I was so loud at my funeral. On the way down front to my casket, I paused at every third or fourth pew to wail and gnash and crumple myself up until somebody retrieved and righted me, whispering and patting me. “It’s all right, Sis Robinson. You gone up yonder to be with the Lord. It’s all right.” I responded, breathless and voice cracking, “Oh, oh, OK, Lawd, OK, Jesus,” but I didn’t even mean it at all. Because as soon as I got to the next third or fourth pew, I was down again, hollering like my insides was on fire until somebody fetched me. And so on.
The choir, all black women, most in their good wigs, beckoned me forward to view my body, clearly following the funeral director’s insistence to hurry me along so they could close up the casket and proceed with the service. They looked stately and solemn, singing “Be Encouraged,” and nary a one of them was flat. I had warned them all before I died that if their intonation was off, I was gone raise up out that casket and snatch the culprit(s) back to hell with me. Now that I had decided to attend, they knew I would come up in that choir stand.
At the front, I collapsed onto the mourning bench just before I went to view my body, my black dress, big and flowy, settling itself easy over the side of the pew’s cedar arm like an old tablecloth. I tried to spread my legs across the width of the bench to distribute the grief evenly between my two feet, swollen still from the Racist Sugar that had killed me, and leaned deep and forward, like I was gone do Ailey’s Revelations. But, psyche, I threw my head back and up to the ceiling, yelling, “Just take me now, Jesus! Take me now, Lawd!” One of the petty ushers pointed out that, as evidenced by my body up there in that casket, Jesus had already taken me. She did not whisper this observation, nor was she discreet in her gesticulations at my casket. I wanted to say, Where, Sis James? Where Jesus done took me then, since you know so damn much? But I didn’t say that, because she was still an elder, even though I was an ancestor and technically in charge now, and I shouldn’t have been calling on Jesus in vain, and she had a logical point. Still, I turned my lip up at her and went on and gathered myself to view my body.
Another, non-petty usher took my left elbow gently and raised me from the mourning bench and guided me up to the casket, where I ran a timid, trembling hand along the purple velvet. I noted that it wasn’t as soft and plush as it could have been, but it was good enough for me not to resurrect my body in protest, I supposed. I proceeded to study my burial dress, indigo and stiff, and then my tiny, fat-fingered hands, also swollen from the Racist Sugar. Wondering why the undertaker ain’t fix them better, I quick-looked around and unhooked one of my hands, totally against protocol, and held it gently, the rest of me so still, patting and pitying and loving on myself.
It was my face that did me in. At the sight of it, stilled by death, beat to the orishas, so quiet, I went on and shrieked a shriek I had kept queued up since before I died, a one-person symphony of shrieks that I had saved in a quiet box inside me for months after folks—some I knew in real life, some I knew from that internet—died. Face to face with myself at quiet rest, I drove every muscle into contorted motion, spinning away from my body to show the mourners, This is how it’s done, pee-pul. Thereafter, I hiked up my tablecloth dress and, left knee first, climbed directly into my casket with myself. The church erupted, and Mama was embarrassed, which almost gave me pause, but I kept going inside with myself. “Keep sanging! Keep sanging!” I commanded the Wigs as I descended.
I wanted to mourn loudly, for myself and for the others, just like I’d wanted to catch the holy ghost as a child, and so when I died, I did. I had often seriously considered climbing into other folks’ caskets, and dressed appropriately, in loose-fitting pants or easily raised dresses (no tights), in case the spirit moved me. But I was raised right. I decided instead to wait until I died to climb into my own. My death, like all the others, split me clean into the two sides I had been all along: those loud and quiet, out and in, A- and B-sides. Mourning, to me, was a time for percussiveness. Whether it was mine or somebody else’s, climbing into the casket seemed the ultimate form of loudness for expressing grief and anger over a loss that came too soon, too tragically, too familiarly, or far too unfairly to weep about silently. Which is how I died, and which is how most of the losses of our people came back then.
