On the Intimacies of Failure

Photos courtesy of  Aaron Carney and the Library of Congress.

Graphic design by Trinity Collins

Photos courtesy of Aaron Carney and the Library of Congress.

Quinn Hughes, Staff Writer

Content Warning:

This article deeply discuss themes surrounding anti-Blackness within the United States. It also graphically describes the murder of Emmett Till. Reader discretion is advised. In the context of this article, I use the term “we” to describe those who come into contact with and live in a world defined by Blackness.

When we are asking ourselves to critically consider Blackness, we are asking ourselves to consider a series of failures that extend beyond what the grammar of the world gives us. The most pernicious failure is a grammatical one, felt most intimately by those who occupy and perform within Blackness. We see this failure when we are unable to articulate the ways in which Blackness is caught in a subjective limbo, fixed between the human subject and the object. We feel this failure when we are unable to explain to Black children the urgency at which  they must understand how they must conduct themselves in front of the police and those with the power to erase their bodies. We can sense this failure when we notice discourse surrounding emancipation and the Civil Rights Movement, failure to encompass the larger truth that Blackness is still confined to the structural positioning of the slaves in the belly of a ship. There are other failures as well. Politics fail Blackness as it is after the political procedures of emancipation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the first Black president that we understand that the political does not offer us the tools to prevent, control or resist black death(s). The world fails Blackness in an infinite and incalculable amount of ways: humanism fails Blackness, death fails Blackness, the state fails Blackness, chemistry fails Blackness, biology fails Blackness, math fails Blackness, Starbucks fails Blackness, time fails Blackness. I choose to begin with grammatical failure as it is through language and communication that we are able to articulate other forms of failure and how they manifest themselves.  

In order to understand the failure of grammar, we must start first with the failure of death seeing as when we discuss Blackness, grammar and death are inextricable. Blackness begins in the positioning of death in the western sense — the slave unable to access the plane of being as the living. This death is seen when slave parents are unable to save their children from being sold or having physical violence done onto them. This is seen when a slave does not have the necessary autonomy to give or revoke consent regarding sexual acts. This death is seen when slaves are forbidden to sing, dance, play music, speak too loud, speak too soft, leave their plantation and a multitude of other freedoms that are associated with a “living” subjectivity. Because the Black subject is ontologically fixed to death, it then becomes clear that death will follow the Black subject even after their heart stops beating and their lungs fail to draw breath. [Murillo 19].

This is reflected in the death(s) is seen in Emmett Till. We will never be able to truly calculate or understand every instance of his death(s); we can only choose specific instances within it/them that show their repetition. Articulating how Black death(s) work is a particularly demanding task as it is impossible to fully comprehend the infinite number of times in which a Black subject has been murdered; however with the timeline I have created, I attempt to reflect on how one death can lead to another. I recognize that in doing so, I will inevitably call into being a performative contradiction; on the one hand, neither Black death(s) nor Black life can be reflected in a linear fashion as it is the process of Black deaths(s) that stand to defy time itself.

Emmett Till dies “first” when he is seen by the white woman who would be the end of his life. He dies a second time when he is physically taken from his family’s home. We see this as an instance of death as it is here that we see how Black families are unable to physically protect their members. This death shows that there is nothing that can be done to physically protect Black people from the violence of the world. He dies as his physical body is being destroyed. He dies when his mother decides to have an open casket funeral and the world bears witness to his brutalized body. He dies again when his death is used as mass syndicated iconography to represent the American Civil Rights Movement. He dies when the white men who destroyed his physical body are aquitted of his murder and when they publicly admit to the murder years later. Emmett dies again when the white woman who accused him of whistling at her admitted that no such thing had happened. Emmett dies in 2009 when the white people who owned the historically Black graveyard in which he was buried in dug up and burned the graves, bodies and all, of hundreds of those in his cemetery. He died when his original casket was found rusting in a shed in the same cemetery. He died when, on July of 2018, the Justice Dept. reopened investigation into his murder. He died when the historical landmark that was put in place to mark the river in which he was found, was riddled with bullets 35 days after it was replaced, after it was shot another time. Emmett’s cousin, Ollie Gordon, described it best: “there is no rest for Emmett.”

Black people globally die each time Emmett dies, as it is known that his death(s) could have been and may be any one of us at any given moment.  There is no reason why Emmett Till could not have been one of our grandparents, parents, us or our children. As a Black person, there is no way to guarantee that your body will not be erased at any given moment. When we describe the death(s) of Blackness, we are in some way describing this fact and the lived experiences that come as a result of it.

Understanding Black performance within the world must be understood in relationship to the ways in which the world fails Blackness. If the world is made as a result of these failures, the performance of Blackness within the world will never be able to be conceptualized, let alone articulated by the world. If we agree that the political system has not the tools to remedy anti-Black violence, and instead is able to exist because of this violence, why spend an exorbitant amount of time and resources on political campaigns and become one of the most reliable voting demographics in the country? Why, if we can depend on police violence to be not only a fixture of American democracy but a necessity, sacrifice your physical, mental and emotional safety to publicly protest police violence? Why do well known rappers lay claim to miraculous ascents from poverty to the upper echelon, and in the next verse, articulate a disgust for “broke ass niggas”? These seemingly “illogical” instances of Black performance forces us to interrogate the failures of the world. Under the gaze of the world, Black performance will always appear illogical because  the rest of the world will never be able to understand how, where and why the world fails Blackness.

