Aimé Césaire

This is the epigraph to Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. I just purchased this text and haven’t had the opportunity to read it yet. It is a mixed-media project and along with her work in Citizen: An American Lyric, I am excited to read this as I think about public intellectuals and the humanities.

“Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”
– Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

“And if all I know how to do is speak, it is for you that I shall speak. My lips shall speak for miseries that have no mouth, my voice shall be the liberty of those who languish in the dungeon of despair…”

Edward Said

I’m about to begin the second reading of a text that I read during the first year of graduate school, Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, 1993 Reith Lecture series.

I re-read the introduction and was immediately persuaded (again) to Said’s perspective on a kind moral office of the intellectual. It is expansive and generous. I need to think about my own process of becoming an intellect. If that sounds pretentious, then it might very well be so. I admit to all and nothing.

I found this statement from Said in “On Defiance and Taking Positions” from Reflections on Exile and Other Essays:

So the role of the intellectual is not to consolidate authority, but to understand, interpret, and question it…I think it is very difficult, once you venture outside of the academy, not to be affected by what seems to me the main issue for the intellectual today, which is the panorama with all the dislocations and displacements and distortions of our society, not to be affected by human suffering. And I think, therefore, the intellectual vocation essentially is somehow to alleviate human suffering and not to celebrate what in effect does not need celebrating, whether that’s the state or the patria or any of these basically triumphalist agents in our society.
To enter into the public sphere means, therefore, not to be afraid of controversy or taking positions. There’s nothing more maddening, it seems to me, in our own time than people who say, “Oh no, no, that’s controversial; I don’t want to do it“; or the habitual trimming refrain, “No, no, I can’t sign that because I mean, you know, I may disturb matters and people may think the wrong thing about me.“ But it seems to me that the entrance into the public sphere means, as the French writer Genet said, the moment you write something, you are necessarily in the public sphere; you can’t pretend that you’re writing for yourself anymore.


It was only after I read Edwidge Danticat’s chapter on Basquiat in Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artists at Work that I really became interested in Basquiat. The Brooklyn Museum is hosting an exhibit of his work that runs through the end of August. Can I make it there with my other obligations this summer. In “Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘Unknown Notebooks’ at the Brooklyn Museum,” the reviewer wrote that “Language was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s first artistic language.” I want to experience that first-hand because as I move more fully into visual culture, I wan to be very careful and thoughtful about the artists that I engage and from whom I take my own visual cues.

In the chapter on Basquiat, “Welcoming Ghosts,” Danticat wrote that ” Basquiat had his own pass to the Brooklyn Museum at a very young age and was a visual vampire” (130). Later, Danticat notes:

Though he didn’t always cite the island nation as a direct influence, Basquiat was certainly aware of… Haiti. Basquiat was perhaps asked about Haiti as much as he was about Puerto Rico and the continent of Africa, about which he told Demosthenes Davvetas of New Art International,  “I’ve never been to Africa. I’m an artist who has been influenced by his New York environment. But I have a cultural memory. I don’t need to look for it, it exists. It’s over there, in Africa. Th at doesn’t mean that I have to go live there. Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever you live” (132).

So I what to think about how Basquiat deploys cultural memory to either refute a kind of insistence by the interviewer on his deep and living connection to his ‘roots.’ There has been a tremendous amount of work on cultural memory – I think immediately of Ron Eyerman’s work on trauma and memory, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African-American Identity.  There are, of course, others but his work has stayed with me due to the study of how African-Americans respond to the ‘memory’ of slavery, even those who have never had a living relative who was a slave. This digs deep into how history and memorial culture impact a people and witnessing of an past experience, historical identification and identity.

Jacob Lawrence’s “Play” (1999)

Museum of Modern Art: “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North” (through Sept. 7).  In the early 20th century, tens of thousands of African-Americans left the rural South for the industrial North in search of jobs, homes and respect. Officially, this MoMA show is meant to mark the centennial of that immense population shift, though it also marks another anniversary: the first time in two decades that all 60 paintings in Jacob Lawrence’s great “Migration Series,” now divided between New York and Washington, have been shown together at the museum. Here they are surrounded by period photographs, books and fabulous music in a display as stimulating to the mind and the ear as it is to the eye [retrieved from The New York Times].
"Play," Jacob Lawrence (1999)

Preface to “Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia”

And not only historical fascism, the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini—which was able to mobilize and use the desire of the masses so effectively—but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.
Michel Foucault, “Preface,”  Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

James Baldwin on Moral Apathy…

I’m terrified at the moral apathy — the death of the heart which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long, that they really don’t think I’m human. I base this on their conduct, not on what they say, and this means that they have become, in themselves, moral monsters. It’s a terrible indictment — I mean every word I say.

It doesn’t matter any longer, and I’m speaking for myself, for Jimmy Baldwin, and I think I’m speaking for a great many Negroes too. It doesn’t matter any longer what you do to me; you can put me in jail, you can kill me. By the time I was 17, you’d done everything that you could do to me. The problem now is, how are you going to save yourselves?

James Baldwin, American Experience

from Paul Celan’s “Ansprache”

Only one thing remained close and reachable amid all losses: language.
Yes, language.  In spite of everything it remained unlost [unverloren].  But it had to go through its own lack of answers [Antwortlosigkeit], through terrifying silence [furchtbares Verstummen], through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.  It went through and gave no words for what happened; but it went through this event [Geschehen].  It went through and could resurface, “enriched” by it all.
 In this language, I tried, during those years and the years after, to write poems: in order to speak, to orient myself, to find out where I was, where I was being taken [wohin es mit mir wollte], to sketch for myself a reality [Wirklichkeit].
 It meant, as you see, event, movement, being on the way, it was an attempt to find direction.
Paul Celan, “Ansprache,” 128