10/04: Hearing (Thinking) Black Death
Hearing (Thinking) Black Death
by Mark Anthony Neal
The very first sentence of Michael Eric Dyson's new book April 4, 1968 reads: "You cannot hear the name Martin Luther King, Jr. and not think of death," to which specifically, I might add, you cannot help but think of Black Death. And perhaps that is as it should be. There's a certain logic to the fact that a culture that has been so obsessed with questions of freedom, subjugation, liberation and incarceration would have an equally striking obsession with death. Perhaps more than any culture in the Americas, Blackness has had to come to terms with the idea of death--the Middle Passage, Lynching, the Underground Railroad to mark just a few historical moments--all framed by acts of movement, resistance, retribution, in which death, Black Death, was tangible and visceral. And indeed it's been in the province of black creative expression--Black Genius more broadly--that Blackness has found the space to think through the idea death, not just as a grieving process, but an act of freedom in its own right.
When the JC White Singers, bravely asked in 1971 "Were You There, When They Crucified My Lord?" it was something more than just another memorial recording marking the passing of the greatest symbol(s) of Black liberation struggle. "Were You There?" was one of those timeless spirituals of Negroes Old, but at the moment that the JC White Singers sang its words, it became a defiant response from a culture that long understood that filling the air with the sound of black grief and black trauma was perhaps the most defiant act possible.
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