“Let’s talk about time travelin, rhyme javelin / Something mind unravelin, get down”
—André 3000, “Return of the ‘G’”
“Go figure muhfucka every verse is a brick”
—Kendrick Lamar, “Nosetalgia”
I got some coffee from a Victrola in Seattle. Ground some beans this morning; dark and sweet, bean refuse clings to my fingertips, dark awakening clings to my index and my middle, still, and brown-black blotches comprise an accidental topography of my words and pauses—to stumble, to roll the bittersweet drink and think on my tongue and the drum of fingers finging some kind of rhythm toward “completed article” or “finished essay”—either way—trying to compose some music or something musical.
Sipping and sitting in front of cursors blinking to signal the inevitable creation and destruction of written cosmoses—words, words, words the countless forces and features of a pocket universe1 I struggle to mold into reality—unorganized notes from folks on parallel strings2 playing other songs to similar tunes about how, ultimately, disappointing Justin Simien’s Dear White People was. From universes governed by the laws of the “vaguely promising still disheartening,” to the “saw it coming but still disappointed,” to the “nothing new this is terribad, turrible work,” the overwhelming consensus across the Black multiverse shared a critical distaste with a set of prepositions. For/About/To. Like the blinking cursor I phase-shift to and fro possible spacetimes clutching fistfuls of wires; fro conducting coiled infinities into my dark ink fingertips3, finging and fiending for singularity.
Stir my think-drink into a black hole, when space and time elongate, and I am pulled and broken pasta stained with ink, succumbing to the vacuum of a truth the gravity of which approaches infinity.
“F*ck.” I clutch tighter. “This movie.”
A row of eyes and teeth looking and borne from the dark like so much synecdoche collected, a ready offering of fragmented expectation and anticipation for the “we” we wanted to see projected onto silver screen. A black letter, filmic ink cast in silver, writing something, something, or nothing new. A preview for a Kevin Hart comedy, The Wedding Ringer, suggests we anticipate disappointment.
All of that, all of what haunted it, all of that, a primer for the black spatter splatter that would paint-stain our seeing and our sought and our eventual saw, sprawl them out, pens and keys and synapses collaborating toward a violent scatter-shatter of some self-to-film relation for careful dissection. A kind of artful dismemberment for which we prepare(d) differently. Toward black ends that never end, and only add, or multiply, like new variables to dark constants in the complex maths we use to map and navigate the antiblack miasma. And then a stop.
A white man in a suit emerges and struggles with a black speaking implement—some call these “microphones”—protesting through malfunction, only to shout, for the third time, “We’re having technical difficulties”—or, the Black film decided to radically protest its existence in a space dedicated to maintaining the symbolic order of our subjugation through violently antiblack images—
“I’m going to go back there to try and get it running”—then, if so, he might be saying, “I’m going to go whip that n*gger so ‘e get’s tuh runnin!”—or probably not, or something—a collective groan (from reader or the audience? Time, being “wibbly-wobbly…timey-wimey…[n-word-n-word] stuff” I struggle to tell here from then; tear in the world and all)—
“I have uh…3 friends who’ll…talk to you in the meantime.” Such groan. “From the cast of Dear White People, Troy (Brandon Bell), Sophia (Brittany Curran), and Reggie (Marque Richardson)!”
Shocked, or wary, or timid, or over-it applause, and the speaking implement suddenly stops protesting, and magnified Black voices with a white one thrown in spill out in three waves: an introduction of self and character; a belief in the film; and, disturbingly, this permissive from Troy: “And to the white people in the audience: it is OK to laugh.”
Ricardo was slumped back-back into the black back of the seat next to me, “This shit not for us. Not for us,” laughing, borne teeth at the vague and everywhere dark.
Laughter, sending ripples through space and time. Something phase shifts the many me’s, we’s and they’s thinking this through; synapses ablaze between an almond and a seahorse4, like strange fruit and monstrous rage or seething irritation; like a gun trigger pulled thunderclap big bangbang flame in the chamber behind the shot shot that fired—aimed at who? And I’m buck shot back black into somewhen where another me needed me to see something and nothing happen while the Black film was still in space and time, while it was still time.
Hungry, I needed. Shick-clop or shick-thud—my boots spoke whatever language sounds at the midpoint between clop and thud. Speaking with the earth through the pavement. I couldn’t translate or I wasn’t listening. Toward downstairs, down there, where bangers conversed with mash in a way my mouth, nose, eyes, and tongue thought was worth twelve dollars and a tip. Wading through chimeric haze—particulate refuse, two parts “good food enlivens the electric of neural networks dulled by departmental static” and “payday is ‘Treat Yo Self Day,’ so let’s get it”—the English Cellar stains my braincloud with the miasmatic promise of this chocolate-coffee stout I’d eyed last time I came; couldn’t afford it.
Initial emptiness. Into the sepia-toned vacuum, me in my clo—two people sitting at the bar. Networks in my mind fired simultaneously, plumbing the imaginary depths of a cortical almond and seahorse. Seconds.
