The Amalgamation Waltz

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Tavia Nyong’o, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

In The Amalgamation Waltz, Tavia Nyong’o provides a fresh take on the seemingly simple but in fact profound questions of ‘who can separate us?’ and ‘who can bring us together?’ This vital work helps to explain our obsession with amalgamation and does a fine job of theorizing the politics and poetics of race as they are performed in American culture from the birth of the nation to the election of Barack Obama.

—Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University

Tavia Nyong’o’s deft and fluid analytical focus shifts with ease from the oratorical texts of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to hip hop artists Missy Elliott and Public Enemy, from contemporary visual art (the ‘Mining the Museum’ and ‘Legacies’ exhibitions) to the theatre of Suzan-Lori Parks and John Sims’ film ‘Recoloration Proclamation.’ The Amalgamation Waltz is as beautifully written as it is cogent.

—Daphne Brooks, Princeton University

The Amalgamation Waltz performs an important hybridization of critical race and queer theory.

Contemporary Theatre Review

In his stunning new book The Amalgamation Waltz, Nyong’o compels us to confront the problematics of this particular dialectic—namely, the nascent talk of racial transcendence alongside the entrenchment of white supremacy and racialized slavery.

Theatre Journal

Nyong’o’s work is full of . . . insights, which reflect current thinking. The original and provocative element of the book is his critique of the idea of the hybrid person—understood here as a mixed-race offspring of a heterosexual marriage even if perhaps the married state is sometimes absent—as the cure for race relations from the colonial period to the present.

Early American Literature

The Amalgamation Waltz is well argued and engaging. Nyong’o’s impressive scholarship and deft rhetorical circumventions are compelling, and his conclusions will prove valuable to scholars from a wide range of disciplines.

African American Review

Henry and Grover, Drowning in a Bathtub

My new post up over at Bully Bloggers, on Thoreau and the government shutdown.

Bully Bloggers

hes-funny

By Tavia Nyong’o

“I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform

“My thoughts are murder to the state.” — Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American writer, conservationist, and proto-anarchist.

Teaching Thoreau’s great essay on ‘Resistance to Civil Government‘ during a partial shutdown of the US federal government is an occasion for feelings of great ambivalence. The scholar Henry Abelove has called Thoreau’s prose persona seductive. And I, like Abelove, very much want to be seduced. But how can I extol the worldview of this fearless forerunner of queer anarchism while the anti-government wing of the governing party allows the sick and needy to go uncared for, the statistics on the jobless to go uncollected, the safety of our food supply to…

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EMP Pop Conference 2013 NYC Wrap-up

Finally placating my FOMS (fear of missing something), EMP Pop Conference NYC 2013 was streamlined to a single sequence of panels over the course of two days, allowing me to attend every single panel. Of course, the conference happened concurrently in four other cities: LA, Cleveland, New Orleans, and Seattle. But somehow out of sight was (at least temporarily) out of mind, and the range and depth of conversations we had at 721 Broadway Thursday and Friday held focus for the duration.

As an organizer of the event, I’m particularly proud of the mix of academics, journalists, musicians, dancers, deejays, producers and bloggers that we were able to bring together, often on the same panel. Shout out to Dr. Imani Kai Johnson who brought together legendary dancers and DJs for a revelatory (10 am!) discussion about the underground house dance tribe. EMP stalwarts appeared alongside some first timers, references to Kant and cumbia were fair game, and to my pleasurable surprise, folks defied the “regional” concept behind the 5-city theme, and came to NYC from as far away as Toronto, North Carolina, and London. That people value EMP Pop Conference enough to travel to it, sometimes just to participate from the audience, speaks to the unique status of this event. And it’s need to continue.

Suspended over the event, of course, was the geographically proximate but emotionally wrenching distance between New York and Boston. Many of us had at least one eye on our Twitter feeds for updates on the lockdown and manhunt (thankfully now concluded without any further loss of life). Amanda Palmer’s keynote, oddly enough, spoke directly to this networked condition, and not just because she had herself made it out of Boston, despite the lockdown, to speak at EMP. Now, I personally cannot claim to know her music well or appreciate her social media influence fully. But I was very taken by the forthrightness with which she addressed the dilemmas of living a substantial portion of our lives online.

