Details, left to right: Miles Davis in the 30th Street Studios, 1962; Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner, The New Brunswick 5, (Wanted series), 2017; still from American Gods, season 1, episode 2, directed by David Slade.
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 eighth transmission (9.10.18) features Walton Muyumba on Miles Davis’s “Blues for Pablo,” Kimberly Juanita Brown on Camal Pirbhai and Camille Turner’s Wanted, and Michael Boyce Gillespie on “Mr. Nancy’s story” in American Gods.
– Michael Boyce Gillespie and Lisa Uddin (Editors)
A match strike. Lantern light and the reveal of a page. The elegant and deliberate movements of a fountain pen’s metal tip across the page; a rhythmic sound. The rumble of thunder and a clock’s synchronized tempo accompany this inscription melody. A ritual of precise actions, the writer completes the first sentence: Coming to America—1697.1 No Prince Akeem. No Neil Diamond.
Fade to black.
In that black comes a close-up of a multicolored spider, along with ambient sounds of wind, the straining creaks of wood, the clinking of metal, and waves battering a hull. A tenor sax’s vamp runs down a bundle of riffs and sketches. A gathering of blues tones, it could be Beale Street or Chinatown. The camera focuses tightly on the spider’s array of eyes then cuts to its POV. The sight is a familiar historical rendering. Black men penned, shackled, and huddled on the floor. This is the hold of slave ship packed with flesh, cargo, but never passengers. Low ceiling and dim lights; they could very well be underground. After a series of shots panning left and right, the camera eventually settles on one man. A face in the brutalized crowd, Okoye (Conphidance) speaks. “Anansi. Anansi. Compé Anansi. Can you hear me? I do not have for you a gift… These strange men have tied my hands. So, I cannot dance or clap or cut fruit to place before you. But you can hear my voice. Help me from this place and I will sing to you all my life. I will bring you gifts. Gifts of leather, and stew, and silks, and the best wine. Please. I don’t know where is my mother.”
Sullen and bound in the hold, Okoye calls out to his god, a plea for counsel and fortune: “The most coherent temporality ever deemed as Black time is the ‘moment’ of no time at all on the map of no place at all: the ship hold of the Middle Passage.”2 Embedded in the horror of no time, perhaps this god might bless Okoye with duration, mutability, or some other kind of temporality or freedom. Yes, a state outside the time of slavery; a “time that fractures into an infinite array of absurdities, paradoxes, and contradictions.”3 Old worship. New tithings. He offers his undying faith in an omniscient order. Free your mind and your ass will follow?4
Where there was once a spider on the railing of the stairs now a man slowly descends. He does not hurry. He moves at a perfunctory speed. “Oh, she’s long dead. She wouldn’t give it for Johannes so he threw her off the boat. Did you know your mama couldn’t swim? You all need to work on that. Take swimming lessons. This is how we get stereotypes.” He’s got jokes.
A god of West African origin made again by the orality of his worshippers is recast in New World threads as Mr. Nancy (Orlando Jones). Deep in the sartorial cut, he wears a suit and hat with plaid traces of black, green, red and royal accents of purple; a black dandy in a noir key. Genocide cosmopolitan, n’est-ce pas? His accent unfurls longitudes and latitudes.5 A voice with a lilt whose rises and falls are a map of the Middle Passage. He is tailored while Okoye is fungible and deeply confused by the look of the Old in the New. Okoye asks, “Anansi?” The tone of the god’s reply hints at an impatience with old anticipations.
“You want help? Fine. Let me tell you a story.”
An embodied archive of lore, the god selects the most appropriate tale for the occasion. He offers unmerciful omniscience and no apologies.6 “Once upon a time, a man got fucked. Now, how is that for a story? ‘Cause that’s the story of black people in America! Shit, you all don’t know you black yet. You think you just people.” Okoye wanted a proper story that might provide some hope, some instruction. Mr. Nancy gives him the story of the idea of race in America. He pitches an epic tale of property, the (non)human, white supremacy, antiblackness, and capital. One century at a time, a historiographic sketch that seethes. “You already dead, asshole. At least die a sacrifice for something worthwhile. Let the motherfucker burn! Let it all burn!” The tenor sax returns with electronics and drums. No blues now, only fire music. Mr. Nancy’s measure of revolutionary suicide, a willingness to submit to the purposefulness of one’s death, dictates that retribution always trumps hope. The story that he portends refuses to indulge visions of flying Africans or Igbo unbound and shuffling along home on the water. This is an ocean whose waters “demand remembrance, articulate sorrow, and express perpetual rage against the shores of dispossession.”7 Mr. Nancy dispenses the New World niceties of death-bound subjectivity and of the living in the wake to come.8 Once upon a time called now.
