The Gris Gris of High John
Afrofuturists of the past and apocalyptic future.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” — Voltaire
My Actual People
I’m going to consider something I haven’t in some time, and there are several threads to this consideration. The main thing that’s kicking me in the pants these days are notes and speculations about lost connections to my prior lives. At the top of that pyramid are my existential partners, black men I would be if I weren’t me. There are more than three, all of whom will remain nameless.
Talking about my family, as I recently did here, got me in a lot of warm soapy water. I continue to be pleasantly surprised at the resilience at my family themselves but what truly amazes me is this following picture. As of this moment, the most popular thing I ever wrote or posted anywhere on the web is this from Reddit. It picked up nearly over 19k upvotes. A lot of it from men who threw out the Semper Fi. As you can see, Pops is wearing those gang colors.
It is owing to several interesting coincidences that I have reasons to think about my existential partners, most recently because I met two new brothers just this past week who reached out. One is from Los Angeles like me, another grew up in Texas. The LA dude and I share an extraordinary love for and closeness to one of the greatest bands of the 80s and 90s, the legendary Fishbone. If you don’t know Fishbone, there’s a lot you don’t know about music. Remedy that. The Texas dude walked the corporate path I stepped off and came out glowing as far as I can see. I don’t know either of these two men well, but I already know what I respect and admire about them.
Once I thought I would write a book about several of my closest friends, back when ‘Off the chain’ was part of the slang we sang. I wanted to tell a testimony about how they overcame and what it meant to be able to not have to do what they did, knowing it was all in my approximate wheelhouse. I don’t give a lot of props to anonymous role models, but to friends I give all due respect. Yet whatever the melody, I’m the dude trying to find a slightly blue harmony.
I am thinking abut Spy, Dancer and Swank. I’ve probably given them different handles before, so I’ll have to see if keep this consistent. Spy does dark work and has been to Russia and Diego Garcia more times than I can count. That’s about all I need to say about him. Dancer is an academic of the first rank who might end up being a star. He has a soul and integrity about him that is as deep as the ocean. Swank is basically Wesley Snipes in Demolition Man on cocaine selling you credit swaps and Bitcoin.
Aside from being movie star handsome, Spy has rigor. I forget about how much he can control, how much he would control if he could. He was a man always in the moment. The kind of man who walks in the room and everybody stiffens and mutters, oh shit, here he comes. Same thing with Swank. Spy is going to tell you that your shoelace is untied and that you forgot to do what you said you were going to do, and dammit he's right. But Swank is going to run up and embrace you and remind you of that time when the two of you almost got busted doing that thing in that place. Dancer is going to remind you why you are full of shit, because you forgot this, that and the other thing, but then make you feel good about it. Like Frankie Beverly he’ll remind you it’s the golden time of day. Men who do everything fearlessly remind us of our shortcomings. Men like that who know us well, must be loved, hated, feared, admired. They don't get much more sophisticated emotions than that. With them, it's always more primal. With them you always end up measuring yourself. And don't you hate that they make you do that? Yes you do. And you love it too.
As a younger man, I was certain that someday one of us was going to become the equivalent of LeBron James in one of our professions and we would then team up. It was an Afro-futurist perspective. We were all expecting to mine the native wisdom of our ancestors and cook up a new brew that would bring us to the Beloved Community. I think most of us thought we understood war, so navigating to that place during peacetime should have been straightforward, at least to those who would hear. It was a black man job. It was the black man job, and we were the men to do it with flavor. I know what happened to me; toddler lockdown. These were chains of my own forging and I regret nothing. Now 25 years later, I feel free again. Unleashed in a similar manner of speaking.
The other kick in my pants is my boy who has a particular skill that is undeniable and ineffable. He’s in the public eye so I don’t mind telling you he is Jimi Izrael. Every time I hear his voice, I want to sit down and have a drink with the man. He has a profound calming effect on me, and he makes me love things I never considered taking the time to know. It’s because I think he has an emotional intelligence that’s off the scale. When you listen to him or his amazing podcast Conversations for Adults you think to yourself somebody has to invent a new turn of phrase that takes ‘keeping it real’ to the next level. He is the hurricane that takes you out of Kansas into Oz but you’re still in Kansas. He’s verbal ayahuasca. The language and disarming style of that man is kind of what you would expect of both Jesus and Satan, because he gets human beings. Fully. All their parts.
