Photo: Bruce Gilden/Magnum Photos
There is a moment in Alvin Ailey’s dance masterpiece, Revelations — “Sinner Man” is the song — when, suddenly, from the far-right wing, a boy comes running.
You run to the sea
Sea won’t you hide me
He runs. He leaps — hurls himself through the air, really — one spin, two, three. Perfect, soaring spins — electric, arms outstretched then clasped, legs flung then gathered, damn.
Hold the flying dancer in your mind.
Photo: Paul Kolnik
I first saw Revelations, which Ailey created as a tribute to the African-American experience, on December 4, 2015. No snow fell that evening in Manhattan, nor much that month. It was the warmest December on record, which might have been more troubling if the year had been less strange.
For example: The head of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter was outed by her parents as a white woman. Bill Cosby, who’d spent much of the previous decade shaming blacks for their behavior, was arraigned in Pennsylvania on charges of sexual assault. In Charleston, a white supremacist was welcomed into the basement of Mother Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, where 12 members had gathered for bible study. He carried with him a Glock and 88 bullets, purchased from Walmart, and after sitting with them for a time, he opened fire, massacring nine. The shooter hoped to start a race war. One already raged, it seemed: Race riots sparked that spring in Baltimore, continued from the prior summer in Ferguson, Missouri. The grandest American riots of the 21st century.
Many how-comes and therefores were written, but the tracks seemed plain to me. I’d spent the summers of 2015 and 2014 and 2013 driving through America with some friends from graduate school, with hopes to do good in places where good needed to be done. Akin to Peace Corps volunteers, or Robin Hood, you could say. Everywhere we went — to New Orleans, to Detroit, Kansas City, Colorado — the same question echoed: Who’s being left behind? And each time, from some honest citizen, came the same reply: us. Us meaning, for the rest of our time together, black people.
So, I watched those masked children shattering windows, stomping the hoods of police cars, setting fire to the pharmacy and the gas station, and I marveled not that they had done it, but that it had taken so long to come. Every now and then the kids say Fuck it. I offer my round of applause.
Not that I joined them.
Just as damn near every young black person took to the streets, I began to disappear. I’d traveled not only some 20,000 miles across the country by then, but also many psychic miles to my 28th year, and had reached a dead end. A therapist later suggested I was depressed, but I did not, at that time, believe in therapists, or depression — or, increasingly, anything — so, having no better ideas, I turned off the engine, so to speak, and walked away. Early in 2015, I downloaded a manual, Vanishing Point: How to Disappear in America Without a Trace. By fall I’d ended our cross-country missions (not by fiat; I just stopped raising the money that made continuing possible). By the following summer, I’d left New York and holed up solitary in Texas. A sister-friend scolded, over tea: You’re hiding when the world needs you. I lost a lot of friends.
I was not without support, however. A voice spoke clear at the top of Jay Electronica’s “better in tune with the infinite”:
If one would open up such truth, as the truth of God to the people, I do think that He’s within His right to stay out of the sight of the people until He has won everything to Himself.
The voice of Elijah Muhammad, a man I want to categorically denounce but cannot, or will not, because he found himself, from birth, doomed to solve the same timeless riddle those protesters were trying to solve in Baltimore and Ferguson: How can we live in a land that’s made to kill us? The same riddle we’ve been trying to solve since the first bad year for black people in America, the year I write you to commemorate, 1619.
George Washington Williams, in his 1882 History of the Negro Race in America, exclaimed:
Through all time to come no event will be more sincerely deplored than the introduction of slavery into the colony of Virginia during the last days of the month of August in the year 1619!
It is true that free and enslaved Africans joined Spanish explorers in the Americas as early as the 1520s. There was, for instance, Esteban the Moor, who served as guide and translator for a party that ran into trouble near present-day Tampa Bay, ran into more trouble just off the Gulf of Mexico, trekked across the Texas desert and on throughout the Southwest and into Mexico on their genocidal adventure. But 1619 was a different kind of landing. The 20-odd Negroes who arrived by force at Point Comfort that August may not have been enslaved in the way my grandmother’s grandfather was — enslaved because he was black, enslaved because his mother had been enslaved — but they clearly were not free, and they damn sure weren’t setting out on an expedition. Whatever the brass tacks of Anthony and Isabella — who were in that 1619 party and later gave birth to William, the first black child born in the American colonies — we know that many hundred thousands were stolen out of Africa and trafficked to this land. We know that they, and their children, were enslaved, upwards of 4 million, for generations. We know that they were worked like mules and tortured and sold, up to and after emancipation.
