b.O.s. 9.4 / Black America Again / Alessandra Raengo

Black One Shot stages brevity and precision in response to the art of blackness, contemporary and/or prescient. At 1000 words a pop, these pieces divest from academic respectability to inhabit the speculative, ambivalent, irreconcilable ways of black forms, and move through the fires this time. Seditiously, we are object forward, conjuring up the necessary intimacy generated between a critic and their object and keyed to the channels and frequencies of blackness. We hold fast to the given/taken works, the cultural productions without reduction, the condition of knowing all-too-well, and the imagining of something otherwise. Object love in the time of pandemics and insurrections. 

b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2020, come what may. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Abram Foley, Aurelie Matheron, and Irenae Aigbedion of ASAP/J.

– Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)

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“There is a note Coltrane heard in his head but could never play on the horn. What does that look like? How does that torment a man’s soul?” asks Bradford Young.1 Young knows it’s not a question of where this note might be, but when.2 Not a question of finding it, but of being found.3

In his short film, Black America Again (2016), Young interprets the “again” it inherits from the title track of Common’s 11th studio album as that missing note.4 In the film, this “again” is not solely the marker for an interminable cycle of violence and foreclosed future (“Here we go, here, here we go again, Trayvon Martin will never get to be an older man” raps Common), but it also sets in motion what Moten calls the endless chant of blackness’s open set, a defense of the irregular, a wounding and rewinding of the given.5 “We are rewriting the black American story,” sings Steve Wonder in the song’s bridge.

Young’s Black America Again rewinds the given history of antiblack violence to chant the possibilities of this open set, i.e. the endless predication—blackness is x, ad infinitum—which both engenders and is engendered by an open film set. For Young, image-making matters as a making with his “echo chambers”: his collaborators and the community that sends it and within which it takes place.6 

Shot on location in Baltimore, the city Young has chosen as his home, the film moves along the route of Freddie Gray’s rough ride. The film adopts an ensemblic process rooted in the communities it features—teenagers, a mother with child, a whole family, children from an Afrocentric daycare, a center of intergenerational pedagogy, an excited gathering around a turtle, the holding ground on Baltimore’s infamous “corners.”7 The film eschews the fourth wall; its borders efface themselves as they are smudged, like the flare on the upper frame of the opening closeup of a caterpillar on a tree trunk over barely perceptible outdoors sounds. It is followed by a single note ushered in by a stilt-walker in a Baltimore alley which signals the start of the film.

More than opening or closing, the film arrives and departs with two series of frontal and eye-level, black and white closeups of faces bathed in light, each looking intensely at the camera. 8

The faces emerge from a deeply black background, which brings forth the natural radiance of their complexion.9 Blackness is their everywhere and everything, their origin and destination, their ensemble and its music. 

Since the ensemble rejects individuation, the “sitters” do not stand out from what they are “with.”10 Nor does dancer, choreographer and performance artist Rashida Bumbray, whose voice acts as a sound bridge between this “assemblage of community” and graffiti marking the site of Freddie Gray’s abduction.11 As she slowly walks through the Gilmor Homes followed by the camera, she nods to residents who reciprocate while she marks tempo on her tambourine. Throughout the three and a half minute-long take, her white dress and headdress are held in sharp focus, while her surroundings are slightly blurred, warped, as if wrapping around her as a visual modulation of her entanglement with the community. Nor does Common, when, later in the film, he raps in call and response with a djembe player while standing on an empty crossroad. The camera circles around them, keeping them in focus, but still catches passersby crossing the street.12 

Here, as in his memorial video for Nipsey Hussle (Untitled, 2019), Young channels the missing, the dead, through a floating square Bynum, adjacent to the locations of the bumps and sharp turns that fatally injured Freddie Gray on his rough ride.13 A marker for (the ship’s) “hold,” the Bynum is also a portal, an escape hatch.14 Its twofold temporality—repetition and renewal—coalesces as Young’s double aesthetic move. There is the saturation of Roy DeCarava’s blacks, and the stripping down and unspooling of Common’s original song into samples separated by acapella breaks. The Bynum both holds and dissipates, contains and sends off.15  

