“art is the critical alternative to the discourse of solutions”
carol greenhouse, the paradox of relevance
Track A – The Clown
By the time jazz bassist Charles Mingus concludes “Haitian Fight Song,” the first track on his second masterpiece, The Clown (1957), the results are unclear. What part of the fight have we just witnessed? How should we feel about it? Is it a rallying cry, a celebration, a prescription? Where do we go from here? The twelve-minute song begins with Mingus finger-plucking his bass—emotion-filled, sporadic, and immanent—and ends with him quietly playing out the final notes using his bow. The musical journey in-between is a twisted odyssey of rises and falls, defeats and victories, control and chaos, escapes down dimly lit alleyways only to enter all-out battles in brightly lit streets. Its movement spins the head and races the heart. It brings about shortness of breath. It feels like fleeing under night’s cover until lungs explode, before suddenly clasping hands over mouth to keep gasping lungs silent, hiding with bated breath as the owner’s soldiers make rounds.
The album’s liner notes, written by Mingus, offer a window: “Haitian Fight Song, to begin with, could just as well be called Afro-American Fight Song … My solo in it is a deeply concentrated one. I can’t play it right unless I’m thinking about prejudice and hate and persecution, and how unfair it is. There’s sadness and cries in it, but also determination. And it usually ends with my feeling: ‘I told them! I hope somebody heard me.’”
But what is it he wants the listener to hear?
In these few notes, Mingus provides an interpretive lens: he highlights the abstractions of racialized violence (“prejudice and hate and persecution”), or the categorical outcomes of systemic white supremacy, and first moralizes anti-Black violence (“unfair”), which carries with it the implication of a culpable white public, and next stands up to those violences (“determination”), before ending with two contradictory feelings: the exclamation of victory (“I told them!”) alongside what seems to be a deep ambivalence in his hoping (“I hope somebody heard me”). The notes finally provide one further twist, expanding the song’s historical specificity to make it universally Black (“could just as well be called Afro-American Fight Song”).
The album was released during what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “the age of African decolonization (roughly 1954–1963),” when many African and African American jazz artists were standing up to “Cold War liberalism” while joining and/or supporting “domestic struggles for racial justice and international movements for independence” (Kelley 2012, 4–5). The decolonizing jazz artists during this era “shared a vision of jazz as a path to the future, a vehicle for both Africans and African Americans to articulate and realize their own distinctive modernity while critiquing its Western variant” (Kelley, 6). Charles Mingus, as a jazz musician, stands firmly within these artistic freedom fighting efforts of decolonization, and The Clown is bursting with “new musical forms, new collaborations, new fusions across time and space” (5) that inspire the pursuit of radical new futures. His reason for titling the song “Haitian,” rather than “Black,” then, suggests an artistic cultural referent alongside an unapologetic commitment to radical politics. “Haitian” could have been about mitigating the gaze of white power, with its bombs and its op-eds. Or it could imply that he saw the Haitian Revolution as a goal for Black people living in US “AmeriKKKa.”[i] Or, perhaps picking up on his ambivalence in hope, Mingus might be offering a pessimistic note to the Jim Crow lynching and segregation during the US occupation of Haiti (1915–1934).[ii] Whatever his artistic vision, Mingus expands the multiple tensions a few songs later in the album’s title track.
“The Clown” is also a twelve-minute song, mirroring the odyssey of “Haitian Fight Song” in surprising ways, not by conjuring the spirit of revolution, but through the story of a clown who wants only one thing in this world: “To make people laugh.” The track is a mixture of improvisational spoken word and music that unfolds the story of a clown who, after years of performing for pennies in Podunk places, finally gets his (white) audience to laugh (at him) when the stage’s backdrop crashes down and breaks his neck. In the break, the clown is unable to get up, but can lift his head one last time to “look … out at the audience, and man, you should’ve, you should’ve, you should’ve seen that crowd. They was rolling in the aisle.” The song ends: “But this was the last one … this was the last one. He knew now. Man he really knew now. But it was too late and all he wanted was to make this crowd laugh, and they were laughing, but now he knew. That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the bookings come in.” Ever-so-silent cymbals clink in the fade.
And what did the clown now know?
The clown looks out at the white audience, open mouths bursting in hyena-like laughter at his unexpected death, and he knows. A knowing thick with his experiences in white time. The clown does not aim to fight or overthrow white people subversively—he is no Trojan horse. He only wants to make them laugh. He tours and tours and tours, trying to learn how to make white people laugh, performing in every little venue that will have him. Until finally, he learns, he really learns that to tickle the funny bones of white people, he must speak the language of white power. And in the end, his learning is complete: unexpected and premature Black death is the envenomed language of power that entertains white people.
