Daniel Black’s The Coming is beautifully uncomfortable. What I mean by that it is takes you on a journey through enslavement that makes you feel as if you have been captured, placed in shackles and locked in the belly of a slave ship. It is a fictional depiction of real trauma that begot Black life upon the shores of these yet to be unites states.
Black vividly details the most horrific experiences of enslavement with the skill of Coltrane playing the sax. He takes you to the belly of the slave ship and makes you smell the stench of the air until you are forced to go outside and spit because you feel as if “you can’t get the taste out of your mouth.” These are words and ways he explains the process of death without dying that those courageous souls endured on their voyage from their homeland.
The wisdom that exudes from the page as he writes, “…we fed and strengthened our own captors. We cannot claim naivete’. We cannot say we were people undeveloped. We cannot say there no signs. We can say only that we did no feed them. Sound wisdom was as common as the evening breeze.” One of the most poignantly presented messages came when he writes about how calculated the strategy to capture them was orchestrated. The order in which they people were captured: 1. The farmers-folks who knew the land 2. The healers- shamans who could heal the people, physically, mentally and most importantly spiritually3. The jali- those who told our story4. The warriors- our strength to fight back5. The artist- the one who told us we were beautiful 6. Orators and teachers- they were muted and chained7. Gatekeepers- were murdered on sight because they alerted everyone of troubleAnd everyone else with less noticeable gifts were slaughter: “keepers of knowledge, masters of spirit, gurus of assistance, guardians of order and balance.”
I am not sure if there is another theological text that meant more than James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. It was simply the text that affirmed for this young Black southern boy that I could be Black and a Christian without settling for white evangelicalism.
The mere thought of a black body being identified as Jesus elicits fears in the hearts of many people, white and black. In and of itself, the concept of a Black Jesus, is something that has been fought against in European circles for centuries. To admit the Emanuel –Jesus, God with us, is black is to impel the white world, and its socio-political structures, to recognize the full humanity of Black people. Moreover, the massive amounts of repentance and asking for forgiveness of the Black community would be necessary and logical. The implications of re-imaging the humanity of Jesus as Christ have many, diverse and structural repercussions. Such a confession would call for a substantial overhaul of theology. It would call for a completely new perspective about black people. It is what Kevin Considine called, “God-talk arising from the black community, speaking to the Black community, for the purpose of giving life and dignity to the Black community.” Why would such a communication need to happen? A god that fails to identify with the very people that God evolves from would discredit the theological significance of that group of people. If God is Black, and fails to bring value to God’s black people, then it is appropriate to determine that those people lack the approval for full humanity.This logic is one of the issues that James Cone is raising as he writes A Black Theology of Liberation. Cone employs a historiographical lens to engage and redirect our gaze to that which normally escapes our reflection. The cost of our usual aversion to engaging issues of the black experience is that of subjectively neutralizing black people’s ability to express grief and rage in social protest, in art, and in many forms of lament. Cone’s desire to enlighten the black community undergirds his Black Rage as he constructs a theology of liberation. Cone explores God through his Black Rage by venting his anger theologically in ABlack Theology of Liberation.
Heavy: An American Memoir is what I would expect to read from one of my homeboys from Goodson Hall at Benedict College. It is the sitting on the front porch drinking Hennessey before you dip to the club. In this work, Kiese Laymon untethers himself in this provocative book that leaves you wondering was the brother your next-door neighbor.
As one who claims that The Fire Next Time is the best book I ever read, this is the southern version. Where Baldwin would not have a clue of what it means to deal with the country terrain, Laymon does. Baldwin doesn’t write about the southern ancestral resume—the southern, maternal grandmother— like Laymon. Laymon’s story rests in the life of his grandmother. She was the exegesis. Laymon writes, “In Grandmama’s world, most white folk were destined for hell, not because they were white, but because they were fake Christians who really hadn’t really heeded their Bibles. Grandmama really believed only two things could halt white folks’ inevitable trek into hell: appropriate doses of Jesus and immediate immersion in Concord Missionary Baptist Church. I didn’t understand hell, or the devil, but I understood Concord Missionary Baptist Church.”
There are points in this text where Laymon simply mesmerizes with his gift. And, the beauty is that it does not emerge from some inauthentic place but simply the courage to be intrepidly vulnerable. Reading his words often feel as if you are intruding on his personal space. Especially when he writes words like: “…telling the truth was way different from finding the truth…”As he is closing out the book, in the last chapter, he posits some powerful words to his mother who you inevitably have to converse with the entire time you read this book. His mother is the muse, or more like the melody of the book. He is because of her…he is dope because she is dope. He pens these words, “I will tell you that white folk and white power often helped make me feel gross, criminal, angry and scared as a child, but they could never make me feel intellectually incapable because I was your child.”
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
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. 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.” 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.”
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…” 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.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.” 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.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.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…” 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.” 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. 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. 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.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, New York: Dover Publications, originally Published in 1862, reprinted 2001
Ashon Crawley, BlackPentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, New York: Fordham University Press, 2017., 151.