Everything said in the beginning must be said better than in the beginning.
What’s become clear to us as we start this white paper is that "The Black Outdoors" series—before it became formalized as a grant proposal and later as a public, university-supported and sustained set of events—announced and elaborated a practice of study. That is, prior to the series’ beginning, we, Sarah and Jay, were already studying together around questions of propertied personhood and racialized, sexualized, ecological enclosure with respect to our own (if we can call it, independent) research projects on insovereignty (Jay) and gathering (Sarah). But what we learned in study was its (study’s) ongoingness; not only do our projects deeply and profoundly speak to and overlap with each other but, as well, always already aspire to another kind of environmental ethos, another ecology, an extended practice and play of study, of which this series was just one expression. All of this is to say that study moved us chorally toward the question of property which, in turn, both formally and conceptually, raised the question of the outdoors.
[This] is an attempt to commune in and with the outside again, thinking chorologically about the possibilities of being outdoors together when the fraudulence of racial-sexual-ecological enclosures are laid bare.
Everything became, then, about trying to imagine, following Ashon Crawley, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Gayl Jones, and Nahum Chandler, an otherwise beginning, one distinct from the earth-killing origin story wrought by property (Crawley 2017; Silva 2007; Chandler 2013; Jones, 1987). That is, we wanted to imagine the kinds of questions that emerge when you ethically aspire to the poetics engendered by Gayl Jones’ invitation to "say" the beginning better than what was said in the beginning (Jones 1987, 54). In other words, apropos Jones, there’s a beginning that exceeds beginnings and that reorients what we have been given to calling study—and what we’ve been given to calling the earth. There is another relation to the world and the theorization of its un/making. This is a way to intercede against the ecological, world privatizing, and propertizing violences of Genesis, on the one hand, and John Locke, on the other. That interdiction or interruptivity of "in the beginning," perhaps (or at least this was our gamble), is akin to the "chora," which both enticed and, on another level, freaked out Plato and certainly freaked out Aristotle, and is a chorology, a chorological practice (Bianchi 2014). It is an attempt to commune in and with the outside again, thinking chorologically about the possibilities of being outdoors together when the fraudulence of racial-sexual-ecological enclosures are laid bare.
So, we began differently, with a quote from our friend, the esteemed poet Nathaniel Mackey. What follows is our proposal for the series:
Insofar as there / was an I it wasn’t hers we heard / her insinuate, of late begun to be / else- / where, the late one she’d one day be . . . Held-not- / had was her new way . . .
—Nathaniel Mackey, Blue Fasa
Nathaniel Mackey’s beautiful musings on the "I that wasn’t hers," along with other modalities of life that coalesce as holding but not having, centrally focus the limitations of American self-possession as axiom of (legitimate) personhood, humanity, and freedom. That is, we wanted to ask, "What of this ‘I’ that looms as unavailable, demanding as it might an injunctive to coalesce into a recognizable, self-same being? What if "being" moves around and away from the stultifying pull of someone else’s notion of I, into other domains of deregulated living? What if the "I" announces a tyranny that wasn’t hers to begin with, which presumes that claims to "I" are artificially augmented by a set of fraudulent holdings? How and in what way, most importantly, does holding but not having announce "a new way" (maybe another kind of I or we, an I-Insofar or a We-Insofar; the Insofarian condition) and how might this way offer an otherwise relationality that glimmers of the "free state" itself (Foucault 2003, 284; quoted in Hartman 2008, 2)?
We are interested in thinking through the intersections of race, sexuality, self-possession, and legitimate American personhood and citizenship.
We are interested in thinking through the intersections of race, sexuality, self-possession, and legitimate American personhood and citizenship. At the heart of this inquiry is a commitment to interrogate the formative roles played by settler colonialism and racial slavery in the figuration of an American idealized subject and to challenge resistant modalities that hold on to (self) possession and propertied personhood even as they might contest its racial and sexual premises.
In the interest of study, we convened a working group composed of scholars: most crucially, our colleagues and friends included folks not currently affiliated with a university along with graduate students and faculty from Duke University, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. We gathered twice around selectively chosen texts and had rich and generative conversations on everything from the second half of Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997) and Anna Tsing’s "Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species" (2012) to Sora Han’s "Slavery as Contract: Betty’s Case and The Question of Freedom" (2015) and Tiffany King’s "The Labor of Re(reading) Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly)" (2016).
