Transition 90 - Featured Article 1
Brent Hayes Edwards
The cell is four meters long and two meters wide. The walls and floor are lined with white tile, gleaming in the half-light. There is no furniture, but the far half of the floor is elevated, about a meter high—an abstraction of a bed, a chair, a table. The judas hole in the steel cell door squints up at the barred window high on the opposite wall. There are eight of us. We lie down to sleep as best we can, four on the raised platform and four below, in an uncomfortable tangle of intimacy. Through the window, a hint of illumination: the gentle wash of moonlight over the streets of Dakar.
* * *
You peer into the flow of words to find your image. It comes with you, it abides with you, it goes away with you. How many paid five or ten sous to stand at the river’s edge and watch the seduction, the self’s breathless plunge into itself?
* * *
They came for the singer at night, as he was sounding his guitar, trying chords and fingering unfamiliar progressions. In their hands, any object was a weapon: rocks, mud, sticks, scissors, the broom in the corner, the shovel in the yard, the knives and the forks and the corkscrew on the table. They beat him, stoned him, stabbed him, and when the blades slipped from their bloody grasp, they scratched and stomped at his body until it came undone. They picked poor Robin clean. In the rust-red blood they scribbled with the points of their implements and their feet. Most of the pieces they left for the dogs. But his head and his guitar, they threw into the river.
The song is not what the singer sang. Not the tones that for so many years had bent the oak trees and the poplars, the laurel and the sycamore, the boxwood and the blue-berried viburnum—even the shade itself—toward the house, toward the source of that music. The song is what overtakes the remnants in the river, the sound of the current that washes the battered head. The song is the water’s play against the cracked frets of the guitar, coaxing chords out of that hull as it’s carried away.
* * *
Thierno’s prize possession was a small color television, illegally hooked up to a cable feed. It was the first thing he showed me when he welcomed me into his apartment. Regarde: le CNN, si tu veux, he said, crouched in front of the TV. His eyes shone as he angled his round head to look back at me. J’ai le MTV aussi.
Our arrangement was straightforward: I stayed in the apartment on Rue Galandou Diouf at night, while Thierno worked in an ice cream parlor on a touristy stretch of Avenue Pompidou. I knew that the ice cream shop wasn’t open all night and that Thierno went somewhere else before coming to reclaim his bed around seven each morning, never failing to bring me two chocolate croissants for breakfast. But I also knew that he needed my money as much as I needed his bed—he mentioned once, with his habitual reticence, that he had recently lost his job in a fish-processing plant.
The apartment was a windowless room in the corner of a one-floor complex made up of six or seven such rooms and a modest central courtyard, which was used for washing and cooking. Evenings, after Thierno left for work, I’d sometimes chat with the neighbors or write in my journal. But mainly, I watched TV.
That week, I’d been following the Olympics in Atlanta. On Saturday night all of Dakar was obsessed with the soccer championship: having upset Brazil in the semifinals a few days earlier, Nigeria was facing Argentina in the gold medal match. Nigeria was trailing 2 to 1 when, in the seventy-fourth minute, Daniel Amokachi miraculously flicked the ball over the keeper. And then, with one minute left, there was a free kick from the outside left corner of the penalty box. The Argentinean defense flubbed an easy offsides trap, and an obscure Nigerian substitute named Emmanuel Amunike somehow tucked a hard volley into the right corner of the net.
When the referee blew the whistle, there were yells of jubilation from the courtyard. As I went to the open door, a deeper rumbling overtook the city—subtly at first, then growing into a roar that seemed to rise from all sides. For the first time ever, an African team had won an international soccer tournament, and it felt as though the whole city, or maybe even the whole continent, was erupting. In the euphoria of the moment, I decided to visit Thierno at the ice cream parlor to celebrate. I dressed quickly, put some money in my sock, and set out into the night.
I almost turned back when I stepped out onto Rue Galandou Diouf. Even a few blocks outside the center of Dakar there are almost no street lights. The darkness is startling: depths and layers of black, shadows moving in and out of scrutability. One navigates by the faintest moonlight, except when the occasional car speeds by, throwing a skewed pool of illumination across the sidewalk, animating the shadows of pedestrians, trees, and buildings in sinister jerks and jolts.
