The Modernist

“Modern life begins with slavery.” – Toni Morrison

What my father underwent, and now gone so long, and now come back, and now pallid brown, eyes wide, suddenly a shadow on the door. We had mourned him and buried him in the earth and now buried him in our minds, and his spirit had sank into ala-mmuo, and yet here he was again reincarnated in his expiring body, standing in the doorway, eyes agog. I had been learning the dibia magic. But it is terrifying to see the dead alive, so when I saw the pallid hordes of zombie aboard the ship, I recited the words. I stood aboard their Jesus and watched my home recede, although I was below with all the others, only I was standing on the deck and the spell was only broken when one of the dead struck me, and the fresh blood on my tongue woke me into the hold where men lay grunting like pigs.

Come morning there was no sign of land. Through the portholes only the blue green sea and the blue gray sky. Hordes of men already huddled together in the hold where the air was so putrid and still I could still smell supplication.

Sometime in the morning, the zombie came down into the hold and gathered us in groups to come on deck. I stood in that breaking blue morning and watched the sea roll and wander. The boat lurched and trundled the waves. The air invigorated the spirit, but the air and spirit sank again. My father’s face as he turned to look at me in that doorway. His eyes grotesque unblinking. The door swung shut and startled open again. A group of men behind my father, among them the rival Dibia. We were taken back to the hold. The sailors took off my chains and spoke in indecipherable grunts like my father lurching through incoherence. I began to wander the hold. The dark labyrinth of bodies and low ceilings wheezed and heaved and seized cacophonous. So many languages, most of them close enough to my own where we could still understand each other.

You children are free to move about the ship. We will need you to deliver messages. The white men don’t understand our languages.

I pondered this appellation for the zombie a while, white men, for they weren’t quite white, rather red. The heat of the region reddened them further and they drank copious amounts of liquor that smelled stronger and more toxic than palm wine, and then they turned rough red in the low rough sun, and meaner too, so that the redder they were the more you knew to avoid them.

One morning in the red sun, I saw a group of red zombie drinking in the sun, and turning back into the hold to avoid them, I bumped into a girl coming up the steps. She tripped over the steps and slipped back on the floor, cursing. I put one finger to my lips and pointed to the door above, and started to say white men, but then said, red instead, and made the motion of a man drinking, and then her eyes smiled, and then she smiled and the boat lurched and trundled the waves and the voices of the zombie came carousing through the paralyzed air of their still.

Nkiru, she said.

Azubuike.

We were inseparable and often separated. She made life on the ship as bearable as life on the ship could bear, and it was unbearable. I taught her the obeah arts my father taught me. She taught me the language of the zombie; she had been with them for years. We taught each other those things only two curious young people can teach each other.

One morning in the red sun, I saw a group of red zombie drinking in the sun, and turning back into the hold to avoid them, I heard the shrill cry of Nkiru, and turning back I saw that among the men, Nkiru sat nude shuddering. I lurched forward, then swung back. The men looked up at me, their faces turned dark heavy red in the heavy sun. Before a word could be exchanged between us, I had the knife of one, and the knife found the throat of another, and then the sun turned dark and rough and began to sweat red acid as the day dimmed mid-day. The dark sea burned the blood. Nkiru screamed. Excruciating daylight.

I was born a slave, but I would die free. From my earliest days I would play out in the fields while my mother worked, never dreaming of my degraded position in the world. My father, I never knew, though my mother said he was an African hero, a dibia, or magic man, who died on the ship. She told me there were enchantments in songs.

No one was dearer to me than my mother, lovely Nkiru, who looked longingly sometimes off in the sky as if the sky were the sea and she could still sail away somewhere through her thoughts. The innocence of those early days.

Shattered one morning when my mother, too sick to work in the fields refused to get out of bed. A cruel overseer, an overzealously evil man, with wild red hair, and dopey drunken eyes whipped her until she shrieked and crawled from the bed. I never looked at my situation the same. My people were taken from Heaven into Hell, and I was going to deliver them from Hell back into Heaven!

