IN OUR CONVERSATION below about his new book, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture (Black Ocean), Anaïs Duplan and I talk about freedom through art, mentorship, and how one’s mindset can make one free. Anaïs and I met when we both presented talks at Columbia University’s “More Than A Manifesto” conference in 2018. As it so happened, Anaïs was a graduate student of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the time, and I began teaching there the following year. Although Anaïs wasn’t a student in any of my classes, we chatted once in a while in the hallways, as most students and teachers end up doing at Dey House, the home of the IWW. The engagement between a student and teacher (even an informal freshly former student) can be awkward in terms of an interview because the traditional academic hierarchy can be the “elephant in the room.” During the heart of the pandemic, when we spoke, the elephant was floating in the internet ether somewhere. Maybe that was why we were able to get into the deep end of the pool of our talk quickly.
Blackspace is an exploration of spaces, mainly between people but also between different aspects of the self. Most of our conversation is about negotiating the abstract and concrete sense of open, expansive Black selfhood as well as being grounded through communion with others, in secular places we’ve sanctified. In the casual discussion transcribed here, abbreviated for space and clarity, we talk about “playing the changes,” folks whose sacrifices made it possible for this kind of conversation to take place, and artists we admire including a couple of mentors and new artists on the horizon. Blackspace is an accessible book for the curious-minded and expansive thinker, for those who want to wrap their heads and hearts around meditations on Black presence and Black futures. We begin our discourse with the consideration of freeing one’s mind and magical thinking in the face of oppression.
TRACIE MORRIS: I want to start with a quote that you have in the book at the very beginning: “I have discovered that when I experience what is universal in me, I may leave my individual oppressions behind.” How is that possible?
ANAÏS DUPLAN: It has do with coming into an understanding of myself that can’t be qualified, something that’s shared among all people. I think about the experience of awareness, which is preverbal and comes before my understanding of myself as Anaïs, a Black trans poet who is interested in video art and is talking to Tracie Morris today. In dwelling in that kind of an understanding of myself, the specificities of what my identity is fall to the background. This understanding of myself became important to me as I was transitioning. There were periods of time, especially one year in, when I didn’t have peach fuzz on my face, where I would go through a day and get all the possible gender pronouns in reference to me. It was very confusing. I didn’t know what to expect when I stepped out of the door, so I had to come into an understanding of myself that was not about my identity.
And coming to an understanding of yourself that wasn’t based on an identity, you’re asserting or affirming in this quote that you are leaving your individual oppressions behind?
So that’s what I’m curious about. How does one leave one’s oppressions behind?
I can’t leave my body behind, right? I also can’t jump out of the social relationships I encounter on a daily basis. It’s not a psychological process so much as it is coming into a different understanding of who my self is, what I’m referring to when I refer to myself. It’s purely this change of perspective. In that change of perspective, I don’t only leave my individual oppressions behind, I also leave behind my individual joys and my individual preferences and my individual qualities and my individual memories — all the individual things I leave behind. Part of what I wanted to do by thinking about freedom in these three lenses — personal, social, and this more universal one that we’re talking about right now — is not to suggest that one way of dealing with racism is to just understand oneself differently. That’s an incomplete answer; it doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a proper response to the situation. It’s more that without thinking about all three of those things at the same time, we lose out on a more well-rounded understanding of freedom.
Okay, so what I’m hearing is that the sense of self is not predicated on oppression, number one, and also individuality, number two. This conversation is important because a lot of people ascribe extraordinary Black achievement to magical thinking, and I think it’s the opposite. I don’t think Du Bois was magically thinking, I don’t think Malcolm X was magically thinking.
I don’t think Fannie Lou Hamer was magically thinking. I think they were confident, they were fearless, but they weren’t wishing anything away. They were very clear, they were crystal clear about their oppression. They had a very strong sense of who they were in the context of community and the context of the world. A lot of people reduce this affirmation of the self and the world as positive thinking, and I think it’s much more profound than even that important concept!
I do think that that concept does have value, but not by itself.
Right, not by itself.
It’s a whole other level of understanding, so that’s why I was interested in you bringing up that idea and wanted to hear your thoughts on it, because you’re saying that it’s not pretending that [oppression] isn’t not there, or that it just goes away because I decide that it does.
There’s a really expansive view of the arts and artists in this book. Why did you select these particular artists for Blackspace?
Before I started writing Blackspace, I was writing as a freelance music journalist. Often I would choose to write about artists of color who were making electronic music. Later on, as I was collecting work and thinking about artists for Blackspace, technology became this really important piece. Whether that be video artists, electronic musicians, internet artists, or social media artists, we could say. And then people like Nathaniel Mackey played into that framework really interestingly because he’s someone who thinks a lot about music, Black music, in terms of technology and about poetry as technology.
