“The Lonely Letters” is an autobiofiction in which I attempt to think the relationship of quantum theory, mysticism, relationality, and blackness together by considering the sound and noise of Blackpentecostal spaces. Building on the work in Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility—as the project began before and was written during and after the academic book project—the “The Lonely Letters” attempts to think together what might seem to be disparate ways of thinking worlds known and unknown, the religious and the scientific, the noisy and the musical, with hopes of considering the epistemologies of quantum physics as Blackpentecostal. It is about love and heartbreak and hope and joy. It is about sound and subjectivity, about desire and movement. It’s about the sociality of life against the repressions of anti-black, anti-queer violence and violation.
It took me a while but I was looking over things I’d written in my sent box and figured I should tell you that I started painting – or really, attempting to make art – again.
Remember when I showed you the paintings I’d make when I was just a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old when I had dreams of becoming the black Bob Ross, afro and all? And remember how I told you my father had a couple of the paintings in his office when I was young and you said that you wanted them too? I really just thought you were being kind, and him too really, to offer such a thing. I don’t think much of what I painted then but I’m back into it now. Less Bob Ross, much more abstract and little about landscapes.
I still remember it being so sweet to want to bring them home with you so that you could, you’d said, constantly be reminded that I was someone’s child, that I belonged to my parents, that I was at one time in a high chair needing to be fed, and struggling on floors attempting to tie shoes and a child who cried a lot. It was this toddler that’d become a child that attempted to paint, to make a world he’d never seen except on The Joy of Painting. You said, then, that the paintings reminded you of the fact that we all come from some place, that we all have dreams and ideas and goals, even when we are young, even when they don’t necessarily turn out the way we thought. And I definitely could not have anticipated the life I have now then …
Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I started making art again, though it’s not good at all; been recording the entire process, actually, with my computer and sometimes my phone. I’ve been using my apartment, getting paint all over the place, but it makes me feel alive, to get all this color on the walls and on the floor and have to scrub myself with various kinds of soap to remove oil paint and acrylic ink and watercolors. It’s been fun.
I was inspired by this one video Desiree sent me of a little girl making art in her home … she was covered in paint, had it all over this large room – the splattered on her dress and tights, in her hair, on the floor and walls. It was mosaic. I’m pretty sure her parents had access to all sorts of financial resources because one of the reasons I stopped as a kid was because it was too expensive. It’s one thing to buy a ten-color kit of paint and a couple of brushes. It’s another thing altogether to run through that in less than two weeks and ask your parents to buy more. And more. And more. It was too much, I had to slow down, had to try a different creative outlet. And I think about Alice Walker, searching for gardens, and wonder what kind of art practice folks have created without access to tools and materials, but also what was squandered because they couldn’t get it.
Anyway, the comments on youtube were full of people saying things like my kid could do that too! or this isn’t really art! she’s a child! which is just sad. I was simply moved by her intentionality. Sure, she’s a child, but aren’t we all? And sure, she’s young but does that mean she can’t make choices about color and placement and mood? So much of what happens in the normative world is because of the idea that only certain people have the mental capacity to think and conceive of the beautiful, that only certain people with the mental capacity to think and conceive of aesthetic choice. But my nephew hates – HATES – peas … and pineapple … and milk. This dude refuses to consume those things; the very sight of them makes him have a fit. And yeah, he’s only five, but dude knows what he likes – broccoli, for example – and what he doesn’t. He makes choices all of the time. So why can’t this little girl?
Anyway, so Desiree sent the video not hours after I’d been sitting in the office, longing for home, crying a lot because of these “praise breaks” I’d been listening to. Something in the music, in the clapping and stomping and in the shouts and orations, something in those sounds made me sit weakened, almost no energy, so the tears just flowed. I was already vulnerable, already open. Then she sends a video of a little girl making art…and it was in the middle of that video when she had all this blue paint on her hands and she was bent over and began to clap them, lightly, and blue splattered all over the canvas spread on the floor.
