Tag Archives: Race

Singing Testimony Across Difference: Anthony Russell and Berkeley’s 2014 Holocaust Remembrance Day

The following is a reflection I am pulling out of the archives on occasion of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27, 2019). It features a write-up on Anthony Russell, black Yiddish opera singer extraordinaire. I have wanted to make this public for a long time and have finally had the wherewithal to do so. Though it is dated by almost five years now, it is still relevant. I trust that you will find it of some insight around issues concerning the performance of racial identity and the role of religious music in creating a platform for cross-racial solidarity in the midst of human suffering and multi-generational trauma. 

On Sunday, May 27, 2014, the City of Berkeley celebrated its 12th Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in downtown Berkeley. Titled “Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses,” the ceremony honored the life and work of creative writer and teacher Renee Passy-Zale and UC Berkeley professor of engineering George Leitmann. Both Passy-Zale and Letmann were commissioned to recount their experiences of surviving the Jewish Holocaust by means of escape from and active resistance to the Nazi presence in Europe. The program included a distribution of lighted candles to survivors in the audience as well as musical performances by Bay Area composer and accordionist Dmitri Gaskin and African-American opera singer Anthony (Mordechai-Tzvi) Russell. The latter, a convert to Judaism, recited Yiddish folk hymns alongside playwright and A Traveling Jewish Theatre co-founder Naomi Newman’s reading of work by Holocaust survivor and poet Irena Klepfisz.

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Yiddish opera singer Anthony Russell

Between Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s eye-witness testimonies to the struggles of escape and the creative renderings of Jewish suffering that Gaskin, Russell and Newman offered, the ceremony foregrounded the provenance of cultural production—through autobiographical narrative, folk song, and poetry—in effecting historical redress for the wounds of war. Indeed, Passy-Zale’s harrowing account of fleeing Paris to live under an assumed identity in the south of France where, at the age of eleven, she helped to smuggle secret information to the French Resistance when her father came under suspicion, and Leitmann’s moving account of losing his father to a concentration camp before escaping from Vienna with his mother and two grandmothers to New York City in 1940 represent “unofficial” histories that might otherwise go unheard by the public were it not for the cultivation of testimonial space such as that of the Magnes.

Without discounting the significance of Passy-Zale’s and Leitmann’s stories in terms of redress and the role their imaginative witness to trauma and survival plays in suturing the gap between past and present, I was particularly intrigued and moved by Russell’s evocative performance of two Yiddish folk songs: Ukrainian-American singer Sidor Belarsky’s “Der Germore Nign” and “Bessarabia,” a piece attributed to Bukovinian-born folk bard Itzik Manger. The deep bass of Russell’s singing imbued each piece with an air of lament resonant with the mood of the classic Negro Spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” thereby fostering a sonic entryway into what it might feel like, as per the subject matter of “Der Germore Nign,” to be a child separated from her family—an experience all too familiar to survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Russell thus expanded the parameters of remembering and, in this, who gets to remember (more on that below), in a turn to music that served to inflect the respective narratives of Passy-Zale and Letimann with a haunting aurality. Furthermore, his singing opened up a space of contemplative silence between testimonies. Indeed, after the ceremony, as I was speaking with Russell about his performance, an older woman and Holocaust survivor introduced herself to the basso to commend him for his soulful singing.  When I asked her about what Russell’s performance evoked in her she smiled and said, “I would need to write a poem about it.” Implicit in this response is an acknowledgment of a mystery that resists category or definition. It is a submission to a kind of unknowing which occurs in the face of trauma. Her inability or, perhaps, refusal to give words to what in Russell’s singing captured her imagination points to an experience of suffering that renders language absurd because nothing save a “tear or a sigh”[1] can approximate the “unspeakable”[2] nature of its magnitude. In this, it was Russell’s role to give some melody to it.

That said, I left my conversation with Russell, which was cut short in light of some other engagements to which he had to attend, mulling over the dual question of identity politics and cultural appropriation with regard to his testimony on behalf of Jewish survivors. What does it mean for an African-American to invoke the memory of the Jewish Holocaust in a way that moves others—both those who have and have not undergone the trials of political persecution—to engage more deeply with the reality of Jewish suffering? Moreover, in what ways does Russell’s appropriation of Yiddish folk songs function as a kind of historical redress and, in this, cultural survival for Jews?

With these prompts in mind, I decided to contact Russell by e-mail to glean insight from him on his own experience of giving witness to the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust, especially in terms of his African-American ancestry and what role it might play in his engagement with the racialized violence wrought on Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Speaking to this, Russell placed himself in company with “every other Jew who has not directly experienced the Holocaust,” emphasizing the impossibility of empathizing with those who withstood “horrors of that event.”[3] He wrote that it is only by way of interaction with survivors, “singing for them, listening and speaking to them, that my attempts to invoke and honor the lives of those affected by the Holocaust has begun to approach their experiences.”[4] Russell meanwhile nodded to what his African-American heritage brings to bear on his performances, noting that he draws on the “immense historic trauma” which “looms in the background” of his cultural history to give himself perspective on the experiences of Jews.[5]

By the same measure, the [then] 33-year-old Russell found a way to self-fashion through the incorporation of Yiddish folk song into his already expansive repertoire of musical training, based mostly in the European tradition of classical opera. In this, he has drawn on the experience of Jews, through music, to give himself perspective on the experience of African-Americans.