But did you know that some could fly?
A long time ago, the story went, befo’ yestidy was bo’n, an’ befo’ bygones was uster-bes, the Africans knew how to fly. Trapped in slave ships, taken across water wetter than tears, many forgot their flying powers. But there were those who remembered. One day, in the field, having had more than enough, one who remembered would speak in a strange tongue — Kum Baba Yali or Kum … Yali, kum buba tambe — or they’d gather in a circle and run and run, roun day go fastuhnfastuh, and black men and black women and black children would rise up off the ground. They’d stand solid in the air. They’d fly back to Africa for good, or off somewhere for a little while. Some would simply disappear, jis go right out uh sight. The mad white overseer, who could not understand their chant, would chase the flying slaves. Goodie bye, goodie bye, they waved.
We — if you are who I hope you are — still find ourselves, 400 years later, in a bind, or a country. Our country. We have learned and taught so many tactics to survive in it. To assimilate, best we can. To fight for our rights, even to the death. Yet here we are, shit in fan, wondering (at least, I wonder) what may be our next best move. I have come back to offer a way — one that saved me, just as it once saved our flying forebears: the black art of escape.
As soon as I got out of Dodge, I received an urgent message from a man I briefly met at one of the last dinner parties I’d attended in New York:
You *must* write something on Dallas, and the whole bloody mess, soon. We all need your voice, the calm and pacifying and inspirational voice we got to hear at Lynn’s table.
Be well and many thanks,
The whole bloody mess was a week-long stretch of July 2016 that went as follows: On a Tuesday night, two cops in Baton Rouge pinned a black man to the ground outside a convenience store and shot him six times, to death. The following day, a cop in Minneapolis shot a black man in the side — also to death — as the man reached for his driver’s license. The day after that, a black man in downtown Dallas and killed five cops with an AK-47 while they guarded a protest, organized to lament the events in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis. The sniper then barricaded himself in a parking garage, informed interrogators that he’d planted bombs throughout downtown, and was — shortly after the bomb search began — blown up himself, by a police robot.
I did not remember saying anything calm or pacifying or inspirational to anyone at that New York dinner. Although my knack for projecting those qualities was, when I think about it, one of the reasons I had such an urge to disappear. No matter how awful I felt, I seemed able to make other people feel pretty good. But this ability, which had made me a gifted child orator and, from my teens on, an appealing lover, had, by the time in question, made me a liar. How could anyone, in good faith, try to convince anyone else that all was well? So, my only course of action was to keep my comforting mouth shut.
Not that I was needed. The president eulogized those Dallas officers on July 12:
I’m here to insist that we are not as divided as we seem. And I know that because I know America. I know how far we’ve come against impossible odds. I know we’ll make it because of what I’ve experienced in my own life, and what I’ve seen of this country and its people — their goodness and decency — as president of the United States. And I know it because of what we’ve seen here in Dallas — how all of you, out of great suffering, have shown us the meaning of perseverance and character, and hope.
It was the song he’d been singing since we first met this kind and brilliant man, in 2004. That there is not a black America and a white America … there’s a United States of America song. Well, we’d learned there was a black America and a white America, and by 2016 neither seemed moved by the same old number.
White America was on its way to electing a white nationalist who, before his own presidential campaign, had launched a smear campaign to prove that Mr. Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim. I can’t speak for all of black America but, as far as I could tell, the young black American who may have voted, for the first time, in November 2008, believing change has come to America, felt now that change, if it had come, had not included them — at least, not for the better.
The basic bargain had long been this: Conform to the standard of this society. Learn the language, worship the gods, go to the schools, join the army, start a family, hold a job, pay a mortgage, be clean and civilized, etc., etc., and at some point, we — we here being white people or the law, if there’s a difference — will consider you a full and equal citizen. A full and equal human being. You might even be president. The dangerously beautiful thing about being young and black in the year 2015 and 2016, and right up till today, was that we had accumulated enough evidence to understand that we could hold up our end of the bargain yet still be subject to the violent whims of white citizens and the terrorism of the police. We would still be considered, if not called, niggers.
Of course, the kids had plenty of evidence in Los Angeles in ’92, and in Memphis on April 4, 1968, and in Tulsa in 1921, and all over the country in the Red Summer of 1919, and on and on back to the first days of Reconstruction. It is a world-historic event, however, that while a black man slept in the White House, black children were murdered, by the state, on playgrounds, in their own backyards, in supermarket aisles. Worse, still, that he, the most powerful man on earth, could not or did not stop it — and offered, instead, calm and pacifying words.
