But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Part of the Theory + Practice series.
He watches the human swirl as it moves determinedly along Broadway. Perched at the top of the stairs, the customers and employees of the bank brush by as he hesitates near the entrance. A nod, a look of recognition, a meager hello, a begrudging acknowledgment that he exists are not forthcoming. The street is teeming with people. No one glancing casually at him would use a phrase like “towering figure” or waste a moment wondering about his position at the bank; words like idle or lingering or un-mastered or servile brush at the murky edges of consciousness, latent and without the full awareness or deliberateness of thought, because most of the men rushing through the streets of the financial center rarely perceive him. Few noticed him. Few ever noticed him except in a way that stung. He was outside the world—“nothing!” When their eyes land on him, he feels the gaze like a blade against his skin and his body retreats from the assault, anticipating where a blow might land, flinching before the kick. His flesh has become a sensor. His muscles are tense.Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks. Tr. Richard Wilcox (1952: reprint New York: Grove Press, 2008) 99. Wretched of the Earth (1963: reprint New York: Grove Press, 2005) 16. The distance between the landing and the sidewalk isn’t great, yet he inhabits one world and the white men in their suits and ties, advancing and walking briskly through the streets, exist in another. No, it is more like they are in the world and he has been cast out. (Now isn’t the time to explain why this is so, or to offer a biographical sketch of a black messenger in New York, or a grand theory of how the African became a captive and then a commodity, or detail the forms of servitude that conscript black life, or offer a picture of the enclosure, or explain why the bank is the threshold to the everything and nothing that is the Negro, the pieza de India, chattel, ambulatory real estate, which are the variants of his dispossession. To provide the reasons why or expound on such matters would be premature before the context of the story has been properly established, its author credited, the characters named, the scene arranged and the plot set in motion; and it would risk stating the obvious: he is not at home in the world. I could elaborate and provide additional elements, for example: he appears so small against the backdrop of the grand edifice, diminished by the solidity and mass of the granite structure and the frame of huge Doric columns, but these details are not provided in the story, so the steps as easily could be concrete and the bank without columns, in which case the mahogany doors at the entrance would have to suffice in conjuring the majesty of capital and empire. The navigation acts, international trade agreements, traffic in slaves, maritime insurance, stolen life and land necessary to harvest mahogany, to fell trees, to transport them to Europe and North America, and craft doors would stand in back of the beauty of the dark wood and the polished brass fixtures.Cameron Rowland, 3 & 4 Will. IV. c.73, ICA London, 2020.)
His is a name blank and generic enough to be a pseudonym or alias, a homonym for everyman, the masculine possessive extended even to the dispossessed, a name that makes you nobody at all; it is also a name freighted with meaning because of another’s journey in a raft along the Mississippi, trying to make his way toward freedom, but headed in the wrong direction, every direction is the wrong direction, every path thwarted and yielding to betrayal, and so that even when on the run and in flight, even when carried along by the river’s currents, even when he still has so many rivers to cross, the fugitive can’t shake the condemnation permanently affixed to the name like a cruel title, a brutal address. Nigger Jim. Jim Crow. Crow Jim. A name found in first grade primers and in children’s rhyming games: Him, Jim, Slim. Like his namesakes, he too ekes out an existence bound to violence, subjected to insult and injury, surviving from one day to the next under the threat of death. It is hard to forget all of those eager for him to die, awaiting his disappearance, obsessed with denying him the right to exist even in this lesser state. (Now isn’t the time to narrate the history or describe the set of circumstances that produced this negation or to introduce terms bereft of musicality: accumulation (originary or primitive or recurring), fungibility, natal alienation, kinlessness; or limn the forces that landed him on the steps of the bank located in the financial district, the predatory heart of the city, and relegated him to the lower depths, as nothing, as nobody; or disclose that arrested on the steps of this cathedral to capitalism, as if it were the crossroads between being a man and being nothing at all, he could almost weep.)Black Skin, White Masks 119.
You look at me, but you don’t see me. You wouldn’t care if you did.The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959).
