Parts 3 and 4 of four
III. Black(ness) as Space(Time)
Blackness is space. It is the gap between the lines (of prose, of ideas, of physical objects). Extrapolating on the parable of the poor man Lazarus, Martin Luther King once stated that the sin of the rich man (Dives) “was that he felt that the gulf which existed between him and Lazarus was a proper condition of life. Dives felt that this was the way things were to be. He took the ‘isness’ of circumstantial accidents and transformed them into the ‘oughtness’ of a universal structure.” 15 Beyond a social or economic gap, King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail 16 opposes the gap between morality and legality:
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law….To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”
The differences between those spheres–morality and legality–underlie our discussion of the spectacular, speculative praxis, and the performed spectacle created by black.seed. The following is a reflection on being in spacetime, and aspiring to be spacetime. The modulation of spacetime is an undercurrent in our discussion, but is dealt with more directly elsewhere.17
Rather than seek to boil down the multitudinous meanings of Blackness, I would acknowledge the extent to which Blackness is a tesseract in constant motion–fluid, amorphous, elastic.
Frank Wilderson locates blackness as a “positionality of “absolute dereliction” (Fanon), abandonment, in the face of civil society, and therefore cannot establish itself, or be established, through hegemonic interventions.”18 From this Wilderson theorizes that “Blackness cannot become one of civil society’s many junior partners: Black citizenship, or Black civic obligation, are oxymorons.”19 Meanwhile, Michelle Wright States in Physics of Blackness that “the only way to produce a definition of Blackness that is wholly inclusive and nonhierarchical is to understand Blackness as the intersection of constructs that locate the Black collective in history and in the specific moment in which Blackness is being imagined–the ‘now’ through which all imaginings of blackness will be mediated.”20 For Wright, Blackness is better understood as a ‘when’ than a ‘what’, and that ‘when’ carries with it, elements of critical consciousness and performance.21
Rather than seek to boil down the multitudinous meanings of Blackness, I would acknowledge the extent to which Blackness is a tesseract in constant motion–fluid, amorphous, elastic. Inspired by the transdisciplinary work of scholars like Fred Moten and Karen Barad, Huey Copeland illuminates an alternative modality: “Just imagine what might be possible if, instead of rushing to the new, we tended toward blackness–in all of its sensuous and imperceptible unfolding–that phantom site whose traces everywhere mark the construction of the material world and provide a different horizon from which to take our bearings.” 22
If black (or Blacks) could be understood we would have to deploy the language of abstraction to do so, but we are about as far from understanding Black as we are from understanding what existed before the big bang. In chromatic, racial, quantum, or cosmic registers, one cannot simply wrap their hands or their minds around Blackness any more than they can wrap their hands or minds around the number/concept zero. Zero is something that cannot be had, blackness is that zero. The previous sentence could be remixed in many ways and remain just as true:
Blackness is something that cannot be had, nothing is blackness.
Everything is something that cannot be had, zero is that everything.
Blackness is everything and nothing.
Everything is everything.
Just as with the number zero, one might think they know Blackness, but they never really do. Rather, they only know a symbol that stands as a placeholder for something that is too real (surreal) in our realm, but very real in another; an anti-thing; an anti-concept; an anti-ontology. To be Black is to be overlooked while you are in fact, the sum of all positive and negative. To be black is to be thought of as nothing while you are the infrastructure for potentiality. To be black is to be taken for granted while you are of crucial importance. To be black is to be fundamentally misunderstood.
Even when black is right before your eyes (and it always is) you only perceive that by which it is framed not the space between the framing. With chromatic blackness we might see the glare or places where black is interrupted by a pigment or picture frame that is other than true black.
When we stare into the cosmos we perceive blackness interrupted by scattered glittering stars. Yet (as anyone who is up on their science documentaries knows) just outside the visual spectrum the night sky is lit. Blackness is lit, a fetishized spectacle;23 is spectacular; is speculative. We may develop working models, but we do not have a clue what we are really working with. Most–if not all–of what we know about Blackness (and the concept zero) comes by way of the deviations from the originary locus of inquiry.
Even when black is right before your eyes (and it always is) you only perceive that by which it is framed not the space between the framing. With chromatic blackness we might see the glare or places where black is interrupted by a pigment or picture frame that is other than true black. On the physical register, we say this is a rock or that is a table, but the more we zoom in to try to understand the ontology of the table we find that the components that constitute the table are something other than the thing itself. Zooming in further still, we find more blackness than anything. In this sense a table is mostly blackness interrupted in a particular way that ends up looking/feeling/functioning like a table. On the cosmic scale, the table and while we’re at it, the “pale blue dot” on which we live, looks as black as the rest of space from far enough away.24 And so, we come to know blackness by what it is not.
But what about racial blackness? Obviously there is no one who is as black as, say, my hair. Flesh is brown with variations that we seem to enjoy pointing out. What deviations from racial blackness lead us to deduce definitions that allow us to talk about a people who are Black (as impossible as that is)? We say a person is Black who has this or that ancestry, with this or that history. Of course no one can pinpoint where that history (or ancestry) stops and starts.
