You could build a world out of need or you could hold
everything black and see.
— Claudia Rankine, Citizen
In 1972, the American jazz saxophonist Joe Henderson released Black Is the Color, one in a series of albums he put out on the Milestone label, including In Pursuit of Blackness (1971), If You’re Not Part of the Solution, You’re Part of the Problem (1970) and Power to the People (1969) — all titles that indicate Henderson was meditating on aesthetics and politics in tandem. While the move to Milestone from Blue Note Records represented an attempt to broaden his audience by adding more mainstream commercial elements, Henderson’s music nonetheless directly engages the radical political spirit of the time. The title track, “Black is the Color (of My True Love’s Mind),” captures something of the era’s heady talk of blackness as a state of mind, a form of political consciousness, a way of thinking critically or even a determinate party line — as much as or even more so than any particular embodied appearance.
What would it mean to speak today of a black mind, and to love such color truly? How, in this moment, might we talk about such thinking and feeling as the transnational Movement for Black Lives continues to evolve? And how to do this amid the dynamics of the color line? Can a black mind be cultivated, by whom, and under what conditions? Is there, as our epigraph suggests, a seeing that is made possible by holding everything black, by holding everything to be black and by holding everything that is or could be black?
In speaking of a black mind, it may be impossible to avoid saying something about black art, black artists, black politics, or the status and standing of the color black in the histories of art and activism, and asking how all of these things come to matter — to whom, when, where, why and how. Not for nothing, Henderson, like Nina Simone before him, is signifying on an English-language rendition of a classic Celtic folk song. Both artists draw from this tradition with an appropriation — and an appreciation — that wards against the white supremacist resonance of those same signs, reminding those who would claim this cultural symbol of modern whiteness that it is, in other ways, already a site of a premodern blackness and maybe a postmodern one too.
Aesthetics and politics are wrapped up here in an understanding of black and white and blackness and whiteness as polarities within the broad field of contrasts, whether mono- or multi-chromatic. But that opposition reveals itself to be more seeming, more signifying, than real; or, if there is an opposition, it is less binary than it is successive. There is black and (then) white, darkness and (then) light, and within this field of contrasts we find the emergence of color, of all colors, however defined or refined. In the beginning, in every beginning, there is darkness, total darkness, which is to say blackness and the color black. So, too, in the end or ends of all things, alpha and omega. None of this is a claim to what Jacques Derrida once termed “the prosthesis of origin,” a fantasy regarding the reduction of something to a myth of purity and simplicity. A beginning, however, “is a first step in the intentional production of meaning and the production of difference from pre-existing traditions,” to borrow a related idea from Edward Said. Beginnings can and do emerge because origins are always, as it were, non-originary; there is difference from the start.
Tom Vanderbilt, a design, science, and technology writer, suggests in his 2003 essay, “Darkness Visible,” for Cabinet magazine: “There is perhaps no color freighted with as much meaning as black; what makes this significant, as art students will remember, is that black is not a color at all, merely the absence of wavelengths of visible light. To truly see black would require the loss of any visible light, meaning in fact that all would be black.” Black, notes Vanderbilt, is not a color at all by some accounts — a curious way to refer to the color freighted with the greatest meaning. As if the meaning becomes so excessive or extreme that the color black disappears into itself, or into everything that is not itself.
In fact, Vanderbilt glosses several discrepant understandings of black in his account. On the one hand, he cites descriptions of black as a force of incorporation, swallowing up all light and color, all meaning and desire and fantasy, even all existence, so much so that “our lives consist of those things that we draw away from the black.” In this sense, black is best seen as non-color and as non-seeing, the failure or impossibility or limit of seeing. Like an astrophysical singularity, we agree to the undeniable importance of the effects of black without being so sure as to the nature of its existence. On the other hand, he consults philosophical meditations on black as the color of sight itself, as what sight cannot see about its own seeing. The former has to do with the external limits to sight; the latter regards a blindness that is internal to seeing itself, even when it is functioning normally. Again: “To truly see black,” writes Vanderbilt, “would require the loss of any visible light, meaning in fact that all would be black.” One sees black and black alone, or one sees everything else without it, we might even say against it. To see black at all is to see all black everything.