It is easy, cowardly even, to criticize the president, any president, in writing, when you would likely yes him to death in person. As I did Mr. Obama’s predecessor, a few months before I saw Revelations, when I wound up seated next to him one evening, and asked a question relevant to our point here: Mr. President, how did eight years in the White House change you? Mr. Bush offered three answers, the second and third of which I hope to share some other time. The first, now: I became a better comforter, 43 replied. So 44, I suppose, was simply doing his job. Doesn’t make him any less guilty, but it does take off some of the sting, you know?
The guilt is not the president’s alone. I once heard a senior black administrator at Yale welcome a chapel full of black freshmen with advice that had been passed down to him: You may be a token … but be the best token you can be. And I heard, so many Sundays, that Proverbs question, Who can find a virtuous woman, for her price is greater than rubies? — which never seemed to stop the patriarchal violence done to every virtuous woman I knew. And I hear now, in my head, that cautionary mantra of respectability: We don’t air our dirty laundry. This mantra, mind you, is part of a larger strategy: Show a united front, root for everybody black. Nobody wins when the family feuds, the rapper raps. But as you and I know, nobody wins when the family pretends there’s nothing to feud over. Or, no: We let the wrong and the guilty win. Can we not be among the wrong and guilty?
We do not learn, until we’re forced to learn, that being respectable has little if anything to do with being respected — that either all of us must be niggers, or none of us can be niggers, for any of us to be free.
Now, I have laid this line of thinking on a few folks I respect, and boy did it piss them off. Respectability is what got you here! One seethed, assuming, perhaps, that I was some Jack & Jill dropout recently gone radical. I am not.
Between the ages of 4 (the earliest age I remember) and 10, except for one year between 5 and 6, my mother, my father, my sister, and I constituted, by any standard I believe in, a damn good family. For the final two years of that era, we lived in a run-down neighborhood, in a run-down house, for free, since my father’s father was the landlord and never charged a dime, as far as I know, and never fixed anything. Someone had, before we arrived, added a second story to the back of the original squat white-brick house. Upstairs were two empty bedrooms and a shower, filled with cobwebs. Filled also — as was the second floor entire, and the stairwell leading to it — with the smell of raw sewage.
You can get used to anything, of course, so around age 9 or 10, I began to do my homework on the higher floor, at a TV dinner stand. I see, in this particular memory, a spiral notebook, or maybe one of those marble-covered ones, I’m not sure. I know that I’d written out my work. I know my mother had come to inspect, during a break from the hours she spent in the downstairs bathroom, putting on her face.
Ugh! Boy. Baby. Now. You know you are supposed to leave more space than THAT between your words. Gone and tear that out so we can start over.
She unfolded a metal chair next to the TV dinner stand.
I began to write the same words I’d already written, though much more slowly, since my mother had placed her red-nailed pinky on the page, and crept it across as I wrote, marking exactly how much space was meant to be between each word.
See? Now use yours for the rest.
She rose and walked back down the stairs.
Some months later, after my father chased her with a dinner fork, my mother, my sister, and I left that house, with the encouragement of two Dallas policemen. We returned, not long after, to collect our last few things. I cannot remember my mother or my sister or myself saying a word, that night, to my father, or to the wild-haired dingy woman we’d never seen before, who was scratching her way through our house. Nor did we say a word about the blackened crack pipe that rested in the corner near our stove. That’s one thing I love about my family: our absolute commitment to decorum.
My father may have learned this as a child himself: Play it cool when his father hit his mother, play it cool when the white boys egged his house and called his sisters niggers. And my mother, spending all those hours in the bathroom mirror, coming out to measure exact space between my words — fragile, indestructible, bringing order, as much as possible, to her besieged world. Make the face perfect. Write the words clear. Keep the peace, or quiet.
My sister and I kept this up when, a year later, our father was sent to jail and our mother was sent to a psychiatric hospital. We did the same when Mama eventually escaped, not to be seen again for the rest of my childhood. I kept right on putting space between my words, kept standing still to recite those words in a pleasing manner for all involved, kept quiet whenever necessary — and seeing as though these skills helped me get to Yale and Harvard, and even to write to you now, I suppose you could say that respectability did get me here, but you could also say that this misses the basic fucking point. No?
On a sunny afternoon, during an abnormally wet Los Angeles winter, I met an accomplished young poet for lunch in a downtown café. As we flipped the menu three or four times, he shared that he had watched every speech of mine he could find, and read many interviews, too. I figured he was flirting, so responded as always when hoping to sidestep an advance — Oh wow — and stared at the menu, flipping it a few more times.