As Mr. Nancy finishes with trenchant candor he transforms again for a moment. Neither spider nor man but a humanoid with a spider’s head. Viciously liminal and mattering, a god becomes a black diasporic force. The trickster with the best trick in town. The moral of his story: Freedom as an act of worship is a taxing devotion. Okoye calls for deliverance. His god obliges him with the knowledge that the from slavery to freedom story will be a long one, so long in fact it defies narrative itself. The Atlantic is only the beginning, not the end: It can be said that we know the rest of the story—how it turned out, so to speak, but frankly, I don’t think that we do know the rest of the story. It hasn’t turned out yet, which is the rage and pain and danger of this country.9 The god releases Okoye and soon all the chains fall. The dead rise to confer a blazing tribute in the moonlight. Amid the smoking flotsam, the spider scuttles ashore with so many more stories to tell and so many burnt offerings to come.
Thanks to Lisa Uddin, Annie J. Howell, Racquel Gates, and Zach Oden for their thoughts and comments.
This is one of three essays from the eighth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays here:
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.
- An adaptation of the 2001 Neil Gaiman novel of the same name, American Gods (2017-) is a television series on the Starz network developed by Bryan Fuller and Michael Green. The sequence I am discussing opens Episode 2 from Season One: “The Secret of Spoons” (5.7.17). The basic storyline of the first season involves the attempts by Mr. Wednesday/Odin (Ian McShane) to unite the Old Gods in preparation for the impending war against the New Gods. The former were the deities brought to the New World by their worshippers (e.g., Odin, Mad Sweeney the leprechaun, Mr. Nancy, Easter, Jesus) and the New Gods (e.g., Mr. World, Media, Technical Boy) are the modern forms of worship: globalization, media, and technology. Many of the episodes during the first season begin with a conceit sporadically used throughout the series: Mr. Ibis (Demore Barnes) writing in his ledger. Ibis (modelled on the Egyptian god Thoth) and Mr. Jacquel (modelled on the Egyptian god Anubis) together operate the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Parlor. While they are born of Egyptian cosmology they are now decidedly modern and human in their appearance. Beyond their mortal mortuary duties, Ibis is the keeper of knowledge and the writer of tales surrounding how people brought their gods with them to the New World while Jacquel escorts the dead to their final judgement in the afterlife.
- Frank Wilderson, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010: 279.
- Calvin Warren, “Black Time: Slavery, Metaphysics, and the Logic of Wellness.” The Psychic Hold of Slavery: Legacies in American Expressive Culture, ed. Soyica Diggs Colbert, Robert J. Patterson, Aida Levy-Hussen. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016: 59.
- Okoye’s call echoes another stage, another scene and enduring cry from the hold: “Episode Two” of Roots (ABC, 1.24.77). Lying chained below the ship decks, Kunta Kinte (Levar Burton) is surrounded by the sounds of sorrow, illness, and madness. He calls to “Allah, the merciful. Allah, the all-powerful. Allah, the compassionate. Please hear my prayers.” The Annapolis shore and the auction block eventually appear, not Allah. For more on the consequential production, history, politics, and reception of Roots, see Erica L. Ball and Kellie Carter Jackson eds., Roots Reconsidering Roots: Race, Politics, and Memory. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017; and Joshua Glick, Los Angeles Documentary and the Production of Public Memory, 1958-1977. Oakland: University of California, Press, 2018: 153-174.
- See https://shadowandact.com/a-shadow-act-sit-down-with-american-gods-ricky-whittle-yetide-badaki-orlando-jones; and https://io9.gizmodo.com/io9-talks-with-gods-orlando-jones-on-being-the-trickst-1796452440
- See, https://io9.gizmodo.com/orlando-jones-on-american-gods-incredible-mr-nancy-spe-1794944769
- Michelle Commander, Afro-Atlantic Flight: Speculative Returns and the Black Fantastic. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017: 3
- See Abdul R. JanMohamed, The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005; and Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
- James Baldwin, “How One Black Man Came to Be an American: A Review of Roots” New York Times, September 26, 1976: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-roots.html