Having been said to be nothing, this is a love letter written to we who have been, and are today still, said to have nothing. And to a tradition of such nothingness. This is a love letter to a love tradition, a tradition which emerges from within, carries and promises nothingness as the centrifugal, centripetal, centrifugitive force released against, and thus is a critical intervention into, the known world, the perniciously fictive worlds of our making. Some might call this fictive world “real.” Some might call this fictive world reality. Some might call this fictive world the project of western civilization, complete with its brutally violent capacity for rapacious captivity. This is a love letter to a tradition of the ever overflowing, excessive nothingness that protects itself, that with the breaking of families, of flesh, makes known and felt, the refusal of being destroyed. There is something in such nothingness that is not, but still ever excessively was, is and is yet to come. This is a love letter written against notions of ascendancy, written in favor of the social rather than modern liberal subject’s development. What emerges from the zone of nothingness, from the calculus of the discarded? If something makes itself felt, known, from the zone of those of us said to be and have nothing, then the interrogation of what nothingness means is our urgent task.
If you had been standing on the white sands of this island (Sapelo Island, GA) at dayclean in 1803, or a little later, you might have seen a tall, dark-skinned man with narrow features, his head covered with a cap resembling a Turkish fez, unfold his prayer mat, kneel and pray to the east while the sun rose. This was Bilali, the most famous and powerful of all the Africans who lived on this island during slavery days, and the first of my ancestors I can name.[i]
Born approximately 1760 in Timbo, Futa Jallon, Bilali was stolen into laborious conditions as a teenager and taken to Middle Caicos before being sold to Thomas Spalding of Sapelo Island in 1802. A collection of writings, known as Ben Ali’s Diary, was at least partially written by Bilali in Arabic script.[ii] Bilali’s writing is meditative speech and script, a mode of enfleshment on the page in both easily accessible and incoherent markings. A thirteen-page manuscript – five of which cannot be translated to any linguistic rhetoric or grammar, thus remaining opaque and impenetrable for any reader – written in the nineteenth century, it was given to Francis Goulding in 1859. Though discussed under the rubric of “autobiography,” the document contains no formal identifying information about its author, is not a collection of dates and life occurrences, does not have in it information about ancestry or progeny. It contains what I call a “choreosonic itinerary and protocol” for prayer and ablution, for praise to Allah. “Choreosonic” is a portmanteau underscoring the fact that choreography and sonicity, movement and sound, are inextricably linked and have to be thought together. As such, the choreosonic itinerary and protocol is a series of placements and arrangements for how blackness, life from within the zone of nothingness, through performance resisted the theological-philosophical modes of thought that created the concept of racial difference.
Bilali’s writing begins with the opening benediction: “In the name of Allah, The Most Merciful The Most beneficent. Allah’s blessings upon our lord Muhammad, and upon his family and companions, blessings and salutations.”[iii] It includes: “Using both the right and left hands, one puts water into the mouth at least three times, and puts water into one’s nose three times [cleaning it]. One washes one’s face three times [7:1-11], then wipes the right hand up to the [elbow] joint [k`abain], and the left hand up to the [elbow] joint [k`abain].”[iv] And it includes the Adhan, the call to prayer, “Allah is Great, Allah is Great. I bear witness that [a’an] there is no god but Allah, I bear witness that [a’an] there is no god but Allah [9:1-14]…Come to prayer [hi ‘al salah], come to prayer [salah].”[v]
What has befuddled translators is the near five pages which do not translate into any linguistic content coherent for readers at all that is at the heart – in the middle – of the document. Indeterminacy is at the heart of the textual matter for thought, forcing scholars to ask: is the incoherent script the rehearsal of one who had not fully learned Arabic; is the script attempting to sound like what it looks like? More fundamentally, an ever unasked series of connected questions: what is this text? What is this nothingness at the core, at the heart, of the writing event’s performance? What is the mode of existence, the beingness, of one who would write such incoherences, such indeterminacies? Having been translatable text, why a breakdown in the middle? Why such nothingness at the interior of worship’s itinerary and protocol?
Nothingness has at its core, meditation and celebration, often misunderstood because of its refusal to give itself over to rationalist projects of cognition and thought. The five pages of nonempty, non-readable script speaks back against, and is, resistance prior to the articulation and enunciation of power. Bilali’s script speaks against, in other words, the general conception of nothingness as pure emptiness and purely simple. Bilali’s graphemic markings serve to break down the distinction between script and speech, between talk and text, and is a preface, a prelude, a prolegomenon to the music, the sound, of nothingness. In a word, the nothingness of such script is anything but empty; it is, rather, full. Overflowing. Bilali’s writing is mystical in its unsaying: something is both given and withheld with incomprehensible script.
