Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

a prefatory note

 Arthur Jafa, Omega Sci Fi

Image Credit: Arthur Jafa, Omega Sci Fi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

The truth to which criticism has access fades to blur and we’re sorry for its reckless scrutiny. But the study that soils transparency, in the rightful belief that it reveals an opacity that’s always there, need offer no apology to James Baldwin since it’s he who teaches us to look so closely that we see all dark through what we see. Criticism is supposed to let you see (through) that. Criticism is poetry, in this regard and, in this regard, Baldwin is more + less than either critic or poet or both. He makes us let us look for ourselves, and through ourselves, till we’re beside ourselves. To be beside ourselves with holy looking is to practice Baldwin’s selflessness, which is only his to give away in demanding that we see through him, too, in pursuit of impure, eccentric fugue rather than the chaste satisfaction that’s said to live in one-on-one relation. Fugitive in small groups, dispossession flays the pair’s impossible monogamy and folds to nothing, where there are no things. Such movement intimates black indecision, which is given in the setting of the scene, which incompletes, unsettles and upsets the scene. It’s inappropriate and inappropriable. Ain’t no grasping presence to be grasped, no endless fight for standing to withstand, just this anaproprioceptive falling into tangled discord’s felt review. Such movement intimates black meta/physics—almost. All in transport all the way up in here, way out from out from out from there, where Harlem is nowhere, in passage, the indexical play of observer and observed, theorist and theorized, dreamer and dreamed, ebbs in topographical caress. Glistening, unheld in gazing, intricate toward gala, neither here nor there we go, down at the cross:

          When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty? For black people, though I am aware that some of us, black and white, do not know it yet, are very beautiful. And when I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s—or Allah’s—vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then?1

              The more we read all that beauty, the more unreadable we are. Transparency tries to hide a grammatical black hole, a (spiraling refusal of) singularity that flares us into visionary company. It all has to do with it, this apposition in the scene, his deposition of scenography. He brings us with what he is and sees, which is us; or, we’re brought with them in what he’s not and sees through. That embrace, the ecstatic terrain of all that beauty, is Baldwin’s function. He’s like a telephonic switch in a telephoto lens, seeing double doubly seen through, sounding life but seen with, too, as if three and more + less, mass found in variable densities of blessing, gliding, Jimmy’n’em at study, todo mundo de Portela, foretelling, divining that confabulous, alchemeric way we move in camera.2 His is the eye through which the scene he’s in is seen. He stays there, like a loving machine, but on the way, his eyes not now his own in being seen through by the others who can’t see but somehow see the fate of all that beauty. All this turbulence comes with “that,” which is so emphatically not “this,” subventing by subverting some kind of living in our terribleness with hard, delicate extraretrospection. Derivative of “this” in its egocentric particularity, “that” drifts in crowded, nervous torpor. Those hallways go everywhere but gone, but something else is held in something being held off in the making (bending, crumpling) of a dislocation where buddies are and have no bodies. The nearly metaphorical errancy of “that” is there to let us know he doesn’t merely look at us. He looks on us, and in that burden, we are covered and unenframed. We live where you and I can’t live, which is the truth of all that beauty, which we protect and convey, as lovers.

            Where’d he get eyes to see all that like that? Against the grain of the father’s desperate cruelty, which he never ceased writing about and trying to understand and forgive and indetermine, Baldwin is mama’s baby all along. Look how he sees (through) himself in Betty Davis’ eyes.

My father said, during all the years I lived with him, that I was the ugliest boy he had ever seen, and I had absolutely no reason to doubt him. But it was not my father’s hatred of my frog-eyes which hurt me, this hatred proving, in time, to be rather more resounding than real: I have my mother’s eyes. When my father called me ugly, he was not attacking me so much as he was attacking my mother. (No doubt, he was also attacking my real, and unknown, father.) And I loved my mother. I knew that she loved me, and I sensed that she was paying an enormous price for me. I was a boy, and so I didn’t really too much care that my father thought me hideous. (So I said to myself — this judgment, nevertheless, was to have a decidedly terrifying effect on my life.) But I thought that he must have been stricken blind (or was as mysteriously wicked as white people, a paralyzing thought) if he was unable to see that my mother was absolutely beyond any question the most beautiful woman in the world.
So, here, now, was Bette Davis, on that Saturday afternoon, in close-up, over a champagne glass, pop-eyes popping. I had caught my father not in a lie, but in an infirmity. For, here, before me, after all, was a movie star: white: and if she was white and a movie star, she was rich: and she was ugly.
I felt exactly the same way I felt, just before this moment, or just after, when I was in the street, playing, and I saw an old, very black, and very drunk woman stumbling up the sidewalk, and I ran upstairs to make my mother come to the window and see what I had found: You see? You see? She’s uglier than you, Mama! She’s uglier than me! Out of bewilderment, out of loyalty to my mother, probably, and also because I sensed something menacing and unhealthy (for me, certainly) in the face on the screen, I gave Davis’ skin the dead-white greenish cast of something crawling from under a rock, but I was held, just the same, by the tense intelligence of the forehead, the disaster of the lips: and when she moved, she moved just like a nigger. Eventually, from a hospital bed, she murders someone, and [Spencer] Tracy takes the weight, to Sing Sing. In his arms, Davis cries and cries, and the movie ends. “What’s going to happen to her now?” I asked Bill Miller. “We don’t know,” said Bill, conveying to me, nevertheless, that she would probably never get over it, that people pay for what they do.3

What’s going to happen to her now? What will happen to all that ugly beauty then? What happens when we murmur, throng, and shudder? There’s a wordsheaf frayed in the “morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies”—a wet, atonal burst of seasoned speech as if in every gaze lay the molten structure of another language.4 All that enchevêtrement’s so sharp, so fly, so undervisible, you have to put your sunglasses on so you can feel it, like Elizabeth Eckford. The Little Rock Nine and the Harlem Six and the Little Rock Nine of Harlem swing those wine- and urine-stained hallways; and in preoccupied company, Klook twirls revisionary nightsticks. That’s our braille and brushed prosaics. Our shedding shed’s the portrait in the sharding of the mirror, till here come the earth in threads of flesh, its nature having risen, its finger optic love come down, hand and eye uncoordinate but social and unbearably inseparable. Relation slides in monkish transposition. Cœnobitic sight off-site, exogamous insight flown off the handle, unowned, uncitable, dispersively excited, exodic jam, all exit all the time in cineballet’s shaded glance, grave, ungraven, unworldly, ‘cause we’re too from the good black dirt, index be anarranged, arrayed in arabesque, pointing fringing back at its own heart, which brings on the juice of our broken flasche, our blurred and burled, unoriented surface. The wine, the blood, the shot, the scene, all dance, aw, man, it’s all a kind of miracle. Down here with us because he looks like us, because he looks like her, they tell us how to look like them, so we can reach through us to what we share.

Work Cited
1 James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross,” The Fire Next Time in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Library of America, 1998, 346-47.
2 Baraka, Gil, Glissant and Jones; Mackey, Morrison and Silva; Spillers.
3 Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work, New York: Vintage, 2011, 7-8.
4 Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” Notes of a Native Son in James Baldwin: Collected Essays, 9.

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