Do yourself a favor. (Yesterday, I did myself a favor.) Stand in front of a large painting by Howardena Pindell, perhaps “Dutch Wives” or “Memory: Future” or “Tarot: Hanged Man.” Are you there? Good. Now spread your legs a bit so they are even with your shoulders. Claim space. Take up space. (Don’t worry about it—it’s OK to spend so much space and time with a work of art even if museums don’t get that, or the people around you are confused by it.) Now, find a place on her stitched-together canvases and stare at it, but softly, let your eyes find a wideness, like when you stare out at a large lake or the sea. Now, slowly begin to sway, transferring your weight from one leg to the other. Watch the painting come to life for a second time (the first was as you approached it, even though it was there all along, doing its thing, living), the glitter glimmering and glistening, glowing because she put it there, put it there for you, for us. And it’s OK to smile, too, glow even. (In another room you will encounter darkness and confront the violence against dark bodies, but this is not a dichotomy, her body of work is an everything.) But perhaps you aren’t like me, and such swaying and glowing is not for you. Is the guard looking? No? Put your nose close to the painting and tell me if you can smell perfumes—she left those there for you, for us, too.
Last night, I watched Mudbound with my friend M. (If you’ve not yet watched the film, this post will contain “spoilers.”) After it ended, I recall a quite audible and elongated sigh. My first reaction to the film was that here was another reconciliatory work of art, one that, from the very beginning, centered and more deeply contextualized the white characters, and, in the end, through a kind of both-sides/bad-apple-ism, could leave anyone who watched it—and I speak here particularly of white audiences—feeling struck yet secure, all trauma and rage historicized to the point that perhaps it no longer existed in the present. M and I shared similar thoughts and feelings about the film as we were left questioning how best the work of art can be both of and about while at the same time subverting the personal and structural. Suffice it to say, we certainly didn’t think any work financed by Netflix would ever find such necessary means or meet such necessary ends. But perhaps Dee Rees and Virgil Williams actually did go beyond, as good art does, what’s behind any kind of visceral sigh.
There is a scene in the middle of the film in which the white family builds itself a shower, a clear luxury for anyone in the Mississippi Delta at the time. So it was not lost on me that while in the shower this morning a different reading of the film emerged as I engaged more deeply with Rees and Williams’ work. Hollywood, of course, has long been and remains atrociously complicit in the stereotyping and oppression of black and brown bodies, and so the signifier of Mudbound beginning with the white family can’t help but recall, with the potential to reaffirm, such motives. However, what this morning I’ve become curious about is if Rees and Williams here meant not to center the white family, but critically center whiteness.
What leads me to suspect this is that more deeply within the historicized sigh of this film, there is too the presence of the present—a critical engagement with and questioning of contemporary whiteness—that makes itself most known through a choice. This choice is forced in the film by members of the KKK, explicitly placing the film within what Christina Sharpe has called “the weather”—the (continuing) climate of anti-blackness. (I do not wish to further detail or linger on the violence against black male bodies here, so I will not describe this scene in detail.) In this climate, Jamie, the white friend of Ronsel, a black man being tortured by the Klan, must choose Ronsel’s ultimate “punishment,” that is, which body part will be violently removed from his person. And it is here, within this choice, that I think the film does such necessary work at questioning and calling out whiteness and white allyship. I believe this because Jamie does not choose Ronsel’s eyes, for whiteness is already blinding enough. I believe this because Jamie does not choose Ronsel’s testicles, because whiteness is a project that is already invested in the emasculation of black men. What Jamie ultimately, and within the climate I would even say consciously, decides is to silence Ronsel by choosing his tongue. Without a tongue, Ronsel cannot speak his pain, his joy; without a tongue, Jamie no longer has to listen to Ronsel.
Ultimately, I think the film portrays Jamie as a sympathetic character, which will most likely absolve white audiences from any confrontation with their whiteness, their anti-blackness—the film, to me, still feels reconciliatory, not reparative. But, given the choices Rees and Williams surely had to make, given this story originally told by a white author, I find something necessary to confront in what, to me, is Jamie’s choice to contribute to and continue the climate of anti-blackness. With whiteness, even the weight of simply listening is too much—we still feel this need to speak (here I am, speaking). Worse, we still feel this need to be the only ones speaking. Whether or not it is the “lesson” of this film, whiteness undeniably remains. And to those who remain in whiteness, those who remain willfully complicit and so comfortable in its historicized sigh, we need to confront what remains. We must not remain. The kind of listening that’s being done in the remainder is no listening at all. As M reminded me this morning about Mudbound, we only hear what’s been silenced until the man without a tongue speaks.
