Creative / Stories

Masa, Massa, Matter: When “Healing” is both Imperative and Impossible

By John Murillo III

“I start to think
And then I sink into the paper
Like I was ink”

I know the corniness of masa before it’s in my mouth. My mother makes sopes on a regular basis, sometimes to entice my auntie to make the drive from Palos Verdes to visit us and her Pomeranian, Jabez, whose dead, stank-ass, black-spotted tooth finally fell out two months ago.

My father’s ritualistic Christmas all-night tamale sculpting stains my memory’s fingers and air with beige stickiness, the thudding splat of palms and spoons pulling and scooping from twenty-pound bags, filled and kneaded with care by someone before some sun-up for us y toda la gente, a slow rhythm for slow and California-cool winter days. Smells of masa hitting hot oil in the skillet, the flush of crackling and popping droplets leaping and dropping hot into a brown ocean—burn-scars, dark islands, cook’s pox, urtext pockmarks, damned spots. Cast-iron, ancient, and black, sonic spatula scrapes and golden flip-splats, pat-patting patties into round gold-brown fat-flats and that—that gentle gesture is where the love and home are at.

Con una pizca de sal the moment they hit the glass dish—which should be procedure for anything fried crisp—with the paper towels in it to soak up excess aceite. Five, six, or seven of us, depending on the day, spying fried cracks and crevices with a reflexive quickness—an electric nexus between at least memory, tongue, and eye—quietly answering questions like, “which is the biggest and the thickest?”, “which has the depth that won’t spill the frijoles?”, “which is the gold-brown-roundest?”, in an instant. Después: frijoles, carne, queso cotija, cilantro, un poco de limón, tomatillo salsa my father made yesterday, y luego, and then, and then.

—–

“Close your eyes.
Imagine yourself—just you—
Someplace
Somewhere
Where you can feel peace

Your sacred
A place and time
In or outside the world
Someplace else
Sometime else
Yours”

The real poetry of the moment eludes me so I try to make legible its essence; Ryan Davis’s presence in the living room of the Rosa Parks House of Arroyo Vista too close to antiblack fraternities and sororities, and not far enough from a multiculturally antiblack university. Living room, room for Black students to “live,” a pocket universe with maroon-colored walls, our micro-marronage from the plantation of the housing complex, the University, the Irvine Company, and the world.1 Less an escape, more an inhabitation of the darkness of a dark place for variously dark folk, folk planning and organizing what must come next in an attempt to radicalize the Black community on campus. This was our BSU “retreat,” but it was not a flight from fighting; it was an opportunity to build and focus our forces.

What I think Ryan wanted us to grasp was the spirituality of Black spacetime. The preciousness of our private, spiritually imaginative blips in space and time; the necessity of the untimely worlds we dreamt up to house us under maroon colored suns; the revolutionary capacity to turn this meditative inhabitation and work into the kind of untimely, creatively destructive energy, which would we could use to fuel our creations in the antiblack world.2 Our attempts to inhabit, cherish and channel our Blackness where and wherever we found ourselves; relentlessly, unflinchingly, without compromise, deeply darkly, bound up in the knot of our love, pain and rage.

My sacred
a seashore foaming with tides
glittering golden underneath a setting sun
a radio playing that one song we like—
it changes as ebbs ebb, flows flow
everything is ambedo
the air is thick vellichor
the clouds, wispy arrangements of language
i read in wonder as i walk
or sculpt as I meditate or dream
word worlds
as countless as the grains of black sand
at the edge of that vast oceanic expanse

After asking too early and too earnestly some unreasonable number of times, Chinyere agreed to let me be her boyfriend on July 3 of the same year I joined the BSU and became its director of communications, the same year Ryan and Samiyyah carefully and lovingly planned what they did for our “retreat,” and also the same year she and Hui-Ling (Moo) Malone3 would be studying abroad for four months in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Even with anticipation, I was too lovesick to stomach the time apart, so I sent Ryan a message about psychic turmoil and meditation.4

“Cindy leaving on Monday had and has me on an emotional roller coaster…being apart for this long, even with communication and the inevitability of her return home, will be difficult…[Getting] in touch with my Sacred really helped; I took it extremely seriously, and I wanted to thank you for that… Whenever I feel like I’m overwhelmed by her being gone, or by the stresses of this world in which we struggle to live, I’ll have this.”

He responded:

“my spiritual side i take very seriously and keeping in tune with the scared within me and that which surrounds me is extremely important…our ancestors were ripped from Africa and forced to undergo a complete dehumanization process. we are the living legacies of that process…however we are also living testaments to our ancestors strength, resilience, and protest. despite our forced migration, resettlement, cultural hybridity, distinct africanisms live on in us and through us, be it song, dance, art, folklore, etc. we live breathe and act Afrika in our daily lives. sacreds, spirits, and lessons survived the middle passage and bondage and live on today despite the degradation of our bodies and minds. we have sacred buried within our skin.”

