Nigger, Shut Up and Play

The brilliance, honesty and reserved anger in which W.E.B. Du Bois summons in “The Souls of Black Folks” is magnanimous. There is a passage where the Judge unleashes his racism, through what is deemed as charity, when he speaks to John. Demeaningly, he says:

“You know I’m a friend to your people. I’ve helped you and your family, and would have done more if you hadn’t got the notion of going off. Now I like the colored people, and sympathize with all their reasonable aspirations; but you and I both know, John, that in this country the Negro must remain subordinate, and can never expect to be the equal of white men. In their place , your people can be honest and respectful; and God knows, I’ll do what I can to help them. But, when they want to reverse nature, and rule white men, and marry white women, and sit in my parlor, then, by God! we’ll hold them under if we have to lynch every Nigger in the land.”

These very sentiments are echoed weekly, if not daily, by the sitting person in the white house. They are often camouflaged in coded language for white supremacist, but they “present” just the same . Oddly, but not surprisingly, many have chosen to agree with him as speaks disdain against athletes choosing to protest. You read the comments: these athletes need to appreciate that we buy their merchandise and afford them the opportunity to have their lavish lifestyles.

Ultimately, what this translate to is : Nigger shut-up and play.

Du Bois was right said there was this “amused contempt” that was connected with double consciousness.

The (un)Making Within the Theo-Creative: Wrestling with James Baldwin and John Coltrane

Art is not only dangerous, it dismantles. As artists create, potentially, their work unearths the deepest forms of beauty in the foulest of places. As Toni Morrison denotes,

“Art requires a critical conversation about being human.”

In comparison, art as a theological praxis envisions God as a disciplined creator, creating within the infinite and borderless, space. In his lecture, The Moral Responsibility of the Artist, James Baldwin wrestles with a collision that occurs when the invented god of America and the creative vision of the artist begins to asked questions of humanity. He refers to this event as a collision, to represent an emphatic reiteration, as he proclaims, “because people don’t…wish to see their deepest intimations confirmed.” Baldwin’s view of artists reveals an intention of seeing the religious or transcendent authority that lies concealed within art. Understandably, from Baldwin’s recollection the artists are the only people capable of galvanizing the creativity to exegete from the captured space of the ugly. In other words, the artist has been blessed with foresight to see the beauty within the grotesque. We also find this type of reverence or foresight, in the artistry of John Coltrane. During an interview Coltrane insisted: “I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.” The un-making  within the theo-creative for Baldwin and Coltrane embodies an engagement of unhinging from the white gaze while simultaneously embracing how their Black experience has been cultivated by their community.

What is the unmaking within theo-creative? The theo-creative is the artist; being consciously inspired by the moment, where their creative response assumes transcendence. Therefore, the theo-creative is not merely a moment, movement or occurrence; it is also the person. It is the artist’s understanding how their artistry cultivates and reconfigures. The theo-creative is where art expands the conversation, while theologically struggling to provide solutions for what George Yancy describes as the “quotidian social spaces,” (think of: Public Enemy -Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Alabama- John Coltrane, Mississippi God Damn- Nina Simone). This is art performing an unmaking, a reconfiguring of the space to become a proponent of Black irruption. The un-making within the theo-creative conjures an artistic moment, where perfection is not an automatically centered part of the “sociocultural vocabulary” as denoted by Ashon Crawley (BlackPentecostal Breath, 230) or normalized. Rather, the most important factor becomes how does the art register in the spirit of the people. i.e. How does it make one feel? The unmaking within the theo-creative forms a distrust, radicality and subversive disposition with dominate ideologies/theologies that refuse to interrogate the white, European gaze of artistry.

Dr. JoAnne Terrell articulates on her a podcast, Shift of the Gaze, that “Being an artist is a given; becoming conscious of one’s artistry, and becoming conscientious as an artist depends on having or developing a sacramental theory of perception.” Terrell readily designate that the sacramental aspect of art must first be secured within the artist and the artist’s gaze. Therefore, the artist is not merely offering a response but producing a work. This work is not based, solely, upon the reaction of feeling but has been nested within and through a creative process. Now, the artist, in all of their disclosed banality, maneuvers with a tempered “disruptive clarity” as noted by Ed Pavlic’( Improvise, 24), in order to create. Therefore, how one practices, and, continually, engages in a method of practice transforms their art. This is noticeable evident in the artistry of Coltrane. His maniacal commitment to practice made his improvisational skills otherworldly. There are many stories where friends, family and other musicians would find Coltrane fingering his saxophone without blowing air into the instrument. This form of practice established an uncanny fluency with the horn and developed hand coordination as one heard the music in their head. Professor Lewis Porter insists, “That [it was] essential for improvisation, since one must hear music in one’s head in order to produce it at will.” (Lewis Porter, John Coltrane, 52)