The scene I’d like to talk about is not the one that surrounds the still above, though it’s similar, for it too is a moment of tenderness amidst terror, a moment of true and truly listening, and so a truth.
The scene I’d like to talk about in Bergman’s Shame (1968) is the one in which Jan and Eva’s farm, surrounded by the shared solitude of trees, had just come under attack, the relentless sounds of planesbombsguns* finally subsides, and as they stare out in disbelief at something they’ve believed for years, birdsong returns.
The birds are important to this film, even though they are never seen. So too soundlessness, despite this being the loudest of the Bergman films I’ve seen. And you can see the sound: there is a lot of covering of the ears, so as to dull the planesbombsguns or one’s own crying. But can you see the soundlessness? In Eva’s eyes, yes—she’s always listening.
(Often reflecting a helpful flame, her eyes, here, are forced to listen to fire turned fury, a light no longer able to be held, a quite literally unbearable brightness. If a candle brings calm, planesbombsguns brings a darkness, a need to cover not just one’s ears but also one’s eyes.)
Back to our scene, in which the birdsong returns—I began to wonder, was this really a return, or were the birds still singing while planesbombsguns was happening? And if so, if their singing is incessant, what hope is there for us if even the birds can’t drown us out from the sounds of ourselves?
And if not, in those rare moments of our silence, what if the birdsong is speaking sense? What if in these silences we found, like we find in Eva’s eyes, the space to contemplate our loudness? What if we were able, in this space and with such sight, to listen more loudly to the outsides of our selves?
*I am increasingly interested in elongating words that obscure, words like “war.” Imagine a word that ran on with all the words that make up war. What difference might such a word make?
Tonight, in the middle of a public conversation between the artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith and the scholar Christina Sharpe, the college-aged kid who was doing sound for the event was needed to help produce sound for a video. He gently approached the table where the conversation was taking place before us, hunched over as if to not appear, to not be in the way. As he handed Smith a cord to use with her laptop, I could hear him say, “Does it reach?” There was a softness and care in his voice that sounded like the anxious anticipation of needing something to be enough. I pictured someone needing to be held and the person doing the holding putting so much love into the embrace, and whether or not that person’s hands can find each other on the other side of the other’s body, there still being that slight space in which we can’t quite comfort enough, and so words: “Does it reach?”
In front of us and with us, and in dialogue with the work of Jennifer Packer, Smith and Sharpe shared words and found phrases together. What developed was a kind of lexicon, an etymology of care. From Tenderheaded, we thought through and down to tenderness, tending, tender, tend. Sharpe, whose care for and with the word wake evolved into an astonishing and important work on blackness and being, came back to the word tender, reminding us of another meaning: as in the aftermath of a bruise. Later, as the car was warming up on a cold Fall night in Hyde Park, M would remind me that there is no tenderness without some kind of pain. Like being reached, we need such reminding sometimes—how grateful I am to the people in my life who can do so with care.
Other words: slow, survivance, still, because at least laughter would be sound. Other things: crows, ships, parakeets, soil, hire an ice cream truck and follow it and go slow. Other forms: portraiture, still life, performance, undermine the codes of recognizability. What makes one wish to be someplace other than here: disregard packaged as care.
The first time I saw her speak on her own, I was struck by how Sharpe’s presentation enacted tenderness and modeled care. As she described for those assembled tonight, she may put up a photograph though it only remains visible as long as she’s reading it. Before and after the images: a blank gray canvas. Despite the fodder-friendliness of the digital, bodies captured on film or in pixels are not necessarily ours to share. We must take care, and care means, as Tina Campt also notes, listening to images. Sharpe listens. Smith listens. Tonight we listened, too. Does it reach? Yes, sometimes it does.
Note: All italics were spoken by Cauleen Smith and Christina Sharpe from their conversation at the University of Chicago, October 25, 2017. Any errors are the fault of the notetaker (me).
Yesterday at work, in anticipation for this week’s Block Cinema screenings of films by Femi Odugbemi, I walked the three flights up to the Herskovits Library of African Studies to see their Nollywood pop-up exhibition. I was drawn by the announcement that the library had acquired hand-painted movie posters from Ghana. Fortunate enough to be colleagues with the curators, I learned that these paintings are done on the hollowed-out insides of flour sacks and often painted by artists who have never seen the movie themselves, but are given a title and, perhaps, a brief synopsis.
As part of the “Ghanaian Mobile Cinema” which began in the late 1980s, these paintings, then, are movies themselves, directed by painters and offering “alternate scenes” as a kind of translation between a possible film and its potential audience, and often radically resituating the original foreign works in Ghanaian contexts.