At a brisk stride, I walked east on Galandou Diouf and then cut south toward the Marché Sandaga. During the day the market bustles with constant activity, its cramped stalls offering clothes, shoes, fabric, rugs, arts and crafts, fruits and vegetables. But now it was a cavernous, silent husk. I turned the corner and saw Avenue Pompidou, where the streetlights began.
As I crossed Avenue Lamine Guèye, a man slid up alongside me, whispering something under his breath, holding out an object for my attention. On the streets of Dakar, foreigners are constantly bombarded with offers, demands, items for sale, “gifts.” Without looking at the man, I continued toward the light, and demurred politely: Non merci.
Suddenly he grabbed my upper arm, pulling me back around. He was a slight, weaselly man, with a thin brown face and a darting, anxious gaze. He wore ordinary dark pants with a blue button-down shirt and sneakers. I wrenched my arm away from him, angry, and demanded, Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? What’s the problem? What do you want?
He advanced toward me again and snarled, Police. Venez avec moi. Come with me. Again he grabbed my arm and pulled me around toward Avenue Lamine Guèye, toward the shadows, away from the glare of the street lamps on Avenue Pompidou.
How hard is it to impersonate a policeman? As easy as the word police? No uniform, no badge, no identification. Why would a policeman push me down a dark avenue on a Saturday night? I pulled away from him again and asked what he wanted, asked him if he was really the police. I kept moving toward the lights.
When I reached the sidewalk, it escalated: I was attacked from all sides. Four men came at me, yelling to each other in Wolof, dragging me back around the corner, onto the side street. I defended myself as best I could, yelling all the while: Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?
Venez, said another one, tall and lanky. Venez ici. Pulling me around the corner.
We fell into an awkward, agonized dance, wrestling with each other, swinging wildly to little effect, exchanging the same inane dialogue. Je suis touriste américain. Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Je suis touriste de New York. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?
A thickly built man lunged to pin my arms back and ripped my shirt almost in half. On n’est pas à New York, ici, he growled. I tried to elbow him in the stomach. He grunted and didn’t let go.
I pleaded with them to take my money. Just don’t hurt me. On ne veut pas votre argent, the weasel replied from over my shoulder, choking me with his forearm. We don’t want your money. Venez avec nous.
By now a crowd had formed down the sidewalk, engrossed in the spectacle. I was screaming now: I’m a tourist! I’m here for a week. Qu’est-ce que vous voulez? I stared desperately into the eyes of a woman halfway across the street, who stared back, blank, unmoving. Je suis touriste. Is this how you treat tourists here?
The lanky one, coming at me again from the left, sneered and glared at me with bloodshot eyes. Tu vas voir. You’ll see. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pair of handcuffs.
* * *
Né la thiass. Gone in a flash, carried away. That was the title of a 1996 hit by Cheikh Lô, a protégé of the Senegalese pop star Youssou N’Dour. The lyrics, sung over a rollicking 6/8 wave of rhythm guitar and talking drum, warn of the sudden shifts of destiny: “You can be going in a straight line / Sure of your direction. / But along the way, / Many things can happen.” Né la thiass.
What does this music retain, though, of the place you first heard it—of Thierno’s tape player, of shadows in a room off Rue Galandou Diouf? Gone in a flash. It’s told not so much in the voice, in the lyrics sung in a language you can’t understand. It’s told in the way the drums percolate. Bubbles swell and pop on the song’s churning surface.
The trumpeter Bill Dixon titled his 1993 album Vade Mecum, after the Latin term for a manual or guidebook, carried around for ready reference. Translated literally, the phrase is a command: “Come with me.” The title describes this music’s singular fabric, the conundrum of what Dixon himself calls its “liquidly dark and light sound,” with the horn unhurriedly wafting its way high above a current created by two bassists and a drummer. The serenity of smoke and vapor over the angry mouth of a volcano. If music is a kind of Baedeker, helping you chart a path through a labyrinth, it is equally a subpoena, an order that carries you along as much as you carry it.
* * *
A second floor office in the station house. Four plainclothes policemen and a number of teenagers and older men are scattered throughout the room. One policeman, squinting through thick rectangular glasses, painstakingly copies my information into an improbably oversized ledger, its pages crumbling and yellow at the edges.