James Baldwin as an artist is not the identity that first captures the attention of most. Many would primarily label him as an activist, writer, queer/gay Black man, and playwriter. And, I might add a progenitor of Black Rage. But, the label of an outright artist is something that is rarely connected with the genius of Baldwin. The artistic world availed his imagination unto a wider perspective from which he was able to extract his information. Baldwin proclaimed in a conversation with Studs Terkel: “nobody knows what’s going to happen to [him/her] from one moment to the next or how [he/she] will bear it. This is irreducible and its true for everybody.  Now it is true that the nature of society has to be, you know, to create among its citizens an illusion of safety. But it is also absolutely true that this safety is necessarily an illusion and artists are here to disturb the peace.” For Baldwin, art arranged moments for people to communicate their truth even in the midst of oppressive times. Ed Pavlic’ denotes that “art put people eye to eye with the essential state of risk and made an engaged joy possible.” (Pavlic’, 40) This is the beauty and the un-making of the theo-creative work of James Baldwin. He is consistently reworking the accusations that God abandons the Black community, allowing atrocities to dismantle their lives. Baldwin’s search for answers both torments him and fuels his work. Black Rage serves him as a theo-creative form of release to explore the problems that plagued the Black community. Though he notices the distinct places where despair could be the course of the day, Baldwin’s sense of Black Rage activates his artistry. His Black Rage revises his understanding of the imago dei. Baldwin’s rage towards his father has implications toward God as well. Viewing his father as a fraud, Baldwin also identifies God with the same fraudulent intentions. Nevertheless, God, through the church, appears to have had an apparent impact on his thinking, because Baldwin admits that he will never be able to rid himself of the church because “it is in him.” Baldwin is conduced to define God as a distraction, not as a sovereign being working on behalf of Black folks who are oppressed. He concretely believes that Americans, specifically, white Americans, use God as a shield so that they do not have to wrestle with the reality of white supremacy in America.

In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane writes ,” During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. “ John Coltrane embodied his art, ontologically, to the point that his wife at time, Naima, declared, “he was 90 percent saxophone.” Coltrane’s theo-creative moments are centered around his relationship with the saxophone. This collision between Coltrane and the saxophone happen in the midst of family tragedy: his father, maternal grandparents, and uncle pass within months of each other. Coltrane uses music as a means of survival. For Coltrane, his art represented a path of righteousness. He understood and lived under the philosophy that “playing right meant, and required, living right.” Though he questioned many things including his idea of faith and God, Coltrane “found salvation through the saxophone.” (Ashley Kahn,8) But, Coltrane, like Baldwin could never severe the connection from the Black church because “it was inside of him.” As he journeys through the musical scene and develops as an artist, Coltrane has a moment where it appears as if his skills are eroding.  Ashley Kahn describes the time, in May of 1957, while playing at the Red Rooster, Coltrane begins to play like a six year old in the middle of a set. Coltrane was [obviously] detoxing from drugs, cold turkey, It was during that time that he had a dream about Charlie Parker, and Parker said that he was on the right track. This is the moment that Coltrane begins to transform in his playing.- (Love Supreme, 35-36) After witnessing Coltrane fight through that detoxification, Nat Hentoff would later emphatic detail , “there was Trane with his band…standing with a spiritual force.” Mcoy Tyner, who would later accompany Coltrane on A Love Supreme, marveled at his transformation saying, “It was almost like he had something he had to get done. You know? He had a lot of work to do.” This spiritual weightiness in the music of Coltrane is not only reshaping Coltrane but redefining the sound of the saxophone as well. Regardless of the particular style, Coltrane provided a credibility as well as his spirituality to upcoming saxophonist. His art was his infinite invitation to his Sunday Church. Coltrane allowed his music to speak “with a particular force to Black America, where politics and culture—the civil rights movement, R&B music, and jazz—were tightly enmeshed in a rising wave of racial pride.” (Ashley Kahn, 73)