In being moved by these pieces, I started to think of memory and remediation, of colonialism and collecting. My wife, who passed away nearly two years ago, lived in Ghana for a year—do I have any photographs of her with these posters in the background? Or, by the time she was there, had the paintings been replaced by prints? Did she see any of these films? And what of one form turned into another, like so much alchemy? I thought of Lispector writing painting, and Jafa visualizing music. How do these paintings perform acts of decolonization? Why have these artistic and agential interpretations of (mostly) Hollywood films found their way back to the United States? The afterlife of a work of art is the archive—how to tell that story, too? (To these questions, I’m so grateful to be reading Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History at the moment.)
These paintings, these moving images — original works by pseudonymous artists like Teshie, Mr. Brew, Nkwanta, Big Otis, Leonardo, and others — were acquired from Deadly Prey Gallery in Chicago. As I scroll the gallery’s online archive (or, since they are for sale, perhaps “inventory” is a more appropriate term?), I realize I have not seen a single one of the films that were to be screened. Yet, having seen these posters, I’ve seen—and will continue to see—other films with the same names as the one’s I’ve not seen.
Honestly, the origins of this project probably extend back to my childhood, but that’s for another post. For now, let’s start in 2001 or 2002, in a classroom on a hill in the Lehigh Valley, where I first met William R. Scott, an incredibly brilliant and generous scholar, teacher, and man, who would eventually become my thesis adviser. In Dr. Scott’s class I was introduced to work that would change my life and shape my thoughts, particularly the works of Leon F. Litwack, Cedric J. Robinson, and Eric Foner. For that class I wrote a paper that would become my Master’s thesis, exploring the racism of early American Socialism and the white working class, in particular, examining the view of Eugene V. Debs on race, or what at the time was deemed, through lens of whiteness, as “the Negro question.”
While working on my thesis, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Indiana State University, whose library and special collections is home to the Debs archive. In that archive, I came across three chapbooks, each published in and around 1916, by Ross D. Brown, an African American socialist, orator, and poet from Muncie, IN. Each chapbook (now available freely online) was introduced by Debs, but what struck me was the strength of Brown’s words and convictions at a time when, especially in Indiana, the Klan was in its ascendancy and even the Socialist party was, for the most part, rampantly racist. I spent a lot of time with Brown’s poems, found a letter he wrote to Debs, and did my best to find him in the historical record. At the time there wasn’t much there, at least not much available to me in the limited time, access, and experience I had. All I could come up with was a single reference in Foner’s American Socialism and Black Americans.
After completing my thesis, “Coming to Consciousness: Eugene Debs, American Socialism, and the ‘Negro Question,'” I moved to Chicago and worked for several years as a graphic designer before going back to graduate school to become a librarian, eventually finding my way to Northwestern University. In those 15 years, I always thought about Ross D. Brown, hoping to find the time and space to research his life and works. This year I was awarded a research fellowship from Northwestern University Libraries to spend a year as a fellow at the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, working half-time at my job, with the rest of my time dedicated to research and writing. In this space I will do my best to share moments from my archival research, though I will more frequently do that on Twitter and Instagram.
I have already learned that archival research demands a ton of emotional labor, from confronting trauma to working with and through grief. Two years ago, I lost my wife, Pam Downing. Earlier this year, William R. Scott passed away. The other day, in a digital database, I learned that in 1912 Ella and Ross Brown lost their first child, Robert Frederick Brown, only four days into his life. I think it’s important to write out their names. There are people who remember Ross D. Brown, people who remember Ella and even Robert, but I haven’t met them yet, and that’s another part of this project. As much as the archive saves, it also creates absence and erasure, but the archive is not just the Archive, and this is (not) only a beginning.
I wrote a line in my journal on May 22, 2014, not yet a month after Pam had been re-diagnosed, followed by a question mark, because I am uncomfortable with answers: “Life is the further abbreviation of abbreviations.”
“act of shortening; a shortened thing,”
from Middle French
But if life extends beyond living, perhaps this further abbreviation has a semblance of form, as well, a word that can define it, make sense, for I’m only uncomfortable with answers because I need them.
A contraction is made by elision
of certain letters or syllables
from the body of a word
but still indicates its full form
(as fwd. for forward; rec’d. for received).
What hides in contraction is the body, the full life lived, what follows is the stuff this lexicon is made of: memory, grief, desire.
Amidst the fade and blur, we make sharp edges of memory and inscribe them, writing in and out of the lines, an archive making of survival and of further bring forth, what we bring with us just as present as the past was and never is.
Each time I wake, I tilt my head and listen for what’s soft.
