know the past.
Let it touch you.
—Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Talents
A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from some-thing he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
—Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History
This is the storm. Along with the pandemic spreads knowledge of the existence of many pre-existing conditions: the uneven impact of state violence, the broken healthcare system, economic precarity, delusional and dysfunctional institutions and leaders, unsustainable habits of consumption and waste. Disbelief. The moment of danger Benjamin warned of, in which the past flashes up, is daily. Who will survive this progress?
I look around for a guide or a messenger, and find my way through the same old people. Octavia Butler is one such intermediary. When I read Kindred in 1999, sitting in a 7th grade classroom, I thought, ‘at last, something I can use.’ Year after year, I reread the story until I became a character in it: a black woman living in post-colonial America, in the city of angels. The protagonist, Dana, is pulled back to the antebellum South. She learns her purpose there is to save a young white man, time and again, ensuring he grows up to be the slave owner who impregnates her enslaved great-great-great-grandmother.
Whose life and death do we mark with a day off from work, a monument, memory? Whose story instead must be critically fabulated?1 In my story, I am swapped with Sally Hemings, born into slavery in Virginia. Sally knows whiteness. She grew up with whites, studying their habits and tastes. She doesn’t for one second mistake herself for white. No. She knows her place. But, looking at them she wonders how it got to be this way. Looking at herself, she wonders what is keeping her bound up here in the past.
It is the twenty-first day of a new decade. Things are off to an ominous start. I drive a borrowed car through a subdivision of flat houses, pressed down by a heavy damp fog. Why resist? Climbing uphill with resolve, I apply more pressure to the gas. Almost there. The numbers progress unusually, skipping forward, circling back. I find it: 16232 37th Avenue NE. Octavia Butler died here, outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, aged 58. She is among the angels of history. Another, Jacob Lawrence, hovers over my head. For the month I am in a residency that bears his name.
The scholar Lisa Woolfork explains that in Kindred, “Butler’s reversal of the linear space-time continuum and of the notion of chronological as well as ideological progress is more than a staple of science fiction. Butler uses the time-travel technique to raise moral dilemmas of interracial love and sex, gender equality, and racism. In this way, she elevates a trope of fantasy fiction into a meditation on the means and meanings of traumatic knowledge.”2
Monticello is the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, and Sally Hemings, his biracial slave and mistress of almost forty years. Sally Hemings (1773–1835) was part of a large family with a long history of enslaved domestic service to Jefferson and his wife, Martha Wayles’, family. Hemings served as a lady’s maid to Jefferson’s two daughters—traveling as a fourteen-year-old to France (where slavery was illegal) to work and live for two years in Jefferson’s home abroad. Their relationship is said to have begun there.
When I started asking friends to contribute to this issue of MONDAY, the idea of ruin was given in relation to the text Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin. The essay was written in early 1940, shortly before Benjamin’s attempted escape from France. There, government officials were turning Jewish refugees like Benjamin over to the Gestapo. Theses is the last major work Benjamin completed before fleeing to Spain where, fearing Nazi capture, he committed suicide in September 1940. This traumatic knowledge was assigned to me by my CalArts thesis advisor. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” His fugitive work compelled my own.
Monticello is fifty miles north of the town of Culpeper—the childhood home of my late maternal grandmother, Louise Williamson, her mother, Sally Robinson, and their family, a few of whom still live on the plot of land they once sharecropped in the rural outskirts of town. DNA testing done in 1998 ties the Jefferson and Hemings families together, inextricably. Previously, oral, statistical and written accounts had supported the controversial, and yet centuries-old belief that Thomas Jefferson fathered all of Sally Hemings’ four children following his wife’s death in 1782. Martha Wayles Jefferson’s father, John Wayles, is known to have fathered children with Elizabeth Hemings, his slave, and Sally Hemings’ mother, making Sally Hemings the much younger half sister of Jefferson’s wife.
“I will do a performance at Monticello based on my research on Hemings,” I wrote in 2013, “as well as my interest in collective and self mythologies, museological space, freedom and its opposite(s), race, gender, labor, sex and love through an historical lens. The work addresses these interests as they pertain to my life: a modern life existing as it does as a consequence of known and unknown literal and figurative ancestors.”