What does the interior of the chalk look like? Let us see. We break it into two pieces. Are we now at the interior? Exactly as before we are again outside. Nothing has changed. The pieces of chalk are smaller, but bigger or smaller does not matter now … The moment we wanted to open the chalk by breaking it, to grasp the interior, it had enclosed itself again. … In any case, such breaking up never yields anything but what was already here, from which it started.[vi]
Similar to what Martin Heidegger describes about the piece of chalk, Bilali’s script breaks grammar, the word itself, but holds within each broken fragment, each severed piece of flesh through brutal violence, something of the sociality that made the script possible, the conditions and zones of emergence and horizon. Broken and laid bare is the concept of the bourgeois individual of enlightenment, the one who writes oneself into being through autobiographesis, through scripting histories in diaries. The breaking makes intensely and intentionally evident the withholding of the centrifugitive force of black sociality. Having been, am, having been, will be.
This is a love letter to a tradition of those whom have been called, those who are still called, nothing. This is a love letter to those whom are thought to have nothing and, in such not having, have nothing to give. In another register and key, those whom are called nothing have also been called niggers. I quote at length. Apologies.
LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ABOUT NIGGERS, the oppressed minority within our minority. Always down. Always out. Always complaining that they can’t catch a break. Notoriously poor about doing for themselves. Constantly in need of a leader but unable to follow in any direction that’s navigated by hard work, self-reliance. And though they spliff and drink and procreate their way onto welfare doles and WIC lines, niggers will tell you their state of being is no fault of their own…
So I say this: It’s time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don’t travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send niggers on their way. We need to start extolling the most virtuous of ourselves. It is time to celebrate the New Black Americans—those who have sealed the Deal, who aren’t beholden to liberal indulgence any more than they are to the disdain of the hard Right. It is time to praise blacks who are merely undeniable in their individuality and exemplary in their levels of achievement.[vii]
In the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, the character Clemons Ray conspires with Solomon Northup and another character to overthrow of the slaver boat saying, “the rest here are niggers, born and bred slaves. Niggers ain’t got no stomach for a fight, not a damn one.”[viii] Curious, the consistency between the statement in the film 12 Years a Slave and the rhetoric about the general incapacities for niggers in the former quote. Both were, curiously enough, written by John Ridley. The former statement about ascendancy was scripted in 2006, the latter, of course, in 2013. It is not that Northup’s narrative doesn’t think about peoples enslaved from birth as belonging to a particular kind of category. Indeed, Northup wrote, “There was not another slave we dared to trust. Brought up in fear and ignorance as they are, it can scarcely be conceived how servilely they will cringe before a white man’s look. It was not safe to deposit so bold a secret with any of them, and finally we three resolved to take upon ourselves alone the fearful responsibility of the attempt.”[ix] Whereas Northup seemed to ground his concern about not trusting others with a general desire to protect those others from possible harm – why else would he describe the attempt as a “fearful responsibility”? – Ridley transforms the scene utilizing language explicitly anti-social, explicitly making a categorical distinction that is supposedly ontological. They have, on the boat, alienated themselves, have already ascended. They are, on the boat already, New Black Americans.
Ridley is interested in the “state of being” for those he calls nigger, for those whom we might think of as nothing. This state of being, this mode of existence is about the necessity to escape the social, the necessity to articulate oneself as individual against the social world. Ridley transforms the narrative into one wherein Northup must ascend from, escape the conditions of, remain unscathed by, the black social world, the world of niggers, the zone of nothingness. Such that the film merely represses any modality of sociality in the service of producing the individual. Such that any singing and dancing is labor for the master class. The world so construed, Northup’s fiddling and eventual singing of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” becomes a moment of defeat as he has, finally, descended fully into the dregs of the social world of the enslaved, descended fully into nothingness.
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State – and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years – it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.[x]
Northup begins his narrative, first published in 1854, with the words “Having been…” How can we understand something about Northup’s having and, further, having been? What is presupposed with such a formulation? What is presupposed about being, about existence, about existence in black, about presupposition itself? Having been has within it the idea that there is something there, that something was there before the inaugural moment of its declaration. We can consider having been the perfect gerund and the subject of the sentence. Having is the present participle; been is the past participle. So though we can think of it as the perfect gerund, I want to consider the declaration which sets loose the narrative as the convergence of present and past, as a convergence which undoes notions of linear, progressive space and time.
