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.


6.

An attitude toward luxury. Brands of old-world “foreign” opulence sound better in the escaped slave’s mouth. The “Go-yard” bag, the “Phi-lippe” watch, “the Lambo” supercar pronounced like a Creole dish, every accoutrement of inaccessible lavishness smashed into pinball frenzy, a world where everything is always dripping, VVS diamonds are always dancing, every swatch of color given the player’s ball touch, the planet WorldStarHipHop, a black satellite circling around a diamond white sun where the Protestant work ethic is always being converted into its rhythmic opposite, “You get the bag and fumble it / I get the bag and flip it and tumble it” (Gucci Mane feat. Migos, “I Get the Bag”). From the SoundCloud backpacker to the superstar trapper, the ideal of a supremely luxurious attitude toward luxury. “I’m spittin’ fire like an arson / Hop out the Lam and don’t park it”
(Migos, “Forest Whitaker”).


7.

Nigga: as rhythm, a trochee (from the Greek for running, at root a runaway) coursing through the verse marking soundings, like a heartbeat; the nasal occlusive a vocal withholding, a negative that releases into a velar plosive, a voiced relief; as person, a real one; as word, a neologism indigenous to the American crucible, the umbilical cord of blackness: raw, intimate, original, word as bond.


8.

Trap is the only music that sounds like what living in contemporary America feels like. It is the soundtrack of the dissocialized subject that neoliberalism made. It is the funeral music that the Reagan revolution deserves.


9.

The musical signature embedded in trap is that of the marching band. The foundation can be thought of, in fact, as the digital capture and looping of the percussive patterns of the drum line. The hi-hats in double or triple time are distinctly martial, they snap you to attention, locking in a rigid background grid to be filled in with the dominant usually iterated instrumental, sometimes a synth chord, or a flute, a tone parallel that floats over the field. In this it forms a continuum with the deepest roots of black music in America, going back to the colonial era and the Revolutionary War, when black men, typically prohibited from bearing arms, were brought into military ranks as trumpet, fife, and drum players. In the aftermath of the War of 1812, all-black brass bands spread rapidly, especially in cities with large free black populations like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. During the Civil War, marching bands would aid in the recruitment of blacks to the Union. At Port Royal in the Sea Islands, during the Union Army occupation, newly freed slaves immediately took to “drilling” together in the evenings in public squares, men, women, and children mimicking martial exercises while combining them with song and dance — getting in formation. The popularity of marching and drilling was incorporated into black funerary practice, nowhere more impressively than in New Orleans, where figures like Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet would first encounter the sounds of rhythm and trumpet, joy and sorrow going by in the streets of Storyville. This special relationship, including its sub rosa relation to military organization, persists in the enthusiasm of black marching bands, especially in the South, where they are a sonic backdrop of enormous proximate importance to the producers of trap, and to its geographic capital, Atlanta.


10.

But closer to home, Traplanta is saddled with too much of the same racial baggage and class exclusion that criminalizes the music in the eyes and ears of many in power. The same pols who disgrace their districts by failing to advocate for economic equity find themselves more offended by crass lyrical content than the crass conditions that inspire it . Meanwhile, systemic ills continue to fester at will. It’s enough to make you wonder who the real trappers are in this town.

— Rodney Carmichael, “Culture Wars”


11.

Trap’s relation to hip-hop retains the construction of a song around bars and hooks, but the old-school chime and rhyme, the bounce and jazziness of Nineties production, is gone. Instead, empty corners space out patterns that oscillate between compression and distension. The drum machine popularized by the (black and gay) “jacking” sound of Eighties Chicago and Detroit is put to use in a way that is less mechanical than its forebear, more syncopated, wavy, elastic. But it retains the overall flatness of effect, the orientation toward the (strip) club, a music to obliterate self-consciousness and the boundaries of the self. Bass is the place and when the 808 drops, or one should say detonates (an effect imitated in the proliferation of amateur dance videos by a jagged shake of the camera), the signature is quickly established and the pattern rolls over. Songs don’t develop or progress. Sometimes, as in an iconic track like Future’s “Stick Talk” or “Wicked,” the song appears to materialize and dematerialize out of a vacuum. A squealing siren pops out of the ether. His roving, overdubbed voice rides slightly off or apart from the pattern playing off a few variations. The track begins, then ends, like weather.


12.

How will cultural history come to grips with the fact that the era of the first black presidency is also the era of trap — a metaphor for a suckering, illusory promise one falls for, only to realize things are worse than ever before?


13.

I’m  ’bout to fuck this cash up on a new toy
’Bout to fuck this cash up on a new toy
You can’t understand us cause you’re too soft
Taliban bands, run ’em straight through the machinery

Future, “Stick Talk”

Trap indexes the fever dreams of a declining imperial power. It irrupts within a wounded unconscious, seeking scapegoats, boasting, lashing out, categorically refusing any sense of responsibility for its actions. The frustrations and failures of military adventurism on the frontiers and borderlands are internalized; they find sites for expression in the fractured, neglected wastelands at the periphery of the power capital, in the ghetto, the hood, the slums, the bricks, the barrio, the mud, the bando, the trap house. The metaphors of imperial fantasy, of limitless power and wealth — and its nightmare, endless, and pointless wars without issue — cross-pollinate and mutate. In rap of the Nineties, the memory of Vietnam still resonated; Capone-N-Noreaga (C-N-N) gave us The War Report of the Persian Gulf War years. By the mid-’00s the war abroad and the war at home would fuse into the hard edges of a bloody portmanteau: Chiraq. The pressure of the proliferation of high-powered weapons, the militarization of everyday life, an obvious and pervasive subtext in trap, is also one of the most obvious transformations of American life at the close of the American century: the death of civilian space.


14.

That music, which Miles Davis calls “social music,” to which Adorno and Fanon gave only severe and partial hearing, is of interdicted black social life operating on frequencies that are disavowed — though they are also amplified — in the interplay of sociopathological and phenomenological description. How can we fathom a social life that tends toward death, that enacts a kind of being-toward-death, and which, because of such tendency and enactment, maintains a terribly beautiful vitality?

— Fred Moten, “The Case of Blackness”

Trap is social music.


15.

Consider the voice of Meek Mill. The inscription of dreams and nightmares in the grain. Its breathlessness, always on the verge of shrill hoarseness, gasping for air, as if the torrent of words can’t come fast enough — as if there might not be enough time to say the things that need to be said. Every syllable eked out through grit, the cold facts of North Philly firing through a monochromatic hollow, like a crack in a bell.


16.

Trap videos for obvious reasons continue an extended vamp on the visual grammar developed in the rap videos of the Nineties, a grammar that the whole world has learned to read, or misread, producing a strange Esperanto of gesture and cadence intended to signify the position of blackness. In the “lifestyle” videos, the tropes are familiar, establishing shots captured in drone POV: the pool party, the hotel suite, the club, the glistening surfaces of dream cars, the harem women blazoned, jump cuts set to tight-focus Steadicam, the ubiquitous use of slow motion to render banal actions (pouring a drink, entering a room) allegorical, talismanic, the gothic surrealism of instant gratification. In the harder, street-oriented version, luxuries are replaced by what one has, which is only one another: gang signs interlock, boys on the verge of manhood huddle and show they have one another’s back. Women occasionally appear in an accessorizing role, but more often are simply absent. In the video for L’A Capone’s track “Round Here,” the indication is blunt: “Whole block got cane / But stay in your lane / Cause niggas getting changed.” Like David Walker’s graphic pointers in his Appeal, one of the key punctuation marks of this gestural grammar is the trigger finger, pointing into the camera — through the fourth wall — into the consuming eye. The very motion of the arm and finger are perversely inviting and ejecting. You are put on notice, they say. You can get touched.


17.

Trap is the sound track to America in the years of the “opioid crisis.” The drug crisis initially thought to be merely a breach in the hull of the underclass confined to the black ghetto spilled out into white rural America with meth and prescription painkillers, segueing to black tar heroin as the pill mills (but not Big Pharma) finally came under legal scrutiny. It now exceeds, as all great social disasters do, the class boundary. The hyped-up drug war of the 1990s and early ’00s began to morph under the tenure of the great campaigner of hope into a normalized social fabric, a generalized landscape of dope. For the middle and upper-middle classes, Molly became a favorite, whether consumed casually at unabashedly corporate festivals or in warehouses not yet colonized for gentrification at the edge of town. An antidepressant, it could be said to provide the softer psychiatric analogue to the morphine class of painkillers that relieve the body or allow relief to occur passively with limited consent (its popularity being closely associated with the allure of sexual willingness).

For the ambitious children of the bourgeoisie, high achievers raised on Adderall, Xanax, and a raft of discreet legal narcotics, drugs are the norm just to get to sleep, to deal with anxiety, to avoid crushing bouts of abjection and the relentless pressures to exceed and excel. In the hood, promethazine, the syrup of Houston, became the fashionable coping agent for those living in the free-fire zones of America, where turf wars regulated with cheap handguns cut down lives in a vicious spiral. From so many points of view, then, one looks out into the Trump era with a prevailing numbness, nihilism, cruelty, ambient anxiety, disarticulation seeping in from all sides.

The music records all this. It sounds like this. Future’s lyrics are mocked for their lack of sophistication, but the veritable pharmacopeia in his verses is not dishonest or inarticulate about an affect that is pervasive, or its origins: “Percocet keep ’em motivated / Good drank keep a nigga motivated / Lortabs on my conversation / Talk a lot of bands then we conversatin’ / I was on my way to Rice Street in the paddy wagon and it had me numb / The pain from the slum had me numb” (“56 Nights”). A preoccupation with depression, mental health, a confused and terrible desire for dissociation: this is a fundamental sensibility shared by a generation.


18.

Just past the sliding doors in a Rite Aid in Manhattan about 2 am, Mike WiLL Made-It’s producer tag and the familiar melancholy two-tone of Rae Sremmurd’s “No Type” announces that soon Swae Lee’s Floydian vamp on the trap sound will remind you of what you don’t need to hear: “I ain’t living right.” The bored cashier there to assist you with self-checkout murmurs the chorus lightly tapping at her side as she assists you: “I make my own money, so I spend it how I like.” Among other things, it’s clear there has never been a music this well suited for the rich and bored. This being a great democracy, everyone gets to pretend they, too, are rich and bored when they’re not working, and even sometimes, discreetly, when they are.


19.

Imagine a people enthralled, gleefully internalizing the world of pure capital flow, of infinite negative freedom (continuously replenished through frictionless browsing), thrilled at the possibilities (in fact necessity) of self-commodification, the value in the network of one’s body, the harvesting of others. Imagine communities saturated in the vocabulary of cynical postrevolutionary blaxploitation, corporate bourgeois triumphalism, and also the devastation of crack, a schizophrenic cultural script in which black success was projected as the corporate mogul status achieved by Oprah or Jay-Z even as an angst-ridden black middle class propped up on predatory credit loans, gutted by the whims of financial speculation and lack of labor protections, slipped backward into the abyss of the prison archipelago where the majority poor remained. Imagine, then, the colonization of space, time, and most importantly cultural capital by the socially mediated system of images called the internet. Imagine finally a vast supply of cheap guns flooding neighborhoods already struggling to stay alive. What would the music of such a convergence sound like?


20.

Trap is a form of soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.


21.

A social life strictly organized around encounters facilitated by the transactional service economy is almost by definition emotionally vacant. Hence the outsize importance of the latest black music (trap) in selling everything: Sweetgreen salads prepped and chopp’d by the majority minority for minimum wage, real estate roll-outs, various leisure objects with energetic connotations, the tastefulness of certain social gatherings. In the city of the mobile user and their memes, signs, processed and recoded desires, the desperate energy and beauty produced by the attempt to escape the narcocarceral jaws of death becomes a necessary raw fuel, a lubricant for soothing, or rather perfecting, the point of sale.


22.

Mask Off”: an inaugural processional for the Trump years. Some were inclined to point to Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” as signaling the bad feeling, the irruption of a nasty, petty, and reactionary whiteness willing to bring everyone down, to debase everything, including oneself, in order to claim victory. But Metro Boomin heard something more. He went back to the Seventies, to Tommy Butler’s “Prison Song,” a soulful chant intended to accompany the marchers in Butler’s 1976 civil rights musical, Selma. The counterpoint of Future’s openly vacuous and nihilistic pursuit of power and the undercurrent of an unbroken spirit of black resilience, resistance, and hope — the old news meeting the news of today — creates an intoxicating, gothic aura, the sound of a nation not under a groove, but underwater, trying to hold onto the shores of light, but decidedly heading out into dangerous and uncharted depths. “Fuck it, mask off . . .”

The game of polite power politics is up. The veneer is gone. America will show its true colors; Amber Rose and Future will drive a Terminator-chrome Bentley through streets where “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” It is the hour of radical disillusionment. As Walter Lee says in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, “There ain’t no causes — there ain’t nothing but taking in this world, and he who takes most is smartest — and it don’t make a damn bit of difference how.” The grand years of the Obama masque, the glamor and pageantry of Ebony Camelot, is closed. Les jeux sont faits. The echo of black resistance ringing as a choral reminder to hold out is all that stands between a stunned population and raw power, unmasked, wielding its cold hand over all.


23.

Raindrop. If the mark of the poetic, of the living force of lyric in the world, is the ability to change the inflection and understanding of a single word, to instantly evoke and move speech into song, then what better example do we have than the poetics of Migos and their breakthrough album, Culture? “Like a wreath, culture is a word we place upon the brow of a victor,” William H. Gass once wrote. As the title attests, Migos crowned themselves, like Napoleon. Their trap trips off the tongue, three steps to get it poppin’, three more to get it started. Everything done in triplets. Quavo, Offset, Takeoff, their supergroup a triad. The message of the massive hit “Bad and Boujee” is simple and, thanks to its lullaby-rocking lilt, irresistible: the cosmopolitanism of the underclass is good enough for them. In this, everyone wins. The fetish of class and racial transgression is given a smooth membrane across which to exchange approving glances. Hence the appropriateness of Donald Glover’s role in assisting the song to the top of the charts. No figure better represents the amphibious role of blackness slipping back and forth across lines of class, taste, and career.

The Migos lyric, with its love of onomatopoeia, annotating itself like comic speech bubbles, offers itself up as a kind of doubled, mirroring space for ludic play. The drug world of the streets is sublimated, neutralized as a background of merely referential content that has no bearing on the tenor of life that has been achieved. In the video for the single “T-Shirt,” Migos are figured as “trappers” — the hunting and gathering kind — on a supermodel-clad Siberian steppe. It is the linguistic turn applied to the Atlanta music machine. Opening an entirely new horizon for expression. An attitude might be expressed with just a shift in emphasis, a teasing chiasmus: “Raindrop, drop top” (“Bad and Boujee”). The language of the corporate record label exec slashed with the syntax of the trapper blossoms into the office catchall phrase you never knew you needed but now can’t stop murmuring under your breath: “Hold up, get right witcha (I’ma get right witcha)” (“Get Right Witcha”); “Bitches need to call casting” (“Call Casting”). The flavor of the South, the sauce, the endless capacity for flow, reimagines the bourgeois subject — even makes being one, under this conception, seem badass.