Eyes begin a blink. Milliseconds: white folk, laughing, looking, seeing, fixing—like a dye, like Fanon says5–Fanon, BSWM, zone of nonbeing, flayed psyche, dismembered selfhood, shattered being—breaking. Braking, full stop. Blink: completion. Something clicks, then the gears, cybernetic movement of legs and lips, steampunk dark smoke it’s stanky in here or I stank in here and I hear only the moist mechanics of a voice I find to be lighter and whiter than my own. Circuits fire, burning, not next time, every time—every time…or all of time. Sadly, “does not compute” does not compute, and the application executes, executes—executes, never runs:
n0110db12:~ johnnyartista n0110db12:~ johnnyartista open /path/to/GoingBeforetheKing.app Environmental Inputs: Recognized white_gaze sole_negro “Enter Contextual Parameters” Speech required: Request Searching… Stored linguistic information Grammars: of sentence structure; of being—so, Of suffering Tonal registers: quiet; meek; calming; soothing Subconscious reasoning: Fear of punishment; punishment moves toward violent reaction; reaction leads to escalation of punishment—possibility of death —reasoning: survival means—is—self-containment; censorship Arrangement: a Kenny G “jazz” record; Justin Timberlake’s “My Love;” Macklemore’s text message “to” (read: at) Kendrick Lamar Code_Switch: Processing…
“Expression: Code 200910271251; request.” White gazes—glance, 2, right side; attention, 1, forward.
“Sure thing. Is this credit or debit?”
“Expression: Code 20110911749; response.”
“Cool.” Deb(i)t card, metallic-plastic slide; I, still. “About 15, 20 minutes.”
Six movements—small, round numbers, easily divisible, monosyllabic; subconsciously safe—if they’re watching, if they’re watching in this ivory panopticon: half-turn shick-clop; two step; three; reach for stool; pull; sit.
They push the pause button on the controller of my presence to get back to their conversation.
“So yeah, man. It’s really, really funny. You ever see the Boondocks?”
“Haha, yeah!” Something stirs. In him, a shift in vibration. Something troubling tangling his vocal cords into the knot of “not while Black folk are in the room”—when plucked by the electric hand of the mind, the left godhand of the prefrontal cortex caresses Broca’s area into the climactic jolt of a moistened tongue and a shuddering frame and the pleasure of possession—the inhabitation of dark words in dark rooms without enough black synecdoches reaching out from the surrounding darkness. “Nigga, you gay!” like the holographic and pixelated images of Black arms, vocal cords, eyes, and flesh, and flesh, and flesh vomited out in a casual moment of climactic relief. Like chunky ink, writing another entry into the boundless archive bound to Black backs.
They both laugh. Hearty, but “how could [they] be so Dr. Evil?” No gazes, no looking back; “no looking, Black!” and I hear that, I hear it, and my eyes roll back into an empty imaginary filling with Black faces and blackfaces while a white server approaches to tell me my order’s going to take a little longer—didn’t she hear my raging circuits sparking in the silence of my stare, my nod, the slight glisten before the gloss of my eyes?
Nothing happened; nothing doing. Who/whatever was inside my cyborg vessel exploded; who/whatever burst.
These. Scattered Fragments. Refusal’s refuse aerilated into cosmic effluvia; I have no choice. It’s all Humpty “Pidan” Dumpty, and who wants to put her majesty’s other children’s children back together again?
I’ve walked through a number of imaginative (certainly not imaginary, but imagined) wormholes toward echoes of Black voices imagining out loud in orbit of this strange (certainly not alien, but vexing) filmic object called Dear White People. The many Black cosmic frontiers to which so many of us have gone before and gone before, and with, and over and over again, in midnight living room conversations with artists, theorists, activists—creators (otherwise known as, “my friends”)—talks in tune with the infinities of the living dead and dead in books, film, song, that work-but-play, or silent-but-heard words between me, myself and I and eyes in the mirror—all that Black Thought—all those universes—I went there—I went there. As one must go, again and again, walking the twisted infinity of Black Thought’s collective Möbius strip, returning to the “start” having walked all its dimensions, to go, again and again and [loading…]
There is no “beginning,” only rupture and ripple, which are really the tears and rifts interrupting all of the fabric of spacetime between my coffee cup, Moo’s living room, Kara’s email with her dissertation attached, that car ride with Cindy, when I first read Dave Chappelle’s reasons for leaving, instructions on “How to Make It As A Black Sitcom” and all those and the other me’s and they’s and things just talking. A ceaseless and sleepless dreamy talking de- and re- and coded in the electric messages traveling the nexus of networks interlocked and folded into the shape of my mind.
I Printed all 189 Pages (Two-Sided)
There is no “beginning,” there is an always and a never to Kara Hunt’s work14. Her dissertation—to condense is to collapse; like collapsing a star, this is a violent process; forgive—wields an Afro-Pessimist paradigm to radically question and systematically dismantle the very foundations of humor itself, as captured in and embodied by the dominant theories of Humor studies. Across a wondrously dense cosmos of written warfare, Hunt strategically assaults the assumptions on which civil society builds its academic and social conceptions of humor, which she describes as “a way of knowing social life, affirming structural coherence” (180)—a fundamental way of knowing humanity itself, of affirming ones position within the antiblack structures of domination and terror that found and comprise the world we know. As such, drawing from the Afro-Pessimist framework, which understands that Black suffering is not merely a consequence of these structures but an—the—essential, foundational component of them, Hunt theorizes that at the very core of humor (and Humor Studies) as she defines it is Black suffering: “Thus humor, as a function of humanity, is always already formulated with the social death of the Black as its basis” (33). What humor does, and can only do, is maintain and advance civil society’s antiblackness, reifying the inextricable relation between Black nonhumanity and non-Black humanity, by rendering Black suffering absolutely incoherent. Black suffering, and so Blackness, and all it indelibly marks, cannot be taken seriously.