What Jimi has done in particular for me is to open up a portal to what I believe is a new generation of black Americans that are parallel, not orthogonal to the parables of the strivers and the Talented Tenth. In a way, you don’t understand self-fulfillment and the American dream until you’ve heard Jimi tell it with the people he raps with. These conversations are the antidote to the juvenile vulgarity of popular culture, and he knows it. The trick is that you have to know it. I say he represents Cleveland, but you’ll have to ask him what he represents. He’s the Mike Rowe of Cleveland, demonstrating with respect the dirty jobs that have to be done in people’s lives.
So if there’s a Beloved Community in the future, then I’m going to follow that dude. That doesn’t change my pessimism, because I think I understand war. Everything about 2020 was pain with a helping hand of suffering scattered here and there. War is 24/7 horror and you’re lucky to get suffering and pain. That’s what I see in the crystal ball, but that’s just me. It’s why I readily accept that there is a two-tier economy. It’s why I accept that politics is not going to get us out of our crisis of faith in the meaning and promise of America. It’s why I think so much must fail and that the expectations of reform are not always but preponderantly wishful thinking. We have grown too many whales to believe that shrimp and sharks will rule the sea.
The Self-Reliant Tenth
We’ve already established DuBois’ vision of the Talented Tenth. Really all he was hoping was to get 10% of us to graduate from college. Carter G. Woodson wanted to make sure whoever did graduate didn’t do so with okeydoke majors. No doubt he would find a surfeit of miseducated Negroes today (ahem, cough-cough Kendi). So if there is Afro-futurism in my future, what would it be? It won’t be some fantasy Wakanda. It might be Wakonda, SD. That’s a little town that will need to be served by Elon’s new satellite constellation because it’s at the rural edge of the grid. It’s in that place they call flyover country. In a way, it might as well be some mythical place hidden from the yuppies that constitute the lackeys of the powers that be. The Genius Class has no need for such places because the Ruling Class rules without their consideration much less their consent. Think of such places as off the media grid, and thus off the political grid and unlikely to be aggregated. In a certain way, all you have to do is think of some place in the whole of the world that pop stars would never go. Pop stars other than Dave Chappelle. That is the key to their potential, because that which flies under the political radar in America yet retains access to America is a safe place for the souls of Americans.
How about New Orleans? Half the people in that wedding picture are from New Orleans, but you wouldn’t know looking at them. So when I was a tyke I learned something about ‘gris-gris’ and mojo bags. Somebody mailed me the following excerpt about slave medicine:
This fear prompted the enactment of laws. As early as 1748, the colony of Virginia forbade “any negroe, or other slave” to administer “any medicine whatsoever” under pain of death “without benefit of clergy”. An exception was made for slaves treating other slaves or her owner’s family, providing the owner gave permission. In 1792, the law was softened to allow acquittal if, at the slave practitioner’s trial, it was shown that there had been “no ill intent and no bad consequence.” Thus, if a “doctoress” administered a preparation of herbs and the patient happened to die, an angry owner could have the slave hanged. As an earlier historian observed: “With stringent laws and with fear of poisoning constantly in the public mind, it is surprising that any of the negroes should have attempted the risky business of prescribing for the sick.” (Blanton, p. 174)
In fact, the laws were no deterrent. Slave medicine flourished on plantations. While collecting wild herbs and roots, slave doctors, male and female, escaped the boundaries of their working life and perhaps experienced a fleeting taste of physical freedom. Certainly, a belief in the sacredness of healing plants allowed them to connect with an authority higher than their owners – be it animistic African dieties or a single Christian god. In treating fellow slaves, they became an instrument of divine power. They, not their owner, controlled a patient’s body. At its core, slave healing was an empowerment for both healer and patient.