In an article he published recently in an online edition of Tablet Magazine[6] the singer recalls his conversion to Judaism, by way of his now-partner and Rabbi Michael Rothbaum, as an invitation to find a medium of self-expression that he could not locate in the world of classical singing where he grew weary of dealing with 15 years worth of “competition, rejection [it is difficult for a basso to find key roles in a field that revolves around ‘high tones’], technical difficulties, great expense, and casual racism.”[7] “Having just left the stage,” he writes, “I tried to find a new direction in texts, narratives, and experiences I had chosen to accept as a Jew. These, in turn, led me to those sounds I had carefully tried to avoid. They led me to myself.”[8]

It was at a Seder two years ago that Russell first heard a live rendition of the first song he ever learned in Yiddish, a piece called “Piramidn” by anarchist poet David Edelstadt that tropes on Jewish enslavement in Egypt. Russell was especially struck by the relevance of the song’s primary message, a question—“People, who will free you today?”—to his own social status as a gay, black male whose cultural history finds credible parallels with the Passover story, as evidenced by the Judeo-Christian themes of the Negro Spirituals. He writes, “It may come as surprise that I—a young-ish African-African gay convert—have any affinities with the world of Yiddish song. But right there, at the beginning of my Yiddish journey, was a story I could credibly portray. I knew the discontents of a history that included ‘di viste shklafnvelt,’ ‘the bleak slavery-world’ described in ‘Piramidn.’”[9]

From there, as Russell notes, he took on the catalogue of the aforementioned Belarsky, “a rich-toned bass from Russia and one of the 20th century’s most prolific performers of cantorial music, Hasidic nigunim,[10] and Yiddish art song.”[11] This led him further into a musical tradition he had, as a young man, scoffed at for the ways in which it marked him as a raced body: the Negro Spirituals. Through his engagement with Yiddish folk song, which has turned into a career of international proportions, Russell said that he returned to the Spirituals with new ears: “I could now hear my own history along with striking projections, elaborations, and celebrations of the foundational texts I had accepted as a part of myself as a Jew.”[12] He adds:

I found that yidishe lider (songs) and spirituals had much in common: folk-derived evocations of culture and spirituality expressed against a backdrop of systematic marginalization and oppression. In both kinds of music I found resignation and despair and impatience. I found hopes for redemption invoked, sometimes cynically and sometimes with great, heartbreaking earnestness. I found voices reproving those earnest hopers-for-redemption, calling them to action, change, and revolution. Out of the smoking crucible of the 19th century, on the eve of more horrors to come, I experienced texts in dialogue with each other.[13]

Russell thus found a means to articulate his own experiences as a racialized subject into whose black body a history of political violence has been inscribed by dint of his skin color and the legacy of slavery it references. Taking Belarsky’s “Der Gemore Nign” as a case-in-point, Russell notes that he drew a striking parallel between the subject matter of that song—“Are you homesick for your / father, mother, sister, brother, / and without them, / you are like a ship without a rudder?”—and, as referenced above, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” part of which reads: “Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone / A long way from home….” Echoing singer/actress Ethel Waters, Russell says he found in Yiddish folk song a “‘despair similar to that of my own people’ that tells the story of ‘my own race, too.’” And with the multi-talented Paul Robeson, Russell notes, “‘The Jewish sigh and tear are close to me.’”[14]

It is therefore out of a place of cross-racial identification that Russell has found a way to delve more deeply into his own cultural heritage without erasing the Jewish presence within it. In his conversion to Judaism and subsequent appropriation of Yiddish folk music that Russell came to acknowledge just how integral Judaism’s “foundational images and texts” are to the formation of African-American religious expression.[15] In the same way, he has witnessed the “reverse appropriation,” as he calls it, of African-American Spirituals by Jews who have incorporated songs such as “Go Down Moses” into Seders he has attended.

In all of this, Russell’s appropriation of Old World Jewish music meanwhile serves as an act of redress insofar as it functions as a kind of reparation that “seek[s] justice for the subjects of racial oppression”[16] through acts of remembering, such as singing, which articulate the needs and desires of the oppressed.[17] This is particularly evident at the level of the language itself. Yiddish is a High German language written in the Hebrew alphabet of Ashkenazi, or Central and Eastern European, Jews whose names derives from the biblical figure of Ashkenaz, the first son of the ancient Jewish patriarch Gomer.

When asked about the role of Yiddish folk songs in giving witness to the Holocaust, Russell noted that “Yiddish itself is a witness to the depredations of the Holocaust, holding as it does the sounds and sentiments of many of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.”[18] In this way Russell is granted access to remembering not only on behalf of, but with, the Jewish community. In this, moreover, he contributes to Jewish cultural tradition and its survival by “performing […] sounds and sentiments through song [that] educate, engage, connect and remind listeners of a world and culture that the state-sanctioned anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany attempted to destroy.”[19]

Playing on Russell’s most recent musical project which combines “African-American roots music (work songs, early blues and spirituals) with Jewish liturgical, folk, and art music from the late 19th and early 20th century [sic] to create narratives of spirituality, redemption, and hope,”[20] the cultural work he is doing as an African-American deeply invested in performances of Jewish identity through Yiddish folk song signifies a “convergence” of experiences related to racialized oppression that catalyze not only cross-racial dialogue in a spirit of cosmopolitanism, but, more to the core, the kind of empathic identification that is necessary to, in the words of Martha Nussbaum, “cultivating humanity.”

As Elaine Scarry notes and Russell himself makes clear, it is essentially impossible to fully know, if at all, another’s pain due to the “severe limits” of our imaginative capacity as human beings.[21] However, it is difficult to conceive of the formation of legal provisions concerned with citizens’ rights or the work of redress without some degree of what Scarry calls the “cosmopolitan largesse” that underlies Nussbaum’s “word-citizen” framework of civic engagement, predicated as it is on an imagining of the so-called other.

Such imagining, in which cultural producers such as Russell seem to engage, is not so much a matter of allowing one group to decide or mediate the welfare of another, as Scarry suggests with regard to the trope of “generous imaginigngs,”[22] or erasing the other’s body altogether as Hartman warns against in Scenes of Subjection, but a means to enact new modes of friendship in communities of solidarity and mutual support. In the same way that Nussbaum speaks of narrative art as a way to understand how circumstances sculpt the lives, desires, hopes and fears of those deemed different,[23] I believe Russell’s performance fosters “an informed and compassionate vision of the different”[24]—his own narrative of intercultural exchange a case-in-point—that in fact makes the so-called other more visible, more audible, and, ultimately, more human.