Le nom de famille, c’est Ed-wardz. E-D-W-A-R-D-S. Mon prénom, c’est Brent. B-R-E-N-T.
Lieu de naissance?
Vous êtes américain?
The policeman grunts a comment in Wolof, chuckling, One of the teenage girls starts giggling, too, until the tall scrawny cop notices. He grabs her firmly by the upper arm and drags her out an open door, onto the veranda. He slaps her hard and throws her, whimpering, back into the room.
Vous n’avez pas de passeport?
Non. Not with me.
A jackal’s smile and a pause for effect. Then, in English: Welcome to Africa, my brother. I hope you enjoy your stay. He turns to his colleagues with a hearty belly laugh. Even the teenagers join in.
* * *
On December 1, 1944, a battalion of African troops was massacred in the dead of night by the French colonial command in Dakar. After the fall of the Vichy regime in September, General de Gaulle had ordered the repatriation of Africans liberated from German POW camps. (Some of them had fought with the resistance.) But the Africans who returned to Dakar in 1944 fell under the authority of a bitter group of colonial dinosaurs—men who had opposed de Gaulle and Félix Eboué, his black ally, who had established a base for the resistance in Brazzaville. When the repatriated Africans refused to accept an exchange for their French francs at a fraction of the correct rate, and then briefly detained a colonial officer in protest, their actions were considered a mutiny; French officers attacked the unarmed returnees with artillery fire. Thirty-five Africans were killed, and scores more were wounded.
The story is told in the classic Senegalese film Camp de Thiaroye (1987), by Ousmane Sembène and Thierno Faty Sow. Sijiri Bakaba stars as Sergeant Major Diatta, the leader of the rebellious soldiers. Diatta had studied law in Paris before the war, and he is more cultivated than the French officers: he reads the latest novels, and he even has a phonograph. With his U.S.-issue fatigues, aviator glasses, and rudimentary English, Diatta passes for American in downtown Dakar. Senegalese children accost him, trying to sell him a newspaper, chewing gum, a squirt pistol. Diatta even dares to ask a French patrol, in English, if they know where the nearest brothel is; they grin and point him on his way. At Le Coq Hardi (the “Brazen Rooster”), Diatta saunters right up to the bar. One of the waitresses purrs, “A whiskey, Joe?” but changes her attitude when he orders a Pernod—in perfect French, no less. Unmasked as a “nègre”—that is, an African—Diatta is promptly kicked out.
In the next scene, a group of four U.S. military policemen driving by in a jeep spot Diatta and confront him, assuming that he is an American soldier. One of the soldiers is black, and he jumps out first, aggressively questioning the Senegalese officer on the sidewalk: “Hey! Hey, boy, where are you going? Where are your papers?” Diatta identifies himself in French, but the African American policeman pays no attention. “French? I don’t give a damn,” he sneers. “Why hasn’t your uniform got a number and a badge on it? And no more of your shitty French.” Again Diatta calmly replies, explaining in French that he is an African soldier returning from the front, but the American comes right back: “You take me for shit? Take off your glasses.” When Diatta complies, the policeman knows he understands English.
This is incrimination enough. “You speak American,” the MP says. “You either a trafficker or a thief. You son of a bitch!” Led by the African American, the four cops charge the unresisting Diatta, batons drawn, striking him from all sides until he falls.
* * *
Soon after we lie down, the night is sundered by terrible screams. A woman’s voice, somewhere above us. I am deep inside a great mass of flesh, floors and floors of prisoners, all silent, all listening to that piercing sound, all night long. All awaiting our turn. Eight or nine flights above our cell, a small interrogation chamber, the secret inner sanctum: rusty blades too dull to cut cleanly, leather restraints, a single light, stains on a cement floor. No, no, that’s Hollywood in my head. But the screams are real. From time to time, they recede into moments of near calm, moaning. Then it starts again. Is she pleading? Is it language at all? None of us is asleep: we are watching the violence in the voice.
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam titled his memoirs Shum vremeni. Vremeni means time, but shum is more difficult to translate. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote:
Generally speaking, the sense of shum implies a more sustained and uniform auditory effect than the English “noise.” It is also a shade more remote and confused. It is at heart more of a swoosh than a racket.
