by Yagnishsing Dawoor
Beyoncé, Parkwood, 2021
Caleb Azumah Nelson, Grove Atlantic, 2021
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers quickly spawned a soundscape dominated by grief, despair and anger. Song after song released by Black musicians all over the world thematised antiblack violence, indexing Blackness to death. Black Parade, Beyoncé’s joyous love letter to Black culture, stands out as an exception to this trend. Dropped on Juneteenth, the song came with a message addressed to Beyoncé’s Black fans that privileged not the terms of death, but of being alive. ‘Being Black is your activism,’ the singer wrote on her website, ‘Black excellence is a form of protest. Black joy is your right’.
In his recent work, Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being, the literary scholar Kevin Quashie wields the field of black pessimism as an exemplum of how ‘the thinking on black being always has to countenance death’. For Quashie, if antiblackness is a constituent part of Blackness today, it must not define ‘all of how or what blackness is’. If we are to attend to the fullness of Black life, he argues, it is crucial that we ‘imagine a black world’ in which ‘what matters is not only what is done to the subject but also how the subject is’: how Blackness exists ‘in the tussle of being’; how Blackness is insisted upon from within the casual perpetuity of Black death — from the pain, exhaustion, and anger that it incites in Black people. In the almost five-minute-long song that would later be used in the end credits of her visual album, Black is King, Beyoncé defends a similar logic. She counterbalances allusions both to the ongoing threat to Black life, exemplified by Floyd’s murder, and the violence meted out to BLM protesters in cities across the U.S. (‘they gon’ need an army / rubber bullets bouncin’ off me’), with sundry references celebrating African heritage and Black American culture and identity. Upbeat music holds it all together, as Beyoncé’s voice peaks and troughs to the swift, jumping rhythms of trap; as she calls on to her listeners to centre ‘aliveness’ in their approach to Blackness: to ‘put [their] fists up in the air, show Black love’.
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s brilliant debut novel, Open Water, takes up this challenge. Probing the specificities of Black embodiment, police brutality, and racial bias in Nelson’s home country, Britain, the book captures the merits of upholding Black love and Black joy against the systemic oppression of Black people, even when ‘anger creates an ache so bad you struggle to move’. Movement, indeed, is the book’s credo. Everything is drumbeat, rhythm, flow and dance: the sentences, the characters, their bodies, even a barber’s ‘dreads like thick beautiful roots dancing with excitement’. Part of the work of the novel, it seems, is to restore motion to the ‘Black body,’ and free it from the anger and pain that hold it captive. Set in London in the late 2010s, the novel follows a smitten pair of Black 20-something-year-olds: our unnamed narrator (the ‘you’ of the novel) who, like Nelson himself, is a British-Ghanaian photographer, and the anonymous girl, a dancer, whom he teams up with to document the city’s Black cultural scene. However, if London boasts an abundance of stamping ground for the two (we follow them through tube stations, bars, parks, restaurants), it is also a place that directs insidious attention to their bodies, their Blackness, straining their friendship. The first time they meet, they’re at a party in the basement of a pub, next to the dance floor. The narrator imagines Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ and the Isley Brothers’ ‘Fight the Power’ playing in the background while ‘the dance floor heaved and the young moved like it was the 80s, where to move in this way was but one of a few freedoms afforded to those who came before. And since [he] was remembering this, the liberty was [his]’. Invoking thus the memory of British underground jazz dancing of the 80s, when the jazz scene was being transformed by marginalized Black youth seeking ways ‘to prove themselves,’ as dance historian Jane Carr avers, Nelson enlists dancing as a practice from which glimmers of freedom can be had for the Black body. In the pre-publication video for the book that he shared on his Instagram, we see the two protagonists exhilarate each other, first with reciprocal gazes of adoration, and then with their bodies, as they both rise and sway ad lib to Mysie’s ‘Rocking Chair’. A voice-over tells us they are like ‘a pair of jazz musicians, forever improvising’. This description of them is apt, if a little general: I would have preferred “jazz dancers” to “jazz musicians” for the way their bodies are centered in their experiences of each other, and how the pleasures — the ‘small joys’, the ‘small freedoms’ — that are afforded to them within the racially fraught spaces they navigate frequently derive from the body’s immersion in physical activity. All this becomes quickly obvious: we learn, within the first quarter of the book, that they both went to elite, predominantly white secondary schools where they felt perennially bedeviled by their Blackness. Both, we are told, used the resources of their bodies as coping mechanisms.