And I don’t know if I can convey how much that very simple, nuanced, barely there movement hit me with the force of so many angels singing. I sorta wanted to run around the house but, instead, I hopped on the computer and began ordering as much paint as possible, as much as I could afford. I needed to get moving as quickly as possible on what seemed to be an awesome idea. It, along with canvases, arrived soon after. Bottles of blue, purple, green, yellow and red acrylic paint, muted colors, inks and oil paint too, old socks I never wear anymore and my laptop in hand, I placed the canvas on the floor, plugged up the laptop and began to play all these testimony service songs and shouting music. But I stopped to experiment first. I wanted to see what it’d look like to clap my hands and let paint fall on the surface.
I took a big brush, dipped it in water and let the water fly over the surface at random intervals, wanted to approach allowing the water to create its own path. What I was really after was to think the fleshliness of the practice of clapping, how it – in blackpentecostal praise, at least – can get sweaty, how the flesh heats and attempts to cool itself. So the random arrays of water lines and passages were to be representative of sweat. I then took muted green and black paint, poured it in my hands, and began to clap lightly. I wanted to see what the color’d do once it found its meeting with the water.
Take me to the water
Take me to the water
Take me to the water
To be baptized
I ain’t righteous no more and am not tryna see the god of my parents, not the one that is petty and mean and egotistical. But I did want the paint to be carried in the air to the water. And it made all these patterns and splotched.
Seeing the splotches, the black and green and how it sorta fades out here, deepens there, I felt prepared to challenge myself with shouting. My wood floors just had to adjust to being messy because there was no way around making everything soiled with paint color. With the first shouting experiment, I dipped one foot in red paint, another in blue and began to shout on the surface after wetting the surface with water like I did with the hand clapping experiment. I almost slipped, almost – my mother would’ve said if I were a kid – broke my neck. The slipperiness of the wet surface with the slipperiness of the paint on my feet made me slip quickly. But I got my bearings and began to shout, kinda delicately, kinda politely, I just wanted to see what’d happen with the color. I was too cognizant of the whole ordeal, so wrapped up mentally in it, couldn’t release myself into a full praise because the music was too low and I was too self-conscious.
I took a couple of days off. In that time, I created a playlist of all these songs that would allow me to clap my hands, stomp my feet and shout rather quickly, up-tempo songs that would make me break a sweat if I were really into it. And I sweated. A lot. When I returned to it, I pressed play and turned up the volume as high as possible. I slipped on socks and stood in the middle of the floor, opened a bottle of paint and poured it all over my hands – like the little girl – and began to clap to the rhythms.
Now, keep in mind that I haven’t seriously done this in a long while so it took a minute to get my de-composure; that is, I was way too serious – instead of playful and jubilant – about it at first … I was too conscious of not wanting to look or feel or be silly. But I also didn’t want for what I was doing to not be sacred, to not honor the tradition from which I learned this kinda choreosonic way of life.
As luck would have it, after the 4’08” rendition of “There’s a Storm Out on the Ocean” – a rather mildly paced “fast” song; nothing too strenuous – some shout music that I’d downloaded from youtube came on. A church in Baltimore, a clip of Bishop Robert Evans talking about “dancing in one spot” and it really made me think about the sorta refusal of tightness-as-constraint in the black radical tradition, a kinda mysticism of movement that takes constraint as impure possibility, constraint as occasion, constraint as expanse. In the clip, voices of small yelps and hollers with the pronounced sound of the Hammond and the drums let me imagine kids laughing and jumping up and down because their mothers were shouting and not paying much attention to them, where the men would say hooooo loudly. He talked about storefront churches as places where praise happened but because of the tight compression of flesh in not large spaces, people had to find a spot on the rug or the wooden floor and just go at it. Dancing in one spot is a kind of expansion of compression through praise, through the movement of the flesh.
So I poured paint on the canvas-floor and began to dance, began to shout, as if I were in church with them; eyes were closed now, mouth was frowned now, lips were flattened out now; I was moving to the rhythm one-two-three-dip, one-two-three-dip. It was the loudness that allowed me to get lost in the sound, in their posture and posing.
