ArtFilm / TV

2018: the making of an afrosurrealist

December 20, 2018
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As I’ve grown older, my capacity for joy has shrunk. I think about how in youth, little things would bring me such immense pleasure, and how much more emotionally taxing and expensive it is to recreate that amount of pure elation as an adult. I often lament about that time, about finding joy and pleasure in this body without it feeling sacrificial to some other necessary portion of life.

The memory that most sticks with me of one of my childhood’s most perfect days. In retrospect, it was simple: My mother let me run errands with her and the day was punctuated by a trip to get ice cream. The momentary maturity and sophistication I felt when accompanying mother to the bank and salon was unparalleled. I was an adult— or, so I thought. My little mind was convinced that I had successfully fooled the world—the world being my mother’s friends and some strangers in the service industry—that I too was one of them. If only for a day, I was an adult. My wise mother, however, knew it to not be true, and that the only appropriate conclusion to such a sunny day for a 10 year-old, was ice cream. The flavor I decide on was red velvet —equipped with chunks of real cake—and we headed to the car. As we rolled out of the parking lot, Georgia’s springtime breeze embraced my chubby little body. In that moment, I was truly present—happy, joyful, satisfied—and I looked at my mother with the big eyes that she gave me but had yet to fit my face, and I saw her fully. Before this moment, she played the role of disciplinarian, best friend, superwoman, maid, and God. Yet for that moment, while eating ice cream, I saw a really kind person that does kind things. And Life was but a childhood dream, with sleep as the only recess.

Almost as soon as my mind concluded that thought to begin pondering the nature of toys and cartoons, lights and sirens began to drown the rearview mirror where other cars, the sun, and cumulus clouds formerly resided. My mother pulled the car over. The police officer exited the car. He told her she was speeding. She apologized. He looked at me, looked at her, and the placed his hand on his gun. He then told my mom, “The way you were speeding, I could shoot you and your little one with no reason. Be more careful.”

My perfect day became a horror, and in my 10 year-old body, an understanding, attraction to, and longing to create what would today be referred to as Afrosurrealism began.

One necessary ingredient of tragedy is surprise. This is often the element that makes something already devastating that much more tragic. Most people whose days ended in tragedy did not know this when they woke up. The nihilism, the meaninglessness of the event, is what helps trauma grow. Even with generic negative events, it is the lack of spiritual or pragmatic preparation that surely informs the intensity of the feeling. But Black artists, when confronted with these situations—and if you are Black and an artist you have confronted these situations— share a commonality. Black artists know that marginalized identities—including but not limited to race—inform one’s relationship to tragedy and death. I found out on that perfect and horrid day that the safety I’ve been told about it in school was a lie, and that my race and my mother’s dark skin made us more vulnerable to tragedies likely to be initiated by a white person with power, who I was being socialized into believing was a symbol of safety. This is surreal.

Because of the cartoonish nature of the current presidency, our palette for the surreal or avant-garde has expanded and deepened. How does one illustrate without surrealism the odd reality of a Black life in America, or highlight the true political absurdity of the moment without pushing our limits for the absurd?

Boots Riley’s film, Sorry to Bother You, had to create an absurdist narrative about horse-people in order to highlight how preposterous our relationship with capitalism and labor is. The horrendous recording of the presidential candidate Trump discussing “grab[bing women] by the pussy” pushed performance artist Janelle Monae to do an outfit that made the entire lower half of her body appear as a pussy, for the visual to her song “Pynk.” (Later on the same project, the critically acclaimed album Dirty Computer, she raps confidently on “I Got The Juice”: “if you try to grab my pussycat, this pussycat will grab you back.”) The surrealism of the image—Monae as a vagina—was public ownership of the body part the now-president proudly attempted to claim possession of via braggadocio, power and sexual assault. Surreal times call for surreal measures.

The abstract tour de force that is Terence Nance’s HBO show Random Acts of Flyness was a revelation for some; but for me, this year, it served as the comfort of home. It pushed boundaries by creating a Peter Pan-style musical about the fear of growing up in domination, by personifying Jealousy as a green monster with a ferocious New York accent, and by dealing with the desire to fly when walking and running seem to not outpace bullets. The speed and range of Random Acts honored my surreal reality so much so that the season’s last episode—dedicated to rest as a critique of our generation’s insistence of being politically “woke”—serves as my type of lullaby, when I feel too anxious in my own skin.

I remember seeing the first episode and the skit entitled “Everybody Dies!,” that imagines a Black female Grim Reaper who makes a children’s program out of guiding Black children to death. I instantaneously returned to the moment with red velvet ice cream in my mom’s car and understood this as a surrealist depiction of reality. When interacting with that white cop, my mother was also a conduit to death and brutalization. My disciplinarian, best friend, superwoman, maid, God, and Grim Reaper.

The random nature of Blackness is the only way to express how why we are so fly.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to talk to Nance about his program. The year was already knee-deep in a plethora of wonderful surreal offerings from other Black artists, and the media began to notice that there was a trend in Black creativity, dubbing it Afrosurrealism. This is not unlike Afrofuturism, Harlem Renaissance or Neo-Soul, other labels placed on Black folks consistently doing a thing. It is not so much Black artists’ concern to create boundaries and titles for the said thing, but the job of people interested in exploiting it. The term was actually originated by Black scholars Amiri Baraka in 1974 and further developed in D. Scot Miller‘s Afrosurreal Manifesto, but has often been given to the public as a newer phenomenon not unlike a lot of language that hits the zeitgeist. As someone who understands the value in specificity, adopting such phrases can be helpful in pop culture writing, just as it can lead you to believe the hype created by onlooking white consumers. Terence Nance disrupted this during our conversation.

Don’t believe the hype, believe in Hype Williams.

I asked Nance about the “Everybody Dies!” skit. It felt powerful and resonant, but Nance resisted the idea that it was innovative. He offered that imagining Black women as partners to Death is not new, citing Toni Morrison’s work. Even as I began to call his use of surrealism in TV comedy groundbreaking, Nance reminded me of elements of Martin and Living Single. When I attempted to call the work irreverent, musically innovative, abstract yet political, Nance cited In Living Color, The Dave Chappelle Show, Soul Train, and SOUL!

Even if this moment of Afrosurrealism and all that people may project, or take away, from it. This is not new. When we look at the way Missy Elliott distorted her body, Sun-Ra’s relationship the cosmos and avant-garde fashion, and the near-psychedelic and visceral pop that made Prince a star, we know Blackness and surrealism have always gone hand in hand. What we are seeing now is a market opening up, so labels must come.

This too is not new. When colonizers came to Africa and saw a race of people—they labeled the people mules, property, slaves, negro, it, bearers of nothingness, Black. We used that symbolizing of nothingness—that we represent an existential void where ancestry was stolen and animality was projected on to our human bodies—as an excuse to create everything: jazz, hip-hop, rock and roll. And we use being Black in a white supremacist society—and all those things that Black symbolizes, including death, illicit sexuality, the mystery of the cosmos, the dread of living—as an excuse to gaze at the stars and imagine ourselves as superstars, to examine hues of blues with brass instruments and our voices, and to keep it surreal when society denies your reality.