24.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
[ . . . ]
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

— Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Boy Died in My Alley”


25.

It’s a lot of violence round here
So a lot of sirens round here
A lot of people dying round here
A lot of people crying round here

— L’A Capone, “Round Here”

The connection between martial drilling, funeral drilling, and recreational drilling finds a haunting but fitting contemporary expression in the so-called drill scene, a more aggressively bleak subgenre of trap that emanates from the post-Cabrini-Green teardown of the housing projects in Chicago. Drill trappers like Montana of 300 refer knowingly to the streets as “the slaughterhouse.” They celebrate the same qualities that Sandburg did when he wrote, “I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again,” and that he found the Windy City’s inhabitants “proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” Only they are not so optimistic or romantic about the implications of living in the maws of lawless, unregulated industrial capitalism. There is nothing uplifting about G Herbo’s view of the season of violence, which is the only season his city knows. In “Red Snow,” a strident song with thundering and throbbing orchestral groans, he denounces the staggering cost of violence in his hometown:

I know I rap a lot  ’bout being dead or dead broke
But my city starving, it’s the  ’Go, that’s just the way it go
They stealin’, robbin’, living heartless, never hit they target
The summers long and winters harsh cause we got red snow
Red snow, red snow
The summers long and winters harsh cause we got red snow

A track like “Everyday,” by S.dot, is typical: simple and alluring, conflating fraternity and fratricide, a bass line boosted like a massive heartbeat ready to give skinny boys in jeans toting weapons the courage to keep going outside, to step off the relative safety of the porch, to numb oneself to fear, to ready oneself for the repetitive and cyclical encounter with fatality. The hook slams down the facts of life like dominoes connecting an inevitable pattern to a breaking point:

Gangbangin’, chain snatchin’, card crackin’
Closed caskets, trap houses, drug addicts
Chiraq, everyday somethin’ happen
Bodies droppin’, red tape, guns clappin’

The deep patterns of the funeral drill, the bellicose drill, the celebratory drill overlay each other like a sonic cage, a crackling sound like a long steel mesh ensnaring lives, very young lives, that cry out and insist on being heard, insist on telling their story, even as the way they tell it all but ensures the nation’s continued neglect and fundamental contempt for their condition.


26.

Trap is invested in a mode of dirty realism. It is likely the only literature that will capture the structure of feeling of the period in which it was produced, and it is certainly the only American literature of any kind that can truly claim to have a popular following across all races and classes. Points of reference are recyclable but relatable, titillating yet boring, trivial and très chic — much like cable television. Sports, movies, comedy, drugs, Scarface, reality TV, food, trash education, bad housing: the fusion core of endless momentum that radiates out from an efficient capitalist order distributing itself across a crumbling and degraded social fabric, all the while reproducing and even amplifying the underlying class, racial, and sexual tensions that are riven through it.


27.

Riding through the city, windows tinted, AC blast
I got bitches wanna fuck me, so so wrong, do me bad
I got cash in my pants, I got cash on her ass
AP dance, bitches glance, cause my diamonds look like glass

— Young Thug, “With Them”

When young black males labor in the plantation of misogyny and sexism to produce gangsta rap, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy approves the violence and materially rewards them. Far from being an expression of their “manhood,” it is an expression of their own subjugation and humiliation by more powerful, less visible forces of patriarchal gangsterism. They give voice to the brutal, raw anger and rage against women that it is taboo for “civilized” adult men to speak.

— bell hooks, Outlaw Culture

The emo trap of Lil Uzi Vert, his very name threading the needle between the cute, the odd, and the angry, might be thought, given his Green Day – punk styling and soft-suburban patina, to be less invested in the kind of misogynistic baiting so common to trap. But this is not the case. Like the unofficial color-line law that says the main video girl in any rap video must be of a lighter skin tone than the rapper she is fawning over, there is a perverse law by which the more one’s identity is susceptible to accusations of “softness” (i.e., lack of street cred), the more one is inclined to compensate by deliberate hyperbolic assertions of one’s dominance over the other sex. When Lil Uzi says of a woman who has given herself to him —

Suckin’ me up, give me brain now she dumb
Tell her it’s repercussions
Play her just like a drum
Make in a night what you make in a month

(“Erase Your Social”)

— the percussion lands on a cymbal crash aimed at a “you” that is really “us,” the audience, who are invited to voyeuristically watch his performance (wordplay as foreplay), of which the unnamed woman is the desensitized object, but “we” are ultimately the target, the losers in the winner-take-all game of life, the suckers who work for a monthly paycheck who can’t possibly compete with the value the market has bestowed on the speaker.


28.

The quirky particles coming out of the cultural supercollider of trap prove the unregulated freedom of that space: that in spite of its ferocious and often contradictory claims, nothing is settled about its direction or meaning. The hard-nosed but unabashedly queer presence of Young M.A; the celebratory alt-feminist crunk of Princess Nokia; the quirky punkish R&B inflection in DeJ Loaf; the Bronx bombshell of Cardi B: to say that they are just occupying the space formerly dominated by the boys doesn’t quite cut it. They are completely changing the coordinates and creating models no one dared to foresee. The rise of the female trap star is no longer in question; an entire wave of talent is coming up fast and the skew that they will bring to the sexual and gender politics of popular culture will scramble and recode the norms of an earlier era in ways that could prove explosive in the context of increasingly desperate reactionary and progressive battles for hearts and minds.

The boys are not quite what they were before, either. Bobby Shmurda’s path to “Hot Nigga,” before landing him in prison, landed him on the charts in no small part because of his dance, his fearless self-embrace, and his self-love breaking out in full view of his entire crew. People sometimes forget that for the latter half of the Nineties and the early Aughts, dancing for a “real one” was a nonstarter. Now crews from every high school across the country compete to make viral videos of gorgeous dance routines to accompany the release of a new single. The old heads who grumble about “mumble rap” may not care for dancing, but the suppression of it as a marker of authentic masculinity was the worst thing about an otherwise great era for black music. Its restoration is one of the few universally positive values currently being regifted to the culture by trap.


29.

Young Thug enacts a Charlie Parker theory of trap. Virtuosity, drugginess, genius, vulnerability, an impish childishness almost as a compensation for the overabundance of talent, the superfluidity of imagination. A Cocteau from East Atlanta, he teases the beat, skipping off it like a yo-yo, yodeling, crooning, blurting, squawking, purring, working his game on you, finessing, playing ad libs like Curtis Mayfield worked strings, or scatting and growling low like Louis Armstrong if he were sweating it out in a freestyle battle with James Brown, bouncing back and forth between personalities. His polymorphously perverse sexuality is so insistently graphic and deadpan that it has virtually zero erotic charge, au courant pimp talk channeled through a kind of private board game of his own imagination, a Candyland fantasia slimed in promethazine. By contrast, his persona oozes sex. In leather jackets, ultratight jeans and Janet Jackson piercing arrangements, he’s a Mick Jagger – ish rake on the make who is also shy and easily wounded, suddenly open for a hug. A favorite and telling picture posted to Instagram account thuggerthugger1 (5.2 million followers) captures him with his arm around Sir Elton John, posing like a polite politician in photo-op mode (Obama-alt) next to Sir Elton, who is dressed in a gold-trim Adidas tracksuit and a black thugger cap.

If the outlandish persona were all there was to it, he might be written off as a variant to Weezy that went nowhere. But the music really does, somehow, sound like the future, like something that’s never been tried before, a radical experiment. His concern for innovating, like his persistent concern for his kidney health, is a marker of identity, not just a lifestyle. The boundaries he pushes are only partly for our benefit; his chameleon love affair with the frisson of the louche, the lawless elasticity of language, and the plasticity of the self-fashioning body in motion is all of a piece. He insists on being the soloist and chorus all at once; his is an orchestral impulse, a surround sound lyricizing every inch of space on the track. Words aren’t about what they mean, but, in the spirit of Baraka’s “Black Dada Nihilismus,” only how they sound. They are rhetorical and lyrical ammunition, raw material to freak like Jimi, not satisfied until the instrument wails, weirds out, trips over itself with a surplus that is no longer within respectable or even recognizable bounds — hence Thugger’s fundamental queerness in the most capacious sense of that word. Free spirit from day one: “When I was 12, my feet were so small I wore my sisters’ glitter shoes. My dad would whoop me: ‘You’re not going to school now, you’ll embarrass us!’ But I never gave a f —  what people think.” The music critic for the Washington Post writes that “if he lived inside a comic book, his speech balloons would be filled with Jackson Pollock splatters,” which is halfway there (why not Basquiat?). Thugger is more exciting than Pollock, who never wore a garment described by Billboard as “geisha couture meets Mortal Kombat’s Raiden” that started a national conversation. Thugger’s work is edgier, riskier, sans white box; if anything it is closer to Warhol in coloration, pop art without the pretension. It is loved, admired, hated, and feared by people who have never and may never set foot in a museum of “modern art.”


30.

He . . . loved that he could look out of his window and see an open horizon over the water, where the waves from the Gulf quietly lapped the shore, where the oak trees in the median stood witness over centuries to wars, to men enslaving one another, to hurricanes, to Joshua riding along the Coast, blasting some rap, heavy bass, ignorant beats, lyrical poetry to the sky, to the antebellum mansions our mother cleaned whose beauty we admired and hated.

— Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped


31.

The opposition to seeing the next man get ahead, the zero-sum game, crabs in a bucket, colors, gang gang, the division of self against other, the envy that breeds envy, Girard’s triangle of mimetic desire, the division of self against self. Everyone has the wants that they want, and so everyone universally has opposition. Generic, unspecified in name, number, location, or time. A condition of belonging. Opposites attack. Those who you don’t fuck with. Who don’t fuck with you. The opposition. Opps.

I grew up in the projects which is one room
So I had to sleep on the floor in the front room
Me and my cousins on the block tryna thug
Nigga you a school boy, nigga we was sellin’ drugs
I grew up in Jonesboro, it was straight wildin’
I hung out with the older cats, so it was straight violence
And the niggas I looked up to was hustlin’ or robbin’
So I hopped up off the porch too and started gettin’ it popping

— Lil Snupe, “Rap Battle”

Came up with jack shit up out that wishing well
Left with this black skin and a digital scale
I pray I be okay when I grow up a little bigger
If I don’t, tell my babies daddy was a real nigga

— Chinx, “Die Young”

DJ SMALLZ EYE
Now, why is there always beef, especially amongst rappers — and this has been going on for years and years and years, from what I can see — it’s always beef amongst rappers, and I’ve been to Baton Rouge before, it’s a very small town — city — whatever you want to say, but it just seems always like a lot of animosity, a lot of hate between different artists — not all the artists hate each other, but there just always seems to be something in the air, right? Why is that?

DA REAL GEE MONEY
See, that goes exactly back to what I was saying, like — don’t nobody want to see the next man ahead of him, so like . . . it really be hate for no reason. Like, if you just get to doing your thing, like if you just get to moving forward, it’s going to be uninterested in beef coming from anywhere, because this man might be rapping and you then passed him up, so now he got all this kind of animosity built up . . . Just be real on something like that . . . 99 percent of the beef . . . don’t have no real, real street meaning behind it. It be like, something, you know, something like that.

DJ SMALLZ EYES
So it’s competitive?

DA REAL GEE MONEY
Basically, it’s like, it’s like basically competitive.

DJ SMALLZ EYES
Now, let me ask you this. Can this be stopped? Can this be fixed? Do you see this ever changing? Like, from what I’ve known of Baton Rouge, it’s always seemed to be some sort of beef.

DA REAL GEE MONEY
Right . I always, I used to feel like, me personally, I always used to feel like maybe one day . . . they’ll just stop and maybe we can all get money together, you know. But like, the way it’s going? Like, the way it’s been going for years? It looks like it ain’t going to change, you know. I don’t know. Me, I just stay in my own lane, though.

(Da Real Gee Money, YouTube interview with DJ Smallz Eyes, April 9, 2017)

RIP to Eddie B wish I could bring you back
Swear I smoke a thousand Black and Milds to bring you back
My nigga used to smoke them bitches like they cigarettes
My trap buddy every morning first ones on the trap
We used to fuss about who get to hit the first pack
Do any thing to bring ya nappy head ass back

— Lor Scoota, “Perks Callin Freestyle”

They killed my lil nigga Snupe
My lil nigga was the truth
And all he wanted was a coupe
All he wanted was a coupe

— Meek Mill, “Lil Nigga Snupe”

I love my niggas unconditionally
I just wish that they was present with me physically

— Mozzy, “I Love My Niggas”


32.

Black-boy blues articulated pitch-perfect
If nothing else your words make the whole world worth it

— Joshua Bennett, “16 Bars for Kendrick Lamar”


33.

What if this music, Future’s DS2, the Drake/Future What a Time to Be Alive, Vince Staples’ Summertime ’06, Kanye West’s Life of Pablo, the numerous individual points that are sounds and words that emerge from laptops, artists who live within this surround, the formation that is trap music. . . . Let’s call it “possibility” — let’s call it now, cracked time of where we are and where we are going now. We don’t have the words for how broken. And yet we are warned.

— Simone White, Dear Angel of Death

The problem of the overdetermination of blackness by way of its representation in music — its tar baby – like way of standing in for (and being asked to stand in for) any number of roles that seem incongruous and disingenuous to impose upon it — is the central concern of Dear Angel of Death, by the poet Simone White. Her target is the dominantly male tradition in black literary criticism and its reliance on a mode of self-authorization that passes through a cultivated insider’s knowledge of “the Music,” which is generically meant to encompass all forms of black musical expression, but in practice almost always refers to a canonical set of figures in jazz. It’s clear that she’s right, also clear that it’s a case of emperors with no clothes. It may have been obvious, but no one had the courage to say so. Take these notes on trap, for example: they neatly confirm her thesis, and fare no better under her sharp dissection. Though she could easily not have, White makes her point in a spirit of care and generosity. “We must agree to think about the work we have asked the Music to do,” she writes, “whether it is still able to do that work, and how that work might be done elsewhere.”

What would that elsewhere be? I ask seriously, even as I agree with the urgency of alternatives. Could black intellectuals abandon wholesale our favored set of metaphors, drop our reflexive turns to improvisation, to discursive riffs meant to signify a kind of mimetic relationship to the sound? Could we begin our conversation over again, at a tabula rasa of black creative freedom, and, importantly, one that would avoid the circle jerk that Simone White correctly implies? Surely the answer is yes, especially in terms of who is talking to whom and about what. And yet part of me thinks the answer is also partly no — or at least not without what I would think is an irresponsible and even decadent relationship to the very cultural forces that have guided black thinking, feeling, and interest, much of it informally political to be sure, but a form of talking about all things, including formal politics nonetheless. Who, after all, should be in a place to characterize and define the daily grind of contemporary life under the post-Reagan US internet tech empire to which we have set the musical tone? Would we consign that sprawling undertaking to the ash heap, would we accept the view that the white bourgeoisie holds of it? That it is cheap, trashy music, useful for frat parties and little else, the usual jitterbugging of “the blacks” who can’t help themselves, the great sly replacement of minstrelsy by an even better show, to which the only prohibition, and this not even necessarily followed, is that one mouth along all the lyrics except for that one — passed over in thrilling hum?