They wanted us to hush up about it, but we refused. We were in the streets again like we had been in the 1960s and the 1860s and everywhere before, after, and in between. We signed our emails and made memes with Zora’s “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” We also watched ourselves in the streets on many screens, watched ourselves die, scream, cry, and march, across multiple platforms, at all hours of the day, sometimes on two screens at a time, every day of the week. Things were, or felt, loud in a new kind of way, because the amount of grotesquerie grew in tandem with that new media, the social kind, the clicks-for-revenue variety. If one were to go back to the internet of the 2010s, one could just google “what are black folks mad about + mm/dd/201x” and see an archive of the memes, GIFs, and listicles with titles like “10 Times Black People Told Becky to Have All the Seats.” And our “bodies,” our thing-ness, made us feel louder than we really were, our dark skin and thick lips shouting and demanding, our hair so damn noisy it was illegal in some schools and workplaces. We needed to be louder, on our own terms, more strategically, to shout, “I AM A MAN” over our hypermedia thingification. We consequently required one another to make a public statement on our social media pages, telling folks we were outraged about the latest racist indignity or state-sanctioned murder, especially if the victim was a straight black man or had a 3.8 GPA. Sometimes white folks required us to make a public post or quizzed us on the details of said latest racist indignity or state-sanctioned murder to see if they were getting close to being as woke as we were despite not having the “lived experience” of growing up a “POC” from an “underprivileged” community. Everything was louder back then, to drown out the screams.
But somewhere within that raucous cacophony of shouts and stomps, beneath the constant demand to be louder, was something else—on the lower frequencies, on the B-side of our collective blackness—that whimpered and whispered and begged for us to succumb, and I was drawn to it. The cultural theorist Kevin Quashie might have called it “quiet,” “a metaphor for the full range of one’s inner life—one’s desires, ambitions, hungers, vulnerabilities, and fears.” Building on poet Elizabeth Alexander’s rumination on interiority in her 2004 essay collection, The Black Interior, Quashie’s 2012 work The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture asked us to be better readers of black life, on the page and in public, through the political space of the black interior. This was no small task. The collectivizing push seeks to reduce blackness to public resistance or a set of public lessons about “race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness.” In tandem, it meant considering the work of quiet in the lives of individual black folks and the possibilities for the “terms of quiet—surrender, interiority, and especially vulnerability” to have import and resonance with the collective. It wasn’t a call for silence, nor was it being silenced. Rather, Quashie showed us how black folks had long chosen other ways to consider freedom and resistance, even as we were constructed in the national imagination as superfluously expressive or, at best, as those woeful people, “darker than blue,” doomed to be the jukebox conscience of the West and of white folks.
Quashie argued for a figurative quiet comprising words and narratives, skillfully collecting dispatches from black writers and the worlds they created inside of their characters to share with readers. He read visual texts, taking ones we had been encouraged to read as loud—like the famous photo of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics—and opened them up to show us the quiet, interior, meditative character of a display that some folks remember as if it were pre–sunken place Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift. Across black art mediums, he asked us to look for quiet, for pauses, to check the crevices and interstices, and to see their depth, capaciousness, and political possibilities. In short, he asked us to consider black folks as human beings with complex interior lives, like any other human folk. Without the hush, white folks can’t see our insides, only what’s projected on the big screen in 2-D. And without a hush, we can’t hear our own insides when they telling us something’s wrong.
I, too, had sought this quiet, but outside of myself, out in the world, in sound and music. I was looking for a literal rather than a figurative quiet, the kind that comes after somebody’s mama shushes everybody real hard, raising her hand and spraying spit everywhere, because she listening for danger. I didn’t yet have the calm or the command of interiority that Quashie’s subjects had, but I had had my fill of the loud and externally expressive. Like a black Goldilocks, in sound I looked for an elusive, just-right third space that I had heard my whole life: a still hum, underground and electric, somewhere between the A- and B-sides. I heard it as a little girl, when I first learned to tune my own violin. I heard it between Alice Coltrane’s keys and in the alternate take of Miles’s “Flamenco Sketches” and in the space John Coltrane left on A Love Supreme. I heard it when somebody white said I was good at something for a black person. I heard it in Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and in Hargrove’s staccato fifths and fourths. And in Dwele’s Slum Village choruses and somewhere in Yusef Lateef’s Detroit. At revival, I heard it at the tail end of spirit shouts, trailing off and falling down before returning to the shouter’s chest. I heard it when I told my favoritest student that the state of Georgia was gone kill Troy Davis. I heard it in Roy Ayers’s vibraphonic hymns. After Trayvon died, I heard it when Frank Ocean left a phrase unresolved on Saturday Night Live, instead of bringing it to its proper conclusion, like on the album. After Daddy died, I heard it everywhere on Ocean’s Blonde and Endless and on Aretha’s Amazing Grace. And after I died, I remembered that I had first heard it from Ms. Mavis on “I’ll Take You There.”