Yeah, he leaned over the table, I was trying to decide if you was the Feds.
I looked up.
Like, the FBI?
Hell yeah man … thought you might be trying to infiltrate the movement.
I loved a boy, some years before this lunch, who had been torn between loving me and dying for the movement. He figured he could do both. I was unconvinced.
When his 30th birthday came around, summer of ’16, we spoke by telephone in the night as I lay in bed, and agreed that he would stay where he was (I don’t remember where; he was always on the move), to rest, instead of flying down south to join a protest. Gone home, I said, before I said, good night.
You right. Night.
He texted from down south the next morning.
By midnight, he’d been arrested.
His comrade called from outside the jail to update me re: the situation.
They’re gonna kill him! She cried.
His closest kin held phones elsewhere, listening. I suppose I was Coretta Scott for the evening. Yet all I wanted was to get back to sleep. He had broken our agreement and, as I told him once he was freed, he’d been granted the silver star of protest: jail. Second only to the highest prize, death. You simply cannot do a certain kind of work these days (perhaps it has always been this way) without the aroma of martyrdom hanging on you. I pass no judgment. I’d simply like people to stop dying altogether. Or, at least, leave me out of it.
I wanted, at the time of my disappearance, to be left out of everything. This worked to some degree. I spent so much time alone that I asked, on the rare occasions I found myself in conversation with others: Are things really as bad as they seem? Seem, that is, on the news, which I no longer watched, or the internet.
The first time I asked this question, December 2016, was in a booth at an Austin taco joint. A journalist I knew from Brooklyn flew down with his wife and two friends.
It’s much worse. The journalist shook his head. Much worse. I mean, nobody can believe it.
His wife co-signed: I can only compare it to the way it felt in New York after 9/11. Wouldn’t you say that? (She looked around, as if for witnesses.) Everybody’s been crying. Everybody’s walking the streets in … in a kind of daze … she trailed off.
Wow. I whispered.
I have yet to discover any stronger response than Wow. I can say the Wow, but, to tell the truth, I have not felt a Wow.
To be a Negro in this country, Baldwin wrote, and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. I love Jimmy, but No, thank you.
I left my visitors and drove to the old house I rented on a quiet two-lane street, next to an old couple that had been married (and in the same residence) for 61 years. To my right lived a young woman whose boyfriend soon moved in, as did his adopted black son. Not long after, in moved also two spotted piglets. I noticed a new yard sign:
IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE:
BLACK LIVES MATTER
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
SCIENCE IS REAL
LOVE IS LOVE
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING
I never saw who lived in the house to the right of this couple. I did see their yard signs, at least six sprinkled in the front and side grass. All read:
Sam and Jean, the historic couple on my left, were fantastic neighbors. They would cross my yard to say hello to the piglets, or feed them when the couple left town. When I left town, Sam would roll my garbage bin to the curb. Jean would collect my mail from the porch. Sam and Jean kept eyes on everything, on behalf of everyone. For example: I’d bought a car upon moving to Texas and, when I replaced my dealer license plates with the permanents, Sam stopped me the next evening, in the driveway between our homes.
Hey, Casey! Somethin’ hap’n to yer other car?
Nope … that’s the same one, Sam. Why y’ask?
Ohh, I’s just wondrin’. Sam grazed a few grass blades with one foot. I saw the plates were diff’rent … just wondrin’.
Sam and Jean saw it all. Yet, somehow, they missed whoever broke into my house, in broad daylight, late February 2017, and walked out with a watch and a ring and cash and a large television, leaving the front and back doors wide open. They could not believe, for the life of them, that it happened, since they had not seen a thing.
I could not believe them.
What looks like fun is preparation for life. –Charles Burnett, director, Killer of Sheep
Photo: Charles Burnett/©2007 Milestone Film & Video
I moved downtown, into a former paper factory. No burglars, nor anyone I knew, could reach me on the tenth floor without my assistance. I could hear, from inside of my front door, whether anyone was in the hallway, so never risked having to speak to my neighbors. I could take the elevator, steps from my apartment, directly to my car, and to a small grocery store on the ground level. I did not even have to meet the mail persons — someone left packages at my doorstep, or in a locker in the lobby.
Then came March 2, 2018.
That morning, in North Austin, Anthony Stephan House, 39, opened a package that had been left outside his front door. It exploded, killing him.
