Notes on Trap

They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.

— W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Sometimes I really can’t believe this shit happened
Who woulda thought I’d make it rappin’?
I almost lost my life when I was trappin’
Numb the pain with the money, numb the pain with the money
Numb the pain with the money, numb the pain with the

— 21 Savage, “Numb”

For Lil Snupe (19952013), L’A Capone (19962013), Chinx (19832015), Bankroll Fresh (1987 2016), Lor Scoota (19932016), Da Real Gee Money (19952017), the many thousands gone.


1.

The beat, when it drops, is thunder, and causes the steel rods in whatever you’re riding to groan, plastics to shudder, the ass of the seat to vibrate right up into your gut. The hi-hat, pitched like an igniter, sparks. Snare rolls crescendo in waves that overmaster like a system of finely linked chains snatched up into whips, cracking and snapping across the hull of a dark hold.


2.

It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.

— James Baldwin, “Many Thousands Gone”

 


3.

Rubber band man, like a one-man band
Treat these niggas like the Apollo, and I’m the sandman

— T.I., “Rubber Band Man”

Howard “Sandman” Sims had a standing gig at the Apollo for decades as a tap performer who would “sweep” failing acts off the stage. It’s stuff like this that makes up what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “motivated signifying,” the inside joke that’s on you before you know it, the razor wit — always the weapon of the underdog. The pleasures of dialect, hotly pursued by the holders of capital, the clout chasers of Madison Avenue, enclose a self-referential universe, a house of belonging in sound and word. A statehouse of language for a stateless people. Trap is an extension, a ramification of that vocabulary of radicalized homelessness: people creating a living out of a few grains of sand, hustling, sweeping anything that can’t compete out of the way.


4.

Trap, some definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary:

A contrivance set for catching game or noxious animals; a gin, snare, pitfall: cf. mantrap,  mousetrap, rat trap.

transf. and fig., and in figurative expressions. Often applied to anything by which a person is unsuspectingly caught, stopped, or caused to fall; also to anything which attracts by its apparent easiness and proves to be difficult, anything deceptive.

A concealed compartment; spec. (Criminals’ ), any hiding-place for stolen or illegal goods, etc.; a ‘stash.’ U.S. slang.


5.

I just wanna get that money
I just wanna get that money — flip that money
I just wanna stack them hundreds,
I just wanna spaz out — cash out

— Kodak Black, “Spaz Out”

Q. What is the subject of trap?

A. Money, a.k.a. skrilla, paper, green, gwop, currency, stacks, bands, bundles, racks, currency, fetty (confetti), ends, dead presidents, bankrolls, $100,000 in just two days, fuck-you money, fuck up some commas, money long, run up a check, fuck up a check; a master signifier in falling bills, floating, liquid, pouring down on bitches in the proverbial rain, exploding like cold fireworks, screen-printed or projected onto surfaces human and otherwise, occasionally burned, often tossed into the impoverished streets left behind, kids trailing the whip their arms outstretched, often bricked up in bundles held in a grip, or cradled to the ear like, say, a call from the highest authority in the land, or fanned out in a masking screen, or caressed, the cold frisson of Franklin morbidly displacing the erotic potential of sexual attraction.

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Black Fire: American Intellectuals and the Black Radical Tradition

We are living through a moment of national reckoning. Ugly revelations daily unravel the pieties we normally tell ourselves about America’s special character, leadership and destiny. The ship of state heaves in choppy waters, its Ahab-like captain driven by wretched obsessions. Yet the crisis is not limited to one particular political figure or any single social struggle. Rather, one feels a sense of collective dislocation, a momentous shift as Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions feel instinctively that they are experiencing the breakup of a world they had taken for granted, the loss of assured privileges, the end of safety. Conservatives see themselves fighting a last-ditch battle for the very soul of the country — rushing the cockpit to avert catastrophe. Liberals shake their heads and mutter that they no longer recognize the country at all. Progressives swing between visions of romantic liberation and a panicked despair fearful of internal dissent. Against this backdrop of disarray, the coalition of right-wing ideologies we call Trumpism has swiftly and successfully captured a political party, the public imagination and the summits of executive power, with as yet unforeseeable long-term consequences.