In some ways, we followed our friend Fred Moten’s loving suggestion at the series opening, to stay with "what’s out" from the outside, the "parallel track to predication . . . [and those] cultural and aesthetic activities crucial to resistance or fugitivity because then it ‘gives us a chance to think, talk, and be together . . . hopefully with friends, food, wine . . . kids [r]unning around . . . these activities [that] were [following Cornel West] outside the normative gaze of the white man.’"
Moreover, in the spirit of beginning again, we paradoxically returned to the church; we say "paradoxically" given the history of the Western church’s functioning as a scene and purveyor of enclosure. So that is where we were. As we shared in our opening remarks, what we liked about the church was its windows. We wanted to talk outside, to gather in a space that spoke of the sacrality of aeration, of the unbounded, of outness itself. The windows weren’t far from the altar, and as we talked and studied, the sun often got into our eyes.
Even as the church bears the history of enclosure, the moral center of a "model city," we wanted to conduct an experiment in the interest of lingering with that city’s fundamental imperfections, along the glimmering, uncapturable edges of what escapes its enclosures (Stonecipher 2015). We asked, in study: What opens up when we abide by this atmospheric, which is also metaphysical, ambiguity, the church’s uneasy comportment to the "cosmos" as both ornament and order (Cohen 2013, xxiii)? Again, this paradox moves in the church’s pretense to making and breaking the outdoors. Steeple walls have historically and tenuously sought to harbor the theological, racial, and sexual traditions and countertraditions, precisely as those traditions either make a claim for or respect what cannot be claimed, the unclaimability of atmosphere itself. It was Jean Toomer who tuned that "there is no end to out" (Toomer 1980, 427).
New atmospheric inhabitations indexed an alternative practice of the sacred even as the church’s walls and windows have historically alternated between becoming one with while shuttering out the unknowable holiness of all earthly life, breath, and spirit, where walls and windows still bespeak and avoid the messages the neighboring trees send by way of their shadows.
As we began again, we reveled in the revelation that the trees and air were already inside that place even as its architecture suggested otherwise.
For the opening, we invited esteemed scholars in Black studies, performance studies, and philosophy, Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, to begin the conversation on "the black outdoors" because the kinds of worlds their works open up, enter into, move through and ornamentalize, bear the thickets, the breathy light, the tree-shrouded gathering of another way. This other way, the other path uncleared and overgrown, threaded with untranscribable musics and wishes, the ethereal cast and congress that is and cannot be reducible to the deeply non/performative dimensions of black sociality ambles in the intellectual, ecological, and aesthetic innovations enacted by their writing. Their writings carry the glimpse and glimmers of another proceeding, communions and conspiracies in the new ceiling-less citadel where the "bent school or marginal church," bruised flesh, and "impossible domestic[ity]" might finally get a hearing (Moten 2008, 1747; Hartman 2016, 171).
We began with the question: Saidiya and Fred, what emerges for you when you consider the phrase "The Black Outdoors"? How do you see it connected to the kinds of study you are engaged in?
What emerges for you when you consider the phrase "The Black Outdoors"? How do you see it connected to the kinds of study you are engaged in?
Saidiya Hartman instructed that "part of what a critical tradition of abolition [does] is produce a thought of the outside while on the inside . . . the enclosure is brutal but the practice is always about finding a way to produce an outside within that space."
There’s an adage in the traditions of black spirituality that, we think, is akin to what Hartman is getting at here: that is, how to "make a way out of no way." Such making, which is also an unmaking and an unsettling, is also a making a way out, into the "black out." Here we wonder about the black out, now inspired by the combination of Nathaniel’s Mackey’s concluding usage of the same phrase, the "black out" and Fred Moten’s opening remarks on what it means to study ‘outside the normative gaze of the white man’. Plainly rephrased into a question, we ask: what’s at stake in being in the dark together? Maybe to be outside of the "normative gaze of the white man" is to live with the unknown, "to be out from" "the outside," to practice a way of being together when the light of Enlightenment (rationality) is out.