Mr. House was a husband, father of an 8-year-old daughter, and longtime member of his stepfather Freddie Dixon’s church, Wesley United Methodist, founded in 1865 by freed black Texans. Investigators’ first theory was that Mr. House had been the victim of mistaken identity. Their second theory: We can’t rule out that Mr. House didn’t construct this himself, and then accidentally detonate it.
Ten days later, in East Austin, Draylen Mason, a 17-year-old double-bassist set to start college at University of Texas at Austin in the fall, opened a package that his mother had brought into the kitchen from the front porch. The package exploded, injuring his mother and killing Draylen. Mother and son also attended Wesley United. The Mason and House families had known each other for a long time.
Pastor Freddie Dixon shared his own theory with reporters: Number one, I think it’s a hate crime. Number two, somebody’s got some kind of vendetta here. The investigators did not agree. There were connections between the House family and the Masons, but nothing that would make any of them a target.
I’d bet your rent that these investigators were relieved when, hours after the bomb that killed Draylen Mason, another exploded, critically injuring Esperanza Herrera — and when, six days later, a fourth bomb, triggered by a trip wire strung between two yard signs, injured two young white men. By the time the fifth and sixth bombs were discovered at two separate FedEx facility 60 miles outside Austin (addressed to homes in Austin’s city limits), investigators could confidently claim that, although two of the dead had been black and connected, and there was evidence that the third bomb had wound up at the wrong address, the people of Austin had a serial bomber with no clear motive on their hands — an equal-opportunity psychopath, maybe, but not an anti-black terrorist.
Thanks to FedEx surveillance footage, Home Depot’s purchase records, and vehicle registrations that led investigators to a specific red pickup truck, a suspect was soon located at a hotel in Round Rock, Texas. Late on the night of March 20, when the suspect drove out of the hotel parking lot and onto the Interstate 35 service road, a SWAT crew followed him and, before he could enter the freeway, pinned the red pickup between two SWAT vehicles. As one officer rammed the passenger side window, a bomb exploded. The suspect had blown himself up.
The deaths that occurred here were random and meaningless, the district attorney announced. This can never be called a happy ending. But it’s a damn good one for the people of the State of Texas.
It took another year to complete the investigation, though I’m not sure what rates as complete. Police discovered, on the suspect’s cell phone, a 25-minute recorded confession, which they refuse to release. Authorities do not believe it’s in the public’s best interest to share the tape, since it did not change their view re: motive, and would only make the suspect famous, or, worse, inspire others.
I do not believe them.
As I write you, we have just learned, ten years after the fact, new truths about the death of Oscar Grant, in Oakland, at the hands of two BART officers, Anthony Pirone and Johannes Mehserle. Responding to reports of a fight at the Fruitvale Station early in the morning of New Year’s Day 2009, Pirone saw Oscar Grant walking between train cars and ordered him to wait with others who had been corralled for questioning. He later claimed that, soon after this, Oscar Grant attacked his partner and then turned on Pirone himself, at which point Pirone had to fight for my life.
This testimony, an investigation proved, was a lie. Turns out Pirone was the instigator: He grabbed Oscar Grant, who had not attacked Pirone’s partner, pushed him against a wall, and punched him in the head. Pirone sat Mr. Grant on the platform, then kneed him in the face. Pirone forced Mr. Grant to lie face down, keeping him still with one knee while Mehserle struggled to put on handcuffs. Claiming that the unarmed Mr. Grant was resisting arrest and possibly reaching for weapon, Mehserle drew his gun, stood up, and fired one shot into Mr. Grant’s back. Oscar Grant died later that day. He was 22 years old.
Pirone, who called Oscar Grant nigger throughout the incident, was fired but served no jail time. Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, and served 365 days in the Los Angeles Central Jail.
I remember going to the theater with a white classmate, in Cambridge, to see Fruitvale Station. The movie ended with the end of Mr. Grant’s life. As the credits rolled, my classmate began to weep. We sat there in the credit-darkness for a long time, silent except for the sounds of people (mostly white) crying. Eventually we processed out of the theater, still not saying a word. In the parking lot, she turned to me, Tabasco-colored streaks across her eyeballs.
I just can’t believe they did that, Case. I cannot fucking believe it.
I felt a sudden urge to knock her to the pavement.
Well. Believe it.
So much of our time, these 400 years, or at least since Mr. Douglass put forth his story in 1845, has been spent trying to get white Americans to believe it. Believe that the cops do what we know they do. Believe a bomber’s only motive may be to blow us up. To be white in this country is to have the luxury of believing the official story, or the lie, re: Sandra Bland, re: Emmett Till, re: the goddamn Civil War.