Indeed, his performances provide a “basis for civic imagining”[25] that is undergirded by compassion for the suffering of others in light of, at the very least, knowing pain in one’s own body and, if nothing else, making plain the plight of the ones who suffer. In his work of translating experiences of human trauma through Yiddish folk song Russell does not attempt to erase the irreconcilable differences that distinguish his personal make-up from that of another, let alone an entire population of people. Rather, he engages with the life-world and texts of another cultural tradition as a means to build bridges across those differences which requires neither an obliteration nor a reification of “otherness”—his own or that of his Jewish brothers and sisters—but an acknowledgement of shared fears, desires, and hopes that come out of historically different circumstances. This kind of multiculturalism, which refuses to flatten difference, but instead finds avenues of “convergence” is the foundation for the healthy constitutionalism that Scarry seeks and undoubtedly conducive to creating the “world citizenship” the Nussbaum espouses.

As a gay, African-American Jew, Russell does well to embody the concept of the “world citizen,” taking on the responsibility of remembering through an act of appropriation that contributes to, rather than co-opts, the cultural heritage of a community which would otherwise consider him an “outsider.” Russell’s performance of lament meanwhile references the terror and torture undergirding “sovereign violence” and its exercise in the extermination of those, such as Jews under Nazism (or African-Americans under American Apartheid), deemed incapable of bearing the “sovereign presence of the state.” [26] In so doing, his recitations of Old World Jeiwsh music restores a sense of humanity lost in what Giorgio Agamben identifies as “a flagrant case of homo sacer [i.e. ‘accursed man’]” by which the Jew living under Nazism embodied a “mere ‘capacity to be killed’” as one banned from the realm of “biopolitical sovereignty” that structured the Nazi state.[27]

In its attempt to accomplish this act of restoration, Russell’s is a work of redress that functions to bring us into a deeper awareness of the ways in which political power, when abused and unchecked by law, can lead to the kind of “grotesque moral blindness”[28] that legitimates historical atrocities such as that of the Jewish Holocaust or American slavery. As African-American cultural critic Huey Copeland notes, however, the work of redress is never done; redress is “terminally unfinished, requiring constant repetition and renewal to keep the past alive and the present under scrutiny.”[29]

For Russell this work is doubly layered, as his artistic output is situated at the convergence of identities—his blackness and his Jewishness—that each carry the burden of a history haunted by state-sanctioned racial violence. In giving representation, through his voice, to these histories Russell “invokes a lost world” via the “circular movement” of translating into song the life experiences of those who survived the trauma of the Holocaust, as well as those who died from it.[30] This makes possible networks of affiliation, communities of solidarity, essential to creating a more just society. Such community-building happens through the refusal to forget. For, as it is inscribed into the front interior wall of the Magnes: “In remembrance is the secret of redemption.” It is my contention that Russell’s act of remembering discloses just such a secret, not only in terms of the Jewish Holocaust, but also with reference to the history of American Slavery.

Notes

[1] Riffing on Paul Robeson (see below).

[2] This is a reference to Thomas Merton’s trope of the “unspeakable” as the existential emptiness, the dehumanizing void, out of which the terror and torture of war emerges. See Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966).

[3] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to author, May 5, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover,” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] From the Hebrew for “tune” or “melody.” The term refers to Jewish religious song.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 31.

[17] Riffing on Saidiya Hartman. See “Redressing the Pained Body: Toward a Theory of Practice” in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 77.

[18] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Anthony Russell, “‘Go Down, Moses’”, op. cit.

[21] See Elaine Scarry, “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People,” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar, http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf, March 4, 2014.

[22] Ibid., 106.

[23] Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[24] Ibid., 89.

[25] Ibid., 93.

[26] Riffing on Paul Kahn, Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008), 39.

[27] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 114.

[28] See Peter Brooks and Julie Stone Peters, “Law and Literature in Dialogue,” Modern Language Association 120, no. 5 (Oct., 2005): 1645-1647.

[29]Copeland, op. cit., 35.

[30] Anthony Russell, e-mail message to the author, May 5, 2014.———

References

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brooks, Peter and Julie Stone Peters. “Law and Literature in Dialogue.” Modern        Language Association 120, no. 5. (October 2005): 1645-1647.

Copeland, Huey. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kahn, Paul. Sacred Violence: Torture, Terror and Sovereignty. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008.

Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Russell, Anthony. “‘Go Down, Moses’: Engaging with My Complex Musical Heritage at Passover.” Tablet Magazine, April 7, 2014. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/166969/passover-negro-spirituals

Scarry, Elaine. “The Difficulty of Imagining Other People.” Literature, Religion, and Human Rights: Official Blogspace for 2014 GTU Seminar. http://humanrightsandlit.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/scarry_difficultyothers.pdf. March 4, 2014.


 

The Fine Line Between “Identity” and “Identification”: Debating Appropriation in the Case of Dolezal

A friend of mine recently sent me an online version of an op-ed piece that the retired NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabar penned for Time magazine. Entitled, “Let Rachel Dolezal Be as Black as She Wants to Be,” the article is a tongue-and-cheek response to the righteous backlash the former head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP has received for lying about her racial identity. In it, the former Lakers player engages in a thought experiment about the possibility of living a lie with regard to his towering frame as a means to make an argument about the arbitrariness of (racial) identity and the ways in which we can convince ourselves and others of our social location through the power of repetition.

“Although I’ve been claiming to be 7’2” for many decades,” he writes, “the truth is that I’m 5’8”,” adding, “Just goes to show, you tell a lie often enough and people believe you.”

Good point? Not so sure. Last time I checked, no one ever believed, nor is there a chance that anyone ever will believe, that Abdul-Jabar is 5’8”. Not to mention the identity politics of race is far more nuanced, complex, and complicated than those of height–at least in terms of the present debate.

Judging by the evidence against her—from allegations of receiving a full scholarship for Howard University’s MFA program under false pretenses to those of cultural appropriation so as to legitimate her involvement in various causes for racial justice—Ms. Dolezal has woven a masterful web of deceit around her self-identity that has allowed her to commit what amounts to a crime of cultural theft and, ultimately, an abuse of White privilege. Only recently, with the stir caused by her parents’ outing Dolezal as White, has she come under the proverbial gun of scrutiny—and rightly so.