Nabokov himself usually translates it as “hubbub,” but the term doesn’t exactly correspond to the hustle and bustle of urban life. Shum suggests the ways that time can be inscribed in the whoosh and whir of what surrounds us. When one is “doing time,” that experience is written in a peculiar way. The horror of a sound that is almost unbearable. The intermittent punctuation of steel doors slamming shut. Silence.
I don’t remember when the screams ended. But I do remember the others trying to console me, telling me their stories, cursing the putain de flics. Fucking cops. Fucking Saturday night roundup. One of the teenagers in the cell teaches me a few phrases in Wolof, a customary greeting. Demal ak jamm, go in peace. Monowa ak jamm, come back in peace. I ask another, a big Rastafarian from Gorée, what that noise was during the night. Was she being beaten? Raped? He shakes his head and spins his index finger at the side of his temple. I can’t tell whether he’s referring to the woman, the cops, or the whole damn situation.
* * *
Thelonious Monk first recorded a tune called “Evidence” during the fourth of his legendary Blue Note sessions in July 1948. As with most of the bop tunes of the late 1940s, the chord structure of “Evidence” was derived from a Tin Pan Alley standard, a sappy paean to conjugal bliss called “Just You, Just Me.” But “Evidence” is remarkable because it moves by distillation and subtraction rather than by extrapolation or augmentation. The 1948 “Evidence” begins with Monk’s angular solo piano introduction, the haunting shadow of “Just You, Just Me”—an elliptical accompaniment to an absent horn solo. In that first version, Milt Jackson’s quicksilver vibraphone reasserts the chord changes, but in subsequent recordings Monk’s introduction becomes the central theme, a succession of rhythmically asymmetrical chords that stab at the harmony, imply it, even as they disassemble it.
Monk is well known for his witty and evocative titles (“Straight No Chaser,” “Trinkle Tinkle,” “Gallop’s Gallop”), but “Evidence” is particularly noteworthy because it suggests the methodology of the music’s abstraction. “Just You, Just Me” became “Just Us” when Monk first started playing the tune around 1947. Then he took the phrase sideways and began calling it “Justice.” (Art Blakey recorded it a number of times in the 1950s under this title.) And then another hop, diagonally, taking the word into another register through metonym—for how can one attain “justice” under the law without “evidence”?
The version Monk recorded with Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers in 1957 found the heart of the piece. On the eight-bar bridge, Blakey crushes the downbeats on the bass drum while the horns (Johnny Griffin on tenor saxophone and Bill Hardman on trumpet) play nothing more or less than an ascending chromatic scale, blowing on the first offbeat of each measure. A climb up a rickety ladder. Monk sometimes called the bridge (or B-section) of a tune “the inside.” One might suggest, indeed, that Monk’s entire aesthetic revolved around the inside: the elaboration of a closely guarded interior beneath layers of masks and shells that often seemed impassable, forbidding, eccentric—“nutty,” to invoke the title of another Monk tune.
John Coltrane once remarked that “everything fits so well in Monk’s work once you get to see the inside.” A tinny music box spinning in an echo chamber somewhere deep inside a hall of mirrors. Do we ever get there, though? Inside the inside? What is inside “Evidence”? If one hears an echo—at a distance—of the U.S. civil rights movement, then Monk’s elisions ask a question about how one might hear justice in a democracy, underneath or within an uneven surface of insinuation. Justice is somewhere there, somewhere inside what holds us together, but only in fragmentary evidence, in the sound of clues that rise at an angle, step by step, and break back down to hint again.
* * *
The cell is too small. I am alone, invisible. Ça commence là où je n’entends pas. I am going to die here. I hold my wrist, trying to keep the flies away from the bloody scrapes left by the handcuffs. My forehead is throbbing, sweaty. What are the initial symptoms of malaria? Or maybe it’ll be dysentery, when I have to drink the water tomorrow morning. I’ll shit my guts out, slowly. What are the chances I’ll be raped first? Something streaks down my cheek, hot. I wave at the flies. No one knows I’m here. I only met Thierno four days ago. They had no reason to arrest me, so why should they let me go? The cell is just big enough to hold me. Wet, trembling. The same wave, over and over. The same words caress me to sleep: Die here.