I learned to read from my mother, who had learned the Master’s language in Africa. We would spend early mornings going through a hidden Bible. The words were strange, but beautiful, and I marveled at the way the language soared in the voices of these prophets, especially in comparison to the degraded English of the slaveholders.  In the afternoons, I would walk out among the Georgia fields and recite the words to myself, incantations, and note the incongruity between the love preached in those words, and the hatred practiced by the slavers. It was as if slavery had degraded their very souls.

I was sold when I was 14 years old. I was never to see my Nkiru again. I was placed on a block, and sold to a dour looking man named Charles Montage, who couldn’t even meet my eye. The Georgia sun hung low and hot in the sky, tears sizzled my cheeks. I swore I would run away the first chance I got, that I would see my mother again, that I would be avenged, that I would kill white men.

I would have died that very summer had I not met Carolina. Carolina was one of the girls already owned by Montage. She had wonderful dimples that lit up the day, and would smile a very sad smile that should break the heart of the most heartless slaver. She had lost her mother when she was little, and we were two withdrawn orphans.

Soon we were inseparable, although we were often separated. Our new master was unusually cruel, a so-called nigger breaker, and he was only happy when we were not. He would whip us without provocation, terrorize us. He raped our women. He would ride out into the field and curse us in his degraded English.

Meanwhile, I taught Carolina to read the most beautiful English, and I taught her the dibia chants my mother taught me. She taught me to channel the courage that I needed to resolve myself to my early promise. I had sworn I would free myself from my chains, and I was determined to bring as many of my brothers and sisters with me as I could!

In the evenings we slaves would gather together, and I would deliver brimstone speeches about Freedom, the underground railroad, spoke of a future in which our children would be born free, where we would stand proud, even up to the very highest offices. America debases us and our culture, refuses to call us men. This now ends!

We launched our revolt the night after their Independence Day, while they all lay stupefied in vapors. We gathered together field tools, stormed the house, killed Montage and took his guns. With the moon looming gold and white in a spellbound sky, we rode out into the fields with his horses free men. We went from plantation to plantation, killing the sleeping and gathering weapons. By the time the sun rose red over the red fields of Georgia, we were tired, and an alert had gone out. I clambered off my horse and told Carolina she should go on alone, on foot. There was no chance for us, and I knew it.

She wouldn’t go.

In the afternoon, she dozed off and I left her where she slept.

I was heartbroken, but had as reassurance the certainty of my own death. Come twilight, the white men had found us. We rode hard into the woods, and they followed. Ahead of us in the expiring day we saw the lanterns flash, and then the flash of firearms. I had seen the way they tortured and killed insurgent slaves. I loaded my pistol, and called to the men. We will all die freemen.

We will all die freemen.

The woods grew dark around us, and the shadows began to crawl. I fired at a flash, and saw a white man fall. I rode into the dark, and turned back and hopped off my horse, ducked low and kept firing. A searing pain roared through my shoulder, and I turned, still shooting. Another lurched through my back, and I fell forward in the mud, gasping blood. I saw boots approaching, and with the last of my strength, I rolled around and raised my pistol and then there was a retort and then it was all very easy, the night turned light and then dark and then the day dimmed into a din where sound became sight.

Swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home.

Oh swing low, sweet chariot

Coming for to carry me home.

 

I looked over Jordan and what did I see

Coming for to carry me home?

A band of angels coming after me,

Coming for to carry me home!

The Negro has been everywhere oppressed, and has everywhere risen above his oppression. I am myself of humble origins, born by a shining river where the egrets sang response to the spirituals of my mother, Carolina, a copper-ebony woman, deep in aspect and regaled in beauty.  My father was ever absent, but my mother would tell me stories of his heroics, how he had led a revolution against the slaveowners, and gave his life that she might escape, and that I might be born a freeman.

But for mine own part, it was Greek to me. The Emancipation Proclamation was passed mere years after my birth, and I grew up thinking all men equal in the eyes of the Lord, and thus in the eyes of the law. Oh, dark was the day indeed when I was to learn that a thick veil hung between me and my fellow man, one which the white man could never see through, and which estranged me forever from my country and made me see life through a troubling doubled aspect.

