Notes on a Practice
I've been thinking a lot about Blackness as a technology for human evolution. This is the first in a series of essays exploring this framework.
Self Portrait, Year Two of Pandemic. 2021.
I. Lately, my mind has been preoccupied with what makes a practice.
To practice is to engage in something, over time, in order to both acquire and maintain that something. The practice I’ve been especially preoccupied with is that of being human.
Maybe it takes a mass death event alongside the constant and consistent questioning of one’s humanity over generations to recognize clearly to be human isn’t a given, but instead, a state of being one must practice in order to achieve. My deepest practice has been that of making art, specifically making photographs and doing language, and to me, doing language consists of reading, writing, talking, and thinking — I’ve come to recognize the practice of art-making as decidedly, uniquely human. There are no other animals, that we are aware of, who make art for pleasure or for expression.
I am especially lucky to come from a group of humans who are so consistently engaged in art-making, we are widely known as builders of a distinct and global culture: Blackness.
I’ve been engaged in an artistic practice for over twenty years of my existence, which is to say that is most of my existence on Earth has been defined by the act of creation. I have spent most of my life making, engaged in building the Self through art. I’ve thought a lot recently about what actually distinguishes my experience as a Black person. My lineage, broadly, consists of world builders, art makers, theorizers of human experience, and survivors of dehumanization, and as such, I’m awed but not surprised when in the face of another attempt at genocide, we make and we create, and thus, we survive.
To be human means to practice humanity and to make art is to engage in the practice of humanity, over time, for the maintenance of that particular state of being. I am a human being because I do the hard work of being human, not because it is a fact of recent, modern human life that I am a part of the species: indeed, for the last four hundred years of human existence, there has been a concerted effort, using art and language, to delineate me as wholly different from human.
While it is an insult to be called an animal in the pejorative, it is true that I am an animal, because all humans are, in fact, animals, but what is far more insulting and insidiously dangerous is this idea that I am so beneath the title of animal, that I am simply an object. An unthinking, unfeeling, de-evolved thing with almost no sentience, and as such, anything can be done to me.
An object is defined as a thing that can be seen and touched but it not usually a living being, plant, or person (in order to be a ‘person’, one must first be a human). To be a thing, an object in the human world is not simply to be rendered invisible, but to be in constant danger of total elimination — we know this total elimination of a group of our species as genocide. It’s my thingification I am constantly fighting with, it’s the objectification of my humanness I am in a constant struggle against.
Objects have no sentience, which is to say objects cannot think or feel, and that which cannot think or feel is not considered human in the human world.
That which is not considered human has no rights to be respected by other human beings.
II. Quite a lot of people were upset upon discovering Michaela Coel’s brilliantly devastating, I May Destroy You was snubbed, so to speak, by the Hollywood Foreign Press. I have cycled through these cycles of disappointment and outrage in regards to the artistic acknowledgment of the white art establishment for myself — I’ve been nominated for awards multiple years in a row I should have won, I’ve been passed over for grants and other artistic funding I should have received, I’ve dealt with art departments and decision-makers who simply do not know how to do their jobs correctly and, as such, assume I cannot do mine correctly, either — and for others.
Every cycle of anger and anguish depleted me, every rant and soapbox appearance fell on deaf ears.
In the wake of a recent insurrection attempt, after a never-ending cycle of neo-fascist lies, lost in the bombardment of misinformation and disinformation, I’ve begun to pay closer attention to the way white people do language — what they read, what they write, what they say, and what they think about — and found myself in an abyss of delusions, dishonesty, and destruction.
If doing language is evidence of humanity, and if doing language is something humans have a singular capacity to do, what does it mean when doing language is used for the primary purpose of creating alternate realities, of pushing conspiracy theories, of weaving mass delusions that render individuals into easily controlled thought-zombies?
Further, if there is a historic dedication to the practice of using art to create anti-human sentiment and thus, anti-human living conditions in the human world, how then can one be trusted to be capable of judging anyone’s practice of humanity?
What I’m trying to say is, how can I trust the misinformed opinions on art coming from a group of people dedicated to anti-human activities that run the gamut of engaging in insurrection, generational terror campaigns, and establishing mob activity as a means of bullying those who refuse to participate in the active de-evolution of their species?
Simply put, I can’t — and if I know better, I shouldn’t — trust those opinions.
Framed this way, was Michaela actually snubbed? Have any of us actually been snubbed when our genius wasn’t recognized as such?
III. Genius — another tendril of human practice.
To be a genius is to be a human who displays exceptional creative and intellectual capacity, marked by originality — this is to say, to have the ability to distill said creative and intellectual capacity in a manner singular to one’s unique expression of humanity.