What Hunt describes as “a parallelism between Black, object, and joke” acts as a depository for the antiblack energies circulated in and between the psyches and structures of society; Blackness becomes a thing, a sentient toilet, into which those energies can be relieved and confirmed. This process mutes the Black in its suffering, and gratifies non-Black and white demands to know social life, and to affirm structural coherence. One of the key ways this gratification manifests is non-Black and white laughter; Blackness the forever joke, forever the joke. In a brilliant reading of Fanon, Hunt reveals a key element of the fact6 of Black nonhumanity (or anti-humanity, as Frank B. Wilderson III frames it) is its “permanency in humor,” this absolute “unseriousness” inextricably bound to the slaveness tied to Black nonbeing, that opens, or widens the opening of, Blackness to the violent intrusion of white and non-Black laughter and humor. “Life,” having vacated the premises since enslavement without the possibility of return, violently leaves the Black available to being filled with the antiblack desires and energies of those structures and individuals for whom/which Blacks are mere objects to be accumulated, vessels into which they might, or must, relieve themselves. That Fanon characterizes Black being—physical, metaphysical, political, psychic—through images of dismemberment and distortion reflects the humor of the impossibility of Black life in a world in which Blackness is the forever joke, forever the joke.
Five-year-old me faces away from a television on a weekday afternoon in summertime with a drawing pad and a notebook simultaneously sketching a spaceship and writing a story about stars and planets and aliens, while Daffy Duck gets his minstrel on like he usually does7, saying, “Ho ho, very funny. Ha ha, it is to laugh.”
Twenty-five-year-old me between Ricardo and Chinyere in the theater with my palm on my forehead hears the echo, “And to the white people in the audience: it is OK to laugh.”
There is no “beginning,” only rupture and rift; riffing on this “radically different kind of cultural continuation” that’s bent and broken spacetime in and through my mind. I’m holding a cup of coffee and writing-drawing spaceships between Ricardo, Chinyere, and Daffy Duck while Kara sends and resends me her dissertation.
I cannot say I am split, say I to this cup of Black awakening and the reality waiting to be written, still waiting to be written. I am sprawled out infinitely through too many blue and orange portals , and I’m talking to the dead alive and the living dead, and we’re trying to write this thing out, write this thing out.
Seasonal Hard Cider
“I mean, I’d say I 67% f*cks with this movie,” to Yared. “There was just some stuff I felt off about; some of it felt—I mean, the vast majority of the characters felt like tropes,” he listened.
Many versions of this memory, this portal to “then” wavers, covered by static, and split into things spoken with indeterminate whens—just after the movie, walking to the car, when they were playing Jenga—and wheres—just outside, near the parking lot, on the couch. In one spacetime he asked me if the director meant this as a way of making the characters identifiable and empathetic; if the point of using well-worn tropes as people worked in a way because—
“Yeah, you know, I know/knew people like that—I mean, there’s always people like that—who fit into the roles, who act and think just like those tropes, it’s just—” either the data on the memory card is lost, here, or I had lost track of my initial reason for bringing that up in the first place, but I was/am not alone in my concern . The tragic mulatto (which was actually brought up, by name, by a white character, without any semblance of a resolution outside of the scene); the hive-minded follow-the-leader “conscious” Blacks complete with silent prop-like Black womyn; the Black queer afraid of hyperbolic Black homophobia (even though the film’s white antagonist violates his space and being more than once); the self-hating Black womyn; the Obama-aspiring Black man—so few of these central students given the “life” of a character arc.
Of those that do, Sam (“tragic mulatto;” Tessa Thompson) and Lionel (“Black queer;” Tyler James Williams), Sam’s only has her progressively disavow and distance herself (from) her Blackness mostly because of the persuasion of her white love interest (the one who calls her a “tragic mulatto”), identifying with a decidedly White, or at least non-Black, “anarchism” as opposed to (an unnamed and stereotypical version of) “Black radicalism.” Pay careful attention to the conversation she has with this white boy, how he talks to her, how he tells her who she is—which is to say, attempts to possess and name her very being. Pay careful attention to the films she submits, the products of her Black imagination—the way her first film, “Rebirth of a Nation” is a violent shifting of the continued legacy of “Birth of a Nation” for which no one claps, turns into the second film, which has her kowtowing to the white desires and gazes of her love interest and her professor and classmates for which the predominantly white students clap. Lionel’s progresses in the opposite direction, toward a Blackness with which he initially struggled to identify, but which culminates in a violent and ultimately (because of how it concludes) unrealistic event that Justin Simien fails to really pursue or unpack (leaving Lionel pulled between “trope” and “character”). Pay attention to the way Lionel’s potential is squandered, footnoted to the film’s more “important” narrative (Sam’s). Pay attention to how all of their being has been reevacuated into trope and disappointment or failed potential to be filled with [dot dot dot]8 Much has been written on this, so I only pose this set of shared criticisms and observations under the umbrella of a central question: “Filled with what?”
There is no “beginning,” only rupture and rift, breaking, and I taste coffee every time I loll the deceptively bitter honey bourbon cask wheat flavored cider on my tongue with the thoughts and questions bubbling in my mind on that couch and my living room chair; and I hear my mind’s voice reading Kara’s work again and again when I remember living room words with friends on couches and carpets. “Filled with what?” When the antiblack energies of the psyches of the world leak, spill, and burst out, where do they go? I know I know we know, we always knew.
