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Black Spring

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He wanted to leave nothing out. Given the film image’s powers of simultaneous arrest and dispersal, he may have believed it the surest means of preserving while imparting some measure of the densities and speeds generated across the spectrum of happenings, impasses, and transfigurations that marked what he and a few allies were engineering at San Francisco State that spring of 1967. The lambent play of sound and image might diffuse some of the private intensities driving their rupture of the knowledge-reproduction operations of the University—and might therefore document some slight tremor in the market systems of which it was part. Attempting to film “everything” might enshrine cinematographically at least some fugitive dimension of the unstated rapports with other forces and knowledges that had led them all into momentary convergence that year at SFSU.

Filming everything in sight would secure the presence of much that was not, since the tracking of so many shoestring plans and shifting personas would install movement, trajectory, and departure as foundational conditions of comprehension. Shooting all this might detach spectatorship from mimetic habit-forms of positionality by which all had learned to stay gridded—named, placed, timed, assessed—within the fanatically racialized US regimes of discipline, spectacle and control. Filming it all at the speed of the mutations they were triggering might flood the representational routines that had completely occluded from view centuries of Black conceptual and aesthetic investigation.

The “un-schooled” filmmaking he now undertook might exemplify for revolutionary consciousness a new mode of instruction in the contingency of radical social alteration. By never subordinating spontaneity’s motion to narration’s scriptural death-grip, he would let the sound-image’s non-resolution magnetize the spectator’s ear and eye toward the phantasmatic zones of transformative struggle in which he had been involved for years. Any moving image or stray sound might draw that spectator out of habituated consumption and into an uncast but pivotal role in what he called “The Communications Project.” So named is the collective project that Amiri Baraka would inaugurate that year, filming it under the title Black Spring, while a visiting scholar at San Francisco State.

Baraka’s invitation is extended not by the university, but by the undergraduate leadership of its nascent Black Student Union. In his 1984 memoir, he offers at least a provisional explanation of why he jumped at it:

I wanted to put together a “Communications Project,” really a means of bringing black consciousness to the students and the community. I wanted to organize a company of students and community people to put together a repertory of plays and travel throughout the area, and all this, the preparations, the plays, community response, travel, would also be filmed. This was my proposal.[1]

Baraka’s brief recounting of the visit doesn’t elaborate much on the film itself, which went missing soon thereafter and stayed out of sight until finally resurfacing last fall.[2] The research of historian Whitney Strub on Baraka’s late-sixties’ film excursions illumines a strong sense of the poet’s stake in using film to multiply the fronts of Black refusal of institutional/epistemological reproduction. This work would culminate a year later (after Baraka had already gone back east), in the formal establishing of the country’s first Department of Black Studies.

Goals included filmed versions of Black plays, Black documentary, and what collaborator Ed Bullins called Black commercials: “short, low budget films that could be distributed nationally—quickly and economically—throughout Black communities.” Sounding very much like (and anticipating) New York’s Newsreel collective, Bullins added, “we could utilize the forms but change the content, thus producing a revolutionary mass communications tool.” According to him, Jones, Marvin X, and other California participants wrote several of these commercials, but most were destroyed during bouts of police harassment . . . Still, as the Black Arts Alliance that Jones joined had better luck staging plays than shooting revolutionary commercials, he kept the cameras rolling, documenting not just Black Arts stagecraft but also events, including a Black Panther Party benefit staged at the arts-oriented Black House. So committed was Jones to the footage that he continued editing it even after returning to Newark, when the tumultuous unrest of summer 1967 resulted in his beating by police and arrest, then conviction, on gun charges. Black Spring appeared in 1968, to relatively little notice.[3]

Perhaps the most urgent question made legible in Baraka’s cursory reconstruction has to do with the “all this”; his desire to get into the conceptual frame as many dispositions, temporalities, contradictions and traversals of ideological orientation as comprise this caravan of insurgent Black thought and art. Black Spring, as he appears to have imagined it, would be something more than the film-chronicle of an eventful year-in-residence on the Coast—it would open a cinematographic language in which “writing in images” would introduce to the writing of history a dimension at once of, and yet beyond, the reality for which it tries to account.[4] An experimental form in which every fragmentary cut or disembodied sound disconnects exuberantly from the pre-administered languages of “cinema,” “history,” and “politics” wiring a few of the representational dimensions of racial capitalism.

