This is for the cool in you. The low swag of you. The righteous fury and star-following urge in you. This is for my people, Black and praiseworthy. For all of us. My family, Nuyoricans, blown across the map by anger. My friends, practicing themselves in the mirror, trying on new moves, new colors, new tongues.
This is for the descendants of the African Diaspora, the fathers who leave and the ones who stay, the mothers who hold it down with blistered hands, the child growing up in the rubble, trying to glue the pieces together. This is for the hustlers in suits and dresses, smiling to strangers in the maze of capital. For the churchgoers, praising the pain away, stepping on each other to get close to God. For the activists, fists in the air, yelling at the walls, carrying our dream into daylight. And yes, this is for my niggas, scarred and hurting, who share me their drink, laughing as I pee between cars. This is for all of us. This is our praise song.
You saved me. You, the spirit behind our masks: the Black Soul. There is this flesh, these bodies we live in. And then there’s us, the social body rising from our singular lives, a world-historical Black Soul, a being made out of our striving. It is a real thing. And within it is our freedom.
You dark giant, hundreds of years old, holding our millions of faces inside you. Woven by slave chains that became our nervous system, relaying messages across space and time. You remind us to mark the difference between how we’re seen and who we are. We’re not victims, but survivors. Not objects of pity, but subjects of history, a people as deep as night, each life a star in the infinite.
Black Soul, sometimes we half see ourselves. Before it was Baldwin, now it’s Coates; we are taught to write our history in the language of scar tissue. Even as we transform pain into power. Even as we scoop up our darkness and hold it like fertile, precious earth.
Black Soul, we are born, live and die within you. We feel you in everything we do. You glow when we reach a mountaintop. Like Jack Johnson’s lightning fists in the ring. Or Bessie Smith making it rich by singing blue. Or Obama in the White House. You are the music we play when we turn our bodies into instruments. You are the alarm in our heads when danger breathes close. And you are kerosene sadness, sparked into rage when one of us dies wrong — a roasted neighbor hung from a tree, a boy shot by police.
Black Soul, you are a real thing. I first felt you when my uncle put claves in my hands. We were in the basement with his band as they tuned their instruments. “Feel the beat,” he said, “tap, tap, tap … tap, tap.” Guiding my hands, he knocked the wood pieces together, a high hollow sound ringing out. “It’s a West African rhythm,” he said, then reversed it. I followed the count back and forth. “It’s why Latin bands play in Africa,” he said. “We all share the same beat.” The band members lifted their guitars and drumsticks, leaned over keyboards. I tapped away the original rhythm like a heart pulsing at the center of the song. Tap, tap, tap … tap, tap.
I first saw you as a kid going through my mom’s photo album. She and my uncle had blown-out afros, as big as halos. Mom smiled and said, “Back then, all the Puerto Ricans went to ballrooms to dance salsa, the girls had straightened hair, wore dresses and heels. The boys wore suits. But I hung out in the West Village with the hippies. So I showed up in jeans and sporting an afro. The music stopped. Everyone gawked at me. Wouldn’t you know, the next week, everyone else had Afros and jeans too.” She laughed at the memory and absentmindedly touched her hair, now straightened.
Black Soul, I was too shy to dance with you. My body knew salsa but not the swing of R&B, so in middle school, I leaned on the wall at parties. At one, a girl who’d been eyeing me signaled to her friend and they sandwiched me as everyone whooped. Our hips locked and they wound me up like a clock. We were grinding on beat when something clicked. We got into a low down groove, making it serious. A deep heat flared from our bodies and then they broke off and ran away, laughing. I swayed like a drunk as my crew of friends slapped me on the shoulders.
Lesson learned. Whenever joy, rage, love or grief welled up, I found that space in the beat and set myself free. Sometimes, it meant being locked in a rhythm with another. Other times, it meant wild abandon. Like when I danced and flung my dreads like a supermodel. And they hit a man in the eye. He stumbled backward and cupped his face as I said, “Sorry. Sorry.” But he laughed and said he once had dreads too.
Black Soul, you are a way of praise that flings pain out of the body, a real thing. You are the alarm in our brains, warning us before we get hurt again. You shine a UV light that highlights everyday whiteness, its traps, its greed, its hypocrisy, its violent, hypocritical patriotism, its insatiable appetite for our death.
I learned from you to map the danger zones: where in the city I’d be beaten, killed or arrested. We all had the Racial Radar. We learned to see the lie behind the smile, hear the betrayal in the promise. When we graduated from childhood, you, Black Soul, were our inheritance. Some of us tried to escape you, to flee the burden of color. We drugged out. We lied and wore a white mask. We tucked our truth into our pockets and spoke proper. Some of us wanted the power of fear. We wore black upon black. “Nigga” we yelled, “what you want?” We hurt ourselves and each other. We thought no one could see it because it was all night, all night forever.
I searched for you in my mother’s stories of the movement, in late-night college reading of Afrocentric myths and revolutionary manifestos. I confused skin color with soul and worried about my place. I prayed East to find you, unrolling the prayer mat, I knelt and said there was no God but Allah and Muhammad was his Messenger. Touching my head to the floor, I wept that I was lost. And I was.
Black Soul, you found me again. In college, a brilliant sister took away my political books, my Koran and gave me poetry. She pressed her palm to my chest and said, “This is your true home.” She sat me down between her knees and untangled my hair and my thoughts, braiding body and soul together. When she left for Africa and I left for New York, we embraced. Her memory rings in my chest like a church bell.