So when we began at the church, we imagined this beginning again as a kind of holding candles together in the black out. Vigil. Study’s dark illuminations. Undoubtedly, holding vigil, being-with-each-other-in study was the un/governing logic of the year. When the working group convened around Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, for example, we ruminated on questions of the sacred in relation to histories of property and in relation to practices of study. On the one hand, we can say that our meeting was an opportunity for a rigorous meditation, with friends and food and not enough kids running around, on Hartman’s philosophical intervention into hegemonic theories of (self-) possession. But, on the other hand, there was something more going on in that room, on that campus, which we might say attempts to be a model city; that is, for a brief period of time, we attempted a different kind of collegial exercise (Stonecipher 2015), one often rare in the space of the university.
As we reflect now, we wonder whether what study is and does is engender an affectivity and relationality that exceeds the anxious propertizations that govern our institutional comportment toward "ideas" or "knowledge" or "authorship."
As we reflect now, we wonder whether what study is and does is engender an affectivity and relationality that exceeds the anxious propertizations that govern our institutional comportment toward "ideas" or "knowledge" or "authorship." In study, we were friends engaged in the non-teleological exercise of just talking about scholarship and being indebted to one another in learning. Profoundly, we were involved in another ecological practice.
This is all to say that "the Black Outdoors" wasn’t "merely" an idea; it was a mode of life. At one point, one of our friends-in-study asked about being in a room with a window. Now, as we reflect, we wonder whether our study already windowed the ostensibly portal-less space. Maybe, what we made collectively were openings into togetherness and togetherness into openings. So too, thinking about how we began anew, being together was a practice of "churchicality" (following Nate Mackey [2015, 4], who helped us conclude what can only ever [even as we write] fail at enclosure). That is, in the room of study, despite the empirical verification of a (stained glass) window, multicolored sunshine got in our eyes anyway.
Along with the group, our study against enclosure continued with the wisdom of our friends, a group of amazing scholars working across the fields of Black studies, Black feminist theory, Native studies, theology, queer studies, critical urban studies/ecologies, postcolonial theory, and law; Tiffany King, Mercy Romero, Ashon Crawley, and Sora Han were all invited to offer their own meditations on "The Black Outdoors" in a series of profound presentations.
Our study against enclosure continued with the wisdom of our friends, a group of amazing scholars working across the fields of Black studies, Black feminist theory, Native studies, theology, queer studies, critical urban studies/ecologies, postcolonial theory, and law.
Tiffany Lethabo King joined our study with a paper and presentation called "Black Ecotones." What King’s presentation elucidated is that the outness of the black outdoors moves by way of a modality of speculation unmoored from the violence of colonial mapping, the teleology of the claim. Speculation, following King, can be a scene of black vitality that exceeds the violence of plotting and mapping itself.
Particularly, she counterposed the "speculative accounts" of "The Black Outdoors" poeticized and instrumentalized by filmmaker Julie Dash, on the one hand, and eighteenth-century cartographer William De Brahm, on the other. As she powerfully shared at the beginning of her presentation, the notion of the outside or outdoors brings these two (un)imaginings of "black life" together in ways that, following Fred Moten’s remarks at the opening to the series, a binary of in and out cannot satisfy. Specifically, De Brahm’s 1757 "Map of the Coasts of South Carolina and a part of Georgia," following King, presumed the scalability of blackness into nowhereness, the imbrication of map with flesh (which is also the coterminous brutalization and rendering fungible of both black life and earth) that emerges as the end of the map maker’s terrible inscriptional erasures.
Against such cartographic suffocations though, as King argued, Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) images and atmospherizes black social life and labor, "black ways of being," in relation to an ever dynamic metaphysical world. As King might say here, Dash thickens the map with air and flesh, undoing colonial inscription toward unmappable black ecological and ecotonal being.
[T]he outness of the black outdoors moves by way of a modality of speculation unmoored from the violence of colonial mapping, the teleology of the claim.
