Walking home from the bar at 1am, the couple a few paces in front of me began holding hands. A bit too far ahead for me to hear, I imagine they’d said nothing particularly moving at all … perhaps, since they’d just left McDonald’s, something like, “you’ve got to promise to not let me eat that shit so late again,” or, “what are we doing tomorrow?” Anything mundane, boring, ordinary. It was because of the way they walked next to each other with a nonchalance, an insouciance filled with intuited joy, joy that allowed them to – without seeming to think of it at all – slip their hands together and lock fingers in what appeared to be one fluid motion. They’d been there before, done that many times before, scooped up each other’s hands, locked fingers gently. Like the beat in their chests. The breath in their lungs. Like vines, each growing separately together entangled, their held hands caused for me a shy smile, a hint of jealousy and a lot of desire on my part.
What vines entangle us?
Do it for the vine, as solicitation, I ain’t gonna do it, as emphatic antiphonal reply. Saying I ain’t gonna do it with a smile, with unrelenting joy, refusing while producing performance. What does it mean when refusal is embedded in and part of the aesthetic practice of dance, song, play? What, when refusal is aestheticized? Disrupted after the third request, the girl in Diamonique Shuler’s Vine loop begins to dance more emphatically, producing the otherwise. With what seems to be liberating happiness, unfettered and undeterred joy, her subsequent dip-head-sway-hip forces a reflection backward on the whole of performance, how its entirety is within a tradition of black performance, of black joy. But how?
A song, maybe. From my head, then, to my lips. Ever so faintly, quietly. As I watch the couple ahead of me, I began humming – almost without thinking – the Beatles, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and transported to Philadelphia, PA, where I lived from 18 to 25 years of age. Years I spent on the Partyline, the phone chat service. Night after night, I’d call and leave a greeting. Voice a bit deeper, a bit darker, I’d say something like:
Yo, wuss good? This ya bul callin from out West Philly tryna see what’s good. Five seven, hundred and ninety pounds, short cut, goatee, brown skin and sexy lips. If you wanna know more, hit me up.
Flourishing a bit here, reducing a bit there, I had to sell myself. I’d be on the Partyline for hours. Whoever called would listen to various greetings and, if so desired, send a response message and even initiate a one-on-one chat. We could also put the system on hold. Sometimes, you might want to go to the Chinese spot for General Tso’s Chicken (with extra Duck Sauce, of course) or you’d want to take a shower. While on hold, people could leave both greetings and chat requests. So often I’d call and put the system on hold, hoping to collect messages. And the hold music was a loop of songs; “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was one that stood out to me. I did, indeed, want to hold some someone’s hand. Each and every time I’d call, it would be with an unnamed hope for fulfilled, hard-loved flesh. Flesh of my own, of some other him. Together. Held hands.
It started that way … Each time I called, each and every time I dialed the number: hope. Even after the one time the pastor came over late at night a few hours before he’d have to preach. I kept calling back. Even after I took a trolley and two buses from Southwest to North Philly at 3 in the morning for a moment of pleasure. I kept calling back. Even after the one dude made his way to my apartment at about 5 in the morning, stole my wallet and my identity. After the cute 20-ish year old black boy showed up at my doorstep in dark gray sweatpants, took one look at me as I opened the door, said, naw, I’m good while turning away. After the dude that always would question, ”Is I’m?”, when I’d say he was silly brought a gun and put it on my radiator, making me not a little bit furious and also, fearful. After I got so high with dude I thought it was laced with something. After the other guy became a very good friend, talking daily. After the dude that’d call me “Teddy” stopped calling me back.
I kept calling back.
Each time with a hopeful smile, butterflies fluttering in the pit of my stomach. Will this be the last time, finally? Will he be the one? There simply wasn’t anything that could be done to stop me from calling to hear the voices, to make connections, to put the system on hold and wish – like so many Beatles – to hold hands as vines tangled together organically, looping fingers around and around and around each other infinitely. To steal my joy in snatches, to desire it against the brutal history of denial. Joy. So a song, hands entwined, a phone line; doing it for the vine
Hortense Spillers offers the following about black women and the performance of song wherein the
dance of motives, in which the motor behavior, the changes of countenance, the vocal dynamics, the calibration of gesture and nuance in relationship to a formal object – the song itself – is a precise demonstration of the subject turning in fully conscious knowledge of her own resources toward her object. In this instance of being-for-self, it does not matter that the vocalist is ‘entertaining’ under American skies because the woman, in her particular and vivid thereness, is an unalterable and discrete moment of self-knowledge.