In a conversation with Eve Ensler, the American scholar bell hooks (who spells her name in the lower case) talks of how ‘trauma and violence take love out of the body’, alienating the body from the joys that it can generate. Open Water explores the ways in which this ‘love’, these ‘joys’ can be recuperated, and the Black body thereby redeemed. The girl danced ‘to breathe,’ to ‘feel all of myself, all those parts of me I can’t always feel’, to ‘make a little world for myself’ and ‘live’. Our narrator himself turned to the basketball court where, we are told, he assumed ‘new skin’ and would ‘stretch into the outer limits of [his] body and beyond’, ‘[bypass] something, the trauma, the shadow of being’, ‘smile, raising [his] hands in jubilance’ and ‘feel something like joy’ — like freedom. Nelson later repurposes some of this vocabulary to limn the narrator’s bodily reaction to Solange’s ‘Junie’, so that his actions on the basketball court and his ‘quick, light steps, bare feet sliding across the floor’ as he dances to the song become all of one movement: a means to achieve a ‘new way of being’.
This is not always a straightforward affair. ‘The body has memories’, the narrator’s grandmother tells him in a night vision. The memories in question concern his racist encounters with the police that impact both his relationship with the girl, and the world at large. ‘When they, the police, are close, you lose your names and you have all done wrong’, the narrator tells us. In one episode, he is in a bar in Brixton, when he witnesses a scene that could well echo Floyd’s murder: ‘too many policemen for one woman. A knee on the woman’s back’. Throughout the book, we are variously returned to the Black body in pain: once when the police show up after a fight breaks out in a barbershop and the narrator hears ‘bodies being crumpled. A knee on a crooked back’; once during a stop and search when at gunpoint, the narrator is ‘ordered … to the ground’ and we find him, in pain, whimpering (‘This is what it means to die’, he thinks); once when, as a child, he sees a young man being abused by two policemen, his arms ‘twisted behind his back, as blows rained from black batons painting beautiful skin with fresh wounds’; and once, when pain strikes him ‘like dull lightning to the back,’ as he is coming down the stairs and we find him, ‘folded over. A book creased on its spine’. Though profoundly traumatic, each of these instances also spurs and informs the narrator’s understanding of the place of Black masculinity in an antiblack world. Each of these moments, for instance, is compassed in his eventual reflection on what looks like Floyd’s dying words (‘I can’t breathe’), when, dancing slowly to ‘chopped and screwed music’, he bewails the emotional and physical suffocation suffered by Black men everywhere who are condemned to continually seek ‘permission for something so natural, the basis of life; in turn, having to seek permission to live’. There is pain. There is anger, ‘cool, blue, and unshifting’, but there is also the process of this anger undergoing translation, anger which would otherwise have made the narrator (or Nelson) tarry on moments of trauma.
But the novel, like the narrator, is preoccupied with ‘[protecting] trauma from consumption’, a stance Nelson perhaps derives from a Teju Cole essay (‘Death in the Browser Tab’) on the spectatorship of online footage of police violence, which he cites in the book. Open Water scopes violence through a misted lens. To borrow from a TLS review of the novel, violence ‘is often portrayed at a remove; it is mundane, glanced at’, even if ‘painfully and overwhelmingly present’. When trauma is aired, it is to capture the narrator’s intense alienation from the Black body that is continually a casualty of ‘the wearying practice of being looked at, not seen’, or to convey his tentative trust in the girl (‘It was trauma, yes, but it was you and you were OK with her consuming it’). Anger, indeed, would have made for a different, more pugnacious narrator. Anger would have broken out into violence, sought ‘home in another’, as it does in the case of a boy who the narrator, at one point, sees ‘sitting on the wall, cuffed, surrounded by police officers’. Yet this anger, ‘which is the result of things unspoken from now and then, of unresolved grief, large and small’, of others making racialising assumptions about him, of not knowing ‘whether you would arrive home without incident, and live to fear another day’, instead almost always leads him to seek spaces that refuse to be just about Black pain.
