b.O.s. 3.2 / Precarity / Mark Anthony Neal

From left, all details: James VanDerZee, Escape Artist (1924); John Akomfrah, Precarity (2017); still from Magic Mike XXL (2015), directed by Gregory Jacobs; Ash Arder, Broadcast #3 (2018); Derrick Adams, Sunday’s Best (2017).

Black One Shot is a series that stages brevity and precision in response to a single work of black art, contemporary and/or prescient. Using a 1000-word conceit, it references the pressures on scholars and curators to present complex discussions and formulations of blackness for public consumption, political action, and academic relevance. It disputes staid frameworks of interpretation that cannot or will not account for the speculative, ambivalent, and irreconcilable ways of black forms. It speaks to the ongoing case for black lives and art mattering. And it conjures up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object.

As an assembly of strategies, impulses, and circuits, these pieces conduct an historiographic and aesthetic review of how blackness and the arts demand and distend. We circulate them as a new measure of art criticism, one keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness, pleasure, and critical contemplation. Black visual and expressive culture and all to which it is connected is better for these queries.

With 30+ contributors, b.O.s. will run the course of summertime, when the living is (un)easy. We invite you to follow and share as new work is issued every two weeks. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J.

This third transmission (7.2.18) features Shawn Michelle Smith on James VanDerZee’s Escape Artist, Mark Anthony Neal on John Akomfrah’s Precarity, Kristen J. Warner on the Augustus striptease in Magic Mike XXL, Jessica Lynne on Ash Arder’s Broadcast #3, and Uri McMillan on Derrick Adams’s Sunday’s Best

– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)

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There are many who will claim to have been at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue on August 11, 1973, the night that Clive Campbell, aka Kool Herc, was said to have “birthed” hip-hop at a house party in a community center. There is no audio recording of that night; not even a set list. There is similarly no such claim to be made about a signature moment in the creation of Jazz. Yet when five-year-old Louis Armstrong, who would later signal as an “authentic” voice of the tradition, snuck around Funky Butt Hall and first heard Charles “Buddy” Bolden, he could only reflect that “Old Buddy Bolden blew so hard that I used to wonder if I would ever have enough lung power to fill one of those cornets.”1

With Precarity, John Akomfrah’s visual meditation on the life and art of Buddy Bolden, the filmmaker seeks not to recreate a moment that could be mythically referred to as a birth, nor does he seek to tell the facts of the story. Instead, he dares to provide glimpses into the literal precarity of Black Genius and pose a question: Who is to care and nurture the creative spirit of those for whom citizenship, and worse still, humanity, was thought to be at best a liminal existence to either?

Yet to document the genius of Bolden is to grapple with that which was not documented. As Michael Ondaatje writes in Coming Through Slaughter, the experimental novel that informs Akomfrah’s vision, “There is only one photograph that exists today of Bolden and the band . . . as a photograph it is not good or precise, partly because the print was found after the fire.”2 Moreover, Bolden’s peak years of 1899 to 1907 begin only two years after Thomas Edison’s invention was trademarked the Gramophone—but who would waste a cutting edge technology on a genius that could not exist?

Throughout Precarity audiences bear witness to images of blackness, photographs rendered most pristine under the cover of the water’s flow. We hear Bolden, voiced by Christopher Udoh: “I am the only thing alive; I am one with the water.” And the totality of water is indeed made apparent, where water—flow—also becomes a metaphor for a non-extant archive.3

Still from John Akomfrah’s Precarity, 2017.

Allyson Nadia Field notes the responsibilities of scholars of black film to “treat non-extant films as having the same concerns and import as their extant counterparts. If we do not look adjacently at these elements of film history . . . we risk missing the rich, albeit ephemeral, archive of the majority of films produced in this period.”4 While Field is specifically referring to early black cinema, her observations are apropos of the non-extant archives of musical figures such as Buddy Bolden. The crisis of the non-extant archive is in part the crisis of Black Genius; obscured, ignored and disregarded in its formative moments—only to read thereafter as the lack of evidence of things unseen and unheard, to offer a Baldwinian mix.