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In opposition to Dolezal’s critics, however, Abdul-Jabar, an African American by ancestry, offers a sympathetic interpretation of her situation—one that he renders through the unstable metaphor of his choice to claim himself shorter than he is. The point he is making through this dubious analogy is that race is a social construct. Therefore, if this White woman, who claims a deep-seeded commitment to the African-American struggle for existential, social and political freedom, wishes to identify as Black it is damn well her imperative to do so. This is the case, Abdul-Jabar argues, particularly in light of how much Ms. Dolezal has contributed to the Black community through her involvement with the NAACP as well as her role as instructor of African-American studies at Eastern Washington University and her chairwomanship of a police oversight commission in Spokane.

I think Abdul-Jabar is right to remind us that race is merely a social construct. Indeed, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have gone to great lengths deconstructing categories of race, gender, and sexuality, revealing to us how fluid such identity signifiers actually are. The wonderfully compelling thing about the controversy surrounding Ms. Dolezal’s act of willful appropriation is that it provides a contemporary case-study by which to reconsider fixed notions of race because of how easily it can be adopted and performed (Dolezal a prime example).

After all, as Abdul-Jabar makes clear, race is not a biological reality. It is something we inherit culturally through discourse—that is, as a matter of shared values and social practices—that is not bound to or by genetic makeup. Its only tie to biology lies in the fact that it is used as a way to classify people according to phenotype, or skin color. An historical account of race meanwhile reminds us that it is an invention of White colonialism which ushered in the slave trade and, with this, a systematic ordering of people according to a hierarchy of being predicated on prejudicial assumptions about the supposedly inferior relation of non-Whites to Whites—the latter forming the top of a social pyramid into which we, as a global society, are still locked today.

While it may be true, as Abdul-Jabar writes, that “[w]hat we use to determine race is really nothing more than some haphazard physical characteristics, cultural histories, and social conventions that distinguish one group from another,” it is also true that the cultural histories and social conventions tied up in the physical characteristics used to classify individuals according to race are imbued with a specific politics that, for people who are actually Black or non-White, carries the weight of centuries-long oppression. In light of this burden, Blackness, even if an arbitrary construct, cannot be taken up by cultural outsiders simply by dint of waking up in the morning and deciding, “I am Black.” Especially not with the same hypothetical ease with which Abdul-Jabar imagines himself as shorter than 7’2”.

Indeed, his conceit does not hold up in large part because race cannot be so easily transcended or dismissed in a society where people are still being targeted as victims of violence based on the politics of skin color. The recent terror of the #CharlestonShooting as well as the spate of historic Black church burnings offer us horrific and sobering cases-in-point.

The problem with Abdul-Jabar’s logic, furthermore, lies in the fact that he fails to account for the ways in which Ms. Dolezal has in fact overstepped the boundaries of appropriation through her spurious claim of Blackness as a matter of “identity” rather than as a “politics of identification” (see Sharma, Hip Hop Desis: South Asian Americans, Blackness, and a Global Race Consciousness, 2010: 234ff). The distinction between “identity” and “identification” here is important (more below).

By claiming Blackness as a her racial identity when she is in fact White, Ms. Dolezal has assumed a heritage of historical burden that she has never actually had to live down—despite her claims of being discriminated against (apparently, she has alleged, as the target of anti-Black and anti-White racism, which reveals further the contradictions of her past and present social locations). While it is clear, as Abdul-Jabal notes, that she has committed herself to the struggle for Black enfranchisement and has at least ostensibly aligned herself with Blackness as a kind of political ideology that signifies solidarity with the racially oppressed, her actions reveal an overt misrepresentation of the very people with whom she has taken up a co-conspiratorial relationship in the cause for justice.

Not only has she misused her White privilege in manipulating the boundaries between races through a destructive kind of border crossing, she has also perpetuated the problem of White Supremacy by abusing her privilege to claim ownership of a cultural heritage tied up in experiences of racial oppression for which the very Whiteness she has at once eschewed and taken up (to cross borders) is responsible (riffing on the insights of Beja of the White Noise Collective; see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). She is, in sum, a walking contradiction of herself.

Furthermore, what she and, it seems, Abdul-Jabar, may deem an act of cross-racial association is really nothing more than a reinscription of an essentialist notion of race—the same notion she is supposedly attempting to disrupt, ironically, by donning a Black mask—that defeats her superficially altruistic purposes of taking up the Black fight for liberation.

By denying her racial identity as White and playing into a performance of Blackface that relies on a questionable appearance of phenotypic Blackness (i.e. Blackness by way of skin-type)–a Blackness fetishized in the White racial imagination (Dolezal’s to be precise)–she is enacting a politics of racial identity that capitalizes on a fetishizing conception of race which views it as a categorical difference rooted in skin color, thus associating Blackness with a kind of skin-deep essence that can be integrated as easily as picking up and putting on a facade for a theatrical display.

Despite Abdul-Jabar’s shaky comparison of Dolezal’s pitiful act to the potentially anti-racist Blackface of late entertainer Al Jolson, she deploys an identity politics that reinforces stereotypes of Blackness as a biological marker of identity and difference. She therefore seems to be at cross purposes with herself, at once reproducing (consciously or unconsciously) a racist construct of Blackness as a biological reality through Blackface at the same time that she is advocating for a more anti-essentialist conception of Blackness that informs her highly questionable commitments to the hard work of racial reconciliation.

Put another way, her masquerade of Blackness, replete with frizzy, Afro-curled hair and darkened skin tone, falls back on a White imaginary of lampooned Blackness that maintains a caricatured depiction of the racial other—an act she used to convince people on both sides of the “color line” (Du Bois 1903) of her status as a minority so as to further an ulterior agenda for professional advancement that works in irreconcilable tension with her professed value system.

Truth is, she is not a racial other and her motivations for appropriating Blackness prove dubious if not duplicitous.

