By Ashon Crawley
We are always asking the question of resource. Will there be enough bread, meat? Will there be enough milk, water? Will there be enough clothes, shelter? To ask the question of resource is to ask how we will be sustained, how we will be able to thrive in a world when access to most goods and services and solid earth – the disappearing of clean drinking water, the melting of ice caps causing a raised sea level, the possibility for cataclysmic earthquakes, deforestation of rainforests, the building of telescopes on Hawai’i sacred ground, for example – seems to be dwindling. Dwindling because of the political economy that organizes and structures lives under these American skies.
Our thoughts are always concerned with and subsumed by the ecological. The recent known and unknown slate of black, brown and indigenous deaths – of, for example, Sandra Bland and Rexdale Henry, of Kindra Chapman and Sarah Lee Circle Bear – at the hands of police and vigilantes, at the hands of white supremacist desires for control, register an ecological crisis in black, brown and indigenous flesh. So we look for some outside and otherwise possibility from this ecology that presumes lack as eternal. Some break, tear, or rip that provides room to breathe and to move into the space and abundance of otherwise.
The incessant attacks, assaults and assailments on black, brown and indigenous flesh set into relief how an ecological crisis appears, makes itself apparent, in our world. We are confronted with the question of resource and abundance, of material and lack. Black, brown and indigenous flesh – in this moment of ecological crisis – becomes degraded because of the degradation of the land, because of the political economy’s demand on the grounds that presume the rational ability to control, to capture, the earth. The concurrent squandering and hoarding of resource, hoarding because of squandering, are hieroglyphs on flesh, wounds of violence. Such degradation is supposed to produce on and in us shame.
Tamar, daughter of that famed king in biblical lore, David. Tamar, sister of one Absalom and half-sister to one Amnon. Her narrative is recounted because half-brother Amnon devised a plan to use and abuse Tamar, offering her up to his sexual violence and violation. His desires were for power over her, to make her submit to his will. It was a means for him to establish his identity, his authority. Tamar’s flesh was made to endure a specific wounding. But she posed a question that needs be radicalized and generalized for our time. Tamar asked – aloud to the world, so the world would hear and know, and with hearing and knowing produce an ethical crisis at the heart of her, and our, world – whither shall I cause my shame to go? And such a question, announcing the fact of an ethical crisis, was also a disruption to the violence that would establish Amnon’s identity.
The project of white supremacy, the project producing the ecological crisis making wounds on flesh, is supposed to make those of us victimized by its inequities and violence to feel shame. We are supposed to feel shame because of hunger and desire, because of impoverishment and tenacious joy. We are supposed to feel shame for hope springing eternal, hope unfulfilled. Otherwise modes of life – black, brown, indigenous modalities – are then thought to be shameful for having and loving flesh that is considered degraded. And through such shame, through such ongoing violence, the establishment of whiteness as identity. But like Tamar, we must not consent to carry the shame we are told to internalize, to hold. We come from a tradition of such refusal. And such a tradition is the critique of the shame we are told we must carry. Those of us whose flesh has been made to endure such ecological crises marshal the pulsation, the sound, that which exceeds and never stills, marshal the vibration against violence and violation. And by laying bare the ethical crisis of our world, we set into question the very establishment of whiteness as identity.
Come, lay your burdens down! we imagine and pray and meditate with hopes that such a solicitation, such a call, has been made. Such imagination, prayer and meditation is both plea and response, is antiphonal. Lay your burdens down at the gathering, in the clearing and underground and surround of love, at the altar of the Wednesday night prayer meeting.