Moreover, what and whom Dash brings into vitality, as the ecotonal, aspirational, speculative (outer-) edge of De Brahm’s map, is, in fact, the enslaved men and women who were consigned to that very corner, the blue-stained miraculous beings forced to harvest and settle the new world, stolen black life presumed to enable the possibility of mapping itself. Following King, this particular map maker’s belief in "capturing" the mutability of land was made possible through his attempt to visualize the mutability of flesh; on the map’s corner, the labor of enslaved people "working" with the ground and, in particular, the transformation of indican flower into indigo, was visualized to dramatize and fetishize the brutal relation between purportedly changeable flesh and earth. Here, as King argued, the pastoralization of black labor and relation to land cannot be thought of outside colonial, racial, and sexual subjection; that is, the fetishization of collapsed boundaries between owned things and owned lands animated the consolidation of stable notions of "Man," "Reason," and "Map" themselves.
Powerfully and poetically, then, Julie Dash’s attention to the stained pores of stained hands unmoors the scene of the cartouche from the process of the map’s production (along with the errant, shape-shifting colonial logic that moved as its very condition). That is, as King elucidated, Dash’s aesthetic focus and noticing of the hand’s staining—the blue contours of the pore—bespeaks the capacious and world-renewing promise of black fungibility. As King brilliantly argued here, fungibility, when situated within or alongside a register of (often terribly, deadly) alteration by way of chemical saturation potentiates liberatory fugitive openings for being in and with the world differently, being together in and with earth differently. King’s attention to the vitality potentiated in that ecotonal nether region, the communion between scorned flesh and scorned earth, offers another ecological ethos and view, one that moves beyond the degeneration enacted by existing maps.
Moving into the twentieth-first century, Mercy Romero’s paper, "Toward Camden," too tracked the frayed edges of world-killing maps and empty plans for "empty futures." What she found there are forgotten cities, consigned to the pathologized nether regions that, like the plantation dumping grounds where bruised flesh communes with bruised/bluesed earth, are also putatively out from any perverse notion of a "safe outdoors." Romero referred to the discourse around Camden, New Jersey, the supposedly less-than-model city.
She began her presentation with a childhood memory, the first time she saw the Riverfront State Prison from the tempered glass of a family car. Romero’s presentation then moved to larger meditations on the way Camden and, with it, this prison get talked about, figured. Here, she turned toward Camilo Jose Vergara’s photographic documentation of the city, in his Invincible Cities project (2013), and pondered the duality of the ruined and built that not only structures Vergara’s aesthetic approach but also the larger structural narratives around what it means to be out in/of/from Camden.
"[W]e must reset the scene. To account for the people who come and go, also in all their lively complexities, and along those beloved grounds."
An ongoing feature of Romero’s rich and beautiful paper was its dual ethical attentions; on the one hand, she complexly queried the structural mooring of Camden with the floating specter of Riverfront State itself, a racializing, sexualizing, and classed city-as-prison discourse which did (and does) nothing else than presume mythically expectant, premature death, an excuse not to contend with rich social life. At the same time, though, not only did Romero think about the way the prison-city traveled, but also how it functioned like an unwanted second skin for those who lived, slept, got well, travelled to and from, stayed quiet, and hit their highest notes in it. This second order of attention, what Kathleen Stewart calls "ordinary affects," moved, now thinking again with Tiffany King, in the tender (often privately felt) outer edges of those terribly persistent maps (Stewart 2007), maps that lie; cartographic impositions that kill the outdoors by presuming (so-called) failures don’t harbor beginnings and frontiers don’t end the places they claim to expand.
In Romero’s moving presentation, these outer edges, the places where a structurally attuned and critical account of the city joins the wisdom brought by sacred memory, referred not just to the barbed wire demolition sites and their attendant (always too soon) brutally unvital revitalizational projects, but the other kinds of city ecologies: space-times where fathers and daughters enjoy wordless passage and otherworldly understanding. As Romero herself ethically mused, "we must reset the scene. To account for the people who come and go, also in all their lively complexities, and along those beloved grounds."
Along Those Beloved Grounds
What Romero offered was a way not to write about the city, and with it, larger narratives about the outness and outdoors it’s imbricated with, but to feel and write toward it: to write toward what falls outside of the enclosures engendered by maps and words, writing toward what waters remember, what the sounds of old men on a bus harbor, and what the bat flying around your parent’s bedroom has been for the longest time trying to say.