I would add to Spiller’s “song” an entire suite of enfleshed practices including dance, writing, speaking, preaching — practices, in other words, that are grounded in the inhalation and exhalation of breath into and out of the body. The formal object might be a song, or it might be an instance of poesis. The object might be Dorinda Clark-Cole, Wanda Frazier-Parker or Juandolyn Stokes whooping in the pulpit. The formal object might be the writing objects of Gwendolyn Brooks – what she liked was candy buttons – or the anti-lynching activist writings of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Each, in their own way, are about the art of refusal, making refusal an object from which to produce an “unalterable and discrete moment” of black sociality.
And so the girl’s refusal is in this tradition. She refused with a certain kinda style and choreography that is in anticipation of the tradition of black womanhood, a history of refusals found in song and dance. The refusal was play, was the anticipatory mode of the joy that was to come. Though certainly not the originator or the phrase, Shuler’s video has received over 4 million loop views since its upload in January 2014. Variations on this particular theme, the little girl’s dance has been imitated and found hundreds of iterations since.
And so the joy is not only in a song, or hands entwined, but a repetition, a repetition of refusal.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Vines lately, and their role in mediating and giving shape to new perspectives on the violence that pervades our world. From Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine since 1948 to the heightening and intensification of incarceration since the so-called War on Drugs, from Welfare Reform to School Reform on large scale; and from – in our contemporary moment – the murders of Renisha McBride, of Eric Garner, of Mia Henderson, of Kandy Hall, of Michael Brown, of John Crawford, of, of, of, of, of … even to the current occupation of Ferguson residents by militarized police in Missouri.
This is a repetition of violence, violence grounded in inequity, in not valuing the flesh of individuals, of refusing to love hard the flesh we have been given in community.
But Vines exist. Vines let me consider what is possible, how possibility can be aestheticized, how possibility can become the grounds from which liberatory praxis can emerge. Vines exist. They can repurpose scenes of violence. They can, as the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency group theorizes, “profane” the wishes of empire.
In a loop of but a few seconds, the stark differentiation between Ferguson Police power and the power of black sociality found in choreography is set into relief.
The power of black social dance is what draws me to the various choreographic protocols of protest and prayer vigils. And it is what calls me back to Shuler’s video. The repetition of joy, going back to get it over and over again. It is from within the world of markedly consistent violence that it becomes necessary to steal snatches of our happiness, to gather together in clearings against the wishes of civil society. To abscond. To steal what we can, looting our way to destroying the grounds that keep many of us marginalized. To dance and chant and dip-sway-move in the literal face of inequity. Like Harriet Jacobs in a crawlspace stealing the sounds of her children playing outside unbeknownst to them, we too thieve our way through the world, adulterating the world in which joy is supposed to be impossible. We not only watch, but create and are, vines.
Could it possibly be true? Could it be that, “Even the most horrifying structures of dominance can yield themselves to new forms of life”? Vine makes it seem that way. I call the yielding vine represents the aesthetics of possibility, the forms that are molded out of the disregarded and discarded, the modality life takes when those of us said to have nothing create anyhow and anyway, against the desires and wishes of empire.
Tawfik Gebreels knows something, it seems, about the aesthetics of possibility, about refusing the delimitation of thought and action forced onto Gazans.
Literally emerging from the ashes, from the particulate matter splattered throughout the air after Israeli airstrikes of Gaza, Gebreels takes images of destruction from which to make something beautiful. Transforming plumes of smoke into parents playing with children, to raised fists, emerges from a resistant force and verve that exist prior to any modality of Israeli occupation. The refusal to let the images of destruction destroy: joy. The refusal to allow the looping cycle of violence to quell imagination: joy. This is the aesthetics of possibility, of making something out of the materiality of what is in order to imagine, and enact by imagining, that possibility is irreducible.
Gebreels is an architect. Architecture is about the use of imagination to conceptualize space. It is about the destiny and density of ground, of objects, and a way forward for us to live. Gebreels does not let plumes of destructive smoke destroy his imaginative capacity. Stubborn ass imagination keeps growing, keeps being entangled with, in and by life that is supposed to be snuffed out. And by such reimagining, through aesthetic practice of art-making, Gebreels makes real the concept of aesthetic possibility. There is something present in imagination that exceeds the ruins, that exceeds the bombing. This something, this excessive force, exists before any enactment of violence against Palestinians.