Theo-creative Mechanisms of the Un-making

Within the theo-creative, Baldwin’s typewriter and Coltrane’s saxophone emerge as mechanisms of the avant-garde. Through these sacred surrogates (typewriter and saxophone), the creativity of both men grapple with the grief of losing their fathers. First, Baldwin’s chaotic love affair with the typewriter becomes apparent. Though he finds some sacred release from the typewriter it also produced his greater place of pain. It was the typewriter, where he was able to release pain, pleasure and fear but the actual expedition to the typewriter manufactured anguish. But, justifiably, Baldwin knew that solace was conceived and enveloped in the keys of the typewriter. Embedded within the tiny, creative space of the typewriter, he was forced to confront his inner demons, and the turmoil known as the memories of his father. The typewriter became a space for Baldwin to develop his voice as he struggled to tell his Black narrative. As Baldwin is struggling with communication and the decisions of life, the typewriter provides him a “passionate detached” space to create. ( James Baldwin, Cross of Redemption, 73) Though Baldwin does not understand why anyone would ever want to be a writer, he understands that he has been called to such a task. The typewriter is the place where his father becomes characterized and Baldwin is able to release his rage. A rage produced through Baldwin’s contempt for his father’s misappropriation of God’s holy. Because he observed his father attempting to evolve into whiteness, he discovered a disdain and bitterness that he harbored against him. It was so formative that Baldwin would later write, “…that God [himself] had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas.” (Baldwin, Notes of Native Son, 85) Interestingly, Baldwin, associates “holy” with whiteness, in relation to his father, yet his father had such unspoken hatred for white people. (Baldwin, Conversation with James Baldwin, 47) The commentator Buzz Poole supposes that these particular “codas” God devised for his father are the few things that Baldwin can say, honestly, that he inherited from his father –a rage. (Buzz Poole, Happy Birthday James Baldwin, The Millions) Codas that demark a Black Rage that is unescapable to any Negro alive; “a rage in his blood –one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” (Baldwin, Price of the Ticket, 133)

Secondly, Coltrane’s saxophone was his place of peace that allowed him to rediscover his faith. The sudden death of his father appeared to leave an aperture to which the saxophone would creatively satiate. Coltrane’s love for the saxophone was visibly apparent as he spent most of his waking moments attached to the instrument. Everywhere he went the saxophone was either in his hand or nearby. It was known that he would practice from anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day. There was something intrinsic and ancestral about the saxophone that made Coltrane feel close to his deceased father and grandfather. Wayne Shorter connects this thesis of Coltrane’s playing and his appreciation for his grandfather’s Black form whopping as an AME Zion pastor. Inseparable, he denotes, “his grandfather was a preacher and I can hear the wailing [through the horn] …and the appreciation of his grandfather’s mission.” Shorter is positing this inevitable resurgence of spirituality that emerges through the artistry of Coltrane as he is chasing lost time with the men—his father and the father figures— in his life. This is apparent in the mentoring of Miles Davis versus the paternal pedagogical approach to practice with Thelonious Monk. During Coltrane’s tenure with Miles Davis he refused to answer question but preferred for the artist to creatively explore their way to understanding. Thelonious Monk, on the other hand, takes time with Coltrane, and rehearses different methods of playing until he has mastered the musical phrases and movements. Though Coltrane flourished in both environments, it was Monk that expanded his creative parameters. Coltrane admits, “[Monk] got me into the habit of playing long solos on his pieces, playing the same pieces for a long time to find new conceptions of solos. It got so I would go as far as possible on one phrase until I ran out of ideas. The harmonies got to be an obsession with me.”  Ultimately, Monk’s pedagogical, fatherly and instructive approached orchestrated a “complete freedom in his playing” as Coltrane would confide during an interview.

Conclusion

The un-making within the theo-creative is Black performance awakening to the historical value of culture.

Because art produces itself in the means of the crumpled and the creases of struggle, Black folks had/have to be creative in order to survive. Baldwin and Coltrane are products of a people where as Fred Moten denotes “Black performance was a means and a practice of resistance. “(Fred Moten,foot note 14 pg 263) With Blackness and God servicing as a connected never-ending muse, the quest to reshape humanity avails itself as a total disruption for these two artist. Their art mimetically induced their lives. Or in the words of Sonny Rollins,

 “I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I’m just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that’s when it’s really happening.”

Harriet Jacobs’ Crawl Space: A Strange Space of a Production of Blackness

(This is a section of a larger paper entitled ” Reconstructing Blackness: Listening to the Slave Narratives.”) 