Reconstruction inspired me. I was elected to the Georgia senate. Around this time I also began publishing the pamphlet Freedom! This pamphlet was a call to action to my Negro brothers and sisters who found themselves free only to be enslaved again by the newly instigated “Black codes.” These laws made it illegal for us to be out of work, which was as good as saying it was illegal for us to be free. It’s no coincidence that the Thirteenth Amendment makes slaves of criminals. It takes no great leap of the imagination to see that the “Black codes” were implemented to make of the Negro a permanent criminal, and thus a de facto slave.

I published and preached throughout the great state of Georgia, where the sweet Maplewood air breathes life into fields harvested in death, and I ignored the threats as they came as best as one can ignore such propositions against one’s person.

I would not bow to fear. Every morning I walked the lovely walk through the marigold path leading from my home, down the small green glazed hill and down farther into the bustling town.

One morning as I walked the path, I met a sweet brown woman there, and the marigolds winked scents back as accents to talk. After that, Nella and I would meet every day in the same marigold path, and after we were married, we would walk through town together, and wave and stop to talk to folks we knew.

In the afternoon, after my session in congress, I would walk back, often taking lunch in Louie’s Kitchen, a Negro deli not far from the courthouse, usually with Nella, where we would plan our plans for family and future.

One afternoon as I was coming out of the courthouse, I heard a scuffle behind me on the steps, and I turned to see three men in Ku Klux Klan outfits had emerged at the top of the steps.

Montage, you black bastard, we sentence you to death!

I blinked, turned on my heel, and fled. I heard their footsteps above me, and then turning again, I reached for my blade. I had little time to realize what was happening. A couple men had crept up behind me from the other side, and then I felt the sharp slide of their blades. I turned to them, but the Klansmen from the top of the stairs were now upon me, and I thrust my blade forward, blindly, surely catching flesh, but this would be the last thing I felt, as the painless razor shine of death caught the side of my throat and then the angels swung down from their chariots and carried me up into the glorious day.

Them nightmares kept me up. They say we came back from the war, but I ain’t really came back, them battles stayed with me, the way people died like living didn’t matter a lick, killing factory style, corpses on an assembly line. I heard the term bandied about a bit, shellshocked, and that sounded about right, the sound of shells shocking the system like the rhythms of the jazz I would listen to late at night, wandering the streets of Harlem, down into the speak, speaking into my drinking, hoping the racket from the band would drown out the sound of the shells shocking me back. So I ain’t really came back from that war, and I walked around and just about died every day a thousand times over again, just like those buddies of mine where you would turn your head and the smoke would sear your eyes, and then they weren’t there anymore, and then where did they go?

That where did they go was what it was, it would ring in my ears in the music and would stay with me through the sleepless lavender mornings. I would look up at the purpling day, and think I could see there in the skies souls sometimes in the wisps of clouds, but then there would just be this tremendous absence like an unresolved melody looking. Whenever I could sleep, it was in the speaks, slumped over a drink, and where did I go? I would follow the music past the breaks into nightmares, and wake up again with the drums and trumpets trumpeting death and chariots and bombs and guns. Bleary I would walk through digressions of sounds with the musicians, and then would remember in a smooth passage a passage through to childhood, before the war where my mother Nella was telling me stories about my father, the first black congressman in Georgia, and how when I was little I would hear stories about him in Louie’s Kitchen where we would eat and folks would tell tall tales about my father going through town lickin’ Klansmen left and right to where they couldn’t stand it anymore, and so I guess my father he also died in a war right here at home.

I met Kali in the speak, I barely remember how, only one night we started talking, and she was telling me about her childhood here in Harlem, and I was telling her about mine in Georgia, and she laughed and said she liked the way I talked, what with my southern drawl and all, and I laughed and said I liked the way she talked what with her Northern clip and wit, and what about it? She worked as a waitress at the speak and we would sometimes dance, and that would keep me dreaming dreams different from the nightmares caught up in my drinks, and sometimes we would slip back into the back and dance private to the music ecstatically, and emerge back into the smoky dark speak weak with laughter and love and winks and kisses.