I have said too much and strayed too far from him, tense and anxious in the late morning looking out at the world from the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, just a few blocks away from one of the first slave markets in New Amsterdam; I have digressed from the particular drama that will unfold over the course of the day when the disaster creates an opening or a leveling that might allow him to breathe inside his skin and be released from the enclosure of nothing and the condemnation of blackness.Khalil Muhammed, The Condemnation of Blackness (Harvard 2010). Slightly before noon, the destruction of the world will afford the chance for him to be human like other men. The weird radiance and minor music produced by the collapse of the order, by the catastrophe, will offer the promise of black life uncontested.
The comet. Everybody was talking of it. Even the president [of the bank] as he entered, smiled patronizingly at him, and asked:
“Well, Jim are you scared?”
“No,” he answered shortly.
“Oh, by the way, Jim,” turning again to the messenger, “I want you to go down to the lower vaults today.”
The messenger followed the president silently. Of course, they wanted him to go down to the lower vaults. It was too dangerous for more valuable men.
As he descends into the underground, the yawning blackness of the inner chamber engulfs him. He finds the two volumes of records and discovers an iron chest, at least a hundred-years-old and rusted shut. Upon prying open the lock, he encounters the dull sheen of gold. The lost records of the bank and its hidden booty, gold locked away and forgotten, discovered by a man of no value—provide a tidy allegory of capitalism and slavery. The crypt harbors the secrets, the disavowed knowledge and missing volumes on which the great financial edifice rests, the same history that has relegated Jim to the bowels of the earth.
The gold found in the fetid slime-filled den occupied only by rats is not the staging for a story of treasure discovered, or a tale of man’s fate changed by wealth; this tableau of the hold, the lost records, the gold, and the black is a primal scene of modernity’s genesis. In this sunken place, slavery is the thematic ground,See Hortense Spillers, “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, The Jokes of Discourse, or Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” Black, White, and in Color (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003). although not explicitly mentioned. Held by capital, in a manner of speaking, he is confronted with his origins and pricked by the realization, the uncanny feeling of an equivalence or doubling between the gold in the trunk and the Negro in the vault, a state a philosopher has described as a pieza framework, the awareness of one’s existence as a thing, as a commodity, a ratio of value (and the refusal to accept this).See Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond the Categories of the Master Conception: The Counter-doctrine of the Jamesian Poesis,” C.L.R. James’s Caribbean. Ed Paget Henry & Paul Buhle (Duke, 1992).
Boom! The heavy stone door of the inner chamber closes unexpectedly trapping him inside. After what seemed endless hours, he manages to pry it open and escape. Ascending from underground to the level of the valued men and skilled workers, he encounters the dead bodies of the vault clerk, the bank guards, the tellers, the accountants, and then the president slumped at his desk. A new thought seized him: if they found him here alone—with all this money and all these dead men—what would his life be worth? Less than nothing. It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t done anything; his existence makes him guilty, and to make matters worse, he is alive and white men are dead. When he exits from the side door of the bank, stealthily, fearing that he will be blamed for the carnage, he sees the dead everywhere, on Wall Street, on Broadway. It is noon, yet the world is absolutely still.
The body of a dead newspaper boy lies in the gutter. In the boy’s clenched hand, the noon edition warns of the devastation too late. A comet has passed through the earth’s atmosphere releasing poisonous gases that kill the entire population of New York. The world is dead.
The story recounted is W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Comet,” a speculative fiction about the end of the world written after the pandemic of 1918, after the Red Summer of 1919, and in the context of colonial expansion and atrocity. In this climate, Du Bois wrote Darkwater, which was published in 1920, exactly a century ago, yet still prescient. “The Comet” is the book’s penultimate chapter. The work is an assemblage of stories, essays, poems, prayers, songs, parables and hymns, and an inventory of violence, (which examines whiteness, lynching, servitude, imperial war, the damnation of black women, colonialism, capitalist predation, as well as beauty, chance, death, and the sublime). The tone of the collection oscillates between rage and despair; some might even describe it as an ur-text of afropessimism, but its mood is more tragic; its bright moments are colored by a desire for a Messianic cessation of the given, stoked by a vision of the end of the world, welcoming the gift of chance and accident, and embracing the beauty of death. What else is to be expected after decades of terror and disappointment? After black women and children and men are murdered, lynched, mutilated, and burned alive in the streets of East St. Louis, after four boys floating on a raft in Lake Michigan on a July afternoon drift into the “white-only waters” inciting the rage and retribution of ordinary white folks who are transformed quickly into a ravenous mob, murdering one of the boys and on a mission to kill, maim, and wound any Negro crossing their path. Darkwater is a red recordIda B. Wells, A Red Record, 1895. of modern whiteness in the twentieth century, a chronicle of the settler republic and its routine violence, an atlas of “a world in flames,” a litany for the slaves and natives exploited and murdered by European and New World masters.
