De origine actibusque aequationis
By Rachel Kaadzi GhansahOctober 10, 2013
The inaugural issue of the LARB Quarterly Journal has now come off press and is on its way to bookstores and LARB members nationwide. The LARB Quarterly Journal realizes our evolution into print, and today we publish the first of two feature articles from the Journal — Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah's essay below — to give you a sense of the contents. Print is not only alive and well, but thriving, as readers continue to have a profound appetite to not only read curated, edited, smart and fun opinion written by the best writers and thinkers of our time, but to hold it in hand. The LARB Quarterly Journal will feature exclusive, previously unpublished content including reviews, essays, original poetry and short stories, artist profiles and features, and more.
The Journal will be sold at bookstores for $12, is available at Amazon.com and B&N.com, and is also a premium via the new LARB Membership Program. We will officially launch the Journal at Skylight Books on Thursday October 17 at 7:30 PM. Bookstores interested in ordering the title can go to Publishers Group West.
FOR FIVE HOURS, Rachel Jeantel, a childhood friend of Trayvon Martin, sat on the stand and tried to recount the last conversation they had before he was murdered. They had known each other since they were in elementary school. Rachel Jeantel was still a high school student when she not only tragically lost her friend but also became the lead witness for the prosecution in the highly publicized murder case that polarized America. It was a trial that would decide if George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon, would face justice. That she was just 19 years old, a teenager, shell-shocked and in mourning, were a few of the least-discussed qualities of Ms. Jeantel. Instead her size, her color, and her speech thrust her into the headlines. Jeantel is a heavyset young woman with brown skin. In the aftermath, even smart publications could not resist drawing comparisons between Ms. Jeantel and director Lee Daniels's unconfident, abused, broken bird Precious. It was a comparison that told us almost nothing about Rachel Jeantel and much more about people’s expectations of women who look like Rachel Jeantel: primarily, that if you are heavy and have dark skin in America you shouldn’t dare exist in real life. It was pretty inconvenient then, that on the stand, Ms. Jeantel — sotto voce too — refused to be anyone but herself.
If Jeantel was anything for the two days she was on the stand, she was complex, a young woman who was gentle at times, insistent at others, the sort of girl who would roll her eyes one minute, and the next would end her answer with “sir”. She was a young woman who freely admitted to struggling with literacy, but at the same time speaks three languages fluently.
“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?” asked George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Don West.
“I don’t understand you. I do understand English,” said Jeantel.
“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West. Don West is the lawyer who took his own bleached-blonde daughters, Rachel and Molly, out to ice cream after he cross-examined Rachel Jeantel. Ice cream cones in hand, his daughters would later post on Instagram a picture of the moment with their dad, subtitled, “We beat stupidity celebration cones” with the hashtag “#dadkilledit.”
“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.
When I watched Ms. Jeantel I did not get the sense that I was watching a young woman who did not understand English. I got the sense that Don West was not interested in understanding Rachel Jeantel. I got the sense that, to Mr. West, and much of the courtroom, Rachel Jeantel and Trayvon Martin might as well be aliens.
So Rachel Jeantel spoke the language she knew with conviction, because it is exhausting having to assert that your life has value, and there are times when English in its standard form cannot and does not express what it is like to have a friend shot for doing absolutely nothing wrong except being black and wearing a hoodie while going out for some candy.
This is to say, we battle for existence in real life as well on the page. We must defend our dreams and our daily lives. Rachel Jeantel’s playfulness, her slang, her exasperation are now important parts of the record of the Martin trial, and expose not just who she was but who Trayvon Martin was as well. Whether she reads well or not, Rachel Jeantel authored for the court a narrative, scribbled in the margins, one of the few that will express how nonsensical the proceedings were for so many of us who watched. Words like Jeantel’s — often expressed in far-out forms like graffiti and slang — trace the sense of feeling X-filed; they are the ways to acknowledge life in the bush of ghosts, and give names and sounds to the consciousness of radical world-building that the descendants of the African Diaspora have engaged in all around the world. This is the tradition Rachel Jeantel was practicing up on the stand: the art of being young, black, and incomprehensible.