GDNA’s music played through the speakers on the set list of a UK radio station and the chill electric futures facilitate time travel.
“Which is funny ‘cause now all I see is Wile E. Coyotes in the room”
“Haha, yeah man. Or Chappelle’s Show?!” Another shift in vibration, something troubling, the phoenix of a dead but never buried joke rising; he turns his head and clears his throat so the shoe polish that begins to spill out of his mouth comes out with just the right amount of Rick James’s corpse, Charlie Murphy’s limbic system, and Dave Chappelle’s tongue: “I’m Rick James, b*tch!” They both shudder with laughter. The pleasure of possession—one more shudder.
A portal opens in front of my stool and I’m the only one that sees it, feels it. I see myself watching old episodes of the show at home in the dark, cackling at Charlie Murphy talking about OJ Simpson’s big-ass head—seeing it for the first time, I think, accidentally, like most things—I reach for the remote to turn it up because I’m sure they’re all asleep, and the portal closes. Another opens, and I’m reading. An article from Time magazine, it looks like—must be important, since Time is turrible and I think I knew that even then. From 2005. “Dave Speaks.” To whom, really?
He’s done—been done, left the premises, fled the Comedy Central plantation. Of course, various Massas, Massa-associates, junior partners, and house negroes could not comprehend why someone who had it so good, making Massa and everybody on the big, global haunted plantation laugh for scraps—big scraps, shiny and green scraps, but scraps—would flee. On Saturday, one of Massa’s (under)writers track Dave Chappelle down and asks him questions about why he left. The aforementioned Massas, associates, junior partners, and house negroes, speculate about drug use and insanity, because these could be the only reasons property would seek marronage somewhere—anywhere—else. But sewn to the financial concerns that began to wear and fray is a Fanonian moment, a confrontation with (one’s) Blackness that shatters the illusion of selfhood one creates to defend oneself psychically from “the death of a thousand lynchings,”9 that shakes Chappelle, flings him to South Africa:
The black pixie—played by Chappelle—wears blackface and tries to convince blacks to act in stereotypical ways. Chappelle thought the sketch was funny, the kind of thing his friends would laugh at. But at the taping, one spectator, a white man, laughed particularly loud and long. His laughter struck Chappelle as wrong, and he wondered if the new season of his show had gone from sending up stereotypes to merely reinforcing them. ‘When he laughed, it made me uncomfortable,’ says Chappelle. ‘As a matter of fact, that was the last thing I shot before I told myself I gotta take f______ time out after this. Because my head almost exploded.’
The skit had Chappelle and others playing a sort of racial conscience, a living amalgamation of all the major stereotypes associated with each race. The magical “pixie” would appear in random situations where stereotypical behavior was most tempting or available, and would try to coax whichever character into succumbing to that behavior. As the story goes, someone white laughed too hard, the wrong way, unsettled the stable illusion of a selfhood that Chappelle perhaps believed, on a subconscious level somewhere, placed him on equal-enough footing with white/non-black spectators. Perhaps he believed that by joking about this facet of racial reality, he controlled the laughter, and so his relation to it, and so the subjectivity and selfhood it seemed to indicate. But this laughter had a different resonance—vibrated differently, sounded different, felt wrong—and Chappelle’s “psychic defense” crumbled, leaving “him”—Black—exposed.
(Almost) exploded. Like Fanon:
Sealed into crushing objecthood, I turned beseechingly to others. Their attention was a liberation, running over my body suddenly abraded into nonbeing, endowing me once more with an agility that I thought I had lost, and by taking me out of the world, restoring me to it. But just as I reached the other side, I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical is fixed with a dye. I was indignant; I demanded an explanation. Nothing happened. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together again by another self.
This exposure is a violent, crushing one; a subjection to the infinite gravity of a singularity, that which is (theorized to be) at the center of a Black hole. Time and space bend, the body splays and stretches and breaks in half, and in half, and in half until nothing but the smallest particulate refuse of flesh, selfhood, and being funnel into the “center.” Perhaps, as physicists question, there is another universe on the other side; here, one where Black being and life exist in ways that do not require quotation marks10. But as physicists will also note, no one would live to return to tell about it, as the gravity would bend time and space and obliterate, or “atomize,” one before one ever made it near the potential wormhole. Perhaps this is the graveness and gravity of the realization that “nothing happened”—a double realization, really. On the one hand, nothing happened suggests that the situation has not changed, not even in the face of immeasurable rage from the object that realizes it has not been made into a real boy and still remains an object, and that one has ultimately gone nowhere in space and time. The wormhole is false and social death is real; the cake is, and has always been, without a doubt, a lie. On the other, the “nothing” that “happens” is the Black (Fanon, Chappelle) itself; the “living” nothing that merely “occurs,” but does and can not “be” or “live,” and only exists in a permanent state of flux called “happening,” that is neither then nor now, here nor there. And so stricken by this realization, like a cyborg faced with a paradox, Fanon bursts apart into (another order of?) nonbeing, with none but some fractured self to put him back together again—though as we might guess, there is no remedy for this order of breaking, especially when “nothing” just keeps right on “happening.” The singularity is the “door of no return,” and we’d always already passed through it, before, now, and again; there, here, and yet tread frontiers.