The answer regarding the question, “what to do in the face of failure” must be understood as one that will never appear as logical to whiteness. Thus, an embrace of the illogical must be the prerogative of any attempt to remedy said failures. This embrace is seen in the Afro-surreal tradition, blending the “past,” the “present” and the “future,” blurring the line between the ‘real’ and the ‘surreal’. In the play The Colored Museum by George C. Wolfe, viewers are forced to bear witness to the intimacies of failure and the manifestations of failures in relationship to the Black. We see these performed in the scene Soldier With a Secret in which a black military soldier named Junie, dies in an explosion. At first, he expects to go to heaven and be greeted with white clouds, Jesus and his Momma. Instead, Junie recognizes that he has become a type of poltergeist or ghost. Upon this recognition, he also is able to see the futures of those in his squad and he sees the death(s) that they live out once they return home. One is going to be killed by the police, another is going to abuse his wife. Instead of letting these men die the way in which they were destined to, Junie decides to kill them by taking a needle and filling their blood with oxygen. This scene shows the performative failure of death and its relationship to Blackness. First, Junie is unable to die physically as it is the ontological position of Blackness to be forced to defy and be defined in relationship to death(s). Second, it is the social deaths of those in his squad that are worse than their biological deaths. It is these series of grammatical and performative failures that are unable to be understood or conveyed by conventional theatrics. Instead, Wolfe employs the Afro-surrealist tradition as an embrace of these failures in order to reckon with the ways in which the lived death(s) of Blackness are met with the violence of the world. Afro-surrealism is best understood as an embrace and exploration of the world, its failures and their relationships to Blackness.

This embrace of failure is seen in every one of The Colored Museum’s 10 ‘exhibits,’ each focusing on a specific instance of Blackness and performativity. Afro-surrealism in Wolfe’s interpretation represents more than what can be shown and perceived through just theatrics, similarly to how Afro-surreal music is able to convey more than what can be shown through just music. It is the process of running to failure, running the end of the world, that we embrace the surreal. This embrace of the surreal performativity is seen more subtly in the discography of Solange Knowls. Solange explores musical boundaries by playing with the foundational sounds of hip-hop, R&B, soule, and jazz; however and perhaps in a less direct manner, she explores the boundaries of linguistics in relationship to her positionality as a Black woman. This is seen numerous times in her 2016 studio album A Seat at the Table. The album is a melodic meditation on Blackness and femininity in contemporary America. This meditation is best seen in the album’s ninth song “Don’t Touch My Hair,” in which Solange performs a reclamation of not only her physical body but also the symbolic value her hair gives her. The song is her demand that one not perform captivity over her body and her symbolic value. This is a performance of Afro-surrealism as it performatively imagines a world in which a Black woman has the ability to reclaim the physical and the symbolic.

Once we understand these instances of performative imagination, we are able to better see and understand the ways in which the afro-surreal bleeds into the everyday lives [and death(s)] of black people in America. This performance is seen the Black Lives Matter movement when activists demand that the world reckon with its desire for the accumulation of black death(s). The statement “Black life matters” is in and of itself afro-surreal as it is the performative imagination of a world in which Black people have the necessary subjectivity in which their demands to not be killed, will be tolerated by the world. This demand is a rejection of the failure of death and blackness as it resists the worlds call for black death(s). This is seen outside of the performative imagination as well, as seen in the Young Thugs song ‘Digits.’ In the melodic, hypnotizing, hip hop ballad, Thugger asserts “you could lose your life but it’s ‘gon keep goin’/why not risk life if it’s gon’ keep going’/when you die somebody else is born.” This seemingly passive relationship to Blackness and death act as a refusal of the forced distinction between Black “life” and Black death(s).

I would like to return to my initial statement which is that when we consider Blackness, we are forced to consider failure. When considering this, Joy James and João Costa Vargas ask readers, “what happens when instead of becoming enraged and shocked every time a Black person is killed in the United States, we recognize Black death as a predictable and constitutive aspect of this democracy?” This question ought to be foundational Black critique in the 21st century. We can understand that the world demands not only violence but the specific violences of anti-Blackness to sustain itself. Our answer is found in an understanding of this fact. John Gillespie argues, “how should we live in an undying age of anti-Blackness…once we have lost all hope in the prospect of Black lives ever being able to live…once anti-Blackness has sucked every bit of spirit we have dry, our only hope is to lose hope” [Gillespie 17]. “Our only hope is to lose all hope.” This is the ultimate embrace of the Afro-surreal practice. The ‘hope’ of the world, the ‘hope’ of the political, the ‘hope’ of the biofuture, the ‘hope’ of the next generation are all hopes that are given to us by the white world and have been shown time and time again to fail Blackness. Thus, as the ultimate rejection of the world and the failures that it presents us with, is to loose faith and hope within the world. Thus, our only hope, is to lose all hope. This is a performance Afro-surrealism as it is an embrace of the failures of the world. We must perform the nihilist sprint to the end of hope, the boundaries of the world. Afro-surrealism is the vehicle that gets us there. It is its embrace, expectancy, love of failure that can only function as a rejection of hope.

The performative Afro-surreal is found in the nooks and crannies of Black life. It is the intimacy of the space that Blackness occupies, the crevice between the living and the dead, the subject and the object, that the imagination of a new lived experience emerges. The performative surreal is what lies between the “shrieks and cries” of the slave ship, what is heard and what is left unsaid, what is seen and what is known, what is touched and what is felt. It is in these moments of joy, love, sorrow, freedom, pain and expression, that lie cruxed in the few facts of Black life. First, there is nothing that can be done to cease the marching of time and the violence it does onto Blackness. Second, that there is no tangible action that can be taken within the world to prevent an instance and accumulation of Black death(s).  Third, to exist between the living and the dead is to be all that can and all that will ever become of Blackness, and finally that the world can and only will ever fail Black people. The Afro-surreal is not only the understanding of these facts, but is instead the fugitive flight to them. It is the acceptance, embrace and loving of these facts in which we find the freedom of the surreal, the extra-real, the unsaid, the known and the felt.