‘x’ a primacy, a rank of importance and the first boundary for contextualizing our survival. often, when we are told of our Blackness, it begins at pre-colonial contact. as though our community came into being solely in resistance to suffering imposed by slavers. Whiteness subtly marks that frame, fixes it and forces us to view our own history as contingent on our subjugation. we had stories long before that, though. ones rooted in immutable indigeneity despite colonial attacks – ones we ought to reclaim. for my people, the world was water first, before Obatala descended and got drunk on palm wine. there is a reason we Yorùbá often call ourselves Ọmọ Odùduwà. it is a defiant reclamation of a proud lineage that stretches back millennia. in saying this is where our story emerged, we refute others’ shaping of our humanity. 

critical race and anti-colonial theorists understand this too. in asserting that the Anthropocene began not with the industrial revolution but with Columbus planting a flag, we frame the Black Atlantic and the philosophy of terra nullius as the start of climate change. the earth began dying when indigenous stewardship came under attack. the American states began not with their independence, but long before that when space began to be oriented around whiteness. where we begin is never an objective choice, it is contested. it is very much about who and why. 

in the beginning: there is water; the world is white tufts of vapour through her window; above the clouds, the plane slices through the air; she bounces her son who clutches in one grubby hand an action figure; the sun limns the horizon of their new home; she ensures their papers are in order for customs; the plane plunges, and the clouds recede from view; their ears deafen from this silent bang; there comes applause – the wheels taxi on land

how we conceive the world is not just reliant on where we see our zeroes, but also on what we think they mean.” maybe zero does not just represent the absence of quantity anymore.”. in contemporary mathematics, it often takes on other guises to suit different calculation goals. when we envision a number line, it becomes the separation hinge between positive and negative integers; it exists on a boundary that suggests a defined start and an end but is represented by a ring confounding both concepts. zero quite simply is a chameleon, a mark of transformation. twisted in on itself, it becomes infinity, unending, a symbol of boundless power, or a different number – eight, the biblical digit for new beginnings. 

stories of modern immigration often begin when we land. before that was a number set of negative encounters forcing us to flee or be dispossessed – to seek haven elsewhere. now that we have arrived, the hyphen is introduced: not just African, Caribbean, Asian, but African-American, Caribbean-Canadian, British-Asian. addition is performed; we become ‘more’, and the number set of positive narratives commences. our contact with our new locales is a zero, in as much as it is a beginning. there, we are transformed, and our memories of that other place we came from are meant to recede into a dim nothingness. a void we cast about in to pluck some tale or idea about who we used to be for others’ amusement. much like our forebears once sat under massive trees and summoned stories of what once was before the world emerged except without their wonder or hope that silvered these imaginings. 

and yet, if what came before our becoming emigrants is recast as a negative set, then what does that say about our links to our native homes? what does that suggest when we remember it aloud for others, and how does it enable that sepia-toned visual construction filmmakers and storytellers often employ to signify these settings? if all we left behind is bad or something we are trying to banish into a void, then what hope does that offer us or younger generations for restoration or return? perhaps what is needed here is a reimagination birthed of resistance. that is to see that zero moment when we become immigrants, not just as a start, but a midpoint, or a hinge to lever our defiance of the idea that we needed to be saved and brought here, and now that we have been, our lives can really begin. a perspective shift, if you will. if we know anything, it is that such work is how we have survived thus far. a historical unwillingness to accept being framed in particular ways, and a concerted effort to break such imposed roles that deny our agency. what remains is a recasting of that moment as a window through which we can climb and return and reclaim ourselves.  

in the beginning: there is water, and it streams through that window, an unbroken river deep with souls finding their way back, ancient and nascent. 

Author’s Note Mobólúwajídìde D. Joseph is an immigrant whose work and activism circles the axis of borders and bodies, the diaspora and the postcolonial, sexuality and gender, race and religion. He enjoys playing with language and form and is deeply invested in the project of telling stories as a form of healing and political emancipation.