Like Rachel Jeantel, Jean-Michel Basquiat was half-Haitian. But, besides bloodlines and shared languages, the most immediate, immutable connection that Basquiat shares with Jeantel might be that he also felt his own life called into question, as so many of us do when a fellow member of our community turns up dead, killed without due process. Michael Stewart was a young dreadlocked graffiti writer from Brooklyn who, while in the custody of 11 white members of the NYPD on September 15, 1983, mysteriously went unconscious and later died. And, just as Trayvon Martin, in the afterlife Stewart was denied justice by the courts. The police said it was a heart attack; his family’s doctor said it was death by strangulation.
Stewart, a slight, easygoing Pratt student, was born and raised in Clinton Hill. On the night of his beating he was arrested and accused of defacing the First Avenue subway station. He fled, but was captured and taken to jail and then transported to Bellevue Hospital — at this point he was already unconscious. In the hospital after 13 days in a coma, he died without ever waking up. The senseless murder of a young black male artist from a middle-class home whose life in some ways so mirrored his own (Stewart at the time was dating Suzanne Mallouk, Jean’s ex) would deeply fuck with Jean-Michel Basquiat. When he heard news of the murder, Basquiat began to draw black skulls. Later he would tell Suzanne, “It could have been me, it could have been me.” The murder would inspire him to paint Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983), in which two white policemen brandish billy clubs over a black figure who seems to have already become a ghost. Above the scene the word “DEFACIMENTO” is scrawled.
The murder of Michael Stewart disturbed Basquiat and his generation as much as the murder of Trayvon Martin has disturbed ours. Keith Haring would paint about it; Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) would draw cinematic attention to the chokehold and violence employed by the police in the neighborhoods they were supposed to protect. Like the murder of Emmett Till, these attacks remind us of things we would rather forget: that the more things change, the more they stay the same. So we need to know how to express the existential grief, the blood that falls on the leaves when it seems almost every generation of black people will be reminded at one point or another of the everlasting truth in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
We have to tell these stories in their own strange way. (DEFACEMENT? Meaning a wall, or Michael Stewart’s face?) In her inability to form words, her occasional difficulty in articulating herself — something she explained multiple times was the result of grief and fear — Ms. Jeantel cracked open a conversation about how race and language work. In her insistence that she had to tell the story in her own way, from inside of a closet, full of silences and vagaries, and allegiances worth lying for, in her quiet sense of self-worth about herself and her dead friend and her occasional triumphant moments over the men who all but called her stupid, I don’t think Rachel Jeantel is connected to Precious at all. I think she connected herself to the right to defiant invention that has long been a cornerstone of black language in the States.
America was not yet America when North Carolina in 1740 made it illegal to teach any enslaved person how to write. It would be the first step in a centuries-long campaign whose only aim was to prevent the instruction and education of black people in America. Now we forget how often and how strenuously we have been denied entrance into the bazaar of books, language, and letters. How often, like the Goths who sacked Rome, we’ve entered the written word as invaders, spray painters, and stealth soft speakers. In her essay “Positive Obsession” (1996), Octavia Butler writes about her trepidation, as a young black girl, upon entering a bookstore:
I crept into my first bookstore full of vague fears. I had managed to save about five dollars, mostly in change. It was 1957 […]
“Can kids come in here?” I asked the woman at the cash register once I was inside. I meant could Black kids come in. My mother, born in rural Louisiana and raised amid strict racial segregation, had warned me that I might not be welcome everywhere, even in California.
The cashier glanced at me. “Of course you can come in,” she said. Then, as though it were an afterthought, she smiled. I relaxed. The first book I bought described the characteristics of different breeds of horses. The second described stars and planets, asteroids, moons and comets.