Charles Mingus knew. Composer and musician, Mingus recognized the importance and impact of the midweek gathering of black folks at the Holiness-Pentecostal church at 79th and Watts in Los Angeles that he’d attend with his stepmother or his friend Britt Woodman. Mingus tells the story of how his stepmother traveled weekly to the lively church services: “My father didn’t dig my mother going there…People went into trances and the congregation’s response was wilder and more uninhibited…The blues was in the Holiness churches – moaning and riffs and that sort of thing between the audience and the preacher.” These visits were the impetus for “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting,” a song that used 6/4 rhythmic propulsion in order to convey its message, in order to approach the aesthetic-intellectual force of what he’d feel on any given Wednesday night prayer service. Scott Saul described Mingus’s 6/4 rhythm as taking “the traditional gospel rhythm and, by accelerating the overall tempo, [the rhythm] brought out the swinging cross-rhythms that had been hidden in the loping advance” of other recordings. Brought out in the song is that which was hidden from view, the excess – the gospel rhythmning – that prompts gathering, an excess that at the same time constitutes and is the grounds for gathering. The sounds of love, the smells of food, the praising flesh. This is captured in the extended 11’54” performance of the song recorded in 1960 at Juan-les-Pins during the Antibes Jazz Festival for the album Mingus at Antibes released in 1976.
It opens with Mingus on bass, the announcement of pitch low, vibration slow. Feel the pulse-pulse of the movement, divine call and encounter, in and of openness to spirit. Like open doors to a church, like a prayer meeting for study, gathering together the dispersed parts of severed sociality. Refusing enclosure, refusing seclusion. Throughout this particular performance, the song increases in speed moment by moment. The saxophone solo at 7’40”, the sax breaking off into what sounds like speaking in tongues. At 6’19”, a clap interlude. The handclaps function to both keep and break with rhythm. The drums, the bass, the piano. Each instance of the solo enfleshed the airy space with the black symphonic. You hear the density of the space when there is abandonment and reanimation of sound, when there is the leaving and arrival, the breaking away from and coming back to of instruments.
And there is the ethical demand of the prayer meeting felt, experienced, that Mingus’s song attempts to capture. This ethics, this demand, is for openness and hospitality, improvisation and refusing to be done with seeking otherwise. To hear the saints testify, sing before the Lord, shout, get happy and do their dance. “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” was Mingus’s memorial, homage, to black sociality. Mingus figured out that those gatherings were the constant repetition of an ongoing, deep, intense mode of study, a kind of study wherein the aesthetic forms created could not be severed from the intellectual practice because they were one and also, but not, the same. To transform such force of testimony, song, shout, happiness, dance into otherwise modality, otherwise feel. It was the black symphonic, the sounding out together of the ecology of gathering black being, blackness as becoming, as a force of critique and ethical demand upon the world. What one hears in the density of the space made through these prayer meetings is the sound of love, the sound of radical welcome beckoning the margin to join in. The sound of radical hospitality.
Yet radical hospitality did not stop murder. Dylan Roof’s massacre of the nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina illustrates the ongoing ecological, ethical crisis. He said both: “everyone was so nice” and, ”I had to go through with the mission.” The parishioners were not nice but so nice; excess was the grounds of their engaging him, excess was the solicitation that made a space for him to leave the margins of the meeting and join with the others. Yet, he still performed the heinous act.
What those saints in study offered him, through prayer and song and inviting him to be part of an unbroken circle, was nothing short of radical possibility of otherwise. What Roof experienced, however, he transformed into a merely aesthetic encounter, not one that had intellectual content, not one that could move him and let him, with reckless abandon, join the handclaps of hard-loved flesh. Beautiful, hard-loved flesh opened and became vulnerable for him, invited him into not the sanctuary but the basement, where the love is felt. This, the basement – the underground and surround of love – is where James Baldwin’s Arthur in Just Above My Head was prompted to queer desire for Crunch, where Baldwin recounted the sounds of saints and smells of food. Baldwin, always prophetic, knew:
[Arthur] looks around the church basement again, seeing something for the first time. All those sisters, and all that cheerful noise, a warmth, as dangerous as lightning, and as comforting as a stove, fills the place. Laughter rings, gossip abounds: obliterating, for a moment, the endless grief and danger. He sees, but does not see, the swollen ankles, the flat feet, the swift, gnarling fingers, serving the deacons, repudiating the helpless condition, refusing, with a laugh, despair.