Amiri Baraka (at far left, performing with colleagues on a Newark street) in a screenshot from D. A. Pennebaker’s One P.M. (1971)
Fig. 1. Amiri Baraka (at far left, performing with colleagues on a Newark street) in a screenshot from D. A. Pennebaker’s One P.M. (1971). Backgrounded is Jean-Luc Godard.

It is with the spirit of this phantasmatic vessel of Black becoming, whose sound-images so compel Baraka’s obsessive retouching and reshaping, that this new space in Modernism/modernity identifies most completely. Its desire to share a cauldron of concepts and questionings in image, language, and analysis from contemporary Black artists, filmmakers, musicians, and intellectuals should reflect not only the critical intensities of this global moment’s upheavals; but should in some way rupture those false dichotomies of theory and practice that have so divorced Western re-presentation of Black figural production from the meditative dynamics structuring it. Appropriation of the film’s title is intended as homage to and renewal of the critical inclusivity of its insurrectionary furor.

What is it that Baraka doesn’t want to risk omitting when he insists on filming the Communications Project? What might it be that leads the poet/playwright/scholar/critic/essayist to drop his much-surer pen, pick up a Bolex and find himself unable to let it out of his un-trained grasp—charged and overtaken as it is by the force of unscripted moving-images? Particularly when these images are tasked with transmitting the work of a radicalizing group of black students, artists and activists whose every gesture, expression and decision is a rejection of the University of modernity? What is the matter that Baraka envisions to be catalytic and not merely documentary in the relation of the cinematographic image to a Black evisceration of an anti-Black social order, more than four centuries on autopilot?

The matter is time. To be given over to such obsession—that is, to think, to speak, to shoot, to write, to teach, to perform, to join, to break up, over and again; “all this” from within such compressed temporalities and spaces as Strub describes—and to insist, from within that same duress and divination on the penetrative force of an alternate, audio-imagistic language that might impart some element of the energies required for the live transfiguring of a repressive institutional machinery; to see and hear the giving-over of the self and the collective to the shifting times and terms of each action’s exigency and improvisation—is to reopen, and not merely to record, the besieged promise of the Communications Project’s metamorphoses. The work of the film Black Spring is to show the urgency of getting the Project’s compulsions seen and heard by others molded within the same contexts of anti-Black destruction.

To film the momentums and disruptions of such a gravitation is to capture and release at once the spur of its moment, in the fullness of the “all this.” It is to make visible and audible the spasmodic plenitude that emerges in a figural image’s detaching from the performance imperatives of transparency. Baraka tries it again the following year when he films The New-Ark, another documentary of grassroots Black political transformation in his hometown of Newark, this time enlisting the aid of the brilliant, if largely unrecognized Black cinematographer James Hinton. The margin of difference in its reception is minimal, according to Strub, who holds a mirror to Baraka’s evaluators. The New-Ark’s nonlinear arrangement leads Village Voice critic Stephanie Harrington to ask, in reference to Baraka, “since when is he an avant-garde filmmaker?” (Strub, “Archive,” 278). The New York Times’ Jack Gould disqualifies the same film on the basis of entirely separate criteria, writing that it “never came close to a penetrating item of journalism” (278).

“Oh Dear”…

Two decades later, we find another mediatic example of what necessitated Black Spring. It arrives from the salad days of postmodern literary icon Salman Rushdie, in his January 1987 Guardian review of the then-recent documentary film Handsworth Songs, made by John Akomfrah and London’s Black Audio Film Collective.