The influenza pandemic of 1918 does not appear in this inventory. Perhaps because microbes seemed benign when compared with the bloodletting of the Red Summer. Or because for every year between 1906 and 1920, black folks in cities experienced a rate of death that equaled the white rate of death at the peak of the pandemic.James Feigenbaum, Christopher Muller, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, “Regional and Racial Inequality in Infectious Disease Mortality in U.S. Cities, 1900–1948,” Democracy 56 (2019) 1371–1388.
When the Spanish influenza arrived, they simply died in even greater numbers, but they had been enduring a pandemic for over a decade. Du Bois resisted the impulse to calculate comparative mortality or produce a death table because it was all too obvious. He knew that the facts of blackness, the statistics, the mathematical equations, and the calculations of probability would not change anything.Katherine McKittrick, “Mathematics Black Life,” The Black Scholar 44.2 (2014). They had been allowed to die in great numbers without a crisis ever being declared.
Amid the pandemic, he was still thinking about the work of the mob, about East St. Louis, Brooks and Lowndes County, Georgia, and what Walter White’s article in The Crisis (September 1918) described as “the holocaust of lynchings.” The murder of the men was brutal enough, but what the mob did to Mary Turner was so revolting and the details so horrible that as editor Du Bois was reluctant to share them. Mary Turner had dared to say that the murder of several men, including her husband, was unjust and that she would name the persons in the mob who lynched her husband and have warrants sworn out against them. Near the bridge over the Little River, she was hung to a tree, doused with oil and gasoline, then set on fire. “While she was yet alive, a knife, evidently one such as used in the splitting of hogs, was taken and the woman’s abdomen split open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to the ground. The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman, now mercifully dead, and the work was over.” Du Bois believed that telling such stories mattered. In hindsight, he would explain this earnestness (the belief that intelligent argument and reasoned judgment might defeat racism) as a consequence of not having read psychoanalysis. He “was not sufficiently Freudian to understand how little human action is based on reason”W.E.B. Du Bois, “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” 41, 57. or to apprehend the deep psychic investment in racism, what others have since described as the libidinal economy of an antiblack world.See Jared Sexton, “Afro- Pessimism: The Unclear Word,” Rhizomes, Issue 29 (2016). Darieck Scott, Extravagant Abjection (NYU, 2010). Calvin Warren, Ontological Terror (Duke, 2018). He had assumed that “the majority of Americans would rush to the defense of democracy,” if they realized that racism threatened it, not only for blacks, but for whites, “not only in America, but in the world.”
While pessimism required little justification in this climate, Du Bois struggled to imagine how the world might be reconstructed, how it might be possible to nurture a hope not hopeless, even if unhopeful.“The Passing of the First Born,” The Souls of Black Folk, 1903. “The Comet” is a speculative fiction and satire of failed democracy. The story envisions the undoing of the color line and its apportionment of life and death, its gratuitous violence and “propensity for murder without reason.”See Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism 1955 (NYU Press, 2000); Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason (Duke 2019); and Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White & Black (Duke 2010). Environmental catastropheOn anti-blackness and a post-human world, see Axelle Karera, “Blackness and the Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics,” Critical Philosophy of Race 7.1.(2019) 32-56 and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human (Fordham University Press, 2020). produces this sweeping transformation. The paradox is that human extinction provides the answer and the corrective to the modern project of whiteness, which Du Bois defines as the ownership of the earth forever and ever, the possessive claim of the universe itself. The stranglehold of white supremacy appears so unconquerable, so eternal that its only certain defeat is the end of the world, the death of Man. Neither war nor rights have succeeded in remaking the slave into the human or in eradicating racism. In the wake of the disaster, the messenger, the last black man on earth, will be permitted to live as a human for the first time. “I am alive, I am alive,” he could shout in the streets of Manhattan, without fear of punishment or reprisal. He is alive because the world is dead.