By way of another beautiful example, Ashon Crawley’s paper, "The Lonely Letters: Of Blackness, Breath, and Being," picked up on this very practice of writing-toward and feeling-toward that also moved in Mercy Romero’s writing; a practice of out poesis that exceeds capture. Indeed, Crawley, at one point, said, "We exist in and as excess, as that which cannot be contained or engulfed or enclosed by anything, negation and exclusion included." This is "the gift of excess," an excess that was at the heart of Crawley’s genre-bending meditation. Framed through a series of "autobiofictional" letters that "attempt to think the relationship of quantum theory, mysticism and blackness together by thinking with the sound and noise of Blackpentecostal spaces," Crawley’s talk
Building on his crucially important and recently published book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (2017), Crawley invited a consideration of blackness’s outness precisely as a praxis of maroonage, also understood as a practice of love and intimacy, hope and joy across "worlds known and unknown, the religious and the scientific, the noisy and the musical." As "the groundedness of an uncontainable outside," maroonage is the practice of nonvertical, never fully consummated and therefore an always unfinished reach for connection in the face of loneliness and aloneness, in the face (and here Crawley inflects a theme at the heart of Nathaniel Mackey’s poetics, of which more anon) of broken kinship (Moten 2003, 26). Crawley, in effect, asks, how do we think possibility and what is its practice in the face of the imposition of disconnection and dispossession which has yielded "[disappointment] in the world, in both big world-historical ways but mostly on the level of the personal. How much is one supposed to endure" and what is the practice of endurance? Might it be that Black outdoors names just such a practice, the practice of black faith as a kind of faithfulness and thus as endurance?
“How much is one supposed to endure" and what is the practice of endurance? Might it be that Black outdoors names just such a practice, the practice of black faith as a kind of faithfulness and thus as endurance?
When Crawley’s epistolary writer "A" writes to the perhaps shape-shifting "Moth" about mysticism and quantum physics, and when "A" weaves such concerns in and through reflections on queer intimacies in which intimacy is sometimes laced with loneliness—or maybe it’s the reverse, a loneliness laced with intimacy—what we as auditors came to understand is that Crawley’s writing itself is the practice of a certain "anethics." That is, such anethical writing, to purloin one of Crawley’s beautiful formulations, advances a mystical regard, a quantum feeling and hapticality, quantum touch in sonic and therefore fleeting contact. Here, maroonage becomes a "[mystical practice] to which we can attend," a mysticism of sociality as such in which everything moves through and in relationship to everything else.
In this way, everything in its thingliness indexes being more and less than itself, everything exists as and in accrual and therefore in nonidentity with itself. Or, said differently but again, the thingliness of everything lay in everything being in juxtapositional conjunction, existing in a kind of coincidentia oppositorum, as fifteenth-century mystic Nicolas Cusanus, writing just as the fatal and fateful Portuguese colonial ventures were taking off, might put it. Juxtapositionally, which is to say in conjunctural accrual, everything bespeaks an intimacy that is anterior to individuation and that is the critique thereof.
This Crawley linked to Blackpentecostal "noise making." A kind of "noise uprising," blackpentecostal noise making bespeaks a mode of religiosity moving against religious capture, against reduction to the very categories of religion and the secular, particularly as such categorization works within modern regimes of knowledge to aid and abet anti-black and settler colonial brutalities (Denning 2015). Blackpentecostals perform a noise making that "announces a fundamental and deep and moving and abiding connection with one another and the creaturely world." This connection is at the heart of the mystical, as Crawley invited us to think about it, at the heart indeed of what we explored this year under the rubric "black outdoors." Following Crawley, black outdoors is a mysticism of sound and flesh, of sonic, vibratory breath, the musicality of earth-bound noise wherein "nothing is inanimate, everything moves and vibrates" in such a way as to exceed capture.
[B]lack outdoors is a mysticism of sound and flesh, of sonic, vibratory breath, the musicality of earth-bound noise wherein "nothing is inanimate, everything moves and vibrates" in such a way as to exceed capture.