Hence Bolden’s “biographer” could argue that “Bolden was not a genius: he attempted to follow through on the music and couldn’t, which caused him great frustration and led to the public displays of rebellion against society that were his downfall and acted as a catalyst in his monumental battle with alcohol.”5 The biographer claims that Bolden simply lived in his head with the music and didn’t live in a world, as if society was some innocuous force in Bolden’s life and not defined by the violence and policing of the color line. Indeed DuBois is echoed through Udoh’s Bolden: “Being a problem is a strange experience.”

Akomfrah frames Precarity around the six properties of double consciousness: fluidity, plasticity, fugitivity, enjambment, waywardness, and immanence. The film’s triptych further complicates DuBois’s now flattened existentialist observation about black life, perhaps in ways that could only be legible to the cohorts of late 19th Century African Americans to which Bolden belonged. Akomfrah’s framing describes instead the non-extant archive at issue. According to Akomfrah, Bolden was an “emblematic diasporic figure; The historical traces are thin and the presence is fragile, precarious, but you know he’s there, because he’s left this kind of ghost line of his presence in the music.”6 What Precarity lacks in the sound of Bolden is reflected in the silent physical representations of Bolden and his band: the banter and unvoiced gestures between artists, and Bolden’s seeming ecstasy in his own playing.

Still from John Akomfrah’s Precarity, 2017.

Bolden’s story presumably ends in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he was committed in 1907 and remained until his death twenty-three years later. Ondaatje offers some impression of how Bolden might have processed his new surroundings: “Here. Where I am anonymous and alone in a white room with no history and no parading. So I can make something unknown in the shape of this room . . . I first began to play, back when I was unaware that reputation made the room narrower and narrower.”7 Bolden’s biographer notes that few “were aware of his former reputation. He was just another black patient who talked to himself, babbled incoherently and walked around ritualistically touching objects”8

In Bolden’s case, it was not simply about the inability for there to be a full documentation of the artist’s impact on the culture of Jazz, but the underexposure and diminishing of Black Genius itself. Bolden would be one of the first of many twentieth century figures for whom their genius would be reduced to incoherent babble.

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This is one of five essays from the third transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:

b.O.s. 3.1 / Escape Artist / Shawn Michelle Smith
b.O.s. 3.3 / Augustus Striptease in Magic Mike XXL / Kristen J. Warner
b.O.s. 3.4 / Broadcast #3 / Jessica Lynne
b.O.s. 3.5 / Sunday’s Best / Uri McMillan

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About the editors: 

Michael Boyce Gillespie is Associate Professor of Film at The City College of New York, CUNY. He has published on film theory, black visual and expressive culture, and contemporary art. Recent work includes co-editing (w/ Racquel Gates) the “Dimensions in Black: Perspectives on Black Film and Media” dossier for Film Quarterly 71.2 (Winter 2017). He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). He is currently working on his next book tentatively titled Death Grips: Film Blackness and Cinema in the Wake. He would rather live in Oakland than Wakanda.

Lisa Uddin is Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Culture Studies and Paul Garrett Fellow at Whitman College. She has published widely on race, space, and human/nonhuman entanglements in modern and contemporary visual culture, and is the author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). Her current book project, Sunspots: Black Cosmologies of California Design, considers black expressive practices in formations of California architecture and urbanism since the 1960s. She is mid-tone beige.

Endnotes

  1. Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1954), 53.
  2. Michael Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 62.
  3. As Allyson Nadia Field writes, “Language surrounding non extant film largely falls into three categories of terms, often invoked in combination: the historical artifact, the perishable organic, and the spiritual . . . The last category answers the perceived lack evoked by the first two, and thereby establishes film restoration and preservation as a near-messianic solution, invoked with terms such as saving and resurrection.” Uplift Cinema: The Emergence of African American Film and the Possibility of Black Modernity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015), 24.
  4. Ibid, 24.
  5. Donald M. Marquis, In Search of Buddy Bolden: The First Man of Jazz (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), xvii.
  6. John Akomfrah, “Left of Black with John Akomfrah,” online video, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=va-Z_aLBc8o.
  7. Ondaatje, Coming Through Slaughter, 82.
  8. Marquis, In Search of Buddy Bolden, 128.
Mark Anthony Neal
Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies and Director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship (CADCE). Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, and co-editor, with Murray Forman, of That’s The Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (now in its 2nd edition). Neal is host of the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.