I recently left Colorado; it was a two-day stay and visit of an old friend. I’m not sure who or what is to blame, but something, either Jasmine, or the return to a natural space, brought back memories of my childhood and the books that gave birth to philosophy as an interest. I am usually ashamed to admit it, but the 11th grade, after all my friends began to smoke pot religiously, and I had decided that that wasn’t going to be the life I chose to live, I began to walk around with a Henry David Thoreau anthology. Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which I read first, vitalized my political dialogue and interest; Thoreau’s poetry and Walden helped me get over the desire to destroy myself in the wake of a depressing solitude after a much-needed separation from my peers. Racial and class anguish fueled my political understanding (class at the time being the primary focus of my enunciations) and a desire to leave the world, to transcend the depression, sadness, and angst that came from the world or, the attempt to make peace with the new solitude that was now a part of my identity made the Thoreau anthology, “my bible,” as I joked at the time.
Thoreau’s essays and aphorisms, the personal and poetic style, coupled with white racist denunciations of hip hop (which I wrote at the time) along with a creative writing class that expanded my understanding of what it meant to be a writer, transformed the songwriter that I was, into the full writer that I would become. There it began, philosophy and writing, and the salvation of my own life. And it is true what they say: one cannot fully appreciate Thoreau without reading Thoreau by the trees, shrubs, rivers, rocks, and animals he speaks about, and growing up in rural Maryland provided the space to run, to write, to read among those images. Nevertheless, as I read Thoreau and as I wrote among the transient signified objects that Thoreau spoke about, I couldn’t help but feel a dissonance, a separation, a link not made by my white philosophical Godfather that could only be made with blackness, that could only be made by that object of absolute dereliction, by the signifier of death: The Black.
Colorado is a geographical masterpiece: from the mountains, hills, bluff of Colorado Springs to the Urban centers in Denver, the mile-high city is a peaceful wonderland where white hipsters come from all across the nation to gather to share in white liberal brother/sisterhood. Pot dispensaries, comedy shows, indie bands, bicycles and mountains, the whole ordeal is a white hipster paradise. Rain or shine, and it rained while I was there, Colorado could not hide its beauty nor its hipsterdom. It was everywhere: from the images taken by and of the mountains to the arts and music scenery that I only had the chance to walk by, but not in. With this being said, all hipster paradises have an underbelly, for example, the gentrified zones that might as well have a sign that read: HERE LIES THE REMAINS OF A BLACK NEIGHBORHOOD, wherever and whenever a Starbucks rose from the ashes of the loss of black homes. Or the burgeoning mass of young white failed hipsters: Colorado’s poor youth who traveled to Colorado for the weed boom and failed to adjust properly, only to find themselves young, homeless and high. These were all observations I made in conversation with Jasmine on the way to her house. Colorado was gorgeous, but gory. It had the same history as the rest of the Western states and nations: rape, genocide, slavery and murder. The only difference is that this was a land of hipster liberals – high on life, drunk on privilege, infatuated by the liberal indie-alternative promise of equality that sings, “We are all the same now: poor and colorless, pale as this untanned flesh. We are all the same.”
The influence of hipsterdom characterized the capital, Denver, more than it characterized Colorado Springs, and perhaps that is why Colorado Springs was far more fascinating to me than Denver was. The white hipsterdom of Denver seemed cinematic yet real, it was hyperreal as Baudrillard would say; the whiteness of Colorado Springs was far more “modern” and concrete. It wasn’t white alternative neoliberalism, it was an environmental city characterized by its mountains. You could see the influence of Western liberalism, of course, but the world seemed more fixated on standing still than spinning rapidly toward neoliberalism. Springs was a modern city of white yesterdays; Denver was a postmodern city of white tomorrows. The mountains were Springs’ skyscrapers, they reminded you that you were in yesterday; the Urban skyscrapers of Denver were Denver’s skyscrapers, they remind you that you were in tomorrow.
Jasmine and I were going to University of Colorado in Colorado Springs to go “bluff” climbing. I called it mountain climbing the entire time. They weren’t any different to me. Big rocks, geological wonders and lots of work to get up to the top. The drive, an hour away from Denver where she stayed, was full of mountains, some snow-covered, some less-so. But they seemed endless. It was a world of mountain ranges – one after another, one after another – and it covered the landscape. We were going to the top of a bluff in Pulpit Rock Park. It was Jasmine, Boone – Jasmine’s dog (a story on Nature is never complete without a dog) and I. One [biracial] girl, one [black] man, one [black] dog, one bluff and the mini-plain that led to it. It was as if the world was ours to conquer for once. It was ours to imagine upon, to detail. It was ours to “discover”, to graph, to map; we were the cartographers of color, blackened by former explorers, yet enabled in that blackness to perform the kind of “illicit seeing” that allows us to see into the world and the deterritorialization that has made it a world discovered-yet-undiscovered.