Her identity is wrapped up in her work. She wants to do a good job. She wants to be known, valued, and remembered for her accomplishments. But, it is hard out here for a woman, especially a black one. She’d like to have children. Teach them what she’s learned; songs, survival skills, recipes, handicrafts. She would like to see them go further than she’s gone. There is dignity in motherhood. She knows that. Her own mother, of course, is a saint.
On my reverse pilgrimage from the Butler home, my thoughts turn to Marcel Duchamp’s last major artwork: Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). It is a monumental installation I visited growing up in my hometown art museum. I reflect on what is given. I know that Duchamp retired from artmaking to play chess, he told the public. In secret, he worked in the studio for twenty years on the tableau, seen through peepholes in a wooden door. I consider its explicit content: a nude woman lying on her back with her face hidden. Her legs are spread. She holds a gas lamp in the air. The backdrop is a painted landscape. I reconsider what is implied. Inside, is she ‘asking for it’? Are we? It is like the title of a drawing by Kara Walker, about which Zadie Smith writes: “Its meaning is unsettling and unsettled, existing in a gray zone between artist’s statement, perverse confession, and ambivalent desire.”3
For the exhibition Angel of History at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery, I set up beds around the largest space. Each bed encloses a tree planted in dirt. These were iterations of a monument proposed and temporarily placed (twice) in Charlottesville; once, on the Downtown Mall where a white supremacist ran down protester Heather Heyer, and again in the newly rediscovered African-American burial ground that lies just outside the University of Virginia Cemetery and Columbarium (where monuments to the university’s confederate soldiers stand). The backdrop is wallpaper, a forest of Jacob Lawrence’s Trees (1942).
A video plays in the adjacent gallery. It is shot with a drone on the University of Washington campus where it is snowing. Four white columns in a clear-ing stand like the ruins of a greek temple: Loyalty, Industry, Faith, and Efficiency, “LIFE.” The video is a sequel to What Would Sally Do? the 2013 video of the performance I did at Monticello. The plantation has four white columns. On February 7th, I gave a lecture and performance in the gallery.
I ask some people I know and admire to compose a thesis on traumatic knowledge and anti-monuments.4 Tell me what you know about ruin(s), the epic take-down, wreckage, history, catastrophe, crisis, waking the dead, paradise, violence, the future, debris, progress, the monumental, and the messianic.
Adrienne Garbini digs into a particular archeological site in Brooklyn, Dead Horse Bay. A slanted inversion of Storm King Art Center, where she and I first met, Dead Horse Bay attracts visitors seeking to redeem man’s broken relationship with nature by aestheticizing it. From this ruin (a National Park Service-administered landfill) she culls together an index of objects that prompt speculation as to how people might feel if their behavior were looked at under the gaze of radioactivity and decay. Her essay is matter-of-fact and urgent. It shares these qualities with Nora Khan’s Mind Goes Where Eyes Can’t Follow. Khan calls out the policing gaze of the righteously self-quarantined cyberflâneur floating along in the maelstrom. She warns of hacked vision, compromised through deep and isolated immersion in the algorithmic spectacle theater of the internet. Mind Goes Where Eyes Can’t Follow will appear later this year in a special issue of Women & Performance edited by Pratt professor Kim Bobier, PhD, and myself, titled Views from the Larger Somewhere: Race, Vision, and Surveillance.
Dawn Holder and I started corresponding after she gave an artist talk at the University of Hartford, where I teach. Her porcelain sculptures invoke a world where monuments (like the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville) no longer stand. In an early email to me she wrote: “I have always had a curious obsession with ruins. I liked the reminder that nothing is set or static. Language moves, changes, evolves, but the root words still hold. Power shifts, things fall apart, places are left behind to rot, yet here we are…trying to keep it all together, banishing the termites from our houses, fortifying our edifices, and looking for stability and hoping some part of us will remain after we depart. Just as language is a twisted rope bridge to the past, I have always been drawn to the physical reminders and past objects that mark the experiences of those who came before me and tried to make their way in a certain place.”