The networked condition is a topic that has been instantly banalized without being fully understood. 1993 isn’t that long ago, but as the recent New Museum show reminded us, its a world away in many ways. It’s probably not understandable at this moment: I’m still historian enough to believe that the owl of minvera flies at dusk. But that very impossibility made Palmer compelling, insofar as she refused the kind of dogmatic and premature “solutions” offered by digital pessimist and digital Pollyanna alike.

Fred Moten put it well in his remarks delivered via Skype from Scotland, when he riffed off of the dis/placement of virtual presence and called our attention to the no-place of a not-public sphere. Those who know my interest on the “non-philosopher” Francois Laruelle will appreciate how my ears always perk up at the possibilities that inhere to this kind of negation.

History is another kind of virtual presence, especially when channeled through the weird magic of recorded media. We humanists tend to treat classroom media with a mixture of contempt and mock-incompetence, a practice that always startles and offends the 13-year-old me trying to program in Basic on the computer my grandpa gave me. But as Daphne Brooks, Gayle Wald and Alex Vazquez all showed, to bring Diana Ross, Roland Rahsaan Kirk, and La Lupe into the room, even mediatically, is to reanimate musical and political forces that still retain “the fierce urgency of the now.”

Deborah Kapchan and Banning Eyre worried about the loss of affective and aesthetic complexity that digital tools and deskilling has brought to African and African-diasporic musics. I myself am not quite ready to equate quantization with baleful Westernization. Or rather, I would want to push that equation further, the better to understand black and black-influenced musics as “the critique of Western civilization,” produced by organic intellectuals like La Lupe, Kirk and, why not? maybe even the Boss (although Scott Poulson-Bryant’s presentation on Thursday argued that Stephanie Mills, not Ross, truly owns “Home,” Dorothy’s anthem from The Wiz).

“Migrant Locals” brought together a vibrant and sometimes tense conversation about convivial culture in the gentrifying city. Online and outside in the hallway, parallel conversations were being had about what it means to take Harlem, or anywhere else in NYC for that matter, as tabula rasa for migrant strivers dreaming. An open-ended, two-way diaspora has replaced older myths of immigration, with New Yorkers from Mexico, West Africa, and the Dominican Republic retaining linguistic, musical, and familial ties to home. Goods are being trafficked from the Caribbean. Mix CD shout-outs to loved ones circulate on a gift economy between a warehouse under the BQE and towns in Mexico. Houses go up in Dakar on money earned driving black cars in Brooklyn: standing empty awaiting their owners return. There is a tension, however, between the nouveau wealth and optimism of the globalized petty bourgeoisie — no longer comprador exactly, but not revolutionary either — and the multigenerational but still propertyless people of Harlem, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, Red Hook. The generosity and spirit of the “Air Shaft Rent Party” that Moten evoked persists in tension with the acquisitive and possessive familialism of some immigrant cultures (speaking from personal experience).

All to say that multiculturalism, conviviality, and musical cross-pollination (or conversely musical/cultural hermeticism) are fraught and tense issues on the ground, not mere academic or journalistic abstractions. I am attracted to José Muñoz evocation of a “brown punk commons” of those who don’t necessarily have anything obvious (like identity) in common, as one space where these issues can be aired, without of course resolving them. If genre is multiculturalism and world music’s stock in trade, punk in Muñoz’s terms is an anti-genre, a genre of the antithesis and the negation. I heard some of that negation in Kandia Crazy Horse’s totally punk account of being a black female singer in the New York “up-South” country scene. Sometimes anti-genre can sound like genre, but only to those who aren’t paying attention.

Listen to Kandia Crazy Horse, “Cabin in the Pines” here.

I’ll finish this wrap-up with a Part II soon.

About Me

I am a cultural critic and scholar whose research interests include African American Studies, American Studies, 19th and 20th century American cultural studies; Performance Studies, Queer Studies, cinema, popular music, visual art and critical theory.