This is the black symphonic. Like the sounds of Mingus and his band, like the sounds of praise in a Holiness-Pentecostal church, the sounds of laughter and gossip, the swollen ankles and flat feet and the smell of food – sounding out together – enfleshed the space, made the density of the space material, tangible. And that same sensual openness was available to Roof. That they had the very capacity for such openness is beautiful. Yet he terrorized.
White terrorizing, white supremacist ideology, is produced by the suppression, the gathering and destroying, of such an openness, such a vitality, such a propulsive 6/4 rhythmning. White supremacy, its rapacious and incessant antiblackness, is the constant emergence of fear, the fear of being engulfed, and changed, by this radical abundance. Roof’s wasn’t the violence of someone that believed that social death – the state of total powerless – was achievable but was the violence of one terrified by its impossibility. The people he killed were not the totally powerless but those that extended life, an otherwise mode of relationality, to him. He began shooting during the benediction when the eyes of the twelve gathered were closed. He began his violence when they were most open and vulnerable, when they were at the height of availability. Such vulnerability was evinced most in their closed eyes, their prayer for sociality of protection: “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we’re absent one from…” Interrupted. He had to, against the openness of love and hospitality felt and the prayer offered, enclose himself, shut down his sensual capacities, not be moved. He had to repress the desire to join in and with what was extended to him.
The enclosure and repression is the problem of whiteness, an enclosure produced while remaining in close proximity, in intimacy, with those he violated. Such that intimacy and vulnerability are not, in this writing, the same. That he did not make himself available and vulnerable in the ways they did produced the occasion of his violence. Intimacy is an assumed closeness and familiarity of space, land, water, noise, flesh. And such assumption of closeness and familiarity is not a vulnerability based in mutuality and reciprocity, care nor concern. The idea of space as available through intimacy – through proximity rather than mutual vulnerability – is settler colonial logic, a logic of extraction and abstraction in the service of the abatement, the removal, the dispossession of and from space, land, water, noise, flesh. This abatement occurs under the name and heading of intimacy but is in the service of a desired severing and thwarting of vulnerability and openness. Roof might have been intimate with the victims – violence generally can and often does occur in the context of intimacy, close proximity, assumed familiarity – but such intimacy needs be thought in its distinction from vulnerability and mutuality, vulnerability as mutuality.
This is neither an exercise in redeeming Roof nor making less horrific the brutality of his violence. Rather, the horror of white supremacist antiblack violence becomes sharpened if we consider Roof as responding to the irrepressible life offered, if we consider that police violence of late has been intensified as a response to protest. What to do, how to move, in such a world wherein your resistance against violent conditions – resistance as prayer meetings or protests – produces more violence? This is the ethical crisis to which we must be attuned.
Family members of the slain and survivors of the attack offered forgiveness. Survivor Felicia Sanders said, “I told him, ‘May God have mercy on your soul.’ And I honestly hope that God has mercy on his soul.” And survivor Polly Sheppard said of Roof, “’I hold no malice.’ ‘I’m going to try to get better from this,’ she said. ‘I have to forgive him.’” The forgiveness given was not offered as a saccharine or cloying sacrifice to the altars of white supremacy, they do not want such violence to continue but seek its end. Every time we deride those that have offered and extended forgiveness of their own accord, because of their spiritual conviction, we imply that they simply don’t know how to be the right kind of victim. Ours is the task to ask different kinds of questions about their procedure, their thought and itinerary, their practice.