In the destroyed world, he experiences a state of freedom that he has never before enjoyed. In the ruins of the metropolis, he is able to enter a fine restaurant that would have refused him or any other Negro service. It wouldn’t serve him yesterday, but the breach between the old world and the now affords new opportunities. For the first time, he moves about the city without anticipating violence or insult. There are no white citizens or police to regulate or arrest his movement. There is no Other to withhold or confer recognition, although it is hard to shake the feeling that someone is watching him. After an exhausting search in lower Manhattan, he fails to discover any other survivors. It is a mass extinction: everywhere stood, leaned, lounged, and lay the dead, in grim and awful silence.
It is hard to believe that everyone is dead. Was nobody…? He dared not think the thought. Suddenly he stopped still. He had forgotten. My God. How could he have forgotten?
It is unclear exactly who or what has been forgotten. A lover, his mother, a wife? He remembers them belatedly. Are they an after-thought? Or is this oversight or neglect the symptom of a greater predicament of wounded kinship and the precarity of black social life, rather than the sign of any lack of feeling? Only after he accepts that no one else is alive in the city does he remember the nameless them, the ones suspended between everybody and nobody. It is unlikely that he will find the forgotten, but he rushes uptown anyway.
On his way to Harlem, he hears a sharp cry and discerns a living form leaning out of the window of a building on Seventy-Second Street.
Hello—hello—help, in God’s name!
Clearing the path of dead bodies that have prevented any exit or escape, he enters the apartment building. Another survivor. At first, all that registers is a living form, animate matter. The extinction has toppled the vertical order of “human, not-quite human, not human”Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Durham: Duke, 2016). and bridged the gulf between the sovereign and the fungible. For a moment the only distinction that matters is the one between the living and the dead, a chasm no longer secured by race. At the end of the world, blackness registers as life and the Negro as human.
It is a temporary reprieve.
He had not noticed she was white. She had not noticed before that he was a Negro.
Then she can’t miss it, can’t fail to notice his dark skin and rough laborer’s hands.
Not that he was not human, she reflects, but he dwelt in a world so far from hers, so infinitely far, that he seldom even entered her thought.
Looking at the black man who saves her from utter abandonment in the destroyed city, she thinks how peculiar it is—a black man strangely her savior.
He did not look like men as she had always pictured men. He was something more than a stranger.
Her interior monologue borrows language from “The Souls of White Folk,” an essay on the philosophy of the white world in which Du Bois writes: “White culture is evolving the theory that ‘darkies’ are born beasts of burden for white folk… They are not ‘men’ in the sense that Europeans are men.”
He cannot fail to notice that she is white and a woman, “rarely beautiful and richly-gowned with darkly golden hair and jewels.” Yesterday, he thought with bitterness, she would have scarcely looked at him twice. He would have been dirt beneath her silken feet.
I wanted to be a man, and nothing but a man.
By the time he arrives in Harlem, after a meal “looted” from a fine restaurant, after wandering around the abandoned city searching for survivors, after finally remembering the everybody he has nearly forgotten, after heading uptown late, after rescuing a living form, a lovely white stranger, and arriving with her in tow, it is too late to rescue anyone else. 135th Street is dead like the streets everywhere else in the city.
He leaves her in the car and returns quickly.
“Have you lost someone?” she asks. “I have lost—everybody,” he said, simply—“unless.” He ran back and was gone several minutes. “Everybody,” he said, and he walked slowly back with something film-like in his hand, which he stuffed into his pocket.
He apologizes for dragging her to Harlem, for taking the time to find his everybody, before they searched for her father and fiancé. “I’m afraid I was selfish,” he mutters. They head downtown. Everywhere is the same—silence and death.