Like our jazz forebears and their blues forebears, and their gospel forebears, and their spiritual forebears, and like those folks who came before them who sang and drummed inside themselves in the bottoms of ships bringing them across the ocean to build this country, I searched for that perfect blue note of mourning. I knew it existed, but I couldn’t hear it for all the noise, and for all the writing and talking and tweeting about the noise, which just made more noise. I searched for a place to turn in, to be both figuratively and literally quiet, to get still in myself so the spirit could come in and heal me. A place away from the clawing, collective necessity to regularly be in a palpable rage in order to prove I was black and alive instead of white or dead. More than I needed hope for a mountaintop future where things would finally be different for my children or grandchildren, I needed to hear something right then that would simultaneously capture that constant loss and trauma and traumatic loss and the ways we responded to that constant loss, persisting and creating and imagining elsewheres of freedom and possibility. Words, on the page or on the screen, were of no consolation. If I was really going to mourn and heal, I had to quit trying to find a quiet moment in the loudness and just get still and listen. If we were to fully reckon with, mourn for, and reconcile America and the West and their enduring and ever-present harms, we all had to learn to do the same. If we were gone be whole, we all needed the shape and tone of those sounds just below the surface of notes.
No more fire: the quiet this time.
Before the quiet, loud mourning was carried out every single day of the week, all throughout our bodies, and in all conceivable forums. On weekdays, our favorite directions to see on a piece of music were “fortissimo” and “martellato,” which were European-approved ways to make noise and be forceful. We took full advantage. When it was time to play Corelli’s “La folia,” we bounced from foot to foot like boxers and stretched our arms out and rocked our necks so that we could play the strongest and the loudest. Although we sho could not afford to get a bow rehaired, we aimed to deliberately snap several of those hairs, whitened by rosin, when it was time to play the variation that called for martellato, pressing a bit harder than it took to make a beautiful sound, the veins in our forearms sparkling disco blue and green. We beat that piece and our instruments and Corelli and the whole damn baroque tradition, because not even white folks would begrudge us classical loudness.
On Saturday nights on dining-room dance floors made sticky by whiskey-punch spills, we gathered together and threw our heads back and bellowed from some register in our voices that startled us because we could never summon it on purpose, “BITCH BETTER HAVE MY MONEY!” Rihanna was the leader, and when she called, we responded from the speaker boxes inside of us. All underpaid and all owed, we chanted together from the gutters of ourselves for reparations, for repair, and not just the monetary kind. We chanted down Babylon. We didn’t never get what we came for or what was due us, so our chants became the mourning sort.
On Sundays, when the preacher was feeling a special allegiance to the black community, we sang James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” just as loudly as “Bitch Better Have My Money.” Except, of course, for the third verse, because neither the best nor the worst of us knew those lyrics. Even Colin Kaepernick, who was the blackest, who we knew was always singing our black national anthem in his head when he took that good knee, had to hum that third verse. Even if we learned it real good, once, for the black history program, it had faded by the next day. Third verse or not, we was citizens of a black nation, of many nations before it, of Haiti and Ethiopia and Axum and Kush, and we would prevail. Except we didn’t prevail, and we mourned that in every sound we made, even the joyful ones, every day. The old folks back then used to write op-eds that said we wasn’t never gone win because we didn’t know that third verse by heart. Them old folks wouldn’t accept that we wasn’t never gone win no way and just wanted to talk shit to us until we died, which, in time, like them, we did.