* * *
Near the end of Camp de Thiaroye, the African American military policeman comes to Thiaroye to apologize to Sergeant Major Diatta for the misunderstanding. Diatta, his arm still in a sling, invites the MP into his cabin (“Take a seat, brother”), and they chat in English. The African American talks about his home in Detroit, and Diatta impresses his visitor with his knowledge of black culture in the United States—Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Marcus Garvey. The soldier from Detroit says in turn that he’d heard of the Senegalese veterans: “I didn’t know you’d come from the front line. You didn’t tell me that.” He adds that black U.S. soldiers admired the stories they’d heard about the Africans during the war: “You and your mates formed a commando and gave those white boys a real beating. That’s great. Wonderful.”
Diatta signals his acceptance of the MP’s apology by putting on some music. Not the operatic arias he’d been listening to earlier in the film, but jazz. “Sure, I know that,” the MP says, smiling in recognition. “That’s Charlie Parker.” The sinuous melody of “Big Foot” jaunts out of the phonograph horn.
Of Course, “Big Foot” wasn’t recorded until 1947—three years after the Thiaoye massacre. But the demands of symbolic resonance take precedence over the details of chronology. And “Big Foot” is an inspired choice: a reference not just to the leaps and crags of the melody, but also to the scene’s prodigious peregrination through diaspora, from Detroit to Dakar. The music takes those giant steps, bridging the intervals while marking the distance.
In return, the MP offers Diatta a pair of dark-tinted aviator sunglasses to replace the pair that was crushed during the fight. A perfect diasporic gift: optical protection for flight, shade extended hand to hand, a passport to cool.
* * *
On Sunday morning, a guard lets us out of the cell for a few minutes of exercise and I see the compound for the first time. It’s much less imposing than I’d imagined: just a kind of enclosed alley leading out behind the police station, with small structures on either side. One by one we are allowed to use the one serviceable toilet in a small room across from the cell (the other is overflowing, crowned by a halo of flies). While I wait my turn, I watch an enormous rat scavenging in a dumpster behind the station. A voice whispers at me from behind the door of one of the other cells: Hey, American. My American brother. You have some money with you? Je ne mange pas depuis deux mois. I haven’t eaten in two months. Help me, my American brother. I look at the face pressed up against the bars and say nothing.
When the guard gives one of my cellmates a small loaf of bread, I learn that you can pay the guards to bring you food. Taking some money out of my sock, I ask the guard for bread and a bottle of water, and I am pleasantly surprised when, fifteen minutes later, he comes back with the goods. Thus begins an extended comedy of bribes and negotiations as I try to figure out whether it’s possible to inveigle a guard to let me out altogether, or to go and get my passport from Thierno’s apartment, or to deliver a message to the U.S. consulate. These machinations are spun out amid an unending stream of demands from my cell mates. One guard in particular, a flabby man with a goatee and a sad smile, lets me plead and beg at great length; he seems tempted. He brings me a sandwich from a Lebanese restaurant down the street, a greasy hamburger with fries right inside the baguette. (I offer it to my companions, who gladly join in an impromptu communal meal.) The guard is still smiling gently as he closes the cell door to all our complaints, apologizing: Désolé, désolé.
My cell mates draw water from a large tin basin in the courtyard. Drinking from that basin will be the end of me, I think. I wonder how long my money will last, how many bottles of mineral water I can buy. But there is no way to know what to expect. Will there be some kind of trial, after days or weeks or months? A sentencing? My only hope is that Thierno will come home in the morning and find me missing. After a while, he’d probably go to the police. But this doesn’t seem very reassuring. As the day continues, I realize that I am going to spend another night in jail. I become increasingly dispirited. How many nights ahead of me on this hard white floor? How many people will I never see again? They won’t ever know what happened to me. Gone in a flash.
