art.icle

THE ART OF BLACK
ATLANTIC LIVINGNESS

by Patrick Teed
June 04, 2020
Patrick Teed is an actor, musician, and PhD student at York University’s Social and Political Thought Programme, specializing in Black Studies and Theories of Race and Racism.

“Loss gives rise to longing, and in these circumstances, it would not be far-fetched to consider stories as a form of compensation or even as reparations, perhaps the only kind we will ever receive”
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”

When writing about the history of resistance in Black aesthetics and the Black aesthetics of resisance, one does not have to go very far to recognize the debt that political art writ large owes to Black cultural work. Indeed, the very symbol of protest that has swept across the globe – the raised fist – is unintelligible without what Rodney Diverlus would call the politichoreographies of the Black Panthers and Black Power Movement. The Black Panthers, with their berets, their jackets, their full black uniform and occasionally visible rifles transformed how we symbolize resistance – and therefore transformed the field of resistance itself.

As an aesthetic imaginary, the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement more broadly inspired Red Power, Yellow Power, the Brown Berets, the Pink Panthers Patrol (and thus Queer Nation) and more. The aesthetic ripples resonate as profoundly today as they did half a century ago. Could we even begin to understand the art of protests – by which I mean the aesthetics of assembly – beyond this legacy? The point of course is not that protest did not exist prior to this moment and this movement nor is it that this protest was without any particular aesthetic, but rather that this examples marks one of the many ways in which the field of resistance aesthetics have been profoundly shaped by Black diasporic activity.

But the contributions of the Black diaspora to the cultural politics of resistance calls for more attentive and careful elaboration than simply the identification of protest markers. Rather, it can be traced throughout the history of Black cultural activity. It can be heard in the croon of Nina Simone, the spitfire lyrics of Public Enemy, and the joyous rhythms of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It can be seen in the visual poetry of Julie Dash, the bold pallette of Jean Michel Basquiat, and the sculptural installations of Kara Walker. It can be read in the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, the haunting prose of Toni Morrison, and the rhetorical mappings of Dionne Brand. And it can be felt in the force of Rose Maxon’s question: “Don’t you think I ever wanted other things?,” in Ntozake Shange’s gospel hope “let her be born and handled warmly,” and in Celie’s unwavering assertion that ‘I’m beautiful/ And I’m here.’

Mirror

Within the context of this immeasurable aesthetic generosity, how can I articulate the breadth of Black diasporic contributions to any genre of art (to every genre of art!) and to art as a form of resistance? Especially given that art (and thus life) as we know it is unintelligible without the Black diaspora – without both its generous gifts and its ongoing theft. In relation to this theft, the process of Black creation and appropriation is well documented. There is no a field of art untouched by this structure of Black artistic extraction. But the question I want to sit with is what that means for those of us – all non-Black people – who are implicated in this structure of creative extraction. How can any (and every) non-Black person respond to the debt that is generated within the context of a Black creative generosity that exists in excess of the violence of anti-Blackness?

Of course, we must invest in Black communities. We must defund the police. We must abolish the prison. But we must also attend to the stories we share about Blackness in the meantime – the art of narrating life – by engaging that consideration posed by Saidiya Harman in the epigraph seriously: stories as compensation, stories as reparations.

This question is more important than ever as reports on the death of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and Ahmaud Arbery have re-ignited cultural and political resistance to anti-black violence. Of course, the circulation of these stories of violence has contribute to increased awareness about police violence and the urgency for abolitionist projects. But as photos and videos of Black brutalization are spiralling across social media, we must as ourselves: What is the aesthetic value of reinscribing terror? How do we engage stories about anti-Black violence, about slavery and its afterlives, about mass incarceration, and about extrajudicial killing without reproducing that violence? How could we invest in stories that exceed the cultural archive of Black death and instead embrace what Katherine McKittrick has referred to as ‘Black Atlantic livingness’ – the survival that exceeds genocide? What if we shared stories of Black life with the same vigour with which we consume Black death?

No one attends more carefully to this narrative problem than Saidiya Hartman, whose historical and literary work on slavery’s archive forces her to reckon with the violence of documentation and historical memory acutely. Hartman elaborates a method for writing that she uses called critical fabulation. In describing this narrative process, Hartman states: “it is a narrative of what might have been or could have been.” This ‘might have been’ and ‘could have been’ opens up an aesthetic and creative possibility for narrative work that does not swerve away from the materiality of life but instead imagines what exists beyond the violence of Black death.

Thinking about critical fabulation not just as a writing process but also as a method for reading culture more broadly, I want to conclude by asking: for those of us who are not Black, what would it mean to honour George, Regis, Ahmaud and all Black people not by brutally representing their deaths, but by imagining their lives, by pausing in the space of ‘what might have been or could have been?’ What if we strived to disrupt these visual circuits of anti-Black violence with an aesthetic practice that attends to the generosity of Black cultural workers who have, for centuries, charted freedom dreams beyond the imaginative registers of non-Black narrative life?

Let’s together seek out representations of Black Atlantic livingness even and most especially when we feel compelled to fixate and share stories of Black death. To ask, what might have been? Last night, I listened to The Colour Purple and traced how Celie’s breath honours George Floyd. I heard her sing “And [breath]. I’m [breath]. Here.” And I knew she always will be.

Image 1 - Untitled, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1981), https://www.thebroad.org/art/jean-michel-basquiat/untitled
Image 2 - Still from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust (1991), https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/daughters-dust-julie-dash-transportive-colonial-rites-passage

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