You talk a bit about Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey in terms of mentorship. What does that term mean to you, and why do you think it’s important?
I often reference this moment I had talking with Fred once where he was doing his Fred Moten thing and saying really beautiful things, and then at the end of the conversation, was essentially like, “But it would be better if we were just at a barbecue.” The idea that all of this ends in sociality, it ends in us being together. That’s the point. I think about mentorship as being at a barbecue together, a commitment to being together with someone over a period of time, in a kind of open-ended way. In that way, art objects can be mentors and literature can be a mentor if, rather than trying to decode it, you agree to shoot the shit with it for a while and allow it to open up to you.
A barbecue has a particular kind of context in African American culture. I think it’s super interesting that you put that in the context of mentorship because there is an element of mentorship in the Black barbecue, as well as maybe the Black hair salon, the Black barbershop, a lot of these contexts. Funnily enough, the last time I saw Nate Mackey and Fred, we were getting some food. It wasn’t at a barbecue, but it definitely had that barbecue vibe.
It’s so hard to explain the meaning or role of sociality to people outside of Black cultures — and I say cultures because it’s part of Afro-Caribbean culture, it’s part of American Black culture. This idea that your personhood isn’t separate from your work. As I was looking into the work of video artists like Lawrence Andrews and Tony Cokes at Video Data Bank in Chicago, I thought about how there were all these overlaps between what I was seeing and work by more contemporary digital media artists like Shawné Michaelain Holloway, people who are using YouTube and Instagram to make work. There’s a loss when we forget the Black art archive or don’t dig into it deeply enough. Community is not just about who’s living now and who I actually speak with. It’s about, not even going as far as ancestors, but literally just two generations ago who was making work. I was spending some time with your work earlier today and you have had this amazing, long career, so I was enjoying looking at some earlier stuff. I can’t separate that from what’s happening now or the conversations that I’ve had with you in the past. All of those things belong together for me.
For those of us who come from people who were enslaved, the strategy of slavery to destroy the individual had to do with thoroughly cutting those ties. Thoroughly cutting our relationship to our names, to ethnicities, to clothing.
We both have this relationship, albeit different types, with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. How has that kind of prestige affected your relationship to feeling grounded and feeling like you need to write a book like this?
That’s interesting. My first poetry collection came out while I was at Iowa. I was struggling with being in Iowa City as a Black person and in the context of workshop and classes, having my work read through a super reductive lens. You can’t read every single Black poem that’s thinking about social oppression through this one kind of tiny, very vague “protest poem” lens. I wrote a lot more and a lot better after I graduated. I wrote a whole chapbook the week after I graduated because there was this new freedom.
For our colleagues who don’t understand our experiences, assuming they’re of goodwill, there can be these unintended consequences of empathy. It can be very, very weird. People latch on to something that they think they can say or do to be helpful if they’re not aware of the experience. It’s part of our jobs, our roles, to educate people that we shouldn’t be put in these pigeonholes of their understanding. A lot of my students have said, “Well, I’m not here to teach people stuff, I’m not here to educate white people.” I think that’s fair. I also think it’s a reality that we have to do stuff that we don’t want to do a lot of times, and I feel like we’re paying back and paying forward to do those things.
People didn’t want dogs biting them either. They just didn’t want that. They could’ve stayed home.
It’s a very interesting thought project, I think, that you’re exploring there. I just want to ask a couple more questions. I guess I can ask them in sequence, and then you can choose which ones or how you want to answer them. These last few questions are: Is pursuit of freedom the goal of this book? What do you want the reader to walk away with when they read Blackspace?
First of all, thank you for spending time with the book. It’s a huge honor. In terms of takeaways from the book, the kinds of freedom I’m talking about in the book happen on different time scales. Psychological freedom is, as far as I can tell, a lifelong process of healing and grounding in yourself as a human being, and building self-esteem — all of these things, right?
Social freedom — I can’t imagine the endpoint of that project. In terms of thinking about spiritual freedom, it’s the only one that’s always immediate. It’s not a path so much as this reframing of one’s understanding of who one is. That can happen at any moment. I’m grateful for that because the immediacy of that kind of freedom makes it possible for me to endure the longer-term projects of psychological and social freedom. To be able to have an immediate experience of something I can call freedom as I work toward these other sorts of freedom. If there’s something I want people to walk away with, it’s a sense of being rejuvenated, in having a renewed desire to engage with one’s own individual and social freedom, while also having access to this spiritual place to restore.