With all this in mind, her act of cultural appropriation functions as a form of “othering” that decontextualizes, dehistorizes, and depoliticizes racial difference (Sharma 2010: 237) between Whites and non-Whites. She lifts Blackness out of the context, history and politics with which it is has been wedded since the dawn of the Euro-American slave trade (read: modernity) and thus silences, or reduces to invisibility, the historical realities that created Blackness as a social construct in the first place. The paradox in this is that her act of “appropriation as othering” is about both “‘love and theft’” as it “[works] through positive stereotyping, such as in the idealization or exotification of the other […]” (Sharma 2010: 240). In Dolezal’s case, it appears that her destructive engagement with appropriation happened as a matter of possessive love through thievery.

The sad thing in all of this is that she could have engaged in appropriation to the advantage of the people to whom she has purportedly dedicated her work. As race theorists recognize, appropriation is multi-directional (Sharma 2010:236); it flows back and forth across racial and cultural lines.

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That being the case, appropriation does not have to be a bad thing. It depends on how one positions oneself in relation to those cultural formations with which one is associating his or herself. There are ways to engage in the act of appropriation constructively and with dignity, honor, knowledge, and respect for the cultural other that is informed by an awareness of the histories that have shaped the culture of the so-called other (Sharma 2010: 271). We see examples of this in White jazz musicians who contributed to the push for desegregation of clubs (Jones 1963; Sharma 2010:  264) or in White rappers who were socialized by the Black nationalist sensibilities of the crews they grew up listening to. Hinted at above, in contradistinction to the act of appropriation as a form of “othering” is that of “appropriation as identification” with the object of “othering” (Sharma 2010: 237). In this instance, appropriation signals solidarity with the cultural practices of the other rather than a colonizing co-optation of the other’s life-world—as we witness in Dolezal’s confused and delusional self-association with Blackness.

Seeing appropriation as a means of identification, however, first requires that we rearticulate the terms and politics of identity that police acts of appropriation. In so doing, we get out of thinking that appropriation only and ever equates to stealing or inauthentic borrowing (Sharma 2010).

For sure, the question of racial authenticity as it pertains to the issue of appropriation and the boundaries of cultural ownership is a tricky one to answer. Yet the fluidity of race as a concept calls us to find new ways to engage the tired politics of racial identity, challenging us to break ties with strict adherence to cultural mores around race and racial authenticity that ultimately prevent cross-racial fertilization (Sharma 2010). To sample hip hop studies scholar Nitasha Tamar Sharma: “When ‘culture’ is considered to be ‘owned’ by a demarcated group it is rendered static by trapping individuals within fabricated categories that reaffirm the logic of racism based on naturalized differences” (281).

The traditional script of racial identity politics relies on fixed, or essentialist, notions of race to say, for instance, that any non-Black performance of Blackness is racist and should therefore be dismissed as inauthentic. In recent scholarship on the matter, cultural theorists—riffing on the concept of racial formation (see, for example, Omi and Winant, Racial Formation in the United Sates 2014) which recognizes race as a social construct—encourage us to consider the ways in which appropriation does not necessarily equate to either fraudulence or inauthenticity; “theft” or “colonization” (Lott 1993, Lipsitz 1994; quoted in Sharma 2010: 264).

As Black sociologist John Jackson goes at length to discuss in his book Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity (2005), racial authenticity claims, specifically in terms of Blackness, run the risk of “ossifying race into a simple subject-object equation, reducing people to little more than objects of racial discourse, characters in racial scripts, dismissing race as only and exclusively the primary cause of social domination and death” (15). In saying this, Jackson argues that sincerity should function as the real litmus test for cultural membership. A shift from an emphasis on racial authenticity to racial sincerity works to engage the interior motivations of those involved in acts of appropriation and gets us to consider the possibilities for coalition building through multiracial deployments of an anti-essentialist Blackness, in particular, and race, in general. In this way, race can function not as a cause for domination and death, but for mutual empowerment and life.

Again playing on Sharma, this shift in approach beckons us to interpret appropriation according to a comprehension of actors’ ideologies (238). Given the amorphous nature of race and the effortlessness with which we can find ourselves in the act of cultural borrowing, to the point of assuming a racial identity other than our own, it is crucial to interpret acts of appropriation through a contextual lens, as Sharma would have it, so as to “dislocate authenticity from the body” (Sharma 2010:272) and focus more on the issue of identification in terms of one’s approach to to Blackness, for instance, rather than on the Blackness of one’s identity (sampling Sharma 2010: 215). 51L1XZai8NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

This is to say that, following the dual lead of Jackson and Sharma, our understanding of appropriation must be informed by an awareness of the political, ethical, and moral commitments of those who appropriate rather than their bodily identity. In this way, non-Black actors can, as Jackson and Sharma suggest (see also Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity, 2003), identify with Blackness as an ideology and/or epistemology—that is, a way of knowing—and of being in the world that is tied to a conscious awareness of the history of racialized oppression against Black bodies as well as an intentional dialogue with the various Black cultural responses to said oppression that find expression in books, music, and political activism. In this way, appropriation can function as a form of flexible “identification” with the racial/cultural other.

“Appropriation as identification” in the meantime refuses to flatten racial difference—a flattening we see in the neo-liberal adherence to color-blind “multiculturalism” that actually diminishes the non-White other to the status of non-entity through its misguided celebration of sameness. We see a variation on this misguided discourse of “multiculturalism” in Dolezal’s claim to be Black inasmuch as she attempts to transcend the fact of her Whiteness by becoming Black. Her act of appropriation therefore falls short of identification in her own concern for assuming a Black identity that in fact reproduces the old script of racial politics which, unchecked, operates according to ossified articulations of race as bounded and secured. Indeed, Dolezal has locked herself into a Black identity in her act of racial crossing that, though she may believe signifies a gesture of identification, is an ironic repetition of a racial politics which says one has to be Black in essence in order to be Black in worldview–or taken further, one can assume a Black racial identity, dismissing the reality of difference, simply by adopting a Black worldview. This is not to get overly caught up in identity politics, which would be to fall into the very trap that scholars like Sharma warn us to avoid, but to reiterate the distinction between constructive and destructive forms of appropriation–a distinction that Dolezal ceases to make in act of over-identification.