I like to imagine, from this moment, a young but already tall Octavia Butler leaving the restrictions of this earth to grow herself out of her lived condition in California and take her place among the stars as one of the greatest science fiction writers. But why do we still so often look to the unknown spaces, other languages, and new names? Why do we invent and stay rooted in a language that only we understand? I think black Americans have needed space and the realm of the incomprehensible — as a kind of haven, an alienated otherworld, whirling with unknowns and new freedoms for a very simple reason: because our real life here on earth has at times been more than a drag.
In 1985, William Labov, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, would conclude at the end of a three-year National Science Foundation–funded study, that “there is evidence that, far from getting more similar, the black vernacular is going its own way.” “The more we study and analyze,” Dr. Labov said, “the more it shows the signs of people developing their own grammar.” Despite the researchers’ expectations that television and movies had exerted a “homogenizing” effect on American English, what they instead found was, because of “increasing racial segregation and isolation of urban blacks,” the first and only contact many black people had with standard English and other dialects of English occurred when they entered schools. This is not to negate the fact that “millions of blacks speak standard English, and many more speak standard English, the black vernacular and white dialects, shifting from one to the other depending on the setting,” according to the New York Times article that reported on the study. But as Labov explained, it illustrated a few things: that black vernacular was a “healthy, living form of language” with its “own grammar, which is very rich and complicated […] developing its own way,” and that “separate development is only made possible by separate living.” It is this kind of linguistic divide that allowed the same person to be an easygoing, black boy to some and a potential criminal to others, a normal teen to his parents and a hoodie-wearing thug who deserved to die to Zimmerman’s perverse supporters. These are acts of translation that could blinker anyone’s sanity. It’s like saying an apple is to a fruit as an orange is to a fruit. We are reminded that part of comprehending any language is understanding the trickery contained within it.
When, eight years later, the critic Mark Dery wrote “Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0” (1993), he posed a very serious question:
Hack this: Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other — the stranger in a strange land — would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists? […] They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them.
While Dery is correct to address this underrepresentation as a consequence of “separate living” and therefore raise the call for more Afro-futuristic writers of the conventional, pen- and-paper kind, it is worth noting that authorship and language for black Americans has always worked differently, and not just grammatically as Labov suggests. Rappers are writers. Graffiti artists are writers. There is an oral tradition in black culture that ignores the written word completely. The old question of what is an author has to be expanded itself to fit the wider loom of language that permeates black life. The danger is that “curated” conversations about what it means to be black now — to be stopped and frisked, targeted for arrest — are all too often held in spaces like universities, libraries, and museums that haven’t quite figured out how to diversify or integrate their dialogues socioeconomically. All too often voices like Rachel Jeantel become foreign and are perceived to be the embarrassment.
In his book Within the Context of No Context (1981), George W.S. Trow writes of a young black man new to college, who felt the Dutch masters of the 17th century “belonged” to the white students in the room and he had no relation to them. After he said this to the class, many of the white students felt guilty and leapt to discuss their hegemony over the black student, but really, they were feeling for the first time ownership and euphoria. Trow wonders, “Had the young black man asked, ‘Who is this man to you?’ the pleasure they felt would have vanished in embarrassment.” Today, too, there is a question about ownership, but the question is directed toward language. When Rachel Jeantel rolls her eyes, sucks her teeth, and gets visibly annoyed, she provokes us into wondering what form stories about the unthinkable should take, and what the language of trauma that stems from police brutality and violence should sound like. Who will own it?
In the Gagosian Gallery in downtown New York a few months ago, I stood behind three silver-haired white ladies with canes and watched them tremble before Jean-Michel’s Basquiat’s Riding with Death (1988). I had been living in the woods of Louisiana and had timed my return to coincide, first, with the start of a friend’s cancer treatment, and, second, with the last days of the gallery’s Basquiat exhibit.
The ladies stayed as long as I did. There were about 20 of them all together; they were there as a senior group. And because of their walkers and canes they moved like a well-formed, hulking herd through the gallery. A mob of bebop baronesses, I thought.
