Black Style in an Age of Sight for the Speechless

The third in a series of four posts to commemorate 90 years since James Baldwin's birth.

Source: Youtube screen grab.

In the documentary film, Take This Hammer, James Baldwin’s guide, Orville Luster, positions him in San Francisco’s Lower Fillmore District across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel. As they approach the hotel on Fillmore Street, Luster says, “now, off to our left here’s one Negro hotel, that’s owned.” Baldwin, eyes intensifying, looks across the street from the car:

The only Negro hotel, and it’s called the Booker T. Washington? 



Though at that time Baldwin described himself as a stranger to San Francisco, he recognized the scene as if staring at a stage design: “This is the street that all Negroes are born on. The street all Negroes have to survive. The Booker T. Washington, the Baptist church, and the mosque. There’s really a great history, a great thing to be summed up in that if one could.” Lyrical as Baldwin’s stage set is, he leaves out at least one crucial historical detail. In fact, few of the black adults on that street were born there. Maybe re-born is the word? While touring the district, Luster explains that “redevelopment” means “removal of Negroes,” a phrase still used to describe “redevelopment” efforts by many black residents in the Lower Fillmore in the early 21st century. Luster relates: “in other words now the Negroes who came because the Japanese were pushed out are now being pushed out themselves.” So it goes. The two get out of the car directly across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel, the lounge of which was an important jazz venue in the Lower Fillmore in the years following WWII. Luster asks: “When you look at this street now. . . what comes to your mind about some kind of music or passage of the bible that describes this?” Baldwin responds:

Sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m sure those cats across the street can dance like, you know, like their white counterparts can’t. And the reason they can is because in a way they must. It is. . . it has got to come out somehow. It’s got to come out somehow. You know. And the pressure is great enough that it has to come out in a certain kind of. . .Negroes have great style. . .I think this is true even if it sounds chauvinistic. And white people don’t have much style. And one of the reasons that Negroes have a certain style is because they are aware of the conditions of their lives and they can’t fool themselves about it. You know. And when a Negro laughs or tries to make love or, or eats, or dances, it’s a kind of total action. I don’t mean this in the way white liberals are going to think I mean it I don’t mean that they’re more sensual more primitive or more spontaneous and all this, um, ethnic jazz. I mean that they live on another level of experience that doesn’t allow them as much room for make believe as white people have.

Midway through the comment above, the film cuts to images of a black family dancing on the street. The woman wears a fitted skirt and blouse. The man in dark slacks, white shirt and tie untied under his collar, moves while holding a baby girl in a Sunday-style dress.

Baldwin is certainly in dangerous water here, and he knows it. He knows he’ll be misunderstood, knows he’s only partially understanding it himself, but he says it anyway. In fact, such working-while-out-on-the-limb is part of the style he’s describing. His points about black style being “a kind of total action” acted out in relation to a “level of experience” that, one, can’t be named according to mainstream American idioms and the assumptions that guide them and, two, that has relatively little “room for make believe” frame much about what we can see but not necessarily easily name in contemporary black aesthetics. It’s a lyrical condition in that it must communicate in ways more directly than conventional conversation and understanding can accomplish. 

It’s just over 50 years and 19 miles across The Bay Bridge and East on 580 from what Baldwin described in the Lower Fillmore to the corner of 90th Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard in East Oakland where dancers, Garion Morgan a.k.a. No Noize, Leon Williams, Jr. a.k.a. Man, Tee “BJ” Stevens, and, the film’s central character, Darrell Armstead a.k.a. Dreal, perform on camera.

The quartet of dancers work in a vernacular dance idiom called “turfin,” descendent of black vernacular dance styles that lead back past the age of vaudeville. The film of the dance was shot (with a handheld, Canon 7D digital camera) and produced by Yoram Savion, the multimedia director at an East Oakland teen center called Youth UpRising. With three partners, Savion also runs an independent film company, Yak Films.

At 3 minutes 57 seconds, the film is short, the plot fairly simple on the surface. A jam session. Ad hoc. A cutting contest. Baldwin’s lens on lyric and style contradicts assumptions (improvisation, all that ethnic jazz) about such plots and their characters and takes us much farther. The film opens with a pair of young men. One, Man, wears black jeans and a black jacket with the hood of a sweatshirt pulled up over his head. The other, No Noize, wears jeans and an orange hooded windbreaker, hood up with a bandana covering his face below his eyes. The two stand on a street corner in the rain as a soundtrack of synth-chimes and a shrill melody float behind the scene. Police pull up. The film cuts. We see No Noize talk to the police with the bandana pulled down to expose his face. Police drive off. The camera cuts and street signs come into focus through a hard rain in front of wind-tossed trees, MacAruthur Blvd and 90th Ave. The camera pans down to the pair standing beneath a bus stop sign. One early comment on YouTube asked if that was Richmond, CA? Someone else wrote back to say, only Oakland has the tree insignia on the street signs. Man finishes a cigarette, flicks it away. The film splices together moments that suggest (via missing intervals) that the 20 something seconds we see stand in for a longer period of time. Waiting. Still, all appears to be happening in what the computer age calls real time and according to basic Newtonian norms of space and place. The two are hanging out though standing in the rain suggests some kind of motive. Maybe that’s what the police thought? Maybe they’re waiting for the bus?