When they arrive at the Metropolitan Tower, her father, J.B.H.—the initials are inscribed on his stationery—and her fiancé, Fred, are not in their offices. All Julia finds is a note: Dear Daughter, I’ve gone for a hundred-mile spin in Fred’s new Mercedes. Shall not be back before dinner. I’ll bring Fred with me. Hers is a world of proper names and legible relations. She fears her father and fiancé are dead. For the first time, she feels the full import of her situation; she is alone in the world with a black stranger. He was a man alien in blood and culture—unknown, perhaps unknowable. It was awful!… He must not see her again. Who knew what awful thoughts— What might he do? Anticipating the awful thing, she flees from him and into the safety of streets filled with the bodies of the dead. The stench and the destruction of the world prove too much for her to suffer alone, so she returns to him, the only other survivor.
Her first words are: “Not—that.”
It is an indictment and a plea.
He answers slowly, emphatically: “No—not that!”
At the end of the world, she fears him more than the unknown.
She recoils, trembling, “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.”
“That’s good. That’s very funny,” he replies. “We are probably the last two people left in the world and all you can say is don’t touch me.”
“I am afraid,” she says.
“I can see that. Don’t worry, I won’t touch you.”The World, the Flesh and the Devil.
Later when she wants him to touch her, he will refuse, anxious that the world might be restored.
This unlikely couple roam and search the city for hours, but they find no one. They call out for help, send telegraphs and messages in Morse code; they shoot flares, but no one answers. In this state of abandonment, they shelter for the night on top of the Metropolitan Tower. The hush of the city is palpable. The only sounds are of the dark and restless waters surrounding the island. The water lapped on in luring, deadly rhythm. He thinks, It would be easy to die. Quietly he asks, “The world lies beneath the water now—May I go?”
“No,” she answers in a voice clear and calm. She keeps him in the world. Together they turn toward life again.
The world was darkening to twilight… The ghastly glare of reality seemed replaced with the dream of some great romance.
“How foolish our human distinctions seem now,” she said looking down to the great dead city.
“Yes—I was not—human yesterday,” he said.
She looked at him, “And your people were not my people,” she said, “but today—”
“Death, the leveler!” he muttered.
“And the revealer,” she whispered gently, rising to her feet with great eyes. A vision of the world had risen before her. It is a vision of the world to come. She was no mere woman. She was primal woman; mighty mother of all men to come and Bride of Life. She looked upon the man beside her and forgot all else but his manhood, his strong vigorous manhood—his sorrow and sacrifice. She saw him glorified. He too is transformed and no longer bound by the crushing weight of his caste. The end of the world has freed him. The shackles seemed to rattle and fall from his soul. In the graveyard of the world: Their souls lay naked to the night. It was not lust; it was not love—it was some vaster, mightier thing… Behind them and all around, the heavens glowed in dim, weird radiance that suffused the darkening world and made almost a minor music.
The minor music, the sonorous echo of earth released from the order of men, resonates in the leveled city, announcing this new state of relation inaugurated by the apocalypse, a state in which blackness is no longer relegated to nothing and death. Catastrophe produces this vast romance, as if ruin is the prerequisite for interracial love, as if the enclosure of blackness could only be breached and caste abolished by the destruction of the world. Is abolition a synonym for love?
They moved toward each other… They cried each to the other, almost with one voice, “The world is dead.” These words are portent with greater promise than “I love you.” Before they can repeat again the beauty of this phrase, “the world is dead,” or revel in its demise and the promise of a world yet to come, or exclaim “we are all human or all nothing in our shared destitution,” they are interrupted by the blare of an automobile horn that stifles the minor music, the hum and murmur of earth without Man. Honk! Honk! The mad cry of the world.
The dead city has awakened, and the white men have returned, including Julia’s father and her paramour. “My daughter!” her father sobs. Fred, the fiancé, whispers, “Julia, my darling, I thought you were gone forever.” “Are you unharmed?” Turning towards Jim, he snarls, “Why! It’s a nigger—Julia! Has he—has he dared—” Jim is returned to his proper place, to the zone of nonbeing, to the negation of nigger.