Instead of either melting racial difference into a “post-racial” goop which implies a disregard for the atrocities that created racial difference in the first place or “ossifying” racial difference into a fixed dichotomy of “us” and “them” that shuts down the possibility for cross-racial exchange, “appropriation as identification” recognizes that there are specific histories to be accounted for in light of how the non-White other has been raced, or racialized, by Whites, at the same time that it seeks to create a dialogic of shared worldviews across the racial-cultural divide. This demands a practice of critical memory that resists the temptation to amnesia we see in gestures of multiculturalism; in those mistranslations of what it means to be transracial (echoing Lisa Marie Rollins; see “Transracial Lives Matter,” 2015); and in those acts of appropriation that co-opt the other’s identity wholesale while foregoing the possibility of dismantling one’s own Whiteness in self-critical rather than self-shaming ways (see “On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, and White Shame,” 2015). Ultimately, what “appropriation as identification” calls for is a critical recognition of difference at the same time that it invites us to intercultural and interracial bonding.

In the case of Ms. Dolezal, she had an opportunity to employ appropriation as a form of identification. However, she overstepped her bounds by going so far as to appropriate Blackness as an identity that she never had the rights to claim. In this way, she “othered” the very ones she sought to relinquish from the burden of “othering” and ultimately confused the political ideology of Blackness as her racial identity—taking up “everything but the burden” (Tate 2003) from those with whom she says she most identified internally. 5178xVxtybL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In this, she unwittingly, or perhaps wittingly, leveraged her Whiteness to gain access to a commodified Blackness (hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” 1992; quoted in Collins, 2015) that resulted in an ultimately poor and insincere—which is to say, inauthentic—act of appropriation, discrediting all of her purportedly pro-Black advocacy and revealing a skewed racial logic that has subsumed her identification with Blackness into a Black identity itself.

To play on the insights of a colleague of mine who wrote some pithy responses to this incident on his facebook wall last week, Ms. Dolezal’s experimentation with her own Whiteness offers those of us who are White and who consider ourselves committed to the cause of decolonizing Whiteness, an invitation to become race traitors ourselves (thinking here of Noel Ignatiev’s “The Point is Not to Interpret Whiteness But to Abolish It,” 1997)—not in a way that would lead to an unwitting act of “appropriation as othering,” and therefore wrongful treason against our brothers and sisters of darker hue (à la Dolezal), but of “appropriation as identification” with those brothers and sisters and their plight as the objectified targets of racial terror. In this way, we can involve ourselves in the work of deconstructing Whiteness, committing an act of rightful treason against White Supremacy and the various and insidious manifestations of it both at the level of systems (the “macro”) and everyday interaction (the “micro”), so as to rearticulate it according to a discourse of anti-racism.

I believe Ms. Dolezal’s racial insincerity prods us to consider the fine line between Blackness as an epistemology and Blackness as a racial identity; between “appropriation as othering” and “appropriation as identification.”  Insofar as she claims an investment in the ideology undergirding the Black freedom struggle—with Blackness as a political worldview informed, though not solely, by resistance to oppressive systems and structures that target racial minorities—yes, I agree with Abdul-Jabar, let her be “as Black as she wants to be.” However, insofar as she has never actually had to endure the heaviness of the historical burden that is racial Blackness by dint of her unexamined Whiteness, yet has proceeded to strip Blackness of its contextual content and meaning through identity theft and fraud, I say: “Step back, Rachel, and slow your roll.”

Playing Bongos with Louie: A Reflection on Thomas Merton, Race, and Rap

A version of this article was originally published in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (2015) on Fons Vitae Press. Republished with permission. 

Bongo Louie
“Thomas Merton Playing Bongos” (1968), Ralph Eugene Meatyard

We claim the present as the pre-sent, as the hereafter.
We are unraveling our navels so that we may ingest the sun.
We are not afraid of the darkness, we trust that the moon shall guide us.
We are determining the future at this very moment.
We now know that the heart is the philosophers’ stone.
Our music is our alchemy.

Saul Williams, “Coded Language,” from Amethyst Rockstar (2001)

Though he has remained an ever vigilant presence in my life since I was first gifted Seven Storey Mountain by a close friend and mentor in the fall of 2001, my first semester of college at Philadelphia’s La Salle University, it’s been a few years since I’ve thought seriously about Merton—a man I consider, like so many other of his readers, to be a spiritual father.

This is ironic, in a way, because he led me through my undergraduate years as a student of religious studies, and continued to accompany me both personally and professionally through two masters programs—in English Literature at Arcadia University in Philadelphia and Systematic Theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University (JST-SCU)—and a slew of Merton Society meetings. Indeed, I first came to Berkeley, California, my current place of residence, almost four years ago with the intent of making him the focus of a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), where I am currently engaged in doctoral work that has very little to do, at least ostensibly, with Merton.

Upon acceptance into the GTU’s common M.A. program in the spring of 2010, however, Merton was front and center. Cultivating-Humanity-9780674179493Taking up work I had already started at Arcadia, I wanted to engage Merton as a mouthpiece for the politics of mysticism and its role in facilitating societal transformation. I had it in mind to further what scholars such as Lynn Szabo and Ross Labrie accomplished with their own detailed exploration of Merton’s mystical poetics and examine the ways in which Merton’s poetry has implications for a shift in social consciousness necessary to creating a more just society. Undergirding this claim is the still strong belief I have in the power of literature to influence human rights discourse and, as American political philosopher Martha Nussbaum posits in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1999), nurture “powers of imagination that are essential to citizenship” (85).