If Crawley opened up the question of outdoors through a letter-writing mysticism that feels toward what exceeds capture, then Sora Han took this up at the level of an "anti-colonial alphabet," that which lies beyond and outside the alphabet, beyond alph, beta, and omega, and thus beyond grammatology and teleology—and beyond property. Indeed, Han asked: what is the poetics of that outdoors, that mode of out(sider)ness, that is irreducible even to the binary opposition between in-and-out through which the logic and brutal practice of propertied pastoralism and racial inscription takes place?
Han’s intervention replayed an issue brought up in the Hartman–Moten dialogue: How do we think that unthought mode of outness, the "out" that is more "in" and more "out" than the "out" and the "in" that structures the settler imaginary of settlement, that brutal practice of an inside-outside structure of containment that both Thomas Hobbes (under a discourse of the hedge) and John Locke (under a discourse of the fence), for instance, spoke of as the practice of settler surrounding (Locke  2003; Hobbes  1998)? Han thinks this outer-outness, which is also an inner in-ness—an outer-inness and an inner-outness—as that poetics of "mu" that one finds in the Nathaniel Mackey’s serial poem that he calls "Mu." In many ways, it is Mu that confounds the regulatory and managerial aspirations of notions of in-and-out. (For the reader who may be unfamiliar with this concept, Mackey (2002), in the prefatory essay accompanying the poetry anthem Splay Anthem, offers "Mu" as a mobile term at once referring to "myth and mouth in the Greek form muthos . . . " and the "Atlantis-like continent Mu": "The places named in the song of the Andoumboulou, set foot on by the deceased while alive but lost or taken away by death, could be called ‘Mu.’ Any longingly imagined, mourned, or remembered place, time, state, or condition can be called ‘Mu’" (Mackey 2006, x).
Han’s moving with Mu, and its paraontological, multitemporal resistance toward translation, provided the conditions for her engagement with the transnational and translinguistic features of an "anti-colonial alphabet," one that might begin with Mu, move to untrespassed continents, and reach toward "any longingly imagined . . . place" (ibid). This errant, nonteleological movement is an alternative imagination of intimacy within which colonialisms are lived, survived, and exceeded, a breaking of their legal and political ontologies into otherworldly relation. That break might be called a paraontological poetics, what Han thinks as Mu and "read" in Theresa Cha’s Dictee (Cha  2001; Chandler 2013).
Han argued specifically that
[w]hile Mackey raises Mu’s Greek etymology by way of its sound and thought that is jazz, and Fred Moten , taking Mackey up extends this atlas of "Atless"-ness to introduce us to the Japanese phenomenology of Mu meaning nothingness, which he writes about in his essay, "Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)", what I would like to do is run with this errancy by thinking about Mu as Korean shamanism, or mu-ism".
Here, in an unprecedented mode of engagement with Cha’s Dictee, Han seeks not to translate the text but to regard its poetic openness in and as its shamanic capacity, a regard that understands such shamanic potential as never not animated by what’s not there, the Korean language, a language, according to Han, without origin.
For Han, critics’ tendencies to focus on what Dictee says or speaks to, the "feminine figures of multiple colonial displacements and anti-colonial resistance, including th[e] mythological figure of Pari, as well as the remnants of Cha’s biological and biographical mother, and Korean heroine, Yu Guan Soon," ignores the formally animating features of its unnamed, constitutive outside, the Korean language. How the text is not spoken, for Han, is its shamanic potential: "A fundamental element of the Pari myth, which is the style and medium of this myth’s transmission . . . requires a mudang, a feminine conduit, a female shaman […] This form of shamanistic myth requires a feminine figure’s submission to being possessed by an aural form of divine madness—which is to say, to give place to a form of carnal descent wherein the effacement of difference between human experiences of suffering and a mythic origin of a people is relentlessly pursued through a form of active loss, not having, being without, at the center of what is now recognized as "Muism," an indigenous Korean shamanistic ritual of ‘mu’."