After service, and following the post-service dinner, if there was one, somebody would put on “Cupid Shuffle” or “Wobble,” and then we would remember, through their loud-ass dancing, that the church mothers had shaped all of us into being with their pelvic bones, not some damn scrawny Adam rib. We still didn’t remember Johnson’s third verse, but them church mothers’ loud hips moving and blaring made us remember we was free no matter what kind of cages white folks had us cooped up in.
Loudness, noise, boom-bap, was joy, and that’s why I determined before I died to be loud at my funeral. It was the antidote for the repression that made sure we were hypertensive from the time we were very little, from the moment we discovered that we wasn’t even kids at all, but just smaller, more-helpless grown folks than the grown folks around us, with even less recourse in the world than they had. The antidote for all the times we couldn’t even appear to whisper a cross thought to ourselves in our own heads lest we be harmed. The antidote, too, for when we got chastised into silence so that we wouldn’t point out the obvious when they were out there killing us in the street. A cure for those moments, sometimes lasting for hours or days or weeks, when we built steel doors in ourselves to keep the fire in us on the other side. When we screeched with excitement at the chance sight of an old friend in a restaurant and slapped our bodies together and damn near knocked each other’s earrings out trying to hug, it was because we didn’t get to say what should have been said to those white folks at work earlier that day, or to the black folks across the country who’d died too soon earlier that day on the internet. We was loud so we could hear well what we had long been compelled to forget. We were nuclear chemists converting extreme degradation and state-sanctioned trauma into life and joy and resilience every day. Loudness was just the by-product of this chemical reaction.
Some folks say we got too loud during the Obama years and in the darker times that came after. But we had new hope for resolution, and we said so, and organized with that hope in mind, and that made us seem louder. When white folks made us objects in the world, our blinks became gong bangs, or if we were in the city, as a good half of us here in the States were, gang bangs. When we protested nicely, saying, Excuse me, white folks, we would prefer not to be objects of your colonizing gaze, perhaps with a shirt that said Black Lives Matter in the produce section of the uncomfortably integrated grocery store, they felt we had thrown battery acid on their bare, pale chests while nae-naeing to some pulsating trap music coming from the fifteen-inch speakers in each and every one of our enlarged pores. Didn’t nobody expect a hammer or a hoe to get up and sing a song, so I suppose we understood that anything louder than a blink, or Emmett Till’s eye-twitch turned wink, or a T-shirt, felt to white folks like the end of their lives and the end of their nation.
We knew white folks got scared when we was loud—which, in an admittedly sadistic way, was what made the new protest music of the new protest era, of the era of Black Lives Matter, so delightful then. It was the righteously angry, loud, and resistant kind of mourning music draped in existential angst—and downright petty. On the Twitters we told them in text tweets and screen-capped tweets of text tweets, and in tweets with GIFs and tweets with memes, complete with the lyrics to said songs, to “STAY MAD” and that we would “DRINK THEIR TEARS,” especially those of “BECKY WITH THE BAD GRADES,” everything but a verbatim “FUCK YOU,” because despite all the wrong, we was raised right.
Back when they was new, them songs built on that everyday magic of black sound and loudness that had carried us through this far. Black artists were determined to perform them loud enough to maximize the depth and scope of white discomfort. We sang our pain loudly to white folks on their late-night television. When J. Cole got up there on Letterman that time, performing “Be Free,” talking about how “all we wanna do is be free; / all we wanna do is take the chains off,” and closing his eyes tight so we’d know he was feeling it, we knew that white audience didn’t know whether to eat his pain or cover their ears to keep from being eaten. At the Academy Awards that one year, Common and John Legend dressed as undertakers to sing “Glory,” the new black “We Shall Overcome,” which was one of those songs you could never, ever boo, like when somebody sang a gospel song on Showtime at the Apollo. (Unless you was already going to hell for booing a rhythmless child and didn’t have nothing else to lose. There were a few of us like that.) That song was so loud and black that John Legend made white tears fall with his integrated piano keys.