Many have wondered in this bewildering and fractious atmosphere about the resurgence of interest in the life and work of James Baldwin. It’s been electrifying, and not just for critics: his books are once again best-sellers. Four years ago, the New York Times expressed dismay on the ninetieth anniversary of the writer’s birth at how “in recent years Baldwin’s presence has diminished in many high school classrooms.” True enough, but in the previous year Vintage Books had done its part to counter the trend by reissuing Baldwin’s novels in paperback. The revival gathered steam in 2015 with the founding of a scholarly journal, the James Baldwin Review. The release of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro made it seem that Baldwin had explained Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick decades in advance. Later this year, the love story of a black couple struggling against despair in Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, will be brought to the screen by Barry Jenkins, the acclaimed director of Moonlight. But above all, the center of this groundswell has been the publication of Between the World and Me in 2015, in which Ta-Nehisi Coates drew inspiration from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time to reinvigorate a style of address that he could not believe had been so carelessly discarded.

Why Baldwin now, and with such passion? Has he become the doppelgänger of the principled Barack Obama whom voters had thought, or hoped, they had twice elected? Has the renewal of street protests since Trump’s election stirred up memories of Baldwin and the radical Sixties, as Peck’s film suggests? Undoubtedly these were proximate contributing factors. But then why weren’t the ghosts of other public figures similarly awakened? It seems that Coates got it right when he noticed something about Baldwin’s rhetorical presence and power, which had been neglected or discounted for all the wrong reasons.

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Harlem is Everywhere

On Lenox Avenue, just south of 125th Street and a few steps from James VanDerZee’s old darkroom in which he caught the dazzling glamour of a Black Manhattan at twilight, stood, and perhaps still stands in ruined form, the Lenox Lounge, a storied uptown nightspot famous for its zebra upholstery and players only – priced drinks, its checkered mosaics and its checkered history.

The club was already something of a living museum when I first came to know it. Vaulted and low-lit, the Lenox was a vivid palimpsest of Afro-America. One half expected Duke Ellington’s insomniac eyes to fix on you from across the bar as you listened to Ja Rule and Ashanti duet. Brothers rocked their logo-splashed Avirex and Fubu carapaces with impeccable custom suede Wallabees or unlaced Timbs. Gorgeous, ageless women decked in furs, hooped earrings, and plunging tops laughed with sly glee at the players always running their game. Ossie Davis bar-side baritones, distinguished and downhome, traded Melvin Van Peebles-like tales you could scarcely believe, yet were all true. Matter of fact, I’m damn near certain I saw Melvin storying there one night myself. But to tell you the truth, it’s been years, and a night at the Lenox Lounge never lent itself to clear recollection.

The opening last summer of a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods directly across from the old Lenox Lounge felt like a chess move: white queen to black king. The new emporium, which comes with an Olive Garden, is the crown jewel of the redevelopment of the 125th Street corridor — a 2008 City Council rezoning plan that paved the way for what has been described as the “mallization” of Harlem’s main street, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The street now boasts a Red Lobster, an Old Navy, and a Raymour & Flanigan outlet. But the M&G Soul Food Diner that had survived since 1968 is gone. Only its “vintage” sign still hangs over what is now a fashion boutique.

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The Low End Theory

In 2013, a manifesto entitled The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study began making the rounds among the growing pool of nervous graduate students, harried adjuncts, un-tenured professors, and postdocs whirling through the nation’s faculty lounges. The Undercommons was published by the small anarchist press Autonomedia and made freely available for download; in practice, however, it circulated by word of mouth, copies of the PDF forwarded like samizdat literature for those in the know. On the surface, the text is an analysis of alienated academic labor at the contemporary American university. But it’s also more radical than that: it is a manual for free thinking, a defiant call to dissent within educational institutions that betray their liberal credos, filling their coffers even as they prepare students, armed with liberal arts degrees and “critical thinking” skills, to helm a social and economic order in which, “to work…is to be asked, more and more, to do without thinking, to feel without emotion, to move without friction, to adapt without question, to translate without pause, to desire without purpose, to connect without interruption.”