Here is a link to my CV and bio; you can read my recent scholarly publications here. Here is a sample of the courses I teach.

Besides this site, you can find my writing at Bully Bloggers, SalonSocial TextThe New Inquiry, n+1, and The Feminist Wire.

Drawing by Sam Icklow.

Black Survival in the Uchromatic Dark

What does it mean to be abandoned to life? Two drowned little boys in Staten Island await an answer. The face of their mother, Glenda Moore, caught by media cameras as she approached their lifeless bodies, forces us to witness that which cannot be witnessed, to bear that which cannot be borne, and to affect that which cannot be affected: the violent relatedness into which blackness and whiteness are thrown.

You can read my article on Hurricane Sandy and the post-disaster recovery over at The Feminist Wire.

The Radiant

The Otolith Group, the artist collective founded by Kodwu Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, has put together a haunting new film The Radiant for Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany (on view until September 16). At one level a straightforward documentary about the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster, at another level it is an absorbing and disturbing meditation on the visible and the invisible, on life and half-life, and on the hermetically-sealed irrationality that our dependency upon technology can induce. It brought to mind Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, except that I think its fair to say the lesson vital materialism has to teach is a darker one. The invisible world The Radiant evokes isn’t enchanted but radioactive or rather, as one of the excellent commentators recounts, enchanted and radioactive, the invisible layered over the invisible …

That Oceanic Feeling

19- year-old Christopher Breaux fell hard for another straight boy who couldn’t love him back, confessing his love in a car parked in front of the girlfriend’s house. But the queerest song released so far by the artist now known at Frank Ocean isn’t an ode to boy-on-boy lust, but a corrosive satire of American marriage in the era of Kim Kardashian and Newt Gingrich.

“American Wedding” has attracted the pecuniary attentions of The Eagles, whose radio staple “Hotel California” the track is based on. But the real story isn’t about the sampling wars, but about a scapegoat generation struggling to make lives amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the American dream.

Now that marriage equality has become the shorthand for considering gays fellow human beings, the exploration of what the institution actually means has become more crucial than ever. On this score, Ocean’s take down of the idealised couple form:

She said, “I’ve had a hell of a summer, so baby, don’t take this hard
But maybe we should get an annulment, before this goes way to far.”

“American Wedding” is from Ocean’s internet mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra. On Channel Orange, Ocean is rarely thinking about conventional marriage, gay or straight. But he is always “thinking bout forever,” as the title of the opening track has it, and peeling back the skin of those of us who aren’t. The ass-backwardness of the Eagles’s response to Ocean’s cultural stocktaking is best captured by NCWYS in the SoundCloud comments to “American Wedding”:

If you older people think that the younger generation is out of control and doing everything incorrectly then you should absolutely love this song, but you don’t.

Aptly enough, Frank Ocean often also composes lines that run on a breath that suddenly stops short. An unforgettable one comes in “Sweet Life,” a sharply observed reverie of black-picket-fence California dreaming, when Ocean asks “So why see the world, when you got the beach?” He elongates “world” to contrast with the punched out “beach” in a way that tells us everything we need to know about Ocean’s mournful acceptance of a sun-ripened cruel optimism. That single line makes the extended parody of decadence and parental neglect on “Super Rich Kids” almost superfluous, except for the self-conscious scene setting it adds:

We’ll both be high
The help don’t stare
They just walk by
They must don’t care.

This is the way Ocean inherits the past: not by respecting tradition, or Don Henley, but by staring down the foreshortened horizons and complacent inequality that the frantic pursuit of wealth or happiness brings.

Not that he is lecturing, mind you, although Sierra Leone, sex work, global warming, and the hijab all make appearances in his rapidly expanding oeuvre. He is singing over the soundtrack of history, blunting its force with tried and true teenage tactics of insult, grandiosity, and desperate need. At 24 he isn’t quite old enough to know that he shouldn’t care, which is why he can gloat over “expensive news” on a pricey widescreen one moment, insist “my TV aint HD thats too real” another. On Channel Orange television is his angel of history, a flickering window on the mounting wreckage of the past as he is blown into the future.

