When you first enter the back exhibition halls at the Resnick Pavillion, you are met with Hank Willis Thomas’s “A Place to Call Home (Africa-America).” It is a map of the Americas with the continent of South America replaced by Africa. It is also a mirror. As you take it in, you see yourself in the piece. At my height, I appeared dead center of the hybrid continent. This is not just history. It is your history. Not in the abstract; these displays are about you, specifically. Experience it as such.
The Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit at LACMA is a powerful and thought-provoking display of art and culture that explores the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the African diaspora. Curated by Robert Farris Thompson, the exhibit features a wide range of works from artists of African descent, spanning centuries and continents.
Scheduled on a lark by Tiffany, the visit felt serendipitous, as if guided by otherworldly forces. To spend nearly two hours with these works during the same week that I was reading and, candidly, struggling through Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts felt heaven-sent even to my apatheist heart. And that’s not to mention that we arrived before the heavy rain and the LA crowds looking for something to do during a downpour. Thank the ancestors.
In Wake, Rebecca Hall writes:
Living in the wake of slavery is haunting, and to experience this haunting is to be nothing less than traumatized.
This “haunting” was my primary challenge in making it through her graphic novel before I spent the morning with these works. The exhibit features pieces I’ve seen before from Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, and Betye Saar, along with many artists from Brazil and the Caribbean that were new to me. It was overwhelming to walk from room to room, each with its theme meant to make the enormity of the black experience in the Americas digestible. Digestible even if it goes down bitter. Digestible even if you have to swallow hard.
Americans are myopic and self-centered, and I am no different. When I grapple with the realities of slavery, I think of it as a uniquely American problem, a United States of America problem. This curation, though, makes plain that the impacts of the transatlantic slave trade were similar and terrible throughout both North and South America. This horror-as-commerce, of course, rippled back to Africa and the countries that brought themselves into the modern world on the backs of Africans for hundreds of years.
In Afro-Atlantic Histories, this sober reality is expressed by displaying art from artists that seem to be conversing with each other, like Kara Walker’s “Restraint” and Sidney Amaral’s “Neck Leash—Who Shall Speak on our Behalf?” In Wake, Hall highlights this by recounting her trip to Great Britain while researching her dissertation. She makes it to archives of Lloyd’s of London—an insurance company that exists solely because of the need to insure the cargos of slave ships hundreds of years ago—only to be denied access to their records out of fear that a proper independent accounting of history will also come with a bill long past due.
While Wake’s tagline sells the graphic novel as a deep exploration of the women who rose against these supposed enslavers, these stories are unavailable. Historians of the period seem biased against the idea that women could do such a thing. Perhaps they would kill their masters in a domestic dispute but lead an insurrection? Arm and inspire dozens or perhaps hundreds of others? Surely not!
To which, and this is not a joke, can someone get those old codgers a copy of The Woman King?
Hall and her illustrator explore the idea of captured Dahomey warriors on a slave ship and how they would have taken advantage of being underestimated.
Or invite them to the Afro-Atlantic Histories portrait room, where Dalton Paula’s Zeferina is on display. Zeferina was an abolitionist leader who joined with formerly enslaved people to lead a rebellion, killing enslavers to establish an independent community of free black people. She was executed for her crimes against the Portuguese crown. A woman king, indeed!
We must use our haunting to see how black life truly is and see how it could be otherwise.
The closing chapter of Wake is titled Ancestry in Progress, referencing the Zap Mama album I loved at its release. It’s playing now as I write this. I feel the throughline of the graphic novel, the art, and being a descendant in my bones. Staring into artwork that demands you reckon with these horrors—our shared history, even if you don’t yet recognize it as such—has had me on the verge of tears.
But I am here. Many of my ancestors survived these incomprehensible circumstances and found ways for their spirits to thrive. To swing out. I am here with Zap Mama singing along as we make it past the rain to the sun on Ca Varie Varie. I am here with portraiture that conveys all we might be as we exist today. We are our past and our future. And sometimes, I am overwhelmed by how improbable and beautiful that is.
To crib a bit of how Firelei Báez describes one of her paintings, black joy amazes and I will not relinquish it.
BLACK IVY: A Revolt in Style
BLACK IVY: A Revolt in Style by Jason Jules and Graham Marsh is a coffee table book. That’s precisely where it’s been in the year since I received it as a Christmas present. I’d browsed the photographs several times over the year but had yet to stop to read the accompanying words. Until now. I’m mad at myself for not getting to it sooner because it was a delightful and inspiring read and a fitting first book of the new year.
I’d put the book on my list for Santa in the fall of 2021 after reading several articles that used it as a jumping-off point to discuss masculine fashion in broader or more contemporary terms. I’m not a fashionista, but I think about my outfits, the pieces I like, and what goes well together. One of my seldom-used boards on Pinterest is called Sartorial Game. I save hip sweaters and shoes that come across my Instagram feed in a collection. I get dressed for work even when that means taking just a few steps into my home office.
Through BLACK IVY, I can contextualize the clothing that resonates with me and why it feels so cool. I love a short sleeve button-down popover shirt. I prefer a cub collar on my full-length dress shirts if I can find one. Give me a beautiful sweater with a visible tee poking out of a collar. I want to pair these items with fresh sneakers, though the style’s originators would’ve likely preferred a hat as their touch of flare.