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A Kind of Freedom

The subject of the black family and its relationship to racial progress in America has never been neutral. Historians, social scientists and armchair critics from all quarters have led fractious debates defending or condemning it. These polemics all too often overshadow the very human experience they purport to understand, reducing to caricature full and entangled lives.

In her luminous and remarkably assured first novel, “A Kind of Freedom,” Margaret Wilkerson Sexton cuts through this haze to shine an unflinching but compassionate light on three generations of a black family in New Orleans who try to make the best choices they can in a world defined at every turn by constraint, peril and disappointment — a world in which, as one of her characters puts it, you quickly “learned the hard way that life could drag disgrace out of you.”

For a debut novelist to take up such charged material is daring; to succeed in lending free-standing life to her characters without yielding an inch to sentimentality — or its ugly twin, pathology — announces her as a writer of uncommon nerve and talent.

In “A Kind of Freedom,” Sexton pursues a family’s history in a downward spiral, with three alternating plot lines that echo one another along the way. The novel opens in 1944, with the budding love of Evelyn, a daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works menial jobs at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. Their courtship, though ardent, reveals the strictures of a class- and color-riven society that suffocates ambition and distorts desire.

Forty years later, Evelyn’s daughter Jackie is a struggling single mother in 1980s New Orleans who is in love with her child’s father but afraid he will succumb to his crack addiction. Eventually, we get to know Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, a young man at a turning point in his life. Through T.C.’s eyes, Sexton portrays a post-Katrina New Orleans where the smell of mold still lingers and opportunities for fast cash in the streets abound, as do the chances of getting shot or arrested.

Sexton is a native of the Crescent City, and one of the pleasures of this novel is its feel for the particulars of local language, texture and taste: a jar of pickled pig lips, a family crawfish boil, the turn of an old Creole phrase, the sound of Lil Wayne on Q93 FM, as well as the shame of bringing a date to the movies when you had to sit in what was then (in more polite circles) referred to as “the Negro balcony.”

All this can bring to mind Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones,” but where Ward is Faulknerian in her rhetorical sweep, Sexton maintains a cool, detached naturalism more reminiscent of Tayari Jones in “Leaving Atlanta.” Whether writing of black girlhood, the quotidian fears and hopes of mothering, or the lure of street life, she places her characters in the path of momentous choices while making it clear they have little to hope for. At the end of the day, it is mainly women like Jackie, “teetering between her narrow options,” who are left to pick up the pieces and wonder at their ability to cope. “What happened to the face of a broken woman?” Evelyn asks herself as she watches over her sleeping sister. “Did it turn to convey the loss or did it conspire with her heart to hide it?”

A Kind of Freedom” attends to the marks left on a family where its links have been bruised and sometimes broken, but dwells on the endurance and not the damage. The force of this naturalistic vision is disquieting; it is also moving. One could say that it has the disenchanting optimism of the blues. Though her style differs sharply from Zora Neale Hurston’s sassy lyricism, Sexton looks upon her characters much as Janie views her life in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” — “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”

In the Zone

Mathias Énard is not by any means a household name, but he is increasingly viewed in France as one of the country’s foremost novelists. Born in 1972 in the small southwestern town of Niort, Énard originally planned on studying art history and attended the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris. A nascent interest in Islamic art and literature led him to study Persian and then Arabic at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, a change of course that sent him on a long series of travels across the Middle East before he eventually took up a position teaching Arabic at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

In 2003, Énard published his first novel, La Perfection du Tir (which one could translate as The Sniper Prepares). A tense and unsettling portrait of a gunman in an unnamed war-torn city that could be Beirut (but also, just as convincingly, Sarajevo), it reminded Énard’s French readers of the eurozone’s proximity to, and complicity in, the many ethnic and religious animosities roiling just beneath the surface of the ostensibly harmonious trade bloc piloted by Brussels. Since then, he has published four more novels and a handful of novellas, as well as translations of classic Persian and contemporary Arabic poetry.