Matt Shelton and I quickly fell into a routine of sharing coffee breaks at The University of Virginia while I was in residence there in 2018. We committed one of our conversations to writing some months ago. An excerpt of it is included here, along with his art and text work dismantling the epic film Gone with the Wind.
Malcolm Peacock joined the MFA program at Rutgers Mason Gross during my time there as an instructor. When we met, he already knew who I was and introduced himself with a series of challenging questions. He is swift, sharp, and on my tail. I am grateful when we find ourselves in step. For this project, I came to him with questions about himself, about art, and about running.
I like to think Crystal Campbell and I go way back. The truth is that, in our handful of encounters, the conversation progresses quickly, quietly, and smoothly, covering centuries and geographies of traumatic knowledge we have both been called to document. Her poetic essay speculates on the whereabouts of Rutgers alumni Paul Robeson’s fugitive form rendered in plaster and painted bronze. It is also about love, and care, and attention, as many of these texts are.
Images captured by photographer David Norori punctuate the document. We have been, along with Arien Wilkerson (who plays the angel in these shots), Kevin Hernandez Rosa, and Nicholas Serrambana, in collaboration for over a year on Vault. Vault is an interdisciplinary dance performance conceived by Wilkerson and Rosa that transforms John C. Clark Elementary School into an outdoor exhibition space. Clark Elementary was closed down when its 350 students were moved to three other Hartford schools in 2015 after toxic chemicals were found in the building. Vault is an effort to understand the human body and the North End of the city as engaged (but also in conflict) with history and its surroundings. Vault is designed to amplify endangered public histories and celebrate movement in and through time. Vault makes a space for dance as a reparative act.
We, the Fragment, a poem by Billie Lee, opens up sacred space to begin addressing traumatic knowledge in a time of ruin and re-creation. Billie and I are colleagues and roommates in Connecticut. Her guiding questions, deep conversation, insight and intuition have helped me find my way through this particular work and many others. We, the Fragment appears here and in the forthcoming multimedia project Monuments to Escape, which uncovers buried histories on the New England Scenic Trail.
I am reading about a flood in Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House. My husband turns from the book he is reading. “Did you know that white people shut down schools after Brown v. The Board of Education rather than integrate with Black people?” “I know,” I say without moving my head. I am trying to read for pleasure, but the words pull in and out of focus. A headache from a past life lurks behind my ears and at the crown of my head. I know too much. “Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad,” Benjamin writes. Octavia, Walter, Jacob, Sally, Marcel, now particles in the snow, I hope this finds you pregnant with tensions. I hope your crystal monad is well. My prayers are with you winged seraphim. Your work when I reread it, for redemption or pleasure, illuminates inner space. It pulls other work, other words, into focus. It burns an afterimage into the mind’s eye of how carefully configured thoughts like yours can and will crystalize and arrest my own scattered ones.
Walter Benjamin’s Theses is an open source document. Octavia Butler’s books are available at select libraries. Supplemental media content by Billie Lee, Matt Shelton, and Adrienne Garbini can be found at monday-journal.com. I would like to thank Emily Zimmerman, Julia Powers, and Raziah Ahmad for their help in gathering, organizing, and packaging the many parts of this project with such care; Kim, for her intellectual generosity; the contributors for their incredible work; The Jacob Lawrence Gallery, The School of Art + Art History + Design at the University of Washington; Arien Wilkerson, Kevin Hernandez Rosa, Elizabeth Calvillo, Kemi Adeyemi, Carole Fuller, Margie Livingston, and Meg Rabinowitz.
2020 Jacob Lawrence Legacy Resident
- Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 vol.12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1-14.1
- Lisa Woolfork, Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 12.2
- Zadie Smith, “What Do We Want History to Do to Us?” New York Review of Books, February 2020.
- Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Alien Relationships with Public Space,” TransUrbanism (Rotterdam, NL: NAi Publishers, 2002): 155.