The raid happened on one of the nights Kali had off, and I was dreaming in my gin. I was back there again, back in the trenches, and the drums and trumpets were war reports, and the smoke of the speak was the smoke on the field, and people sort of floating on by me like spirits, and I fell deep into slumber, like Rip Van Winkle, almost like the gin and the jazz put some kind of hoodoo over me where I couldn’t wake up, the banging on the door, and the shouting voices and scurrying customers were all part of the nightmare, contained within the past. I saw a couple of my buddies go down and the smoke settled in hard, and then hands had my shoulders which they must have been pulling me out of the way of the shells. I reached down where I still had my legs, but couldn’t move them and then there were two loud retorts like shots, and they had me on the back of the truck where I couldn’t move to move, but where the smoke was slowly clearing, and the sky lightening, and soon I’d be back at the base. Somewhere in the future I murmured Kali, Kali, but I couldn’t find the words, my tongue wouldn’t move, or maybe I was wounded and didn’t have the ability.

When they tossed me down, I thought I’d hit my cot, but I fell and kept falling, and then the earth came falling faster after, where I woke up in the breaking dawn, not in Germany like I thought, but in an old plot in Harlem, in a hole, half buried. I struggled up against the mud, and then I heard a voice loud and clear, I don’t think the nigger’s actually dead, and then silence and then the earth fell even faster and Well, if he ain’t yet, he will be soon enough, and when I opened my mouth to scream the earth choked my voice, and I coughed mud and vomit against the falling day and then my ears and nose clogged and soon the nightmares came back and where would I go?

When after all a sister been born into it. More or less born in the speak where my mother worked as a waitress and been boppin my head to them beats ever since, had my head way back hoodooed to bebop before the first bop came to be, and been boppin ever since. And ain’t got the faintest whisper of a clue who my papa may be, mama didn’t much talk to that, and who knows if she even knows she didn’t know too much about parenting and that and I been just as soon raised by musicians as by her but that’s how it do. These fellas didn’t have much problem trying to raise me as it were anyway, and they were the ones what taught me to play, and then I would blow sax and flute like any of them jarheads. They learned to get threatened by me, and they learned right.

They all knew me up in Harlem, so when I started to play, I played mostly downtown, brown cap down over black hair, blowing back blues all night, boppin those twelve bar basics flat into fifths, flattering the faults of the fellas I followed, and feeling just lovely. Drinking whiskies with them like it wasn’t nothing in the world, and laughing and bawdying just the way they would, and well if that wasn’t the time of my life, cuz after them days, when my breasts turned into upside down timpani and my voice and age ain’t match in range, then folks started to let on I was a frail, and soon enough the phone stopped ringing, and when the fellas talked to me in the speak it wasn’t to speak up about gigging but guess.

Ever seen a musician can’t blow?

I mean I could still blow, but couldn’t perform, to put it one way.  I played up in my room old jazz records alchemizing Basie into Bop. And just about lost my mind in the process, bopping alone in my bedroom blues to bluey twilights. Evenings in the speaks, but no way up to the stage, stuck in the seats, seated between a gin and a grin that means heartbreak. So when Kyle approached me one night after the set with his set back eyes and voice like Don Giovanni, talking about maybe I join his band, we ended up in bed in no time, but I never ended up in his band. Ended up in his bed one night, he made promises to me he didn’t keep, disappeared a couple months after that, and then down at the speak listening to Monk crawl the keys while the owner told me he heard Kyle moved to Chicago, and was playing them funky styles they got out there, which made me laugh, but then I cried the rest of the night, and in those tears I think was the last of my small supply of dreams-not-yet-dried-up, because after that I saw things through a melancholy bop like Chopin meets Prez.

Like how after that the days got longer and the weather got warmer and my belly got bigger. I couldn’t stand the speaks anymore with the smoke and liquor and then I had no ways of getting gigs and couldn’t gig had I did, and so I stayed in my room and watched my belly get bigger and the weather get warmer and the days grow warmer, and my mind warmed in the sun must have melted away somewhere did they go? The cozy mornings where days swam into swelling bellies, dancing days, blowing days late into the daze of jazz, lazy days of love illusions and music. Lots of music. And the weather waiting, warming for the arrival. She is after all an extension of me, and where do I begin and she? The afternoons with Ornette and the evenings with Dizzy. Sitting in bed, listening, with a book, or a flute, and the mute nights of music, and the morning again, and the belly growing like a budding grove, and then one day comes and goes the doctor was there in my room, and saying something to me in a foreign language and the morning was asking me peculiar questions like where does the time go? and the afternoon reclined with tea and talked about Wilbur Harden and the evening was pure ornithology whereabouts my soul stole off swift with the swifts.

