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From Ordinary Notes, which was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

At Amiri Baraka’s funeral service, livestreamed from Newark Symphony Hall, a beautiful number and range of people came forward to speak: poets such as jessica Care moore and Sonia Sanchez, musicians such as Saul Williams, activists, and of course the future mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka. I was struck by the musical performances and their testament to Baraka’s profound influence on the world, on Newark, and on Newark in the world. I remember the sound of people speaking (how they sounded as well as what they said), the activists who got up to speak, and maybe, most of all, the sounds of Savion Glover’s dance for Baraka. Savion Glover performed a tap dance and in that dance was the sound of everything—mourning and joy and presence—it was all there. It was gorgeous and moving and life-giving. Baraka’s funeral was somewhere in the back of my mind, disturbing my mind, as I watched the funeral for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine Black people murdered in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.

Of course, Reverend Pinckney’s service was religious, and Baraka’s was secular; I knew why Barack Obama delivered the so-called eulogy for Rev. Pinckney’s funeral—and I say so-called eulogy because it wasn’t a eulogy, it was a political speech. But he should not have delivered that speech. He should have stayed in the audience, greeted the family, comforted them, and listened. When he took the stage, he gave the same one-note performance that he always gives when it comes to Black people. It’s the note that sutures Black suffering to romance and redemption. The note of a more perfect union, the note of unhearable Black suffering. The note of the romance of empire. I didn’t want to watch, but I was compelled to watch the funeral, to watch that eulogy. There was this moment as I watched his face where it looked as if he was deciding what he was going to do next and then it became clear to me that, oh my god, he’s going to sing. And that line from Invisible Man kept going through my head—“the Brother does not sing!”—because I could and couldn’t believe Obama was actually going to do that. And then, of course, when he sings it’s the opposite of Glover’s tapping. He had to sing “Amazing Grace” because “Amazing Grace” is precisely that unhearable Black suffering. It’s precisely that song of romance and redemption because we know John Newton’s history. We know that he keeps working on the slave ships after his conversion and it’s only later that he writes “Amazing Grace.”

The Venice Biennale in 2015, curated by Okwui Enwezor, was themed “All the World’s Futures.” It was my first time in Italy, and given the crossings, drownings, and near drownings in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere, I was aware that Venice is a deeply fraught space as much as it is also a beautiful one.

One day, D and I decided not to go to either of the two main exhibition sites—the Arsenale or the Giardini—but to some of the other exhibition spaces. Since it is often prohibitively expensive for countries to be in the main exhibition spaces, many pavilions are off-site. We saw a sign for the scotland + venice pavilion and decided to go there. Once we entered, we saw that the theme of the Pavilion was “The Slave’s Lament” and we were, to say the least, trepidatious. The artist is a white Scottish man named Graham Fagen and the exhibition covered four rooms. In one room there was a four-screen installation featuring Ghetto Priest, the reggae artist, and three members of the Scottish Ensemble. Three instruments played and Ghetto Priest’s voice sang the Robert Burns poem “The Slave’s Lament.” The program explained that

Fagen draws our attention to an episode in Burns’s life. In 1786 he books a passage to Jamaica to escape economic and other pressures and accepts the position of slave overseer. At the last moment, news that his recently published first book has been well received changes his mind and the journey is seemingly forgotten—or perhaps not quite. He writes The Slave’s Lament (1792), the poet’s only work that empathizes with the appalling hurt of the displaced, the trafficked and the enslaved. A beautiful lyric written over two hundred years ago with a narrative that remains entirely contemporary as we think of current tragedies unfolding on borders and in hinterland locations.

You may think of Burns as a man who was, at some point, involved with abolitionism, but Burns’s intention meets that of John Newton. Newton makes his living on slave ships and is well integrated into the economy of slavery. Burns is about to become an overseer on a plantation until he gets good news about the reception of his book and abandons the contract. Fagen says that his musical arrangement “isn’t a song with a beginning, middle, and end this time; this version is endless. And so I’ve been understanding it as some kind of formal, sonic landscape.” Slavery was the note, the weather, that conditioned everything.

Thinking of the sonic landscape of Savion Glover’s dance and the sonic landscape of Barack Obama’s song, it occurs to me that people must actively and continually allow “Amazing Grace” to escape its genesis in order to offer it in such circumstances: the murder of six Black women and three Black men in Mother Emanuel AME Church.

To sing “Amazing Grace” is to mispronounce the song. And it’s always trying to articulate. It is to insist on a romance of salvation in which the grace is for Newton. The grace is not for us. It is to misunderstand the genesis and the subject of the song and the violence that the song never begins to deal with. The song has long elided its origins and attached itself to the fascia of Black spirituality. When we sing this, who is the wretch? Who was lost? Who was found? Who is in need of redemption? It is about Newton’s journey; it has nothing to do with the horrors and terrors of slavery for the enslaved.

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May 2023

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