For sure this is a tenet that Merton himself would hold true. Hence his prophetic “Message to Poets” and “Answers on Art and Freedom,” which close his prose-poetic magnum opus Raids on the Unspeakable (1966)–a text that became the centerpiece of my GTU master’s thesis. In it I interpret Raids as a political theology using work by Christopher Pramuk and Johann Baptist Metz to sharpen my hermeneutical lens. In returning to Raids, I find Merton there embodying perhaps more fully than any of his previous works the parrhesia (Greek for “free speech”) that he does so well to unpack in theoretical terms in The New Man (1961) and which Jonathan Montaldo treats deftly in his manuscript “To Uncage His Voice: Thomas Merton & Parrhesia [Free Speech].” Merton likens the concept—which refers traditionally to the “rights and privileges of a citizen in a Greek city state” to “speaking one’s own mind fully and frankly in the civil assemblies by which the state is governed”—to human intimacy with God “in work as well as in contemplation” (NM 72).41yINHj74-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Merton meanwhile culls from the writings of the Church Fathers and his own allegorical reading of the Judeo-Christian creation myth to interpret parrhesia as the “symbolic expression” of the human person’s self-actualization in love (NM 74).  This happens by way of laboring with “some consciousness of the value of human society” that puts us “in dialogue with reality” (NM 80)—a figurative “conversation with God” which Merton understands as the “free spiritual communion of being with Being” (NM 76) that duly manifests not only in the fact of being human, but in the intimacy of being-for-other (read: human relationship).

As an expression of parrhesia, Raids provided Merton the space to come most fully into himself as activist, artist, global citizen, monk, poet, and theologian who tears the fabric of social orthodoxies through the power of “free speech” in order to do his part, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said of his own work, in ridding the world of social evil and thereby come into deeper intimacy with God. This is no small task to say the least. And it is one that Merton challenges his readership to take up in Raids when he urges us to dispel the magic of political propaganda through love (caritas)—giving witness through his own “free speech” to an underlying eschatological faith-hope in the possibility of “the word” to usher in a new dawn of fidelity to life in “the Spirit” rather than to artificial systems; to human solidarity rather than to the mere collectivity of the herd (as illustrated by Eugene Ionesco’s metaphor of “rhinoceritis” which Merton expounds in “Rain and the Rhinoceros”; see also RU 156-57).0811201015

That being said, I closed Raids with the completion of my master’s thesis and the prospects of doctoral work at the GTU looming on the horizon in the spring of 2012, wondering: Where do I go from here? What more, if anything at all, do I want to write about Merton? What do I do with the work he has left me to take up?

Feeling as though I had exhausted my stint with Merton, I have to admit that by the time I submitted a second thesis on him, I was itching to explore new terrain; to bid happy farewell to the figurative parent who reared me intellectually in/on the mystery of parrhesia and find my own voice as the would-be poet to whom Merton addressed his penultimate essay of Raids. This led me to ask the further question about what most enlivens me, about what makes me feel most fully myself (and therefore a poet as Merton would have it), particularly in terms of continuing the academic route on which I was set.

Like Fr. Louie playing bongos inside of his Gethsemani hermitage, photographed in the iconic black and white picture taken by Ralph Eugene Meatyard in 1968, I found myself drawn to the sound of the drums, specifically as elicited in the work of my favorite rap artists. Along with Merton’s catalog, it was hip-hop that kept me in step to the rhythms of life through my formative years—which included an undergrad and two grad programs dedicated to the mystic’s teachings. When finally it came time for me to solidify a set of research questions that would take me through yet another degree, I turned my attention away from Merton’s poetry and toward the poetics and politics of rap music.

Indeed, before Merton even entered my world, hip-hop taught me what it means to really “dance in the water of life” as when I was nine years old and first heard the jazzy interplay of sampled vibraphones, bass, and drum on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Award Tour” bumping out of my stereo, tuned to the frequency of Baltimore’s rap radio station 92 Q. It was then that I first learned, at least unconsciously at that point, what parrhesia is all about.

81781Yet it is with the image of Merton on the bongos in mind that I presently engage what I call, riffing on American jazz drummer Max Roach, the “politics in the drums” which lies at the heart of a now global cultural phenomenon that post-colonial theorist George Lipsitz, appropriating the terminology of humanist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, coins a counter-hegemonic “war of position” (see Lipsitz, “Diasporic Noise: History, Hip Hop, and the Post-Colonial Politics of Sound” in Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place, 27, 38). Deeply informed by Merton’s self-identification as poet on the margins—clapping stretched canvas in happy protest of the “hegemonies that be” or listening to jazz and blues records as they spun on the turntable situated in the cosmopolitan space of his hermitage—I have found in rap music a medium of and variation on parrhesia that has allowed society’s most disenfranchised to take ownership over their own lives, as well as the means of production, through the power of the word—what in West African parlance is called Nommo.

In this, Merton has provided the inspiration, the necessary push, for me to enter the dance of parrhesia as it takes place in hip-hop culture as well as my work as a student of the rap academy, rife with street-level philosophers whose gift of “free speech” signifies the “combined functions of hermit, pilgrim, prophet, priest, shaman, sorcerer, soothsayer, alchemist and bonz” (RU 173). By entering into conversation with these figurative high priests of rap-inflected parrhesia as (ra)parrhesia—including the likes of Nas, Jay-Z, 2Pac, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Shabazz Palaces, Ab-Soul, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Project Blowed, among many others—I enter into deeper intimacy with God, embodying my own capacity for “free speech” in the process of interpreting for and with others the insights gleaned from what a former GTU professor of mine calls “message music.” Insights that reveal a deeply invested commitment, riffing on Merton, to the pursuit of political solutions to problems “that endanger the freedom of man [sic]” (RU 171)—not least of which is institutionalized racism as it operates in a global capitalist economy that, in the post-industrial predicament of American cities, has blighted once prosperous North American urbanscapes populated mostly by racial/ethnic minorities.

Inasmuch as my current academic pursuit entails an examination of the ways in which black cultural production in the form and content of rap music (read: [ra]parrhesia) fosters new ways of being in and for the world that are deconstructive of the white supremacist status quo, I am being challenged to keep in check the egoism of the “false self” by which I have been conditioned in a socio-economic milieu that privileges both my whiteness and my maleness. Positioned in many ways as the well-meaning “white liberal” to whom Merton addresses his searing essay on American race-relations in Seeds of Destruction (1964), my work implicates me in a practice of self-reflexivity that is an act of intersubjective parrhesia in its own right.41pOurJW4eL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It invites me, echoing James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time (1963), to “fruitful communion with the depths of my own being” that serves to decenter my subjectivity (and the assumptions that inform it) in encounter with the so-called “other” (130 ff) and there root out what Merton calls in Seeds of Destruction the “cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences” (SD 45-46). Such an act of “free speech” is grounded in the purpose of fulfilling the democratic promise upon which the American project is founded, a mission Merton himself worked to accomplish during his own lifetime as a prophet of parrhesia.