There is a difference between forgiveness that is for the production of cultural amnesia, a cultural amnesia that serves the ongoing project of American exceptionalism and its attendant violence, and what I think of as forgiveness in the flesh. Forgiveness in the flesh is about abandoning the weight of grief, the weight of shame, through being with and in community with others. And when offered, this latter forgiveness – forgiveness in the flesh – is the critique of the first kind, the American kind, the nationalist project of displacement and violence. Forgiveness in the flesh is not about letting anger be released in order to forget, in order to misremember, in order to be amnesiatic. Forgiveness in the flesh is a critique of the state formation that is the very grounds for incessant antiblack violence. Like Tamar’s ethical plea, forgiveness in the flesh – when offered – produces a disruption in the establishment of white identity through its capacity to transform spiritual conviction into terror and shame.
Mamie Till-Mobley in December 2002 spoke, days before her death, about how she years previous needed to release the hate she had for the perpetrators of Emmett’s murder because “they would not even know I was hating them and the things that would be released into my body would eventually destroy me.” She remained angry about Bobo’s death, loved him dearly, cried for him throughout her life. Yet she found a resource, a well, from which, with joy, to draw. She found a community to which she carried her burdens. It would be of little surprise if Mamie Till-Mobley asked herself over and over again why she let Bobo travel so young to Money alone. And it is likely that family of the Charleston Nine have asked, “what if they did not attend church that night?” Emmett and the Charleston victims were sent, sent into the world, sent through radical hospitality, openness, vulnerability. Such that through their capacity to forgive, through their forgiveness in the flesh, what we learn from Mamie Till-Mobley and the family members of the Charleston victims is that radical hospitality is not ever, in the first instance, a secret desire for safety from the one, the ones, that would do us harm. Radical hospitality, sharing in grief and pain, sharing in joy and prayer, is not about safety but protection, protecting the fact of sociality, of flesh, of a way of life.
Black life – life lived in the liberative flesh – is in excess of itself, overflows, exceeds containment, control, is not produced by borders, boundaries. Black life is this mystical experience of otherwise possibility. And it is from this mysticism that forgiveness in the flesh emerges. Forgiveness in the flesh is not a product to be traded on markets, it is not property that can be owned, bought and sold. Forgiveness in the flesh recognizes ecology and crisis, seeks otherwise possibilities. Forgiveness in the flesh also allows us to be easy and gentle with ourselves so that victims – Till-Mobley and Charleston family members, for example – do not continually replay situations over and over again, asking how they may have contributed to situations that produce suffering. Rather, forgiveness in the flesh takes the pressure off personal private blame.
Forgiveness in the flesh opens an escape for victims so they do not blame themselves for trauma experienced. Forgiveness in the flesh does not conspire with the white supremacist making of black pain and suffering undetectable. Rather, like Tamar’s questioning of Amnon, forgiveness in the flesh produces an ethical crisis at the heart of the world, an ethical crisis of meaning and feeling. Forgiveness in the flesh is a kind of forgiveness that, unlike the nationalist American kind, cannot be compelled or forced but only given away. It is not a requirement for victims of heinous acts but if offered, should be considered in its enunciation of otherwise possibilities.
Such that we can celebrate Esaw Garner’s “Hell, no” response to the question of if she’d forgive the officer that murdered her Eric. Such that we can celebrate Lesley McSpadden’s “never” when asked if she would forgive the officer that stole her Michael. We can celebrate these and Till-Mobley and Charleston family members because they show the possibility of otherwise response, the possibility of otherwise feel and emotion, when dealing with the ongoing onslaught of antiblack violence. In each instance, regardless of response, it forces us to unflinchingly confront and contend against the world wherein such undetectability is even possible. Forgiveness – insofar as it is in the flesh – need not be the opposite side of rage, it does not necessarily need be in opposition to one’s capacity for anger, heartbreak, disappointment. Forgiveness in the flesh allows a space to move through rage, through anger, to hold on to the ethical force of Sofia’s womanist “hell, no” while also producing the occasion to love hard one’s flesh. Such an operation in the flesh refuses to let anyone walk off wid alla of my stuff,” yet allows openness – still – to community, to allowing community to share the load, bear one up.
