PRINT March 1991


DOWN THE ROAD OF REMEMBRANCE this time; remembrance being distinct from memory in that remembrance does not require one’s presence in it. Sick to death of memory, crapping out in it. No discovering the quality of one’s mind there; just wave after stony wave washing over the senses; nothing to contribute but bad feelings, nothing to offer but misperceptions, nothing to experience but bad memories, which are your own, not anyone else’s, ever. So stupid, this vulnerability to a process in which the quality of the mind is not discovered or anything else useful to me, to you, to anyone; just that stony wave of I. Big baby shitting and mewling, I, me, mine.

In remembrance there is the semblance of adulthood; very nice sofa there in remembrance, red as a heart. Sitting on it, we become adults, capable of emulating the extreme pomposity of the adults who came before and got it all wrong too; language-shredders too, so banal in their search for adulthood on the sofa of remembrance saying “I recall.” But what? No such thing as pure perception if you’ve ever tried it, and if so, for whom? No such thing as responsibility for the self and others (adulthood) if you’ve ever tried it, and if so, for whom? Such a sham even, to presuppose that a contract exists between the world and you in adulthood and what you claim in the guise of it: grubby language, banal sentiments, power. To emulate that is to belong to a superstructure, power structure, whatever, that says—correctly—that as an adult, probably European derived, you are these things (unfeeling, ungenerous, memory obsessed, closeted, male), but yet are entitled to this, that, the other thing, everything: the world. Regardless of what’s in it—the world that is—it stands as you call or recall it, with your deeds intact, the wretched smell of your intimates intact, which is what you know and all you will ever know, or need to. Very nice sofa there in remembrance. Very red, no springs missing, very nice over there placed square in the grid of existence. “I recall.” Nothing personal. That is your history—European—so old it stinks; so empty it becomes you; so empty that so many people, big black baby among them, confused it for so long with things in truth you know nothing of: how to construct a memory without buying your way into it; how to remember anything that does not concern you; how to pass for an adult; how to gain a self. History in school or wherever made big black baby fall in love with language, which is yours, and a few other things, which are yours too. Not that you minded his sitting there, taking it all in, in love. Someone had to be at the foot of the red sofa, no springs missing, very nice, in order for you to see that’s where you sat and always will: in the middle of it.

“The Decline of Adulthood: During the nineteen-sixties, a young black man in a university class described the Dutch painters of the 17th century as ‘belonging’ to the white students in the room, and not to him. This idea was seized on by white members of the class. They acknowledged that they were at one with Rembrandt. They acknowledged their dominance. They offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress. It was thought at the time that reactions of this type had to do with ‘white guilt’ or ‘white masochism.’ No. No. It was white euphoria. Many, many white children of that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it, and they insisted on rejecting it and rejecting it and rejecting it, so that they might continue to feel the power of that connection.”

Big black baby read that in The New Yorker, back in ’80, written by George W. S. Trow, Jr. But in ’80 it was already too late for big black baby, you see, so entranced was he by the actuality of the last few words, “the power of that connection,” he nearly died of it, lost and fat and abandoned, big black lips, flies climbing out of his ass all shit stained, wings dipped in shit and no one, he felt, to feel the power of that connection with, nothing to reject because that only happens when privilege is intact; nothing to connect to, blubbery parents as bewildered as big black baby rolling around, lost and abandoned; a lot of soul but no power, a lot of everything European-derived people claimed they had a lot of too, in books—adulthood; the correct memory of the way things were, etc.—but not really. Actually, big black baby loved words so much that he believed in the creators of words—so much so that he was in a kind of fever about them, less blubbery and bigoted in a book he was, connecting to power through reading and then maybe through the author. In books, oddly enough, what big black baby had less of—power—was not as apparent as what he had: memory, although he did not know how to use it; remembrance, although it frightened him; adulthood, in the form of a mother.

Big black baby would not know how to connect to power in the first place, you see, if you told him all of those things were his and were powerful. Basically, he’d sit on the floor in your grid of remembrance, not being seen because he had yet to survive the literature of servitude, so beautiful it stinks, in which the “I recall” did not feature big black baby, so broken and stupid he believed everything he read.