On SNL, D’Angelo and the Vanguard wore shirts that communicated simplified versions of their loud songs’ messages, since without them the white folks wouldn’t have known whether to be mad or sad or glad. Good thing they wore those shirts and had that Black Power choreography, too, because only Prince could understand what D’Angelo used to be saying sometimes. I Can’t Breathe and Black Lives Matter, those shirts said. Band members raised their fists in Black Power salutes. And at the end of the performance, if that white audience hadn’t gotten it by then, a loud-ass, neon-red chalk outline of a human figure—dead, fist raised—appeared on the stage where D’Angelo had been standing. “All we wanted was a chance to talk. / ’Stead we only got outlined in chalk” the lyrics said. Some white folks’ ears probably still bleeding from them decibels, or at least perhaps they imagine they are.
Of course the biggest and loudest of these performances of the era of Black Lives Matter, the era of our unapologetic blackness, were those given by King Beyoncé, one at the Super Bowl, another on the BET Awards, and then another at a crazy festival that, before she came around, white folks used to call Coachella. At the Super Bowl, Beyoncé got a bunch of black women, forty miles from Oakland, California, dressed in all black—including black berets and big black hair—on that green turf, their turf, getting folks “in formation” on the whitest national stage of Black History Month.
At the BET Awards, Samuel L. Jackson was in the front row, ogling her dancers’ booties, which was super black and maybe even blacker than actually wearing Black Panther–inspired outfits at the Super Bowl. Dancers was stomping and thrashing, on their feet and knees, on a stage full of water—real, not CGI—and there were many, many thighs, like, extra thighs, like the end of the night at Popeyes when we got lucky in the drive-thru. There was also Kendrick Lamar, with his cornrowed hair and burgeoning beard, which never came in all the way. “FREEDOM! FREEDOM! I CAN’T MOVE. / FREEDOM, CUT ME LOOSE!” The blacks were certainly sonically and performatively loose and loud back then.
Folks didn’t like it when we got loud when somebody we knew from the internet died, even if we had seen them being murdered on a loop with our own two eyes on our tiny screens. They said we were terrorists for being so loud and ruining late night and the Super Bowl and America. We just had to forgive the West for every single early death, because these were just the growing pains of living up to the Enlightenment ideal. Instead of forgiving the West, we quietly sent around memes of Baldwin that said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage,” hoping that the one white coworker we’d allowed to be friends with us on the Facebook would tell the others whom we’d refused to friend about what we had posted. We raged and raged and hoped and raged and hoped, which was the respectable way of wishing a muthafucka would.
But when we died ourselves, they didn’t mind us being loud. We could be just as loud as we wanted, because we was dead, and that was just the right volume for them. Pianissimo. And that’s why, when I died, I went to my funeral and cut the fool and climbed into the casket to let myself know I knew and I cared and mattered around these parts. I needed to get it out first, and then I could hush and flip to the B-side. If them deacons hadn’t stopped me, I might have buried myself in the dirt with myself to find some comfort and quiet.
One time, one of my favorite students texted me to ask if the white folks in the state of Georgia were really going to kill Troy Davis in a few hours, and I texted back, “Yes, yes, they are.” I didn’t want to tell him that, but I knew in my spirit it was true. It was fall 2011. With a black president in office—dribbling better than the best white NBA stars ever and calling white police stupid for arresting Skip Gates for breaking into his own house, with his own family photos inside, in his own white neighborhood—somebody had to be punished, and there would be no more stays. I wanted to say that he should hope and pray real hard. But I knew he needed to save that for the next Troy and also for his own funeral. It was gone be Troy this time, and that was that.
Back then, we mourned Troy Davis and all of the other black Troys with those two saxophone samples from Tom Scott and the California Dreamers’ “Today,” sounds that Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth used in “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” to mourn their friend Troy Dixon, dancer Trouble T-Roy, who accidentally fell off a ledge to his death in some post-concert horseplay. Whenever somebody died, we borrowed those twenty-one borrowed notes, about two measures’ worth, repeated a dozen times across the refrain, to find the mourning feeling. We then borrowed the other two notes they borrowed, a two-tone alto groan that appeared on the upbeat of every other measure during the verses. We also took for ourselves those borrowed half notes of Scott and the Dreamers’ airy harmonies, which floated under the beat like all of our respectable ghosts, quiet and hovering at our own funerals. The hip-hop generation and the young folks of the era of Black Lives Matter sat with those notes, our remixed blues, to see if they might reveal some understanding and feeling and direction on mourning.