* * *
A few days after we met, Thierno and I had gone to Gorée. Only a few thousand inhabitants, only forty-five acres, but the island was the main slave trading post on the West African coast for hundreds of years. Gorée is also the birthplace of Blaise Diagne, the first African legislator elected to the French Chambre des Députés, and the site of some of the most prestigious schools in the colonial system. To get there, one takes a creaky, overcrowded, two-tiered ferry from the teeming port of Dakar. The trip takes about twenty minutes—just long enough for tourists to start getting seasick—and its highlight comes in the last hundred meters, as the boat approaches the island. Young boys from Gorée swim out to meet the vessel, clambering up the ropes and bumpers adorning its rusty hull, laughing as they grapple up past the passenger decks and dive off with gawky, bent-legged abandon. Thierno told me that folks from Dakar call these kids les poissons. Black flying fish, knifing into the foamy wake.
While Thierno met some friends at one of the waterfront cafés, I made my way up among the red tile roof houses and palm trees, the old homes of traders and colonial governors, to the red stone house called the Maison des Esclaves—one of the main tourist destinations on the island. There had been many slave houses on the island, but the Maison is the only one that has been conserved as a memorial to the slave trade.
As I approached the entrance, I came upon a group of African American tourists about to be shown the museum. One man straightened the kente cloth around his neck, complaining to the woman next to him about the goods at the Gorée market. Nothing authentic, he griped, just a bunch of slapdash reproductions. And you pay an arm and a leg, whatever you get. The woman commiserated, cradling a wooden statue under a short arm and squirming uncomfortably in a brand-new sun dress.
Another woman created a stir when she realized her purse had been stolen: There was a little boy standing next to me on the ferry. Could it have been him? No, it couldn’t have been. She was wearing a colorful T-shirt emblazoned with a shameless acrostic: Affordable, Fantastic, Rich in culture, Incredible, Congenial, Ancestry. They could have been my aunts and uncles. I mingled among them for a couple of minutes and passed with them as they were ushered in, avoiding the entrance fee.
The Maison is a small, pockmarked red stone structure with an interior courtyard. You enter to face two identical curved staircases, shaped like parentheses, leading up to a second floor where the traders lived, not twenty feet above their human goods. Around the courtyard are dark, dank entranceways to the former cells: the weighing and measurement room, with marks from the scale still inscribed on the wall; the cell for the men; the cell for the women; and a series of smaller holding chambers, including an impossibly cramped hole under the stairs for recalcitrant or rebellious slaves. But your gaze is drawn immediately to the space between the stairs, leading to a single doorway that opens directly onto the island’s southern shore.
Through this door, the guide explained, they took the slaves out to ships to transport them to the Americas. The Middle Passage. He led us around the complex, taking us into the various cells, describing the history of slavery on the island. Can any Westerner of African descent resist this pull? These walls? I knew that slavers almost certainly didn’t transport slaves right out the back door of the house, across thirty feet of treacherous black rockssince the slave trade dominated the island, they probably loaded their cargoes at the island’s port, where we’d gotten off the ferry. But when I paused alone in one of the dungeons, my imagination took off. I watched the American tourists blubbering, but there were tears in my eyes, too.
The guide gathered us back at the central courtyard, pointing toward the sea: We call this door the Door of No Return. He paused for effect. For four hundred years, they stole you away into suffering, into oppression and slavery. But they haven’t won. No, they haven’t won. Because you’re here. You’re back. The crowd murmured in assent; I even heard an amen. He’d obviously dealt with African American audiences before. He smiled warmly, and closed the tour: Welcome home.
* * *
What do you do for twenty-four or forty-eight or seventy-two hours in a cell? What do you think about? How do you stay sane? That Sunday evening, while three of my cell mates knelt down near the door and recited their evening prayers in Arabic, I rehearsed in my head all the poetry I had ever memorized or tried to memorize. This would be my concentration work: I could play language games for days.
I quickly discovered not only that I would make a poor covert operative, but also that I had read a great deal of the wrong sort of poetry. Letter 27 of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems came back, with its wholly inappropriate New England grandstanding:
. . . it is coming
from all that I no longer am, yet am,
the slow westward motion of
more than I am
The chanting in Arabic drowned out that voice. I closed my eyes. A bit of Walt Whitman
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier
Too morbid—and too optimistic. I went through the slow, pellucid lines of Kamau Brathwaite’s “Vèvè”:
of the empty roads,
vessels of your head,
claypots, shards, ruins
At least that felt closer to where I sat. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid” was too bouncy for the present moment; Wallace Stevens—
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
-- too slapstick; Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” was too resilient and communal. Whatever mask I wore had been ripped off my face.