His guided meditation orbited black (w)hole truths. Sacred is our nourishment; our nourishment is sacred. It is our “necessary psychic defense” against what would otherwise be the psychic “death of a thousand lynchings,” the remembered-old, experienced-new, and inevitable-future traumas of being necessarily antithetical to what the world knows as being, alive, human, free, or being the objects against which the world defines its subjects, or being the property tooled and retooled to prove and redefine the world’s structures and their properties—all, so in other words, being Black.5 On/from all sides.

There is Black magic in our sacreds, in the collective and private spiritual, psychological and physical nourishment written, scarred, tattooed, modded, or otherwise made manifest in our peculiarly and variously gendered, sexualized, and able flesh, imaginations and spirits.

But because they lack what psychoanalytic theorist David Marriott calls “objective value,” they cannot be made real like the fantasies of antiblack folk in an antiblack world. Which is why, paraphrasing professor Jared Sexton, we’d better learn and understand white/nonblack fantasies today because tomorrow they could (will probably) be law. And also why the brilliant products of our imaginations—the complex theorizations, the meticulously crafted universes of stories, poems, and albums, the careful and caring lessons taught in and out of classrooms by every kind of teacher—to paraphrase both, my friend Jerome Dent, and my favorite MC of all time, Yasiin Bey (from when he still went by Mos Def), cannot save us. Not in the church pews, not walking down the street with friends, not with tenure, not seven years old and sleeping in the couch, not in halfway-half-assed representations in every form of media (from the comic book to the movie screen), not in this/the thinkpiece, not in the march, not in the championship, not in the unmatched skill, talent, and genius.

There is Black magic in our sacreds, in the collective and private spiritual, psychological, and physical nourishment recognized and made manifest in the big and small spacetimes we create. Our churches, community centers, hangouts and kickbacks, organizational spaces, classrooms, writing sessions with friends who know the pain and love of word work, and caring, healthy and unhealthy meals are darkly magical and nourishing.

And yet we routinely find that these spacetimes, like our flesh, magnetize bullets6 and fire, death and destruction. Massas and their ever-growing cohort of complacent and combative cronies did not, do not, and will never truly reckon with the originary violence of enslavement, even as it persists for Black folk in both structure and effect. Because they have not read, or have catastrophically misread Toni Morrison’s Beloved, they claim that the ghost is not real, or that if it is, it only was, and we have entered into a spacetime free from haunting.

And so they will never reckon with, let alone apologize sincerely for, let alone offer reparations for razing Black Wall Street to the ground, and paving over the history, the blood, and the corpses to pretend the past is dead, instead of spectral. Nor will they do more than make and circulate a documentary about letting the fire burn and the bullets fly through the MOVE7 compound, burning and piercing the Black flesh that filled that space with disruptive, unapologetic Black “life.”

And, should we hypothesize, they will never really listen to, let alone offer, a Black, and so revolutionary, form of justice or recompense for the antiblack fires that consumed nine Black churches in ten days, or for the nine men and women whose souls were forced out of their bodies by a Burger-King-fed-by-the-police-after-murdering-while-white white murderer.8 Nor will their destruction and killing cease, should we (re)build, (pro)create, (re)think, and (re)imagine, so long as Massa structurally remains Massa, and so long as folk identify with and rationalize Massa’s position in the world.

For all the Black magic they embody and produce, our imaginative and material creations are as susceptible to gratuitous violence as we are. All the more reason this “wake work,” what Christina Sharpe conceptualizes as a kind of imaginative work that seeks out and demands the impossible, a continued “imagining the unimaginable” in the various forms of Black study performed in and outside the academy, must grow, develop, and persist.9

If it is not healing, it is nourishment. If not escape, it is a deeper dive into the singularity around which the bits and pieces of our collective and individual traumas orbit—it is a movement toward centering ourselves so that we might better and more unflinchingly roll the bitter fact of this persistently, if not perpetually, traumatic existence on our tongues. If there is a “way out” of fact and structure, it is through, and not in avoidance of, the nowhere where we are.

Some, almost invariably via a series of deliberate and/or convenient misreadings (though sometimes the misreadings are honest, and in good faith), foolishly dismiss this “pessimism” as counterintuitive to some notion of life and progress. As if naming, bearing witness to, and thinking critically about the nakedness of our violently untimely position in this nowhere stands at odds with recognizing our collective and individual creativity and resilience. In my pessimism, it is my understanding that a fuller understanding of the problem affords us a more complex and complete diagnosis. If we seek to be healers, cooks, defenders, and creators, we must be careful, centered, and meticulous.

Or nah?