The chant continues. First it’s just a beat, and then a communal ritual. It becomes a (ring) shout, performed following the drawing of a Kongo cosmogram with white chalk on a West Baltimore intersection by white-clad women from Bumbray’s ensemble. A piano playing on location and the diegetic chatter of onlookers grounds the scene in time and place. But the women foreshadow another temporality by moving in slow motion until the circle is completed and sound is re-synchronized to the beat set by the ring shout Sticker. Then the Shouters, almost imperceptibly out of sync, perform a version of Parliament’s “Swing Down Sweet Chariot,” a rewinding of a funked-up version of this pre-diasporic ritual.16 Suddenly, one of the Shouters begins to twirl in slow motion and seemingly takes off from the ground. 

When the sequence is brought to an end by the Sticker who re-synchronizes sound, the film transitions to Stevie Wonder’s bridge while the Bynum floats in the center of the frame.

The woman’s flight recasts the Bynum as a vessel, the chant’s endless predication resumes and delivers the film to its “black futures” with a second series of black and white closeups, primarily of children.17 This open set is a repetition with a difference, a regenerative reverb. Blackness is x, endlessly. Again and again. 

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

b.O.s 9.1 / Cardi B’s Ankles / Adrienne Brown
b.O.s. 9.2 / Food for the Spirit / Laura Larson
b.O.s. 9.3 / Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves / Qiana Whitted

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Lisa Uddin is author of Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), and has recent writing in the volume Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020), ASAP/J, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Postmodern Culture. She’s here for the freedom.

Michael Boyce Gillespie is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016). His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchable, and Film Quarterly. He hopes that people are still outraged in November.