The Korean language, as one that might be considered out from origin and, for this reason, irreducible to translation, bespeaks an unencroachable practice of divinization, one that moves from the text’s black outside, the practice of formless form that opens onto what Han calls an "indigenous matrilineal discourse" of sheer possibility, what, for maybe a mere moment, keeps the summoned one, the "held but not had" (more than-) one, safe (Mackey 2015, 4).
Reflecting on Han’s meditation on Mu brings us to a consideration of the closing events with three world-class poets who helped us conclude the Black Outdoors project: Nathaniel Mackey, M. NourbeSe Philip, and Ed Roberson. As noted earlier in relationship to Han’s project, it is poet Nathaniel Mackey who introduced a discourse of Mu into black radical poetics.
As we remarked at the series’ beginning and in our elaboration of Sora Han’s presentation, Mu is outness, outsideness, if not outsiderness. It is the outdoors, that which resists enclosure; indeed, that which brings sovereignty or the activity of the settler online to close the open.
Like "black ether," Mu indicates an alternative gathering that blackness practices, bound up as it is with what Robin Blaser might call the "practice of the outside."
It was profound for us then to return together to the church, after spending a year in the "black out" together. That is, following Mackey’s formulation of churchicality across the various installments of his epistolary novel, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, from Bedouin Hornbook (2010) to Late Arcade (2017), Mu is the ek in ekklessia, the Greek term that stands behind the theological and religious idea of church. Ek means "out," klessia means roughly the called or gathered or congregated. Churchicality radicalizes the outness of the ek into deregulated, unfenced, unwalled, unbounded relationality in the break of the political as we know it, the politics of enclosure. The ek is also Sylvia Wynter’s plot beyond the plantation, the soil that nurtures the poem of the "underlife," the ground of an open field or "renegade poetics," a new language practice, an ante-logos (Wynter n.d., 1970, 1976, 1979; Shockley 2011). The ek is the open of Édouard Glissant’s "open boat," an "undercommon" communion, the surreal presence, that "consent not to be a single being" that Glissant also talked about, another name for which is diaspora, or another name still, "The Black Outdoors," perhaps even "the belly of the world" (Glissant 1997, 5; Harney and Moten 2013; Diawara 2011, 5; Hartman 2016). Mu is that wandering between aisles, within but eluding constraint, that fleeting rush of air between puckered, parted lips upon Mu’s would-be pronunciation. Like "black ether," Mu indicates an alternative gathering that blackness practices, bound up as it is with what Robin Blaser might call the "practice of the outside" (Carter and Cervenak 2016; Blaser 2006).
At the end of the series, we returned to the church to continue in that practice, an atmospherics, an alternate sanctum and animacy. The black outdoors is and was about this work, which can’t be done alone.
Crucially, the esteemed poets invited to conclude the series, M. NourbeSe Philip, Ed Roberson, and Nathaniel Mackey, have always seemingly been about that work; not just the outdoors but a poetics of not doing it alone. Moreover, we might say that what their poems do is thread stratospheres, floral blossoms, and unheld earth into some kind of unencroachable relation.
Outdoors is an open secret of furtive meeting, where scorned flesh and scorned earth commune in scandalous arrangement. Oxygen. Carbon dioxide. Nitrogen. Face, petal, the feel of rain—what can’t be encompassed or dominated.
That is, these poets illumine the earth in a way that tells us of the wreckage and the other ecologies that sing and bloom alongside. They tell us the earth’s unsung history. In their glimmering pages, we see how the projects of racial, sexual, and ecological domination have never and can never be complete in their brutality, that Outdoors is an open secret of furtive meeting, where scorned flesh and scorned earth commune in scandalous arrangement. Oxygen. Carbon dioxide. Nitrogen. Face, petal, the feel of rain—what can’t be encompassed or dominated. Put another way, we might say that their art describes the performative and nonperformative dimensions of these encounters, the surreal ecologies already out from that destructive binary of in and out that brutalizes the planet itself.