Black begins and ends as a problem of definition; it may even be the problem of definition itself, which is to say the problem of beginning and ending, of being and nothingness. We might try to approach black by way of its relation to other colors such that black, the presence of non-color, is black only in relation to white, the color of absence. Or, given that black entails the self-cancelling presence of all colors combined, we might learn something about its qualities when compared to other colors comprised of mixture. An exemplary forum, of which Vanderbilt’s earlier commentary is a part, provides a way to think through these conundrums: Cabinet has, for more than a decade now, run a column entitled “Colors,” that invites esteemed artists, critics, curators, and historians to reflect upon the entire chromatic spectrum as symbol and concept. Among others in the vast, encompassing, range: ivory, violet, hazel, gold, indigo, porphyry, army green, safety orange, cyan, ash, beige, rust, opal, ruby, ultramarine, crimson, sulphur, khaki, bice, scarlet, verdigris, yellow, maroon, purple, pistachio, olive, sepia, magenta, Prussian blue, chartreuse, rose, puce, silver, tawny, flesh, cadmium red, off-white, blue.
Here are a few words from the venue’s official website:
By operating with the most expansive and inclusive definition of “culture” possible, one that includes both the quotidian and the extraordinary, Cabinet aims to foster curiosity about the world we have made and inhabit. We believe that curiosity is the very basis of ethics insofar as a deeper understanding of our social and material cultures encourages us both to be better custodians of the world and at the same time allows us to imagine it otherwise. We understand this strategy to be fundamentally democratic, and our project aims to be as open as possible by offering programs whose blend of accessibility, seriousness, and humor dismantle the exclusionary hierarchies often associated with the words “art” and “culture.”
To pursue this democratic vision of ethical curiosity aimed at non-hierarchical inclusion, the editors gather together an ensemble of radical artists and intellectuals to comment on the most salient themes and topics of the day. There is, as a result, a welcome host of provocative contentions to be found in the column at hand. Engaging the thought of Giorgio Agamben, novelist Paul La Farge writes the following in his contribution on “Black”:
We “see” in total darkness because sight itself has a color, Aristotle suggests, and that color is black: the feedback hum that lets us know the machine is still on.
The contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, following Aristotle, remarks that the fact that we see darkness means that our eyes have not only the potential to see, but also the potential not to see. (If we had only the potential to see, we would never have the experience of not-seeing.) This twofold potential, to do and not to do, is not only a feature of our sight, Agamben argues; it is the essence of our humanity: “The greatness — and also the abyss — of human potentiality is that it is first of all potential not to act, potential for darkness.”3 Because we are capable of inaction, we know that we have the ability to act, and also the choice of whether to act or not. Black, the color of not seeing, not doing, is in that sense the color of freedom.
La Farge may blur the distinction between freedom and its negative condition of possibility, but even so we can hold onto the basic association he establishes between blackness and freedom.
Artist and scholar Joseph Grigely composed a rather jocular, almost facetious list of miscellany in his entry on “White” — perhaps a fitting means of managing both the anxious energy and overwrought moral value that insists on the color white and attaches itself to our predominate ideas of white-ness. One of the subsections of that list is “WHITES, WHEN THE WHITE COMES MIXED WITH BLACK,” and it features the following: “Zebras, Holsteins, killer whales, Brown v. Board of Education, piano keys, street signs in Buenos Aires, Oreos, tuxedos, The New York Times, the white sails of Theseus, Nuit Blanche, Minor White, Walter White, Barry White.” Grigely is mixing the naturally occurring contrasts of animal coloration with the artificially fabricated contrasts the enable musical instrumentation, photographic processing, automotive navigation, product branding, and class distinction among human populations.
Tellingly, he concludes by listing two black people: first, Walter White, the supposedly “white looking black man” who served as a leading figure in the Harlem-based New Negro Movement and as the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for over twenty years, working in the latter capacity to secure several landmark desegregation orders in the mid-twentieth century, including the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education; and, second, Barry White, a Grammy Award winner selling more than 100 million records worldwide in the genres of soul, funk, and disco, an artist who passes (over) into the white imagination as the source of a blackness at once authentic (hence titillatingly taboo) and inauthentic (hence commercially available). The frisson of interracial sexuality — real or imagined — is evoked, with reference to both “The Man Called White” and “The Walrus of Love,” as violation and subversion as well as seduction and adventure.