It has proved impossible to purge our assailants of their tendency to assail. I asked a sister-friend, who’d marched in Ferguson and elsewhere since, what the state of the movement was.
Is there even a movement? she asked in answer.
So, you could say that I have infiltrated the movement, and you could also say there is no movement to infiltrate.
My sister-friend’s response reflected, in part, the difficult task of holding accountable leaders of a “leaderless” movement. (Or holding anyone accountable these days, it seems, including our treasonous president.) Some have earned a great deal of money. Some have died naturally, whatever that means for a 27-year-old like Ms. Erica Garner; others have been killed. A solid number have done the humble, grueling work of daily organizing. They have put forth, not only in the Capitol but in town halls coast-to-coast, serious demands such as, to the police: Stop killing us. By and large, those demands have been ignored. So, her question reflects, fundamentally, the heartbreaking sense of futility that seeps into any young person who strives to make America a nobler country.
We continue to be, as Frank Wilderson writes, haunted by a sense that violence and captivity are the grammar and ghosts of our every gesture. The movement’s greatest impact, and a great impact it is, has been to give voice to this grammar and to these ghosts. Never in American history have more artists, filmmakers, writers, scholars, etc., etc., made a living by showing all the ways black life resembles social death. We have been granted, in place of revolution, a pep rally.
In the spirit of the times, a black man wrote to his son, in despair: We’re captured, brother. I ask you, though: Are we captured? Or, is that all we are?
In 1803, a group of captured Igbo rebelled at Dunbar Creek, Georgia. A man told the Georgia Writer’s Project in 1940: Dey all staht singin and dey march right down in duh ribbah tuh mahch back tuh Africa, but dey ain able tuh get deah. Dey gits drown. The Igbo chanted, as they walked into the water: The Sea brought me and the Sea will bring me home.
No doubt many captured Africans flung themselves overboard or found other ways to end their earthbound lives. I don’t blame them. Nor do I blame you, should you ever decide to follow their lead, or should you ever follow the fighters into the streets, or elsewhere. No one, in these 400 years, has discovered the sure path to freedom. All I’m trying to say is this: Any freedom manual without flight instructions is not worth reading.
I first saw Revelations thanks to a sister-friend who remains one of the most beautiful humans I’ve known, and whose father, soon after being elected president of a large African country, was assassinated. It was she who scolded, over tea (she’s British), You’re hiding when the world needs you. My condition worsened. Her diagnosis, not entirely incorrect: I possessed a crippled sense of self-esteem. You have got to unlearn that slave mentality, darling.
What a curious thing to unlearn.
My third great-grandmother was born in an unknown place, on an unknown day, sometime in 1860, and first appears in the record of human history on the 1880 United States Census, in a town called Caldwell, Texas. Name: Amanda Oliver. Age: 20. Black. Servant in the house of A.W. McIver, 43, a Confederate veteran and judge. If Ms. Oliver, my grandfather’s great-grandmother, was 20 in 1880, then she spent at least the first five years of her life enslaved — perhaps in bondage to Judge A.W. McIver. Since the 1880 census lists her 2-year-old daughter, Margarette (my grandfather’s grandmother), and 5-year-old son, Rufus, as mulatto, I can’t help but think of how those babies came to be — and by whom!
The first time I read that record, a soft bitter cry came loose, and I was mad, mad as hell at Judge McIver and all the other evil McIvers, mad that I had never known, mad that I now knew. Yes, I was ashamed. It is one thing to understand the abstract notion that your people were enslaved; another thing to have the proof that, not too long ago, your own kin was born into the social class of animals.
In winter 2017, I flew to New York for the Whitney Museum’s exhibition, An Incomplete History of Protest. I was walking, that cold bright afternoon, across the Whitney’s pine floors, toward the westside glass windows that look out on the Hudson River, when I heard, behind me, a woman’s plaintive voice.
My mother had 12 of us children …
I stopped, turned around, saw the crackling black-and-white footage coming from a television mounted on the white wall.
… and it troubled her in her heart, you know, the way we was treated. And she’d pray every night for the Lord to get her and her children off that place.
The voice was Ruby Dee’s.
“I’m free! I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!”
Photo: Courtesy of the artist, galerie frank elbaz and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Well one day she was plowing in the field … and all of a sudden, she let out a big yell, and started singin’ and shoutin’ and whoopin’ and hollerin’ … Master Jim a come a runnin’, and he says “What’s all this goin’ on in the field? You think I sent you out here just to whoop and yell? No siree I sent you out here to work and you better work or I’ll put this cowhide across your black back!”