One day he took a walk; got out of the house and took a walk. Had to get away from that mother because he had a humanities education, you know; had to get away from that father who brought news of the world in every night; had to get away from them both because they had an even more tangential relationship to the power of connection than our boy. Mom over there with her skillet stolen from some European-derived people she worked for and who would have thrown it out anyway but it was something, thank God; something they had and we did not but we do now, thank God; had to get away from Dad who read about it all in the papers, didn’t need personal experience, no. Beat it out here in the family, by gosh. Had to get out, so he took a walk. Met some people at first who looked like him; laughing at one another for the benefit of people who didn’t look like them; European-derived people who couldn’t care less but still that was the point, they couldn’t care less; no family secrets, no anxiety, nothing free to float. You know, alienation or whatever. He tried having some friends who weren’t that. Met up with a nice fellow who looked like him and nearly immediately their lips were together, all blubbery and black, stuck together like flypaper, all all together. Couldn’t take it when this other fellow said Please or Excuse me or May I because there was no power in that connection; couldn’t have it, no necessary torture, so disgusting this relationship in which no one had to buy anything; couldn’t stand the immediacy of kindness, no obscurity in it, too much. No power in the gesture of understanding; everything all mutual. Took another walk away, and met up with some others he was happy to see. Power in their connection had nothing to do with him and glad for it he was. In the shower, very nice European-derived skin in his bed; very nice pink toes curling and whatever. In the shower big black baby experienced a miserliness of feeling for others like himself; they’d be the last he’d help; no connection of power bonding with something that is broken. So hard to grow up if the only adults you’ve ever known are dead or silenced. In big black baby’s mouth, very nice pink toes shutting him up hopefully forever.

Talk. Talk talk talk. Big black baby found nothing but talk there in the world where power connects; no real meaning in the talk but talk just the same. Sitting there on the red sofa, very nice, talk like balloons over some European-derived heads or whatever placed square in the grid of some cocktail party; could be an art cocktail party or whatever; same crushing banality as elsewhere but particularly crushing, especially banal, here where there is art and the semblance of politeness. Within this talk the connection of power can be viewed as a form of European-derived helplesssness in the face of their emptiness; filling that emptiness up with talk, a smattering of abstract talk, theory or whatever and what have you. Balloons of talk. People who do not look like these European-derived people become the subject of these talks sometimes, filling up their emptiness with incomprehension; incomprehension leveled at the difficulty European-derived people have with trying to make these “others” into their image somehow—which is unnecessary, we’re already playing according to your rules, nothing mussing up the grid under the red sofa, no springs missing, very nice.

Dropping off, down into the well of history this time, sick to death of your historicizing as you go along; no concern for any other story but your own. Crappy decision on top of crappy decision issuing from the mouth of cold babies, shitting and mewling in a million ways, again and again, on other children taught not to steal, rip them off emotionally, behave badly, whatever, that being a form of adulthood, the only kind you’ve ever known. Big black baby sleeping with the crappy residue of people who have had no such memories of experience; allowing them into his home, accepting their history as his own. Continents, people, hair color, money, machines, artistic license, silence, greed, bank cards, corns, money, memory, remembrance, and other stuff have no consciousness, no history anymore; just things floating outside of oneself, not in, nothing within to help shape a self into a self; just a thing with things; bank cards, careers, whatever. Sleeping with these cold babies in the hope, naturally, that he will make a difference, right? Change Europe or whatever. Fat chance if there’s no history admitted to; can’t think he’ll get by with a little remembrance over there on the red sofa, very nice, no springs showing, saying, “I recall,” sitting there on the rubbish heap of power with no name behind it; no remembrance of anything other than that sliver of a self derived from Europe, claiming everything, shitting everything, giving nothing.

Outside of the grid, big black baby took a walk one day, one bloody but still pink European-derived toe trailing from his mouth. Went to a party he did. Saw this woman there; had a drink. Wasn’t sure if this woman would see him but he thought so, maybe; scared to risk it though, big black baby afraid of Negroes is all; Negroes lost in the larger European-derived cocktail party that is a sea of something he and this woman were not: an absolutely alabaster terrain with things floating outside of oneself—bank cards and careers—and no history. Asked her name; did not ask her, but some European-derived person, who said, Adrian Piper. Didn’t know a thing about her, not a thing. Big black baby not exactly up on contemporary art, if you get him. Not exactly the sort to know anything not necessarily European derived. Also, big black baby afraid of the non-European-derived woman; of Mom and her thank God skillet and kindness and model of adulthood. So strange, standing in this room with that woman; amazed she is not sitting at the foot of the red sofa, very nice. Big black baby asked a few questions. One woman said in response, “She did a piece, beginning around 1986, entitled My Calling (card) in which she gave the person who had made/laughed at/agreed with a racist remark a card indicating the fact that she was black. Now we can look at it this way: doesn’t she know anything about the circles in which she travels and in which she speaks? After all, she is not naive. After all, I have never seen her actually demonstrate the giving out of the card. Perhaps if she documented that it would have some power for me.”

