Grace Under Fire

Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background), 1990, oil stick, gesso, and graphite on wood, 80 × 30".

CARRIE MAE WEEMS sat upright at a typewriter, her back to the audience. A footlight cast her long, crisp shadow against a blank white screen, like a sigil on a blank white page. To the sound of a five-piece jazz band, rising from the orchestra pit, Weems was soon joined on stage by spoken-word artist Aja Monet and playwright Carl Hancock Rux, poets and her guides of sorts, and eventually by three Graces—Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri. The trio formed a Greek chorus, repeating in unison, “Always convicted, always charged, always stopped.”

In the wake of recent carnage across America, one might wonder where grace is hiding, or, more pointedly, what grace could possibly yield. Last month, at the 2016 Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina, Weems took on this subject with Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, a work produced by the festival and dedicated to commemorating victims of the shootings at the Mother Emanuel African Episcopal Church in June of last year and the many black and brown people who have lost their lives to police brutality.

Grace Notes called for reflection on these tragedies and raised questions, whose timing could hardly have been more significant, about how we go on surviving them. Only days after the second and final performance at the College of Charleston Theater, Pulse Nightclub would be attacked by a lone gunman, principally targeting queer people of color—a massacre that resulted in forty-nine dead, not including the gunman himself. Only three weeks later, news would break of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, cast across our sundry, constant media streams.

“There are only a handful of stories in the world: the difference often lies in the telling,” Weems writes in the director’s notes.

After working on Grace Notes for months it occurred to me I was telling the story of Antigone, wherein an innocent man dies by unjustified means and his sister fights for the right to bury him honorably. But the wider community refuses her; her right to justice, and to peace, is denied. Likewise, Grace Notes examines the wider social implications of tensions at work in communities across America. These tensions are marked by… the killings of young black men, and the tragic events of the Emanuel Nine.

Carrie Mae Weems, Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, 2016. Performance view, College of Charleston Theater, South Carolina, June 4, 2016. Aja Monet, Alicia Hall Moran, Eisa Davis, and Imani Uzuri. Photo: William Struhs.

The pathos of the contemporary African American experience was foregrounded in Grace Notes—a multimedia odyssey of stark tableaus, at once vivid, realistic, and dreamlike—through beautiful abstract imagery, music, and choreography. In an early scene, a black man appears on a treadmill, running. From whom? To where? It wasn’t clear, but something was gaining on him, it seemed, given the Graces’ urgent refrain. The man evoked countless images replayed on news and Facebook feeds everywhere, of black men fleeing, shot, like game, in the back, and at once the viewer was brought into the exhaustion of the man’s experience, treading water, running in place. In a later sequence, another black man floated in a transparent plastic bubble, rolling around the stage, kicking and tormented like a baby struggling to be born. As he drifted about, defenseless, one of the Graces joined him, rocking the ball to and fro like a fretful mother who knows what awaits her child, the slim odds, her guiding hand the only thing standing between him and rolling off of the edge of the stage. Throughout, the Graces stood witness to these symbolic struggles, repeating mournful laments and singing with apparent heartbreak at the men’s fates. And another refrain emerged, cast and recast: “How do you measure a life?”

Grace Notes seemed to end on a hopeful note: In the midst of an uplifting dance sequence, a balloon was released into the crowd and batted from one patron to another like a shared thought or idea to be paid forward. In the face of injustice, Weems was perhaps suggesting, the path forward is human connection.

But what can grace teach us about fostering those connections, and how is it embodied?

At a talk at the Charleston Library Society the afternoon before the second performance, Weems described grace as “holding on to your humanity and integrity, your core, in the face of all question and all forces.” If, as she suggests, grace is inherent to survivors of oppression and violence, the African American experience becomes a perfect metaphor for grace. Each new day a mercy for unprotected black and brown bodies.

Yet as I left the theater, though moved by the stunning visuals and the music—Moran delivered a barn-burning rendition of “Amazing Grace”—I felt a tug of dissatisfaction with the conclusion. More specifically, I felt like I knew this story, which seemed all too familiar in the telling. I, like many, had been weaned on images of imperiled black people (mostly men, of course) who, in the face of tragedy, joined together in song and struggle. Songs like “We Shall Overcome”—anthems of the civil rights movement—were a requisite of my education as a young black man. Conveniently, for white supremacist systems of power peddling violence, that popular education builds on a simplified narrative, one whose moral is that peaceful resistance is the most enlightened form, looming large as an emblem of grace. Weems’s show beautifully honors the dead and nods at this legacy of resilience, but, exhausted with mourning and amid a new struggle over the lives of black and brown people, I wondered: What now?