If I’d screamed like I’d wanted to, both because Davis was being murdered and because I had to confirm that fact aloud to my student, who had perhaps texted me for a different, more hopeful answer, I would have cracked into pieces and then I couldn’t have had an open-casket funeral. Instead, I looked for something for quiet mourning apart from and outside of the loud, loud death and loud, loud protests of those looped deaths, protests that went as unheard as the quiet insides and titular loudness of Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen!, an essay collection of four lectures Wright delivered in 1950s Europe. I was looking for something to reflect a feeling I didn’t know I had, in a world that said we should be grateful for the reverse racism of affirmative action. I chose Quashie’s quiet as my weapon, excavating my sad-ass insides and examining each thing those innards told me I had been through and lost and forgotten.
On the other side of the water and the fire and the shirts and the fists and the hashtag memorials and the rage and the black-boy joy and the black-girl magic and the Stay mad, Becky’s, there was something else, and I set out for it, even though I didn’t really know where I was going.
Way back when, on a mid-September Saturday night in 2012, I suffered through Seth MacFarlane’s hosting to watch Frank Ocean perform on Saturday Night Live. In Ocean’s performance of “Thinkin Bout You,” I remembered the sound of the B-side. He decided to leave the first phrase of the second refrain unresolved, choosing instead to resolve it in the repeated second phrase. At the unresolved last syllable of the first “forever,” an E instead of a C, I cocked my head involuntarily, and I felt my eardrums vibrate. I waited anxiously for the resolution in the second phrase, but found the time between the unresolved first and the resolved second delicious, too, like when I would tune my violin, get to the precipice of perfection, and linger before making the final, tiny adjustments to 440 frequency. The adjustment made the love song into a funeral song, which is just a love song backward.
It was just a one-note change, an E instead of a C at the end of a phrase, the kind of deviation from an album’s rendition of a song that, beyond the spectacular, make live shows worthwhile. The E asked a question, pointed out a problem in the first phrase that the C in the second resolved. I waited for a long time, which felt like a fuhevah, for the beat to drop, for things to be resolved, back then.
When Ocean performed, it had been seven moons and twelve moons, respectively, since Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis were murdered and buried, and we were still mourning, our cries growing louder in those nascent days of the newish movement. We was thinkin’ ’bout Trayvon, reminiscing over our latest Troy. We were mourning Obama’s first term then too. Obama, who said if he had a son, that son would look like Trayvon. Obama had meant “look like” as in skinfolk, whereas Ocean, who said a similar thing at the end of Obama’s second term, had meant “look like” as in kinfolk. Maybe Obama would be like Ocean and resolve things in the second term, we thought.
Psyche. We waited like black Vladimirs and Estragons, even in our organizing and singing and resisting and stomping. We organized well, damn good, but things got worse. Some of us got louder and then some of us got quieter, some of us on the A-side of blackness, others on the B. Whatever side we ended up on, we were, as Kiese Laymon’s Citoyen said, “so sad.” Rihanna and SZA said we not only couldn’t get no R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but we couldn’t even get no “consideration,” no “peace of mind.” We were, as Solange Knowles said, “weary,” and as Ocean said with André 3000, “solo” and “so low.”