One man said, “She did one piece—a performance piece—in which she stood in a bank line with the lyrics to Aretha Franklin’s ’Respect’ going over and over again in her head as she danced to it on a bank line, you see. In another piece—a performance—she was in California and rented a Cadillac and put her hair up and wore a fur coat and drove through Palo Alto with a ghetto-blaster playing funk and rhythm ’n’ blues, you see. That is what she has done, you see. Personally, I would prefer to see something in her work that wasn’t tied to the power of her connection to the self; that is, I would prefer to see the ethical structure of asking for respect—on a bank line, wherever—be replaced by a structure that includes all of us, a little more egalitarian somehow and not so personal, the way they can sometimes be.”

Big black baby not only intrigued but marveling at the way information is imparted to him—niggardly, and as though he were a nigger; that is, as though he were a good nothing, which is all “nigger” means. Big black baby took a break. Went somewhere and did some reading. Read her name: Adrian Margaret Smith Piper; read her birthdate, read her credentials (full professor of philosophy at Wellesley College). Read those things and looked at a few others. Lying in his bed at night, he imagined Piper: Left behind being a student of purely conceptual work. Left it behind so as not to be at war with consciousness constantly at the expense of esthetics: “Yellow colored girl, who wants her?” Becoming a self, according to Simone Weil, requires attention, a form of prayer, to oneself and others. Attention can only be paid as an adult, as testified in her 1988 piece The Big Four-Oh: “I had to get hit in the stomach with a hardball many times before I learned to play the game,” and so forth. No one mentions the spiritual side; the text like a mantra. Grace is a condition. Sol Le Witt, Bach is graceful—means, a style, in order to employ a graceful attitude. No clear boundary for her between that aspect of culture and all the rest —Bootsy Collins, Funkadelic. Attention to the gracefulness of rationality, the conversation with the interlocutor; the means of creating art for twenty years as a condition of existence. Disregarding the quality of one’s mind in and outside of oneself in order to communicate in a language unencumbered by the xenophobia of mass stupidity, lack of grace, no respect.

An entry from baby’s journal:
I’m incapable of any real process of assimilating Adrian’s work, as I find the system of the Negro absorbing the cultural artifacts of another Negro, let alone applying a language to it—and thus history—marked by the stench of near impossibility. I see no way around the flattened perspective one Negro will have for another regardless of what they do, which is one reason (besides the obvious: power) some of them embrace the European-derived person, whether as lover or business partner. In that absolutely alabaster terrain, they can maybe spot themselves, all black. Running here and there from one empty exercise in communication to another.

Perhaps that’s an apt metaphor for much of the Conceptual art produced in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Aside from that of Sol LeWitt and some by Adrian Piper, aside from their exploration of form as form and color as color, this art usually strikes me as an empty dialogue with the self: the artist sitting in nothing, or, rather, in the white space of being European derived. Impossible to find a self in that absolutely alabaster terrain. The work Piper produced in ’67–’68 was as a student sitting on the floor near the red sofa, absorbed in abstraction, concerned less with the self than with discovering the quality of her mind, which may be a self or may be not. Is it? See, for example, Rosemary Mayer’s photo of Piper’s untitled performance at Max’s Kansas City in New York, back in 1970, in which she is beginning to limit her perceptions—sight, smell, touch—of you in search of that self. The student’s role is that of a tool to be sharpened. Somehow the self gets lost behind this role, which can result in abject emotional poverty, the dislocation of a self in support of European-derived ideas about beauty, sex, class.