After the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and so many others were recited during the performance, was the “embrace” of the “magnitude of a moment” (to quote from Rux’s enigmatic lines) the most we could do? Wasn’t now the time to upend the notion that black people ought to be patient and participatory—to continually exhibit restraint and above all graceful bearing in the fight for black lives?

I knew my discontent had little to do with the beauty and imagination of Weems’s work. Nor do I mean to diminish Weems’s larger exploration of the meaning of grace or the broad scope of her goals, one of which was to imagine a parting gift to President Obama, a man who has already delivered addresses on the occasion of at least fourteen mass shootings.

It had more to do with the needs of the moment, and the extent to which languor and beauty can lose track of the urgency of those needs. Instead of a song of mourning, I longed for a scream, like those conveyed by the phantasmagoric hellscapes of Kara Walker’s most grotesque visions of racism and slavery, which manage to contain all of the confusion, ugliness, and subterfuge involved in the work of smuggling one’s humanity out of a system of terror, mass-violence, and death. Meanwhile, Beyoncé and others continue to mine the legacy of black folks making lemonade from life’s lemons. (Even the controversial “Formation,” which ends her Lemonade, reminds us to “always stay gracious.”) As the murders continue, that’s hard to do, and as a response to tragedy, grace begins to feel anachronistic. Still more complicated: If the concept of divine grace that animates songs like “Amazing Grace” (written by a slaveholding white clergyman) stems from the doctrines of the colonizer’s church, to borrow from Frantz Fanon, then how do we repurpose it as a tool for decolonization?

Vigil in Charleston, South Carolina on June 13, 2016. Photo: Chase Quinn.

Bereft after Grace Notes and the news of Pulse, which ominously occurred on the heels of the Emanuel Nine anniversary, I attended a vigil in downtown Charleston. The Mayor spoke. So did the head of Charleston’s chapter of the NAACP. A well-known Imam from a local mosque. It was like many vigils: a respectful memorial—maybe the kind Antigone would have wanted. But then two young people of color approached the mic. Representatives of the LGBTQ organization Southerners on New Ground, they asked the crowd to part for the queer people of color in their midst. They told us to come forward, to join them at the foot of the stage.

Planned or not, this action was not at all a natural one, to hold space in a crowd of predominantly white people, to awkwardly proclaim my body and identity in front of an audience at such a time, at any time. It was decidedly not graceful—it felt awkward, and disruptive. It reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston’s words, “I feel most colored when I am thrown up against a sharp white background,” or more relevantly here, of the messy, jumbled, and jammed typeface of those words as they appear in a 1990 painting by Glenn Ligon.

As we made our way to the stage, the duo explained that they wanted us to know that they saw us, and that the targets of the Orlando shooting were not incidental. They wanted to recognize that the everyday lived experience of LGBTQ people of color was a radical act, not just a graceful one. This was deeply moving and, more significantly, totally unexpected. It shifted the focus of the room and the dialogue from the dead to the living, and no doubt made many squirm.

Dread Scott, A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday, 2015, nylon, 84 x 52 1/2". Hanging outside Jack Shainman Gallery on West Twentieth Street in New York.

Perhaps what I was resisting in Grace Notes, and the concept of grace I gleaned, was this lack of surprise. The grace I longed for in the grip of loss was a call to action, and not a harmonious experience. It sprang on you, an undisputed fact, like the artist Dread Scott’s recent response to police killings: an 84 by 52 1/2” flag hung in the heart of Manhattan that read, A MAN WAS LYNCHED BY POLICE YESTERDAY. It was disorderly. Like the Black Lives Matter protesters who halted Toronto Pride. It exposed you.

All I know for sure is that if grace is to be an instrument of change, or even just an adequate lens through which to reflect on our times, it must have more to do with audacity—crucial in small moments too, like the fleeting interchange on board a plane stuck on the tarmac for two hours, when I meekly tried to get the attention of a passing stewardess and my request was only heard when the white passenger next to me commanded, “I think he needs your assistance!” Grace, if it is to have any utility at all, must be about knowing and proclaiming your value, even at the risk of being perceived by some as difficult or uncompromising. Unafraid to be called disgraceful—maybe this is a grace that can matter.

“I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace,” writes Anne Lamott. “Only that it meets us where we are, but does not leave us where it found us.” And as I hear word in the writing of this piece of the murder of trans activist Deeniqua Dodds, the fourteenth trans woman of color to be killed in 2016 alone, abutting news of policemen shot in Dallas and targeted in Baton-Rouge and the acquittal of those responsible for the death of Freddie Gray I continue to wonder: Where has our grace left us?

Chase Quinn is a writer based in Charleston, South Carolina.