Melancholia, Black Moaning, and Futile Hope by Jheanelle Brown
And knowing that there will be no peace
These are, I think, the masochistic rituals I know to be my life, Black life.
Many of you all probably watched a cell phone-recorded video of the most recent act of violence perpetrated on a Black body. The most recent confirmation of rendered Black inhumanity. The most recent viral video that in its proliferation, normalized Black suffering and commodified the resultant outrage. I watched it. And I keep watching it, because Blackness is social and literal death and by fighting to stay alive, we are all masochists. The attendant melancholy is all that makes sense to me. That’s all I know to be true.
But I keep watching this video. I almost relish each new version posted, versions that are longer, versions that are recorded from different angles, versions that catch different sounds and words. The melancholy that births, colors, and animates my life becomes monotonous...it’s almost passé, really. So watching these videos are a way to marvel at the umpteenth way that Black death is desired, wanted, needed.
Specifically, I’m ruminating on the incident that took place in Richland County, South Carolina in October 2015 in which a White male police officer grabbed a Black female high school student from her desk, threw her to the ground, dragged her across the floor, and restrained her. Grabbed, threw, dragged, restrained. The girl is said to be about 5’6”. The officer, in my estimation, looks to be 6’2” and 280 pounds. He grabbed her, threw her, dragged her, restrained her. Grabbed her neck like it was a twig. Threw her to the ground like a rag doll. Dragged her across the floor like a bag of trash. Restrained her like an armed fugitive of comparable size. Even in my layered and leaden cynicism and hopelessness, the audacity of this incident surprises me. So I have to watch the video again and again just to make sure that I’m not nightmaring.
In his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Fred Moten asks, in relation to the photograph of Emmett Till’s mottled face, visible in his open casket, “Can you be Black and not look at this (again)? Can you look at this (again) and be Black?”1 Why am I compelled to watch and watch and re-watch a video of another Black body being treated as the inhuman object it is thought to be? Maybe it is because, as Moten says, “There is a responsibility to look every time, again, [even though] sometimes it looks like that looking comes before, holds, replicates, reproduces, what is looked at.”2 And truthfully, each new visible and tangible confirmation of the lust for Black death validates my melancholia.,
After Sandra Bland was murdered, a theory circulated that she was in fact, already dead when her mugshot was taken. These Facebook and Twitter posts were always accompanied by the mugshot, in which the whites of Sandra’s eyes are bloodshot and her black pupils are boring into the camera. The image is eerie – Black death made horror movie manifest. But I kept looking at it. I would get into bed, pull my blanket up to my neck, and stare into her eyes. Then I would read the posts and stare again into Sandra’s eyes until I abruptly broke away. What explains my compulsion to re-animate Black death (my death), when, as Saidiya Hartman says, “only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the shipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and terrible.”3 Why did I constantly return to the silent re-staging of Sandra’s death? Blackness is death and melancholia is acceptance of this past, present, and future circumstance. I live in a state of melancholia.
Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln’s “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” is a call to perform an oppositional set of rituals – those of praying, protesting, and hoping for peace. Don’t these rituals traffic in a sort of futile hopefulness? They certainly don’t chip at my melancholy. Since when has insistence yielded anything more than lip service, more than some changed laws? Since when has insistence rendered us human? Since when has insistence reversed the death that Black people are born into? It’s laughable, really. But it’s a damn good song.
The liner notes further situate the piece in unfounded optimism:
Prayer is the cry of an oppressed people, any and all oppressed peoples of whatever color or combinations of colors. Protest is a final, uncontrollable unleashing of rage and anger that have been compressed in fear for so long that the only catharsis can be the extremely painful tearing out of all the accumulated fury and hurt and blinding bitterness. It is all forms of protest, certainly including violence. Peace, as Max explained to Abbey before the take, “Is the feeling of relaxed exhaustion after you’ve done everything you can to assert yourself. You can rest now because you’ve worked to be free. It’s a realistic feeling of peacefulness. You know what you’ve been through.4
Even in its infuriating hopefulness, this song provides the phonic [antecedent]5 to the aforementioned (moving and still) images of Black death. Abbey Lincoln’s wail-cum-scream-cum-liberated-croon is the moan of Moten’s Black mo’nin’. It is my own aural-corporeal embodiment liberated from melancholy. The desperation and insistence in her voice ask, demand, and plead. Lincoln’s Black mo’nin does work that I, as of this moment, I am incapable of doing, paralyzed by melancholy. But, in Lincoln’s Black mo’nin (my Black mo’nin) I can remember a time when melancholy didn’t render me mute. Lincoln’s Black mo’nin echoes in my head as I pore over the visual renderings of the silent teenage girl who was only understood as a socially dead body and the still (or dead?) Sandra Bland, whose piercing eyes seem to expect her physical death. Even as I am eternally burdened by melancholy, Lincoln’s liberated mo’nin animates my engagement with images of Black death.
Lincoln’s Black moan is especially resonant in relation to my compulsion to look again and again, into Sandra’s eyes. There have been numerous videos of Sandra not only speaking, but also directly addressing the camera that have been posted in the aftermath of her murder – but I don’t watch them. I just look at her still, seemingly lifeless personage, rendered silent. “[There] is an abundance – in abundance – of the present, an abundance of affirmation in abundance of the negative, in abundance of disappearance.”6 “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace” augments this lack, this abundance of the negative, this melancholy, with its Black moan.7
Even though “Triptych” displaces my current immobility, it is fleeting. Melancholia was always here, is always here, will always be here. But sometimes I want more – something that is the result of embracing futility, something that truly acknowledges the primordial and eternal truth of Black death. Something like “...a Black political community [that] can even produce a momentary being-in-common that is the desire for it’s own ceasing to be.” Tommie Shelby claims this as a concept of solidarity and community-making.8 His rhetoric lends itself to productive community formation and reifies the futility of community-making, and even further, community-building when one understands the unapproachable futurity of justice.9 But this also begs the question -- what good is something productive, something positive, in the face of eternal social death? When our production, reproduction, and survival are laughable?
So, back to this most recent thing. No one is praying. I haven’t seen anyone protesting. And only fools are expecting peace. Prayers have never and will never amount to anything. Protesting has never and will never amount to anything past our humanity inscribed in the written word. And peace was never real, is not real, will never be real.
So what I do is embrace the melancholy, find comfort in the pessimism, and watch the new video, the restaged thing, which is posted each week.
1Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, 210.
2ibid, p. 210.
3Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, 4 (as referenced in Moten)
4Nat Hentoff, liner notes to We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Coleman Hawkins, Olatunji, Candid Records, 1960.
6ibid, p. 200.
7ibid, p. 198.
8Barry Shank, The Political Force of Musical Beauty, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, Chapter 6. (With reference to Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).
Jheanelle Brown is a Jamerican and recent Angeleno transplant from the east coast, currently studying cinema and media. She is interested in diasporic Blackness, the musicality of images, and documentary and experimental films and is working on developing her skills as a filmmaker, writer, and film programmer.