What would I do with my freedom? Face whiteness. See the shadow it cast on our skin. Lift it. The laws that pipelined us to prison. Lift it. The doubt that crippled the mind. Lift it. The rage that left us blind. Lift it. Year after year, I moved weight. Until, sloshing in a flooded New Orleans as bodies floated by, I could not lift anymore. In earthquake-shattered Port-au-Prince, I stood in the streets filled with the dead, each one of them, a someone who was loved by someone.
When I flew home to New York, my mind was a broken mirror. I was blind. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t hope. I drank and smoked and coked up until blood spilled from my nose. This was it. This was the weight of whiteness, the centuries of our lives being thrown away, and now it was going to kill me too. I was thinking of suicide in the way a drowning man thinks of air.
And you saved me, Black Soul, a way of flinging pain from the body, a real thing, you were Toussaint L’Ouverture who came to me in a dream and said, “Remember.” You were the friends who hugged me. You were my mother saying she was proud of me. You were the dancing that sweated out my tears. You were the long nights spent listening to old recordings of Civil Rights activists chanting, “Freedom now! Freedom now!”
Stumbling out of numbness into life, I saw what I couldn’t see before. Whiteness was crumbling like the ice of the North Pole. Chunks of it, falling. We were chanting it down. Our lives were beginning to matter. When police used us for target practice, we flooded the cities. Holding up the faces of those killed like mirrors, we forced America to see itself. We yelled “I can’t breathe,” so loudly that it filled the sky.
Black Soul, I found you in laughter. On my Bed-Stuy stoop with a dear friend, a tall brother with those Tupac-Ashanti features that made me question my life. We talked about what Black is, Black ain’t. How Black Soul was not just our inheritance but also our creation. And how we had to remold it. But what was it now? New faces were on the scene. Hipster Black. Tech Black. Afropunk Black. Atheist Black. And faces that weren’t new but had been hidden by our ignorance — Queer Black, Transgender Black.
We clowned about the endless contests between Bougie Black and Hood, High Yellow and Blue Black, Rasta Black and Yankee Black, Church Black and Dealer Black, Tyrone versus the Sistahs, Queen Black and Basic Black. We laughed at the fault lines that ran through our people, our families and our minds.
Finally, he turned to me, “So aside from light-skinned, what kind of Black are you?” Tilting my head, I said, “Disco Black. Protest Black.” I pretended to whip myself. “Kinky Black, you know, a little S/M to honor the ancestors.”
“I’m Denzel Black,” he chortled and stroked his nose. Looking into the distance, he said, “I’m Trying to Figure This Shit Out Black.” He half smiled. “I’ll own up to it. I go full nigga. Way. Too. Much.” Eyeing me carefully, he said, “But you don’t. You play it smooth.”
“Oh, I have to be really in love or really angry,” I said. “Like when they say ‘Hulk Smash’ in the movie, that’s me, except it’s the ghost of W.E.B. Du Bois saying, nigga smash.” I thumped my chest. “I smash racism.”
“Being nigga is a superpower,” he laughed, shaking his head. “Is this what we’ve come to?” But I was busy hitting myself and accidentally bumped him. “What are you doing?” He side-looked me. “Punching white supremacy,” I replied. “It’s deep inside.”
“Oh hell,” he giggled. “Let me help.” He play-punched my ribs as I play-punched his chin. And there we were, two friends, two Black men, half-boxing on the steps of my building, yelling at each other, “Nigga smash!”
Black Soul, where do we go from here? We live going under, around, over and through walls. But we have integrated a burning house. We inhaled the smoke of ignited money. The rich sell dreams to the hungry. We see them make bread out of ash. And they blame us when their night becomes blindness.
The American Dream is dying. And this is our New Exodus. We gotta leave. It’s time to go. The clock on Flava Flav’s chest has stopped. The gold in our mouths has flaked away. The math of Wall Street is Zeno’s Paradox. The nation is hiding its poor in jail. Workers are borrowing from tomorrow to pay their bills today. The food we eat is plastic inside plastic inside plastic. The land is being wrenched open for gas. Our water catches fire. The sky is becoming a hot blanket. The war is endless. Our names are on bombs that blast families into pools of blood.
The American Dream is dying. It is a hall of cracked televisions and outside it is a desert. This is a New Exodus. We gotta go. It’s time. Even if we have to eat sand. Or break the tombs of our ancestors for water. Beyond this place is a post-American world. Beyond this place is a land where Blackness is the ink with which we will re-write our names.
The covenant we make now is to the body. This ransacked vessel of the five senses, its eyes blistered from violence. Its knees worn by work. Its heart broken by loss. Its sex numbed from selling. Its hands scarred by chains. And its mind blurred by lies. We, whose bodies were sold and bought and sold again, we make a new covenant with the world.
Today and forever, the center is the body and all its knowledge. Touch connects us to each other. And through our fingertips pass the voices flowing from the Middle Passage to the New Millennium. The deep currents that brought us to the New World must now renew the world.
Black Soul, rising from the Diaspora, bringing up everyone who drowned, everyone who died a slave, everyone who fought or escaped, who loved and gave birth to us. A figure made of millions and millions of faces. You, world-historical being, a dark giant whose skin is a starry night. Our faces lit by new suns.
Black Soul sees the ancient Parthenon in the horizon and its stately pillars, the stage upon which the powerful talk. Standing between the white columns, it touches them. They were made from our bones. And we know it’s time, we who are born, live and die within the Black Soul, to say the name of everyone we loved and lost and failed to rescue. Singing to them, we push the pillars apart.
In that final crash, the Black Soul, with its profane halo, ceases to be and so will the weight that created it. And then a new human can enter time. A real human being. A love supreme. Amen.
Nicholas Powers is a professor of African-American literature at SUNY Old Westbury. He is the author of Ground Below Zero: 9/11 to Burning Man, New Orleans to Darfur, Haiti to Occupy Wall Street.
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