The future Ocean is helping shape includes but cannot be reduced to one of its key aspects: the prospect of a progressively expanded honesty about and acceptance of same sex desire. Despite his Tumblr post comparing the intensity of homolove to “being thrown for a plane,” the theme of Channel Orange is less sexual orientation than chemical disorientation. Recreational substance abuse resurfaces in almost every song, often as a metaphor for a relationship gone wrong. Or is it the other way around? Is addiction now the core, common experience we are struggling to give sense to, turning to romantic clichés like “unrequited love” in a desperate search for a familiar language?

Frank’s oceanic feelings on Channel Orange crash in waves that obliterate distinctions between gay, bi, or straight. Some of the ostensibly straight songs, except for their pronouns, feel suspiciously same-sex. And when heterosexuality is foregrounded, it never resolves any confusions, it only produces new ones. The artistic showpiece of the album, the ten-minute long “Pyramids,” is an afrofabulation of ancient Egypt and postmodern Las Vegas, centered on a woman dressing for her job as a stripper, while her man looks on, waiting for her to “hit the strip … that keep my bills paid.” The song is drenched in delusions of the good life in a “top floor motel suite,” lateral cruising confused for the upward mobility that is now as rare as water in the American desert. Ocean has a heartfelt respect for his Afrocentric queen — “we’ll run to the future shining like diamonds in a rocky world” — but the feeling tone of “Pyramids” is closer to Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” than Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time.” Monáe and Ocean share premonitions of a near future where a multicultural one percent rests at the opulent social apex, with brown, black and some beige bodies at the botttom “working at the pyramid” just like the slaves who built the original ones.

 

Where CNN anchor Anderson Cooper justified his belated coming out in terms of the reporter’s obligation not to get in the way of the news, Ocean knows better. At 18 he fled Hurricane Katrina for Los Angeles. But as Fred Moten might say, “I ran from it, and was still in it” pretty much sums up the black experience in America. Channel Orange starts in a similarly fucked up atmosphere — “A tornado flew around my room” — and ends with “Forrest Gump” the most oddball portrait of same-sex love since “Johnny Are You Queer?” A campy three-legged race featuring Tom Hanks’ dimwit but fleet-footed hero, “Forrest Gump” boils Hollwood sap down to a lubricious bump and grind:

my fingertips & my lips
they burn from the cigarettes
forrest gump
you run my mind boy
running on my mind boy

 

This is dark camp, nostalgic kitsch repurposed by a generation whose thefts seemed premised on the canny awareness that anything original they create could be stolen. But don’t confuse Ocean’s approach for postmodern pastiche or retromania, despite his affection for old cars and the vocal stylings of Prince and Donnny Hathaway. On his first appearance on broadcast television, Ocean scaled the national media echo-chamber down to a backseat taxicab confessional, sharing his universal angst at a human level rarely captured by the contemporary celebrity coming out:

 

“Bad Religion” leaves it strictly unclear whether it his taxi-driver’s effusive Islam or his own devotion to the cult of true love that is more stunning. Confusing spirituality with a therapy designed to sand our sharp edges into shape for this world, he is awestruck in a way that has little to do, in the end, with either islamophobia or homophobia.

“Bad Religion” dances on the impossible “and” in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, the book where Freud psychoanalyzed the oceanic feeling of cosmic oneness felt by natural mystics as a form of prenatal regression. Thrown from his hometown by the unnatural calamity of antipoor and antiblack racism, Ocean is entitled to feel as bleakly about the human prospect as Freud did. That he doesn’t isn’t a sign of blinkered piety so much as a restless appetite for even the worst in himself and others. Even a curse, after all, probably couldn’t hurt him.

When Ocean greets us as “human beings spinning on blackness,” he invites us into that cab alongside him, sidling up in an undercommons of prayer and malediction, where the singular soul brushes up against the dark night of the universe. Maybe that’s why a conventional coming out, with its endless reiterations of the transparently obvious, seems beside the point. Frank Ocean isn’t like you or me; he isn’t even much like Christopher Breaux any longer.