Track B – Tension
Clowning the language of white power or waging war against white society suggests a dichotomy between approaches: Assimilation or Revolution. But Mingus does not resolve the tensions that easily, as notes, runs, riffs, and brief moments from “Haitian Fight Song” would manifest in songs on subsequent albums, as in “Hog Calling Blues,” on the album Oh Yeah (1965), when the Fight seems almost to bubble up and disperse before the listener has time to grasp what just happened. As if Mingus is reminding listeners that the Fight is ongoing, landing punches and disappearing here, suddenly fleeing and waiting in silence over there, always taking forms never anticipated. Did Mingus still have to concentrate on prejudice and hate whenever the Fight (re)appeared in subsequent songs? I believe he did.
Carol Greenhouse (2011) highlights a similar epistemological tension in what she refers to as “the discourse of solutions” that marks the literary framing and anthropological approach found in US-based ethnographies throughout the 1990s. Anthropologists of the 1990s constructed their monographs as “apolitical” (Greenhouse 2011, 63) in order to be validated as a science (68) that could answer “the conservative right’s tactics of erasure and delegitimation of difference” (53), thereby continually “press[ing] their case[s] in terms that … implied that the ‘culmination’ of their work would be legal change at the federal level” (61). When ethnographers aligned ethnographic research and writing with the “required language of diagnosis and cure” (158), they were organizing these monographs around the literary form of “contradiction” rather than a more politically radical assemblage around the politics of “domination” (44). All of this is to say that anthropologists framed their research through the discursive registers of the US state, highlighting problems and solutions that had been (pre-)determined in “the corridors of Congress” (7), to show how the United States was failing to live up to its own ideals, rather than “writing against such erasure[s] by means of…conspicuous absorption in a methodology of sustained attentiveness” (171) that would prioritize and make manifest the problems (and potential solutions) as experienced and articulated by people who were living in the spaces and places where the anthropologist was conducting research.
In Mingus’s terms, we might say 1990’s anthropologists successfully learned to play the clown.
In what follows, I try to make sense of a conversation had on my first day of fieldwork in Cliptown, New Jersey—a rural town with five correctional facilities, three police departments, and a highly predatory rental market[iii]—by thinking through Greenhouse’s “discourse of solutions” as it intersects the tensions Mingus builds in these two tracks on The Clown. Nine months before my first fieldwork conversation, two Cliptown police officers shot and killed Jordan Johns. The killing, from beginning to end, was captured on a five-minute dashcam video that leaked online. It shows Jordan Johns step out of the passenger’s side of the car with empty hands held above his head, screaming to convince Officer Billy Fraze that he does not have a gun. Officer Fraze responds by screaming [multiple versions of], “I’m telling you, I’m going to shoot you. You’re going to be fucking dead,” before shooting Johns six times at point blank range. At the time he killed Johns, Officer Fraze was under investigation by the CPD for three separate incidents: multiple reports of harassing residents in routine traffic stops (killing Johns happened during a “routine” traffic stop where no citations were issued); unnecessary use of force against a detained person, which included pepper-spraying the arrested person in the face while his hands were cuffed behind his back (also captured on video and leaked online); and the sexual assault of a woman, once a month for more than twelve months, in exchange for not arresting her for alleged shoplifting (the CPD paid out multiple millions to resolve this in a civil suit a few months after my research finished). Amidst the mounting internal investigations, however, the CPD remained committed to keeping Officer Fraze on patrol duty, and to assigning him a partner (George McFarley) who had been fired on corruption charges by the city police department in a neighboring town. On this day, my first day of fieldwork, Cliptown’s prosecutors’ offices issued a non-indictment, as US prosecutors regularly do in more than 99 percent of all police killings,[iv] clearing both officers of any wrong doing.
Track C – Smoking
I learned of the non-indictment at lunch. An organizer in Philadelphia, the closest major city, texted me the news. I finished eating and drove to The Spot—a small men’s clothing store owned by Shakes, a formerly incarcerated resident I met during preliminary research—hoping to find angry people ready to enter the streets. Shakes was busy working. His son, Big Tim, who owns the barbershop across the street, was also formerly incarcerated and more connected to young people in town, and so Shakes took me across the street to talk with him. The two of them gave me multiple places to find people protesting.
I left in a hurry.
The courthouse: empty.
The city police station: empty.
The prosecutors’ offices: empty.
The numerous country roads I got lost on trying to find some protesting: empty.
The street memorial on the side of the road where Johns was killed: empty.
After a few minutes, though, Ms. Taylor appeared on the other side of the memorial, waiting for me to see her. She told me: her father was a CPD officer for more than 25 years; she watched the entire incident from her son’s bedroom on the second floor (as did her two children); no gun was recovered from the vehicle; Officer Fraze and Johns were sleeping with the same woman; Officer Fraze screamed “I will kill you” before firing his gun at Johns; Officer Fraze regularly rapes multiple women in town; and, the CPD paid Johns’s widow hush money ($10,000, twice) in exchange for her dropping the lawsuit and stopping her public protests.
