From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
This Bigness and This Whiteness
by Harmony Holiday
It begins innocently enough, with peeking at the ‘other’ through these radioactive machines, mapping her passage from slave to citizen, other to blackstar, reducing her to a series of objectified gestures and calling that the understanding. And like every low-level accomplice, once you get by with the first missive, you’re intoxicated, emboldened, have become the toxic spectator you once denounced as capitalism’s most pernicious hypocrite. The one, gluttonously informed and soaked in privilege, who sits around being bohemian about the information, fetishizing society’s every crisis over cocktails and at dead university events trying to be festive about their lifelessness. This performance escalates from glimpses and mumbling bohemianism to complete scopophilia, reading every left-leaning news item, fist pumping at Democracy Now! broadcasts over Bulletproof® coffee in the morning, reveling in liberal outrage from pretty couches that smell faintly of sex and incense, diplomacy and SNL. You even take off your shirt and do the Donald Glover dance for company sometimes, on your knees while standing up. On more mellow occasions you just sit around and watch his “This is America” video on enormous flat screens and quote Amiri’s “Poem Some People Will Have to Understand”:
We have awaited the coming of a natural phenomenon. Mystics and romantics, knowledgeable workers
of the land.
But none has come. (Repeat)
but none has come.
Will the machinegunners please step forward?
You grow bloodthirsty for some doom you can see and obey beyond saying. The pleasure so many have been taking in watching a black man in confederate army trousers reenact state violence, as if it arouses him to some level of excellence to play what he once himself dubbed big and white, the fact that Donald Glover’s violent escapade of a music video is being received as an ironic, maybe even cathartic, stroke of genius, a thrilling indictment, is what most alerted me to the depth and root of our collective crisis of spirit as it stands today, and strengthened my commitment to actions that remind all citizens, including myself, that we don’t have to put on pseudo-intellectual disaffected minstrel shows to redeem ourselves or this oppressive regime, that we can relax, that our focused calm would be much more frightening than dancing on our own graves.
Fueling this semi-aimless frenzy for new footage is a collective obsession with anything that can be watched, anything that merits a reaction, anything that spikes the social adrenaline, which is to say anything that renders us passive and at the mercy of its image, affording us those amnesiac moments wherein we can hide the difference between action and reaction, call to duty and call to sophisticated and overblown clickbait or gossip that feels obligatory, like some broken spoke in the revolutionary impulse dragging its muted pride across every five-minute headline. Watching videos like the one for “This is America,” and entering the mostly insincere debates that follow, is to vigilance and true civic communion as soulful, uncompromising art is to a Pepsi commercial or a Miss America pageant, except in the less blatantly superficial context of black music or semi-radical politics it’s as if we’re all auditioning for best liberal in show. It’s rare that the spectacle becomes something we try to protect and rescue from its own oblivion, and it’s rare that the show made for pure entertainment is backed by any ideology besides exigent leisure. This era is rare, like Armageddon. Everything reeks of agenda. And our luxury, the freedom to casually and idly watch economic and political turmoil unfold and escalate, to behave as if we’re removed from the interplay of the events, demigods in the machine, is the most dangerous aspect of our assimilation. In a culture that does not carry the tradition of call and response that makes West African models of performer and spectator so human and natural, so interactive, and that makes the Puritans mad at Magic Johnson Theatre loud, we all get caught in narcissistic echo chambers because all we demand of interaction is a platform. We aren’t practiced in feeling one another out beyond contrived codes of etiquette; we don’t improvise well with one another but we’ve grown skilled at faking it. The ideal American audience can be silent or pretend or guided by cue cards as long as there are bodies in the seats, followers, big numbers. The joys of simulation, simulacra, consuming images in this one-sided way are diminishing, they become the discontents of exploitation, mimicry, corporations selling our images back to us depraved and in their Sunken Place. In this way we are removed from our instinctive responses to our happily corrupt government and the okey-doke culture that mirrors it, and our idea of political participation is our abstract and grandiose obsessing over what we should sacrifice or uphold hypothetically for the big numbers in those empty seats, before we even address the mundane and the tangible, what we can hold onto of our better selves, the impact concrete daily habits, rituals, have on our ideology and likelihood to make good on claims that we seek ‘change.’ And if we’re this addicted to outrage and to watching this collapse of empire like it’s reality TV or fodder on our wings, we’re unlikely to overturn it, we’re too invested, the status quo is too much a part of our identities as liberals, our brand, our grand lie. We would kill for it, on video at least. Our favorite artists offer us more of the outrageous, give us more opportunities for our sanguine outrage. In this atmosphere the outcry for change becomes a false posture, a costume we can all put on and dance around in online or even in the streets with signs and face paint, but take it off just as readily and head to the mall or to Coachella or to buy some Coca-Cola and an US Weekly.