Because this “work,” across genre and field, identity and geography, is imperative: to refuel in a moment stolen away in the endless battle to blackly matter beyond simply being black matter usable and consumable in unhealthily, and too often fatally, insidious and violent, spectacular and quotidian ways. It cannot save us, it is not our healing salve, but it is food for thought, spirit, and flesh. And we are insatiably hungry and thirsty.

—–

I know the corniness of masa before it’s in my mouth, but crunch-sinking teeth and released steam speak the corny food-truths into the flesh. It might be corny, golden-hued imaginative spacetime travel catapulting the mind to other living rooms and kitchens, lonesome and not, wholesome and not, shrouded in pan-fried masa miasma, set to the rhythm of the grind and the chew.

Outside the realm of the savor and dream, the cacophony of yet-another-Laker-loss, Mom on the phone, or Mom with Auntie cackling on the couch, Dad snoring in the chair, and my brothers click-clacking computer keys or Xbox buttons, or otherwise relaxing while lip-smacking. About a twenty minute blaxindigican no-reason-to-be-anything-but-chill ordeal, Across the real and imagined intersecting universes, through the portal of tongue and teeth, en route to a chimeric nourishment dependent upon, but so far beyond, the grammar of senses, and the language in pursuit of unnamable experience.

I know I know all this, and I speak as much in a close-eyed and smiling “mmm-mmmph” extended and offered, palm down, across the table to my mom, who knows I know and she knows all this, too.

“Mmm-mmmph!”
“I know.”
“So good.”
“Yeah. It’s everything I wanted.”

Two glasses and a half empty bottle of Bootlegger’s Black Phoenix frost around echoic prints of hand-grips and lip-sips, kissed bottle mouth and cold glass rims. The cool and smooth of chocolate fire and chipotle smoke, coffee grounds to stay woke—the drink is vintage Lupe: unfree, chilly, between bites and laughs couldn’t sip it fast enough; deep with the flavor, filling our black positions’ casket up.

“It’s nice,” a sip, “to have a chance to do this.”
“What? Get out of the house?”
“To eat good food. Everything that’s going on, all the time, everywhere—to take a break for a minute.”
“Yeah…” a swig, a look out the window behind me, a bite. “I think we both could use something to take our minds off it all. All the stuff at school, the committee, the way they treat me; all your stuff with work, and these clients—”
“All of it, and everything else. We need nights—times, like this, to just refuel and breathe, for a minute.”

Like a daydream in a shallow pool of fire and ice, adrift to Nina Simone humming her Black Gold—and who knows where the time goes?

What and where’s that minute—to eat, to drink, to laugh, to smile, to breathe? And if we find that minute, which is hard enough given we’re and it’s always “too soon…or too late”—which is hard enough given our untimely position in a timelessly or ceaselessly violent reality—what are its mechanics and features? What that look, sound, smell, feel, and taste like? How long is it—is its time dilated by its proximity to all our black w/holes, all the gravity of our dense and voided existences in a universe that cannot know us beyond the event horizons of our trauma? Does, or could, its presence and memory nourish us the way our hunger demands? Is it purely imaginative and speculative, or does it float somewhere in orbit of the nexus between imagination, flesh, and material? If we can’t find that minute, how can we make a minute or take a minute? Can we?

And if we can, how can/will we defend this sacred moment and place in Black spacetime? How can/will we unflinchingly and relentlessly defend the fundamental sacredness of each other, in the flesh, in the mind, in the spirit?

My questions are untimely and undying, lurking behind the gesture, the flavor, the word. So another bite, another swig, pour some more, the dark and intoxicating awakening less than halfway up the cup, the sound of fizz and so much chatter, while my mom and I hungrily and wearily say silent prayers for ourselves, and the variously dead and dying that share our proximity to the casual and arbitrary death and chaos waiting in sleep and dream, thought and gesture, and everywhere, always, out there.

—–

An aspiring and dedicated water bearer named Kala sat across from Nicholas and I in her apartment while the rest looked for peace or something or nothing in particular in hot waters. She talked about rooming with ‘Becky’ for two weeks at an ashram in Pennsylvania, on her way to certification, and about searching for the word that captures what it is we do as folk dedicated and aspiring to nourish ourselves and our folk.

I remember her talking about the conversation after her return home, the way she was pulled toward the idea and the necessity of bearing water. I remember her, legs crossed, searching for and encountering the rememory of what she said, and echoing it, “I need to bear this water and bring it back to my people.”

Tidal forces swish and sway at the sudden disturbance of the thought, “Can you speak more about what that means?”

Later, later
Sometime

I roll it on my tongue as I swim through the letters, a deep dive into the depths of meaning. I felt the pressure, and found myself cradled in the liquidity darkness.

In messages laced with sugar, perfumed with rum and tinged with a mix of sorrow and love, she told me later what she thought she did, must do, and aspires to do as a water bearer.

