We Got It! Part III: Riot in G Major

Quinn Hughes, Staff Writer

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“In the interest of imagining what exists, there is an image of Michael Brown we must refuse in favor of another image we don’t have. One is a lie, the other unavailable. If we refuse to show the image of a lonely body, of the outline of the space that body simultaneously took and left, we do so in order to imagine jurisgenerative Black social life walking down the middle of the street—for a minute, but only for a minute, unpoliced, another city gathers, dancing. We know it’s there, and here, and real; we know what we can’t have happens all the time.

  • Fred Moten, Stefano Harney Michael Brown (emphasis mine)

In an interview following the debut of one of his films Love is the Message, the Message is Death, artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa begs the question, “If Kind of Blue was a house, what would it look like?” 

 This question, I believe, is the only question to ask during the end of the world. What would it mean to explore a physical representation of the terror and the beauty of anti-Black violence? What if we could build another world out of the never ending abjection of the Black flesh? How can we search through the destruction of the physical world and build a new one out of its wreckage? Would all of the houses be blue?

The radical question posed by Jafa falls within a long tradition of Black world making and world breaking. These moments of imagining and demanding a new world made within the wreckage of this one serve Black communities with the possibility of forgetting the physical earth and the violence that it necessitates. Contemporary neo-liberal discourse surrounding the environment becomes uncomfortably silent when presented with the image of Laquan McDonald’s broken body  found at the end of the dash-cam footage taken from the squad car. This silence is a product of the necessity of the broken body, as both a function and technology of worldliness. By this I mean, the mutilated Black flesh that concluded that footage is a product of a horrid transaction that constructs the world — which is specifically why desires of protecting, sustaining and perpetuating the world, are a blood stained praxis. 

I remember visiting my grandparents’ home in Michigan when I was younger. I remember their rose bushes colored a deep red in the July sun. I also remember their kitchen and their basement and sweet smells of love and butter that would follow me around the house. I also remember their neighbors and the long summer evenings that would be spent on the back of a yard swing or back yard. I remember returning to their home recently to find that they weren’t there, and neither was their porch swing, or their neighbors or the sweet smell that I had remembered. And I hated the world that took all of that from us, and I hated the sun, and I hated the moon, and hated the stars and I love my grandparents and I still loved their home and maybe, I thought, maybe it would be better to put an end to this world in favor of one that we cannot have, but it happens all the time. 

I wonder if Harriett Jacobs hated the world during the seven years in which she lived above her grandmother’s cottage on her escape from slavery. I wonder if Mamie Till hated the world after the death of her son, or if Kanye hated the world after the death of his mother. I wonder about the politics that are a product of the hate of the world. Speaking at an anti-nuclear weapons conference in 1982, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, writes of the violence of our planet:

“Let the earth marinate in poisons. Let the bombs cover the ground like rain. For nothing short of total destruction will ever teach them anything. And it would be good, perhaps, to put an end to the species in any case, rather than let the white man continue to subjugate it, and continue to let their lust dominate, exploit and despoil not just our planet, but the rest of the universe, which is their clear and oft-stated intention, leaving their arrogance and litter not just on the moon, but on everything they can reach.”

What if, just for a moment, there was no carbon tax. There was no elimination of fossil fuel subsidies. There were no more green new deals. Instead, all of the ice melted, and all of the greenhouse gas emissions rose and all the oceans had an inappropriate amount of dissolved oxygen. And gone were all of the polar bears and all the people with them. And gone were the oceans. And gone were the trees. And gone were all the salamanders.  And gone was the moon. And gone were the stars. And gone were the planets… We know what we can’t have happens all the time. 

We know white environmentalism (which is saying the ability for white people to protect the environment)  is an impossibility just as we know that the saving of the world demands the end of white possibility. As we know that the freedom of the plants, the animals, the oceans and the people  rely on the end of the earth shattering force of the possibility of an I.  Just as we know that magic is real and animals talk, and streets can sing an impossible song, just as we know that what we can’t have happens all the time. 

In the song As, Stevie Wonder calls to the end of the world and the end of the world calls back. 

(‘Cause I’ll be loving you always)

Until the day the earth starts turning right to left

Always

Until the earth just for the sun denies itself

I’ll be loving you forever

Until dear Mother Nature says her work is through

Always

Until the day that you are me and I am you

Until the rainbow burns the stars out in the sky

Always

Do you think that after the earth just for the sun denies itself, Black people will no longer get shot by the police? Will Flint have clean water? Will I see Emmett Till at the grocery store? Or Fred Hampton at the YMCA? Sometimes being of the world gets tiring. 