Willingness to be obedient spectators, to receive images instead of demanding and producing them, is a kind of spirit sickness, in my estimation, a pathology, a love of lack and a disdain for agency, and that love, unrequited, grows more and more desperate and servile and willing to overlook its object’s transgressions for a little validation. I’m suggesting that we divest from this amorous frenzy, this petit-bourgeoisie echo chamber, this new American greeting card, and meditate, every day. It might not garner the glamour of western intelligentsia or that split-second attention of pop culture, to sit quietly with a blank mind, a big white or black and infrared space where cycles of thought and received ideas and images and ideological stances would revolve like body counts, to just take twenty minutes a day and shut that off, to shut up triumphantly. It might not sound as revolutionary as the gesture of voicing another opinion, it might not come with as long a cheat sheet as social media, but a clearing, a decongestion of the senses, has been for me the first step to the original and the healthy and the in-the-undercommons, ideas for what to do next, for how to remain sincere and not just reactionary, soulful and not just loud about some fast feelings, curious and not just hip, Afro-Surrealist without the need to court violence and shame to access the inherent strangeness in every encounter.
I love us, in our madness, but we all need our own private unraveling and recentering daily if we’re going to survive this phase of America. We need to be the center of our own attention in a healing way, not just needy for the resonance of our own naive freedom calls. It’s in that deep listening to ourselves, in our solitude, that we discover real necessary next steps, hear the collective, receive ideas about which mode of action will be productive and which is vain or vapid and ventriloquized even though it seems noble. Let us stop muting the collective listening that can happen when we tune ourselves individually first, become worthy of our own conversation, demand more for our bodies and minds and spirits than passive spectatorship and babbling opinions. From there maybe divesting from economically and environmentally toxic brands, product by product, becomes more viable, volunteering to teach or offer the arts in some capacity in underserved communities becomes a lighthearted walk through your clear mind, exercising more often, getting more sun, feeling more alive, thinking about Flint and donating water and writing about the ongoing crisis there, looking into how to help migrant families and then doing so — all of this becomes more accessible when the mind sits still away from the constant reel of images for a short while every day and explores sensations and intelligences beyond thought. Secular meditation makes it easy to remember that, beyond received interpretations of the dismal state American society is in, there are reasons to be defiantly sensual and human, to have a body, to prevail and take action, reasons that transcend all politicking and help our so-called political participation come from a place more like peace than factionalism. I want to remember what it is we are even trying to save in this next election. That’s what will get us to the polls en masse. No amount of mutual angst can replace the feeling of being heard as a catalyst for action.
Before you’re on the radio or in a video being big and white and not sure how you got so good at it as a black man or a black woman, or a white man or an Asian woman or an American of any disposition, check out your mind. Spectators are body snatchers, and maybe it’s time we watch ourselves, steal our minds back little by little, from the barren buzzing hive of digitized action, just for a few minutes a day. Recognize that this, this body, this mind, isn’t America. You don’t have to represent such a stale idea, you can be new unto this land, you don’t have to be tormented to be of value, you don’t even have to comment if your lifestyle and daily acts prove whose side you’re on and why. You don’t have to be big and white to win this round.
Take action today:
Harmony Holiday is a writer, dancer, and archivist/myth scientist, as well as the author of Hollywood Forever, Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues, and Negro League Baseball. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.