Robert Glasper, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, “Always Shine,” from Black Radio (album)
[Outro: Lupe Fiasco] And to my hero Heron, Gil Scott In a discourse with Baldwin On a jet plane with no fear for fallin’ But wishin’ it never lands Reminiscent of the dream time Presently en route to the rhymes of the machine time Magazine times With coffee more sugar and milk than coffee Aborted rhymes, rotten beats, and failed hooks Roads as bumpy as braille books Fail cools, bad French, and mad push at the door Gourmet food at the starving soiree A choice of one easy woman at a time I’ll take three the hard way Trying to be as abstract as possible And vulgar, the more shocking the more profitable A baby fed molten gold And sat upon a pedestal promote getting called 24 carot souls How to describe this Insightful remarks such as the best thing I’ve ever heard is silence Some more technically impressive In a faux Spanish romantic hues of a Marxist dialectic Please listen to the critics, pointless is the common passerby Might as well not even exist, not even a bit In the event of my demise give everything I prize to the poor And to the oppressors, I leave a war And so on and so forth
Close Encounters of the Anti-Black Kind: Courting the Paradigm
In three brief movements I want to expose mundane aspects of my current relationship for a multitude of reasons, none of which include: lecturing my partner, mounting an arsenal in dealing with my relationship, or creating a nuanced con list. Which is to say, I am not taking my relationship or partner to task; rather, in keeping with the theme of negrosunshine, I want to document my experiences and analyze or make sense of the intricacies of power. How does the paradigm of anti/Blackness structure the modesty of flirting, romancing, and just hanging out? Further, how do my partner and I negotiate the commonsense logic of an anti-Black world? What protective strategies do I have in dark of an explicit Blackness, what coping mechanism does he have in dealing with an uncertain Blackness? Each movement, will detail an instance which for most would be ruled irrelevant, for few a breaking point, and for some (including myself) a moment of clarity as to how structures and institutions play out in the intimacies of relationships, conversations, and simple interaction. That said, perhaps this post (and the two to follow) is a kind of Foucauldian styled meditation; but to return to the second sentence of this paragraph, the subject of these posts is not my relationship or my partner (perhaps those nouns should be reserved under the notation interlocutor), rather we must center our gaze on power relations and unflinchingly stare into its abyss. On an abstracted level we must ask: my partner and I, our relation to each other, and our relation to the world?
Though I present three experiences, my analysis in all will hinge on that perplexing question of the Black and a further examination and illumination of anti/Blackness. No conclusions will be offered, for that misses the point. These are very real instances in which I have no answers for, just a documentation of ‘life.’ In the first movement questions of position and identity will be raised. How do we negotiate ourselves in a world obsessed with categorization? How does the force of history dictate the way we represent ourselves, and the way we are re/presented? The second movement will pick up the same question of history, but examine cultural memory and the place of Blackness in self-revelation. Further, in the space of culture, Blackness carries qualities of invisibility and a pseudo-suffocating quality (or hyper-visibility), how do we deal? Finally, movement three will look at themes of Black suffering and how do we speak to/against its naturalization and irrelevance in the cultural imaginary and memory.
With the assistance of a few good times in my Chicago stint, let us begin.
He began talking about his appointment at the doctor’s office. I wasn’t quite sure why he needed to tell me this story and was beginning to write it off as a subtle yet cute way to engage me in conversation. Before processing the point of what he was speaking, I turned on my coy game of playing “ice-cold!” and loosely interested—trying to keep the upper hand in our (possible) romantic encounter. He was talking something about the difference between race and ethnicity, but before I could comprehend, I had allowed myself to get occupied with a task, some distraction that let him know I was cool, calm, and collected; and wasn’t hanging on to his every word. This was before we were dating, just flirting and figuring things out and I was using my “seem not interested” strategy, because just a week before, I had clearly let him know, I was really quite interested.
After my initial distraction and pause in his story, he came back around and attempted to deliver again. He was enthusiastic in telling me about his trip to the doctor’s office and conflict in filling out some forms. I listened curiously, yet confused, as doctor’s forms are not my usual choice in conversation. The form had two blanks for him to fill in:
For “ethnicity” he had chosen PUERTO RICAN, because that’s what he identifies as. But for “race” he was confused. He said he wasn’t Black, I felt myself giving the side-eye, hoping he would stop there and say he left it blank.
He went on.