Walker continues: Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it.

* * *

I would like to revisit an idea that I discussed in the essay immediately preceding this one in the series. When discussing the ability for Black artists to illustrate the Black social life that exists beyond the images demanding social death, I wrote the following: “The screams, sobbs, laughter and moans oozing beyond the image, become the elements of Blackness that emerge past historiography and beyond the single depiction, representing their own narratives, ones of refusal, imagining and world making, a fugitive break beyond the pavement, the forest or the chapel.” 

What would it mean for us to build life love and praxis out of all that the image refuses to bear? What would it mean to forget the image? Can we? Should we? What would it mean to lose this world in favor of the one we have (been) refused? What if Kind of Blue was a house? What would it look like?  Alice Walker writes again about leaving the world in favor of another in her essay “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” This time, it is in an essay about her life before and after she was shot in the eye with a BB gun, when she was eight. The essay concluded with an exchange she has with her infant daughter. Describing herself after the interaction, Walker writes: 

That night I dream I am dancing to Stevie Wonder’s song “Always” (the name of the song is really “As,” but I hear it as “Always”). As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I’ve ever been in my life, another bright-faced dancer joins me. We dance and kiss each other and hold each other through the night. The other dancer has obviously come through all right, as I have done. She is beautiful, whole, and free. And she is also me.

Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue opens with one of the most famous songs in jazz, “So What.” The song begins with a now iconic opening chord progression, the bass dancing back and forth with the trumpet/saxophone harmony, all kept in line by Bill Evans’ piano. The song is seemingly simple–the quick baseline and the active rhythm section keep the song in line as Davis and the rest of the ensemble take turns playing with the rhythm and chord progressions through the song. But it is all that happens beyond the sound, all that is spilling outside of the music, that brings the song to life. The shouts, cries and laughter of the late 1950s that filled the pre civil rights era of Black life. The celebration of Black artistic freedom. The sorrow and pain that clings to every note of song.

What if Kind of Blue was a house? What immediately grabs me about Jafa’s interrogation is the possibility of it. The possibility of physically manifesting all of the Blackness that spills out of the frame. To build space in the world, out of all that has been forced out of it. The possibility of a new relationship to materiality and the physical made solely out of the materiality of non-being. What if Kind of Blue was a house? Would it be too much for the house to bear? Would it be too much for the world to bear? We know what we can’t have happens all the time.

When thinking through these questions, my mind immediately returns to an inquiry that is frequently posed to me, and that I frequently pose to myself. What now? Which is to say, what if Blackness is truly fixed in the position of non-being, all that is forced outside of the frame, what is to be done? What now? To which I consider, what if there is nothing? Which is to say, what if the current position of Black subjectivity is all that Black Being has the capacity to become? What now? The brilliance of Jafa’s interrogation is that it gets at the heart of this question. What if kind of blue was a house? What if, out of this zone of non-being, out of the demand for the entrapment of Blackness, Black people were able to build materially out of the frame. What if one were to build a house out of the circle of fifths? What if one were to build a house out of the moans and screams and laughter of the hold? What now?

When Black communities insist on a politics that necessitates the end of the world, we are demanding for a new relationship to materiality. Blackness is always already occupying the end of the world. The end of the world is a refusal of the materiality of the physical world in favor of building a materiality from all that has been forced out of the frame. Jafa’s question forces us to interrogate a new epistemic principle that refuses static notions of the self as distinct from the object as distinct from the other. This new relationship to the material grants Black people with the possibility of imagining the end of this world and creating the physical space for the next. 

I left my grandparents’ house last spring, for what very well could be the very last time, and I thought about what it meant to leave this world, or what it means to dance in the margins of being. In this move beyond the world, Blackness is forced to bear with it all that the frame refuses to hold, which happens to be all that Blackness has been forced to bear across space and time. It is here that I realized that the end of the world is not built from a new ontological register, but rather it emerges from saturating the world with all that the photograph has rejected.

It is an all Black everything

The end of the world is not built out of a new materiality, or physical substance, but rather it is built from all that we always already had, the matter of the subject refused a body, the screams, the moans, the laughter, the Blackness, we got it.