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” -W.E.B. Du Bois
My entire life I’ve been treated like a Black person whether I liked it or not. I used to work to make people see me beyond race. I used try to convince people that I was more ethnically Irish than anything else. I gave up on that some time ago. I acquiesced to at least that aspect of racism; that racial categorization. W.E.B. Du Bois recalled the moment he realized he was Black over a hundred years ago:
“Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.”25
Unlike Du Bois, I think I found out I was Black at an age too early to recall, and I came to accept my Blackness gradually over time. However, I do still hold the whole scheme “in common contempt” and I think the way to go is above the veil “in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” And I think that when we do come down from that higher plane, we should “be a problem” as Du Bois characterized “the real question” of the Black experience.26 Be real in the space between morality and legality; between physical objects; between rich and poor; between popular opinion and principals. Be real in a cosmic sense. Be a question in(to) space.
IV. Block Party, January 18, 2016
The Bay Bridge Block Party (a.k.a. the Bay Bridge Shutdown) could not have happened without the help of folks from many walks of life. White allies from groups like Green Peace and SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice) and POC allies from groups like A4BL (Asians For Black Lives) worked to de-escalate potential road rage. Allies helped to celebrate the Block Party side of a Black-led action which recieved backlash (including death threats) from internet hecklers, and still involves pending charges. They held us down several car lengths deep while we slowed to a stop, stepped out of our vehicles, locked into a chain that spanned the highway, ran a banner across the clear lane that read “#blackhealthmatters,” and erected an altar for ancestors and victims of police shootings. In fact that buffer and sense of security functioned so well that in moments quiet and loud a certain surreal stillness reigned over the Bay Bridge on that day.
Out of the flurry of media that emerged from the first annual Bay Bridge Block Party a photo of my hand clasping that of April Martin, whose hand is more rich in melanin than mine surfaces. To some internet spectators the image symbolized (racial) “solidarity.” That is, a white woman saw that image and blogged about what she thought was a white hand holding a Black hand during this demonstration of Black historical agency in the face of state violence against Black folk. The blogger, Diana, thought I was white until I messaged her to explain just how Black I was. In other words, after a lifetime of being told I was Black, I was now offended, embarrassed, and ashamed that someone might think I was anything else. Diana then ran a retraction, admitting she was trying to project herself into the scene, without doing the work:
“I saw it, it resonated powerfully with me, I could relate to it, and given the lack of data I could find, I made a stupid assumption: that this was a white individual offering support to a BIPOC protester. I went on to wax poetic about how perfect an analogy it was for being a white ally. One some level, I *wanted* him to be white so I could better relate[emphasis original].”27
My Irish lack of melanin, the cropping out of all but our hands, and a stranger’s label of my hand, was framing the Blackness of April, my comrade. So, I performed Blackness in the message I sent, attaching myself to the legacy of my ancestors who survived slavery.
The Bay Bridge shut down (block party) was a Black performance, and a performance of Blackness (identity is cyclical like that). We know that our ability to love on each other–and think beyond the idiocy that would see us subjugated–does not draw headlines in the crises driven media. This is the case in independent, social, and especially corporate media. We know, as Anderson Paak sings, “the only time they wanna turn the cameras on is when we’re fuckin’ shit up.” 28 Being viewed with a negative lens is a basic fact of Black life in America. We who were brought here as chattel–human resources–are supposed to be gratefully stationary within the enclosure on our personhood that is known as Blackness.29 Any step we’ve taken toward dynamic and robust subjectivity has been met with hostility and criminalized in parallel.30 The ghost of Nat Turner haunts white America to this day, as does the ghost of slavery’s past.31 When we do attempt to assert intelligence in a way that does not immediately threaten white supremacist hetero-patriarchy, we are ignored. We are overlooked like that oh so important zero. So black.seed collectively decided to do the Nat Turner kind of performance, to hack the infrastructure that ignores Black plight and say as loudly as we nonviolently could to the world that Black people are not ok with inequality.
We know that our ability to love on each other–and think beyond the idiocy that would see us subjugated–does not draw headlines in the crises driven media.
Of course, in the history of American society there is the role deemed more appropriate for Black folk, that of the minstrel.32 Today minstrelsy comes in many forms, but in the end they all capitulate–convey tacit approval–to the status quo in a world where it is quotidian for oppressors to mete out death on Kurds and Palestinians and Africans and Iraqis and indigenous peoples the World over. It is not difficult for us to see the connections between the culture of death in one place and the culture of death in our own backyard. It really is quite simple to connect colonization and gentrification especially from the perspective of those of us who are refugees from war, racism, and impoverishment.
The oppressed, in this case Black folks, encode survival into their cultural practices. While that survival might often look like acquiescence to oppression, sometimes our cultural practice structures itself such that outright rebellion surfaces. Both forms of self-preservation are deployed strategically, thoughtfully, with great attention to detail. Self-preservation is a speculative practice.