I felt both affirmed and encouraged by the stories and clothing of those civil rights-era cats. I wrote notes to learn more about Ted Joans, Noah Purifoy, and Jacob Lawrence. Images of Dignity by Charles White will likely be another read shortly. Thelonius Monk will be my Throwback Thursday music this week. I sought out the A Great Day in Harlem documentary.
I’ll soon be re-injecting Malcolm X (in both book and movie form) into my veins. I’ve got a date with Jazz on a Summers Day this Sunday, which will be a fitting end to my winter break.
And as I return to my routines next week, I’ll be thinking about which pieces go together. If clothes make the man, what is in my closet representing all shades of me?
Understated. Observant. Thoughtful. Clever. Kind. Undeniable. BLACK.
In Better Than I Imagined, Meshell Ndegeocello fashions her spoken word portion of the song as a voice mail to her lover. Many parts of it stop me in my tracks, but in February of this year, as I waited impatiently for my name to be called in the vaccination lottery, I most appreciated her closing lines:
It’s a prayer. It has been my prayer as we continue to navigate the pandemic. In the past, my hope for others was that they were thriving. As we entered month 12 of the pandemic (and now in month 22), my hopefulness had not waned, but it has become more grounded. I hope you’re safe. I hope you’re making good choices. I hope you’re finding joy in small things.
Better Than I Imagined by Robert Glasper and remixed by KAYTRANADA featuring H.E.R. and Meshell Ndegeocello is my song of the year because it represents how I’m feeling as 2021 comes to an end. It’s bold and reflective. There’s a lilt of melancholy, but it feels bursting with possibility in many ways. It’s grateful for even the challenging experiences. They are worthwhile in memory. The present, even as a new variant and rising cases will wreak havoc on our best-laid plans, is better than imagined.
The rest of my 2021 mixtape is like my Spotify music aura for these last 365 days: happy and bold. There are explorations into jazz (classic and modern), Nigerian pop, hip hop that made you want to nod your head and move your feet, and singers whose voices were infectious. It closes with Charlie Parker’s April in Paris: rekindled hope for the new year.
I didn’t explicitly write about Tyler, The Creator’s CALL ME IF YOU GET LOST in my HOT WIND BLOWS post this past July, but it was on heavy repeat throughout that month, and I have returned to the full length again and again.
In a time when popular rap is so depressed or grim or vapid, the whole thing is a wake-up. It’s ENERGY! It’s clever. It’s Tyler at his best, most sure, and most whole, and I can’t help but grin while listening.
The other albums that brought me great joy and comfort this year weren’t all released in 2021 but were essential nonetheless:
I don’t remember if it was Anna or Melle who remarked on our booming voices and boisterous laughter last night, but the statement was true. We sat around an oval-shaped table eating lumpia and pancit and garlic rice and Menudo and donuts at Robinson Space in the middle of the Historic Filipinotown neighborhood of Los Angeles. The room was decorated for Christmas and revolution, and we were having a grand old time.
These old friends hadn’t been together in this configuration since before the early days of the pandemic. It had been two years without our usual round of March birthday brunches and drinks. Two years without quick get-togethers or whatever we used to do when a plan could come together without worrying about our mortal safety and that of those we love just by breathing the same air with people we like for a while.
And yet there we were, drinking white claws and seltzer water and making small talk with new acquaintances.
It was a family dinner. It was a celebration. It was recognition of the work one of us had been doing during these desperate times. While most of us had been in our own homes protecting our butts, Melle had been in the streets of our city making sure our neighbors didn’t go hungry. Her organization, Polo’s Pantry, was in its infancy when the needs of those she intended to serve increased exponentially. At the same time, many of the government services they may have depended on became unavailable.
Melle and the community coalitions she is a part of sprung into action to meet those needs. They did so from nearly the moment stay-at-home orders began at the time when we didn’t fully understand the risks, the safety protocols, or how long we’d be living this way.
“I say ‘I love you’ through food,” she said as she spoke to the attendees last night. Food is a love language. It had brought all of us together on a Saturday night to laugh, cry, learn, and share.
To get loud.
I’ve been journaling twice a day for three weeks now. That’s coincided with a morning routine of no internetting, my new day vibes playlist, chores, and meditation.
The journaling is usually not spectacular. Most days, it’s a diary of how I’m feeling, what earworm was in my ears, and what I plan to do with the day. I recount the day in the evenings, including minutiae like what I consumed, whether food or entertainment.
Some days, though, it’s been about deep reflection, An opportunity to reconsider my actions or an interaction. It gives me a chance to release a rumination into words or process something stuck in my craw.
It’s been worth the time.
And, I’m grateful.
Also, my morning routine doesn’t have any symbolic value but the daily repetition of tasks and the increasing importance I’m giving to them seems to be providing similar benefits as rituals.