Black expression in its many forms becomes the companion of Nelson’s narrator on this journey. Music, cinema, literature, critical theory, philosophy, painting, and photography — he dissects them all, for possibilities of joy, love and being. Saidiya Hartman’s writings on slavery and African American history educate him on Black freedom and give him the tools to consider his own Blackness in contemporary Britain. (Nelson, in an interview with Guernica, acknowledges the distinctiveness of Black Britishness from African Americanness, but believes that both Black people in Britain and in the U.S. take the brunt of ‘state-led violence’.) Kendrick Lamar’s music momentarily dispels his anxieties and fears and infuses him with hope: ‘You would like to be bulletproof. You would like to believe the shots will never penetrate.’ Roy DeCarava, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Sola Olulode; they teach him trust, rhythm, and how to ‘[move] freely in celebration of life’ respectively. The films of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning director of Moonlight, propel him to think ‘there was hope yet’, that faith was a form of salvation. James Baldwin’s thinking in general, and his 1974 masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk (that gets a nod via Jenkins), in particular, suffuse the narrator’s (and Nelson’s) approach to Black love.
In fact, there are interesting intersections between the two works that suggest Baldwin’s novel might have been an inspiration for Open Water. Difference in setting and context notwithstanding (Beale Street is set in 1970s New York), both novels are broadly about a young Black man’s fisticuffs with the harming predilections of a racist world, and the redemptive power of love’s gaze. ‘Love made you worry, but it also made you beautiful. Love made you Black, as in you were most coloured in her presence’, Nelson’s narrator tells us in the beginning, riffing on a notion variously emphasised in Baldwin’s book. Love as solace. Love as a scopic embrace that welcomes one’s Blackness, that allows one to be ‘seen’. Love that parts the funereal haze around Black life and makes ‘aliveness’ possible. In Baldwin’s book, we follow Black nineteen-year-old Tish and her boyfriend, Fonny, as he is accused of sexual assault by a Puerto Rican woman, and then jailed by a racist cop, despite evidence of his innocence. Tish refuses to succumb to despair, pain and anger. It is always Fonny’s beauty that Tish’s gaze returns to and insists on: beauty as a shorthand for his innocence, for his Blackness as disentangled from any racializing projections, as claimed from death. Tish tells us, simply, that Fonny ‘was the most beautiful person [she] had seen in all her life’. Moments after meeting Fonny, in the beginning of the book, she wonders how she will convince people to help: ‘I can’t say to anybody, Look, Fonny is in trouble, he’s in jail … and I know he’s never committed any crime and he’s a beautiful person.’ At the very end of the novel, it is her belief in his ‘beauty’ that Tish leaves Fonny with (‘But you are beautiful to me’, she tells him) and that she relays also to Sharon, her mother, a few instants later, when she asks about Fonny. ‘He’s beautiful’, she declares, ‘they beat him up, but they didn’t beat him — if you see what I mean. He’s beautiful’.
Something of this thinking steals into Nelson’s novel, too. Though Nelson’s protagonist, in a manner of speaking, never has it as bad as Fonny (he’s racially profiled, stop-and-searched, and harassed by cops but never incarcerated), it is this understanding — of being beautiful, of being truly ‘seen’, not as a ‘Black body, container, vessel, property’ but a Black ‘beautiful’ person worthy of being — that he ultimately arrives at, through his girlfriend’s gaze, through Black love. At the novel’s close, both the narrator and the girl are on a hill, when she takes a picture of him with her camera. We are told, ‘when the photo is developed, she’s sure, if you look closely … you’ll see what she has always seen, what she always will: you’.
Nelson is neither an unequivocal optimist, nor a romantic. Open Water, after all, is as much a novel about the ‘sticky tar of trauma’ turned and blunged by the waves as it is about the flow of clear ‘easy water’ when love and joy ‘sidled alongside the usual terror’. The novel concludes with a swooningly consoling image, of the narrator and the girl swaddled ‘in the soft hue of possibility’. However, having waded into the roily silt of Black trauma with the narrator, we know the cost at which this possibility has come, and we are aware of its fragility in a world that keeps defending its antiblackness. And yet, when all is said and done, Nelson makes us believe that anger, pain and despair can be romanced, that aliveness can be made true of Blackness even in an antiblack world, if only for the duration of his novel.
YAGNISHSING DAWOOR is an Antonian. Two years ago, Salman Rushdie impressed him by pronouncing his name correctly.
Art by Millie Anderson