Viewed now as a milestone of experimental documentary filmmaking, and as a salient detour from the routinization of documentary blackness as the stock embodiment of Western social abjection, this film’s indifference to representationalism was not celebrated by all who caught its first run. The late Jean Fisher’s 2007 reflection on the Collective’s body of work offers an incisive accounting of Handsworth Songs’ imagistic breaks from the same. For Fisher, the film’s methodology of divorcing narrative explanation from its use of “race riot”/Black public protest footage, is only one way in which it sends film practices of “official history” into profound question. The film

was to put into play several incommensurate but complementary discursive registers to produce an innovative “film-essay” style that was both poetic and political without being didactic; a montage of imagery drawn from the still photograph, the staged tableau vivant or dramatization, filmed and archival footage; a polyvocality of recorder testimonies and intercessional poetic voice-overs that, contrary to the "explanatory" panoptical impulse of the documentary narrator, build an oblique relation to the audiovisual track; and an immersive sonic space of sampled music and original electronic or digital composition, autonomous from the image, but animating it with an extended conceptual resonance.[5]

Rushdie’s review never gets lost in the textural mélange of film-images, formal techniques, and visual-art traditions that Fisher adduces because Rushdie is preemptively diverted from such investigation. What detours him from the aural-visual organization of the film is the media-hype that precedes it.

Down at the Metro cinema, in Soho, there’s a new documentary starting a three-week run. Handsworth Songs, made by Black Audio Film collective. The "buzz" about the picture is good. New Socialist likes it, City Limits likes it, people are calling it multi-layered "original" imaginative, its makers talk of speaking in metaphors, its director John Akomfrah is getting mentioned around town as a talent to watch.
Unfortunately, it’s no good, and the trouble does seem to be one of language.
Let me put it this way. If you see "Handsworth", what do you see? Most Britons would see fire, riots, looted shops, young Rastas and helmeted cops by night. A big story; front page. Maybe a West Side Story: Officer Krupke, armed to the teeth versus the kids with the social disease.
There’s a line that Handsworth Songs wants us to learn. "There are no stories in the riots." It repeats, "only the ghosts of other stories." The trouble is, we aren’t told the other stories. What we get is what we know from TV. Blacks as trouble; blacks as victims; Here is a Rasta dodging the boat; here are the old news-clips of the folks in the fifties getting off the boat, singing calypsos about "darling London."
Little did they know, eh? But we don’t hear about their lives, or the lives of their British-born children. We don’t hear Handsworth’s songs.
Why not? The film’s handout provides a clue. "The film attempts to excavate hidden ruptures/agonies of 'Race.'" It "looks at the riots as a political field coloured by the trajectories of industrial decline and structural crisis." Oh dear. The sad thing is that while the film-makers are trying to excavate ruptures and work out how trajectories can colour fields, they let us hear so little of the much richer language of their subjects . . . But the makers are too busy "repositioning the convergence of 'Race' and 'Criminality,'" describing a living world in the dead language of race industry professionals. I don’t know Handsworth very well, but I do know it’s bursting with tales worth telling . . .It’s important, I believe, to tell such stories, to say, this is England: Allahu Akbar from the minaret of Birmingham mosque, the Ethiopian World Federation which helps Handsworth Rastas "return" to the land of Ras Tafari. There are English scenes now, English songs.
You won’t find them, or anything like them, in Handsworth Songs, though for some reason you will see plenty of footage about troubles in Tottenham and Brixton . . . [6]

Because his review ignites on the promotional hype surrounding the film, never unmooring from it long enough to track the movements within and between its actual frames, Rushdie sacrifices involvement with the formal/conceptual decisions by which Handsworth Songs systematically unbinds as precisely non-representable, the inhering absurdities, contradictions, and densities of daily existence as a Black “non-being” within a cultural regime structured by and addicted to racialist mythologies. Rushdie’s imploring for more anecdotes, “stories,” “tales,” and “songs” of domesticated ethno-racial amusement clamors for Britain’s Black (non)subjects to remain in their habituated places of documentary pathos, and to reinscribe the notion of an essential “humanity” at the core of racialist industrialization.