Then a bass and snare rhythm appears beneath the wind and rain of synths and chimes, No Noize makes the sign of a cross and his movements fall from the am-putative real time / space Newtonian norms of the street corner. He appears to hold invisible bars for a second. His feet twirl beneath him making him seem suspended from the unseen supports. His hands let go the invisible support and he steps into a dance space that seconds before looked like an ordinary East Oakland street corner. In two paraph-style pirouettes made of tai chi, figure skating and karate punctuated by hand gestures, say, borrowed from a ref calling a basketball player for traveling spliced into those of a traffic cop nearing the end of his shift on a Friday, in about ten seconds of film time, No Noize refigures the space between the bus stop and the stop light pole. Saddled with an experience “that’s got to come out” and that can’t be articulated in conventional terms, with relatively little room for “make believe” and where “the pressure is great enough,” the physics of diasporic presence emerge from the Newtonian norms. Lyric space. No Noize pauses against the pole and ends his lyric far enough out in traffic that a Cadillac has to arc wide to miss him while making its right turn. Realism. By the time the Cadillac disappears down MacArthur, Man and No Noize are in midst of an interactive routine where they watch each other’s moves while, at times, gripping hold of each other in such ways that it’s impossible to tell if they’re holding each other up or throwing each other down. Or, both. Breaking the supportive/restrictive mutual grip, Man glides out into traffic in a circle that suggests to passers by pausing in their Jeeps and Pontiacs that they’d not only mistaken a dance for a fight or a fight for a dance, but they’d also mistaken a skating rink for an East Oakland intersection. The two come back together, No Noize makes a no-bone-having wave of his arms and a shimmy of his shoulders and the camera moves across the street.

There we find two other young men, BJ and Dreal, on the corner in jeans and short sleeves. The camera frames the pair between a rusted pole holding a Vitamin Water advert at the boundary of the parking lot for Harry’s Drive-In Liquor and Groceries on the left and the stoplight pole on the right. In this frame, at the entrance of the crosswalk, BJ has already begun to dance. In twenty seconds, he continues the lyric refiguring of the space between the poles initiated by the two across the street. BJ’s space is far more abruptly percussive than were those charted by Man and No Noize seconds before. Using snare beats as markers, he dances, at one point—in a way that’s supposed to look accidental—losing a folded sheaf of papers from his pocket, as if he’s got no time for paperwork and an epic of invisible collisions and confrontations to describe in 20 some seconds. Having charted various of the contours of an invisible and brutal labyrinth, BJ freezes on a snare beat cueing the central dancer, Dreal, to step from behind the concrete support for Harry’s Drive-In’s Vitamin Water pole and into the lyric space. As was often the case for the leader of a jazz quartet, Dreal’s solo is twice as long as were the those of the other three. He’s taller, thinner. And, his footwork allows his long angles to float above the am-putative ground where ordinary people bound by laws of friction and gravity enter the crosswalk in real time. Dreal time takes over. He passes left to right and back and forth within the frame while BJ leans against the stoplight pole to watch though his eyes appear to abstract something fixed that the camera can’t deliver. Dreal’s dance is cursive script, at least, almost Arabic in its calligraphic grace and complexity. His style converts the frame between the poles into a space in which physical statements chart a dialectic of constraint (gravity, bone, what’s up, what’s down) and possibility (concrete acts like ice, feet move in an invisible substance erasing friction, bones and joints flex into rubber) that, finally, operates in the guise of a mathematical elegance in which all statements and functions, no matter the complexity, have been solved, broken down, into their most basic terms. Lyric elegance. Lyricizing “another level of experience,” indeed, Dreal’s dialectics of constraint and possibility write a note into the space as if a graffiti mural could be strung between those poles, written on the air in body language. Apparently it can exactly because, as Baldwin said of black style, “in a way. . .  it has to come out.”