“He has dared—all to rescue me,” she said quietly, “and I thank him much.” Julia utters these words without looking at the black man at her side. She did not look at him again and we are to assume that she never will. The return of the world has dashed any vision of interracial love; he is no longer glorified, but fixed forever as a man of lesser value.
They are never done talking of man, yet murder men everywhere they find them.
A crowd of white men pours from the elevators and onto the roof, eager to see the sole survivors of New York.
“Who was saved?”
“A white girl and a nigger—there she goes.”
“A nigger? Where is he? Let’s lynch the damned____”
“Shut up—he’s all right—he saved her.”
“Saved hell! He had no business____”
“Of all New York, just a white girl and a nigger.”
Fixed under their gaze and dissected in the hot glare of white hatred and electric lights, he is a shrinking dazed figure. Nigger is repeated to make visceral the violence that accompanies the restoration of the world, to remind him of the hatred that is its substrate. The clock has been turned back, and once again he is barred from the human. He stands silently beneath the glare of the light with the flat unseeing eyes of a sleepwalker and broken by the sweet experience of what might have been. He hears nothing. From his pocket, he pulls out a baby’s cap.
A brown, small and toil-worn woman makes her way through the crowd with the corpse of a dark baby in her arms. They are the everyone he has searched for on 135th Street and presumed were dead. No one appears curious as to how she has made her way from Harlem to the financial heart of the city. The matter of her survival is not a cause for concern or wonder. She is not beautiful or richly gowned, just efficient. An exhausted black woman is a familiar figure, a drudge conscripted to care for all. She arrives on the roof at the moment the white mob is deliberating about his fate. She is a marked woman, but they don’t call her Queenie or bitch. They part and allow her to pass unmolested. He doesn’t call her name. For a moment, she rescues him from those harsh eyes. With a cry she tottered toward him. She calls his name. “Jim!” He whirled and, with a sob of joy, caught her in his arms. He utters a sob in the place of her name, as if a cry were better than a name, as good as any vow of love.
To his surprise, she is standing there, still in love with him. With a cry, she tottered toward him. He whirled and, with a sob of joy, caught her in his arms. The entire text of their relationship is confined to these few meager lines at the conclusion of the story. A facile ending to a dystopian tale? Not by any stretch. The corpse-baby casts into doubt any hope about the future, since the genealogical line ends abruptly and prematurely in her arms, the dead offspring attenuates the vision of what might be, deprives them of generation and legacy, hints at her failure to nurture and protect. What kind of mother can’t save her child? These unsettling last lines don’t provide any sense of closure or resolution, although they do offer a glimmer of relation in the wake of devastation.
A sob escapes his lips when he sees her, but he doesn’t call her name, perhaps because the symbol of who they are or who they fail to be outweighs any difference or particularity; or they remain trapped in a morality play about the black family, caught in a recursive loop that dooms any possibility of a happy ending. He doesn’t utter the words “sister” or “wife”; he doesn’t whisper “baby, I thought…” or kiss the forehead of the dead infant. She is the baby’s mother. Who else would navigate the city with a dead child in her arms? Yet the exact terms of relation or filiation are never clarified or explained, as if this form of intimacy were without suitable terms. Maybe, they prefer it this way, not captured or explained by the usual lexicon. The body of the child—the remains of an eclipsed future—makes plain what we are reluctant to acknowledge: they are not able to live as others live, nor are their children. This rapport with death, this life-in-death, challenges any taken-for-granted aggrandizement of life and its distinction or separation from death.Karrera, “Pitfalls of Anthropocene Ethics” and Jared Sexton, “Affirmation in the Dark: Racial Slavery and Philosophical Pessimism” The Comparatist, 43 (October 2019). Yet, still, there is a sob of joy and the embrace of a toil-worn woman and rough-looking laborer with a dead baby cradled between them. Of course, they are denied “the vast romance” of interracial love, promising a new set of arrangements, a new race of humans. Beautiful strains of minor music no longer sound in the cityscape, just the quiet of the hot white incandescent lights and the mutterings of angry men.