Through the looking glass of the portal, the room is only lit up by the white light of the laptop, and my fingers seem longer and stranger arched above my upper lip with the thumb against my chin, and my brow seems furrowed toward an age the me looking through the portal has yet to reach, and then it’s gone. Through another, near my ear, I hear a crowd heckling Dave Chappelle last year at a show in Connecticut. After shouting old jokes, namely, “I’m Rick James, bitch!”, at him, he decided to stop the show. He couldn’t continue; his voice was never his, he was never his; they knew that, they knew that, and he knew it, too, but this reminded him. They’d fixed him, so shattered him. Maybe that white man laughing “too loud and long” at him—and we know the preposition is imperative—was in the room, a thousand times over; maybe time seemed to have shown no movement, then. It was happening again, or rather, it kept right on happening—nothing happens, and so he bursts, and the performance dissolves.
I am back with myself and myself-reading-Kara’s-dissertation, who writes of Richard Pryor and his 1983 performance, Here and Now. During the recording, he makes a stunning shift from “joking lightly about slavery…to a more discerning analysis of slavery” (78); from performing a kind of possession mixed with time travel, in which he directly inhabits the flesh and mind of a slave defying Massa, to transforming that inhabitation to one in which he channels a critical observation about how slaves built the foundation of the world, to a naked recognition of the antiblack violence behind that construction. The audience transforms, too. From laughing at the joke, to recognizing the critique and complicity in it, to expressing rage and disdain for the slave’s sudden expressive rebellion—they begin to heckle him. He retreats; he jokes of his own sobriety to calm the nerves; he tries to cool and woo them with his shuck and jive, but to no avail:
The audience cannot discern recognizable slave dialect from Pryor’s more grim demands for recognition of the slave condition and seeks to punish him in a vein similar to that faced by the very slave he embodies in moments prior; suggesting synonymy…What Pryor realized as he bent his back with glazed eyes and a weary stance in Here and Now and Live on the Sunset Strip to embody the “junkie” and the “drunk” at the behest of the audience was that, despite his continued attempts to elevate himself and his country from the throes of oppression, he never left the bottom.
Between the moment of his birth, his ascent to stardom, and his performance, Here and Now, time and space have not shifted, not really. The accouterments of (his) existence shift and change, but the fact of (his) Blackness remains: he “never,” so for all intents and purposes time has not shifted for him, not in any significant way; he “never left the bottom,” so spatial movement is a lie, as he finds himself in the same “place” again, or still, or both. Like walking a Möbius strip. “Nothing” really “happens,” and keeps on happening. His back arches, he finds himself a slave again, performing for a mass of Massas. He runs it:
n0020cn09:~ Richard_Pryor open /path/to/GoingBeforetheKing.app
and the laughter is not his; never was. Started from the bottom; never left. Performed like his performances were, unflinchingly, his own; never were.
The portal closes. For a moment I share an empty room with my coffee. Doctor Who is on pause—“Flatline.” So far, the episode has been brilliantly creative. A life-form that looks like, to paraphrase a writer at Den of Geek, “a dab of the T-1000 from Terminator 2 coming up from the floor,” a creature that lives in two dimensions, begins absorbing humans in the three dimensional realm. The result is an artful death, the victims becoming something like detailed graffiti appearing on the two-dimensional surface of a tunnel beneath a park bridge. Their images, and later their bodies—distorted and grotesque, evacuated of any features of the original inhabitants—belong to these beings that flatten the life and spirit—and spirit, and spirit, Dr. Mo—ten dimensions of space, and one dimension of time, into the dark. The “crushing objecthood” of being reduced to a distorted image, facing away from the world, evacuated of the space to hold “life,” “spirit,” and “being,” and kept out of time, still, a still life, and so dead, so very dead. I write that without affect; I write that line flatly.
That shit was funny.
I close my eyes and I’m back, back in black people’s presence in the living room. Moo interrupts my conversation with Yared to ask what I thought of the movie. I don’t remember all of what I said, but I remember starting, “I think—I think I…65—no, 60% f*cks with this movie.” Down 7% from earlier. At least. Maybe I talked about Black love—I know I brought it up that evening on that couch, somehow, to someone. It’s all a blur, and I’m spinning between portals swirled in the vacuum awakening of liquid dark stirred in my coffee cup. Which is a TARDIS. Chinyere bought it for me. I take a sip. I’m with my cosmic companion, traveling elsewhere and elsewhen.
All I remember is that we were in a car together. Both companions—companion and companion, with Doctor sensibilities on a scale from 9 to 12; she was driving, so I was probably the navigator. The words are blurred into mere meaning, their lyrics dissolving into the music of another scene in the film with her, another episode in the series. She spoke suddenly.
“You know, I don’t think Dear White People was good.”
“You know, I don’t think I like Dear White People.”
This is the vein of the conversation. We talked. She talked about much of the above. The way the characters seemed to be tropes, emptied of any real substance because they lacked a real narrative arc of any kind—put differently, “nothing happened” for/to/with them. She talked of Colandrea “Coco” (“self-hating Black womyn,” played by Teyonah Parris) and how she doesn’t really learn anything, or grow, despite moments in the film that bore the opportunity to pursue learning or growth of any significance. Even in her climactic moment, the point when she recognizes the truth of her trope’s tendencies—to choose to try to mask her Blackness any way she can in order to blend in, even if it is (and it usually is in the film) at the expense of other Black people—or even in her part of the plot’s “resolution,” which has her seeking validation from (“she threw herself at) another “living” trope, Troy, who similarly failed to develop.