Imagine being hidden in a small crawl space for seven years while simultaneously hearing the unimaginable without clear visibility and knowledge of who said the information. This was the fate of Harriet Jacobs as she hides from the slave masters in her attempt to escape from slavery.[1] She has positioned herself in this little room, that was added on to her grandmother’s house, with the intention of staying there until it was safe enough for her to transition to another location. While stationed in this make-shift crawl space, Jacobs is hidden from everyone. She has the ability to hear what everyone is saying about her but is not afforded the opportunity to speak back to them. Constantly and consistently, she is left wrestling with her own feeling of doubt and insignificance as she hears the words of those she loves and trust. She hears the voices of her children as they play and friends as they walk by. Furthermore, she hears the voices of those who are also still hunting for her capture. This crawl space serves as a sacrificial space for listening. Jacobs is required to isolate herself from others in order to produce the liberation that she is seeking for her children and herself.

The crawl space deafens itself as a space where identity becomes discarded. No longer is Jacobs a human, but she is stolen, or misplaced property. In retrospect, she was never considered a human as a slave but the crawl space deafens her humanity in a peculiar sense. Potentially, the crawl space makes here indiscernible while simultaneously choking the ability to be a courageous voice out of her. This space abolished her humanity as a place for the “discarded.”[2] Ashon Crawley describes Linda’s escape into the crawl space as a powerful love ethic while critiquing a system that would incite a woman to devise such a plan. Crawley writes,

“Not a celebration of the conditions of emergence that demanded her being discarded — that would be quite vulgar — but a celebration of the love that the peculiar institution was to have interdicted, a love she was not to have or hold that prompted her desire for escape, a love as the grounds for her desire to give care.”[3]

Therefore, Linda’s discarded body produces a love ethic within that crawl space that is a seminal effort toward reconstructing her own Black womanhood. Every production of freedom that Jacobs was implementing was predicated upon the liberation of her children and reconstructing of her Black womanhood. Tamura Lomax echoes this thought in Jezebel Unhinged, when she writes, “Harriet Jacobs, who found joy in her children’s freedom while confined to her grandmother’s attic and who chose a white male sexual partner not for love or even pleasure but as a liberative act…”[4] The crawl space served as an obtuse space for transition — a place where enslavement and securement of one’s identity collide. But, it was structured by the “intentional” planning for freedom of Jacobs.

Though the crawl space inhabitation was the direct result of dehumanizing and discarding; it, nevertheless, registers her identity and ability to overcome. Those seven years spent in the crawl space hearing others, but not audibly being able to communicate back the love, appreciation, and pain, reshaped her in meaningful ways. The structured pause that is relegated to the crawl space forces Jacobs to listen. A type of listening that is grounded in receiving information rather than processing for a response. The slave narratives yield this radical form of listening that reconfigures the normal purview of liberation.

As Harriet Jacobs envisions her day of escape, while postured in the uncomfortable location of the crawl space, she is also within an earshot of her loved ones and those seeking her demise. Thus, making listening a skilled intellectual practice of survival. I am not sure if the term makes/making is even a decent word to incorporate in such an incident. Makes/making implies there is personal construction that is being incorporated within this production. What Jacobs makes is not out of a need of flourishing, but “a make” that is produced out of a need to survive. Consequently, what she is hearing is for the sole purpose of securing her identity; it is not an aimless pursuit of information gathering to build an argument.

Yes, there is a choice of escaping but it was done from a sense of survival that is more conducive of an un-making rather than some euphoric right that is implied with making. Therefore, Jacobs was un-making slavery as she labored in the crawl space. The more things that she heard while she was in that crawl space the more her identity concretized. The crawl space required here to listen as a form of resistance. Jacobs is cutting against the grain in order to do what she believes in best for herself and her children. This is not taking extremely well by her family but there is an obvious appreciation for her courage and bravery. This is ultimately the lessons that must be learned through reading of the slave narratives — listening to the stories of a gifted people and experiencing the inspired genius. The slave narratives unearth stories of trauma repositioning Black people as the power brokers of strength in a system where metastatic evil was normalized.

Jacobs is positioned in a space that is not conducive for the human body, but, comparatively, gives herself respite from the abuse that she has to endure as an enslaved woman. The mere fact she must conceal herself in the crawl space is dehumanization and abusive. However, she is engaged in an act of resistance that is fortifying her identity. Jacobs is reshaping the crawl space into a place of rehabilitation for her soul. No longer does she have to endure the unwanted advances of the slave master or his harsh words. She has made a decision that reflects her directional movement toward trying to flourish instead of existing. How she is reconstructing life from within this small space, that socially would label her body as discarded for such an act, redefines freedom. Though the crawl space is the epitome of the “darkness total,” Jacobs is invested in the crawl space.[5] Jacobs proclaims, “I had a woman’s pride, a mother’s love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should arise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.”[6] The crawl space provided a clearing that allowed her to experience life though she could not actively participate. I am thinking of Toni Morrison’s idea of The Clearing in Beloved as Baby Suggs preaches during those gathered moments.[7]The clearing represented a space where Black folks were expected to enjoy their identity and the crawl space is a space where identity thrived to be experienced. Both places were spaces where Black listening was required for the liberation of Black bodies. Ultimately, how they listened and invested, in Black life, in those moments cultivated a joy and produced liberation.

