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By Darnell Moore | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Thursday, October 31, 2013.

 

Writing the precarious

 

When I write, I tend to invoke the ghosts that have populated and haunted my life. Rarely, do I summon guardian spirits. I rely, sometimes overly so, on the autobiographical form as a way of inviting the reader to deeply feel, to vividly imagine, to critically think about a particular black life lived, worn, tried. I have written about my many harrowing bouts with suicidal ideation and the few moments where I tried to end my life. I have recounted instances when violence has befallen me and others in my family, especially my mother, while living in urban space. The endless narratives of out-group and in-group aggression—white racial supremacy, homophobia, classism, and much else—figure as core themes in my writing. I write in the dark. Unceasing calls to ghosts, much like perpetual returns to shadowy memories, can be a dangerous undertaking, however.

 

Writing myopically  

 

Recently, I returned home to my parents’ house and stumbled upon my mother’s many timeworn photographs. I asked if I could take several photos home so that I could scan them. Nearly all of the photos, including the pictures of me lacking a haircut and donning tight corduroys while on a big wheel, evidence the life of an overwhelmingly happy child. I smiled a lot. My smile was bright. But, as hard as I tried, I could not re-member my smile, my happy childhood self, or the many apparent moments of bliss in my yesteryears.  Looking through each of the photos was a reminder of the gaps that have widened in my memory—a memory that has been lined and paved with the markers of pain. Trauma, that which blunts memory through the repetition of blows to the psyche, works in the life of the impacted in the same way that a delete button refashions a page: it obliterates some inscriptions to free space and allows all that is left to appear overly animated. But much like a page, the traces of the impression remains in one’s life even while it is seemingly veiled. In my writing, I often return to the memories deeply inscribed, hammered even, in my psyche only to discover ghosts. And there is no tension present in the writing because I have somehow forgotten that I smiled too.

 

Writing through affect

 

After a special screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave at a theater in Manhattan, a friend asked if I could describe how I felt while watching the film. He mentioned that he noticed my seeming lack of response. It’s true: I barely cringed while watching the film. The unrelenting and excruciatingly brutal scene when Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) until her brown skin begins to almost leap off of her back did dishearten and terrify me. There were countless other scenes that depicted the mundane nature of the violences (i.e. rape, kidnapping, lynching, enforced illiteracy, et cetera) that were enacted upon the enslaved by villainous White profiteers and there were too many reverberations that signaled the continued presence of structural forms of violence in our present. There were scenes of laughter, play, and community laced with scenes of subjection, too. I didn’t cringe because of an astounding ability to anesthetize my feelings when confronted with violence. Like many viewers, I have witnessed black bodies brutalized in the flesh and on the screen so much that I am frequently in a state of shock: moments when I experience emotional overload and psychic paralysis all at once. I feel so much, so overwhelmingly, until my body and spirit denies that it feels at all. So, I did respond. My response to the movie was quite similar to most post-traumatic reactions to vicarious violence. It is also true that much of my writing emerges from and within the same emotional space.

 

Writing reframes

 

Janelle Monae, the automaton “Electric Lady,” when singing her way through a rhythmic sermonic selection titled “Victory” on her newest album offers the following: To be victorious, you must find the glory in the little things. In late 2010, I traveled with colleagues from various universities to Cape Town, South Africa as part of colloquium organized by scholar Kyle Farmbry. The trip is one that I will never forget, not only because of the stunning landscape and the horrific inheritances of apartheid, but also because of a lesson I learned regarding perspective—especially in relation to the shifting nature of one’s standpoint when faced with precarity.

 

Gugulethu is a severely under-developed and under-resourced, but no less virtuous, township about 15km from Cape Town. I tried my best not to succumb to my U.S. American liberalist sensibilities by offering repetitive and sympathetic reframes about the amount of poverty and blight impacting the space and the people. I refrained from taking pictures of someone’s kids, without permission, as if they were spectacles. I reminded myself that folk have dignity and agency despite the matrices of oppression they may daily trek. But I could not rid myself of the overwhelming senses of complicity and helplessness when squarely beholding the dehumanizing and demoralizing living conditions that black South Africans in Gugulethu confronted.

 

And while standing on a large swath of severely parched land (itself a material consequence of colonialism and apartheid), I pondered all that was wrong.  That is, until a small and beautiful yellow flower sprouting alone out of the dry ground revealed itself to me. It became clear at the moment that I hadn’t trained my eye to search out skillfully and quickly the vast and thirsty ground (the structure), but never had I trained my eye to search for that one flower that cracked earth to sprout (the body). The parched land did not become less of a daunting presence. Surely, it remained an overpowering structure.  It no longer consumed all of my vision, however. I was able, at once, to see both the formidable bad and unassuming good, the all-encompassing structure and the ever resilient body. I returned to my journal and forced myself to write about the poverty and the smiles on the faces of the young people who danced and played as they walked home from school (the bodies) in spite of poverty’s force (the structure) in their lives. There is splendor in the dark, too.

 

Writing beauty and truth

 

When interviewing Amiri Baraka at his home a few years ago he stated in response to my question, What is the role of the poet? Your role?, the following: “Well, you know, it’s always the same role. You just have to say…tell the truth—you know as DuBois and Keats said it, ‘A poet only has two things they have to relate to, truth and beauty.’ So, if you can handle that: truth in a society made of lies, beauty in a society that praises ugliness, than that’s the gig. It’s hard on you because you must understand the resistance to that.” As a writer, a black queer writer, putting words to paper in a society made of lies, during a time when many praise ugliness, how might I learn to tell the “truth” and regard “beauty”? My own narrative is not one of sadness, violence, and pain alone; yet, that is what I re-member and privilege in the writing of my truth. I smiled, laughed, enjoyed friendships, fell in love, made love, fell out of love and experienced joy, just as well. I’ve trained myself to turn back and see only the parched land, however. Visioning a black life that only animates  death—a life conditioned by and organized around the force of trauma—results in me failing to see the glory of which Monae sings in “Victory.” What is the danger of such a limited gaze? What do I lose, or gain, by returning to the darkness only to sit within the expanse of its obscurity and not its splendor? What traces are carried, or left behind, when a black life is shortsightedly imagined and narrativized as a unitary force subject to the conditions of cultural trauma and structural violences and not a miscellany of sorts that animates the interconnectedness of subjection and resistance, death and life, beauty and truth?
Coda


What is the role of the writer who wishes to write and re-write a black life in these times when it is easier for some to believe that the black is more monster than genius and black life is more lifeless than it is alive?

 

***

 

 

Darnell L. Moore is a writer and activist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Currently, he is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at New York University. 

 

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