A screenshot from BAFC’s Handsworth Songs, 1986.
Fig. 2. A screenshot from BAFC’s Handsworth Songs, 1986.

Presuming to correct Black figuration by steering it back to the transparency of documentary forms prepared for Western consumption by the denuding of “excessive” Black critical differential—Rushdie demands now that Black forms excise their own meditative preoccupations in contouring the shapes and sounds conditioning the zones of their own emergence. What Rushdie requires of black art is resolute non-narration of the price its very enunciation pays for “acceptance” into his “English scenes,” and to the Euro-American arbiters/gatekeepers of critical exchange. Black figuration must not stress—at least not in its own terms— the “troubles,” “the agonies of ‘Race’” that Rushdie at once ridicules as the performative jargon of Black intellectualism, and reaffirms as the ideological substratum of his review’s every line.

The rigor with which Rushdie avoids the material textures and rhythms by which this film extracts spectatorial labor—his review confining itself instead to the more familiar images surfaced by the film’s use of stock news footage—reflects an enabling myopia that replays its own very old story. It typifies the exclusionism with which Euro-American valuational systems secure their self-installation as final executor of all referential economies. It inherits the tenacity with which the West’s self-centralized categories of representation (e.g., history, literature, journalism, etc) read and reproject themselves as white. The black “stories” and “songs” that merit inclusion in Rushdie’s “English scenes” become worthy of celebration because they signify an unquestioning endurance of a presumably given racism that locks its violence and its victims into circularities of mutual affirmation. Rushdie’s preferred songs and tales function as specific methodologies of not thinking about the structurally imposed zones of obliteration from which his preferred “informants” speak and sing—much like the “Caged Bird” of Maya Angelou’s to which his review compares Akomfrah’s work so negatively and insistently. The condescension with which Rushdie demands that Black figuration and critique bring themselves into line is entirely consistent with the demand for simplicity that necessitates the recalcitrance of Handsworth Songs’ continually fissuring pictures and sounds. The film’s cinematographic insolence, or more precisely, its complete inhabitation by a non-mimetic film-language, pivots its images out of the dialectics of readymade value to which Rushdie the critic remains bound.

As it was for Baraka’s New-Ark reviewers in 1968, the spectral obliquity that orients Akomfrah’s sound-images without ensnaring them in explanation is inadmissible for Rushdie, whose hectoring, “oh dear” derision of uppity-young blacks daring to trespass in the registers of film-experimentality and critical theory, typifies a toxicity that runs deeper than the smugness for which Stuart Hall upbraids him in response.[7] Rushdie disavows the double haunting performed by the film’s opacities, which conjure at once the ghosts of Western-butchered black pasts, and the Black figurational futures that so obsolesce the tourist-images of authenticating, local color to which he is so attached. “The missionary zeal with which black life is chased in this anthropological way,” as Akomfrah blithely sums up Rushdie’s evaluation, “is precisely what is missing from Handsworth Songs.”[8]

The Unhumanities

Before inviting Baraka (then still better known as LeRoi Jones) to SFSU, Jimmy Garrett, the undergraduate president of the Black Student Union, and his colleagues had already begun to free themselves from the Western-imposed language of black neutralization:

During the spring of 1967, we asked for that School of Humanities to allow us to teach courses. There were already courses being taught under the experimental college that was run by the student government. We financed a lot of the early courses. I ended up teaching two courses in the spring of 1967. I taught a graduate course in humanities and an undergraduate course in humanities, and I was a junior then. It was kind of a weird thing. We called our courses “unhumanities” because the definition of humanities was the art and culture of the West. And the question was what happened if you are a human being and you didn’t come from the West? So we developed whole curriculums around challenging Western concepts and the domination of the West . . . we brought LeRoi out in the spring of 1967 and brought Sonia Sanchez out in the later part of 1967. So we were bringing people in to help legitimize the concept of Black Studies.[9]

