Although the human relationship with aluminum is short, the metal has affected our lives and societies more profoundly than perhaps any other. A light metal that does not corrode, aluminum is a key ingredient in airplanes, automobiles, and artillery—three industries that transformed twentieth-century society. As such, aluminum propelled Western modernity toward new understandings and cultural orientations within an increasingly globalized world. Yet as it became a defining ingredient of modernity, aluminum also helped entrench an unequal and racialized international order through extractive systems built on older infrastructures of exploitation. The aluminum supply chain that enabled twentieth-century modernity maps across an earlier transatlantic network that produced the enslaved human labor that was equally formative of our modern era. Racialized landscapes and labor at sites of raw aluminum ore extraction are central to Western modernity, though they are generally erased from its histories. Fully understanding Western industrial modernity requires centering the African lands and bodies that have shaped it, and correcting its destructive tendencies requires prioritizing alternative African visions.

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