It was the loudness of the music that broke me out of my thinking-too-much-about-it just momentarily enough to open out into something else. I kinda put my head down, smiled to myself. But after I smiled, I closed my eyes and listened to the people praising, to the drums, to the B-3 creating sonic distance between the bass and the use of the notes in the highest register, all drawbars pulled out. And then it happened. Some something happened. And when things got too sticky, I got more paint and poured it in a tray, stepped in it, then recommenced shouting.
After I opened my eyes, I saw blues, reds and the breakthrough of purples in various intensities, depending upon how hard and where I danced, how much I mixed and, quite literally, scratched the canvas with old-new colors. I opened my eyes, tired and sweaty, feeling as if I’d touched some otherwise, as if I’d worshipped even while maintaining disbelief to why – and what – people often say they worship in the first place. I discovered something in the movement itself, something that could not be contained by a confessional faith, something that is not merely transcendent but that is, most fundamentally, constitutive. Upon opening my eyes, the canvas had a few splotches of color here and there, a few strings of paint every now and then.
But it was still far too empty. One person simply can’t do the kind of spiritual-material thing alone. [And I use the word thing here intentionally; it’s etymology, meaning the place of gathering to discuss matters of concern – though I’m sure “discuss” could also easily index a desire to work out, a desire to perform, a desire to think – is important to what I’m envisioning for the soon to come.] So though I’ve been practicing by myself a lot lately – with all sorts of paint – I’m hoping to invite others to play along, to recreate a church service where the residue of such sociality will be the colors we leave behind.
Residue. That’s the word for it. A kind of remainder, an excess that cannot be explained. Or explained away. Residue kinda names an excess that is experienced or gained at the moment when the mode of shouting and clapping is sorta unconscious, maybe aconscious. Weird thing is, if consciousness were all just a thing our brains manufactured and it was experienced differently for each of us, if our realities were all a dream that were ephemeral and’d wither away at a moment’s notice, that still would not answer the question of why it exists, how it came to be, what would ephemera or a dream mean in such a case? If it were manufactured, we still wouldn’t understand the sensations created. If a dream, why we have it.
If we had “scientific” explanations for life, that still would not explain why it is we feel love and joy and heartache and sadness. What, to explanation, is happiness experienced, butterflies endured, elation given and withheld as so many breaths? Even if we could explain all, we would not know what it means. There is something in the gift of life that exceeds the enclosures of logic, of science, of explanation, of analytics. And that – that excess, that residue – is a gift.
It is a gift that doesn’t seek to explain as much as it seeks to experience, it’s not so much about the product – though I do hope the series created, the series waiting to be created – will be considered beautiful and moving. The fundamental force of it is the experience, the movement, the verve, the fact that it happened, it happens, it will happen.
I’ve said all that to say: the little girl quickened in me the notion that even clapping, even shouting – any movement, or hairsbreadth nuance, of breathing, of dilation – contains within it the potentia for the thing we call art. Such movement simply needs the work energy to convert. Her clapped hands with blue made me want to see what it would look like, what the sorta blackpentecostal praise I love would splatter on the ground and upon walls; I wanted to see what praise looks like after the bodies – the material force of such creation – left the building. Would I be able to look at the canvases and papers and whatever other surfaces chosen and see something of such gathering, of such moving of spirit, by spirit, for spirit? I chuckle a bit after am done with the experiments because it brings me a kind of unconscious, aconscious joy, but I’m also becoming much more adept with color mixture and I’m getting my good breathing back too, which means I’ve convinced myself that there might be something to this experimentation, in color, in song, after all.
Let me know what you think.
Ashon Crawley is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. His research and teaching experiences are in the areas of Black Studies, Performance Theory and Sound Studies, Philosophy and Theology, Black Feminist, and Queer theories. His first book, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (Fordham University Press), is an investigation of aesthetics and performance as modes of collective, social imaginings otherwise.