Rap music—as a cultural platform for minority youth in particular and young people in general to embody the freedom of self-expression—is in its own way empowering me to answer Merton’s injunction in Seeds of Destruction to “think black” (60); that is, to reorient my understanding of the world by adopting an epistemology informed by the plight of those who suffer the injustices of systemic racism. In this performative dialogic, this dance of “free speech,” between me and the racialized other, I am called to further engage the “crisis in which we find ourselves” (SD 60) as a society still deeply entrenched in what black feminist bell hooks calls the “imperialism of patriarchy” (see bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, 1999).9780896087699_p0_v1_s260x420

Furthermore, it is cluing me into the “streets” and the “ghettoes” where, as Merton notes in Learning to Love (1967), “much of the real germinating action in the world, the real leavening” lies (231). In this, I am being summoned (along with rap’s actual practitioners and other like-minded “hip-hop heads”—be they black, brown, white, red or yellow–to plumb the depths of my own unique possibilities for civic engagement and thereby conduct a Mertonian “raid on the Unspeakable,” implicating rap music, and my love for it, in what black cultural critic Huey Copeland calls, à la the intellectual contributions of black literary theorist Saidiya Hartman, a “rhetoric of redress” aimed at reparative justice (See Huey Copeland, “Fred Wilson and the Rhetoric of Redress” in Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America, 2013).

So it is to the imagined boom-bap of Merton’s playful bongo beats that I march into the matrix of cultural production that black public figures from Afrika Bambaataa, Queen Latifah, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to Tupac Shakur and his protégé  Kendrick Lamar have helped shape, remapping the global landscape into a social sphere more livable through electronically-based, rhymed storytelling that functions to develop the essential moral capacities, recalling Nussbaum’s insight into narrative, necessary for a kind of (ra)parousia to occur—understood in the context of American race relations as the realization of the Ellisonian dream of democracy that the Harlem Renaissance-era author espouses in his seminal The Invisible Man.

Signifying on traditional conceptions of what constitutes literacy so as to create an entirely new lexicon that is at once wretchedearthtextual, verbal and non-verbal, rap music acts as kind of “Talking Book,” to borrow a trope from black literary theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism, 1988), which provides its practitioners, particularly those in ghettoized or under-represented communities where the “real leavening” takes place, a means of enunciating a specific stance, location and visibility within a broader cultural framework that has historically reduced them to the status of the invisible or, in Frantz Fanon’s terms, “the wretched of the earth.”

In the same way learning to read and write allowed slaves a means to contest their oppression and use the master’s tools of literacy to speak themselves into subjecthood, rap music’s Nommo, as an African-derived variation on parrhesia, empowers its practitioners (and its audience) to disarticulate, or dissemble, the oppressive historical circumstances in which they find themselves, and rearticulate their discursive terrain in a speech act of forthright self-assertion. As such, rap music offers the necessary resources for a subtextual analysis of history, on the part of artist and audience, which discloses unpopular political truths pertaining to systemic evils such as racism and, as black critical theorist Houston Baker Jr. argues in terms of the blues, serves to reorient historical discourse from the perspective of the oppressed (see Houston Baker, Jr., Blues, Ideology and Afro American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, 1984).

Rap is in this way an exercise in an expansive kind of literacy which challenges us, as did Merton’s mystical poetics, to re-conceptualize language as more than the mere manipulation of words. Put another way, it pushes us to take language, and the way we use it, more seriously. As with Merton’s “Message to Poets,” rap’s underlying ethos invites us to see language as an embodied act of self-fashioning that takes on many forms, styles, and articulations, and has everything to do with keeping in step to the soul’s beat—that embodied metronome of rhythm and rhyme which empowers its speakers to “claim the present as the pre-sent” and, in an eschatological turn, determine the future “at this very moment.” In this same way it gestures toward the love and hope that undergirds a sturdy “politics of conversion”—what in Race Matters (1994) black cultural critic Cornel West deems the antidote to the problem of “spiritual impoverishment” in America.the-fire-next-time

That said, I’m grateful to Merton for awakening me to the narrative play that is inherent in the gift of “free speech,” as intimate conversation with God, and the many ways it manifests through different forms of poetry—be it the anti-poetics of the Trappist monk’s later prose poems that constitute Raids; the politically polemic poetics of such Golden Era rap classics as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back (1988); or, with Sophia’s blessing, my own work as an aspiring hip-hop scholar. And I’m also grateful for the opportunity and space this essay has given me to enter into a figurative “cipher” with someone whom I consider a dear father, brother, and friend in Sophia. [A “cipher” is a situation in which two or more rappers form a circle and play off of each other in an informal performance of freestyle, or improvisational rapping/talking.]

Hers is a wisdom that Merton would find resonant in rap’s vernacular Nommo, resplendent with a message of hope for our time in its function as a kind of “free speech,” a (ra)parrhesia, imbued with potential for bringing us into deeper intimacy with God, as if in cipher, through deeper intimacy with each other and ourselves. An intimacy which, thinking of Merton in (ra)parlay with Baldwin, takes us beyond words and into a kind of “wordless communion.”

I have no doubt that were Merton still alive at the time of hip-hop’s burgeoning, and even still today as the genre continually evolves into new forms and patterns of “free speech,” he would be tuned in to the sonic frequency which is rap, “routed” in the Afrodiasporic politics of the break beat—what spoken word poet and rapper Saul Williams allegorizes in his invective, “Coded Language,” quoted in the epigraph, as the “missing link connecting the diasporic community to its drum woven past.” Indeed, I can hear Merton right now, in the spirit of (ra)parrhesia, chanting with fellow anti-poet Williams: “Motherfuckers better realize! / Now is the time to self-actualize!”