I came back many times to a poem called “Coal” that Audre Lorde wrote in the early 1960s:
is the total black, being spoken
from the earth’s inside.
A deceptively simple opening. The odd conjugation, set off by the line break (“I / is”), tempts you to read it as black vernacular. But the argument is broader: when one uses “I,” the pronoun points at a place that is buried and dark. The “I” is coal: fossil fuel, combustible, and also, given enough time and pressure, the seed of a precious jewel. The poem continues:
There are many kinds of open
how a diamond comes into a knot of flame
how sound comes into a word, colored
by who pays what for speaking.
Language itself, here, is “open” like a diamond, inflected and accented in the shifting light of social forces. And so, saying “I” says many things: “I am Black,” as the poem concludes, as the “diamond comes into a knot of flame.” Lorde’s poem is a search for “blackness,” but for a work written at the beginning of the Black Arts Movement, it is exceptional in its insistence that the term doesn’t mark a singular possession. It is precious in its changes. A many-faceted thing bound up in fire. Arabic cascades around me. I open my eyes to see dusk writing itself across the white walls. Transforming, invaluable. Darkness moves, as the words move in my mouth.
* * *
Sunday afternoon, one of the teenagers in the cell was released. I didn’t understand why, but I wished him well. He asked me if there was anything he could do for me, and I told him I’d been staying with a guy who lived on Rue Galandou Diouf. When I told him the address, he laughed and said, “Oh yeah, the building with the little courtyard.” He knew someone else who lived there, and he knew who Thierno was. It seemed like a miracle, but I tried not to look too desperate and asked him if he could go by and tell Thierno what had happened. Ah oui, bien sûr, he smiled. No problem.
Three hours later, the sad-faced guard beckoned me through the cell door. Vous avez un visiteur. He took me back through the alley and into the station, up to the front desk. On the other side stood Thierno, with a look on his face I will never forget. My pious, industrious, soft-spoken host stared at me, appalled, his mouth half-open, his eyes taking in my dirty clothes, my bloody arm, my T-shirt ripped almost in half, my tear-streaked face.
Thierno spent the rest of the day retrieving my wallet and passport from his apartment, trying to bribe the guards with my money, trying to get me an audience with a commissioner—the only administrator with the authority to release me. But I remained in jail. The commissioner, the guard smiled, wasn’t around: Il est à la plage aujourd’hui. At the beach.
I watched a stream of cell mates buy or beg their way out. The next afternoon, when there were only four of us left, the guard came to fetch me again. He let me clean my face and told me to pull myself together: Don’t screw this up. I put on the clean white shirt that Thierno had brought from my suitcase and followed the guard back up to the second floor of the station house, into a sparsely adorned office where a man was sitting behind a wooden desk. The commissioner was curt and bureaucratic: one of the detectives I’d tussled with on Saturday came in and explained that I’d been taken in for “resisting arrest” and then detained because I didn’t have my identification papers on me. With the detective standing silently behind me, the commissioner asked me to recount what had happened, and I stumbled through my tale for ten minutes. Then he dismissed us without a word.
The detective, the one who’d ripped my shirt, took me into another office and sat me in front of a desk. For the next forty minutes he pecked studiously at an old manual typewriter, beating out a document I couldn’t see. Then finally, with a satisfied grunt he wrenched a page from the carriage and handed it to me to “approve and sign.” He leaned across the desk: Tu étudies la littérature? You study literature? I’ll show you literature. It was an affidavit, written in the first person, adapted from what I’d just told the commissioner. Je soussigné Brent Edwards, né le 24 janvier 1968 à Illinois, Etats-Unis, était en train de passer devant le Marché Sandaga vers 10 h 30 samedi le 3 août. . . . My signature is scribbled on that document, still rotting in an archive somewhere. As soon as I signed it, the policeman took me downstairs and unceremoniously announced that I was free to go. What I wouldn’t give to have a copy of that text that fixed me in an alien tongue. I left as someone else that afternoon, eating an orange with Thierno, both of us stunned and silent.