Parts 1 and 2 of Black as Space series were previously published here in August 2016. Don’t miss out. Subscribe to Art & Activism Quarterly by clicking here.
Benjamin Jones is a writer, artist, and educator. He has worked in collaboration with documentarian Roz Payne, music acts the Faint, Dead Prez, and George Clinton, and more recently with Black.seed as part of the #reclaimMLK Bay Bridge shutdown. He is currently illustrating a post-capitalist children’s book, screenwriting a film on the great migration, and working on two manuscripts titled “The Life And Philosophy Of Dewey Crumpler” and “What We Finna Do: Preface to a 5,000 Year Almanac.”
Brooke Anderson is an activist photographer based in Oakland, CA. She has spent 20 years as an organizer in movements for social, racial, economic, and ecological justice. Brooke first learned organizing in the environmental justice movement, fighting medical waste incinerators in her hometown when she was just 17. She later spent over a decade doing union organizing and other economic justice campaigning with university employees, hotel housekeepers, port truck drivers, and other low-wage workers. She is currently part of the staff collective of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project and she is a proud union member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, CWA 39521, AFL-CIO. Her work can be found at movementphotographer.com.
Become a member of the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and support this precious Bay Area cultural resource. Learn more →
- 2015. “The Impassable Gulf (The Parable of Dives and Lazarus) ,” Sermon at … http://okra.stanford.edu/transcription/document_images/Vol06Scans/2Oct1955TheImpassableGulf-TheParableofDivesandLazarus.pdf.
- 2015. Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.] – The Africa Center – University … https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
- 2016. What We Fin’na Do: A Preface To a 5,000 Year Almanac – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twTWRUXZdhU.
- 2015. The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal. https://loneberry.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/65256131-wilderson-prison-slave.pdf.
- Ibid. 2015. The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal. https://loneberry.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/65256131-wilderson-prison-slave.pdf.
- 2015. Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage … – Google Books. https://books.google.com/books/about/Physics_of_Blackness.html?id=0Za4oAEACAAJ.
- Ibid. Physics of Blackness. 2015. Wright adds that “the tendency to misread this Blackness as a ‘what’ imposes even more fixity so that Blackness, as a vaguely biological ‘what,’ takes on an eerie resemblance to those anti-Black discourses that first claimed Blacks were indeed a ‘what’–a distinct subhuman species ‘marked by nature,’ as Jefferson opined.” (p. 25) From here, Wright admonishes us to understand actions in society as performance; to recognize “the spatiotemporality of our identity manifested in the moment rather than a thing we have carried with us since our first breath. If identities are not ‘things’ but moments in space and time, then it makes no sense to mindlessly insists that all women, all Blacks, als trans folks, all Kazakhs, or all airline pilots, surgeons, or soldiers all think, behave, and act exactly alike in all moments–not the least because individuals who read themselves into specific sets of identities in one moment may not do so in the next.” (p. 33)
- Copeland, H. 2016. Tending-toward-Blackness* – MIT Press Journals. 144 http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/OCTO_a_00249.
- See Also: Cheng, Anne Anlin. 2010. Second skin: Josephine Baker & the modern surface. Oxford University Press, December 10.
- 2014. Sagan, Carl The Pale Blue Dot – Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XH7ZRF6zNoc.
- Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt, and Brent Hayes Edwards. 2008. (p. 2) The souls of black folk. Oxford University Press, October 9.
- Ibid Du Bois, The souls of black folk. (p.1) Du Bois states “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word…. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else…”
- Diana. “Toothpaste Shoepolish, Or, Own Your Shit.” Social Justice Druid. January 19, 2016. Accessed November 21, 2016. http://socialjusticedruid.blogspot.com/2016/01/toothpaste-shoepolish-or-own-your-shit.html The retraction continues: “Yeah, I was wrong as can be. I was contacted privately and let know (more politely than I deserved) that both individuals in the photo are black, and were both active participants in the protest. I made an assumption about the racial identity of the masculine-presenting individual based on the color of his skin, and assumed he had to be ‘just’ an ally. I am in the wrong, and I apologize.”
- 2015. Dr. Dre – Animals (ft Anderson Paak) lyrics – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D06ou08y6gA.
- Hartman, Saidiya V. 1997. Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery, and self-making in nineteenth-century America. Oxford University Press on Demand.(p. 26) See also, Thompson, Krista. 2011. A Sidelong Glance: The Practice of African Diaspora Art History in the United States. Art Journal 70, no. 3: 6-31.
- Ibid. Hartman Scenes of subjection (pgs. 79-112) Seduction and the Ruses of Power.
- Copeland, Huey. 2013. Bound to appear: art, slavery, and the site of blackness in multicultural America. University of Chicago Press, October 28. (p. 192, 99) see also: Aranke, Sampada 2015. Objects Made Black – Art Journal Open – College Art Association. http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=5775.
- Wynter, Sylvia. 1979. Sambos and minstrels. Social Text, no. 1: 149-156.