“i am
a water bearer. i
am a black magic working
ancestor conjuring
water bearer.

but not all water bearers are.”

On the plush couch in Chinyere’s living room, watching a movie and figuring out what I wanted to eat—what kind of nourishment I needed that night—I read that last line, and wondered what kind of water bearer I am, or if I could claim the name.

“in the most basic sense,
a water bearer is someone who
is
carrying ancestral waters,
heavy waters,
pounding and swirling and cold and dense,
on their back.

it is
backbreaking labor
it is labor
it is working with and for
the spirit.

it is
it is
hallelujah”

The gravity of its “is-ness” summoned all the dark and liquid weight on my back. Submergence at will became perilous. It seemed for a second that I was sinking deeper into the untimely double time of continued and future obligations to black folk, and the past and present traumas that gave that obligation the density and awesomeness of oceanic depths. I thanked her for this, for the clarification, but Kala just kept right on.

“water bearers bring ancestral waters to the community…that they may drink and be baptized. whatever they need. some Black shit. some transatlantic waters. some blood. some sweat. some tears. literally. psychically.”

I pictured a vast crowd of shadows emerging from the ocean. Hunched over, bearing massive urns and jugs on their backs, or lugging them through the undertow, they are a haunted and haunting procession. Haunted by what they carry, and from the depths and lengths and darks they were forced to travel to collect this burden. Haunting because their presence is spectral and timeless, their very being a simultaneous indictment and reminder of the darkness of all times, and all places. Sloshing rhythmically, spilling, splashing, tripping, standing back up, being helped to their feet. Moving.

“and also take on others’ waters when it’s too much. it’s ‘healing,’ in a sense. bearing the water so that folks may be able to do what they need to do. their own work. it looks like M. Jacqui Alexander’s wurk. it looks like your wurk. it looks like…”

Some shadows drop their jars because they are too heavy. Gently, nearby kin collect the too heavy burdens, drink from them, or pour some of their contents into their own massive vessels. Traumas churned and shared. Some carry others’ vessels as they pause to breathe, to rest, to cry, to scream, to sing, until they’re ready to reach for and carry their own once more, or to even carry, drink, or take from another’s. And throughout, and so on, and so forth.

Chinyere returns from talking to her mother, and offers me a bottle of water, asking if I need something to eat yet.

—–

Dewdrop thoughts bead on my mind like the condensation on cool glasses in our hands.

“Cheers.”
“Say something!”
“Nuh uh, Mom. You’re the one who started it.”
“Ok, ok.” Her eyes go somewhere. To and into the depths of all the “menacing and unbearable” questions, toward some horizon where masks, moments and places might be undone, broken open, revealed for their essence, shattered into a glittering, atomized refuse; broken, broken open, so that some words might be released to name what we needed, what fed us, what we wanted, what we feared, what hurts us, and what love we dream about so that the weight of our raised glasses wasn’t our own to bear—for a minute. Something, anything, inevitably fragmented, but at least fragmented. “To more of this. To good health, and to success. To less struggle.”
“To us, too.”
“Us, too.”
Clink. Drink.
One more bite.
I know
I know
we know.

1. What saddens me most about this memory is that nothing has changed at UCI, which remains so committed to ignoring, if not outright disavowing, the needs and demands of Black students who experience antiblackness from administrators, from professors, and from students every single day. Likely, it has only gotten worse, despite the work we did, despite the work of Chinyere, Moo, and so many others (and so, so many of them Black women) before us. Please stay updated on the current status by following the BSU Demands team’s website.

2. Yes, “the.” The continued, global, and gratuitous destruction, manipulation, and accumulation of Black life and death without impediment, and with no need for justification than “because Blackness,” seems to be definitive, rather than indefinite. Thank you for this, Omar.

3. Moo’s definitely one of the most passionate dedicated and intelligent activists and teachers I’ve ever met. She is legendary and she stays humble, always working for the people. Always. Check her out.

4. I kept some of this exchange to myself because reasons.

5. Cited from David Marriott’s On Black Men. Check out the first chapter, “‘I’m gonna borrer me a Kodak’: Photography and Lynching,” for a deeper engagement with these concepts.

6. See both: Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot’s “The Avant-garde of White Supremacy,” and Frank B. Wilderson III’s “The Prison Slave as Hegemony’s (Silent) Scandal.”

7. In the wake of its compound’s violent destruction, its members’ subjection to violence and death by the agents and institutions of the antiblack world, and even the recent death of Phil Africa (59), Ramona Africa and MOVE keep on moving.

8. #WhitePeopleDoItBetter

9. See: Christina Sharpe’s “Black Studies: In the Wake” (hyperlinked in the text). An introductory intervention into her current, and what appears to be earth shattering, project, written with a black rigor, love and care rare in and outside of the academy.

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