* * *
I only remember one sentence of the affidavit, narrating my belated realization that my attackers were indeed the Police. C’est à ce moment-là que je me suis rendu compte que j’avais commis une grave erreure. It was at that moment that I realized I had committed a grave error.
* * *
In Roland Barthes’s eponymous 1975 autobiography, he described his aversion to categorization:
He can’t stand any image of himself, he suffers from being named. He considers the perfection of a human relationship to require vacating the image: abolishing adjectives in oneself, between oneself and others. A relationship that is adjectivized is on the side of the image, on the side of domination, of death.
It is an extreme instance of Barthes’s lifelong war against the adjective, against the “funerary” quality of description that ends up asphyxiating an object in the chill of an epithet rather than evoking the fleeting modes and shifting sands of human desire.
What did a plainclothes policeman see across the street that night in 1996? Something suspect, something uncertain and disconcerting: something about the way that the body and the dress and the gaze and the step and the time and the place didn’t fit. Not just something foreign: in some ways, the tourist is the most easily recognizable image in the streets of Dakar. But why would a tourist be walking alone at eleven on a Saturday night, slouching toward the center of the city? No, this couldn’t be a tourist. This sly buffoon was something else altogether. Tan skin, yes (a Martinican métis, maybe? or even Lebanese?), but that cherry red kofi on his shaved head, the Jamaican T-shirt with some kind of odd flower print, eyeglasses, khaki pants, clean dress shoes? Speaking perfect French, no less?
The body passing in the light in front of the market slipped between the cracks. And yet the more it strained to evade notice, the more it stuck out. The policeman’s task is to authenticate, to discipline, to verify (everything summed up in the French verb contrôler), and he swooped in to fix this brown bag of miscellany. Too many jarring signs packed together, like the famous Haitian proverb: Tout sa ou we, sa pa sa. Everything you see? That’s not it.
* * *
My last day in the city, I went back to Gorée, alone, and walked around the island. After my time in jail, the only thing I wanted to do—besides leave Dakar—was to go back to the Maison des Esclaves. This time I paid to come in and entered with a boisterous group of Senegalese schoolchildren, most of them about ten years old. The curator himself, Joseph N’Diaye, stepped out to give the tour in French. With the African American group, there had been no mention of the thorny issue of African participation in slavery. But today, the agenda was a factual history of the slave trade—not just slavery on Gorée or in Senegal, but throughout the former French Empire. It turned into a school lesson.
When was slavery abolished in the Empire? An anxious silence, then one little boy spoke up with some trepidation: 1848?
Oui. And who freed the slaves? the curator intoned. Schoelcher, yelled another, drawn into the game.
I drifted away from the group, stepping into one of the cells. I’d lost most of the sensation in my left hand, and I rubbed the scars that would ring my wrist for the next couple of years. I stood there alone, looking at the discolored scrapes and scratches on the wall.
* * *
In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston published an extraordinary essay called “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” It charts the writer’s development: the “unconscious” girl growing up in Eatonville, Florida. The “civilized” Zora, quick to claim the boons of Western modernity but quick to castigate it too, as she sits in its shadows and “sharpens [her] oyster knife.” The “colored” Zora, finding herself “thrown against a sharp white background” during her years at Barnard College. The atavistic “heathen” Zora, who revolts against “the veneer we call civilization” in uptown jazz joints. The “cosmic” Zora, who transcends it all in those moments of self-assuredness when she sets her “hat at a certain angle and saunter[s] down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library.” The essay concludes with a striking metaphor:
But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless. A first-water diamond, an empty spool, bits of broken glass, lengths of string, a key to a door long since crumbled away, a rusty knife-blade, old shoes saved for a road that never was and never will be, a nail bent under the weight of things too heavy for any nail, a dried flower or two still a little fragrant.
The color of the bags doesn’t seem to matter, and neither do their contents, “priceless and worthless” because their meaning is so particular: they hold incalculable value in an individual narrative but no value that can be generalized, exchanged. Hurston adds, “In your hand is the brown bag. On the ground before you is the jumble it held.” The words pass into the reader’s care. An offering: You take this jumble, that means so much and nothing at all. That holds me and nobody. You take this, emptied out, strewn and scattered. What do you find in the pieces?
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