Having been announces – through unsaying, through the nothingness of such non-speech – the otherwise, that which takes the form of the interrogative: What of the now? What of the soon to come? In the having been is the capacity for manifold temporality, an arhythmic modality of temporal measure against the line of Newtonian’s smooth transition from past to present to future, from here to there. The having been produces, perhaps W.E.B. Du Bois might say, the unasked question of being, of the being of blackness as manifold and, as always, interrogative, anticipatory, antagonistic. Anticipatory insofar as the having been anticipates a set of questions that are unasked, unvoiced, backgrounded, questions that are nothing but are still there, unasked and unvoiced in their fullness. Having been, what are you? Having been, what will you be?
Bilali’s writing includes “a collection of divergent glossia in which none is ostensibly placed as authoritative”[xi]; maybe we can think about the noise, that which was discarded, as the sonic substance, the speechifying of nothingness, the nothingness of glossolalia. Bilali’s incoherent script that frustrates serves a general purpose for understanding how it is Ridley and McQueen read Northup’s narrative and discarded the various modalities of sociality Northup recalled with devastating precision. Where was the friendship between Eliza and Rose? Where was the friendship between Northup and the Chicopees people, wherein he returned to the woods often to eat, talk and dance with them, not as a mere spectator but as participant? Where were the children for whom Northup played the violin as he traveled from plantation to plantation, given he had extra time? Where were the amusements? I contend that, if one has a political aspiration for exceptionalism, individualism and ascendancy in mind, that such sociality registers as nothing at all, as pure nothingness, abject in its horror. Why does McQueen describe Northup’s narrative as a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that ends “happy ever after”; why does he describe Patsey, several times over and again, as “simple”?[xii] If Patsey was indeed simple, her fashioning of dolls from corn husks was not evidence of her thriving in the face of brutal horrors, it was evidence of her simply not knowing how bad things were, her not cognizing the gravity of the environment in which she existed. This, of course to me at least, is erroneous.
If Bilali’s script serves as a method for thinking the nothingness of blackness, perhaps we can understand the incomprehensible text as ecstatic, as enthusiastic, as intensely and intentionally a breakdown with grammar, an intensely and intentionally celebratory mood or reflection. My colleague Jonathan Adams calls it, like the church folks I know, “joy unspeakable,” wherein what it means to be unspeakable issues forth from the performance of, the inhabitation of, happiness that is against reason and rationality.
Michael Sells, in Mystical Languages of Unsaying, says:
Every act of unsaying demands or presupposes a previous saying. Apophasis can reach a point of intensity such that no single proposition concerning the transcendent can stand on its own. Any saying (even a negative saying) demands a correcting proposition, an unsaying. But that correcting proposition which unsays the previous position is in itself a “saying” that must be “unsaid” in turn.[xiii]
But what we discover through Bilali’s script, in the incomprehensible blackness, the incomprehensible celebratory nothingness of the script, is the fact that one can say without saying, one can give while withholding as a matter, as the scripted, etched, written materiality, of praise. To write that which bodies forth as incomprehensible is to write non-readability into the text, to write the necessity to think a different relation to objects, objects that are supposed to be easily captured as flesh on mediums, bateaus and skiffs. To write the unasked question of being into the text by making markings that do not appear to readers as readable, Bilali’s document writes onto the page the question of being: what is this? And what of the one who scripted such irreducible incomprehension?
Such that what is written in the incomprehensible text, in the nothingness of the sign, is the confrontation with the problem of the idea that text writes experience, that experience is easily turned into filmic scene, that cinematography captures precisely because what is being captured is an experience of nothingness, of objects who have nothing, objects who – like so many Patseys – are merely simple. The celebratory, loving mode of sociality Northup recalls in his text, indeed and again, is unspeakable. His text is a love letter to those described as nothing, those existing within the zone of nothingness. It is a love letter that is celebratory of a mode of sociality that is given in its unspokenness. This is to say the love and celebration, against representations of violence as a totalizing force, is not given to rationalist representation when such rationalism is grounded in individual exceptionalism. Having been subjected to the totalizing force violence, yet joy.
Performance artist Alvin Lucier in his 1969 performance piece titled “I Am Sitting in a Room” shows the resonance of an empty room, the resonance of nothingness, making audible how that which is deemed nothing has material vibratory force.
