Black Future Month: Why “History” Don’t Satisfy
By Aziza Barnes
On my phone in a group text, November 2014.
I’m in a 3 way conversation with my homegirls post Darren Wilson non-indictment/Daniel Pantaleo’s non-indictment/ post we-lost-track-of- the- names- the murderers- and- how- much- they- get- paid. We’re numb, the way people get during war time to make it through the day. We’ve been waiting for the verdicts. We’ve watched every trail on live stream. We are each childless, but full of the possibility of becoming a Black American Mother. It’s as if we are watching our stock plummet exponentially. I type, “we gotta get outta here.”
She type, “and go where?”
I type, “I don’t know.”
She type, “you don’t know cuz there’s nowhere.”
And she type, “Pick a country that don’t have a history of killing black folks and enjoying it.”
And she type, “It’s every country. It’s the world. “
And she type, “There’s no place for us to go.”
I type, “maybe it’s not about our bodies anymore.”
She type, “it’s always been about the body.”
I type, “Not moving them anywhere. Something different gotta move now.”
I start watching the video of Eric Garner’s wife rejecting Daniel Pantaleo’s apology for choking her husband to death. Flying Lotus’s “You’re Dead” album plays on my laptop speakers, a music video of “Coronus: the Terminator,” on the following tab. As with most of Fly Lo’s recent music videos, it begins with a depiction of a Black man on his deathbed. The video is of his afterlife. This man, post mortem, walks through his house to find Flying Lotus and two other Black men covered in white powder, sitting in anticipation in his family living room. They sing, “the days of men are coming to an end…so come with me, if you want to live…” Our group text peters off because we are mourning and still have to go work and still have to buy groceries and still have to pay the light bill so Con Edison don’t show up at our doors. Still. The song plays on, “there’s nowhere left to go, so I’d like to save you…my hands been bloody since the day I came…” Eric Garner’s wife leaves the podium. I imagine the night after the press subside. She’ll go home. Her husband won’t be there. She will tuck her children in. She will clean the bathtub. She will begin the daily process of staying here.
Eric Garner’s wife is doing the thing Black Americans have historically done since our introduction to The West, and continue to do (as far into the future we allow ourselves to be seen). She is trying to: “freak it,” “make it work,” “work it out,” “make it happen,” “make something out of nothing,” “a way outta no way,” “suck it up,” “keep it pushin’,” “figure it out,” “handle it” “get the job done,” “take care of it,” “hold it down,” and all other variety of phrases Black folks have built that say, essentially, “do an impossible thing and do it seamlessly.” It’s a cool behaviorism. Don’t get hot. Don’t let them get you worked up. Even in death. Shit, primarily in death. Maybe it’s the reality for people whose bodies have been commodified. Death can’t afford more time than necessary. You’re on The Clock. You’re forever bound to the moment. To work. Grief can linger. But not the moment of death. As a potential Black American Mother, this is a future I can look forward to. As a potential Black American Mother, this is my history.
I return to Flying Lotus. Play the video “Never Gonna Catch Me” featuring Kendrick Lamar. The scene: a funeral parlor in Central LA, the city I grew up. A church of Black folk wearing black. Two caskets. One with a girl, no older than 7 or 8. One with a boy, same age. The scene is familiar. The photos surrounding each child’s coffin are familiar. The candles. The choir clapping, trying to raise their spirits. I’ve been to this scene. For my cousin. For my friends. Someone killed the kids. It’s not unusual. It was police. It was other kids who’ve been victimized by the police. So, it was the police. This particular video doesn’t say. I understand where I am until the kids wake up, leap out and start dancing this intricate swing routine in front of their families, their congregation, who don’t notice their bodies in motion, who continue to mourn. Kendrick’s lyrics fly behind their impossible dance, “I got mind control when I’m here/ you gon’ hate me when I’m gone/ ain’t no blood pumpin’ no fear/ I got hope inside of my bones / this that life beyond your own life/ this say this go for mankind / this that outer-body experience / no coincidence you been died/ you are dead.” Out of body experience. Escaping the body. Not out of shame of being Black. Out of necessity for survival. I’m intrigued by the thought.
As this February comes around in 2015, I realize that it ain’t the first time the phrase “Black History” has felt redundant. History doesn’t serve me the way it used to. Of course we have a history. We relive it, are engulfed by it, traumatized with its revival on a consistent and daily basis. We know, intuitively, that Emmett Till is Trayyvon Martin is Sean Bell is Oscar Grant is. It’s our lineage. Claudia Rankine says as much in her most recent printing of “Citizen,” with the extended passage of yet-to-be-dedicated Black men yet-to-be-killed. I look at science fiction in tandem with our current news headlines and am overwhelmed with our erasure as a people. Can we envision ourselves 10 years from now on Earth? 50? A century? We haven’t been given the luxury given our need for a culture of survival. A culture of survival is fortified by history. By how we’ve overcome before. That we can do it again. The impossible thing and do it seamlessly. What lies beyond the point of “freaking it?” “Making it work?” “A way out of no way?”
Can we envision ourselves beyond our bodies, as Flying Lotus does? Lotus reminds me of the works of other Afrofuturists, in the tradition of Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, Janelle Monae, P-Funk/Parliament Funk-a-delic: seeing past Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and into, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot / stop and/ let me/ ride!” An escape. A future. A commitment to our Decided Exodus. We know what’s going on. And we gotta dip on out. For P-Funk, Space was the place. A “Mothership Connection.” A new frontier and we don’t got to be the cargo? I’ll fly that ship quick. Eric Garner’s wife refuses to appease the white gaze upon her, refuses to make her imminent future opaque. She says, “hell no. The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe…no, I don’t care about his apology because he’s still working. He’s still getting a pay check. Feeding his kids. And my husband is 6 feet under and I’m trying to find a way to feed my kids now.” Find a way. Steal away. We know this tune. I’m invested in “that life beyond you own life.” For Eric Garner’s wife. For every potential Black American Mother. I’m invested in Black Future Month for this 2015. Getting past “a way outta no way” and into uncharted territory of a life without the negation. Without the “no way.”
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, she currently lives in Bedstuy, New York. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and published July 2013 from Button Poetry. You can find her work in PANK, pluck!, Muzzle, Callaloo, Union Station, and other journals. She is a poetry & non-fiction editor at Kinfolks Quarterly, a Callaloo fellow and graduate from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is a member of The Dance Cartel & the divine fabrics collective. She loves a good suit & anything to do with Motown.