“I met a woman today …”: Concern as Aesthetic Practice

1 Aug

The reiteration :: we already have what we need in order to form a new world, a new world forged out of the material existence of that which already surrounds us. We have love, we have laughter, we have light. We have desire, we have depth, we have darkness occasioning the possibility of secretive and social movement against the grain of the constant, ongoing, perpetual imposition of the violent force of normalcy, hegemony. I write from the sea cost in South Carolina today. And I write because, having visited an open-air market selling boiled peanuts, peaches, squash and shrimp, an older black woman who grew up on St. Helena Island encouraged me. She encouraged me to continue to do the work I am doing without knowing what, particularly, I am doing. She does not know the rubrics of my research, does not know me – as is often said – from a can of paint.

My cousin, with whom I recently made reacquaintance, introduced me to this older woman because I was looking for a few of the local Praise Houses on the island. Upon telling the small band of three who work in and own the open-air market that I will be traveling to Sapelo Island, GA soon for more research, I was told to take copious notes. My response: “I’ll try!” to which I was told “no no no! Don’t try. Do it! Just do it.” And I smiled. Right before leaving, having been pointed in the direction of a Praise House, the older woman turned to me, “the next time you think you can’t do it, when you wanna waver, just remember that I told you you could do it!”

She wanted me to remember her as someone encouraging. So a few questions, of course. What prompts such a desire in another to show concern and care? What mode of social life creates the contours of her existence so much so that anyone so brought into the boundaries are likewise given the same ethic of concern and care? Why did she not merely smile, but intentionally insist on such words to me, compelling me to continue on a journey towards which she knows not where? Some theorists would have that such folks isolated on islands, descendants of enslaved folks, were fundamentally and ongoingly alienated from forms of kinship and love. But rather than some sorta alienation or relegation from establishing concern and care, I believe that particular forms of social life disperse those qualities curiously, refusing heteropatriarchy as the only [or even privileged] site where love and laughter, in all its genuineness and generosity, can be deployed.

This refusal to allow the idea that “blood” is the ground of being for “family” is what I think is necessary addressing the problems of our world today, and urgently so. The notion that concern and care can be distributed in queer ways is sorta cool to me; queer insofar as the forms of relationality established by the performance of something other than some sorta biological determinism also resist state formation and incorporation as citizenship. That is, the very real concern and care demonstrated me today is an aesthetic form that is no less theological, sociological and yes, musicological. This has everything to do with the woman’s knowledge of the locations of Praise Houses on the island. And, indeed, her concern and care is likely much influenced by the forms of sociality and togetherness encountered in those Praise Houses. It is a form, however, that many seek to escape for its purported primitivism, for its backwardness, for its bygone quaintness.

I think her demonstration of, let’s say, concern as an aesthetic practice is theological in that it is about the worldview of the creatures on the earth and in the sea, about a particular type of transcendence of the material world that stands before her in all of its fullness into the desirous, deep, dark recesses of an unknown cosmic field and mosaic of belonging. Or, more simply, her belief that there are powers unseen acting in the material world allow her to care for cans of paint, for dwellings built for the expressed purpose of praise and for some dude she just met today.

Concern as an aesthetic practice was also demonstrated sociologically in that she was concerned with how the work I am engaging connects me to her, how it connects me to humanity in general. She became excited when learning of my trip to Sapelo Island because she, too, had read the work of someone who lives there, Cornelia Bailey and found the writing exciting and inspiring. By the woman’s own admission, she’s never been to the island, so in some ways, I am going for her, which is why taking notes is of necessity [“don’t try! just do it!”].

Finally, concern as an aesthetic practice was also demonstrated musicologically. Victor Zuckerkandl wrote about musical tones as “vibrational affinities” wherein one is always on the way from one tone to the next, never in one tone then the next. That is, musical tone – the sounds we hear when one is singing or slipping up and down the scale – is a social event, done together with other tones. But more, musical tones are vibrational, they are the always moving and on the move results of rubs, caresses and frictions. She became animated when speaking with me today, full of laughter and a sing-song voice, clapped her hands a bit too.

So I began to wonder: what if the aesthetics we encounter are not something we seek to escape but become the occasion for resistance? What if – rather than being fundamentally embarrassed by the small, cramped, dark, hot spaces of the Praise Houses from which loud singing and shuffling feet can be heard for miles – we cultivated such aesthetic practices in the service of modes of flight and escape from the inequitable distributions of power and resources encountered daily by many of us?

To reiterate :: we already have what we need to make the world anew, one committed to concern and care, a world where each is loved and laughter is cultivated. We would do well to pay attention to laughing women, dancing children and the folks thought to mine the fields of death that is always social. Maybe the abundant life they experience daily, the exuberance in spite of the marginalization, the joy in the midst of sorrow is a gift to the world that we need only accept.

3 Responses to ““I met a woman today …”: Concern as Aesthetic Practice”

  1. undergroundwoman August 3, 2011 at 9:44 AM #

    This is truly erotic.

  2. Diana Presumably August 9, 2011 at 12:41 AM #

    I love this article dearly. In all the furor about Google+ and its users discussing human interaction, this is a mode I encountered down South and longed to cultivate. (I’m from Chi, but in my youth I stayed on one of those islands off SC briefly, and it made a big impression on me!)

    I’m going to meditate on this further, thank you for this golden thread of nuance to follow.

  3. tamika m. August 16, 2011 at 2:11 PM #

    thank you for this. as a young woman raised on st. helena island, i have been thinking about concern and care a lot as it relates to my home, and i feel proud to know of this woman and your encounter with her. be blessed.

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