Though the crawl space was not an ideal situation, it metamorphosed into a secure location that would eventually become a bulwark of resistance. The crawl space provided concealment from the hunters, but afforded Jacobs the opportunity to sonically be invested in the lives of her children. The everyday things that can be taken for granite are now the precious sounds that solidify here existence. Whether it is the rain upon the tin roof or the sound of birds in the morning, the forsaken sounds are life giving moments. What she experiences sonically becomes heightened through the seven years, as her vision is impaired because of the concealment. Therefore, nothing is wasted or ignored because it becomes a part of the never-ending jigsaw puzzle that is pieced together, mentally, as she sits in this crawl space. Listening becomes Jacobs’ way of living, as she muses through life in that crawl space. She forces life to be previewed through a sonic lens, then translated into a perceptual image. This apprehends Baldwin’s perspective of Ray Charles as he was captivated by his presence. There was a noticeable difference in Ray Charles’ perception that mesmerized Baldwin, and I make the claim: this perception begins to evolve in Jacobs as well. She becomes acutely aware of the environment and how that type of shift determines certain perceptual cues.

The time in the crawl space heighten her perceptual proclivities to the point where here surroundings began to take life. The sound of rain, thunder and laughter of her family produce an irruption that previously were just episodic noise. Now these sounds triggered a lifeforce. The sounds were emblematic of a “performative irruption” that she imagined were being lived out, existentially, as she is ontologically static.[8]These were natural occurrences that she had to imagine, cerebrally, because she was not afforded the luxury of viewing them outside of the crawl space. Though she is hidden away in the crawl space the sounds activated a memory of the familiar which provided her with the fortitude to continual through the struggle. Jacobs speaks of not knowing rather it was day or night because she was concealed from the sunlight but “I knew it only by the noises I heard…”[9] Like Ray Charles, Jacobs’ sensitivity to the sonic movements of the days, indicated what was transpiring within the moment. She was being transformed by the sounds she was hearing instead of the sights she was seeing; listening, became her of way seeing. Though she was trapped in utter darkness, her ears began to develop the imagery she needed to construct a flourishing space — space where survival subsumes cavalier notions of giving up.

The crawl space represents a creative patience that is needed when one must listen. As you read the slave narratives, and, especially, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one must be willing to wrestle with: what is heard while in the crawl space. The crawl space presented a special function that captured the freedom of life. Listening becomes an inevitable practice, within the crawl space, that one must succumb to in order to survive, properly. The crawl space concealment was not something that had to be executed in order for Jacobs to live, but it was necessary in order for her to flourish. The crawl space was a liberative path. It provided Jacobs with a means of identity that was not readily available as a slave girl. The crawl space was an abandonment of insularity for the white world. Jacobs’ Fanonian approach to destroying a colonialist mentality of slavery: “We understand now why the black [wo]man cannot take pleasure in [her] insularity. For [her] there is only one way out, and it leads to the white world.”[10] Jacobs chooses the crawl space as an affirmation of her Blackness and freedom rather than the whiteness embedded in the capitalism of slavery. Secondly, the crawl space placed her in a space where she was forced to listen as a means of negotiating the day. In this “loophole of retreat,” Jacobs would strengthen herself daily through the joys of hearing her children playing outside.[11] Life was produced in the rapturous moments of hearing the sounds of those she solemnly placed her body in harm’s way in order to establish a better example of being. She understood that a simple movement, at the wrong time of day, could mean disaster, not just for her but her entire family. Thirdly, listening gave her a reason to live because it gave her an opportunity to hear her children and family. Thus, listening provided her with a regiment that lead to survival. Though the outcome may appear similar, the approach is different when it comes to means and opportunity. One implies a form of work (means) and the other, a form of leisure (opportunity). Although Jacobs is listening to her children the reasoning for each may have been different: one day she may have needed to be reminded of her reasoning for entering the crawl space while on another day she just needed to be inspired through their sounds.