We talked about stasis and emptiness, strange phenomena that characterize the “nonbeing” of being Black on a college campus or anywhere/when. The emptiness of our vessels crushed by gravity we cannot bear that denies the capacities for social life, as we are violently flattened into a collective, and two-dimensional (if that) social death, and so a fundamental loss of space—to fill, to move, to breathe, to be. The stasis of our “nonbeings” that seem to be stretched across all of time—we “are” with each other, spiritually, corporeally, psychically, conceptually together because the fabric of time (and space) has been crinkled and crunched so that the “then” of enslavement remains entangled with the “now” of the car (or my living room), and perhaps the “future” (certainly, me finishing this article or my dissertation, unless miracles or catastrophes)—and we are stuck here, splayed across it all at once. How one form of flattening, being crushed and mangled into a trope, for filmic convenience or at all, keeps the roles of everyone not named “Lionel Higgins” from moving anywhere, really, in space or time, physically or psychically.
And we talked about impossibility. Another phenomenon we Black “nonbeings” encounter in any number of ways, on multiple planes; the firm “no” that haunts every choice of gesture or word in a world that has proven fatal for even we who have, of the options, “chosen” correctly. Given the results for those that chose, questioning whether “choice” in this state of existence really exists is a valid, if not expected, course of action. In the spacetime of the car I watch through the static of my own memory, my hands move more sharply, my body lurches more heavily; what I am saying I feel in more than just the conceptual electrics of my mind—ideas surge, and the flesh translates the things that exceed what I am able to express. “Because Black love is impossible in Dear White People.” My left arm tosses something invisible out toward the windshield. At the sun, maybe.
Two triangles. White love interest (male), Sam, and Reggie; white love interest (female), Troy, and Colandrea. Both are nuanced and demand study. I had not studied thoroughly by the time I was in the car. I just thought, observed. Both love triangles begin with an established relationship between the white love interests, Sam, and Troy. Sam hides her relationship for fear of ridicule from a generically Black radical community for which, apparently, she performs a degree of ‘radical Blackness’ that is, ultimately, just that: performative. Reggie, whose feelings for Sam become clearer throughout the film, creates a supposed tension that stages Sam’s ultimate dilemma: “which side am I on; or, with which state of being do I align myself?”—classic “tragic mulatto” framework played out in a modern context. A kiss she shares with Reggie, which her white love interest witnesses, cannot match up to the argument she has with/before her white love interest. He calls her a “tragic mulatto” and reveals all of the hidden whiteness in her—she likes Taylor Swift, she hides the loose texture of her hair, she acts ‘Blacker’ than she wants to act—because, as he says, he knows who she is. Rather, he knows her being; or, he knows with what kind of being she would rather align herself. She ends up “Angela,” not “Virgina.”11 And suddenly, strikingly, Reggie becomes faceless by the final scenes as he joins the ranks of the rest of “Black radicals” that don’t speak, silently handing out flyers, faded to Black.
Troy flaunts his relationship with his white love interest, and she has familial ties to his ultimate and competing career interests. She has the status to which he aspires; he is the Black boy her father will hate—both of these are addressed openly in the film through “humor,” though we know [dot dot dot] Troy encounters Colandrea at a party at which both she and he are pursuing their interests (all of which are in alignment with a whiteness to which they aspire but will be denied), and their discovery of each other in the midst of their opposing performances of Blackness-in-white-company (Troy acts “super Black” when he’s with them; Colandrea tries to hide her Blackness) creates a physical tension relieved by sex sometime before the next scene. They speak intimately on and around their complicated relationships to a Blackness that they both appear to fear in their own ways; the honesty is an opening for both, another entry into potential for romantic growth and for individual development. Colandrea, in a position similar to Reggie, but in a very different context and manner, seeks to pursue the relationship with Troy once the movie’s central plot climaxes and lessons have (failed to have) been learned. Troy shuns her in public, walking up the steps to join the nameless and homogenous Black collective, rallied behind his latest ventures (which are basically an extremer version of what he aspired to earlier in the film). He does not return to his white love interest; or does he? I’m not sure—I cannot remember. More relevant, in the wake of the rest of the film, are the repeated denials: for Troy, Coco, and for Black love between Black people, “nothing happens.”
Of interest is the way these choices play heavily on racial fetish. What Troy and Sam’s initial white love interests desire about them is their “tropeness.” For Sam’s, it is her “tragic mulatto” narrative, on which he can prey in a way that allows him to “fix” her being into place, a singular “is”—he knows who she is—that he can name, better than her, and that he can, through knowing, possess. It is the set of features that characterize her trope, but that deny her (and other Blacks, in other ways) human characteristics, that he seeks, with which he pleads, and that he ultimately unearths so that by the end of the film her “surface” and its features become what he knew of her. Presented by Simien as a kind of “freedom” from a fake and oppressive Blackness that has confined her to a singular performance that “is” apparently out of alignment with what she really wants, this whitening is nothing more than a shift into a more open and violent denial of self. For Troy’s the fetishism is more obvious, staged in sexual encounters between he and his white love interest, during at least one of which she “talks dirty” to him by demanding his “big, Black—;” he cuts her off, and appears to be “aware” of the problems at the core of this relation. But given the denial of his potentially honest and open relationship with Colandrea, someone with whom shares a similar level or kind of fear of Blackness, “nothing happens.”