It wasn’t just because we were being murdered on a loop on every platform, but that was certainly a new dimension of the harm. We was cash-strapped and underpaid, our people was getting older in a failing health-care state with doctors who didn’t think black folks felt pain like other folks, and our wealth was steadily declining in the twenty-first century while the wealth of white folks in America steadily rose. Black mamas in the twenty-first century was still disproportionately dying in childbirth, and black babies was still dying before they got into the world good. Serena Williams had to win more tennis championships than any person ever and still had to save her own life during childbirth. The schools disciplined our children worse than other children. White folks called the police on us for just literally being in the world while at the same time telling us in opinion polls, on cable news, and four miles from Monticello that they, in fact, were the real victims of discrimination. Back in the twilight of Obama’s second term, when white folks still thought Trump was just livening up the election season despite his nomination, we were already mourning the hope, however faint, we had had that a black president wouldn’t be the agent of murder and status-quo maintenance. And we also knew what was coming next, and, given our weariness, wondered if loudness, now a new kind of necessity, would be enough.
Daddy died in May of 2016, flew home to be with Big Mama Rosie Robinson, my great grandmother, who had passed when he was a young man, but his blues endured, especially in those years right after he left. So I got real quiet so I could hear those blues and maybe find me some new blue notes of mourning. The old ones didn’t seem to be enough, seeing as his death meant that over twelve years I had gathered a pyramid’s worth—my daughter’s father the base, two close friends on the sides, and Daddy at the apex. I thought maybe I should cover myself in body glitter and gardenias and go on and entomb myself inside. Instead, I just went into hibernation on the edge of our black album—between the A- and the B-sides, between the Troys I had known all my life and the ones I felt like I had known all my life from the internet—sleeping poorly on its spinning vinyl tightrope. I had mourning to do for the folks I knew from our digital chocolate cities on Twitter and The Root and theGrio, their successive brown faces, their death pictures in my dreams, broadcast and haunting everywhere. I returned to Pete Rock and to C. L. Smooth and to the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” to Erykah Badu’s “Telephone” and “A.D. 2000,” and to Prince’s home-going song “Sometimes It Snows in April,” waiting for the resolution.
It was from that edge that I heard Ocean again, a finally and finely tuned violin. Endless presented a visual vocabulary for how Sisyphean things felt then. How literally black and white it all was, how plain, the kind of labor and care it took to create something that would need to be started over and over and over again. When, after all the sawing and cutting and painting and building a winding staircase with steps that didn’t even seem hardly wide enough to traverse, Ocean walked to the top, I leaned forward, anticipating the resolution. I wondered if he was building that staircase to Mavis Staples’s place that she and her daddy and sisters and nem said they was gone take us to. But instead of a resolution, or at least the kind I wanted, the video looped back to its beginning, and he began the unresolved work of building to free himself, to free us, again. Leaving us again with the E. “Touché, Mr. Ocean,” I said to the screen.
Blonde offered an answer, though: a C to Endless’s E, a response to Endless’s call, another B-side of blackness. There were also stairways up and down to more B-sides that Ocean constructed, many, many pathways to something else, places to “vacay,” other “places to go.” There on Blonde was escape from the loudness, and an invitation to a searching dive for new blue notes of mourning. Blonde mourned losses of love and summer, as is Ocean’s way. But whereas Channel Orange’s Obama 2012 summer was a relatively innocent, if naive, one that Ocean could both easily and ironically critique, Blonde’s Obama 2016 summer was one that portended doom, even as its varied beauty struggled for a last triumph. “Summer’s not as long as it used to be,” he sings. Listening to Blonde’s hour-long elegy and remembering, I mourned and saw on “both sides like Chanel”: Trayvon Martin and UGK’s Pimp C on “Nikes”; the A- and B-sides, sky and ground, of “Pink + White”; the starkness of the two “Solo”s; the “everyday shit, every night shit, my every day shit, every night shit” sides of “Nights”; and the Last Supper–like betrayal of “Pretty Sweet.”
If we’re honest, all we wanted then was a blonded life. To have a relatively carefree life of comfort, free from capricious and grotesque violence—to be left alone. Not to be white, never to be white, but to be blonded, protected, in the way Toni Morrison’s Pecola had wanted those blue eyes. She figured those blue eyes wouldn’t see the things her dark ones had. America stay betraying and murdering us, its most ardent lovers. “Why are we preaching,” asked Ocean, “to this choir, to this atheist?”