To be a genius is to be deeply engaged with the practice of becoming (human).
I would argue that in order to recognize the genius of another human being, one would have to be somewhat acquainted with the general capacity for human genius through one’s own recognition and experience of humanity. When you are largely engaged with diminishing and destroying the conditions that make human genius possible, it becomes difficult to call one’s self fluent in the language of human genius.
Put another way, you cannot be engaged in the business of de-evolving humanity, of destroying your species, and have the capacity to judge that which makes your species singular, which is a capacity for evolution, or the capacity to embrace collective change for the purpose of becoming something altogether different.
IV. I wasn’t entirely certain, when I began writing, that I was working towards my earning my humanity, but I knew I was at work for something significant. Similarly, when I began to make photographs, I was moving closer to understanding there was information in doing language, just as there was information in studying photographs.
Photographs deal directly in the realm of memory — what and who gets remembered by being rendered in a specific frame of time.
When you first pick up a camera, much like when you first pick up a pen, you are engaged in mimicry. I read books voraciously and then stole as much from the writers as I could — how to use voice, how to use form, how to build characters and settings, how to use themes to make larger points about the human experience.
In my teens, I admired Amy Tan, Chuck Palahniuk, Nikki Giovanni. I leafed through National Geographic magazines and old photography textbooks from the sixties to try to figure out composition and light, remaking these images with myself as subject, primarily.
My early practice was based on my budding, becoming Self.
Who was I, actually? Who did I want to become? How would I become this person I was imagining in self-portraits and in prose poems?
I was architecting the foundation for the artist —for the human being— I am today and I knew that without being able to fully articulate that to myself. As an adult artist with many years of a practice, it is for this reason those “snubs” cut so deep. To work to articulate one’s humanity, and largely, to articulate the humanity one’s community, only to be ignored causes harm in deeply meaningful ways. If the work I am doing is for the purpose of making myself human and that work, that practice, is being rejected as non-human, then I am being told I am not human. I am being told I cannot, despite my best efforts, earn my humanity.
I am beginning to realize, however, recognition of shared humanity is simply not possible from those who are disconnected from their humanity. I cannot prove to you something you don’t know about yourself, something you should already know about yourself.
III. James Baldwin once presciently described the anti-human practice of white supremacy as a game that isn’t running. In Black Vernacular English, to run game is to be engaged in cunning as praxis: not rank dishonesty, but a skillful trickery reliant on slyness and shrewdness to procure, with limited effort, that which one desires. In supremacy, the primary desire is to make real the delusion of superiority, a bastardization of transcendence of one’s humanity, if you will.
It is literally impossible to transcend that which you are and only can be, but it’s never stopped us humans from trying to get close to what we broadly call the divine.
After all, when your finite human existence comes to an end and you cease to be, the primary hope of supremacy is that you will find a way in your limited existence to defeat your finiteness and become infinite — only superior beings can outsmart death— and the only infinite beings we’ve conjured in our minds are that which are divine.
The divine are not human and they aren’t quite spirit, either.
Divinity is a problem of memory in the same way photo-making and doing language are the solutions to the problem of memory. We exist both physically —in the world — and metaphysically — in the mind — and as such, we kept alive through re-memory, a concept explored in Morrison’s Beloved. There is the act of remembering a thing — the wavy, hazy details, the feeling contours of a moment or of a person already experienced — and then there is the act of re-memory, or the re-establishing of an event or occurrence or, primarily, of a person who wasn’t afforded their humanity and their personhood when they were still in their corporal form.
Re-memory is the edit of a film that makes the narrative clearer, to both the creator and the viewer.
The act of re-memory, to me, is how Black people ascend to the state of divinity — how we transcend the state of being object.
Those who seek to diminish and destroy us have gotten lost in cunning as praxis, while we have found a home in humanity as praxis and, in making humanness our home, we do the necessary work of earning that title.
Once earned, there is room to evolve to the next phase of existence — to become infinite is simply to not be forgotten, it is to be re-membered, throughout time, overtime, in a continuous, infinite loop. Re-memory is what fascists have been fighting against: it’s why who gets to tell history (and what histories are being told) is constantly fought over, it’s why your parents get annoyed having to hear about Black Lives Matter, it’s why white people have not yet uncovered a method to kill Black people in any way that matters.
It is human fate to die, but it is not our fate to be forgotten to time, not when we can be conjured by the language and the art our souls are transmuted into so we may live, eternally.
IV. The legacy of all artists is re-memory.
We create and disseminate pieces of our experience that transcend our finite existence in the human world. In these acts of creating the self, in earning one’s humanity, what we make becomes the stuff that allows yet other human beings to create themselves and to earn their humanity, too.
