By Harmony Holiday
Mode One, Charles Mingus: Just go on your nerve
The spirit is always the first afflicted in the patterned deterioration we name dis/ease. Spirit seizes in the nearing distance, must choose one of two stances: being/nothingness. The black spirit, diasporic from outer space, the cosmos, the unsayable traits of the unknown, traitor to itself on this planet, is universally sick with dissimulation and at the same time triumphant in its incessantly performed healing, having turned suffering into a kind of spectacular wellness, an excellence, a triumphant swell of counter meaning, a con and a come up. Having turned the word “ill” into a compliment, a praise, a wilful state of grace.
And we aren’t casual about much, keep our intensity on the hush, but we casually announce the pathologies of our heroes in the tone of accolades. That Nigga’s Crazy! turns to mean, we love him dearly, he is our hero, he is completely himself. Charles Mingus was crazy. Lazy affirmation. He grew up in Watts in the 1930s in a working class family, son of a stoic military man. His autobiography will tell you he was punished as a young kid for wetting the bed, and teased for being bow-legged, the teasing a mixture of envy and disdain, the punishment his father’s fear that he would grow up to be a chump if he couldn’t even control his own bladder.
He grew up to be a jazz soldier, his motor skills on the bass likely on par with those of a marksman in the battlefield, his temperament somewhere between bleeding heart and kill or be killed. Taurus in the Arena of Life. He was in love with music, women and food, though all seemed subsidiary to the music, and the literacy and elegance it leant to being in space and time. He wanted all black people to know and master that dignity, to regain control over their thinking by way of rhythm-understanding.
But in all of this yearning, Mingus’s nerves short circuited too early in his life, all of the bouts of overeating, over-thinking, over-feeling, overstanding, getting over, converged in a kind of manic self-abnegating signal breach. His brain stopped telling his body how to be and his muscles began to atrophy. And we forget that certain organs double as muscles and we forget that jazz musicians are athletes, and they forget how to be mules.
Formally called Lou Gehrig’s dis/ease, the condition that Mingus acquired or willed and that ultimately led to his complete physical deterioration, is described as a neurodegenerative disorder that causes paralysis, weakness and, ultimately, respiratory failure. Motor neurons in the brain, specifically those that control voluntary motion, begin to die, and therefore cannot send signals to the muscles to initiate basic movement. The whole physiology begins to collapse on itself, eclipse itself.
If we look at the human body or form as a kind of unique grammar, the place where rhythm and tone converge turns into an endlessly muted scream and even the screamer can’t make it better.
For unknown reasons, military veterans are approximately twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as the general public. Mingus is a jazz soldier. The bed wetting in his early life was a sign that he was born with weak kidneys, the result of generations of adrenal trauma. Slave, slave, slave, soldier, play me the strings of my soul, in that order. Of retaining water in the holds of slave ships. See the kid in there on his knees talking into his own clasped hands this way, in the dark, under water. And the kidneys calibrate fluid and also anger, one clench away from danger. And the anger and also the water are switched off and on by hormones that in turn control the adrenal glands which sit right atop the kidneys, chillin’, landing. And no one wants to hear that the American dream murders its early anomalies and poster children, the pimps and jazz musicians and batters and battered, one by one.
So we zoom in on a lurid nuance of Charles Mingus. We zoom in on a young black or yellow child soldier, son of a negro (they would have called his father then, with disaffected sophistication) general. He’s inherited his parents’ stress and converted it into intuition and talent, genius, and he’s hip enough to pretend he doesn’t blame them, to their faces. He masters the cello, the bass, the English language and its bastard patois situation too; he masters women and meaning production, becomes one of the best composers of black classical music the world has ever known, eats grapes and chicken until the seeds become bones, and he expects to live forever. We expect him to live forever. Supernigga. Forever Living. He is infatuated with eastern religion as well as psychoanalysis, what the West uses to analog it. He is paralysed as well as a pathological dancer. He eats and thinks and fucks and loves too damn much. Does too much acid with Timothy Leary. Disdain comes as easy as joy. He enters a constant state of fight or flight propelled by his already compromised adrenal glands and finally the body grows so fatigued and overloaded with meaning that this surplus short-circuits everything. It could have been different. He wanted it thus. Dying again and again for his sins which he intended as acts of generosity, jubilation in the tone of loss. He was so misunderstood that he became excessively literal. It was this compromise that killed him, this self-translation or double medium or the time he mistook excess for rebellion ’cause he was tired of being arrested. Sincerity is a killer.