Working in the “Humanities” from the disinterred point of view of what the Humanities has not yet completely managed to eradicate—a re-inscriptive “un-humanities” that assiduously fails the structural assignment of replicating “white over black”—means expanding the désœuvrement of Black intellectual and social participation in service to the University. It means the incessant work of un-working.[10] In this case it means the specific work of failing to teach, failing to learn and failing to reproduce in one’s research or one’s art the foundational law of “white over black” inscribing every interval of US history.[11] Baraka names the scope of this law in a blithe and usually overlooked observation from 1963’s Blues People:

What is so often forgotten in any discussion of the Negro’s “place” in American society is the fact that it was only as a slave that he really had one.[12]

“All this” then, is to establish the film-vocabulary of Black Spring’s departure from the non-place reserved for creative/critical Black existence in modernity’s grids of meaning. Black images, sounds and ideas cannot generate from within the valuational parameters that the slave is made to repeat. Blackness cannot envision the fullness of its desire as long as that desire is preempted by mediatic bombardment of racialist idealization. It can have no access to its own momentum force as long as it retains within itself the pre-imposed image and idea of racial modernity’s governance. It cannot transform from within systems of definition that it doesn’t create—and will only disfigure or disavow itself by molding itself to reigning forms of ubiquitous commodity-zombification. The Black Student Union’s inaugurating act of verbal dis-composition laughingly rewrites all that, in a single word that detours and rescues their scholarship from a “Humanities” premised on the expulsion of Black desire.

Baraka’s “untutored” insistence on filming the project replays his own critical signposting, in 1963, of a similar dynamic unfolding in John Coltrane’s mid-performance push through tangles of disciplinary unlearning and undoing of the improvisational traditions that had produced him. Monstrous is the motion that leads from the taxonomies of reproduction and exchange into a new field of impulses and unmapped proximities. “(I)t was more than a little frightening, like watching a grown man learning to speak,” reads Baraka’s well-known projection of the scene.[13] By assuming in his maiden film the task of “bringing black consciousness” to the University, Baraka burdens his own non-knowledge of film-technics with the mission of an analysis that will trigger conceptual mutations out of black miming of anti-Black social languages and forms—and into phantasmatic depths of an abeyant and excessive alterity.

It is no more complex than this. What Baraka demands in 1967 at SFSU anticipates what the Black Audio Film Collective commands in 1986: another technology by which to read, rather than to re-present materialities of questioning between possibility and non-possibility; between what is and is not-yet. The explorative character of Baraka’s filmic “amateurism” is entirely consistent with the improbable constituency and multi-disciplinarity forming the working unit of the “Communications Project.” It is the anti-disciplinary drive of the Project’s individual members to come and to stay together in the elaboration of an unprecedented force—at once a jagged crystallization of art, analysis and politics—that ruptures the institutional grid’s powers of replication over resolutely non-mimetic/un-working Black futures.

Realizing the extent to which the “Communications Project” aims to eviscerate the white supremacist apparatus of the US academy is to have some sense of what eventuates the following year, in the establishing of Black Studies at SFSU. It would hardly seem possible, as Sylvia Wynter and subsequent others have made clear, to overstate the qualitative difference and animative distance between emergent Black Studies configurations on American campuses in the late 1960s/early ‘70s, and the present general run of “African American Studies” programs and departments in the United States.

the purpose of Black Studies was to challenge these untruths (of inherent black pathology) foundational to Western society in order to bring about the complete social transformation of this system of knowledge within whose culture-specific understanding Blacks are the antithesis of what it means to be human.[14]

To so compose is to discompose the racialist structuration of consciousness that negates Black movement, reflection and invention. Through those exertions and reflexes, Black becoming detaches from the psychodramas organizing anti-Black cultural economies. Fresh investigations of contemporary and antecedent Black conceptual work—whose shapes in literature, film, visual arts, and music reflect in their every gesture a morphing out of inherited spectra of value—provide this Black Spring the material on which it ignites. This forum explores how those textures of language, sound, image and idea remain totally unadjusted to the “Oh dear” of their would-be institutional masters—particularly those who imagine themselves “allies” only as long as they control the parameters of definition and set what Cedric Robinson recognized as “the terms of order.”