My head spun as I drove off. I parked and entered The Spot in a rush, as I had earlier that morning. Shakes was moving boxes around in the back of an otherwise empty store. He hustled out front when the bell dinged before realizing it was only me.
“What did you find?”
“Not much,” I said, “but I spoke with Ms. Taylor, who witnessed the entire event.”
“What did she have to say?”
I relayed the collected information, one crumb at a time, Hansel and Gretel style, assuming Shakes would follow the crumbs (and me) out into the streets!
“Hmm, yeah. I knew all that but hadn’t yet heard about the bribes.”
“Wait, you already knew all that?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Yeah, man. Let’s go over to Timmy’s [Big Tim] and see what he thinks.”
The barber shop was quiet—nobody waiting to get lined up. Big Tim sat in his barber’s chair, smoking a Swisher Sweet and squinting at the large television across the shop. Shakes dragged a chair to the middle of the sitting area, directly in front of the screen, and plopped himself down, straddling the chair backwards, flicking a flame across the end of a Newport short. Rodney, the second barber, sat on the opposite couch, blithely watching basketball highlights and twisting his beard. On this day, as on many days, he talked authoritatively about how water systems in towns with large Black populations were poisoned. Not three months later, Flint, MI became national news.
I sat on the brown leather couch across from Big Tim.
“You heard anything?” I asked.
“Nah. You broke the news to us this morning. What did you find out?”
He too had heard everything but the bribe.
“Wouldn’t surprise me in the least, though. They’re fucking cops,” he replied, exhaling thick smoke with the words he spoke. “They can do anything.”
“So, you believe it?” I asked him.
“OF COURSE I believe it… But I don’t know if it’s true.”
“So, what are we going to do now?”
“About what?” Big Tim asked.
“About the non-indictment…” I replied in hesitation.
Big Tim stared at me, took a deep drag from his Swisher, and very quietly replied: “There is no anything. This is what it means to be Black. This is who it is. There’s nothing we can do. Those are cops,” smoky puffs swirling around each word.
I lit an American Spirit and stared at the television.
Track D – Domination
Organizing Jordan Johns’s shooting death and the officers’ non-indictment around the problem of contradiction is not a conceptually accurate category. Shakes and Big Tim did not view the killing or the non-indictment as contradictory to US ideals or values. In fact, they both treated the entire event as substantively banal—neither uniquely interesting nor operationally exceptional. Big Tim believes the CPD paid Ms. Johns (the widow) hush money, even though he does not have evidence in this particular instance. Why? Because in his experiences, and in the stories and experiences passed on to him, he knows: “they’re fucking cops … they can do anything.” As a Black man living in the United States, he does not have the (white) privilege of thinking and behaving as if there are limits to what cops can and cannot do.
We thus arrive at an observation of domination: Officers McFarley and Fraze are not examples of lone wolves—what some have taken to calling “bad apple” police—who are working the streets as criminals disguised in cops’ clothing. On the contrary, they were police officers with documented histories of violence and corruption whom the CPD willingly armed with guns and put to work. That is to say, their acts of abusing residents and ignoring the rules of law did not preclude them from being employed as officers. Since the CPD documented Officer Fraze’s work history, and knew Officer McFarley was fired by a neighboring police department, and armed and employed them both anyhow, it is reasonable to suggest that enacting violence against residents is in line with working as a police officer for the CPD. This is what Big Tim means when he says cops can do anything.
Piling up more evidence about the CPD’s willingness to arm employees with guns, irrespective to their work histories, however, misses a more fundamental point about the essential relations of police domination in Cliptown. Another way to think about how it would be ethnographically insincere to organize this around contradiction is to think through a different public sector job. Imagine a teacher showing up to Cliptown High School with a gun and shooting and killing the class clown who spoke out of turn. Then imagine further that the teacher was caught on video, only a few months earlier, pepper-spraying another student because the student was chewing gum. Then imagine further that the pepper-spraying incident was only a single incident on a laundry list of illegal behaviors. Then imagine further that the school board held a press conference to support the teacher’s killing of the clown as patriotic. Then imagine further that a prosecutors’ office took nine months to determine that, really, in truth, it is the fault of the clown who was shot and killed—he should have properly raised a hand before speaking in class. This is what Big Tim means when he says cops can do anything.
The “prejudice, hate, and persecution” that fueled Mingus’s playing on “Haitian Fight Song” crystallizes as domination in Big Tim’s interpretation that Cliptown police can do anything. This is what makes his reply to my energetic inquiry so powerful:
“So, what are we going to do now?”