Lionel’s character arc deals with this in a stranger way. Seduced by a white queer newspaper editor on campus who, more than once, confirms that he needs Lionel to be his publication’s token Black writer for his own career aspirations (a job at some Times publication), Lionel seems to feel the pull of his Blackness, his desire to identify with it, and the conflict between that desire and what he’s tasked to do in and by both his personal and work relationships throughout the film. His budding romance, though shaky at best, comes closest to forcing Lionel into a real confrontation with his choice of allegiances: Black community that he does not feel share his nerdy interests, or white queer editor that might be an affirmation of his talent as a writer, and so a validation of the self Lionel struggles to construct. In the end, for Lionel, since it was made apparent to the audience early on, his interest in Lionel turns on the same kind of fetishism. What separates Lionel from Troy and Sam are his choices that follow, which allow his (identification with his) Blackness to burst forth in a potentially revolutionary rage, a kind of fiery rebirth and emergence into Blackness. It is met with antiblack violence, which, even though it is a brief moment, and even though it seems pivotal—a kind of violent affirmation of Blackness that the film had spent so long questioning if not disavowing outright—seems to close of Lionel’s transformation too quickly in order to return us to Sam, Troy, and their “nothings” that “happen” to close to film. For Lionel, everything might have happened; but, instead [dot dot dot]
I remember the music of the car ride becoming discordant. The gestures something haunted and fractured like the choreography of “Until the Quiet Comes.” Something ghastly and entrancing about the moving lips and the jerking movements and the furrowed brows in the dimming light of the sunset on a freeway to some indeterminate somewhere/when. A pause and a quiet that comes, pregnant with thoughts and minds performing the deep dives into the depths of meaning we sought and could not find; into the depths of meaning we did not seek, but crashed into again and again and again. I remember tuning to my love for Chinyere more finely, the volume turned up, the scenes in HD. The impossibility shook me.
Unreasonable impossibility. Kiese Laymon wrote a set of affirmations in response to a question he asked his students and himself, “How do you want to be loved?” He wants “to be loved by an unreasonable love” that stands in opposition of the many denials the world speaks to Black people, the amalgamation of noes and yeses that form the ugly chimera that is the impossibility of Black “life” and “being.” Here and there and then and now. It is an impossible love in a world in which Black death and Death remain an imperative. A love that exceeds the reduction of bodies, spirits and imaginations into fetishized flesh and tropes. That “loves itself enough to leave me if I insist on loving it reasonably, an unreasonable love that tells its mama, its father, its friends, its co-workers, its auntie, its mentors, its mentees, its lover, its grandmother, that the reasonable era of black American death and destruction ended in 2013”—a love that checks him and is in check by him; a love that is a necessary psychic defense, code: Hope that the structure of domination ended about a year ago, or might end years from now.
It is an unreasonable, unimaginable love that “loves black art and black communities enough to insist that every letter, color, word, shade, scene, rhyme, paragraph, photograph and step be rooted in a textured exploration of unreasonable black love.” An exploration of the impossible imperative—no, exclamation, for we who are marked by the world’s dark so its false light can sickly shine, blinding, over everything: love Black people! Exclamation stretches its back, arches, leans back, back on its arms, back cracks into the shape of an interrogative: How do we unreasonably, unimaginably, impossibly, love Black people?
In a world that flattens out Black being into nonbeing, crushes human features into fleshy tropes, murders our kin, infinitely shatters Black psyches, and presents respectability as a “fix” without realizing how that “fixes” us into ceaseless physical, psychic and spiritual breaking, how do we love the Blackness that undid and undoes us as we did that, did that and do that Blackness and, so love who and what we (non)be?
I look at me holding her hand, and I look at the circuits in my mind firing, and I see us kissing in the park that first time, and I see us arguing about that thing again, and I see us understanding each other and misunderstanding each other, unreasonably, beautifully, brilliantly, imperfectly, impossibly. We are crystalized in the cosmic walls shielding our imaginative universes from the reasonable killing force of the here and there and then and now, buttressed by the power of a question for and with and within which we stick and move, still move, moving each other.
Dear White People was just too reasonable.
For Black People
My neck’s craned like Wes Gibbins’s to the left, “And the title, man—the title. It’s addressed to white people. It throws us at white people. It’s about us.”
“But this shit not for us.” Ricardo’s still slumped in his seat. The film started opening. Like a tear in space and time. Like a “tear in the world.” The opening montage of the faces of the tropes frozen in stares ranging from exhausted to frustrated to defiant, accompanied by the sounds of a news report detailing “rising racial tensions” on campus and a “racist frat party” that “stirred” them, takes me back and I’m taken aback, and moved forward. I feel the pull of all the me’s I see in and around the coffee mug TARDIS; feel the studied stare of the me looking in the coffee cup; feel the rumble and music of unreasonable love in the car going somewhere; feel myself spaghettify across the crumpled fabric of space and time and want and dream and fact.
On the couch Yared recommends I look into Flying Lotus’s new album, You’re Dead! There’s a song on it with a video with Kendrick’s voice and words on it, and I should check it out, no spoilers, he says. “I will,” I said, and I would: “Never Catch Me.”12
The Impossible Black(s)13 stirred up into the vortex of that liquid dark “quantum jump and that fist pump and that bomb detonation,” buckshot shot back/forward, into the shock rocking me and my imagination. Riding clap b(l)ack, no resignation; unreasonable, Black fascination. This that Bo Diddley, that Nat Turner, that Hortense, that conflagration, this congregation amalgamated in Black rage and frustration; rage, pain, love, life, Life, death, Death, tears, jubilation, ululation, Zulu Nation—Black nation of the vengeful Hottentots and King Kongs, creating ethics against the wrong, fighting for rewriting, renaming, undoing, creation, guided by divine we divine to love Black people without rerservation. Universe, multiverse, and every one’s, everyone’s, a brick, through the door of no return, no turning back, no runnin’ Black: this it!
