Memory, haunting, ready to die

From Marisa Parham‘s Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture (2009)

“Haunting is not compelling because it resonates with the supernatural, but rather because it is appropriate to a sense of what it means to live in between things – in between cultures, in between times, in between spaces – to live with various kinds of doubled consciousness. It speaks to living not only with the sense that one’s understanding of one’s own social, political, or racial reality passes through other times, other places, and other people’s experiences of the world, but also to living through those experiences in the very literal sense of making it through. When I think of being haunted, I remember back to my black friends and me calling each other ‘money,’ or my grandmother’s always saucy and always appropriate, ‘nigga please.’ I think of the piles of chains, albeit gold chains, heaped around Mr. T’s neck (‘I wear these chains,’ he once said, ‘to show that I serve no one but me and God’), or the sweet brown baby on the cover of a favorite album, sitting atop the simple phrase, ‘Ready to Die.’

ready to die

At first glance, I simply see the Ready to Die cover image as signifying a cultural object to which I am attached, an album that I find pleasure in, both in its performance and also in the community to which knowing the album gives me access. With his big fluffy afro and calm pose, set against the simple and clean scene – that is one cool kid. There is also, however, an explicit contradiction between the good feelings the cover evokes and its own openly-declared raison d’être, ‘Ready to Die.’ Even as my lack of discomfort marks my full immersion in the object’s cool, there is something sinister in my complicity. Either I have chosen to let the image and its description remain separate, which signifies a splitting away from the full impact of the picture’s reality, or I actually think it is okay to put those words next to that child. Looking at Ready to Die now, on this page and away from its proper place in a stack of favorite CDs, I am unsettled. Something has shifted, and the sudden motion sickens me, makes me vulnerable to the emergence of the image’s further implications, for instance the connection between the album’s self-professed cool and the production of that cool in the shadow of black death and our expectations thereof. I suddenly see this image as a thing that should not be spoken aloud – much less reproduced. Taken alone, out of its milieu and in the quiet of contemplation, this image of the child becomes ghostly, horrible. As I think of this and other things, I feel myself at the edge of something. If the scene were to shift, I might imagine my friend on the auction block’s steps and Mr. T’s chains, now burdensome, would become lead. It is a feeling that comes to me when I step into a Kara Walker installation and know what kinds of stories those shadow papers are asking me to admit to understanding. It comes to me on the street, every block written or painted with an R.I.P. or sketched “in loving memory of.” Narratives without stories, ciphers for which I am the key; what did I do to be so black and blue?”

 

– Marisa Parham, Haunting and Displacement (New York: Routledge, 2009), 3-4.

Kara Walker paper cut silhouettes at Camden Arts Centre