Énard is best known for his sprawling, violent 2008 novel Zone. Written as one unbroken, amphetamine-addled sentence stretched across a canvas of some 500 pages, Zone rummages through the mind of its narrator, Francis Mirkovic, an intelligence agent with a past, who is traveling by train from Milan to Rome with a dossier he intends to deliver to the Vatican that catalogs evidence of war crimes committed throughout the 1990s in the Balkans. Ranging across the Mediterranean — the titular “zone” — Énard weaves geography and history together in a manner worthy of the French historian Fernand Braudel, and he does so while pitching the reader ever forward into a confessional of violence and alienation reminiscent of William Burroughs.

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Sad and Boujee

Percival Everett. So Much Blue. Graywolf Press, 2017.

One of the great, unsung heroes of the 1970s is a black cowboy by the name of The Loop Garoo Kid, the hero of Ishmael Reed’s 1969 novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down. In Reed’s tall tale, a brilliant spaghetti-noir—A Fistful of Dollars meets Killer of Sheep—Loop Garoo is a wandering cowpoke who also happens to be a fiercely independent experimental novelist. Early in the novel, The Kid gets ambushed on the edge of the desert by “Bo Shmo and the neo-social realist gang.”

The trouble with you Loop is that you’re too abstract,” their leader declares, “far out esoteric bullshit is where you’re at. Why in those suffering books that I write about my old neighborhood and how hard it was every gumdrop machine is in place while your work is a blur and a doodle.” Loop keeps his cool and answers his truth: “No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o’clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons.” The neo-social realists have no answer to this, and “being not very original,” decide to discipline Loop by smearing jelly on his face and burying him up to his neck in the sand.

Loop Garoo’s fix is that of all writers struggling to define themselves against a tide of assumptions about who they are and how they ought to exercise their craft. But he’s also very specifically an avatar for the figure of the black writer in America, struggling to outrun the ambushes of racist strictures — the demand that one focus relentlessly on “how hard it was” in the “old neighborhood” or face accusations of betrayal and questions of authenticity, while simultaneously be ignored if one deviates from the expected script. In short, it’s the old canard that the black writer faces a zero-sum choice between political responsibility and alienated indulgence. I suppose it is for this reason, along with the Western theme, that the perilous path of the Kid reminds me of no other contemporary writer more than Percival Everett, a writer whose thirty-year career has produced a dazzling and prolific array of experimental novels, short stories, and poetry that have won him something of a near-legendary reputation himself, an outsider roaming the American West where he has long made his home.

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The Way Forward in France

In France, there is a distinct, almost literary pleasure in watching the unlikely rise of a handsome, ambitious young man from the provinces and charting his skillful navigation of the treacherous corridors of power, vanity, and ambition. But as Balzac and Stendhal knew well, the motif is also useful as a means of exposing the surprisingly shoddy scaffolding of government — the remarkable extent to which the majesty of state power, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a delicate facade masking ugly, unprincipled, and chaotic struggles for domination.

The triumph of Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential election is undoubtedly novelistic in this sense. At the tender age of 39, Macron is the youngest man ever to become the head of the French republic. Born in Amiens, historically the provincial capital of the northern region of Picardie, he grew up in a solidly bourgeois household. Both of his parents are doctors, and he attended Jesuit schools in the region before going to Paris to enter the Lycée Henri IV, one of the country’s most prestigious high schools. A precocious and gifted student, he evinced a passion and a flair for the dramatic arts — skills that have transferred well to his political role and influenced his personal life. In 2007, he married his theater teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, 24 years his elder and the daughter of a prominent family of chocolatiers known for their macaroons and their right-leaning politics. With a stellar résumé, he passed through the nation’s business and administrative grandes écoles, institutions that have become rites of passage for those seeking to enter the upper branches of state power. His trajectory, in short, has been that of an impeccable golden boy who is more acquainted with success than failure, who has enjoyed the fruits of being born into comfortable circumstances, and who possesses exquisite social-climbing skills and an unerring sense of good timing.