What is gleaned through this crawl space episode is that creative patience produces an insight for survival. Creative patience is the ability to find ways to wait and listen. This is needed because the slave narratives avail themselves to the reader as a means of radical subjectivity that forces the reader to re-construct or re-think history.[12] The lessons learned through the intellectual practice of listening produces a residual ethic that pushes the culture to excel. The crawl space where Jacobs is hideaway exemplifies such a space. Listening became an act of resistance that stimulated the survival of Jacobs and lead to a new production of life for her children. The crawl space image presents a complex tension where listening within unstable scenarios manufacture solutions that provide concrete objectives to outdated practices.

[1]Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Dover Publications, originally Published in 1862, reprinted 2001

 

[2]Ashon Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017., 151.

 

[3]Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath, 152

 

[4]Tamura Lomax, Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.,80.

[5]Jacobs, Incidents, 96

 

[6]Jacobs, Incidents, 73

 

[7]Toni Morrison, Beloved,New York: First Vintage International, 1987., 113.

[8]Crawley, Blackpentecostal, 137.

 

[9]Jacobs, Incidents, 97

 

[10]Franz Fanon, Black Skin, Black Masks, translated from French by Richard Philcox, New York: Grove Press, 1952.,33.

 

[11]Jacobs, Incidents, 95.

 

[12]Stacey M. Floyd-Thompson, Mining the Motherlode: Methods in Womanist Ethics, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2006., 116.

The Project of Re-hearing N.W.A.’s “F—- the Police” as Lament

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”)

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has awakened elements of resistance in some youth and adults in the black community. The constant fight for injustice upon the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland and many more has stressed the importance of resistance, of naming the issues and calling for socio-political accountability and reform. These widely scrutinized deaths, and subsequent testimonies of black parents about the imperative they feel to inform their children about what they need to know to survive in America.[1] This rising national awareness is reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement, when young black students took to the street in forms of protest. Then, as now, their aim was to draw attention to the maltreatment of the black body in the hands of a racist American judicial system. During the Civil Rights Movement, Professor Michelle Alexander suggests that over twenty thousand people were arrested for protesting.[2] Now, in current days, “BLM is the new model for civil rights,” states Khalil Gibran Muhammad. [3] He quotes historian Andy Seal that BLM is a “…rearest of rear-guard positions one can imagine, petitioning for the right not to die prematurely, a mark of retreat from the larger hopes and assertive agendas.”[4] This BLM protest is an outcry for help in the midst of a society that institutionalizes its marginalization of black citizens. Thus, Black Lives Matter becomes a tautology that emphasizes the value of the devalued black body as do the words of N.W.A.’s Fuck the Police.

N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police may be easily dismissed for it is the work of a group inner-city teenagers. Their song, this Hip Hop lament, can be ignored as misguided epitaphs and excuses to commit crime, but upon further review, a look at the treatment these young men endured, at the hands of mis-trained policemen, their words become screams for help.  The words of N.W.A.’s Ice Cube in Fuck the Police levy the fiercest critiques aimed upon cops. Ice Cube raps,

Fuck the police coming straight from the underground/

A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown/

And not the other color so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority

Fuck that shit, cause I ain’t the one/

For a punk motherfucker with a badge and a gun

To be beating on, and thrown in jail/

We can go toe to toe in the middle of a cell

Fucking with me cause I’m a teenager/

With a little bit of gold and a pager

Searching my car, looking for the product/

Thinking every nigga is selling narcotics

You’d rather see, me in the pen/

Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o [5]

Superficially, these words appear to affirm the killing of police officers as a justifiable act. But, read closely it is a lament for help. Professor Cornel West explains that the world of Hip Hop has emerged from a place of rage against the injustices of black bodies. He further articulates that Hip Hop originated with a “fierce disgust with the hypocrisies of adult culture-disgust with the selfishness, capitalistic callousness, and xenophobia of the culture of adults, both within the hood and the society at large.”[6] This rebel music became the backdrop for Black Rage against police brutality. N.W.A. sparked an outcry, rallying black youth in the hoods of America. N.W.A. spoke about the injustice that was being displayed on the faces and backs of black people in the policing of the cities of America. In Open Mike, Michael Eric Dyson argues that this “agitprop anthem” denotes a recognizable reality because it raises the “language of rebellion against political tyranny and police force.”[7] Dyson also declared,

There’s also solidarity in fighting the distortion of human identity under oppression, as the poor the world over fight against their bodies being trapped, contained, and demoralized by social structures and governmental practices.[8]

Thus, the creative instinct, fueled and directed by Black Rage made N.W.A’s work foci of resistance contemporary. What West and Dyson articulate as academic critics of the culture of Hip Hop, KRS-One, an icon in Hip Hop, vocalizes as a one who is embedded in the culture: “The real lives of those that are affected by injustice, lawlessness, and corruption created…Hiphop as a way out of oppression.”[9] Fuck The Police became the song of protest and a timely lament for black youth.