And … my mama … she — she just smile, all over her face … and she say — Ruby Dee chuckles — “Lord has showed me the way. I ain’t gone grieve no more. No matter how you all done treat me and my children. The Lord is showed me the way! And someday … she gasps … we ain’t gone never be slaves no mo’!”
A tear forms in Ruby Dee’s right eye. She winces —
And old Master Jim took that bull whip and started lashing Mama across her back — she whimpers, catches her breath — but she didn’t say nothing she just … got up — the tear trips over and streams down her right cheek — and went on back to the field a singin’ and a shoutin’: “I’m free! I’m free! I’m free! I’m free!”
Ruby Dee is crying, her fingers pressed namaste under her nose, as the camera pans out to reveal a group of black men and women sitting next to and standing over her, around a riser (or prop picket fence), looking sorrowfully on.
Ruby Dee was performing the testimony of Ms. Fannie Moore, a formerly enslaved woman interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. The footage is part of a larger work titled An Ecstatic Experience, by the artist Ja’Tovia Gary.
Ms. Gary reflected on another of her works: The film is centered around the idea of transgenerational trauma — trauma can be imprinted in the DNA of our ancestors and transmitted down the line. Are we trapped in these repeated intrinsic patterns or can we access transgenerational wisdom and free ourselves from them?
Might we access, also, transgenerational ecstasy?
Ecstasy, Abraham Heschel explained, is a state in which the soul is, as it were, freed from, or raised above, the body.
Ecstasy may denote, he adds, 1) a raving condition, 2) alarm, 3) tranquility of spirit, 4) prophetic rapture. All, of course, defy human logic, as does human flight, perhaps the highest form of ecstasy. By human logic we should all be dead, so what have we got to lose? What, more urgently, have we to remember?
I’ve come across more than a few of us who have no interest in remembering 1619, in marking our 400 years at all. Why, one asked, would we celebrate becoming slaves? We are not, I told her. We are marking the birth of a new race of people — our people, enslaved and all. We take a backward glance at them to enact a future vision for ourselves. To learn how to access that gift Ms. Fannie Moore’s mother embodies: to stand inside oneself in another dimension, on another plane that might help us endure, if not transcend, this plane we cannot fully escape. I do not believe that we are our ancestor’s wildest dreams. I do believe they are our greatest hope.
Oh, to learn anew the slave mentality!
Toward the end of The Color Purple (Alice Walker’s, not Steven Spielberg’s), Celie has become friends with Mr. ___, her tormentor, in part because the same woman has broken both their hearts, which is another story. Celie’s long lost sister has been a missionary in Africa. Through letters, she’s schooled Celie on the customs of the Olinka people, who refuse to tolerate difference, which gets all the white Olinka thrown out. Those black Olinka who can’t play by the rules are sold off as slaves. No surprise to Celie:
Well, you know how niggers is. Can’t tell em nothing even today. Can’t be rule. Every nigger you see got a kingdom in his head.
One central aim of these 400 years has been to convince us that the kingdom in our head will get us killed. I can’t tell you this ain’t so. I can say, surely, there are less noble things that might still lead to death. I want to take my chances: to fly, if only in the kingdom of my mind.
I planned to drop acid for this very purpose. A doctor warned that, with my genetic predisposition for mental illness, I might go mad and never come back. I settled for a safer ecstasy: meditation.
I sit each day, or try to. Three, 15, 45 minutes. I breathe, deeply. The yogi says: If the breath is deep, life is deep; if the breath is shallow, life is shallow. Thoughts knock on my mind’s door, force entry. The yogi says: Don’t be bothered about any coming and going of thoughts. Let come what comes. Let go what goes. See what remains. My back aches. I sit. My hips grow sore. I sit. My left foot, only my left, for some reason, falls asleep under my right knee. I wiggle it a little, and sit. The yogi says: When you are able to sit, the whole universe will come with folded hands, and serve you.
I will say: While you wait for the whole universe to come, the whole world comes in its place, demanding a response, demanding action, demanding sorrow, tears, and blood. Don’t take the bait. Perform your civic duty, yes. Vote. Help those in need. Weep with those who weep, as the Pope once preached. But the most radical act we can commit is to be well — to bring about the day, and soon, when, to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be at peace. Perfect peace.
One night in New Orleans, a jazz pianist I know played a set in another musician’s band. The leader is something of a legend, and took that status to mean that the audience was there to see him, and that each player was subject to his authority. He wanted to put on a show, so started barking orders at the other musicians, most of all my pianist sister who, aside from being a prodigy, is rather mild-natured.