Can you believe there’s such a thing as too soft?
Impatient as always, and after a night of nightmares, I shoot my first images in the dark. We say that dreams aren’t real but last night, among other things, I had a gun to my head.
Much like my memory of the dream, what I feel now from it is a blur. The blur is what’s always in between. The blur is an ever-presence of the unknown and unknowable—but the blur is felt.
And so we grasp with words and images.
We grasp at the blur.
Or, rather, we grasp back.
And I want to try and name this dizzying dialectic, too—
Meanwhile, four marked and unmarked cars full of white cops pull up to make a further spectacle of a young black male already in handcuffs. I watch (does that help at all?) as one of the cops says, “This is just a misdemeanor, right? I’m not going to pull a rock out or something?”
So much for innocence presumed.
My life is to wear all black as the cops wave, his is not “just” as justice ill-defined. I go buy my things from the store.
I go home.
Even unremarked you can’t tell me this doesn’t leave marks.
You can’t tell me there is a single temporality.
Abolish the police,
A debt / Grief is also
Maybe grief settles, but mostly I feel made anew—the anxious awe of a newborn yet without the innocence that makes things soft.
It’s been almost 15 months and somehow the now—not the then—is what’s hardest. The resounding not here is what hurts most.
In the empty moments, in moments of panic and crumble, I try to breathe and remember. And sometimes I do—I breathe and remember—but sometimes I burn and struggle in the impossibility of being in love with a life that fades.
For Teju Cole
I want to tell you about a dream. It was of a tree. A drawing of tree. A dream of a drawing of a tree. Once, I wrote to you, You can show me this park and I can name the birds in its trees. And you wrote in reply, You can even name the trees, and we talked about looking without seeing—the struggle to name.
A different day, I returned to my desk at work to find a small green book, A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves. I turned its pages—paper like a memory of trees—and remembered, which is to say, tried to remember. What is the memory of a thing in a dream? It is a memory of a thing. What is a thing? And can memory name?
The tree was black. It had contour but no texture. It was tall and thin and black. The trunk was black. The branches and their few leaves were black. And then it fell, slowly, yet never revealed its roots. What do you call the memory of a shadow of a thing in a dream?
I want to tell you about another dream. I bought a book. I bought a book of photography. I don’t remember the photographer’s name, though she had a name. Inasmuch as the photography in our dreams does and does not exist, I had never before heard of this photographer. If someone was to ask me, What do you remember of her name? I would answer, Wisława Szymborska.
The book and its photographs took shape in a format that does not exist, inasmuch as the format of our dreams does and does not exist. The book was tall, yet its pages were slight of width. Each verso was white. Each recto was a photograph, full bleed. What is a blank page next to a photograph but the struggle to name, to give space?
I purchased the book because it reminded me of you, your images, and the feel of your looking. Reminder leads to remembering—the images were of the backs of men and women, always seated. I remember a focus on position and posture (how their bodies were), print and pattern (how our bodies wear), and place as much as people (how our bodies want).
And I wanted to say to you, This book, these images, remind me of you and your images, but sometimes such a declaration, despite its connection, detaches the artist from place and person. We are related to and influenced by what’s come before. We are lineage and wake. Yet, in the same breath, shouldn’t we also give space to breathing?
We spent a few moments that morning searching the various archives of images available to us. At first, you had misread me, not realized this encounter with this book and these images first took place in my dreams. And yet if you had simply acknowledged the dream as dream, what would we have never found? When we search for ghosts, do you we not find bodies?
And so we begin, out of recollection and connection, the creation of a new collection. I ask you and others, Have you seen this photograph? as I hold up a hand holding nothing. And perhaps they reply in drawings and dreams, poems and paintings, breath and body—or something else, something new.
As I continue to search and research, find and am given, I become obsessed not with the unattainable but with all the things we might and can obtain. I remember you once writing a word I’d never seen or heard before. Inshallah. I read it several times, repeated it aloud—how it flowed and flowered even without understanding, a name without naming, a break from struggle. I looked it up and felt as I had before I’d known. Inshallah.
After Brendan Fernandes
How beauty bounces, takes these bodies, like sun-glimmered waves, and throws us. Take these bodies. Without heads and unseen here because always seen: the hangers. Out of glass so as to see and see through. Clear as a kind of beyond and after, a kind of fore-getting. Glass so as to suspend within white walls unbreakable and therefore a desire—a desperate need—to break. Break the hangers. Break the hangers that broke the bodies. Foreground a kind of fore-getting, a kind of beyond and after as return. Return heads to bodies and let bodies forever float upon sun-glimmered waves—undrownable and able, in and of our beauty.