In a small room we stared at M (1984, acrylic on wood), me and a few of them, in silence because it seemed to startle us all just how confidently, painted on a white picket fence, Death stared back.
A short one with a thin, drawn face and large, round eyes looked at the large image of a skeleton in blue, a death mask with a long, thick straight smile and yellow lips. Transfixed. She smacked her friend’s elbow.
“Gladys, does your stomach have knots in it?” she asked.
“No,” her friend said, furrowing her brow, “but my intellect does.”
For some strange reason there aren’t many great books about Basquiat, or at least, books that are as brash and big as the artist himself. The catalog for his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1991 is seminal and excellent, but lately I have fallen under the hazy, lyrical love spell that Jennifer Clement captures in Widow Basquiat (2001).
Clement’s biography of Basquiat’s tempestuous relationship with Suzanne Mallouk is an unusual book because it is not about Basquiat, but rather about Mallouk, who was his girlfriend for many years. She was with him before the fame and the hard drugs, and when the drugs took his life in 1988 she was left behind. It is a slim book, elliptical at times, but what I like about it is how elegantly it gives flesh to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s personality. In her small chapters, Clement avoids the academic discourse around Basquiat, and perhaps to some degree the art, to describe the interiors of Suzanne’s observations and interactions with a brilliant young man, a cultural polymath with impeccable taste and a bad attitude, who so badly wanted not to give a fuck about the establishment and yet cared about it so deeply:
One Thursday in 1982, Jean-Michel tells Suzanne to stand up and walk, they are going to the MoMA […] At the museum Jean-Michel takes a bottle of water out of his coat and walks through the halls sprinkling the water here and there around him.
“I’d piss like a dog if I could,” he says, as they wander past paintings by Pollock, Picasso, Kline and Braque.
Suzanne does not even ask what he is doing […]
“There are no black men in museums,” he says. “Try counting…”
Suzanne cannot find even one.
But like all of us, Basquiat struggled to detach his ego and identity from the establishment’s caste system. Here is a story:
Jean-Michel likes to take Suzanne to fancy restaurants. One night at one expensive Italian restaurant there is a long table with twenty white businessmen having dinner. Jean-Michel says, “They are the kind who have their own private jets.”
The businessmen stare, whisper racist remarks and drunkenly laugh at Jean-Michel.
They think he is a pimp because he is black and has dreadlocks and is wearing messy clothes. They think that Suzanne is a prostitute. She is heavily made-up and has her hair teased up in a beehive.
Jean Michel tells the maitre d’ that he is going to pay for the businessmen’s dinner.
It costs him $3,000. This is how Jean-Michel laughs back.
In his essay for the Whitney’s catalog, Robert Farris Thompson calls Basquiat’s “self-creolization” a “major source of power.” As an artist he implicitly understood that “the central problem of the West today” was the “urgent need of intelligences other than our own” and that in order to tell his story and share his “genius for social statement” he would need to know how to be “fluent in several languages and know how to fuse them to effect.” In many ways, Basquiat’s life and art testify to his generation’s greatest gift: they taught the world how to mix, sample, spray, and cut from nothing, foreverness. For JMB, Clement writes, this meant telling his story in loud colors on a large scale versus the minimalist work of his peers, and to do this he needed to cut and compile his own vocabulary:
He paints, pauses, picks up a book or magazine and when he finds a word or sentence that he likes he paints it on the board or canvas. There are codes: The crown is the logo from the t.v. show “The Little Rascals.” He mixes Spanish and English […] He paints kings wearing black crowns covered in tar and feathers […] He writes “TAR” everywhere in thick dark strokes because, “I sometimes feel as black as tar.”
In Clement and Mallouk’s retelling of the Basquiat legend, JMB is no stolid folk hero. He is often smack-sick. He does horrible things to women. He is irreverent. He fills refrigerators with pastries when he is happy. He is generous and grand. He hands out $100 bills to bums. “He makes fun of everyone by wearing pseudo-African garb to important art openings. Jean-Michel paints Obnoxious Liberals because he says he is sick of liberal white art collectors.” And often he is just plain magnificent, like when he says, “Boom for real!” when he finishes designing Billie Holiday’s gravestone.