Through grass and dirt, shrubs and cacti, mud and tiny bodies of water, barbed wire and rattlesnakes, winds and rocks, we made our way towards the top. Walking, running, climbing, leaping. Periodically stopping for snapchat videos and Instagram photos, or for the dog to piss, or for one of us to perform some supernatural tactic that would enable and assist Boone up the bluff, we made it to the top. The journey was not without its fall or failures, all of which added comedic value to the hike. And the top was the end of what appeared to be an epic dramedy. No more walking; no more running; no more climbing or leaping. We were left only to breathe in the air that whistled, and soak in the sun that glazed the melanin of our flesh. It was not that the world stood still, on the contrary, we spun with the world. Never spinning until dizziness, spinning into dance. Black dancers, black dancers in a performance entitled, “Boundlessly Black.” We were boundlessly black and on top of the world.
I knew Jasmine wasn’t in the same space as me physically, mentally, or spiritually. Being black and being in nature was not the same for her as it was for me. Aside from the fact that she was a biracial women self-identified as black, she hadn’t studied blackness as I had and didn’t understand the notion of blackness and black ontology as the ontological fungible object consummated by a structural positionality of gratuitous violence. Frank Wilderson and the Afro-pessimist though arguably correct in their assertions did not have their ideas woven into the fabric of the black psyche, even if their ideas were a priori woven into the fabric of the black ontology. For me: I swayed in dance with a land that was not made for me, but by me.
Yet, for a brief moment I was home. I was a child again. Solitary and black, dirty and ugly, dark-as-night, and still in my own abject way beautiful in a way that the word beautiful could never be. As I danced with the world, I searched the archive on my mind for a perfect soundtrack to listen to. I found the words of Thoreau playing in my head, “What is that that I hear cast overboard? The bodies of the dead that have found deliverance. That is the way we are “diffusing” humanity, and its sentiments with it.” The wind was nothing without the sound of the dead.
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days…
Emerson’s nature sung songs that sounded like the eternal sensation of absolute dereliction.
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent…
Emerson’s nature sung songs that sounded like the sorrow songs of slaves.
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;
Emerson’s nature sung songs that sounded like the ontological death that gave birth to White subjectivity.
I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.
Emerson’s nature sung songs that sounded like the history of blackness as the history of the fungible object born out of gratuitous violence and accumulation.
And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;
Emerson’s nature sung songs that sounded like blackness: we who were raped, killed, and enslaved in order to create new worlds.
It wasn’t long before it dawned on me why the dissonance between Thoreau and I was born in the first place, or why I left Thoreau to grow dust on the shelves. Thoreau wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” And while his words were beautiful, and poignant, and fruitful in my attempts to transcend a world that lived and thrived off the back of black death, it soon became clear that we were not trying to face the same things. Thoreau had life; I had life-as-death. I had a blackness and Thoreau had white Humanism, a humanism that “could not have been produced without the simultaneous production of that walking destruction which became known as the Black.” I was born black via a slave ship; Thoreau was born white because of the world that the slave ship created. The abolitionist still owes their title to the slave. Therefore, I go to the woods or the mountains because I deliberately seek out transient zones of freedom, in order to confront only the essential facts of my death-as-life, and see if I could not learn what the woods and the mountains have to teach, and not, when I come to die corporeally, discover that I have not fully attempted to feel a second of liberation, even if it was only a second.
I go to the woods or to the mountains to feel as Matthew Henson put it, “on top of the world.” TRANSCENDENCE. Whereas for Emerson and, more than likely Thoreau “the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature,” and this creates the transcendental “delight which the fields and woods minister,” in order to suggest “an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” The tranquil landscape, for me (the black), reveals that what is natural to blackness-being-in-the-world is the innumerable days of dereliction, the pitches of torrent, the weight of pouring laboriously into the fount of (white) life, the writing of the past in characters of rocks, blood smeared by black brains, and of fire pressed tight onto black backs, and the creation of the world anew.
The Negro-In-Transcendence is both of top of the world, and trapped inside of it. The Negro-In-Transcendence is not capable of transcending that ontology, that structural violence that made the Negro Negro in the first place, there the Negro is trapped in its “natural” space of fungibility. However, what the Negro transcends is the mythology that posits that nature is not a burial ground for their ancestors, that nature cannot be a transient zone of freedom where the Negro’s phobogenic body is liberated momentarily from the world bent on its destruction, that nature does not have, mapped into its ridges, blueprints of possibilities, like underground railroads for blackness to craft resistance poetically, musically, or politically. The Negro-In-Transcendence is both bound to blackness, yet boundlessly black.
This world is most certainly ours, it was created by our blood, sweat, and tears: we just must remember what Matt Henson said: “There can be no conquest to [one] who dwells in the narrow and small environment of a groveling life, and there can be no vision to the [one], the horizon of whose vision is limited by the bounds of self. But the great things of the world, the great accomplishments of the world [like the end of one, and the beginning of another], have been achieved by [those] who had high ideals and who have received great visions. The past is not easy, the climbing is rugged and hard, but the glory at the end is worthwhile.”
The glory of liberation. The mountains of Colorado. The Negro-In-Transcendence.