What is the fear? The fear is that political hegemony won’t work. The fear is that Americans might at some point in the future figure out how to birth babies at home. Man you’d have to liquidate a lot of options on HCA Healthcare and Kaiser Permanente. In my mind I ask stupid impolitic questions like ‘Why do women get caesarian sections more than is medically necessary?” Because I’m a Stoic and I tend to think that ancient wisdom is better than modern technology, because you can own ancient wisdom. The fear is that neoliberalism won’t work and all the corporations that are too big to fail that are necessary to fund the tax base for what Congresscritters prefer to spend it on, might have some bad years. Cascade.
For the most part, Americans flock to the big cities and the comfort of tract homes and mall towns. They buy cheap t-shirts from China and expensive trucks from Ford and the consumer economy rolls on. That’s not the case out in the countryside, you know the part of America where giant flocks of birds come back and forth on their migrations going back thousands of years. Unless some sports team decides to call themselves the Pectoral Sandpipers, no commercial products will be brought to you by migrating birds.
The Afro-futurism I might get into is how people code switch after the apocalypse. But let’s call it the yuppie apocalypse. Right now when we watch The Walking Dead, there’s a nice multicultural vibe to it. All the good Americans pull together to fight the zombies because… brought to you by McDonalds. What if the Capitol Insurrection would have been the cause for the yuppie apocalypse? Do you think the NPR listeners would have remembered the lyrics to Kumbaya? What if George Floyd’s cops get off scott free and that’s the cause for the yuppie apocalypse? Do you think the BLM Militia will ask polite questions before shooting? Yeah, I’m hip to war. At least I think so. At least I don’t have a contemporary ideology that has me in a psychological nut lock. So I’m not afraid to entertain such scenarios.
Afro-futurism will just be another tribe scraping for survival in a post-civil libertarian society. Pillars are getting knocked over at the American Pantheon every damned day. You already know the name of the religion that forbids eating at Chik-fil-A. Some of the Afro-futurists I once knew, some of them existential partners, entertained the same kind of belief in hegemonic white supremacy that fuels a lot of racial nonsense we have to put up with today. Of course they were ahead of their time. Anyone who predicts doom in America is ahead of their time, and generally wrong. (Because South Dakota doesn’t change so much. Louisiana doesn’t change so much.) At the very least, when I include myself and my orientation towards the America I didn’t want to be a part of, I hedge a number of bets. Any tribe is just hedging a number of bets against pure modernism. I say we need organics and emergents. Organics being those rugged individuals who don’t want your sponsorship or attention. Emergents being those individuals who surprise you when they show up to collect your highest awards.
Doing any black man thing with me is fraught with 1000 associations, most of them easy and good. Some of them, on the other hand are ugly and hard. I didn’t follow my father’s footsteps into the Marine Corps, but know how to use the command voice, and there is some bullshit I simply don’t tolerate. I can’t tell you how much of gris-gris and mojo was bullshit because my parents didn’t take it that seriously, and the suspicions of my mother against the ways and means of New Orleans made her into a fighter as well. My father didn’t inherit his father’s love of scotch whiskey. That passion skipped over to me, but not all night long. I’m not aiming to die behind the wheel. So I’m at arms distance to a bunch of old Negro ways. My parents never called a nigger, much less a stupid nigger. As far as I’ve ever heard they’ve never said that about anybody. So I never had to accept that as real about me at any level. Consequently, I’ve never had a reason to feel trapped in the nigger world, whatever that may be. Black was an evolution of Negro but it all may be imagined distinctions if war comes. Short of war, I’m at a loss to figure out exactly what to do in harmony with all the black men I know and love. You might call it Afro-futurism, but I’m afraid I’ve lost the thread. I’d have to go back and review what I was thinking. Those who have carried it forward may look at me like I’m running Windows 95.
But I still know and love these men, my existential partners. And I also love other Americans who give me other melodies to harmonize with. Nevertheless I don’t doubt for a moment our ability to dream a world. I know that world has to be anchored in places most politics don’t go, most schools don’t teach and most religions don’t preach. It’s anybody’s guess how far such a vision might reach. I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure what it is not. I think I have a clue.