Now, Trumpet man leader is really feeling himself — C’mon now! Naw not that way … give it to ‘em! — coming down hard on our pianist. If she was the type to be embarrassed, it would have been embarrassing. This continues for a few minutes, until, calmly, the pianist slips her fingers from the piano keys and rests them in her lap. She does not leave the stage. She does not shout or scowl. And she does not play another note. Well, you know how niggers is.
Oh, to be a nigger with a kingdom on the inside!
My journalist friend rang me in Los Angeles, from Brooklyn, soon after I released the book I had written while away. This is your moment, he stressed, assuming, reasonably, that I’d written the book to start a new career, rather than to end an old life. Some weeks passed, and my pace of action did not pick up enough, so he rang again. I’m serious … this is your moment … you’ve got to work it.
We hung up and I went to sleep.
In Roman Africa, nearly 2,000 years ago, Tertullian, the early Christian theologian, wrote: Sleep is combined with ecstasy. In fact, with what real feeling … do we experience joy, and sorrow and alarm in our dreams.
It was in sleep that God, in Genesis, came to Abraham:
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and lo, a dread and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram: Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there, and they will be oppressed for four hundred years.
In Atlanta, not long ago, a theologian in training, on the brink of disintegration (due in large part, she believes, to white supremacy and capitalism), began to nap. Naps really saved my life — and now she spreads the word to others, through the Nap Ministry: Our dream space has been stolen and we want it back. Naps are reparations.
Oh, to miss the moment! (I will not stay woke.)
One of the many places I lived, or slept, once my mother disappeared, was my father’s mother’s house, at which I arrived without invitation or much choice. I spent many hours alone in a large, low-ceilinged back room, surfing the internet and listening to the same albums on repeat — most of all, Ms. Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged 2.0.
She’d recorded the album live in Times Square in July 2001, months before the September 11 terrorist attacks, which delayed, by nearly a year, the album’s release. That delay did nothing to tame the confusion, the heartbreak, that spread when it became clear to those who loved her (or thought they did), that Ms. Lauryn Hill, perhaps the greatest artist of her time, had renounced her fame — or, rather, had renounced the life required to maintain her fame.
I used to be a performer, she said on the opening track. I really don’t consider myself a performer anymore.
One music critic called this the least enticing introduction in the history of the live album. He had nothing kinder to say about the rest: The lyrics are confused and elliptical, strung together to make a messy, inconsequential album. Or, about Ms. Lauryn Hill as a figure: One popular theory is that Hill is just barking mad. (She preempted this attack on the album’s outro: Now that people think I’m crazy and deranged, we have peace, total peace.) Another critic warned: She shouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of her fans wait for her to figure out where she’s going before they start following her again.
The bulk, perhaps.
It was Interlude 5 I turned to then and still turn to, today. A 12-minute, 12-second homily. She stands the gospel on its head: The real gospel is Repent, which means “let go of all that crap that’s killing you.” Or, as Toni Morrison has Guitar tell Milkman Dead: Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.
Before the curtain rose on Revelations, that December evening in 2015, the intermission house lights shone for about ten minutes. I felt a whisper on my right.
That girl look so familiar.
Over there, my companion pointed down our row and across the aisle, to a woman standing, with them street clothes on. Look like a homeless person.
It was Ms. Lauryn Hill.
She wore many layers of oversized wool, at least one hood, or a cape, hard to tell, and many bangles, and dark makeup on her splendid dark face. It was a sort of Afro-grunge style familiar to those who followed the artist, or who lived in certain parts of Brooklyn, but foreign enough for my companion, in town from Texas, to make it hard to distinguish a star from a vagabond.
Gone and get a picture with her, boy, my friend nudged, just before Revelations began.
Gone! she nudged again, once the show ended, and, again, as we shuffled out of the theater behind Ms. Lauryn Hill, who eased past the taxis that lined 55th Street and rounded a corner, into the night.
Naw, I’m not gone bother her.
Within six months I’d pulled off my disappearing act.
As we stand, you and I, at the shoreline of destruction, seeing, in the distance, the end of this American empire, there is but one way forward, old and true: Be not conformed to this society — nor kill yourself to make it love you — but be transformed in it, against it, by the renewal of your mind, body, and spirit. No matter the cost.
Claim your inheritance. Miss the moment. Go mad, go missing, take a nap, take the day, drop a tab. You’re free!
Kum baba yali.
The kingdom is nigh.
Send a postcard, won’t you? Wink at me on the subway, in our dreams.