I like these edges. I like seeing how, while on his way to boldly go where no black man had gone before (especially in the art world), Basquiat was totally human. He was as fond of hip-hop and bebop as he was Maria Callas. He understood that by rearranging the codes, by toying with the expectations attached to blackness, the expectations of what he should be like as a black man in America — a king, or a piece property — he could détourn his “name” and identity and make his entire life into a performance of defiant, subversive strategy. I like the art in this kind of living, the kind they cannot teach you at any school: it must come from the sangre.
When it comes to expressing the surrealism of being young and urban in the 20th century, nobody did it more aggressively than the community of graffiti writers that painted in NYC’s streets and subways in the 1970s and '80s. While two writers, Julio 204 and Taki 183, are credited with starting the whole trend of tagging one’s name on a subway train, by the time The New York Times profiled Taki in an article headlined “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals,” he had found that lots of young people were willing to evade the police to communicate by scribbling. There are many brilliant writers that came out of this era: Keith Haring, Dondi White, Futura, SLAVE, Toxic, A-1. And while graffiti is an inherently defiant act of writing, often considered vandalism (especially after selling spray paints to minors was criminalized in 1972, forcing many young scribes to turn to theft to procure their writing utensils), it is not without its own rules and aesthetics. Reborn out of the burning Bronx and practiced monastically at night under the watch of the baseheads, graffiti defined the high art and the subculture of an entire decade.
Shortly after the graffiti artist (and sometime close friend of Basquiat) RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ died in 2010, the Suzanne Geiss Company Gallery put together a retrospective of his work. In the gallery, against the white walls, his art seemed to engage in combat against the space. In one room, a series of calligraphic alphabets, the building blocks of his theories, fought against their frames to be free. In another room, suspended from the ceiling were a fleet of “Letter Racers,” made out of intricately glued-together pen caps, skateboards, and bits of found hardware. This airborne armada sloped down over a series of large paint-splattered and spray-painted canvases that hung on the walls, marking the perimeter, all of it glowing brightly, flashing an otherworldly message: that this was the 30-year life project of a man who, by piecing together broken pieces of his city that he found in the gutters, made a world of his own.
Decades before all of this, RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ had been a kid from Queens who became a legend, if not a king, in the Bronx. The Bronx was where he spent his teen years becoming a pioneer in the world of graffiti, and a rapper of some acclaim. And he is forever frozen in hip-hop’s first (and best) motion picture, Wild Style (1983). He appears at the end of the film, when, after the guy (Lee Quinones) gets the girl (Lady Pink) at the amphitheater in the park, he briefly raps onstage in a trench coat with a shotgun in an off-kilter, slant-rhymed way. He called the style, which would later influence the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, the Gangsta Duck. It was just one of the many characters who peopled his universe. In an interview clip, RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ can be seen trying his masks and bodysuits on. “You have a pimp,” he says, pointing to a fedora-wearing creature with a fanged grill, “known as the Duck. This is the Gash/olear. This is the secretary,” pointing to a mask with a hulking robotic face with a blond wig on. “This is the judge.” A skeleton with a wizened face goes by the Reaper Grim. “There is a matron, and that is the bookie,” he explains in a theatrical voice, the same kind a child will use to sound like a criminal: “He takes bets.”
In 2006, the writer Greg Tate went to Tribeca, to the loft where RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ lived with his wife, to talk with the reclusive artist. Tate would describe him as being “still tall and rangy, though with the inevitable middleage spread that 44 years can put on a brother,” and he would describe the apartment, known as the Battle Station, as being swollen with “sculptures (most prominently a four foot high gold painted replica of an Egyptian ankh symbol), costumes and toys.” RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ would tell Tate there was more art, so much more; with no end in sight he had already taken over his mother’s garage in Queens. I remember thinking at the time, This man is inexhaustible … but he was not.
After RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ’s death, The New York Times would try to situate his legacy. Was he “a hip-hop artist with visual-art leanings,” “most important as a muse and scene maker,” or “mainly a painter and sculptor whose frenetic genre-bending and wildly eccentric visual style obscured his seriousness”? Instead of answers, we are told that “RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ never made it easy to answer any of these questions.” And yet one way to approach RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ is through the written word. That is what captivated him, not only as a graffiti writer but, later, as a theorist, as his attention turned from emblazoning his name on the “moving pages” of the city’s subway trains to working with the alphabet as a living, active thing. He called his philosophy “Gothic Futurism,” and he explained that “RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ” was not a name but rather an equation.
Words were the basis of his lifework, and he would confess to Dave Tompkins of The Wire that this work consumed him: “To wipe out a language and make a new one is hard work […] The hours are long.” He wrote and published a treatise, ICONIC TREATISE GOTHIC FUTURISM. In it, he seemed to be coding and decoding the everyday language around him, the speak of b-boy culture and graph writers, with a diaphanous relationship to time and reality. The continuum between graffiti writers and monks, digressions about the pope, and a war between letters were common themes in his tractate.
The artist became his own far-out sociohistorical authority on a kind of language with no father to its style, and its own orthography, writing impossible things. But it was not just an ideological project going on inside of the Battle Station: RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ began to build a bricolaged army in his apartment, with Olde English brew sipped from a straw as his fuel, inside of a sarcophagus of fumes and glue, surrounded by masks, withdrawing more and more from the outside world into a world of letters.
RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ, Clement writes in Widow Basquiat,
says that he was put on Earth to smash the written word apart. He explains that all the letters of the English language come from social change, patriarchal societies, economics and history […] He believes that the written letter in the Western alphabet is a reflection of a culture and philosophy that does not suit him or his brothers.
What the Martin case at large, and Rachel Jeantel’s testimony more specificially, did was to materialize the war between languages that worried RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ so much. When the trial was over and the verdict was in, the word “justice” seemed to have different meanings to different people. The jury has spoken, officials in the government said. And collectively, people seemed to turn the question on them. Yes, we know that the jury has spoken. But we don’t understand you, or them. Do you speak English?
So: a train races beneath the city, having been made into a vehicle of war, covered with signatures and symbols, it goes crosstown, downtown, taking with it the story of dystopia and crack cocaine, “armamentation,” and innovation as it travels. This is what myths do: they tell us how things came to be. And all too often the myth-making process is the only way people on the margins can “speak themselves” into existence. In her memoir, Belonging: A Culture of Place (1989), bell hooks writes, “It is the telling of our history that enables political self-recovery.” The chance to reconfigure one’s self, even if only in folklore or strange space lore, or on three whole cars, is an understandably provocative ability. We tell things these ways to warn against what hooks calls “forgetfulness.” There is a Gothic saga, from the first century AD, that tells a story of migration and exodus, and these are its final lines:
They went so far that they came to the land of the Greek [...] They settled there, and love there still, and still have something of our language.
In that same way, black Americans are conceived from a people whose fates, identities, and woes were decided by a doorway, and only a strange saga with strange letters can say how.
Those who were taken walked through that doorway and were told they had become something different from those who stayed behind, and in some ways they had. They forgot many things, and wondered how their mouths and muscles remembered things for them: recipes, movements, and stories. They crossed an ocean so still and so wide they must have imagined they had left earth and ended up elsewhere. Like all lost mariners, they learned to become astronomers, they kept their eyes on the gourd. When they landed they heard the word, Animals. And they thought, No, Aliens.
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist and critic whose writing has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Observer, Bookforum, Transition, Rolling Stone, and The Best Music Writing of 2012. She has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and Eugene Lang College. Read her work at the-rachelkaadzighansah.tumblr.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Is a "post-racial" society possible?
Critics need to stop talking to each other and start listening to what artists are saying with their art.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!