Notes

[1] Amiri Baraka, The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill, 1987), 351.

[2] Black Spring: Return from Exile,” a screening/discussion of Amiri Baraka’s Black Spring, October 7, 2020 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles organized by Harmony Holiday.

[3] Whitney Strub, “The Baraka Film Archive: The Lost, Unmade and Unseen Film Work of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka” Black Camera, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Fall 2015), 276.

[4] My use of this term derives entirely from filmmaker Robert Bresson’s coinage, in which “cinematography” connotes only the figuration of aural-visual images—in complete separation from “cinema,” by which he designates the tradition and commercial enterprise of narrative-premised, popular filmmaking. For Bresson, “CINEMATOGRAPHY IS A WRITING WITH IMAGES IN MOVEMENT AND WITH SOUNDS. Notes on the Cinematograph, trans. J. Griffin (New York: New York Review Books, 1975), 7 (Bresson’s capitalization).

[5] Jean Fisher, “In Living Memory . . . Archive and Testimony in the Films of the Black Audio Film Collective,” in The Ghosts of Songs: The Film Art of the Black Audio Film Collective 1982-1998 (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 20.

[6] Salman Rushdie, “songs doesn’t know the score,” The Guardian, January 12, 1987.

[7] Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities” in Black Film, British Cinema, ed. Kobena Mercer (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts). Available at diagonalthoughts.com/?p=1343/.

[8] Paul Gilroy, Jim Pines, Reece Auguiste, John Akomfrah, Lina Gopaul, and Eddie George, “Audiences/Aesthetics/Independence Interview with the Black Audio Collective” in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, No. 35, Special Feature: Lesley Stern, Laleen Jayamanne, and Helen Grace (1988), 14. See also Coco Fusco’s illuminating interview with the BAFC published in her Young, British and Black: the Work of Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective (Buffalo: Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, 1988). The interview is available at https://www.diagonalthoughts.com/?p=1976.

It should be noted that according to Akomfrah, speaking at MIT in 2012, Rushdie in 1995 privately admitted to him and to Black Audio producer Lina Gopaul, that he had “got it wrong” about the film. Akomfrah and Gopaul were interviewed at MIT after a screening commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Handsworth Songs. “Reconsidering Handsworth Songs” October 30, 2012.

[9] Ibram Rogers, “Remembering the Black Campus Movement: An Oral History Interview with James P. Garrett,” The Journal of Pan African Studies 2, no. 10, (2009): 30–41.

[10] On occasion in the work of Frantz Fanon, and with more systematically ingrained presence across the writings of Maurice Blanchot, désœuvrement implies not only a total non-responsiveness within a practical framework of production, decision or action, but at the same time, a draw or attraction toward an elsewhere; an alterity-induced gravitation or involvement.

[11] This is perhaps the central epistemological refrain of Anthony Farley’s indispensable 2005 essay, “Perfecting Slavery.” Boston College Law School Digital Commons @ Boston College Law School Boston College Law School Faculty Papers, Jan. 27, 2005.

[12] Amiri Baraka, Blues People (New York: Perennial, 2002), 55.

[13] Amiri Baraka, Black Music (New York: Morrow, 1967), 59.

[14] Jason E. Glenn, “A Second Failed Reconstruction? The Counter Reformation of African American Studies: A Treason on Black Studies,” in “Sylvia Wynter: A Transculturalist Rethinking Modernity,” special issue, Journal of West Indian Literature 10, no. 1/2 (November 2001): 123.