The material vibratory force is nothing’s ethical injunction, its ethical demand on the world that would have such richness, such complexity, discarded. There is a structural, irreducible, inexhaustible incoherence at the heart of Northup beginning his narrative with the words having been, generative for disrupting logics of liberal subjectivity grounded in forward progression across space and time. The narrative begins with this incoherence, an incoherence not unlike the disruption into other epistemologies of time, space, the sacred and secular, the theologic and philosophic that came to be the displacement of flesh from land in the service of new world state juridical projects. Having been is the vibratory force of the ethical injunction that is not ever only about what Northup’s life was and could be but about everyone who was displaced through brutal violence into the system of enslavement. If there is a universalizing impulse, in other words, it is in that all can make a declaration of irreducible incoherence: having been, am, having been will be.
Bilali’s text, inclusive of the unreadable five pages, also importantly presupposes a deity that can understand incoherence. But perhaps not simply a deity but – because the text is a set of itineraries and protocols for worship – a community gathered by such incoherence as a mode of worship itself. It presupposes audience that would not deem the writing as incoherent, troubling the assumptive nature of declaring of objects what they do not themselves declare. The text resonates, it vibrates, it is both centripetal and centrifugal. The text is centrifugitive, moving in multiple directions at once, gathering and dispersing, through meditation, affirmation, negation. Unspeakable joy spoken in its being unsaid.
The choreosonic itinerary and protocol for certain political desires of ascendancy is nothing, as so many breaths we take, the materiality thought immaterial. Northup’s text can be considered a choreosonic itinerary and protocol because in it he gives such painstaking, exacting detail for how things were done on plantations. This is not limited to his descriptions of cotton picking and sugar cane harvesting. His attention to detail also included descriptions of dances, jokes, travels in woods to meet with friends. Bilali’s choreosonic itinerary and protocol converges with Northup’s in an indecipherability based in a refusal to consider sociality anything other than nothing, sociality as the zone of nothingness, not worth the time to represent in filmic renderings. Northup’s description of one dance, for example:
One “set” off, another takes its place, he or she remaining longest on the floor receiving the most uproarious commendation, and so the dancing continues until broad daylight. It does not cease with the sound of the fiddle, but in that case they set up a music peculiar to themselves. This is called “patting,” accompanied with one of those unmeaning songs, composed rather for its adaptation to a certain tune or measure, than for the purpose of expressing any distinct idea. The patting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other – all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing…[xiv]
Northup offered a description for what is today known as “pattin juba.” Importantly, he says that the songs are “unmeaning” and are utilized more for the intensity of experience than something like giving an idea. Like Bilali’s writing, such choreosonic itinerary and protocol is grounded in the event of movement – whether hand across page, left-right, or body across ground – and in such movement is the necessity to think its sociality. But these movements take breath, they are breathed meditations, breathed sacraments offered by the social presupposing the having been. Dancing while singing aestheticizes the breath, it gives the breath the capacity to be utilized intentionally with force as a critical intervention into the idea that black flesh stolen only operates out of duress. What the breath gives, then, is the evidence of life in the flesh, life in black flesh, life in the zone of nothingness. What the breath gives, then, is an aesthetic practice of the having been.
[i] Cornelia Bailey and Christena Bledsoe, God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : A Saltwater Geechee Talks about Life on Sapelo Island, 1st ed. (New York: Doubleday,, 2000), p. 1.
[ii] There is contention as to the attribution of authorship of this collection of writings, though. Ronald Judy argues that authorship may be multiple and that, perhaps, only sections of the text may have been authored by Bilali himself, though this is difficult to determine. See Ronald A. T. Judy, (Dis)forming the American Canon : African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, c1993.), p. 271.
[iii] Judy, p. 240.
[iv] Judy, pp. 240–1.
[v] Judy, p. 242.
[vi] Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing? (Chicago, H. Regnery Co. [1969, c1967]), pp. 19–20.
[vii] John Ridley, ‘The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger’, Esquire, 2006 <http://www.esquire.com/features/essay/ESQ1206BLACKESSAY_108> [accessed 14 March 2014].
[viii] Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave (20th Century Fox, 2014).
[ix] Solomon Northup and others, Twelve Years a Slave (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2013), p. 41.
[x] Northup and others, p. 5.
[xi] Judy, p. 226.
[xii] 12 YEARS A SLAVE | Steve McQueen Q&A, 2013 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrLEXgUncKw&feature=youtube_gdata_player> [accessed 15 March 2014].
[xiii] Michael Anthony Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 3.
[xiv] Northup and others, p. 144.
Special thanks to Imani Perry, Nahum Chandler, Arthur Jafa, Ronald Judy and Fred Moten whose works have all served as the background for this conversation.