Where did black folks go after the loud, precarious summers of our lives, after the hot climate of perpetual white violence against black folks, when the pale white horse came for us? To Solange’s questions of “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?” in the wake of Dylann Roof’s massacre of black worshippers at Emmanuel A.M.E., Ocean responded with what seemed like an unsatisfying suggestion: into the quiet, into introspection, into the speculative reaches of our minds. He sent us across the River Styx, New Orleans’s part of the Mississippi River, in that “White Ferrari.”
I’m sure we’re taller in another dimension.
You say we’re small and not worth the mention.
You’re tired of moving, your body’s aching.
We could vacay; there’s places to go.
Clearly this isn’t all that there is.
Can’t take what’s been given.
But we’re so OK here, we’re doing fine.
Primal and naked,
you dream of walls that hold us imprisoned.
It’s just a skull, ’least that’s what they call it, and we’re free to roam.
We was weary and achy and had to go all the way to another dimension and reframe how we thought about everything just to escape white folks’ totalizing and murderous thoughts of us as small, as unmentionables, and to escape their primal need to imprison us. Only there could we finally be free to roam like we wanted to. We tripped a bit on “Siegfried,” giving ourselves a Sigmund Freud once-over, remembering what things had been like when we was alive. We wished ourselves “Godspeed” from heaven and went off into a “Futura Free.” But we was sho nuff dead. Wasn’t our lives, anyway, I suppose— “just a fond farewell to a friend.”
When I was alive I used to wonder where Al Bell had Mavis and her daddy and sister and nem taking us. Just like Ocean did, Mavis said she knew a place where we could go, one where we were taller. This place seemed something altogether different from, or maybe beyond, loudness and quiet, fortissimo and pianissimo. That bass line made it sound like wherever it was they was gone take us was sure fun, a vacay, but without having to return to the A- or B-side. That tempo was good and that melody had nothing but resolved phrases. Wasn’t nobody crying, worried, or smiling and lying to us at the same time. I wondered how Mavis knew that place, and when my cousin got shot in the back by the police, I wanted her to take me to where they wouldn’t lie about what had happened and just admit he hadn’t charged them with a gun at all. Or maybe, at Mavis and nem’s place, my little cousin wouldn’t have gotten shot in the back, because wasn’t nobody crying or worried there. One of their instruments, that harmonica or them horns, or that piano, or Pops’s bass, was gone take me there, if I could just find the right mourning note. I wanted that mercy she was calling for when my baby daddy shot hisself. When Daddy died, I took Mavis’s voice and called for that mercy myself and yelled like Aretha called Lazarus to see if he would come back on the third day. Sunday came and Daddy hadn’t come back. Just me on the B-side with whoever will sing to me there, which is where I been ever since.
Mama say the dead know nothing, which I think is something she got from the Bible. But I don’t know what she or King James is talking about, because I know plenty and she know it, and so do the other dead who speak to me from wherever they are that ain’t here. I know I wasn’t loud enough when I was alive, and didn’t enough folks shout for me, and so I had to go to my funeral and do it for myself. I know when I was loud, when we was loud, it wasn’t enough to stop folks—ones we knew and ones we felt like we had known forever—from being killed. I know sometimes I hid on the B-side of blackness and it comforted me like a psalm, a balm in Gilead.
I had gone there seeking refuge from the constant call from black folks to be joyous despite our circumstances, to be loud and black and free and, above all, hopeful. I went to dive into those unexpected middle notes, those strange harmonies hiding behind something that was hidden behind something else, concealing myself there in their quiet. I used to hope that the resolution would come, that the phrase, the situation, the whatever, would end as it should and we could go on to a free future. Then, seeing as I wasn’t hearing no resolution, I hoped that I could learn to bear the in-between. Been dead for years and still ain’t learned to bear it, nor have I accepted that the resolution probably ain’t coming.
I’m all right. I meet the other dead at their blue notes, at “T.R.O.Y.,” or at an E instead of a C, or at Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, or at Stevie’s Innervisions. And sometimes when Daddy calls, I have him and Big Mama meet me at mine, whatever it might be at that time. There, we sing in ourselves and conjure a future place where our people can go and be black and free at the same time.