But Piper’s relationship to the role changed, especially obviously through performance pieces like Food for the Spirit, 1971, in which the body (Piper’s) is welded to Kant and literally lived through. I have seen a photograph of this. The photograph is a self-portrait, nude. Piper holds the camera just above waist level. She has said that the photograph and others like it were a mooring of sorts while doing this: “Fasts, isolates self, does yoga while writing paper on Kant.” The photographs Piper took were to make sure she still existed during a period in which the mind as a muscle was being sharpened as a tool to explore that “isolated self” whose existence could not be separated from the text (Kant, recited like a mantra), and whose language was used as the jumping-off point into this: Piper’s heart and mind and eventual writing of the book of the world according to her self. No longer was she solely a student of the ideas of the West and their civilization, dogged by notions of the “correct” approach to making art, as dictated, somewhat, by the artistic climate of the time (Conceptual). Instead, she outlived the person of The Student to live in and activate the Body of the Self, no longer cramped by sitting at the foot of the red sofa, no springs missing, very nice.

For the Negro, particularly the Negro in the empty alabaster terrain of the art world, where the shredding of language and history and meaning is often mistaken for conversation or even purposeful conversation, the only chance one has of establishing a self is to become, in the words of James Baldwin, a “bad nigger,” meaning Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston and Paule Marshall and Bruce Nugent and Millie Jackson: the necessary theatricalization of a persona, loud and uncomfortable and ironic and in pain, that does not “set right” in the grid of someone else’s idea of history. This Piper did in 1983–85 with “Funk Lessons”—where, generally, European-derived people were let into this musical phenomenon to discover some of it in themselves—and in 1974 with the ten-part “Mythic Being: I/You (Her)” piece, and, again, in the 1975 performance “The Mythic Being: Getting Back,” each work revealing, among other things, the pure distillation of that self repressed, mind and body, by the phenomenon of the “correct” Negro, “one of those civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big,” as Tom Wolfe characterized it in “Radical Chic.” Again and again, the Negro accepts (as having “shaped” him or her) language like the above, but for Piper, who lives in Plato’s cave of language as a tool of precision, the book will never be written by any self other than her own, a position that invariably prompts the response of “controlling”—always the European-derived response to the “bad nigger” who speaks. In the “Mythic Being: I/You (Her)” works, balloons of talk rise above Piper’s photographic, smiling likeness, but the smile, the image of the happy, contented Negro (though the face becomes progressively more masculine, and more “black,” as the series advances), is distorted painfully by the language, which cuts like a knife as it addresses you, those “others” different from Piper: “You hurt me, and betrayed my trust, and for that I will never forgive you.” In the “Mythic Being: Getting Back” performance, also documented in photographs, Piper plays out the role of the “bad nigger” by action in a public place. What one must be concerned with in looking at these pieces is the way one looks at them—less as “events” or as drawings than as a continuous self-portrait making its way out of the frame of repression, which is really about standards of beauty that have little or nothing to do with one’s self. In naming a self, the Negro can approach the other Negro not as a mirror of desire, especially in the larger world grid of some European-derived memory, but as one capable of self-recognition.

Piper’s video installation Cornered, 1988, is a philosophical address, spoken from a television barricaded into a corner of the room, on the idea of a racial heritage. It is presumably addressed to a white audience, and the speaker in the video (Piper), by her appearance at any rate, could pass as a member of that audience. This provoked a number of responses in Negros like myself, so secure in irony and nothing much else: why is she talking mostly to white people? Why does she say that people mistake her for white? One possibility: the art crowd’s embrace of Piper’s light-skinned appearance indicates a certain unwillingness on their part to admit that she does not belong. What can it mean to them that many Negroes know, on first sight, that Piper is anything but white? And why can’t they see their relationship to her, or hers to herself? If they make Piper “white,” or nearly so, it is because that is what they want. But she has the mouth to disapprove it. And that is talk too, but not balloons of it.

I was thinking about a woman who was once a friend of mine, and about why we are no longer friends. The reason was her inability, shared with most European-derived people, to separate “Negro” from me. That is, when my friend looked at me, she saw all of the horror and disgust she heaped with scorn on all Negroes, including herself. There is no way out of one’s love for such a person (or of the desire to transform them), just as there is no way (for them) out of their hatred for you. In Piper’s “Political Self-Portrait” series, 1978–80, does the text obscure the images or do the images obscure the texts? Each is involved in what goes wrong when one “sees” not the reality of racism or class snobbery or sexism but the ways one becomes one or all of those things, with little if any thought.