The movie Straight Outta Compton, shows the members of N.W.A. taking a break from a recording session.[10] While standing outside of the studio, they are accosted by the police for no apparent reason. After the group members are harassed and humiliated, the manager of the group Jerry Heller, an older white man, comes out and demands that the police allow the men to get off of the ground. Demeaned and treated inhumanely, the young men are allowed to get off the ground and stand up but only after a few more degrading comments from a Black “cop.” Upon re-entering back into the studio, you find the young men frustrated with their treatment. Reflecting upon the harassment they just received, they come up with the song, Fuck the Police. In response to their Black Rage, they creatively lament in a song. Ice Cube’s verse set off a montage of lyrical critiques which exposed and lamented a system that defrauded black men of their dignity.

Dyson quotes John Singleton, who reflected, “Most white people don’t know what it is like to be stopped for a traffic ticket violation and worry more about getting beat up or shot than paying the ticket.”[11] Singleton is indicating that while whites are sheltered from this on-going black reality, the song exposes the experience. This daily vulnerably of blacks was the reality that Ice Cube was referencing in his lyrics. It would be easy to dismiss it as vulgar music that makes excuses for crime but that would be an unfair assumption. Theologian Daniel Hodge is clear that “Hip Hop requires a basic theological worldview of the profane.”[12]  He goes further by denoting, “Theologians and church heroes assert that God meets us first in death and despair –the hell of life. Only those who enter the “s—-”(to borrow from Martin Luther) can encounter the God of Jesus.”[13] Hodge’s analysis indicates that N.W.A.’s Fuck The Police was not the outcry for the murdering of a police officer: it was a Black Rage lament, searching for assistance in a community of resistance. Professor Robert C. Dykstra proposes that to “lament is to protest some circumstance perceived as especially shaming…,” and that lament breaches favorable decorum, and fluctuates between “one’s tenderness and rage.”[14] I suggest that Ice Cube has experienced such a shaming trauma that his lament brands itself in the terms shared by Dykstra. Ice Cube understands that his skin color is the very reason that he is in this predicament: he was just standing outside on the sidewalk with his partners. His brown skin drew police attention to his friends and himself. This “attention” which automatically gave police the “authority to kill a minority.”[15] This lament of Black Rage by N.W.A informs society of the life of the black body as a body constantly traumatized in encounters with those sworn to protect American citizens. Perhaps the vulgarity distracts, but the message is pertinent to the violent acts that are being thrust upon black bodies. Dyson agrees with the message of Fuck the Police, but challenges them “to develop an ethical perspective on the drug gangs that duplicate police violence in black-on-black violence.” [16] What Dyson indicates is a restructured form of genocide that finds ease in the senseless murders of black bodies. His challenge is that a means be found to alter this acceptable practice that has been made an institutionalized practice for people of color.

 

[1] This is a product of numerous conversation that I have had with black parents about their fear of their black children being killed by police.

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press,2010.,37.

[3] Khalil Gibran Muhammed. “The revolution will be live-tweeted: why #BlackLivesMatter is the new model for civil rights”, The Guardian, December 1, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/01/black-lives-matter-civil-rights-movement-ferguson (accessed March 25, 2016)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fuck The Police, N.W.A.

[6] Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialisms, New York: Penguin Group, 2004.,179

[7] Michael Eric Dyson. Open Mike, New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2003., 268. Agitprop anthem is a term that Dyson uses to display that the song was a propaganda tool that was deployed by N.W.A to get people to view the police in other ways other than serving the community.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cornel West quotes this from KRS- One Ruminations. Ibid.,174. KRS- One (Kris Parker) is known as the Teacha of Hip Hop. He was one of the original members of the legendary group BDP (Boogie Down Productions). He has lectured at Princeton, Harvard and many other universities throughout the United States.

[10] Straight Outta Compton was the biopic film detailing the lives of NWA’s rise to success.

[11] Quoted in Michael Eric Dyson, The Michael Eric Dyson Reader, New York: Basic Civitas, 2004.,342.

[12] Daniel Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop: Rims, Timbs and a Cultural Theology, Illinois: Intervarsity Press Books, 2010, 23. Hodge argues that God can and does show up in the most unusual and interesting places. He writes, Hip Hop Theology is…a study of the Godhead in the urban context, with a goal of better understanding God’s rich and complex love for everyone (not just those who look and talk “nice”) and the revelation of God through the liberation of the oppressed from the oppressor.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Part of Ice Cube’s lyrics.