Let’s be clear: White’s larger point stands. Looking to trap music to prepare the groundwork for revolution or any emancipatory project is delusional and, moreover, deaf. If we start from the premise that trap is not any of these things, is quite emphatically (pace J. Cole) the final nail in the coffin of the whole project of “conscious” rap, then the question becomes what is it for, what will it make possible. Not necessarily for good or ill, but in the sense of illumination: What does it allow us to see, or to describe, that we haven’t yet made transparent to our own sense of the coming world? For whatever the case may be, the future shape of mass culture will look and feel more like trap than like anything else we can currently point to. In this sense, White is showing us the way forward. By insisting that we abandon any bullshit promise or pseudopolitics, the project of a force that is seeping into the fabric of our mental and social lives will become more precise, more potent as a sensibility for us to try and communicate to ourselves and to others.


34.

Trap is what Giorgio Agamben calls, in The Use of Bodies, “a form-of-life.” As it’s lived, the form-of-life is first and foremost a psychology, a worldview (viz. Fanon) framed by the inscription of the body in space. Where you come from. It never ceases to amaze how relentlessly black artists — completely unlike white artists, who never seem to come from anywhere in their music — assert with extraordinary specificity where they’re from, where they rep, often down to city, zip code, usually neighborhood, sometimes to the block. Boundedness produces genealogy, the authority of a defined experience. But this experience turns out to be ontology. All these blocks, all these hoods, from Oakland to Brooklyn, from Compton to Broward County, are effectively the same: they are the hood, the gutter, the mud, the trap, the slaughterhouse, the underbucket. Trappers, like rappers before them, give coordinates that tell you where they’re coming from in both senses. I’m from this hood, but all hoods are the hood, and so I speak for all, I speak of ontology — a form-of-life.

The peculiar condition of being ceaselessly co-opted for another’s profit could arguably point to an impasse, to despair. But here’s the counter: the force of our vernacular culture formed under slavery is the connection born principally in music, but also in the Word, in all of its manifold uses, that believes in its own power. That self-authorizes and liberates from within. This excessive and exceptional relation is misunderstood, often intentionally. Black culture isn’t “magic” because of some deistic proximity of black people to the universe. Slavers had their cargo dance on deck to keep them limber for the auction block. The magic was born out of a unique historical and material experience in world history, one that no other group of people underwent and survived for so long and in such intimate proximity to the main engines of modernity.

One result of this is that black Americans believe in the power of music, a music without and before instruments, let alone opera houses, music that lives in the kinship of voice with voice, the holler that will raise the dead, the power of the Word, in a way that many other people by and large no longer do — or only when it is confined to the strictly religious realm. Classical European music retained its greatness as long as it retained its connection to the sacred. Now that it’s gone, all that’s left is glassy prettiness; a Bach isn’t possible.

Meanwhile, in the low life of blackness, there is a running fire that even in the midst of its co-optation exceeds the capacity of the system to soak it up. Mozzy is not a tragedian for the ages, but he is closer to the spirit of tragedy, as Sophocles understood it, than David Mamet.

The people who make music out of this form-of-life are the last ones in America to care for tragic art. Next to the black American underclass, the vast majority of contemporary art carries on as sentimental drivel, middlebrow fantasy television, investment baubles for plutocrats, a game of drones.


35.

Coda: What is the ultimate trap statement?

Gucci Mane: “I’m a trappa slash rappa but a full-time G.”

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.

The Baldwin renaissance shows that there’s a deep yearning in our society not only for sensate, intelligent, moral reasoning, but also for the prophetic witness unique to the black radical tradition. By tapping into it, Coates cleared the air in a public sphere crowded with shrill and shallow analysis. Even when people openly disagree with him, as I have, they respect and perhaps fear the rhetorical power that crackles in his prose like fire behind a furnace door. They recognize that he is carrying the torch of the black intellectual, and though they may seek to deny it, they know in their hearts that its flame is the essential, foundational ingredient of our country’s moral and political imagination.

In this symposium we are being asked to think about the role of the intellectual today. I want to place the emphasis on the practice of the black intellectual, and do so by engaging (as I have in the past) with Coates’s writings, and specifically his evaluation of Trump’s election. I hope it will be clear that I intend to discuss his work in a spirit of camaraderie and admiration. Nothing bothers me more than a “battle royal” between black male writers. (It’s hard to think of a case that doesn’t involve two men.)

The path of the black intellectual is unenviable, often appearing at cross-purposes with one’s self-understanding. It has been in a state of “crisis” since at least 1967, if one goes back to Harold Cruse. Or it is “an uncanny site of contradictions,” in the evocative words of Hortense Spillers, who no less than bell hooks has remained one of the leading black intellectuals of the last thirty years. However defined, the path is fraught on all sides. Will white readers sample you as the “black spokesman du jour,” the latest remedy for soothing their conscience? And how will you do right by a world of dire circumstances and life-threatening urgency that you are as ill-equipped to transform as most anyone, even though you might be (slightly) better positioned to speak about it? Cruse had some clear answers:

The special function of the Negro intellectual is a cultural one. He should take to the rostrum and assail the stultifying blight of the commercially depraved white middle class who has poisoned the structural roots of the American ethos and transformed the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts. He should explain the economic and institutional causes of this American cultural depravity. He should tell black America how and why Negroes are trapped in this cultural degeneracy, and how it has dehumanized their essential identity, squeezed the lifeblood of their inherited cultural ingredients out of them, and then relegated them to the cultural slums. They should tell this brainwashed white America, this “nation of sheep,” this overfed, overdeveloped, overprivileged (but culturally pauperized) federation of unassimilated European remnants that their days of grace are numbered.

This is a tall order, but also a genuine challenge. The black radical tradition in this country has never merely asked for redress or understanding, or as I have argued in these pages, strictly monetary reparations (see “Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?”). The tradition questions the nation’s self-understanding, and in so doing claims for itself — the tradition, not the person who happens to invoke it — a moral authority based on witness, suffering, perseverance and vigilance. All the disagreements in a living current of thought need not distract us from that clear understanding of a common goal, a desired destination.

I believe Coates is absolutely right about the pervasive power of race as a mobilizing force in American politics, one whose potency has never fluctuated since the founding of our slave-holding republic. In “The First White President,” published in the tenth month of Trump’s presidency, he argued that Trump had successfully seized on the “eldritch energies” of white redemption politics, a strategy with roots in the violent overthrow of Reconstruction by Jim Crow law and lynch-mob terrorism. Trump cast himself as a new redeemer who in similar fashion would remove the anomalous stain of the first black presidency on white honor. Lacking any history of public service and boasting a staggering record of repugnant words and deeds, Trump made the restoration of white power his unique qualification. As Coates wrote, Trump is “the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific — America’s first white president.”

But Trump’s mobilization of the politics of white grievance and ressentiment isn’t shocking or unprecedented, for him or the country. That dog-eared playbook, as Coates himself noted, is almost a cliché of American politics. More impressive and foreboding was Trump’s ability to trash an unspoken requirement of American politics: at the very least, it had been thought, a semblance of moral rectitude and responsibility was a prerequisite for entry to the highest office in the land. Trump was able to circumvent this barrier in two ways: by mocking the rhetorical conventions of prevailing political discourse, recasting them as weak and dissembling, and by couching his bid for power explicitly in utilitarian terms. Trump is all about ends; he scarcely seems to comprehend means. A lie is just a tactical move made on the way to winning—which in Trump’s middle-school-coach-slash-wise-guy-from-Queens style of delivery means something like what Charlie Sheen intended in his infamous coked-up interview rants: “Defeating the naysayers … you’re either winning or you’re losing, there’s nothing in between.”

Coates is right that Trump’s election can only be understood through the prism of race, in the light of our nation’s wrestling with its “original sin,” to employ a favored euphemism of the Obama years (a prim phrase for the consequences of a 250-year chokehold). And he is also right to argue that the violation of the symbolic order of whiteness by the election of the nation’s first black president has been a decisive factor in contemporary politics. (The Baldwin renaissance attests to this as well.) Coates is the only major public intellectual to have argued this point forcefully, and to have made it stick. When people look back and ask how thinking people grappled with the Trump presidency, “The First White President” will be in the conversation; Coates’s work will be required reading.

That said, there are positions of Coates’s that are worth debating, not in the interest of dismissing them, but in the hopes of pushing beyond the impasse that his work gravitates toward, which raises our anguish only to leave us fatally stranded. Without wading too deep into what I think is ultimately an unproductive argument over “identity politics” within the liberal left, I nevertheless think a salutary reckoning between the interests of black Americans and those of the Democratic Party is long overdue. We can’t afford to continue endorsing a Clintonite triangulation that pays lip service to loving black people when it is expedient but, because it is enthralled to moneyed interests, continues to serve a class that contains virtually none of us. This also means supporting serious and robust efforts to reform the ideological orientation of that party.

I agree with Coates that Bernie Sanders clumsily handled issues like political correctness and identity politics on the campaign trail. But painting Sanders as simply one more fixture in the constellation of white power, as Coates does in “The First White President,” is glib and dishonest. Coates’s dismissal of Sanders’s assertion that “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from” is particularly ill-considered. Coates implies that the senator, whom he eventually endorsed, wanted his party to address only or primarily white workers, a claim Coates himself does not seem to actually believe. And Coates knows that what Sanders meant is by and large true, not least because Coates has talked to plenty of black working-class Democrats who have themselves long been disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s rhetoric. Their support of Obama, as Coates perceptively chronicled, often came despite a rhetoric that alienated them. Obama’s commencement speech at Morehouse, arguably the rhetorical nadir of his presidency, was a thin and uncharitable performance that spoke to a massive divide between the hopes of the class that put him in office and the change he proposed to deliver once in power.

Yet the bitter and increasingly uncertain loyalty of blacks to the Democratic Party is an issue that is notably absent from “The First White President.” It’s true that, by demographic share, more black men than white women voted for a white woman to become president; but it’s also true that in key states, notably Michigan, the low turnout of black voters may well have made the difference and cost Clinton the election. Black votes matter, and pointing to black and brown voter share for Clinton as evidence that they are content with the party’s messaging is like mistaking a hostage for a dinner guest. Coates only mentions in passing the bitter disillusionment and disgust in the black community with the Democratic Party across several administrations. Many black Democrats have historically voted for their candidates out of a sense of duty, fidelity, distant hope and fear of what the alternative might bring. During the Obama years, their disappointment could be mitigated by the satisfaction of voting for a black president. But many did so for just that sense of satisfaction, not because they truly believed he would improve their lives.

And what are working-class whites supposed to make of the Democrats? Coates’s frustration over the national obsession with them as the main protagonist of American politics is justified. But it would be equally foolish to pretend that the largest demographic bloc in the U.S. population can simply be dispensed with by fine-tuning an electoral calculus or abolishing the electoral college. Any sincere and realistic political project will have to talk to those people, and not just talk at them — they have to be appealed to, won over; that’s what the art of politics is about. Reconstructing and uprooting racist mindsets may not be a humanly achievable goal. But to imagine that this leaves us hostage to a fate we can do nothing about drastically underestimates the thick and complicated field of social relations. Women radicalized by the rise of Trumpism are identifying common concerns across racial lines; on a range of issues the young (most notably in Black Lives Matter protests) increasingly demonstrate a racially integrated front; the working poor, black and white, and concerned environmentalists all share an interest in securing a right to clean public water, clean air and quality health care. The best answer to white supremacy is to go about creating what it fears. It’s to do the work of building solidarity, even in the form of antagonistic cooperation; to link struggles and build up popular-front movements that speak to the interests of the downtrodden and disinherited, who though unequal in their access to the American creed (a fact whites are all too often papering over with banalities like “all lives matter!”) nevertheless have more to gain by uniting against the powerful than they do from pointing fingers at each other.

Should the Democrats be ashamed of the way they speak to these people? In a word, yes. “Deplorables” is not a word one uses to address the hopes, frustrations or fears of working-class people, white or black. It is straight out of the lexicon of upwardly mobile snobbery and was justifiably perceived as such when Clinton used it at a banquet dinner at Cipriani. Coates isn’t wrong to chide certain white liberals, but can he really fail to see that this kind of overt contempt and explicit class warfare has political implications and electoral consequences too? Are we supposed to understand that the election was a referendum on race to the exclusion of the appalling lack of empathy and basic honesty in the rhetorical playbook of the political party claiming the moral high ground? Why isn’t the honest reckoning Ta-Nehisi Coates calls for one in which all of these things are on the table?

Consider the following sentence from “The First White President”: “White workers are not divided by the fact of labor from other white demographics; they are divided from all other laborers by the fact of their whiteness.” Coates is making a point about the demographic composition of the Democratic Party. But it’s unclear whether he really means to refer only to workers voting for Democrats. The interpretation we’re encouraged to accept, especially given the thrust of the rest of the essay, is that the sentence simply holds for white working-class Americans, period. Yet some of the evidence Coates cites in his own essay seems to undermine that first clause. For instance, the wide gap in educational attainment of a college degree between Trump and non-Trump white voters is quite obviously a substantial marker of a class divide. One could draw up a list of other data points including incarceration rates and geographic mobility, but it’s not really necessary, because Coates isn’t saying that a white working class doesn’t exist; he’s saying that a virtuous white working class, unmotivated by racism, is a myth, one chiefly created and perpetuated by wealthy white liberals with a bad conscience. I entirely agree.

Still, this moment in his essay is worth examining more closely. Why can’t both halves of Coates’s sentence be true? That white workers are divided from other whites by their class rank, and that they are also divided from all other laborers by their whiteness? What stands in the way of an overlapping conjunction of class and racial markers, as opposed to a story that Coates feels he needs to tell about the triumph of one over the other? The answer most readily supplied by the structure of his essay is that he’s engaged in a battle with commentators and journalists whom he sees, often quite rightly, as de facto apologists for white working-class racism; if they will overstate the case of class, he must counter with the overstatement of race. It’s understandable as a matter of tactics, and in a loud and diffuse public sphere perhaps it is necessary to get a point across.

I can’t help thinking that Coates wastes too much of his energy battling with the likes of Mark Lilla, David Frum and George Packer, who, setting aside the question of sympathies, demonstrate no understanding or serious study of the black intellectual tradition that he is advancing. What’s the reward of getting bogged down in disputes with them? Why not instead use the power of the megaphone to engage with radical projects that matter to black America? Remind the nation that children are still being washed and fed from bottled water in Flint, Michigan. Examine the efforts of Ras Baraka to bring change to the city of Newark or Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s grassroots political mobilization in Jackson, Mississippi. Shine a light on the importance of HBCUs, and drive investment and donations to them. Work together to advance mutually reinforcing causes, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, one of the most important rising voices in black intellectual life, has urged us to do, by linking guns, school shootings and the fight for black lives. Are there really no movements that broach these issues while appealing across social categories that we can encourage, amplify and learn from?