It/s, of course, of vital importance to remember that the Black man is born into conditions that make even the possibility of complacency unpalatable. It/s not so much that I was a Negro, as that I came to realize the white man needed to invent the Negro & the question was why? My mother dead in childbirth, my father dead in life & me left w/no choice but to adopt a ruthlessness that/s never left me; I am, after all, as much the product of my environment as we all are, trapped inextricably entwined w/in our own violent history. I grew up in violence & violence follows the Black man in America. The streets of Harlem are not a happy place for a boy w/no mother & no father. They are, in fact, often not a happy place for anyone; they are mired in poverty.

This is not to say there is no joy there. I was raised by my grandmother, Kali, a woman I loved dearly. She was a wonderful, inspiring woman, but vanished in a deep sense of loss from her lost daughter & from her lost husband, my lost grandfather & from living a life surrounded by loss & licentiousness. She/d worked in speakeasies all her life, of which she couldn/t speak easily & she/d spend the most heartbreaking smiles, b/c they locked away a lifetime of regrets.

Growing up under these conditions, I learned to be wary. I nor trusted nor believed; I was quick to interrogate the integrity of any person, statement or idea.

It was the perfect apprenticeship for a writer.

I published my first novel when I was still a young man. I/d prepared myself for a stunning reception & still I wasn/t prepared for the reception of the novel, which turned me into a public figure, as they say, overnight. It/s a somewhat apt cliché, in that one morning the public figure wakes up & no longer lives in the same world he lived in the day before. His thoughts are no longer private thoughts among private individuals, rather, after this moment, even when alone, he/s always performing. For a Black man this is an even stranger phenomenon, as I was now somehow a spokesman for my people & among my peers, I/d/ve been the last person to be considered a spokesman for Black people. The very concept of a spokesperson for Black folks is a strange chimera created by white America, because I/ve never believed myself to be speaking for anyone other than myself & certainly no white writer believes himself to be speaking for the entire white race when he puts pen to paper.

This is what initially conduced me to move to Berlin. In Berlin, I was able to be simply me, Montage, the writer. The writing from my earlier days, w/its explosive, revolutionary tone was being co/opted by the civil rights era & m/w, in Berlin, I found myself discussing ideas about performativity & modernity in bawdy burlesques. I met Mina, a burlesque dancer who reminded me in some ways of my grandmother w/her restless sad look of always already having lost the world.

Black America never really forgave me for Mina & white America never will. Both of them began to tire of me, I could feel it in the tepid reviews my essays were collecting. The fact is, the revolutionary has never left my work, but in the later work I/m more interested in how we act as revolutionaries as international globalized peoples, as a diaspora & I/m interested in these ideas of performativity & race, as well as performativity & modernity & how the 2 intersect, especially on a linguistic level. But this work has not done so well in the United States & before long there were signs enough that the world in general/d had enough of me, because phone calls would come in w/no answer & my front door would be open when I returned home, although I was certain I locked it on my way out. Cars would whisper past me, slowly idling as they cruised my block & then speed up again, vanishing around corners. Clicks on the telephone. Shadows that vanished into sunlight whenever I turned around. 1 morning I got out of bed & the light dipped & I plummeted to the dizzy floor.

That floor opened the vortex, wherein my health plunged w/the diminishing days. Heart infection. I could imagine my heart suppurating viscous black blood, poisoned by years of bitterness & the more I imagined it, the more I became entrenched in its sluggish ideology. I couldn/t eat. The mornings were unclear & dark & the days only got darker, sweating in bed w/Mina over me, eyes dark w/tears, darkwater in the dim light, like the blood dimming my heart, the weakening spirit, shadows vanishing in the sunlight, a motion towards resistance.