On the evening of his election victory, Macron strode out alone in a long, dark coat, under dramatic lighting, and into the main square in front of the Louvre. He faced I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid as loudspeakers played the official hymn of the European Union, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” It was a pointed musical choice, reflecting the view, at home and abroad, that Macron’s victory was a make-or-break moment for the European project, which has recently been imperiled by Brexit, the turmoil in Greece, and the contempt of the Trump administration. More subtly, local political observers also interpreted it as a nod to François Mitterrand and the 1981 election that brought the Socialist Party to power for the first time since World War II: The Louvre’s glass pyramid was one of Mitterrand’s iconic grand projects, and he also chose the “Ode to Joy” as the musical accompaniment for his victory lap.

Don’t expect Macron to lead a return to socialism, however. In fact, his rise to power, and the hope that it has understandably brought to a portion of the French people, actually embodies, and even magnifies, the extent to which the political foundations of the French republic are rotten. Macron’s story symbolizes, for many, not the potential to rise from lowly beginnings to the highest office in the land, but rather the entrenchment of social inequality that protects a culturally liberal, bourgeois class with anti-labor economic priorities. Macron represents a class of French citizens that has flourished under left- and right-wing governments alike, has refused to make any concessions to those who have been left out, and has become increasingly insulated from popular demands to end tax evasion by the wealthy, nepotism in government, and a eurozone monetary policy dictated from Berlin.

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Wideman’s Ghosts

In an address at the Library of Congress in 1964, Ralph Waldo Ellison mused upon his relationship with his father, who had bestowed on his son a somewhat curious literary forename. “Why,” Ellison wondered, “hadn’t he named me after a hero such as Jack Johnson…an educator like Booker T. Washington, or a great orator and abolitionist like Frederick Douglass?… Instead, he named me after someone called Ralph Waldo Emerson, and then, when I was three, he died.”

Ellison’s question connected the perennial anxieties that have haunted African-American artists for generations — questions of inheritance, tradition, and belonging — with a more personal and painful one about fatherhood: What was the meaning of a father’s legacy, in particular one who died early in one’s life? And what did it mean to be stamped by a name so intimately connected to his ideals?

Ellison’s experience was not every child’s. But the mark of sudden and premature loss, the haunting ambiguities created by an uncertain past, has constituted an overwhelming theme in African-­American literature. From the struggle over literary parentage between Richard Wright and James Baldwin, to the unclear family histories and patrimonial legacies in Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House, to the letter from father to son in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, one can sketch out a veritable subgenre of literary work devoted to the struggle between black fathers and sons to give some kind of meaning to their shared fate and common past.

This fraught inheritance, the missed recognitions and ambiguities between family members, in particular fathers and sons, is one of the deep chords animating the life and writings of John Edgar Wideman, whose latest book, Writing to Save a Life, is perhaps his most desperate and bracing endeavor yet to “make some sense out of the American darkness that disconnects colored fathers from sons, a darkness in which sons and fathers lose track of one another.”

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On Blueness: A Conversation with Joshua Bennett

Joshua Bennett is one of the most impressive emerging voices in poetry today. His debut collection, The Sobbing School, written in 2014 against the backdrop of a national crisis over state violence and black lives, won the 2015 National Poetry Series Award and is published this fall by Penguin — you can read three of his poems in the current issue of Dissent. Although he is making his debut in print, Bennett is already well known as an artist of the spoken word, whose performances have gained him a huge following on college campuses. He is also quietly building a reputation as one of the brightest intellectual and political thinkers of a new generation, and is currently a member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows.

I first met Joshua at Princeton in the fall of 2011. Over five years of graduate study together, he has been a vital friend and a source of constant intellectual inspiration. He is the kind of person who gets you excited about thinking and reading again. In the pages of Dissent last year I suggested that his voice is part of a literary movement in which poetry and politics are converging in new and unexpected ways, exemplified, for instance, by the success of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. This September we met at Dissent’s office in downtown New York City to talk about the origins of his book, affect in poetry and politics, and what solidarities and imaginaries might point us towards a more hopeful future.

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