The good news is that there are. The bad news is that they must fight a culture that is so morally and intellectually bankrupt it defies satire. Even I struggled to fathom the depth of corporate America’s nihilism and depravity as I watched it loot and vandalize the speech of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to sell Dodge trucks during the Super Bowl, a feat that could be a gag line in a Paul Beatty novel. The moral opposite, the opponent of such spiritual death, does exist, however — and it is no coincidence that it seeks to return and renew the work King was doing when he was murdered fifty years ago at the height of a never-completed campaign to dismantle unnecessary poverty, disenthrall the state from militarism and dislodge the power of avarice and racial hatred from our politics.

The Poor People’s Campaign of 2018 has issued “a national call for moral revival” and already begun mobilizing, descending upon state capitol buildings across the country to peacefully protest and make their voices heard. Led by the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the movement has grown out of the “Moral Mondays” protests supported by the NAACP that began in North Carolina in 2013 in response to legislation proposed by the newly elected Republican governor, Pat McCrory, that would restrict voter registration, limit Medicaid expansion and deregulate the public schools. The tactics of the Poor People’s Campaign are relatively modest — so far it has attempted to deliver letters to congressional leaders and staged rallies to petition the government for redress. But the possibility of changing the discourse, of bringing the issue of poverty instead of “hardworking Americans” into focus, the repurposing and re-centering of an ethical and spiritual impulse to collective action — these are deeply significant interventions in our current climate.

The Reverend William Barber II addresses a crowd in Milwaukee, WI August 29, 2017

 

On April 2, 2017 Reverend Barber delivered a sermon at Riverside Church in New York City. “When Silence Is Not an Option” paid homage to King’s April 4, 1967 Riverside address, “A Time to Break Silence.” Exactly one year before his assassination, King publicly broke with the Johnson administration by denouncing the war in Vietnam, calling for “a radical revolution of values” and warning that “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Thundering from the pulpit half a century on, the Reverend Barber reminded his audience of this radical King and, by way of the biblical parable of the valley of the dry bones, he enjoined them to breathe life into the dry bones scattered across the country who represent “the people who believe the forces of injustice have won … people who said, ‘I never thought this could happen in my nation’ …  those who are poor who have been told poverty is their own fault … African Americans who see mean and power-drunk politicians working to take away voting rights.”

Speaking out in defense of those who have lost hope, and indeed about conditions and situations deemed supposedly hopeless, is our moral responsibility:

Silence is not an option because we must have a living word … not just an analysis of the pain, but a word that points us toward the kind of subversive hope that gives people the possibility to fight up out of valleys of dry bones. We must dare to raise the question: Is America possible? … And then we must say yes, and join our place among the generations before us who faced and had to raise the same questions against odds that were much greater than the ones we face today. If they said something in the face of slavery, if they said something in the face of Jim Crow, if people said something in the face of the Holocaust, if they said something in the face of apartheid, surely we can say something and sound a living word.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not wrong about the white redemption politics of Trump or the importance of racial animus and its role in his rise to power. Nor is he wrong to say that it’s also the central dialectic of American history, conditioning and revealing our most intense contradictions, our most vicious crimes, our unique endurance, our character and our fate. But his analysis always seems to end precisely where I think we ought to begin: where the tradition of black radical organizing and subversive hope has taken up the burden that the white leaders of this country have, since 1787, simply kicked down the road. What of our magnificent insistence that we will pull this country into righteousness and justice by our own hands, by our own words and deeds and witness, by any means necessary? Not out of naïve optimism about the grand intellectual project of the Enlightenment; not out of a sentimental faith in the innate goodness of our former masters; not out of a facile comfort in providence or a self-loathing desire to improve ourselves; not because the universe necessarily bends in a hopeful direction, whatever that might mean.

Our tradition impels us and gives us confidence quite simply because our souls look back in wonder; because we are endowed at birth with that special vertigo inherited from our foremothers and fathers; how they got over; how they came through “the blood-stained gate”; how they made a way out of no way; what it cost to be alive; to be unbroken in spirit; to know the value of freedom; to know one another’s beauty in a world ceaselessly mocking and denigrating its dignity; and yes, to laugh like Zora and sharpen our oyster knives: the price of the ticket paid.

A little over a century ago, W. E. B. Du Bois prodded white America: “Your country? How came it yours?” He continued: “Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst.” That “we” is a proud black people whose labor and indomitable determination made the very notion of American greatness possible.

One should never underestimate the force of black love for this country. Not for its flag, or its army, or its anthem, or even its supposedly hallowed parchments and pageants; but the love for the people — the everyday people of America which is so obvious in the gift of our music, our irrepressible desire to see people free to be themselves, free from bondage of every kind. It is, as Baldwin understood, a love that is greater than the sum of all the violence directed against it, the rash of slander and injustice that ever threatens to break out and destroy the black soulfulness that proves the foundational lie of American slavery and the mentalities slavery bequeathed.

The pragmatic question today is how to return the great force of this tradition into our political body, into our political culture, our rhetoric, our candidates, our meetings and conversations, our workplaces and relationships. We have a moral language and a popular tongue at our disposal — but we need to learn to use it again. The language of our politics should come from the street, not from think tanks, think pieces or the academy. Our ordinary words are already spiritual and moral; we can carry them into the public square and be respectful and confident, open and engaged, not fearful, controlling or defensive. And for those who doubt whether this can come to pass, or believe mine is simply another empty rhetorical exercise, I would ask you to look to the Poor People’s Campaign of 2018; listen to the folks who are assembled under its banner; consider their backgrounds; listen to how they talk; listen to the Reverend Barber sermonize; ask yourself if you really believe these people assembled in moral indignation are wrongheaded; ask yourself what would be possible if ever such a movement swept like a prairie fire through the nation.

I do not doubt the specter of white supremacy is a clear and present danger. But I also know the song-lit race that American slavery ignited carries an even more powerful and precious light, and it cannot be put out.

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.

But laments about the loss of black Harlem are old hat. Already in 1925 James Weldon Johnson was prophesizing that “when colored people do leave Harlem … it will be because the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it.” By midcentury the neighborhood was already a symbol of loss and decay. As Lawrence Jackson observes in The Indignant Generation (2010), essays and novels about the ruin of Harlem became a genre unto itself. For Lutie Johnson, the heroine of Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street, Harlem’s tenements are a quagmire she is forced to flee in tragic and desperate circumstances. Ralph Ellison’s pessimistic essay, “Harlem Is Nowhere,” originally written in 1948 (but not published until 1964 in Harper’s), is about the activities of the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic on 134th Street, at the time a pioneering mental-health facility. Musing on the wider condition of black Americans, Ellison is struck by how a sense of homelessness connects Lafargue’s patients to the ordinary man in the street. On the block he hears repeatedly, “man, I’m nowhere,” which he writes “expresses the feeling borne in upon many Negroes that they have no stable, recognized place in society.… One ‘is’ literally, but one is nowhere; one wanders in a ghetto maze, a ‘displaced person’ of American democracy.”

Revisiting this legacy in the new millennium, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s stunning 2011 book Harlem Is Nowhere captured the decline of a legendary neighborhood that continues to radiate cultural energy through its archives, its scrapbooks, its folk heroes, and its block association battles. There’s a deep melancholy to her story of coming to know a place only to watch its residents pushed evermore to the edge; of attempting to find belonging in a neighborhood where a proud past looms over a community that is losing the battle to determine its own future.

For a long time, it was a melancholy I shared. Harlem seemed like an anchor of the imagination — impossible to let go. True it was never entirely (or originally) black. But its special character for over a century was the unique result of middle- and upper-class blacks, proud and fed up with racist redlining, banding together to buy real estate uptown. That action paved the way for countless others, generations who have called it home, and in the best and worst of times kept alive its spirit. For black artists and writers it has been nothing less than a literary mecca, a Paris with better music, warmer voices, and hot sauce.

But what if, in this generation, the hope we continued to place in that one neighborhood, like the hope that in 2008 we had placed in one man, was misallocated? What if, at this very moment, the seeds are being planted for another kind of revolution, for a global mecca whose birth pangs you might miss if your vision was focused too narrowly on the blocks north of Central Park?

 

Right after the neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville last summer, I found myself on an A train heading uptown. Next to me, an old man pored over the images of chaos and hatred in the Daily News. Nearby, in a typical scene of contemporary courtship, a teenage couple shared earbuds, watching a music video on her iPhone. Both of them sang along with the chorus, stopping only to flirt with each other in Dominican Spanish and English. They were listening to one of the summer’s breakout hits, a song called “Unforgettable” by the Moroccan-born, Bronx-raised singer French Montana, featuring American rapper Swae Lee. In the video, the duo dance with kids from a local troupe in the shanty towns of Kampala, Uganda. For Montana, the location reflects a subtle choice (in an otherwise decidedly apolitical career) to showcase the African diaspora in his music, reminding his audience of his own identity. The video for his 2016 single “Lockjaw” does something similar. Featured rapper Kodak Black’s Haitian origins are evoked in scenes of street life in Port-au-Prince juxtaposed against images of the Haitian community in Broward County, Florida.

These videos chart a dizzying path from postcolony to American empire — from North Africa to the Caribbean to Florida and back to New York City. They capture how, sometime in the last decade, the felt presence of what cultural theorist Paul Gilroy called the “Black Atlantic” has shifted into high gear. This imaginative umbrella term for the communities and transoceanic linkages produced by the Atlantic slave trade can no longer be relegated to an academic concept; it has become a reality. You can hear it all around you. The Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson, famous for his pathbreaking studies of artforms across the Afro-Atlantic, declared in 2011: “The big triumph [today] is that the airwaves of our planet belong to black people.”

In a sense, this is obvious. Stars like Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West are global icons, tastemakers, and ambassadors for American blackness. But the American R&B that they represent has been creolized. The influence of the Barbadian singer Rihanna, for instance, has been decisive in mainstreaming the rhythms of the Caribbean in pop music. Justin Bieber is just one of a slew of white pop stars who have turned to dancehall in order to make hit records. The sonic contours of the Black Atlantic have become louder, more insistent than ever before.

One of the most striking examples of this has been the return of Afrobeats, mixing the Atlanta-based style of contemporary U.S. rap and R&B with primarily Ghanaian and Nigerian pop music, producing a hybrid sound that is poised to dramatically reshape the landscape of popular music in the coming years. It builds upon an already dense transatlantic feedback loop: the collage of Mississippi and Niger Delta blues made famous by the Malian musician Ali Farka Touré, the interpretation of funk and soul for the Lagos dancefloor by Fela Kuti, and the pioneering jazz of voyagers like Randy Weston and the South African singer Sathima Bea Benjamin who, as Robin D.G. Kelley traces in Africa Speaks, America Answers (2012), captured the spirit of African nationhood and resistence to apartheid. Now a new wave of artists is poised to reiterate that call, carrying forward a vision of diaspora that is, on one hand, enabled by social media, smartphones, and streaming downloads, and on the other, threatened by a resurgent ethno-nationalism that is hostile to everything it stands for.

Did Paul Gilroy see all of this coming? His 1993 book The Black Atlantic argued for a major rethinking of black cultural geography and its relation to the modern world. Pushing back against the tendency of scholars of his generation to assert essentialist and often reductive nationalist claims about black identity, Gilroy theorized a new world mediated by the Atlantic littorals — one brought into being by the Triangular Slave Trade that tied Africa, South America, the Caribbean, North America, and the British Isles together. Black culture, he argued, is inherently heterogeneous and transnational and best understood through the concept of diaspora — a historical analogy borrowed from Jewish history — whose use he helped popularize in relation to people of African descent.

Gilroy was concerned primarily with the circulation of ideas, in particular the movement of utopian, dissident, and activist thought. The Black Atlantic correspondingly focuses on black intellectuals whose work traversed the continents, like Martin Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Richard Wright. It also explores the occasions and paradoxes of cultural belonging in black music: the introduction of African-American spirituals to Europe by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers in the 1870s; Jimi Hendrix’s “gypsy” aesthetic against the backdrop of the Swinging London of the 1960s; and the importance of Marvin Gaye and Detroit’s Motown sound to Nelson Mandela and the ANC political prisoners on Robben Island.

The music of the black diaspora is a polyrhythmic matrix that includes rhythm ‘n’ blues, merengue, jazz, reggae, funk, disco, rhumba, soul, hip-hop, samba, reggaeton, baile funk, and dancehall. But from the vantage point of the early nineties, just before the explosion of global interconnection fostered by the internet, the consumption and exchange of this music — the ability of musicians to circulate their work instantaneously or to collaborate with major artists in other countries — was still limited.

Today it’s never been easier, and the Black Atlantic is thriving. Consider the literature of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, and Junot Díaz; or the lesser-known explosion of francophone writing from the Haitian-Canadian novelist Dany Laferrière, the Guadeloupian writer and scholar Maryse Condé, or the Djiboutian satirist Abdourahman Waberi. The surge of interest in transnational narratives ranges across the arts. Ryan Coogler’s recently released superhero film Black Panther has occasioned a popular outburst of Afrocentric pride unseen in Harlem since Marcus Garvey’s UNIA parades came down the block a century ago. Unsurprisingly, the diasporic communion in music is an even broader and more striking phenomenon; it is the live signal of this grand cultural transformation, the shockwave of Black Atlantic cultures reconnecting in our time.

 

What will the music of this new phase of the Black Atlantic sound like? One answer comes in the form of Nigerian superstar Wizkid. Citing Fela Kuti and Bob Marley as key inspirations, as well as the hip-hop of Snoop Dogg and Master P, Wizkid (Ayodeji Ibrahim Balogun) hails from Lagos, grew up in an interfaith household reflective of the national religious split (his mother is Christian and his father is Muslim), and quickly stood out for his ability to fuse the older Fela Afrobeat sound with contemporary rap, R&B, and reggae. His crossover into the American market began after Drake was introduced to his music by the UK grime artist Skepta. (This is itself an example of how London — with its overlapping generations of migrants from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the abiding influence of black America — is a creative hub for the diaspora.) Wizkid’s mainstream appeal seems nothing less than assured — he’s rumored to appear on Beyoncé’s next album; he has recorded with Chris Brown and Drake; he’ll perform at Coachella in April; he started his own label, Starboy Entertainment; and he’s been an important patron of Nigeria’s booming fashion industry.

The new generation of Afrobeats is colored by the distinctive warble of Auto-Tune crooning, itself a legacy of the talk-box Zapp & Roger introduced into R&B in the 1980s before Daft Punk (in a classic Elvis move) repopularized it and made it a key signature of the hip-hop and R&B of the early noughts. In Wizkid’s music, this vocal style is married to distinctive rhythmic patterns inspired by percussion from across West Africa and the Sahel. The digitized vocals as well as a combination of Moog synth lines fill in the slick arrangements favored by contemporary producers. Atmospheric chords and relaxed tempos, closer to lovers’ rock than to disco, replace the jazzy horn and guitar licks of the Ghana “highlife” sound and the train-chugging funk riffs that characterized the classic Nigerian Afrobeat of the seventies.