In the first half of the film described above, each of the four dancers summons an unique, invisible realm of condition and possibility into lyric statements framed in the film. As Dreal concludes his first solo, Man shows up in the frame followed by No Noize. In the second half of the film, the dancers trade fours taking a few bars of the song to describe a new move. The others’ no longer abstract their attention into their own unseen realms or into passing cars. Now they watch and respond to the soloist and to each other. Man makes his statement, exits the frame slipping through the space between Dreal and the stoplight pole, goes around the back while BJ dances, picks up BJ’s papers off the wet asphalt, and stands next to No Noize who hands him his cell phone and replaces BJ in the frame. No Noize enters the space in a backward summersault but appears to vault himself to his feet by an action of his neck alone. Dreal, Bj, and Man simultaneously agree that something important, unprecedented, and not simply made up has been said. Lyricized pressure. Joy. Dreal enters again as if he’s skipping puddles, hopskotch or landmines, skates his script back and forth through the frame replaced by Man whose few bars of splits and spins call back to James Brown and Prince. The film cuts, the dancers acknowledge the camera in triumph; it ends while we watch the four exchange elaborate handshakes that seem to introduce the realms danced into the frame to the ones in daily life as much as one person to another. We watch as the young men we saw before the dances begin now talk to each other, listen, and punctuate the statements with glimpses from the lyric realm summoned moments before. The men introduce their characters to each other and each other to their characters in a presence dense with each other that—evinced in millions of viewings and thousands of comments—is somehow widely envied around the world. 

We watch Yoram Savion’s film depict the dancers in East Oakland from a vantage point not unlike that from which Baldwin watched the scene outside the Booker T. Washington Hotel in the Lower Fillmore. Extending his point about style to language, in a 1979 opinion piece for The New York Times, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What is?” Baldwin wrote “A language comes into existence by means of a brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey” (Baldwin Price 651). Of course, diasporic “pressure great enough. . .” is the crux of the brutal necessity; he argues that “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances or in order not to be submerged by a situation that they cannot articulate” (Baldwin Price 648). In “Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin’s depiction of the “passionate detachment” of the lyric pulse in black language by which people “kind of ride with” the texture of their experiences, “commenting on it,” and “accepting it” on a “kind of fantastic tightrope,” does more than describe what Savion depicts in his Turf Feinz film (Baldwin Cross 59). It provides terms through which one can look into the scenes, listen to the moves, look on again and again as the dancers watch each other. And, as with the case in all successful lyrics, one sees and hears the subject address an experience. One also hears, as Baldwin notes in “If Black English. . .,” to the extent one can “afford to,” one’s own experience at the same time.

In the rumor and chaos mill of thousands of Youtube commentaries, one learns a little more about the Turf Feinz film. Some of it’s true, some of it’s not. Rachel Swan’s 2010 piece, “Turf Feinz Go Viral” sets the record straight. Savion and the dancers know each other through association with the Youth UpRising teen center located a few blocks from the location of the film. Savion, a French-born, French-Israeli graduate of U.C.-Berkeley, works at the center. According to Swan’s piece, the film was shot in December, 2009, the day following an auto accident at 90th and MacArthur in which Richard Davis, Darrell “Dreal” Armstead’s brother, was killed. Swan explains: “They wanted to memorialize Davis and sanctify the corner where he died.” 

In so doing, as did Bessie Smith in “Back Water Blues,” , as do all real lyrics, the dancers created a document that not only honored Dreal’s brother and communicated between themselves, but said something to viewers about their own lives. In this case, over 7000 messages have been left on Youtube in over a dozen languages from places as far away as the Ukraine, Mauritius and New Zealand and as near as (and nearer than) Goofster 510 who wrote in “ay, that’s like five minutes from my house.” Among the exclamation marks and notes of all kinds in ALL CAPS, the racial slurs and rebuttals, the rumors (false) that Davis had been shot, that Dreal has been killed, one learns that the song behind the film was produced by Oakland producer Erk the Jerk, it’s titled “Love in Every Move.” That’s true.

Baldwin’s ideas about the essential role of love in art and life require their own book. The Turf Feinz know, somehow, that sanctifying the location where Dreal’s brother was killed is complex, personal business involving all kinds of things well beyond the personal. Savion’s film over Erk the Jerk’s sound depicts more than articulation of such complexities, it depicts the lyric communication of them. The dancers listen to and see each other, face to face; they do seem to get part of it and enough of it to suggest it makes sense to keep on meeting up, talking and listening. Oh, and dancing. In a radically chimerical, hall-of-mirrors media world, out of which has poured millions of thirsty viewings, that alone suggests something of what’s worth what to human life in an era (as are all eras) of broken gauges and fraudulent markets, of rich people surprised, daily, to find they’ve got nothing in the bank and of others with no bank accounts at all who, because they’re lyrically liquid, make withdrawals and deposits every hour on the hour in a time that’s yet to be named. Till then, let’s call it Dreal standard time.

The Turf Feinz understand plenty about, in part their dances are stylized confrontations with and deft manipulations of, their profiles in the public eye. In an era where the Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin (to name just two) cases in Florida and Oakland has brought hoods, racial profiling, gun laws, and neighborhood watch programs into the public eye once again, I thought it’d be interesting to conclude the essay by turning Baldwin’s notion of changes and constants onto the black president of the nation that’s “not the country” in which Baldwin talked with the men in Take This Hammer. In this case, to comments he made linked directly to a global “neighborhood watch” program called the U.S. war on terror and on the role of Predator Drones therein. 

Further Reading

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