Contrast the specter of funky racial admixture with the bureaucratic neutrality of the black/white chromatic encounter. That middle ground, gray, “functions like the weeds that creep out through cracks in the pavement,” writes poet and critic Geoffrey O’Brien:
It is what finally takes over: aimlessly oppressive, fogged-out, lichened-over, drained of youthful coloration, devoid even of specifiable characteristics, at once unbeckoning and inescapable. It goes nowhere all over the place. Gray hair, gray skies, the “gray matter” of a brain spinning bodiless within its own circuitry: the flag of a country without sun or flesh or vegetation, the rubble-strewn wilderness that extends between the unattainable purities of black and white. A limbo whose denizens never quite graduate. Even the word “gray” can drain life from language. It is the unimaginative shorthand for the death of the imagination, the erosion of moral passion, the stealthy disappearance of individual character and enlivening surprise […] Gray is the color to which the mind returns as to a prison, where gray uniforms move within a labyrinth of institutional walls of uniform gray […] If acts have color, gray might be the color of passive waiting for an outcome anticipated without enthusiasm.
Black is the color of freedom, but it fails to retain any such liberatory potentiality once it comingles with what is revealed to be the domesticating, imprisoning power of white, its defining point of contrast. In equal proportions, black and white together negate possible action; their gray coalition saps the life force and dulls the mind, undermining the curiosity that provides a basis for ethics. And, as Robert Motherwell claimed, without ethics there can be neither art nor politics.
There’s no hope for gray, it seems. Poet and critic Alan Gilbert, in turn, puts his faith in another mixture on the palette: brown. For Gilbert, the symbolic virtue of brown emerges from its aesthetic symmetry. In his view:
In Western societies, white is rendered the invisible color, while brown is among the most visible; in turn, that which is made invisible is considered natural. That’s how dominant ideologies work — by equating themselves with a state of nature and the nature of the state […] [African American novelist James] Baldwin was right. Color is a political process. When blended, the commingling of black and white may make gray, but brown has a little bit of every color. Baldwin asked, “Isn’t love more important than color?” I agree […] love is a complex relational. And brown is its color.
Brown is among the most visible colors, but it is not the most visible color. Brown has a little bit of every color, but not all of every color. Brown is the color of love insofar as it reduces each color to little bits and holds them in a diminished state. “Love is the Answer” may be the theme music of a hopeful Judeo-Christian redemption story (and Baldwin is not reducible to his espousal of love in any case), but we are free to wonder whether there is not another, more radical alternative. Brown may be the color of love, a hue that blends together “a little bit of every color,” but what if the colors were to coincide more fully, in their deepest pigmentation, indeed, even to the point of indistinction? What if, to quote from Utopia’s aforementioned 1977 song, the “light of the world” shone equally across the spectrum or, more drastically, what if the sun withdrew its radiance entirely?
“You might think a total eclipse of the sun would have no color,” writes poet and classicist Anne Carson, in her essay “Totality”: “The word eclipse comes from the ancient Greek ekleipsis, [meaning] ‘a forsaking, quitting, abandonment.’ The sun quits us, we are forsaken by light.”
And yet, she finds, “people who experience total eclipse are moved to such strong descriptions of its vacancy and void that this itself begins to take on color. What after all is a color? Something not no color. Can you make a double negative of light? Would that be like waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your own mind?” A double negative of light, a double negative of white: how to see a work of art in total darkness, as Darby English has put it. “The back side of your own mind” sounds dangerously, deliciously close to your mind’s own backside. If you quit white and take on color, the color of light forsaken, then your mind might just turn black, the color of freedom. Free your mind, Funkadelic famously said, and your ass will follow.
Black is the color, the synthesis of all colors; it is inclusive of all color and colors without failing to be itself. It is inclusive insofar as it is itself. All other colors are only colors. All other colors are only themselves. They cannot give or give back unless and until they see themselves in black and appear themselves to be black, too.