You can hear all of this come together on Wizkid’s 2014 breakout hit, “Ojuelegba,” a track that celebrates the eponymous neighborhood in Lagos where he got his start in music, where the people, as he sings, “know my story.” Alternating between English and Yoruba, his lyrics like “My people suffer, they pray for blessings / for better living” evince the themes of every classic rap record: a celebration of hustling and striving to achieve success that would get one out of the hood, while simultaneously showing profound attachment to one’s rough-and-tumble origins. Ojuelegba is literally a crossroads in the city of Lagos, but it is also a metaphorically rich and suggestive site from which to think about the roots and potential reach of this music. The landing spot for most migrants coming to the city from across the African continent, its name joins together Eshu and Elegba, two of the most important spiritual figures in the Yoruban religion of Orisha. These complementary figures often appear as one, the god of trickery, with one foot in the spiritual world and one in the material (causing him to limp or move in a syncopated manner, to dance). Somewhat like Hermes, he is tasked with relaying messages, especially to people who find themselves at a crossroads.

Ojuelegba” traces Wizkid’s trajectory from the studio where he got his start to his career as global pop star, and it speaks to a new generation of Africans who see in his journey their own aspirations. Africa is at a crossroads, and young people want to connect across borders, to enjoy a freedom that has for them long been undercut by conflict, neocolonial exploitation, and rampant corruption. The sense of pride is palpable, the message clear: it’s a new day.

The appeal of this music tracks real change on the ground. Where at one time there might have been room for only one pop star to represent the African and American continents (a role an artist like Akon played in the mid-2000s), there is now a thriving music scene with viable internal markets for streaming and touring. One important result is the emergence of black women as pop stars in their own right, like Tiwa Savage, sometimes touted as Nigeria’s Rihanna, or the phenomenally talented Yemi Alade, a cross between Missy Elliott and Janelle Monáe with her own unique Afropop sensibility. There is also hope for bridging the sometimes hostile divides between neighboring countries. One of the leading superstars of Afrobeats, Mr Eazi, born in Nigeria but schooled in Kumasi, Ghana, embodies this outreach (his breakout 2017 mixtape is entitled Life is Eazi Vol. 1: Accra to Lagos). African-American artists like the Wisconsin-born Jidenna are seizing on the moment as well, reaching across the Atlantic to catch the Afrobeats wave and boomerang it back.

The new accessibility of platforms for production and distribution (including drones for making high-quality music videos) means that musicians have more power both to share their music and to control their artistic vision. The image of modern Africa that Yemi Alade portrays in her videos is not entirely dissimilar from the Wakanda imagined in the alternative future of Marvel’s fantasy; the afro-modernity of Wizkid’s sets update the vibrant, modish aesthetic of Malick Sidibé’s 1960s studio portraits, giving them a similar retro-futurism. His sold-out stadium concerts in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Cameroon, and South Africa, each carefully documented and shared on social media, demolish the perception of these countries as hopelessly backward “shitholes” from which people can only want to escape — instead refashioning them as places we might be lucky to reach.

 

Du Bois said that the twentieth century would be defined by “the problem of the color-line.” He foresaw the decline of empires in the West as an opportunity to rebalance power across the globe. Today Lothrop Stoddard’s old fear of “a rising tide of color” continues to hold sway, and the color line has resurfaced as the imperial fever dream of impregnable border security, drone sentinels, a Great Wall to keep out the dark hordes. The President of the United States’ derogatory remarks on Haiti and the lump-category of Africa (which also appears to include all of the Americas south of the Rio Grande), are typical in this respect. They illustrate the imaginary cordon sanitaire peddled by reactionaries who want to contain an emergent Black Atlantic identity bloc that their antagonism will likely only help to consolidate.

One of the ironies of the present is that, even as we continue to reel from this renewed ethno-nationalist sentiment in the United States and Europe, and neoliberal capitalism continues to hollow out our metropoles, the reach of black cultural capital is growing, reaching heights that would have dazzled even the most accomplished fellow travelers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Yet when Paul Gilroy revisited the question of the Black Atlantic in 2006, he sounded a distinctly pessimistic note. While observing that, “much of what now passes for U.S. culture worldwide, is in fact African American in either character or derivation,” Gilroy feared black expressive culture was losing its ability to resist cooptation. The pressures of neoliberalism upon the production of black music, he argued, were chaining it ever more tightly to the logic of material consumption, de-skilling its artistry and craft, and encouraging the glamorization of sexism, among other worrying trends. Looking around, he felt “an acute sense of being bereft of responsible troubadours,” figures like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley who wove a note of rebellion and an ethical or spiritual message into their music.

Such debates about the political role of black music are vital and can continue without replacing protest, organizing, and voting. It would be delusional to imagine that resistance or even opposition can be martialed simply by enjoying a style of music, even if that music were produced by “responsible troubadours.” But we also know that culture can feed political mobilization. The Popular Front of the 1930s, as cultural historian Michael Denning has shown, was also the time of the Cultural Front. The Freedom Songs accompanied the Freedom Riders. Public Enemy has done more to popularize the spirit of Black Power among the hip-hop generation than what remains of the Black Panther Party.

As Plato once warned, “when modes of music change, those of the State always change with them.” Fela Kuti saw this insight as an opportunity. He saw a role for black music in nudging world historical change in the direction of decolonization, not just of the African continent, but of the minds of everyday people everywhere. In declaring that “music is the weapon of the future,” he meant not only that the creative seduction of music is preferable to the coercive destruction of guns, but that a new era was coming, one that would be characterized by fluid cultural exchange, where music would dissolve the old borders of blood, soil, and nation.

 

We are not going to win the battle over the gentrification of Harlem. The black mecca of the new millenium, if there is to be one, might well prove to be that city Du Bois rhapsodized in The Souls of Black Folk, “the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadow of the past into the promise of the future.” That city was Atlanta, where he hoped the flourishing of black universities and centers of learning would break the spell of crass American materialism and bring a renaissance to the South, a mighty cause that urgently needs and deserves our vigorous support today.

We will remember, and must remember, Harlem; but we will also have to begin to look forward and redraw our horizons. The days when James Baldwin might head uptown to Wilt Chamberlain’s nightspot, Smalls Paradise, to celebrate the appearance of a new novel, when the party went to the break of dawn at Baby Grand’s over by the bridge, when Charlie Parker jammed at Minton’s, and Billie Holiday, her gardenia perfuming the air, as Frank O’Hara remembered it, “whispered a song along the keyboard / to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing,” the glamorous age of Harlem when black folk decided to make it a showcase for the world — those days are not coming back.

The Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, which opened in 1923 on Seventh Avenue at 138th Street — the place that gave birth to the Lindy Hop, was homecourt for the all-black New York “Rens” basketball team in the 1920s, hosted political rallies and college dances memorialized by Langston Hughes, and gave its name to one of the most celebrated and iconic periods of American cultural history — was finally torn down in 2015 after several decades of vacancy and neglect. Despite desperate attempts by local activists (including the arrest of the Harlem historian Michael Henry Adams) to preserve the historic facade, it was sold to a real-estate developer that has turned it into an eight-story mixed-use condominium site they call “The Renny.”

It’s also true that kids play in Saint Nicholas Park now, even after dusk, without fear. There’s no shortage of drug dealing, but the worst of the heroin and crack-cocaine years has receded. As Darryl Pinckney put it, the sense that “Harlem was the place where you could do or get anything and get away with it,” is no longer the first assumption people make about the place. Hip-hop tours will take you up to 140th Street where you can see the mural dedicated to the rapper Big L, once one of the neighborhood’s most prized and influential artists (and an early mentor to Jay-Z), who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in 1999. The comedian, SNL writer, and New York – native Michael Che recently joked that he grew up poor, but he now lives in “a wealthy white neighborhood: Harlem.”

But there’s also a lot more French being spoken on 116th Street, and it’s not by tourists from Paris but families from Dakar and Bamako and Yaoundé. The story of Harlem and its dream of a black internationalism is only turning a new chapter. The Lenox Lounge may be gone, but “the gift of black folk,” as Du Bois put it, has never been more potent. From Lagos to London, from Havana to East Atlanta, from the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Mexico: Harlem is everywhere.

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.”

For those with little or no knowledge of black studies, the text’s deployment of terms like “fugitivity” and “undercommons” may seem baffling. To those in the circle, however, this lexicon of continental philosophy, remixed with a poetic and prophetic fire resembling Amiri Baraka’s, bears the signature of one of the most brilliant practitioners of black studies working today: the scholar and poet Fred Moten ’84.

Black studies, or African American studies, emerged out of the revolutionary fervor of the late 1960s, as students and faculty members demanded that universities recognize the need for departments engaged in scholarship on race, slavery, and the diasporic history and culture of peoples of African descent. Since its institutionalization, these departments have grown many branches of inquiry that maintain a rich interdisciplinary dialogue. One is a school of thought known as jazz studies, which investigates the intersections of music, literary and aesthetic theory, and politics. Moten is arguably its leading theoretician, translating jazz studies into a vocabulary of insurgent thought that seeks to preserve black studies as a space for radical politics and dissent. In his work he has consistently argued that any theory of politics, ethics, or aesthetics must begin by reckoning with the creative expressions of the oppressed. Having absorbed the wave of “high theory” — of deconstruction and post-structuralism — he, more than anyone else, has refashioned it as a tool for thinking “from below.”

Moten is best known for his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (2003). “The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” is the book’s arresting opening sentence, announcing his major aim: to rethink the way bodies are shaped by aesthetic experience. In particular, he explores how the improvisation that recurs in black art — whether in the music of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey, or the conceptual art of Adrian Piper — confounds the distinctions between objects and subjects, individual bodies and collectively experienced expressions of resistance, desire, or agony. Since 2000, Moten has also published eight chapbooks of poetry, and one, The Feel Trio, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2014. He is that rare literary figure who commands wide and deep respect in and out of the academy, and who blurs the line between poetics as a scholarly pursuit, and poetry as an act of rebellious creation, an inherently subversive activity.

This past fall, Moten took up a new position in the department of performance studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, arriving from Los Angeles and a teaching appointment at the University of California at Riverside. In early September, his office was still a bare room with a single high window looking out over Broadway. He hadn’t had a chance to unpack his library, but already a small stack of books on jazz theory, performance, and quantum mechanics rested in a pile near his desk. It soon became clear, however, that he is the kind of thinker who keeps all his favorite books in his head, anyway. His Paul Laurence Dunbar is always at his fingertips, and he weaves passages from Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant, or Hortense Spillers into his conversation with equal facility.

In someone else this learnedness could come off as intimidating, but in Moten it’s just the opposite. Something about his composure, his relaxed attentiveness, the way he shakes his head with knowing laughter as he pauses over the direction he’s about to take with a question, instantly erases any stuffiness: one can imagine the exact same conversation taking place on the sidelines of a cookout. And then there’s his voice: warm, low, and propelled by a mellow cadence that breaks complex clauses into neat segments, their hushed, conspiratorial air approaching aphorism. At one point, Moten asked about my dissertation, which I confessed, sheepishly, was kind of a mess. His eyes lit up. He leaned back with a wide grin, his hands spreading out in front of him. “You know what a mess is?” He said. “In Arkansas, a mess is a unit of measure. Like of vegetables. Where my people come from folks might say: ‘You want a bushel?’ And you’ll say, ‘Nah, I want a mess.’ You know, like that great James Brown line: ‘Nobody can tell me how to use my mess.’ It’s a good thing to have. A mess is enough for a meal.”

When he’s speaking before an audience, no matter the size, he never raises his voice; a hush comes over the room and remains in ambient tension, like a low flame. On the occasion of John Ashbery’s ninetieth birthday last July (just months before his passing), Moten collaborated in a celebratory recording of Ashbery’s long poem, Flow Chart. Ashbery was always a great reader of his own work, but it was thrilling to hear the sly affection with which Moten took the verse uptown, bending its notes with his Lenox Lounge delivery. The same qualities come out when he reads from his own poetry, always brimful of quotations from the songbook of black America. His poem, “I got something that makes me want to shout,” for example, consists of riffs that build off quotations from a celebrated funk record, each quote set off just enough and in just such a way —“I got something that tells me what it’s all about” — that when he lands on the last line of the poem — “I got soul, and I’m super bad” — he’s fully sublimated a James Brown groove. The line between poetry and song quivers, the “high” lyric gets down with the low, and the Godfather of Soul’s declamation of Soul Power boomerangs back to us as poetry, which is what it always was.

 

A Cosmic Rent Party

To understand how all the pieces that “make” Fred Moten come together, one has to step back and see where he’s coming from. The autobiographical reference is a constant presence in his poetry, in which the names of beloved friends, colleagues, musicians, kinfolk, neighbors, literary figures, all intermingle and rub up against each other like revelers at a cosmic rent party. “I grew up in a bass community in las vegas,” opens one poem from The Feel Trio: “everything was on the bottom and everything was / everything and everybody’s. we played silos. our propulsion / was flowers.”

Moten was born in Las Vegas in 1962. His parents were part of the Great Migration of blacks out of the Deep South who moved north and westward to big cities like St. Louis and Los Angeles. By the 1940s and 1950s they were also being drawn to Las Vegas, and the opportunities offered by the booming casinos and military bases established during World War II. “A lot of people don’t realize it, but Vegas was one of the last great union towns,” Moten says. Jobs within the gaming industry were protected by the Culinary Union, and with a union check, even casino porters and maids could save up to buy a house — “at least on the West Side,” the city’s largely segregated black community where he was raised.

Moten’s father, originally from Louisiana, found work at the Las Vegas Convention Center and then eventually for Pan American, a large subcontractor for the Nevada Test Site where the military was still trying out its new atomic weapons. His mother worked as a school teacher. (She appears often in his poetry as B. Jenkins, also the title of one of his finest collections.) Her path to that job was a steep climb. Her family was from Kingsland, Arkansas, and had committed themselves against all odds to obtaining education. Her own mother had managed to finish high school, says Moten, who remembers his grandmother as a woman with thwarted ambitions and a great love of literature. She’d wake him up in the mornings by reciting poems by Dunbar and Keats she’d learned in high school. “And she was the one who was really determined for my mother to go to college,” he says. “She cleaned people’s houses until the day she retired, and in the summer and spring she would pick cotton.” Kingsland is the birthplace of Johnny Cash, and Moten’s family picked cotton on the property of Cash’s cousin Dave, a big landowner, to get the money together to send his mother to college.

Jenkins attended the segregated University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, which housed her in the dormitory basement; she eventually transferred to, and graduated from, the Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College, at Pine Bluff.* She was keen on doing more than just learning; she wanted to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and for how it might serve to explain the world around her. “My mother totally believed in the value of education,” Moten says, “but she was scholarly in a certain way. She was invested in learning in a way that was disconnected from the material benefits it was supposed to get her, and I must have picked up on that.” She was especially interested in sociology, and he grew up hearing her talk about figures like Horace Mann Bond, Hortense Powdermaker, Gunnar Myrdal, and John Dollard, towering figures of the liberal school of American social science who were engaged in solving what was then commonly referred to as “the Negro Problem.”