EXT. SAN FRANCISCO – NIGHT.

SUPER: San Francisco. 1974.

MONTAGE – VARIOUS

  • HIP CLUB IN WEST BERLIN – NIGHT – Parents dancing to James Brown.
  • BEDROOM – NIGHT – Sick father dying in bed.
  • BEDROOM – DAY – Baby in crib, squirming to Marvin Gaye.
  • BEDROOM – DAY – SUPER: 1984 – Kid about 10-years-old, dancing to Michael Jackson.
  • DUNKIN DONUTS PARKING LOT – DAY – SUPER: 1992 – High School punk rock kids listening to Bad Brains out of a car with all the doors open.
  • COLLEGE DORM ROOM – DAY – SUPER: 1996 – College dorm room, young men sitting on beds, discussing Foucault, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, 2pac on the stereo.
  • NYU FILM SCHOOL STUDIO – SUPER: 2000 – Three students standing at a storyboard. Eminem on the sound system.

FADE OUT

END OF MONTAGE

MUSIC CUE: “Monster” by Kanye West.

EXT. HOLLYWOOD – DAY

INT. HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER’S OFFICE. – DAY

FILMMAKER

Listen, here’s my pitch, it’s my own story, but it’s also epic.

PRODUCER

Epic? I don’t like epic.

FILMMAKER

Epic like slavery days epic. Oscar bait epic.

PRODUCER

Okay, word. I’m listening.

FILMMAKER

Cut to Africa, don’t know where. Doesn’t matter. Slaves getting on the boat. This is how the movie starts. We follow one character, an insurgent slave, through three hundred years. He gets on that boat. Gets himself killed defending a woman’s honor. Heroic shit. But get this: he comes back again. This time as a slave and he leads a slave rebellion. He gets himself killed again, of course. Next time he comes back as a Reconstruction congressman. In Georgia, of all places. Real flashy kind of brother.

PRODUCER

He gets himself killed of course.

FILMMAKER

Of course. (Beat.) So he comes back as a World War One “Negro” soldier. He survives the war, but gets himself buried alive somehow. KKK. Doesn’t matter. Comes back as a jazz musician who goes crazy. Those dudes. Happened to them all the time. All of which leads to his death, of course. Next time he comes back as a Negro novelist or something in the sixties. Sort of like my own father.

PRODUCER

Assassinated?

FILMMAKER

No doubt. Poisoned or something. Doesn’t matter. Something devastating. Anyway. Then comes my story. He comes back as a half-German, half-black filmmaker. Born and raised in California, attends film school in New York, works on postmodern picture about the very story we’re talking about now. So the audience learns at the end that the film the filmmaker is going to make is the film they’ve just seen. And then we pepper the historical stories with contemporary references to police shootings, Black Lives Matter, Trump. That sort of thing.

PRODUCER

Not bad. (Beat.) You got a hook?

FILMMAKER

A hook?

PRODUCER

A name we can drop, something like that. (Beat.) Anything?

FILMMAKER

My father’s name’s not enough?

PRODUCER

Rather go bigger. No offense, but he got a little weird in the end.

FILMMAKER

Yeah, well. Don’t we all?

PRODUCER

So no hook?

FILMMAKER

What about James Baldwin? Based on an idea by James Baldwin? Is that a hook?

PRODUCER

This is based on an idea by James Baldwin?

FILMMAKER

From some essay on Ingmar Bergman.

PRODUCER

He must’ve been drinking. (Beat.) But Bergman and Baldwin? We can use that. (Beat.) And how does it end?

FILMMAKER

With a yes. I would suggest it ends with a yes.

PRODUCER

A yes?

FILMMAKER

The filmmaker would be pitching the script to Hollywood. And they say yes. They greenlight the film. The you character greenlights the film. There’s a sense of redemption.

PRODUCER (Snaps.)

And just like that. 300 years of suffering. Justified.

FILMMAKER

Through Hollywood?

PRODUCER

That’s Hollywood.

(Beat.)

FILMMAKER

So whaddya say?

PRODUCER

I say this is something we can sell people.

FILMMAKER

Yes.

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