With little if any thought, one compartmentalizes Piper into “parts”—black/ woman/academic/artist. Americans often distrust the multifaceted self/talent: something must be “wrong” or “facile” if it has breadth. In our national consciousness, nesting like a worm, we cannot believe it. But Piper insists on the full expression of the self. Political Self-Portrait #2 (race), 1978, shows that she learned early about the desire of both whites and blacks to “claim” her. “I’ve had the Gray Experience,” she says defiantly, in a text that runs over a portrait of herself split into two: one side is a darker photo-negative reflection of the other. The inscription “Paleface” underlies “both” sides. The image leaves us, both blacks and whites, in the center of the question: who will name her? And why? Because of what?

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, I am I because my little self says so. How does such a dialogue begin, and possess the self? Piper believes that speech claims attention, and that through attention, one can proceed to the idea of instituting change. A Tale of Avarice and Poverty, 1985, a photo-and-text piece heartbreaking in its narrative structure, is a third-person, fictionalized look at the woman Piper might have become had change not constituted a different self for her: passing for white, bereft of family, bereft of her self. The narrative is continued in other recent works, most notably in her 1990 gallery show in New York, where large photographic blowups of blacks in leisure activities—family dinner, at play—were again usurped from the common notion of “their” happiness by the text, the language. “We are around you,” said one. This is of course one of Piper’s repeated themes, but unlike the self shown in the “Mythic Being” series, this “I” has opened up to include images of others so like and unlike her self. This is when the narcissism of youth is replaced by the general narcissism of culture: if it isn’t about me, then I cannot comprehend it. For Piper, the language has become egalitarian—but for people like myself; it is our society she has made the moral and visual center of her work. This of course isolates her from the tradition of the late-20th-century artmaking apparatus, and from its standards of beauty and worth. This is “black,” this is language as self-conferred power, not seen as anything—not a self, nothing. This is the outpouring of a world where the grid does not fit, where the language one uses is not one’s own. Where people like Piper will not be absent of history or controlled or seen only when based in denial, or as a student, or as good nothings sitting on the floor near the red sofa, very nice, no springs missing, with tongues filled with nothing.

Dear Friend: I am a self. See me. Dear Friend: This is a fact. Dear Friend: This is my calling card. Dear Friend: dear friend, let’s talk.

Hilton Als is a writer who lives in New York.


Once, long ago, there was a woman who was very beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed. She was one of five sisters, all beautiful, intelligent, and strong-willed, all competing with one another, all school teachers before they married.

Her father was a minister, a tall, handsome, charismatic man who later lost his faith and became a lawyer. Her mother was a local beauty, temperamental and imperious. The woman’s family was a very important one where they lived, and very proud and well to do. They were not quite white. But they were all very fair-skinned, pale and pink with visible blue veins in their hands and wrists, amber eyes and wavy auburn hair. They disdained their darker-skinned brethren, whom they referred to as “niggers” and “pickaninnies.” Whites they contemptuously called “crackers.”

The woman was too beautiful and strong-willed, domineering, really, to marry happily. Her first husband, a rich and handsome lawyer like her father, was a scoundrel and philanderer. He left her with two young sons, to journey to another part of the country, where he started another family and passed for white. The woman knew that he hoped thereby to recover his share of his family’s aircraft company, from which he had been disinherited. Her second husband, an equally rich and handsome surgeon and her dead sister’s widower, died young of a heart attack, and left her with a small daughter and an unrevised will.

The woman was also too strong-willed, domineering, really, to be a good mother. Her eldest son wanted to be an historian, or perhaps a Jesuit priest. But she insisted that he become a lawyer, so he could help her recover her second husband’s estate from her dead sister’s family. She was always admonishing her children to keep their good fortune to themselves, lest the spiteful and envious try to deprive them of it. Her younger son wanted to be an artist, and drew beautifully. But she insisted that he become a doctor, so he could take care of her in her old age.

Her younger son tried to satisfy her, and failed. He was admitted to dental school, at least, hated it, dropped out, and worked for the post office for the rest of his life. He was a shy and gentle man, retiring and vulnerable, and very kind.

Her elder son also tried to satisfy her, harder, perhaps, because his father and grandfathers had been lawyers. Or perhaps it was because she wept and implored him, and tried to instill in him her own wrath and righteous indignation at her dead sister’s family. But he, too, ultimately failed. He became a real estate lawyer, hated it, and, after her many phone calls, drank deeply and often. He retired early to become a hospital administrator. He, too, was shy and gentle. and sardonic. Jesuitically philosophical, radical in his thinking, and quietly stubborn. Once the woman used the word “nigger” in the presence of his family, and he forcibly put her out of the house. . . .

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