People typically lower their risks of heart disease and premature death far more by gaining fitness than by dropping weight. – Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times
I weigh 235 lbs. In my adult life, I have almost always weighed about 235 lbs. There was a time a little over a decade ago when I was uncomfortably in the 240s. During the first few months of the pandemic, I dropped down to the low 220s. But, regardless of changes to my diet or physical activity, my body tends to settle here. Sometimes there’s more muscle or fat or water in the mix, but this is me.
I don’t feel unhealthy at this weight. I don’t feel unattractive at this weight. I like myself at this weight.
I work out daily. I don’t have nagging or chronic pains. I like the way I look in my clothes (and when I don’t, it’s usually a challenge with a clothing item rather than some imperfection I find in myself).
I like me and this body.
I haven’t always felt this way. I don’t always feel this way now.
But, far more often than not, I look in the mirror and like what I see. I’m stepping on the scale without judgment. It’s just data.
And 235 seems like what’s normal for me.
I deleted Twitter and Facebook off my phone this morning. On the latest episode of The Shop, Naomi Osaka, Wanda Sykes, Kevin Love, and Jadakiss discuss social media and the generally negative experience it has had on their lives. There’s a uniqueness to their situations as people of renown deal with many people with unsolicited opinions and advice.
Wanda Sykes noted that we’re told as kids not to talk to strangers, and yet, we get on these apps, and that’s all we do.
Jadakiss says he has to remind his kids and his team that the shit going on on Twitter is not real life.
Naomi Osaka only installs Twitter on her phone when she needs to tweet something, and then she deletes it again.
I was catching up on my stories last night: The aforementioned The Shop, Star Trek: Lower Decks, The Morning Show, and Nailed It. I sampled Foundation (keep it) and The Wonder Years (pass). And for about half the time, I was also swiping around Twitter. During Foundation, I realized that I didn’t want to be distracted ad yet there I was. I put my devices down, paid attention, and took in the experience in total. When I switched over to Nailed It, I remembered what the people had made by the show’s end and caught a lot of the small, hilarious moments that I fell in love with when it first premiered but that I have missed as the seasons have gone on and the pull of these apps gets stronger.
Again, this morning, I found myself going to Twitter when I merely intended to turn on some tunes and start my morning routine. Because of the tweaks and intentions I set early in the week about how I want my mornings to go; I could catch myself and course correct. I recognize how frequently those apps are vibe stealers.
Today’s wake-up from Headspace was about taking control of your tech experiences. The brief meditation asked me to think about the relationship I wanted to have with my tech, and there was clarity. I don’t need to be rid of these experiences altogether, but I don’t need them on my phone.
So Twitter and the always problematic (and rarely used) Facebook are gone. So are several social media apps that I never use but were sitting there waiting to pique my interest again and get me back on the sauce.
I’m grateful for a commitment to morning rituals this week. For music and chores and coffee making and meditation and journaling before being sucked into notifications and messages and the terrible or absurd or disappointing news of the day.
I’m grateful for evenings with music, journaling, and reading (I’m on pace to get three books down this week!), a set bedtime, and leaving devices outside the bedroom. I’m grateful for giving myself permission to break or tweak a rule when it serves a larger goal.
The days didn’t always go as planned, but I have found that my ability to navigate the days, be more present, be more gracious, be a better me improved with each day.
Now let’s see if I can keep it going. Removing those apps feels like a commitment to that plan.
Apparently, July is for binging The Polyphonic Spree. The last time I decided to pull up the albums I love from the Texas-based psychedelic pop choir was this same month six years ago. I don’t remember what sparked that session, so let’s mark this one.
I bought airplane tickets to Paris, France, this week. The anticipated travel feels both imminent and precarious even though it’s a couple of months away. Trying to live in the age of COVID-19 continues to be like this: having the courage to live life to the fullest in unsettled times.
the summer of uncertain vibes pic.twitter.com/q45dlgCLrt
— Michael Lieberman (@michaelagrammar) July 23, 2021
It is the summer of uncertain vibes! On the night I bought those tickets, I also chose not to go to the gym because I couldn’t find my preferred mask for working out. Those tickets were purchased weeks later than I intended because I struggled to work past my fears that something might derail the adventure before it even got off the ground. Will my passport renewal return in time? Will the variants change border and travel rules? Will the anti-vax fervor in the states continue its expansion across the globe? Will some yet to be known threat grip us anew?
As I fought through those thoughts to click a big blue button to confirm purchase for two on a rocket that will cross the Atlantic, Section 14 (Two Thousand Places) shuffled up into my ears.
I’d already been thinking about making a playlist for this summer in which, internally, I am two thousand places at once. Mostly, there’s joy here. There’s sun on my face and in my heart as I get back to all that is outside my window. But, there’s also trepidation and anxiety as we mask up and fires burn, and dudes with too much money go to space while the neediest of us sleep under those same stars hoping to make it through the night. I’ve been bopping around between the latest from Hiatus Kaiyote and Tyler, The Creator sprinkled with productions from Adrian Younge and the mysterious folks behind the artists associated with Sault but it was Tim DeLaughter’s box of oddities that brought it all together.
I bought plane tickets. I bought some new masks. I’m grateful this week for my good fortune and the sun and courage.
And I’m grateful for this music that is soundtracking one weird-ass summer.