Degree in hand, she went to Chicago to teach in the public schools, but “someone basically told her she was too dark to get a teaching job in Chicago.” She hoped to have better luck in Vegas, but the schools were segregated there, too, and no one would hire her. “They used to call Nevada the Mississippi of the West,” Moten recalls. Jenkins took up domestic work, and it was only by chance that she found herself cleaning the house of a woman who was on the local school board, who helped her get a job at Madison Elementary School on the West Side, where she met Moten’s father.

The West Side was a tightly knit community. Moten likens it to the village in the Toni Morrison essay “City Limits, Village Values,” where Morrison contrasts white fiction writers’ “Gopher prairie despair” with the affection black writers typically express for the intimate, communal life built around “village values”— even if that black village, like Harlem, say, is part of a larger city. “It seemed like everybody was from one of these tiny little towns in Arkansas. My mom’s best friends — their grandparents were friends.” Nevada was a small enough state, he says, that the West Side could swing tight elections, and much of Las Vegas politics in the early 1960s was concerned with national politicans’ positions on civil-rights legislation. “So a few precincts in Las Vegas might make the difference between the election of a senator, Paul Laxalt, who probably wouldn’t vote for the Civil Rights Act, or the election of a Howard Cannon, who would, and my mom was deeply involved in all that.” Through her, politics and music became intertwined in everyday life.

Though the flashpoint of national politics at the time was school desegregation, locally it was also about desegregating the Vegas Strip. “You know, you see all that Rat Pack shit in the movies,” Moten says, “but the truth of it was that Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Count Basie — they could perform on the strip, but they damn sure couldn’t stay there. So when they came to town they would come to the West Side and stay in rooming houses, and there was this amazing nightlife on Jackson Street where you could hear everybody.” Everyone, from headliners to pit-band musicians, came to stay on the West Side. Moten’s mother knew a number of musicians, dancers, and singers; when jazz singer Sarah Vaughan came to town they would gather at a friend’s house to cook greens, listen to music, and gossip. “For me that was like school,” he says. His childhood summers, meanwhile, seemed to revolve around listening to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett doing the Dodgers broadcast: “My family were all rabid Jackie Robinson-era Dodgers fans.”

Moten also has strong memories of listening to KVOV, “The Kool Voice of Vegas.” “It was one of those sundown stations, you know, that shuts down for the night, and they had a disc jockey named Gino B. Soon as the sun started getting low, he would put on a bass line and start rapping to himself…bim bam, slapped-y sam, and remember everybody life is love and love is life…that kind of thing, and everybody in town would tune in just to hear what he was going to say, and I loved that.” He also vividly recalls encountering certain LPs in the 1970s, like Bob Marley’s Rastaman Vibration and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions—“those double-gated record albums that had the lyrics printed on the inside, so you could sit and read while the music played overhead.” Aside from his grandmother’s love of it, he says, his first experience of poetry was music.

 

From Harvard to the Nevada Test Site

For a kid from a midsize Western city, the shock of going East to college at Harvard might have been overwhelming. Moten felt he was ready for the challenge. He was lucky to have folks looking out for him, he insists — like David L. Evans, an admissions officer who was “like a hero to us”: “Any black student from the late ’60s onward, you can believe he had to fight like Mayweather, Ali, Frazier, and Joe Louis to get us in.” Moten’s first surprise at Harvard was encountering a certain kind of black elite. “My growing up was a lot more like Good Times than it was like the Huxtables, and now I was in a school with a lot of Huxtables.” The even bigger shock was campus politics. “When I went to Harvard in 1980 I thought I was being trained for the Revolution. The Black Panther party in Vegas — they met in my mom’s basement. So I was ready to go, and I had foolishly assumed everyone there would be thinking like me.”

Moten’s first surprise at Harvard was encountering a certain kind of black elite. “My growing up was a lot more like Good Times than it was like the Huxtables, and now I was in a school with a lot of Huxtables.” The even bigger shock was campus politics.

Moten originally planned to concentrate in economics, taking Social Analysis 10 and a class on development economics that he vaguely imagined might lead to agricultural development work in Africa. Freshman football helped him through his first semester by providing a loose structure without too strenuous a commitment — but by the second, things were getting messy. He was very influenced by Professor Martin L. Kilson, a scholar of black politics whom Moten describes as “a great man and a close mentor,” and to whom The Undercommons is dedicated. He was also increasingly involved in the activities of politically minded friends — tutoring prisoners and working with civil-rights activists in Roxbury. After a while he got too busy to go to class. He was also awakening to a world of ideas and intellectual debate. “We were staying up all night, we were reading everything, just none of it was for class.” The group discovered Noam Chomsky, and got deeply involved in exchanges between E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould about sociobiology and scientific racism — “and we felt like we were in the debate, like we were part of it, you know, we were very earnest and strident in that way. But eventually it caught up to me that I had flunked three classes and I had to go home for a year.”

This turned out to be a transformative experience that can only be described as Pynchonesque. When he got home, he ended up taking a job as a janitor at the Nevada Test Site, busing in through the desert each day. “The Test Site was the last resort for a lot of people. If you really messed up, you might still be able to get work there,” he says now. He worked pretty much alone, but for an alcoholic man from Brooklyn who’d somehow drifted west, and would regale Moten with stories about growing up in Red Hook. “I’ll never forget, he always called me ‘Cap’: ‘I wanna succeed again, Cap!’”


Fred Moten
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

It was eight hours of job but two hours of work,” Moten recounts, “so mostly what I did was read.” He got into T.S. Eliot by way of seeing Apocalypse Now and reading Conrad. “‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘The Wasteland,’ those were very important poems for me. There was this scholarly apparatus to them, a critical and philosophical sensibility that Eliot had, that you could trace in the composition through the notes.” He’d pore over a newly released facsimile edition to “The Wasteland” that included Eliot’s drafts. “By the time I came back, I was an English major.”

Back in Cambridge, it was an exciting and tumultuous time to be jumping into literary studies. He took an expository writing class with Deborah Carlin, who introduced him to Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and encouraged him to write; he took Helen Vendler’s “Modern American Poetry” class, where he first encountered Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, and Allen Ginsberg, “And I realized that I could read it, I could get it.” Reflecting, he adds, “I was glad that I had taken the class with Vendler and the class meant a lot to me, but I also already knew my taste differed from hers.”

At the same time, Moten was cultivating a relationship to campus literary life, joining The Harvard Advocate, where he met its poetry editor, Stefano Harney ’85 — forming a close and enduring friendship that has also evolved into an ongoing intellectual collaboration (Harney is co-author of The Undercommons). Together, they took a class taught by David Perkins on the modernist long poem, reading William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Robert Duncan’s “Passages,” and Ed Dorn’s The Gunslinger. “I was into that stuff, and Steve was, too, so we could cultivate our resistance to Vendler together.” Parties were off campus at William Corbett’s house in Boston’s South End, where fellow poets like Michael Palmer, Robert Creeley, or Seamus Heaney might stop in for dinner or drinks. Moten absorbed the possibilities of the scene but his poetic sensibility is that of the instinctive outsider, attracted to all those who dwell at the fringes and intend to remain there.

A decisive turning point came when literary critic Barbara Johnson, arrived from Yale to teach a course called “Deconstruction,” and he first read Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, and Ferdinand Saussure. At the time, in a class on James Joyce, he was also reading Ulysses. “It had a rhythm I was totally familiar with, but that I didn’t associate with high art. I believed, I just sensed that it was radical; it felt instinctively to me like this was against the status quo, that the reason they wrote this way was that it was like a secret, it wasn’t for the bosses.” He felt the same way about Derrida: “This is for the people who want to tear shit up. And we were ready for it.”

The Poet-Philosopher of Weird

Moten went on to pursue graduate studies in English at Berkeley. Even his earliest journal publications are intensely idiosyncratic. It’s as if he were convinced he had to invent his own tools in order to take up the subjects that interested him — design his own philosophy, his own theory. “I’m not a philosopher,” he says. “I feel like I’m a critic, in the sense that Marx intends in Private Property and Communism when he gives these sketchy outlines of what communism might look like: ‘We wake up in the morning, and we go out in the garden, till the ground, and in the afternoon we engage in criticism.’”

In his criticism, Moten is especially attuned to a zone that Brent Edwards (a close friend and interlocuter) has called the “fringe of contact between music and language.” He’ll draw the reader’s attention to the “surplus lyricism of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams” in Duke Ellington’s band, for example. Or, commenting on Invisible Man’s observation that few really listen to Louis Armstrong’s jazz, he’ll cut to an abrupt and unsettling assertion: “Ellison knows that you can’t really listen to this music. He knows…that really listening, when it goes bone-deep into the sudden ark of bones, is something other than itself. It doesn’t alternate with but is seeing; it’s the sense that it excludes; it’s the ensemble of the senses. Few really read this novel.”

In one of In the Break’s most transfixing passages, Moten reassembles a new set of meanings, or understandings, of the photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket. Why should that image, out of all others, have so much power — some even arguing, as he points out, that it triggered the mobilization of the civil-rights movement? Why has it remained so charged and fraught, so haunting? “What effect,” Moten asks, “did the photograph of his body have on death?” His answer: captured within the image is the sexual panic occasioned by the sound of Till’s whistling, “ ‘the crippled speech’ of Till’s ‘Bye, baby,’ ” forever bound up in the moaning and mourning of a mother over her dead child. Looking at the photograph, Moten writes, “cannot be sustained as unalloyed looking but must be accompanied by listening and this, even though what is listened to — echo of a whistle or a phrase, moaning, mourning, desperate testimony and flight — is also unbearable.” Millions have viewed the photographs of Till’s open casket. His images have been infamously and controversially reproduced, looked away from, gawked at. Moten does with extraordinary care what most have never done for Till (or for so many other sons and mothers), out of ignorance, or fear, or shame — which is, of course, to listen.

Moten is impatient with detractors who accuse him of difficulty and lack of clarity. Many writers once thought to be impenetrable are now considered canonical, he points out. “The critics I loved and who were influential to me were all weird: Empson, Burke, Benjamin, Adorno — they all had a sound, and it wasn’t like a PMLA, academic-journal sound.” The other critics who influenced him, he continues, were poets: Charles Olson, Amiri Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, and especially Susan Howe — who, he says, has a different understanding of how the sentence works. “Miles [Davis] said: You gotta have a sound. I knew I wanted to sound like something. That was more important to me than anything.” One could argue that Moten’s sound resonates with the “golden era” of hip-hop of the late eighties and early nineties, when it was still audibly a wild collage of jazz, R&B, late disco and funk: “Styles upon styles upon styles is what I have,” the late Phife Dawg raps on A Tribe Called Quest’s celebrated 1991 album The Low End Theory.

One difficulty for outside readers encountering Moten’s work is that he tends to engage more with the avant-garde than with pop. It’s easy to see why the art world has embraced him: his taste gravitates toward the free-jazz end of the spectrum so strongly it’s as if he were on a mission, striving to experience all of creation at once — to play (as the title of a favorite Cecil Taylor album puts it) All the Notes. This spring, Moten is teaching a graduate course based on the works of choreographer Ralph Lemon and artist Glenn Ligon. In recent years he has collaborated with the artist Wu Tsang on installation and video art pieces, where they do things like practice the (slightly nostalgic) art of leaving voicemail messages for each other every day for two weeks without ever connecting, just riffing off snippets from each other’s notes. In another video short directed by Tsang, Moten — wearing a caftan and looking Sun Ra-ish — is filmed in “drag-frame” slow motion dancing to an a cappella rendition of the jazz standard “Girl Talk.”

I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token, nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.”

By way of explanation, Moten recalls his old neighborhood. “I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token,” he adds, “nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.” The current buzz (and sometimes backlash) over the cultural ascendancy of so-called black nerds, or “blerds,” allegedly incarnated by celebrities like Donald Glover, Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Issa Rae, leaves him somewhat annoyed. “In my mind I have this image of Sonny Boy Williamson wearing one of those harlequin suits he liked to wear. These dudes were strange, and I always felt that’s just essential to black culture. George Clinton is weird. Anybody that we care about, that we still pay attention to, they were weird.”

Weirdness for Moten can refer to cultural practices, but it also describes the willful idiosyncracy of his own work, which draws freely from tributaries of all kinds. In Black and Blur, the first book of his new three-volume collection, consent not to be a single being (published by Duke University Press), one finds essays on the Congolese painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu and C.L.R. James, François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a comparison between Trinidadian calypso and Charles Mingus records composed in response to the Little Rock Nine, David Hammon’s art installation Concerto in Black and Blue, Wittgenstein and the science fiction of Samuel Delany, a deconstruction of Theodor Adorno’s writings on music and a reconstruction of Saidiya Hartman’s arguments on violence. Sometimes the collision can happen within a single sentence: “Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs, in their upper rooms, are beautiful,” he writes. “They renovate sequestration.”

Taken together, Moten’s writings feel like a Charlie Parker solo, or a Basquiat painting, in their gleeful yet deadly serious attempt to capture the profusion of ideas in flight. For him this fugitive quality is the point. We are not supposed to be satisfied with clear understanding, but instead motivated to continue improvising and imagining a utopian destination where a black cosmopolitanism — one created from below, rather than imposed from above — brings folks together.

For Moten, this flight of ideas begins in the flight of bodies: in the experience of slavery and the Middle Passage, which plays a crucial role in his thinking. “Who is more cosmopolitan than Equiano?” he asks rhetorically, citing the Igbo sailor and merchant who purchased his own freedom, joined the abolitionist movement in England, and published his famous autobiography in 1789. “People think cosmopolitanism is about having a business-class seat. The hold of the ship, among other things, produces a kind of cosmopolitanism, and it’s not just about contact with Europeans and transatlantic travel. When you put Fulani and Igbo together and they have to learn how to speak to each other, that’s also a language lab. The historical production of blackness is cosmopolitanism.”

Trump is nothing new. This is what empire on the decline looks like. When each emperor is worse than the last.”

What can one learn from the expression of people who refuse to be commodities, but also once were commodities? What does history look like, or the present, or the future, from the point of view of those who refuse the norms produced by systems of violence: who consent not to be a single being? These key concerns course through the entirety of Moten’s dazzling new trilogy, which assembles all his theoretical writings since In the Break. At a time of surging reactionary politics, ill feeling, and bad community, few thinkers seem so unburdened and unbeholden, so confident in their reading of the historical moment. Indeed, when faced with the inevitable question of the state of U.S. politics, Moten remains unfazed. “The thing I can’t stand is the Trump exceptionalism. Remember when Goldwater was embarrassing. And Reagan. And Bush. Trump is nothing new. This is what empire on the decline looks like. When each emperor is worse than the last.”