Mode Four: Abbey Lincoln senses when niggas is redundant
Polygamy is a Black African technology. It is also a health practice. A poetic form and force and civilised. Several trap queens rising. It is the truth alighting souls loved by nature, our divine order, our birthright, our versatility and our discipline, our means of transcending the tropes of pimps, hoes, and adulterers, wives and lovers and husbands, and think of your liver and how every time you lie, your aura, your electromagnetic field, weakens, trusts you less as source. As soul loved by nature. Either/or. By Kierkegaard is nothing like Fear and Trembling by the same manchild.
It is not enough to say that the West’s smug and dismissive treatment of polyamory and polygamy threatens the Black spirit here; the West’s fear of universal love destroys all love born here, not only black love. The aura of love itself is weaker in this abyss of one-dimensional commitment. In this mental institution we call the civilised world. If you want a new world you need new concepts, Sun Ra grinned once in a lecture. Do we want a new world? Are we satisfied with this one, patterned around our repressed infatuation with death. Given meaning by the very love that we trouble with ultimata.
Abbey Lincoln wants a new world. She was once Jet’s girl of the week. She sings in nightclubs on film and on islands and in Manhattan and Berlin and Paris and in fits of rage and tenderness. She has married the drummer Max Roach who is rumoured to be a pimp and it’s possible that when other men look at her while she’s on stage singing, his blood runs hot, and when they get home the drum is a woman. Her jaw looks tilted. Her eyes keep the calm of someone who has been in quotidian danger, and survived it. She is a new world. She is the new world she is seeking. A genius is the one who is most like herself in the new world she creates and absconds. Just as well.
What she is trying to tell you is that you are a slave. You don’t think your own thoughts and your radiance is bought out and splayed across the plasma screens of the boss man. When Abbey escapes her drummer/pimp/husband who taught her how to scream more, she no longer thinks society’s thoughts. She can hear her own voice again, crying, telling the truth, looping the vigil around the will again. And she informs us that a man in love with more than one woman is actually a stronger more intelligent more powerful and more loving man for it. If he knows how. If he doesn’t use it against the women and himself, but instead trusts what the body tells him and the heart and mind. And a woman in love with more than one man is a healer. And several healers can come together and make a family. And a family is a fractal not a square.
The Black African fractal family is meant to be its own opulent village, a space wherein no scarcity was ever meant to exist. No need for escape routes or entrapment. And just like it is safer to legalise prostitution because then the men and women who sell sex for a living can be tested and protected, and their clients protected, in the same way it is safer to honour and admit every lover so that all parties are protected and so the psyche is not fragmented between bogus senses of right and wrong. Love is never wrong. White Supremacists taught us to go against our natural penchant for community and openness. What is wrong is to have multiple partners and to only claim one. In West African models of polygamy a man can have as many wives as he can afford. Both financially and spiritually. And he can only afford as many as he needs. They all complement one another and jealousy is ridiculous, really, petty and small, when all of this is happening in the open. Today in the West the average black man has three women he loves and pretends otherwise and neglects them as such and in the end loves no one because he rejects himself, does not love himself. It is hideous to observe and, even worse. to be a part of, remedial at best. Backwards in the very way we accuse Africa of retrograde. Abbey Lincoln needed a man who could let her work in peace; who would not have to beat her off the stage in the face of her beauty and then run off and pimp a few more for the good measure of his rigged ego. She needed someone stronger and less brute. She needed someone to be king, who wouldn’t make her suffer for it, fearing his own unworthiness.
It is not only men who seek the idyllic openness of a bond with no legally binding contract attached and at the same time yearn to be the objects of devoted love and desire; women also reel in this binary, as Abbey did. As I do. And the primitiveness we fear is our most abiding salvation under the circumstances. To simply avoid sanctimony by not rejecting ourselves. And in the end that kind of freedom brings us home, to cook and clean and work and make love and money and babies together. In the end we love it when niggas is redundant. Acting otherwise is a lie like sweet Lemonade. Drama/charade. Some days we actually wish some sister wife would take the reins so we can get some work done. Others we wanna spend all day in bed feeding him grapes and melon. If Miles hadn’t beaten Frances out into the garden, made her quit dancing her lead in Westside Story, made her run to Hollywood and come up on Marlon Brando. If women weren’t possessions and men weren’t possessed. Abbey, look at your shadow, fathoming all our saved souls joined to jump the cage.
This piece appears in the Chronic (April 2017). An edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently.
Food is largely presented as scarcity, lack, loss – Africa’s always desperate exceptionalism or exceptional desperation or whatever. In this issue, we put food back on the table: to restore the interdependence between the mouth that eats and the mouth that speaks, and to delve deeper into the subtle tactics of resistance and private practices that make food both a subversive art and a site of pleasure.
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