Endnotes

  1. Bradford Young, Masterclass at Georgia State University, April 15, 2018. I am grateful to Michele Prettyman for her always thoughtful and inspiring comments to the first draft of this essay. Thank you also to Michael Gillespie and Lisa Uddin for their careful editing.
  2. Keeling, Kara. “LOOKING FOR M— Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibility, and Poetry from the Future.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15, no. 4 (2009): 565-582.
  3. Bearing out Coltrane’s same torment, Roy DeCarava’s practice of letting a photographic image go black was often a consequence of attending to its sound. Young describes DeCarava’s work as an exercise in patience and restraint, a lying in wait to “shroud the moment” when, like Coltrane, he might his note. Young, Masterclass. Richard Ings, “And You Slip into the Breaks and Look Around’: Jazz and Everyday Life in the Photographs of Roy DeCarava.” In Lock, Graham, and David Murray, eds. The Hearing Eye: Jazz & Blues Influences in African American Visual Art (Oxford University Press, 2009), 303-332.
  4. The film was shot by Shawn Peters, Jrr-Kwesi Fanti, and Maceo Bishop. It was edited by Marc Thomas.
  5. Fred Moten, Black and Blur (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), viii.
  6. In Corine Dhondee’s short film, Bradford Young: Cinema is the Weapon (2019), Young describes as “echo chambers” the lineage of filmmakers and visual artists with whom his work is in conversation (Haile Gerima, Larry Clark, Charles Burnett, John Akomfrah, Chris Ophili, among others).  On the idea of “being sent,” which inspires this essay, see Fred Moten, Stolen Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019) and particularly the chapter “Erotics of Fugitivity” where he discusses Betty’s case as a “nonperformance,” an improvisation against the very terms of contract law, “fugitivity’s irreducible futurity,” “the promise that we never promised.” As he notes, the Latin promittere mobilizes the idea of sending forth: “to have been sent forth: to have been sent […] by history. We are sent in history, pour out of its confinements. We send history. History comes for us, to send us to history and to ourselves” (259-260).
  7. Specifically, Young pays homage to the family of collaborator Elissa Blount Moorhead, who was responsible for gathering some of the ensembles that, in turn, engendered the film. Moorhead played a similar role in As Told to G/D Tyself  (2018, by the Umma Chroma group, comprising Kamasi Washington, Terence Nance, Bradford Young, Jenn Nkiru, and Marc Thomas). She is one of the three partners in the TNEG production company, alongside Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed and recently co-directed with Young the two-channel installation Back and Song (2019).
  8. To be sure, the majority of the film is in black and white and the rare color sequences act as what Larry Clark called “accent marks” when describing the complex temporal layering of his own jazz film, Passing Through (1977), obtained by the interweaving of newsreel footage (of the Attica prison rebellion, for example) within the film’s fiction. See “Interview with Larry Clark” https://vimeo.com/139241288.
  9. Young has often talked about his decision to underexpose: “We cinematographers are trained that black is a deficit, that it eats light. But black skin has a very particular level of reflectance and specularity.” Patricia Thompson, “Bradford Young discusses the cinematography of Ava DuVernay’s Selma and J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.” American Cinematographer 96 (2) (February 2015), http://www.cinematographer.org/ac_magazine/February2015/QandAwithBradfordYoung/page1.php . “When you underexpose [dark brown skin tones], they pop and resonate and shine in a particular way that you’re not going to see when a face is lit in a conventional way.” Jamilah King, “Cinematographer Bradford Young on Lighting Dark Skin and the ‘Subversive’ Power of the Black Church.” Color Lines, October 10, 2014, https://www.colorlines.com/articles/cinematographer-bradford-young-lighting-dark-skin-and-subversive-power-black-church
  10. I am paraphrasing Moten’s comments on the entanglements between artistic achievements and individuation made during his talk, “Blue(s) as Cymbal: Beauford Delaney (Elvin Jones) James Baldwin” keynote address for “In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney,” University of Tennessee, Knoxville, February 21, 2020.
  11. Michael Anthony Farley, “The New Day Again,” Bmore Art, December 26, 2016.
  12. Jabari Exum is the djembe player.
  13. The Bynum is a very rich and always evolving form in Young’s oeuvre, which is likely in dialog with what Arthur Jafa has described as the function of the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in “My Black Death,” Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black culture, ed. Greg Tate (New York: Broadway Books, 2003, 244-257. For Jafa, 2001’s monolith is a manifestation of black sentience, disguised under what Anne Cheng would describe as a modernist surface. He credits the Kubrick film with allowing him to recognize the “dark matter of black being.” Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Bynum also references the racially entangled history of the black monochrome, from Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 Black Square to Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings. See at least Adrienne Edwards, Blackness in Abstraction (Pace Gallery, 2016), and Moten’s chapter “Chromatic Saturation” in The Universal Machine (Duke University Press, 2018), 140-246.
  14. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Farley, “The New Day Again.”
  15. The Bynum can also be regarded in relation to the black “negative space” of DeCarava’s photographs, as a holding ground for the missing: the dead, the unaccounted for, the “nonperformants.”
  16. Imagine church folks singing Biblically inspired funk in broad daylight in West Baltimore with no ‘fourth wall.’ It’s no wonder you can see bystanders surround the circle, clearly as captivated by the spectacle of the ring shout itself as they are of the Common making a video on their block. This is Black America… healing itself with a melange of cultural technology: funk, latter day hieroglyphics and community.” Farley, “The New Day Again.”
  17. Like Coltrane’s note, and as Kara Keeling describes it, with Marx’s turn of phrase, this is “poetry from the future,” a type of “wealth held in escrow,” which though it might be unimaginable now, does not mean that it is foreclosed. Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: NYU Press, 2019), 63.
Alessandra Raengo
Alessandra Raengo is Associate Professor of Moving Image Studies at Georgia State University, founder of the liquid blackness research project and Founding Editor in Chief of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, now with Duke University Press. She is the author of On the Sleeve of the Visual: Race as Face Value (Dartmouth College Press, 2013) and of Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled (Bloomsbury Press, 2016).