* * *

A thesis that has often been attractive to black intellectuals (held dear, for example, by both W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison) was that the United States without black people is too terrifying to contemplate; that all the evidence, on balance, suggests that blackness has actually been the single most humanizing — one could even say, slyly, the only “civilizing” — force in America. Moten takes strong exception. “The work of black culture was never to civilize America — it’s about the ongoing production of the alternative. At this point it’s about the preservation of the earth. To the extent that black culture has a historic mission, and I believe that it does — its mission is to uncivilize, to de-civilize, this country. Yes, this brutal structure was built on our backs; but if that was the case, it was so that when we stood up it would crumble.”

Despite these freighted words, Moten isn’t the brooding type. He’s pleased to be back in New York City, where he’ll be able to walk, instead of drive, his kids to school. He’s hopeful about new opportunities for travel, and excited to engage with local artists and poets. His wife, cultural studies scholar Laura Harris, is working on a study of the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, who is currently being “re-discovered” by American artists and critics. “I circulate babylon and translate for the new times,” opens another poem in The Feel Trio, referring to a timely, or maybe timeless, place where “secret runway ads brush and cruise each other and / the project runaway.”

Moten is not in the business of promoting optimism for the future, but he does not feel imprisoned by the past or bogged down in the present. Instead he is busy prodding about the little edges of everyday life as it is expressed by everyday people, the folkways of the undercommons. As his writings circulate within and beyond the classroom, so too does his version of theorizing from below, always seeking out sites where a greater humanity might unexpectedly break through.

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.

Presenting a nightmarish vision of post–Cold War Europe, Zone was unabashedly epic in scope and high-modernist in execution. Justly hailed by critics at home and abroad, it cemented Énard’s reputation as a novelist with major ambitions who was operating at the height of his powers.

After Zone, Énard did not let up. In 2010, he published a new novel, Rue des Voleurs, which moved his focus away from the northern ridge of the “zone” to its lower, southern half. (Rue was translated into English by Charlotte Mandell and published by Open Letters as Street of Thieves in 2014.) Following Lakhdar, a young Moroccan from Tangier, Street of Thieves continued to explore the portents of violence just beneath the surface and the different valences of cultural identity and belonging found on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. As with so many of Énard’s characters, Lakhdar is a voracious and omnivorous reader. Language and the world of letters destabilize him and open him up to new horizons. In a statement that echoes Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” Lakhdar declares a credo that Énard himself might espouse: “I am what I have read, I am what I have seen, I have within me as much Arabic as Spanish and French, I have multiplied myself in these mirrors to the point of losing myself or constructing myself, a fragile image, an image in movement.”

This “image in movement,” a picture of the destructive and creative possibilities forged by the Mediterranean “zone,” is not just a literary device for Énard; it can be found in his personality and public persona. He has spent his own life moving from one end of the zone to the other, without entirely giving up the French language or his attachment to its literary traditions. His manner is soft-spoken and gentle, but he is also gregarious, gestural, and charismatic. One can easily picture him sitting at a café table in Algiers or even running a small Lebanese restaurant, as he in fact did for several years in Barcelona, the city that he now calls home and where he has written all of his books.

The image of Énard as a voyaging romantic is perhaps helped by the fact that he is physically striking, almost Dickensian in appearance: a man of diminutive and compact build, whose tangled curls and receding hairline frame a pair of unruly sideburns more reminiscent of Stendhal than a 21st-century writer taking on the challenges of a world enthralled by Google and ISIS. Énard can seem in his very person to be somehow seeking to contain and resolve the apparent contradictions, the dislocations of place, the fractures of culture and historical frames. Can one person, through the force of erudition and poetic sensibility, turn literature into a healing salve—one that we can all believe in? With humanitarian crises and terrorist mayhem delivering fresh horror in the daily news, the prospects appear daunting. Yet this is precisely the wager that Mathias Énard has taken up.

Énard’s new novel, Compass, just published in the United States in an English translation by Charlotte Mandell, came out in France at the height of a bloody and destabilizing year for the country. On January 7, 2015, gunmen affiliated with Al Qaeda in Yemen assassinated members of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial staff in the heart of Paris and later terrorized a kosher supermarket; then, in March, ISIS-inspired terrorists killed 21 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.

In a gesture of solidarity and defiance of the terrorist threat, the jury for the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, decided to announce that year’s finalists, which included Compass, at the Bardo museum. One week later, on November 3, it was officially announced that Énard had won. In France, literary prizes are still followed with the kind of media blitz and fanfare that normally accompany movie festivals. For Énard, there was little time to celebrate: Just 10 days later, France saw the worst bloodshed on its soil since the turmoil of the Algerian War, when a team of ISIS commandos sent from Syria detonated suicide vests, shot up café terraces, and massacred concertgoers they had taken hostage at the Bataclan theater. At the same time, the surge of refugees and migrants attempting to cross the sea into Europe reached catastrophic proportions, with hundreds drowning by the month.

This atmosphere of tension and spectacular cruelty directly informs the pages of Énard’s crepuscular narrative, which is set in the immediate present of 2014–15, with the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State as its backdrop. The plot of Compass is really more of a frame, an anchoring point for a series of loosely strung, impressionistic fugues that follow the streams of thought of one man over a single night. Our hero is Franz Ritter, a middling Franco-Austrian musicologist living in Vienna. Ritter suffers from a grave but unnamed illness, and with a good deal on his mind, he reflects on his unremarkable but well-traveled career as an academic. He also considers his fledgling love affair with Sarah, another unspecified member of the contemporary academy (her dissertation’s title is “Visions of the Other Between East and West”) who shares his passion for pursuing the obscure and forgotten translators, poets, and spies who—not unlike Franz and Sarah themselves—have, throughout history, gone flitting to and from the region’s old cities like Istanbul, Damascus, and Aleppo, cross-pollinating their cultural contacts along the way.

Chapters divide the night into bouts of insomniac reverie, as Franz fidgets and bumps about an apartment stuffed with books and mementos, piecing together for us the phases of his romantic pursuit of Sarah, while indulging in an uninterrupted cavalcade of soliloquies and scholarly sidebars, including several chapters from a hypothetical essay, “On the divers forms of lunacie [sic] in the Orient.” By dawn, Franz will have looked up old e-mails, consulted journal articles, listened to the radio, and compulsively refreshed his inbox far too often in the hopes of getting word from Sarah, who is conducting her research on the other side of the world.

Énard’s style is difficult to place, shifting through registers that shade romantic and even baroque, but are often tinged with ironic doses of self-mockery. This tonal play can be difficult to parse even in the French, and Charlotte Mandell is brilliant at finding solutions to bring these subtleties into English, though the overall effect is a kind of detachment and coolness less evident in the original. Énard’s subject matter, after all, is deeply erotic, and his prose in the French strives to intoxicate, to inundate the reader with particulars.

Of the four major cities that Franz and Sarah explore together, and that Franz recounts on his sleepless night in Vienna, the most intensely realized love scene takes place in Tehran. “The gliding automobiles, the smells of tar, rice and saffron that are the odor of Iran,” Franz tells us after describing their encounter, will be “forever associated, for me, with the salty, rainy taste of Sarah’s skin.”

While Énard limits the book’s frame to Franz’s recollections, he also occasionally moves outside them with Sebaldian insertions that feel more like hyperlinks, as Franz absentmindedly pulls up Sarah’s old articles from his hard drive and treats us to facsimiles of academic jargon, reproductions of postcards, and frontispieces to Goethe and Balzac. Presumably, the upshot for Énard in making his narrator an academic is that it’s a useful contrivance for dredging up the literary arcana and necessarily minor figures who populate his area of inquiry (we learn about the spy and explorer Alois Musil, cousin to the novelist Robert Musil, and the orientalist polymath Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall; we are also introduced to the Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat and the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab). These excurses in Énard’s field of expertise also allow the narration to oscillate between the first person and a more scholarly, invitational “we” that, one suspects, is supposed to include Énard and his readers.

But there is an obvious downside here as well. Even if one is willing to suspend one’s frustration at being made to feel ignorant, there’s the added unkindness of being stranded in a room with a pedant. Franz has an irrepressible fondness for the sound of his own voice. It’s insufferable to have to listen to a man prone to saying things like “life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps”; it becomes intolerable once you realize this man is going to talk to himself all night, and it’s not yet one in the morning! True, Énard is mostly poking fun at the self-important gassiness of contemporary academia, and yes, everything suggests he is well aware that this is a wild fantasy of academic life bearing not the slightest resemblance to the real thing. But that still leaves it as an inside joke, and Franz Ritter, while occasionally droll, is not a sparkling wit.

One begins to get the sense that there’s another game at play, one that was perhaps not Énard’s intention when he set out to write Compass, but that a reader can’t resist surmising in the wake of its publication. Outwardly, Énard’s Franz Ritter has a lot in common with François, the hero of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, which appeared early in 2015. Both men are undistinguished, middle-aged academics; both maintain a keen interest in unlocking the potential of the Orient. Both desire some kind of deliverance from women, something beyond sex but also resolutely and insistently related to it. In Houellebecq’s novel, women are emotional and sexual dead ends: François experiences his girlfriend as a source of indifference and sexual despair, and finds release in the company of sex workers; he also finds his mother’s death barely worth mentioning. Franz is just the opposite, in this and many other ways: Sarah is his passport to the world, to further knowledge, an almost ludicrously erotic vessel for what are primarily his own needs and realizations.

Both writers seem aware of the awkward limitations of this kind of female essentializing, but it doesn’t exactly deter either of them. And while Houellebecq’s François is far more repugnant, he is also a much more believable representative of the kind of reactionary mind-set that Énard is trying bravely—but, one feels, a bit abstractly—to refute. Houellebecq’s “depressive realism,” as the critic Ben Jeffery has called it, may be about as appealing as paint thinner, but it is also a solvent that quickly exposes all the hollow bits that come with Énard’s brand of idealism.

The contrast between the two writers is hard to overstate. Where Houellebecq’s prose is famously clinical and cunning, Énard’s tends toward inflation and mannerism, as though puffing itself up to handle a burdensome but heroic act of diplomacy. He writes passionately, with a boundless faith that the accumulated wisdom of centuries of learning, art, music, and philosophy on all sides of the Mediterranean zone will prevail over the desiccated vision of Islamists and ethno-nationalists of all stripes. In a 2016 interview with the Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, in an exchange about stereotypes of Islam in the media, Énard invoked the eighth-century poet Abû Nuwâs, a Walt Whitman–esque figure of the classical Arabic tradition, who celebrated “liberty, humor, drunkenness…. That, too, is in Islam today,” Énard insisted, “but it has to hide itself the most, so we see it the least.”

It’s the kind of statement that Houellebecq has no truck with, and he is hardly alone. For the French, the clash between the two writers reads like a Rorschach test for the left- and right-wing reactions to several decades of jihadist violence: half the country in thrall to the fantasy of throwing an undefined “immigrant” population out, and the other half, stunned and wounded by vicious acts of terror, still struggling to reverse the trend of half a century of failed integration.

Which side Énard is on is clear enough, but how his work might serve as a guide is less so. It’s not easy to find a solid plank for the reader to rest upon amid all the geographical and cultural disorientation in Compass. Believe it or not, tucked away in the pocket of Énard’s novel are not one but two compasses. The first is a replica of the compass that Beethoven is said to have carried around with him on his walks, which Franz has bought as a souvenir and left unattended on his bookshelf. The second is a symbolic one that he has come to appreciate from his travels in the Muslim world, and it points to the powerful geographic imaginary of Dar al-Islam:

in Muslim hotels they stick a little compass for you into the wood of the bed, or they draw a wind rose that can indeed serve to locate the Arabian peninsula, but also, if you’re so inclined, Rome, Vienna, or Moscow: you’re never lost in these lands. I even saw some prayer rugs with a little compass woven into them, carpets you immediately wanted to set flying, since they were so prepared for aerial navigation.

It’s an irresistible conceit, and one can see why it immediately appeals to Énard, who has built all of his books, like a latter-day Ibn Battuta, out of repeated circuits, voyages of circumambulation, with the purpose of knowing each time something more of the world and yet revealing to his readers what they have long not known.

But compasses are not the flexible devices that Énard depicts or perhaps wishes them to be: They may be open to interpretation, but they nonetheless reflect an unmoving geography. The impediments that ordinary people face when determining their own course in the face of rigidly prescribed doctrines are very real. Does knowing that our sense of orientation comes not from the East or the West, but from some kind of intermediate Mediterranean zone in which both interact, help to liberate us? Isn’t this cross-cultural inheritance as much to blame for our violent times as anything else? Can we shed our marks of identity (to borrow a phrase from the late Juan Goytisolo, another drifter in the zone) without fueling more hatred and confusion, the existential violence of alienation?

Cultural mutations are unpredictable and not always benign, after all, and they can sometimes create violent counterreactions. As Franz mulls over the strange case of the orientalists hired by the Austrians and Germans in 1914 to help incite jihad against England, he observes that even Islamic jihad is “another horrible thing constructed by both East and West…at first sight an idea that’s as foreign, external, exogenous as possible,” but that is in fact “a long and strange collective movement, the synthesis of an atrocious, cosmopolitan history.”

Énard hopes that his novel will offer an alternative kind of cosmopolitanism. Literature, he believes, can be something of a universal translator for the heart, recognizing how essential the discovery and exchange of beauty between people and cultures are to their mutual creation. But the poetry of his vision has its blind spots. And in France, across Europe, and farther afield, the blind spots of those of us for whom the wealth of the world is tangible in cheap airfare and study abroad and transnational business opportunities are being called out. Without some decisive change in social outlook and a reordering of the priorities of political economy, the contours of the present crisis will harden.

In Compass, Énard has created a giant fresco, a dream sequence parading the history of cosmopolitan Europe before us. But even as we crane our necks to stare in awe at his creation, it is hard not to notice the cracks in the ceiling, fissures that go right to the foundation and may bring the house down sooner than we think. Houellebecq, for his part, can and will find all his preconceptions and bile reconfirmed every time he turns on the news. His fiction perfectly captures the materially fluid and emotionally abrasive texture of modern life—its violence and sexism, the thinness of its cosmopolitanism and the callousness of its social relations—but he cannot get out of his own head.

Yet what’s remarkable is that both of these major novelists miss the story on their very doorstep, the human face waiting to be recognized. It’s astonishing, for instance, that in Énard’s novel Franz never once meets a Muslim character of any substance living downstairs on his street, operating the cell-phone shop on the corner, standing in line at the grocer’s, going to pray in a mosque tucked discreetly into a former gymnasium or community center. When he and Sarah go to Paris, they visit the tomb of a dead Muslim poet, but there’s no attempt to find the living ones, or to meet a few of the millions of people—many of them crowded into the projects on the far side of the city ramparts—whose lives and futures embody the tradition they are so obsessed with.

Houellebecq has never cared to pen a character that is not basically an alter ego. He complains a good deal about the people who surround him, but for all intents and purposes he has never met them in life, and he cannot bring himself to imagine them in his fiction. Indeed, with the exception of a few groundbreaking writers like Marie NDiaye and Abdellah Taïa, for the most part the novels that actually explore the lives of Muslims living in France have yet to be written.