[16] Ibid., Dyson, Reader, 407.

 

Black Rage as a Lament

(This is part of a larger work entitled, “Perspectives of a Black Rage Sensibility: (Reshaping) God Through Spaces of Blackness”)

Lament is a genre, a type of prayer which cast before others the sorrows and grief that accompanies life’s tragic narrative. The anger I have assessed to be Black Rage mutates into constant fires of resistance, a simmered concentrated rage revealed themselves in words of “irrepressible definitions of humanness.”[1] Lament shapes the words of people who are vehemently seeking answers to questions of injustice. Such lament gives voice to the words of people redefining their stolen humanness and dignity. Black Rage enacts as a lament; it gives voice to rebellion, signifying that there is something redeemable in oneself, worth preserving.[2]Initially, lament serves as a reaction to society’s dysfunction. Lament cries out against that dysfunction reaching an unacceptable level. Lament calls attention to injustice becoming intolerable and forcing the need for change to be imminent.[3] Black Rage as explored herein; is the voice of the oppressed who are lamenting with shattered hope that justice is near.[4] The lament in Black Rage expresses the “painful process of this translation” of anger that assists the community with its identification of those who are allies and those who are enemies. [5]  Lament shapes the language of suffering, projecting itself into new forms of expression. Patrick Miller quotes Eliane Scarry’s The Body in Pain,

To witness the moment when pain causes a reversion to the pre-language of cries and groans is to witness the destruction of language; but conversely, to be present when a person moves up out of the pre-language and projects the facts of sentience into speech is almost to have been permitted to be present at the birth of language itself.[6]

Black Rage has given rise to forming of such new language to name the Black experiences to God, to neighbor, and to society. Black Rage forges language to give voice to the voiceless and manifests itself in various forms of writing, art, and acts of resistance and revolution in America.

As a lament, Black Rage renders unto God a multivalent cry that Black bodies are valuable; that God is “able” and wills to redeem and care for Black people is the center of the lament having impact. God, as a divine father/mother becomes a real factor of hope, when the black body stands socially and politically in constant danger and is constantly dehumanized. In his essay, To Feel Like a Motherless Child, Peter Paris expresses this as a social reality for the African.[7] He maintains that as descendants of Africans and the installation of the African Village motif, we cultivate the heritage of being a family oriented people. Thus, to be considered “a motherless child” is a foreign assumption and a “radical alienation that destroys both persons and community.” [8] The resistance of Black Rage lament to being considered a motherless child assists black people /communities in affirming that through lamenting before God they will call on the God who attends to the needs of the oppress. Such Black Rage lament signifies that God deems the black body as significant. Cone writes, “Because religion defined the [somebodiness] of their being, the black slaves could retain a sense of the dignity of their person even though they were treated as things.”[9] Black Rage as a lament articulates the recognition that because God values black lives, there are unresolved, issues of justice: Black Rage. Lament is essential to voicing and naming those issues of justice. Old Testament Scholar, Walter Bruggeman argues, “A community that negates lament soon concludes that hard issues of justice are improper to pose at the throne…”[10]  This becomes the radical alienation that Paris espouses to the African community. When the throne is just a place where celebration is projected then the needs of those suffering are reduced to irrelevant complaints. When Black Rage is received as a complaint, once again, the value of the black body is lost and God is “placed at risk.”[11] The risk does not endanger the God who is. But that risk is that the world, the church, will continue to conceptualize God as a God of prejudice. This risk places God at the top of a social hierarchy socio-political power structures that causes the black body to be marginalized and objectified.

 

[1] Patrick D. Miller, “Heaven Prisoner’s: “The Lament as Christian Prayer.” Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew, and Public Square, edited by Sally A. Brown and Patrick Miller, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.,15.

[2] Camus addresses this by asking the question, “ Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving? Albert Camus, The Rebel, New York: Vintage Books, 1985.,16.

[3] Walter Brueggemann. “The Costly Loss of Lament.” In The Psalms: The Life of Faith, edited by Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.,105.

[4] This hope is dismissive; it is more figurative than existential. It is a hope that one speaks about but never really believes will manifest –similar to true equality in America.

[5] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984.,127.

[6] Ibid., Miller , The Lament, 17.

[7] Ibid, Paris, Lament, 112.

[8] Ibid.

[9] James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues, New York: Orbis, 1972.,16.

[10] Ibid., Bruggeman,107.

[11] Ibid.,107.