In some places in the world, humans call this karma — literally translated as acts, works, and deeds.
V. In my preoccupation with what makes a practice, or what it means to work, to act, I recognized a practice predicated on making for the purpose of earning my humanity through the vehicle of acceptance in the white art establishment was a waste of time and a waste of a finite life.
I’d trained for years to make for the purpose of turning a profit on my making, for turning a profit on my humanity.
When my work dried up in the wake of the COVID pandemic, I had so thoroughly burned myself out that I could clearly comprehend turning myself over for profit in exchange for certain death was patently absurd —I could no longer justify the mental gymnastics I’d done previously to push myself to work if the end result was a premature death. I had to find a new way of working, a deeper reason for working, so I stopped making, altogether.
It was sort of a fast — to go without making, to go without earning my humanity, so to speak, I could begin to build a different sort of relationship to practice. I was attempting to see myself as wholly and fully human, even if I wasn’t actively performing it for others. Removing performance from my practice gave me clarity on what I needed my practice to provide me, instead of what I thought my practice should be providing others. For months, every night before bed, I read an essay or piece of criticism on Black classical music written by Amiri Baraka. I devoured a collection of essays and reflections by June Jordan.
I was searching to understand why art practice was so integral to the Black experience, why I had chosen art practice as the primary preoccupation of my finite human life.
With every essay devoured and every conversation on theory shared with friends through a screen, it began to dawn on me that practice ought to be the primary preoccupation of every human life, that we all should be afforded the time, the space, the resources, and the conditions that allow deep examination and confrontation to earn our humanity.
If we are doing anything here, it should be this work.
We should be as engaged with our praxis as we have been with our unnecessary destruction.
VI. I’ve returned to a new practice. I drove up to Berkeley to photograph a cookbook by Chef Bryant Terry. On our first day on set, we opened with an intentional ceremony, in which we honored the indigenous land we were making work upon — Berkeley sits on the territory of the Huichin, part of the stolen land of the Chochenyo Ohlone, the successors of the historic and sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County.
During a guided spiritual ceremony, we were asked to share our intentions for coming together to make work. Holding a speckled cowrie shell in my hand, I asked, simply to be a vessel for my ancestors over the course of the two weeks we’d be in practice together. It was the first time I voiced the intention I’ve set upon in my practice for two decades — to be a vessel able to hold the multitude of re-memory of my ancestors, of all those who came before me for all those who are to come after me, and it felt like a significant, new opening for my artistic practice, for my human practice.
I saw myself restored to a place of deep trust because I wasn’t having to prove the simple fact of my humanity and because I wasn’t having to turn my existence into a dissertation, I was able to make myself a vessel — to be open to divine suggestion, to pull from the knowledge I’d amassed over time and to that knowledge that was making itself known to me in the moment.
It was a jam session, it was an improvisation — the premier skill of strong artistic practice, one of the best tools that comes out of one’s mastery of one’s practice.
When we are at our best as human beings, we are capable of tapping into the infinite, into the divine, even if only for a very brief, fleeting moment. Artists have all been there — we become vehicle, something takes over, and we are in the flow.
We become so fully human, and without constraint, that everything becomes possible.
My practice, now, is the place where all things are possible, where I am both human and divine, where no person can thingify or objectify me.
The work of black culture was never to civilize America—it’s about the ongoing production of the alternative... To the extent that black culture has a historic mission, and I believe that it does—its mission is to un-civilize, to de-civilize, this country. –– Fred Moten
I’ve been working on a few essays on Blackness as a technology for human evolution for the last few months, now. This is a culmination of a lot of thinking and theorizing I’ve been engaged in over the last five years, primarily sparked by the above Fred Moten quote and supercharged now as I’m working towards going back to school for a potential doctorate in philosophy.
The newsletter is about to get very heady and weird and exploratory while I bounce around these ideas and explore them all with you, in real-time. It’s a little nerve-wracking but it’s exciting. I hope you all will take the opportunity to engage in conversation using the commenting feature.
I’m almost done with the syllabus for a new discussion course on cult thinking, and, if any of you are still interested, I would love to finally have our last conversation on James Baldwin in the next two weekends.
If you’re still interested, let me know. XX
Hi! These emails were getting filtered in a random folder in my email- I'm assuming the talk happened, so bummed I missed it! Looking forward to the new discussions if they are still on the table!
Okay but that last sentence! All things possible! Last Baldwin chat was going to be on How to Cool It, right? Would be happy to reconvene but wanted to revisit the article and it now says members only