He sobs and they embrace. A fragile web of love and relation connects the three figures, a condition evident in the unspoken or withheld terms of address. Even if he is the father, the dead baby in her arms throws into unrelieved crisis the ability to produce generations, let alone a future that they can secure. This marks ineradicably the character of their intimacy and its delicacy. They will attempt to restart their lives, gather what is left of them, make a plan for survival, and try to carry on given all that has been lost. How will they build a life again in the devastated city? The restoration of the world appears to confirm the impossibility of black futures, the inescapable character of wounded kinship and negated maternity. What is possible for the toil-worn woman and her brother man? Certainly not a legacy. Neither she nor her dead child can promise that.
Should they stay or should they run? She contemplates another horizon.Hortense Spillers, Black, White and in Color (Chicago, 2003); Denise Ferreira da Silva, “To Be Announced,” Social Text 31.1 (Spring 2013) and “Hacking the Subject,” philosophia 8.1 (Winter 2018); and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human (NYU, 2020).
A century later, the scene will be repeated. When the pandemic overtakes the city, they will die in greater numbers, they will suffer more. When the mob arrives, they will be as courageous as Mary Turner and call out the names of their killers. They will not yield; they will not be moved. In this other variant, the question is no less pressing: How is love possible for those dispossessed of the future and living under the threat of death? Is love a synonym for abolition? In a turquoise Impala, they drive from Louisiana to Florida, hoping eventually to make their way to Cuba, a place where they might elude the death awaiting them and escape becoming property of the Ohio Department of Corrections, slaves of the state. A love theme drifts through the car. Fugitive, running a thousand miles toward freedom, flying down a path with no ending, colliding with each other, he asks her what she wants. She says: “I want a guy to show me myself. I want him to love me so deeply that I am not afraid to show him how ugly I can be.” She asks him what he wants. “I want someone that’s always gonna love me no matter what. Someone that’s gonna hold my hand and never let it go. She gonna be my legacy. Look, I ain’t gonna bend the world.”Queen and Slim (2019). A million days in your arms echoes in the background as they argue about Luther’s early and late style. The expected and tragic end only serves to underscore the lesson of “The Comet”—their love is without legacy. It won’t defeat the world or make them immortal or shield them from gratuitous violence, or spare the children, but they are grateful for love. Of all the things that love makes possible: eyes that see you, someone to hold your hand until the end, adore you even in your ugliness, kiss you a thousand times, hold you when you are carrying on like that bitch, do everything for your baby, even swing a knife for your love, risk it all for one last dance, exchange vows even when there isn’t a chance in hell of being together, see heaven all in her eyes, carry a corpse-child through the devastated city in search of him, miss her until it breaks you, not want anybody else to ever love you, the one thing it is not able to do is confer a legacy or guarantee a future. Your love is all I need—a beautiful lie, a necessary refrain that helps you survive in the meantime, experience tragedy after tragedy, endure another scene of grief, as if “our love” was fortification and always enough.
The trio on the roof of the Metropolitan Tower will not produce a new race of men and the fugitive couple murdered on the tarmac will not enjoy a free state or make their way to Cuba. Yet, while trapped in the graveyard of the world and bereft of any future they can count on, they hold one another, sob with joy, never let go of each other’s hand, reveal their scars, embrace as they fall, listen to the infinite playlist of love in a world where black life is all but impossible.
Saidiya Hartman is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (W. W. Norton, 2019), Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, and Scenes of Subjection. A MacArthur “Genius” Fellow, she has been a Guggenheim Fellow, Cullman Fellow, and Fulbright Scholar. Her work has appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly, Brick, Small Axe, Callaloo, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Hartman is a professor at Columbia University and lives in New York.
Theory + Practice is a series supported by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.
Originally published in
Our summer issue includes interviews with Amoako Boafo, Nicolas Party, Brenda Goodman, Odili Donald Odita, Jenny Offill, Craig Taborn, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, and Jibz Cameron; poetry by Safia Elhillo and Nathaniel Mackey; prose by Lydia Davis, Marie-Helene Bertino, and Saidiya Hartman; and more.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.