Ed Roberson’s opening remarks pondered the black outdoors by way of its presumptive opposite, the "black indoors," "the homeplace, interiority, the kitchen," the place where you can "ea[t] cornbread with your fingers." He also argued that that security of the indoors proves elusive because of the ongoing terror of anti-black violence, where the indoors transmutes into someone else’s hunting ground. What we find interesting here is how Roberson’s poetics confounds the notion of an "inside" that is in strict binary relationship to an "outside." He offered a poetics that asked us all to turn back to the indoors and to realize that it too, in the context of blackness, is never ever securitized against an opposite, the outdoors (just as the outdoors, in the context of blackness, is never securitized by an indoors), but rather tenuously tows the line between "homeplace" and a violently interrupted chance at leisure, if not pleasure.
Jumping at the chance of pleasure, his poetry reading was culled from a manuscript that recorded a cross-country motorcycle trip taken with friends. His poems described rivers, places of above ground that sung with the railroads that moved underneath them, "soft running water," "blood in the fields." Here there was a generative slippage, a productive instability, perhaps even an undecidable indistinction, a being beyond category, at the site of blackness between indoors and/as outdoors.
Powerfully, the journey across country moved almost seamlessly into the next reading by Nathaniel Mackey, who began by professing his longtime study in the school of out. Mackey, somehow phantasmically being on the road with Ed, read from the short essay "Destination Out" (Mackey 2004), and the poems "Song of the Andoumboulou: 101" and "A Night in Jaipur" (Mackey 2015). "Song" began with "Mr P sat humming inside/a house overlooking the sea, cracks in the window, a draft in the room . . ."
We wonder whether what these poems did was not just make, but crack the window itself, letting a draft in that was already there. Listening to what it (the draft) could tell us. In some ways, we might say that if Ed took us to the road, Nate showed us what it meant to coast with it, to linger at the coast, and finally M. NourbeSe Philip turned us toward the sea.
[T]he "outer spaces" of Trinidad and Tobago, and of Canada, are at once spaces of stunning beauty, colonial violence and forgetting, and varying experiences of sexual and gender regulation for black and indigenous women. The "outer space" moved between the outdoors and feelings of racial and sexual vulnerability.
In her opening remarks, Philip queried the ways the "hydra-headed beast of colonialism" shapes and animates "outer spaces." This meditation moved to the Caribbean, to memories of fog and daffodils, to learning "nothing about the land around us." She reflected how "the island I come from is so astonishingly beautiful," wondering aloud "whether our ancestors, those enslaved Africans ever saw that beauty." This reflection flowed into a larger assertion about how the "outer spaces" of Trinidad and Tobago, and of Canada, are at once spaces of stunning beauty, colonial violence and forgetting, and varying experiences of sexual and gender regulation for black and indigenous women. The "outer space" moved between the outdoors and feelings of racial and sexual vulnerability.
Finally, as we noted, her last remarks took her to the sea, to a sailing trip she had taken months before. On the ocean, she marveled at its awesomeness, shared with us how it resembled the highway poeticized by Ed, while also contemplating the uncontemplatable dimensions of its outness, the terror experienced by those forced to pass through its watery middle. These concluding remarks left us to linger and ethically regard the ocean’s out-histories, out-social life. The ocean as black outdoors.
In the end (of which there is none), Philip’s performative reading of Zong! brought the sea into the church, in this way rendering it churchical perhaps, giving "something for the dead," as Nate might say here, "the dead said to be dying of thirst" (Mackey 2015, 95).
Maybe what all three poets did was begin the world anew, from the confines of where it was all said to begin, the church; Genesis, yes; but what’s anterior to the genesis of the world. Ante-genesis. Moreover, maybe what all three poets did by bringing the outdoors inside the space of the church, in other words by turning the church out, levitating the oceans (Philip), bringing our attention to the draft (Mackey) and the broken open inside, was enact another kind of ceremony: black extraceremoniality. "There is No End to Out."
Again at the church, blackness’s ecological unfetteredness was poeticized as a form of sacred practice, as ethical and holy regard for the earth and the larger universe, for what Denise Ferreira da Silva has called "plenum" and Philip herself in Zong! has called "sanctum" (Philip 2011; Silva 2014; 85). This is nothing less than . . . saying the beginning better than it was said in the beginning.
- Our understanding and appreciation of study is indebted to Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013).
- "What the Waters Remember" is a nod toward the title of Vanessa Agard-Jones’ (2012) stunning essay, "What the Sands Remember."
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