Gebreels’s creations are within, in at least this author’s point of view, the Black Radical Tradition. The attacks against Palestinians are assaults against the sociality of folks in Gaza and the West Bank—an attack that takes places in parallel and in cooperation with the assaults on the sociality of black folks in the US. Gazans choose to live, to paint, to fuck against Israel’s purportedly totalizing modality of violence and violation. Gebreels is an architect. So is the little girl, understanding the density and inertia of her flesh, the grounds of her existence. At its best, architecture is a solicitation to imagine otherwise worlds on grounds already given.
So for those of all us that believe in justice, in Ferguson or Gaza: what will be the content of our antiphonal reply?
It has always seemed difficult to imagine joy. And even the present is tense. To choose joy in the midst of pain, brutality, horror can feel impossible. If not impossible, perhaps simply delusional. To make the choice, to have a preferential option for the joyful and joyous occasion, against the violence of any moment, indeed is a radical act of resistance.
Protest and prayer vigils and rebellions are like the girl I ain’t gonna do it: in the coming together in community in the name and cause for justice, refusing the current configurations of inequitable power, while assenting to antiphonal reply.
The aesthetics of possibility, found in the girl’s dance, in Gebreels’s art, in prayer vigils, looting, insurrections (that some call “rioting”) and protesting in Ferguson, are modes of collective study, a form of what Jacque Derrida might envision as the “unconditional university,” a mode of collective, improvisatory study that privileges the “as if.” We act, through the aesthetics of possibility, as if we already are what we want to be, as if we already have what we want to give away, as if liberation is already with us, as if resources were already equitably distributed. In such desiring, in such aspiration, is the enactment of the otherwise world. Here. Now.
Literature of the Black Radical tradition is full of characters who show us the way – who explain the refusals that enable possibility. These characters show what an ordinary, plentiful and often disregarded and discardable object of nature can do. Gwendolyn Brook’s Maud Martha broke down the distinction between flower and weed, between plant and flesh; who lived within and thought from out of the zone of the otherwise, the aesthetics of possibility, the refusal enacted through performance:
What she liked was candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch; and dandelions…But dandelions were what she chiefly saw. Yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress of her backyard. She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished!
To cherish that which is ordinary because it is ordinary, because of the everydayness of a would-be weed. In it, she saw a flower. In it, she saw herself. Lovable. Loved. Maud Martha teaches us about cherishing the discardable things, the ordinary, everyday, disposable things that are all around us. She – in all her imaginative capacity – solicits and beckons us to rethink the destiny and density of grounds and objects that encircle us. Maud Martha “reuse[s] and profane[s] rather than reject[s] the material conditions” of her existence. And we would do well to do the same.
Can you feel it? The violence of empire wants to separate us, wants for us to individualize and internalize its violence. To internalize and become numb to the fictive notion that its violence is totalizing and inescapable. The violence of empire wants us immobile, unable to respond to its deftness, its agility. Yet our hands reach out, fingers outstretched. Our hands are searching for comfort, search to be held.
I remember leaving the museum; how he, separating from the crowd, walked next to me, threw his arm around me. It was in that gesture that excitement ensued. Butterflies. Shy and coy enthusiasm. Me! Internal scream. Internal delight. Joy. It was the joy of sociality, of flesh touching flesh. Even if it would not last – and indeed it did not – the moment loops, the memory replays over and over again, producing within the concept of possibility. Grounded in the materiality of everydayness, of ordinary life such as it is, the otherwise that is always possible is always already with us. As if we already are, this moment calls out to us to hold each other, to hold each other in hearts and minds.
Featured image: Alexandria Smith, Go Run Tell Dat, 2012
 Hortense J. Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words,” in Black, White, and in Color : Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 165.
 Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, and Eyal Weizman, Architecture After Revolution: Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman: 9783943365795: Amazon.com: Books (Sternberg Press, 2014), 21.
 Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha, a Novel., [1st ed.] (New York: Harper, 1953).
 Petti, Hilal, and Weizman, Architecture After Revolution: Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal, Eyal Weizman: 9783943365795: Amazon.com: Books, 32.