He said he wasn’t Black and didn’t know what to put, so he filled in “White.” I shook my head in sarcastic agreement, though I’m sure I was the only one that knew sarcasm was at play. I smiled, bit my tongue, figured out a flirtatious way to change the conversation, and locked that moment away—an instance of saving myself from sounding “crazy,” keeping him interested in me, and containing the Blackness I wanted to speak to/for (or the stuff that was pulsating through his blood, conflicting his mundane categorization at the doctor’s office, and a subtle yet violent rejection of a violent history), but who am I to ruin someone’s day, in an Adrian Piper kind of way, with a fact of Blackness? Or sometimes the question centers more around: am I equipped to engage a battle against the common-sense, an anti-black logic, so grammatically “correct?”
The options put before me to contemplate were: “Black” or “White.” Interestingly enough, that was not even provoked by something I said; I could nod in agreement with this stark binary, no sarcasm necessary. In the back of my head, Paul Mooney on repeat, “White people know who’s white!” In his push toward whiteness, I wanted to say (steering clear of a complicated discussion on the simultaneous push away from Blackness), ‘you know, you’re actually probably not white,’ but again, who am I to ruin someone’s day, especially in the middle of a flirtatious encounter (and for those of you wondering, and rightly so, who flirts about race? I’m not sure what it is; I just bring it out in people)?[i] How could I keep my sexy on and bring up, or make light of, what Hortense Spillers terms, the ‘theft of the body,’ the displacement, captivity, rape, and death. How do I speak to the violence structuring our interaction, while still holding on to the romance both of us were playing toward at the time? Further, and perhaps more dire, how do I protect and defend myself against the violence being reinscribed in our seemingly simple flirt, the anti-Black logic of the encounter, or the remnants of Spillers invaluable distinction, ‘high-crimes against the flesh?’[ii] In that moment, history was on the table and a particular violence was being articulated; yet left unsaid. Black deniability and an imagined white posterity were propelling the conversation despite the smiles and enthusiasm.
I didn’t really have the history of Puerto Rico in my back pocket to gun sling. I knew about the slave trade and could speak to some of his physical characteristics that are quite similar to mine. But I wasn’t sure what was going on in the conversation, was there a search for validation of whiteness, or an appeal toward my Blackness? And again, who am I to ruin someone’s day? Even if I did rattle off the peculiar history of the slave trade, would that have changed his outlook in the five minute conversation, who would want to identify with that narrative of defeat? Plus, I knew I needed to do more research, while his specific narrative may not lead back to the bottom of ships, genocide of native populations was certainly in there.[iii] But why would I raise those questions, in a five-minute conversation meant to spark further interaction of a romantic kind?
Though I remained silent in that moment (in effort of keeping my sexy on), I brought the topic up on a later date, which led to an interesting conversation on Blackness, Africa, and slavery exposing the ambiguity of whiteness, and the varying relations to the world, my partner and I had. A subtle shift in focus, which ended up in me handing him my copy of Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother in hopes of further dialogue.
*Movement II and III coming soon.
[i] The parenthetical thought in this sentence will haunt me now. How many slaves were bought, traded, and given as romantic gifts? Or attractive “manly” qualities realized at the whipping post, quite literally on the backs of Black bodies? And certainly there was kiss, embrace, encounter, perhaps even a proposal or two at a lynch party.
[ii] In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers notes, “before the body there is the flesh, that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse of the reflexes of iconography.” I use this distinction in understanding the difference between assaults on the body and assaults against being or (non)personhood. Spillers continues, “the procedures adopted for the captive flesh demarcate a total objectification, as the entire captive community becomes a living laboratory.” The force of the conversation had between my partner and I is not propelled by the subjects of the interaction, rather the conversation is subtended by the power relation of the Paradigm, a logic spoken through the grammar of common sense, preceding the two of us.
[iii] I’m really quite thankful to all my followers who responded a few weeks ago to my call for sources on the history of race/Blackness in Puerto Rico. My inbox was stacked full of valuable citations, in which I am still going through. Tumblr is really quite special that way.
*one day i will figure out a proper title for this story. i’m open to suggestions! coincidentally my partner and i got together after this story was written, his name is eliot. this is not a story about him.
****p.s: are you the same gray face that’s been filling my inbox with questions??? i will get to all of them some day, i swear! thanks for the love and interest. don’t be scared to show me who you are!
the white barista at starbucks asked me what my shirt said. it was partially covered by my scarf. i moved my scarf. looked down and chuckled a bit. i responded. 'negroes with guns.’ its a book. he looked confused. then proceeded to make my drink. i wish i would have said. ‘negroes with guns.’ its a state of mind.