He asks what it is, exactly, I want to do something about. The non-indictments of Officers Fraze and McFarley? Officer Fraze shooting and killing Jordan Johns? The lack of residents protesting in Cliptown streets? Or was my doing aimed more generally? The objectionable relationship between police departments and prosecutors’ offices? The power over life and death given to armed men with histories of violence? The widespread lack of institutional accountability or bureaucratic transparency around policing?
What is the what I am trying to do something about? Big Tim asks.
I already believed the shooting and killing of Jordan Johns was in line with US policing more generally, and I already believed that prosecutors throughout the United States had little interest in actually holding police officers and departments accountable for their actions. With very few exceptions, the two institutions are intimately entangled throughout the US. What I wanted was for others to flood the streets until the tide turned toward structural change. But Big Tim cuts through what I think I want to offer me a little bit of what I do not:
“There is no anything. This is what it means to be Black.”
It means you can be unarmed and a police officer can shoot and kill you during a routine traffic stop. Your shooting and killing can be captured on the police officers’ dashcam video and leaked online. The video of you being shot and killed can be viewed and shared hundreds, thousands, millions of times. The social media shares of you being shot and killed can engender protests in the street, long-form journalism, political organizing, and news stories. The prosecutors’ offices can issue a non-indictment that carefully blames you for being shot and killed by police officers. The police departments and local governments can pay your living family members to be quiet.
And the crowd of people (with power) will be entertained.
Big Tim’s unapologetic response still haunts me, conjuring confusion, anxiety, sorrow, anger, and a recognition that I cannot let it go. It is a response that continues to produce anxiety. The illusions embedded within the discourse of solutions have a calming effect, an anti-anxiety effect, that provide a false sense of clarity and control for anthropologist and reader alike—a kind of singular consciousness. These countless injustices are not so bad, the discourse whispers, trust that our elected leaders are busy building better policies even now.
As a white anthropologist writing in the wake of premature Black death, however, I must follow my own ethnography in refusing any discourse of solutions. Big Tim’s response is not about bridging a gulf between white and Black, or activist and non-activist, or respected and disrespected, or even non-criminalized and criminalized. His response is about expanding the spaces between these categories by intensifying the fracturing of a singular (white|USA) consciousness. In the smoky aroma of Big Tim’s Swisher Sweet, the stench of premature Black death that saturates the streets is rejected, and the possibility of any positive relationality between Black people and US Empire is denied.
Greenhouse concludes The Paradox of Relevance by unpacking Nahum Chandler’s analysis of W. E. B. DuBois’s “double-consciousness,” writing that “double consciousness is not the identity of ‘the Negro’ but the ‘schema of [a] discourse’ that precludes the production of ‘a non-essentialist discourse’ of identity in relation to the nation” (Greenhouse 2011, 257). This shift to conceptualizing identity as relational to national discourse, and not as an essentialized attribute within (Black) people, provides an important philosophical point to enrich our understanding of Big Tim’s reply to my prodding.
When Big Tim says, “This is what it means to be Black. This is who it is,” he is not offering an attribute of who Black people are but instead is marking the positionality of Black people’s relationship to US Empire. Modifying his phrase with this idea of relationship-to-Empire in mind, it might read like this: the United States will not hold itself accountable for killing a Black person. Killing Black people is who it is. Big Tim stays sitting in his barber’s chair, smoking a Swisher Sweet and watching NBA highlights, not because of who he is but because of who he is in relation to US Empire. It is domination all the way down to the clown.
“This must suffice as a[n] … ending” (268).
Heath Pearson is a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows with a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at University of Michigan. His scholarly and popular work has two aims: highlighting the efforts of those who are building other worlds; and, undermining, in service of abolishing, U.S. empire and racial capitalism.
Greenhouse, Carol. 2011. The Paradox of Relevance. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Kelley, Robin D. G. 2012. Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[i] See: Ice Cube, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, 1990; Capital Steez, AmeriKKKan Korruption Reloaded, 2012.
[ii] This possibility was offered during a conversation with Kessie Alexandre after reading an early draft.
[iii] The national average of people living in rental units is roughly 30 percent of the overall population. In Cliptown it is higher than 70 percent, and 20 percent of that market is controlled by one white man.
[iv] Professor M. Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University conducted research that showed that a total of forty one officers were charged with murder or manslaughter between 2004 and 2011, a time period in which the FBI reported 2,718 justified homicides. This amounts to 1.5% of officers indicted. See: Elinson, Zusha and Joe Palazzolo. 2014. “Police Rarely Criminally Charged for On-Duty Shootings.” The Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2014. https://www.wsj.com/articles/police-rarely-criminally-charged-for-on-duty-shootings-1416874955.