You ever heard of the movie La Petite Vendeuse De Soleil? It’s this excellent film I stumbled on while reading through blogs about foreign movies. The blog linked to the film review and it sounded pretty interesting, so I found the movie at the library and took it to a friend’s house so we could watch together … I wasn’t prepared for the film or what it made me feel.
The film is about a twelve-year-old girl – named Sili – living in Dakar, Senegal with her grandmother and because money was needed, she decided to sell newspapers – Le Soleil. Her grandmother was blind and, let’s say, a highway beggar, one who needed the support of others [and no, it wasn’t a moral judgment against needing others; I’ve been trying to think about if needing others is the condition that makes us persons lately, actually]. This need to sell created tension in the film because Sili was competing with a group of young boys around her age who also sold the same [and other] newspapers. It wouldn’t be that interesting except folded into the story is the notion of carrying as well as giving, which of course reminded me of you [I’d almost say that seeing the film the day after writing to you about carrying you carried some mystical, spiritual quality, content or substance and maybe I should just wait...for you...for me to carry you. Anyway.]
In the film, Sili is paraplegic and uses crutches to get around but she didn’t allow what others thought a disability to stop her from helping her grandmother. The first day on the job, a businessman purchased all thirteen newspapers from her and gave her more to compensate for her hard work. She took the money she made from the sales and purchased an umbrella that would cover her grandmother from the sun, giving the shade necessary for her to sit throughout the day and beg, talk, socialize. But these details don’t mean much. It’s the final scene that is most powerful to me. The rival boys knocked Sili on the ground then stole her crutches and newspapers. Sili’s friend who also sold newspapers saw her on the ground, extended his hand to her, lifted her up and placed her on his back, carrying her so they could proceed along the journey. After having placed her there, he questioned, “what’s next?”
Her reply: We continue, with a forward gesture.
It showed me that the ones who do so much work to cover others also, at various times and places, need to be carried. The film was a constant display of a shed, of musicians playing together, filling in spaces through improvisation and creativity, who use skill, care, thoughtfulness and rigor to create new out of seeming necessity. Sheds don’t have time limits, they are determined by coming together to make music. It’s all about the moment of being together, carrying each other through sounding out.
My previous dream ended rather abruptly with me carrying you. Things get fuzzy thereafter. But the point? Carrying is sometimes all we can offer even if that offer is refused. We have to be committed to being with each other, to being in community with each other, to continue even after we’ve been knocked down. Especially if we’ve been knocked down. Even if by withdrawing, by letting go, we can keep moving, keep with the ongoing movement.
Choreosonic graphesis proves resurrection, that one might create life from tragedy, that one can write beautifully about – or create song, dance, joy, memory, refusal, all – from that which is supposed to preoccupy us in the supposed totality of finality is a gift, a gift of excess, excess as black flesh, black flesh enunciating otherwise possibilities not reducible to but announcing the very possibility of a way of life. What is offered in every gathering of flesh – whether Wednesday nights for prayer meetings or convenings in Cleveland to commemorate, remember and celebrate – is the beautiful demand, the ethical demand, of carrying away shame, carrying away grief, sharing with others in joy and love and hope. The sting of death is overcome by finding something to say, by saying something more, even when such saying makes us sad. Forgiveness need not be a normative response but when offered, should be considered in all of its devastating beauty and complexity.
If the recent proliferation of violence against black, brown and indigenous flesh – violence in the name of the state – emerges because of the life we have, the life we share, how to continue such life had and shared without the perpetual death? We must live, live anyhow, we must live because it is the life we have, the life we already share, that is under constant threat of being destroyed. Fighting against it is what brings forth that life, that vitality, the black symphonic. Knowing the stakes produces an ethical crisis at the heart of the world in which we live. And such an ethical crisis necessitates a seeking otherwise, otherwise than this.