This it. I’m it. We it. I want to be “better in tune with the infinite,” and then buzzing light-years beyond it.
Dear White People isn’t For Black People, so it’s not it—not where or when it’s at. It’s something less because it could have been more, could have been the clap b(l)ack and Black cackle instead of the white and non-Black clap and laugh. That fire this time instead of the fizzle every time.
I’m with the coffee and the quiet that’s come again, again, and I take a sip. I’m scrolling up to take the trips through time and space again, again.
Funny enough, “nothing happens.”
Ooh yeah, ooh yeah
Nothing really matters
Anyone can see
Nothing really matters—
Nothing really matters, to me
1. A really loaded concept, I explore the idea of Black Imaginations and Universes in my current project, continuing an underthought legacy of Black Thought that bridges the philosophies of Black Studies with those of “hard” science, particularly Theoretical Physics.↩
2. In String Theory (and M-Theory), music is a very strong parallel to the organization of a universe.↩
4. The amygdala and hippocampus play significant roles in memory processes in the brain. The amygdala’s name is Greek in origin and translates to “almond” (because it’s shaped like an almond), and its key functions relate to emotional reactions and memories. Hippocampus, named after its resemblance to a seahorse, has been shown to be involved in coding short-term memories into long-term ones and in spatial navigation.↩
5. “But just as I reached the other side, I stumbled, and the movements, the attitudes, the glances of the other fixed me there, in the sense in which a chemical solution is fixed by a dye. I was indignant; I demanded an explanation. Nothing happened. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together by another self” (Fanon, 82).↩
6. If you are unfamiliar, please read Black Skin, White Masks—all of it—and pay close attention to the fifth chapter, “The Fact of Blackness.” This titular fact is the fact, and what Kara Hunt is expounding upon.↩
7. A set of Google searches will suffice in fleshing out the legacy of minstrelsy Daffy Duck embodies and advances.↩
8. This is a reference to one of my favorite elements of Kiese Laymon’s Long Division.↩
9. From David Marriott’s, On Black Men, “‘I’m gonna borrer me a Kodak’: Photography and Lynching.” Check it out. The quote I’m using is from a discussion of a man, James Cameron, who survived a lynching, and his revenge fantasies. Specifically, it discusses the tension between the real, which we know is antiblack and positions Black people as socially dead, and the fantastic, Cameron’s revenge fantasy oriented around serving the lynch mob a fatal for of vengeful justice. Reading a quote from Richard Wright about his own revenge fantasies, Marriott concludes that there is no “objective value” to Cameron/Wright’s fantasy—they cannot be made “real” in the antiblack world (without inevitably having to face the crushing power of that world’s killing force (its police, military, guns, media, etc.)—but also that the fantasy is “a necessary psychic defense” Blacks (must/do) create in order to protect themselves from dying psychically, over and over again; that is, from “the death of a thousand lynchings.” We would do well to know what psychic defenses we create and from where they stem.↩
10. Hortense Spillers: “Even though the captive body/flesh has been ‘liberated,’ and no one need pretend that even the quotation marks do not matter, dominant symbolic activity, the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation so that it is as if neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, shows movement, as the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise” (“Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 68).↩
11. Plum Bun reference. Jessie Fauset’s novel that depends on this same trope. It follows two twin sisters, Angela and Virgina Murray, who follow different paths based on their abilities to racially “pass” for white. Angela chooses to align herself with the whiteness of her appearance and performance.↩
12. This is certainly one of my favorite songs of all time. I really believe this is genius. Song of the year, maybe. I’d rank it slightly above “i,” and that’s saying a lot. I just think this meditation on death and life and blackness and grief and love and spirit is brilliant on all levels–visual, musical, lyrical–in ways “i” is just ‘that close’ to reaching.↩
13. In Doctor Who, for reasons I won’t spoil, Clara Oswald, companion to Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, and now Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth, is called “The Impossible Girl.” There are episodes that bear “The Impossible” in the title, but Clara is the main reference, here.↩
14. Kara Hunt theorizes against traditional Humor Studies by wielding an Afro-Pessimist paradigm against many of its long held, continued, and always unquestioned assumptions. Her brilliant work will emerge onto the scene in the near future, so be on the look out for “Off the Record: A Critical Perspective on Def Comedy Jam” forthcoming in the Journal of Popular Culture in 2015, and both “Chortling Absence: Black Comediennes and the Amusements of Gender” and Black Jokes: Visual Pleasures and Comic Antagonisms, which are under review for publication.↩
John Murillo III is a PhD student in the English department at Brown University, and a graduate of the University of California, Irvine, with bachelor’s degrees in Cognitive Science and English. His research interests are broad, and include extensive engagements with and within: Black Studies–particularly Afro-Pessimism–Narrative Theory; Theoretical Physics; Astrophysics; Cosmology; and Neuroscience. He is currently at work on a novel, Dark Matter, and on a graphic novel of the same name. Find him on Facebook or Twitter.