One hopes that they will be soon, and that the best of Énard’s encyclopedic vision of a truly interwoven Mediterranean will eventually prevail. But I will confess for my part that, as I gaze warily at the events unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic, it is neither Franz Ritter nor Houellebecq’s misanthropic François who seems to capture the spirit of the times. Rather, we must look to Énard’s earlier creation, the haunted Francis Mirkovic, whose flight from the nightmare of history and all of Europe’s bloody fault lines is suspended at Zone’s close as he sits on a bench in the Roma Termini station. Énard ends the book with quiet words that offer no hope of redemption, just the fear of living on borrowed time. Time for a shared cigarette, Mirkovic tells us, “one last smoke before the end of the world.”

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.

With Everett the appearance of a new novel is always an unpredictable affair, and even longtime fans and followers know they have to be prepared to, well, get thrown for a loop. The plot of So Much Blue, Everett’s latest, braids together a story out of three narrative arcs pursued in alternating chapters — a dynamic triptych sequencing the life of a mildly depressive, post-middle age painter named Kevin Pace. One strand follows Pace’s homelife on a comfortable property (“very arty and New Englandy”) in Rhode Island (summers on Martha’s Vineyard), with a focus on his parenting struggles as the father of two teens and marital troubles with his wife Linda. A second recounts the evolution of an affair conducted in Paris ten years earlier with a 22-year-old French woman named Victoire. The third takes us back to El Salvador in 1979 and a rescue mission set during the opening phase of the country’s civil war, when Kevin (the novel sticks to first names) joins his friend Richard on a desperate bid to find Richard’s brother Tad, a “fuckup” who has gone missing and is possibly caught up in drug trafficking. The novel holds these three apparently incongruous storylines in suspense before gradually and deftly revealing how a set of nested secrets entwines them.

The novel opens with the Paris affair, a seamless sequence of familiar images and plotting filtered through Kevin’s dry and ironic gaze. In a bit of soliloquizing, he admits that “the only thing extraordinary,” about his affair is, “that I would admit to something so pathetically clichéd.” He meets Victoire at an exhibition in the museum at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Victoire is blond and attractive and has, Kevin thinks, “perhaps the whitest skin I had ever seen.” Kevin ponders the hue: “Was she zinc white? Titanium? I decided she was flake white, with all its lead danger.” Victoire is a watercolorist, and a student at the École des Beaux Arts, yet somehow possesses the means to have a small apartment conveniently located right around the corner from the museum. She also has a thing for older men. Wandering through a gallery together the lovers lapse into competing clichés. He is the wizened and weary older artist with deep thoughts: “I’ve come to dislike museums … it’s where art comes to die.” She plays the role of the whimsical siren: “You’re afraid of us” she warns provocatively, only to segue into an open invitation: “I have nice tea at my flat.” “Do you?” “It is Iranian tea.” Compounding her role as the ideal side-girl, Victoire reassures Kevin that she doesn’t mind that he’s married with children, that she wants nothing from him, and that she’s in love. She is sexually available, and — perhaps to add a touch of Gallicism — we learn that her mother is happy to meet this older married black man and does not disapprove of the relationship.

In a characteristic Everett move, Kevin’s race is only glancingly evoked in the novel. The first overt mention of it unsurprisingly comes from The Bummer, a character in the El Salvador section who is the walking embodiment of crude explicit racism. “Don’t think I didn’t notice you’re a nigger,” he warns. When Kevin’s son Will asks him what he wanted to be when he was growing up, we learn that Kevin had an uncle Ty who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, an illustrious heritage deflated by the knowledge that “Uncle Ty was a fucking asshole.” One of Everett’s great achievements has always been his unassuming portrayal of characters that defy the grotesque strait-jacket of racialized characterization, which so much of American fiction (or American culture in general) simply can’t give up. But racial invisibility is as pure a fantasy as racial stereotype, and Kevin’s effortless gliding around Paris with Victoire adds to the already strained plausibility of a frictionless fantasy. But then an unfortunate (and sometimes unnerving) flatness extends to all the characters in the book. Linda is the intelligent, busy wife who worries quietly about her marriage and is frustrated and out of touch with her teenage daughter April. Richard is a reliable wingman buddy who is loyal, dependable, and honest: “I call a spade a spade.” (“Careful,” Kevin interjects in a rare misfire in their banter.)

The El Salvador material feels like the least realized of the novel’s threads. Kevin and Richard rent a Cadillac and (on a tip from the American Embassy) make contact with The Bummer, a hillbilly Vietnam-vet-turned-mercenary who has retreated to El Salvador where he can keep up his unsavory lifestyle and lie low, possibly to avoid prosecution for war crimes: “Every fuckin’ slant I saw, I killed, what do you girls think about that.” The Bummer promises to help them find Tad and a good part of the novel follows the trio into the Salvadoran hinterlands as signs of the civil war rumble in the background and The Bummer tirelessly calls into question his companion’s virility while greasing his long gun. The feel of these passages is cinematic, heavy with buddy dialogue and well-established sets: a roadside cantina is described as “so much a cliché that it wasn’t one”; a dramatic encounter occurs at a little village in a jungle clearing; a sprint to the airport is held in suspense by the traffic of an angry street demonstration. In this respect it can sometimes read like a loose adaptation of Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Salvador (featuring James Woods and Jim Belushi in a Camaro), with even less of an interest in the political and historical context, aside from a few scattered and generally comical references to the looming presence of the CIA. Everett has written tightly constructed, atmospheric thrillers before. One of his most recent, Assumption (2011), set in a small town in the New Mexican desert, is also arguably his best. So it’s all the more surprising that El Salvador in this book remains such a blank canvas.

Perhaps Everett felt he needed a vivid counterpoint to the domestic drama. The novel certainly treads more assuredly on home turf (the Rhode Island sections are simply labeled “Home”), where intimate vignettes from contemporary bourgeois American life are rendered with wry irony but also a reserve of compassion: the way a partner in an unhappy couple will hang fire, as a sushi dinner turns into a tactical verbal engagement; the distinctive tone kids fall into with their parents on the phone when they’re tired; how to deal with your friend the art gallery director when he’s snorted one too many rails. The most enthralling scene in the novel is a rare moment when we get to see Kevin Pace acting as a responsible father, as he catches up to and takes care of his son Will, who has tried to walk home after school in the middle of a snowstorm.

Like Reed before him, Everett is a writer alive to the paradoxes and traps of an artist’s life, so it is particularly strange that he reduces the mind of the painter to a world literally conceived in terms of painting. In what comes to feel like a tired mannerism, Kevin never misses an opportunity to whip out his (exquisitely refined) palette or namedrop a blue-chip artist. Considering his “guilty guiltlessness” as he lies in bed with Victoire, he muses, “if this feeling were a color, I considered, it would be the orange threads of slightly diluted saffron.” Elsewhere, a road in El Salvador wet with stones “looked like a Pollock.”

The color blue naturally receives special consideration. Recovering from a traumatic encounter with death, Richard asks Kevin to describe the sky overhead. “I would call that a very light manganese blue,” he responds. At a vernissage in Paris Victoire arrives “wearing a cerulean coat covered with white clouds, after Magritte but missing the overcoated men in bowler hats.” Later on a lonely walk around the city Kevin sees, “the blue of rain, how it tinged the darkness of night sapphire and how Alice blue made lavender the leading edge of morning.”  (“Alice Blue,” if you were wondering, is an ultra-pale and almost green azure, like the core of an ice floe.) In the middle of a crucial, action-packed scene, Kevin stops to notice, unforgivably, that the body of a dead Salvadoran man, “looked like a drawing by Käthe Kollwitz.”

Everett has long evinced a passion for the visual arts, and for abstract painting in particular. His novels, and even more especially his poetry are peppered with allusions to Masters Old and New. The poetry collection, There Are No Names for Red, a collaboration with Chris Abani, features some of his own illustrations. But expressing the vision of the abstract artist is not the same thing as having a keen interest in the form. Naming the right set of colors is just putting a kaleidoscope to the eye: it’s fun and dazzling, but it doesn’t cohere into a vision of the world. Nor can curation ever be effectively neutral, which invites a whole new set of questions that don’t get considered here. It would be wonderful if Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas were recognized for their contributions to Abstract Expressionism in the same way that Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner are — but that would be a different country.

One is left with the impression that the abstract artist working on his masterpiece, the artist struggling with hidden secrets in his past and unavowable passions (or extinctions) of the heart in the present, exists here so that we can notice the pockets of emptiness and swatches of incompleteness in the frame, the lurking stains behind the figure of success and mastery who apparently has it all. This mood of tense masculine anxiety — a Miles Davis kind of blue — is the true subject of the novel. It is a testament to Percival Everett’s enormous talent that despite its weaknesses, So Much Blue does succeed in meshing its wildly different parts into a whole. There is underneath the stilted search for effects, a genuine feeling for the colossal pressure closely guarded secrets exert, the mysterious process of erosion that allows intimate relationships to cohere and quickly fray, or conceptions of self to shift under the pressure of sudden revelation.

This sense of humanistic concern pulsing underneath intellectual fireworks of extraordinary and sometimes overwhelming intensity suggests affinities with David Foster Wallace, a writer of roughly the same generation whose engagement with postmodernism passes in part likewise through a passion for philosophy, particularly the kind of ordinary language philosophy dominant in the American university in their student years. Like Wallace, the young Everett was consumed by problems in logic and linguistics and gravitated toward Wittgenstein, before eventually pulling away to pursue creative writing instead. Traces of that intellectual penchant (or nerdiness) can be found throughout Everett’s writing. The protagonist of Glyph, Baby Ralph, is a genius (think Stewie from Family Guy) who spews out the Western canon and simultaneously its deconstruction. The working title for Percival Everett by Virgil Russell was apparently “Frege’s Puzzle,” a classic paradox in semantic theory. Asked if he admired the famous “Incompleteness Theorem” in formal logic, Everett told the Paris Review recently, “If I could write something like Gödel’s proof, I’d be happy.”  

This is not to say that Wallace and Everett’s projects are exactly aligned, though I think they certainly complement each other. But the greater problem is that they are seldom read together, or by the same people. Indeed, those who ardently prize Wallace’s difficulty and experimentation and tout his achievement seldom seem to have read much, if any, of Everett’s work and therefore cannot know whether it ought to be considered for such accolades.

Neglect is a fate all experimental writers risk, but if they happen to be black it can seem almost impossible to avoid. Everett always intended to chart his own course. He picked the novel up where Ishmael Reed had taken it, but pivoted away from Reed’s zaniness toward a prismatic allegorical realism, a constant reinvention of form designed to grapple with the vertiginous ends of America’s violent and often contradictory racial, economic, geographic, and sexual epistemologies — a project consonant in many ways with Wallace’s, but evidently not one that could generate the same kind of popular appeal.

This is a shame because Everett brings something to the contemporary American novel that is — in part since Wallace’s early death — sorely missing: utter fearlessness in placing demands upon a reader combined with real compassion for ordinary people. Everett’s prose may not have the ionized finish prized by fellow icons of postmodernism and metafiction like Don DeLillo or Tom McCarthy. But he possesses something crucial that neither of them do: an extraordinarily deft capacity for rendering human foibles without contempt — getting characters on the page that are painfully recognizable and yet free of pathology, never reduced to being mere pawns in an overarching authorial conspiracy. His metafictional layering never feels gratuitous or indulgent as it sometimes does in others. Rather, in his hands it serves what are usually thought to be the traditional ends of realism — a serious and capacious humanistic rendering of the adventure of ordinary life (and more often than not of black lives), which he treats with an unsentimental dose of lucidity reminiscent of Margo Jefferson’s crisp essayistic stitch.


So my reservations about So Much Blue must be set against the record of a master artificer who in the space of thirty-four years has produced eighteen novels — nineteen if you include his epistolary office thriller, A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (2004), not to mention some four collections of short stories, and more recently several collections of poetry. It’s a long career that’s been built against the grain. In the teeth of the kind of stupidity and prejudice encountered by Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, the protagonist of Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, whose attempt to get his own novel published exposes, under a blistering and exquisitely handled satirical blade, the pitiful cultural lies we tell ourselves about race and all that we “know” about it.

Within the arc of Everett’s career Erasure reads as the culmination of a decade of literary experiments — in retrospect perhaps a bit too obsessed with the scholasticism of high theory in the academy, but nevertheless a wonderful suite of metamorphoses borrowing from every corner of the universe of language in order to self-fashion a radical and perpetually unpredictable voice: a postmodern Henry Box Brown always reenacting his evasion of the plantation confines erected by the limited taste and enduring whiteness of the (corporate) American publishing industry’s conceptions of what African American literature is, and how it will sell.

And so I would beg you to go to your local bookstore (almost all of Everett’s work has been published by small independent or university presses) and ask for his first novel, Suder, and discover the tender yet restrained magical realism of Craig Suder’s adventures across the country which lead him (among other places) to the forests of Oregon, where he lives on “Ezra Pond” with an elephant named Renoir, and (with a nod to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon), eventually learns to fly. Revisit The Water Cure, and its indictment of the moral turpitude of America in the Bush years. Pick up the Shandyesque adventures of Not Sidney Poitier, the misfortunately named foundling adopted by Ted Turner and hero of the rollicking I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Read, teach, and share his justly celebrated short story “The Appropriation of Cultures,” a parable that could not possibly be more timely. Consider the extraordinary Percival Everett by Virgil Russell a storying retold in between the lines of other stories exchanged between a father and his son caring for him in a hospice — a novel I think is likely to stand out eventually as a contemporary masterpiece.


As for Kevin Pace and his bourgeois blues, it’s possible I’ve missed something. Everett is an inveterate trickster, and one can never be sure where the Borgesian game of literature begins or ends with him. If you take a look at the book jacket to his novel Glyph, you’ll find a photo featuring Everett and Thelonius Monk — his mule — side by side staring back at you. It’s almost enough to make you wonder if So Much Blue isn’t a prank. Everett’s sly signifying on a white mainstream America he secretly loathes even as it painlessly ignores him; a cool answer to its swooning embrace of the upmarket scripts and scene-changes of “prestige television” with all its glossily repackaged and ever seductive clichés: the secret affair in Paris; the south of the border that is always and forever Narcos; a way of acknowledging that he knows damn well most of his readers, as soon as they’ve put down with a sigh the last pages of their semi-genuflection into the dip of current “cultural” fare will put on Netflix.

Either way it seems all but certain that this book won’t receive the estimation it merits, nor help to garner Everett the kind of recognition and awards he so richly deserves. For those who count themselves among his dedicated or occasional followers, So Much Blue will neither make nor break Everett’s reputation, built as it is upon an extraordinary body of work, a great fund of invention that — however neglected by contemporary readers — will undoubtedly prove an enduring wellspring for writers, particularly black ones, in the coming years. In the meantime, we can eagerly await the next reinvention, the next raid into the desert of contemporary American fiction by our black Lone Ranger — that long hour of sunset in the West when the Kid rides again.

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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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