By Jayy Dodd
I'm faced daily with choosing violence / or a demeanor that saves every other life / but my own. - Essex Hemphill
Recently, I was afraid of leaving my house. It was a fear, un-like the anxiety of leaving my bed. A different kind of discomfort. A fear of being caught. Caught, here, however is not to imply a criminality or some yet disclosed fugitivity, though that is a constantly possible reading of my body. Caught, here, is also, not a precursor to some kind of guilt, as if me being alive & outside was a transgression in itself. Caught, here, is like a capturing — under a gaze — I feel like a wild thing in eyes-locked cage. When I could make it off my porch, I avoided many people's faces. Unless, I saw a face that looked like mine. A face that looks over its-own-back, too. I would break off what little I have for a smile. I recently realized I needed more of those faces. The answer to the question of what is left out-there for me? Faces that look like mine; smiling-watchful-escaping capture.
In ontological archives of Black subjectivity, thinking ourselves “The Other”, we are presented with a consistent yet immeasurable tension placed on our physical being. The Black body, in modern understanding, has been fashioned out of a colonial mutilation of humanity. In her book Monstrous Intimacies, Dr. Christina Sharpe maps out a grammar for the post-slavery subject; how the remnants of colonial figures frame the contemporary Black body through racial, sexual, & physical subjugation. How these understandings of our body haunt our work, or how we are able to hold such fearful things close to ourselves. This is a sort of dissociative living — an obscured presence.
This rhetoric is made manifest in our language, in our laws, & most visible in our media. Thinking through popular icons of Blackness conjures the conversation of “representation”. We have seen this mutate into a debate on a hyper-visibility of select contemporary Black subjects. Black iconography gets so caricatured where even it’s praise can be tooled for violence—how subjects of praise are still subjected.
Consider: Barak Obama’s presidency as anchor for the post-racial America myth. His occupation came with a lineage of terror against Black folks, here & abroad. Still, he presented a possibility. His subjugation was used as a way to placate Black dissent, to have Black folks invested & sedated. In these final days of his term, the political landscape has become avirulent backlash of all the “work” his election was to represent. Still, his presidency offered a never before seen joy & is critical to trajectories of race in this country.
Think of Elder Virginia McLaurin, the 106-year-old Black woman who danced with the President & First Lady. Here, though subject to entertainment politics, a Black woman is expressing a most genuine joy. Compounded to this captured performance of glee is the site: The White House. A visible remnant of colonial terror built by enslaved Black folk (as FLOTUS seemed to remind White America). What does it mean to be able to dance on the graves of kinfolk? To find joy atop mourning?
WEB Dubois wasn’t wrong about “The Negro Problem”. Not the one your white friend’s aunt talks about. In The Souls of Black Folk he writes: “Here lies the Negro problem … And here are no fences. But now and then the crisscross rails or straight palings break into view, and then we know a touch of culture is near.” The Negro problem, this tension of Blackness, lives on subjectivity. It’s an involuntary vulnerability coupled with a self-awareness of possibility. What Dubois articulates as double consciousness ballasts philosophies of self, let us imagine what exists in that chasm.
Romantic poet John Keats, in a letter to a brother he muses about how art & “masters of achievement” can achieve transcendence that “obliterates all other consideration”. What he calls “negative capability,” or “when [one] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Consider then the Black subject. How much of anti-Blackness is mythic? How much ahistoric costume are our bodies placed in? Whole pockets of our nation are lined with questions of how are we still here?
It’s a dissonance again. Negative capability is how the Black subject navigates anxiety of being; an act that attempts to obliterate the onus of subjectivity.
The question of “Where is it safe to be Black & alive?” haunts the diaspora. If the answer remains unfound what ways can we make of ourselves, caught here & subjective. The contemporary Black body a post-slavery, post-colonial subject exists in all-consuming duality. What indigenous & queer theorist Malea Powell names para-colonialism. This understanding that the structural subjugation of The Black body requires both more history than post- or neo-colonialism offers. Para-colonialism contextualizes both the history of violence & resistance enacted on & from the Black body. How our labor traces from the field to the prison yard, from cakewalk to the Youtube clip. Colonization — both the history & present it has propagated — is now haunted by the same question. The Black body now holds that tension. The simultaneous articulations of own joy & suffering provides a grammar for our capacity to exist in a world that speak us extinct or only living for labor.
Been feeling antagonistically Black as of late. Feeling like each time I share a joy it so so susceptible to critique I arm the celebration tone of unsolicited defensiveness. My joy speaks with a switchblade tongue. Sure, there is an air of paranoia, why would my expression garner such response? Consider how Black joy is criminalized.
We think of the squad of Black women on the Napa Valley Wine tour, kicked off for enjoying themselves too loud. Or the Black teens in McKinney, Texas who were harassed & assaulted by police for attending their schoolmates pool party. For these folk & all my people, I have felt a need to push the already rupture of my body. My declaration of being is tuned to a frequency of I-will-draw-the-first-blow-if-I-need-to.
The Black body, as site of both joy & suffering, offers each a grotesque subjectivity. Black joy is so inconceivable it is read as criminal & still we laugh. In sick parallelism, Black suffering is so prevalently malleable it’s regurgitation can be consumed without conviction. It makes it hard to leave the house. Hard to believe you are able to manifest safely outside of your own four walls, if you even have the comfort.
Been weaponizing the fear that makes my body subject. Turning the gun back on the shooter, leaving the burning house with arsonist inside. Trying to. Trying to not get caught.
Now, a metaphor for this feeling. The Zumbi. The traditional Haitian vodou character & prototype to the oversaturated icon of mindless, brain-eating fictions we call zombie. The zumbi, a living-dead thing, came into cultural vernacular as we know it when enslaved Black began experiencing the subjugation of the “New World”. To be a dead thing, reincarnated, without a will.
To be just a body. A slave to some kind of evil. To be recaptured by this Earth, powerless.
The Black subject under colonial gaze is made zumbi. A body seemingly outside of it’s own control. Savage & mindless, an unspeakable terror. The Black subject is wished dead on sight, yet often still demanded of labor. To be Black is to parse out the tension between the soul & the body. To live caught between impossibility & imagination.
I live in a city now where I see more faces like mine than before. I leave the house smiling. Walk — legs out. It’s been summer since I've been here. The only thing I catch are glances. Catch him looking at my nails. Catch little Black & Brown girls smiling at my skirt. Even the glares are just faces like mine trying to make sense of themselves. It is still a face I know. I catch my-self seeing less police cars in the streets I walk. I catch families bringing in groceries. I catch my-self outside, but because.
jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from Los Angeles, California—now based in Detroit. they are a professional writer & literary editor. currently they are department editors at Kinfolks Quarterly & HEArt Online Journal. their work has appeared / will appear in Lambda Literary, Assaracus, James Franco Review, Winter Tangerine, Dreginald, & Guernica among others. they’re the author of [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016) & Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017). they are the CTTNN Club – a poetry art collective. find them talking trash on the internet
Go here to purchase their chapbooks.
More of this year's essay series:
Sonya Vatomsky, Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging
Ka Bradley, Naming and Its Discontents
Liz Howard, Naming and Its Discontents
Victorio Reyes, Discovering Existence - A Cross-Textual Essay
Sophfronia Scott, Of Flesh and Spirit
To see more essays from last year, go here.
To see current news for the press including our next book, go here.