Charmaine Minnefield’s Remembrance as Resistance—Preserving Black Narratives
…I ask soberly: ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen! . . . Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this?
fr., “The Souls of White Folk”[i] (1920) W.E. B. Du Bois
Here, she said, in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard…
fr., Beloved (1987) Toni Morrison
African American artists regularly wrestle with a question: how can Americans (we) achieve a collective dignity, humanity, creativity and citizenship under the reign of racial un or anti-imagination. This essay opens with the incomparable W.E.B. Du Bois, sociologist, poet-activist, considering the psychological damage of the “phantasy” of race not merely upon Black people, but upon the world. Secondly I include novelist and thinker Toni Morrison’s Beloved where the ghost of slavery, the incorporeal, struggles against Black bodies for space, for love. Artists have mined poignancy (consider Kathleen Battle singing the Black spirituals) and exhausted protest (Amiri Baraka anyone?). Of course there is always irony. I think of George S. Schuyler’s Black No More[ii] when performance poet Douglas Kearney wonders, “what matters?” in his poem “Property Values.” The persona begins,
‘I aspire to be a CVS!’
(Then sings) Lord, I wanna be a drugstore inna my heart. . . inna my heart!’[iii]
Is the poet mocking the yearning at the heart of the Black spiritual as he performs a verbal blackface? Or is he tasting the note of mourning tucked in the cheek of his ironic hopelessness? No one can claim that Black artists have not done their part, between laughter, protest, prayer and tears, to stave off the current desegregated crisis of imagination in an America now engaged in a profoundly existential collapse of human values and national identity.
Who / what does America think it is? The man who would become the first African American president of the United States famously claimed that America was not divided into black vs. white vs. Asian vs. Latino vs. liberal vs. conservative. No red / blue divide here, he said. His claim was lauded as appropriately optimistic and patriotic, and Black spectacular. But what was a nation to do about the American identity codified into the world’s most celebrated founding national document? And, more specifically, what were Black people in America to do about ourselves? In 1619? In 1865? In 1954? In 1964,5,6. In 1999? In 2021?
Who do we think we are? What does it mean to be human, free, American, African, Colored, Negro, Black? What constitutes belonging—being and longing? What paradigm of life permits us to love—or the reverse, what patterns of love command our lives? What is bravery? What is the fight, and what is worth fighting for?
These must have been some of the fundamental questions of mind, future and self that Africans arriving on slave ships in the Americas had to engage so that they might refuse suicide. Refuse madness. Affirm a new self and invent new Black communities of belonging and care. How would they honor the ideas and practices brought across the water and across culture and clan and tongue? How to resist their newly acquired legal definition: chattel?[iv]
With the Souls Of Black Folk (1903), Dr. Du Bois announced his pursuit of the structures of Black dignity and began a lifelong contemplation of the souls of Black and white folk. In 1987 Toni Morrison took ownership of Black oral expressivity to summon the ghost of American slavery and test the mettle of Black women called to lead a people into The Clearing, that imaginative space of self-creation. On Juneteenth 2021 Atlanta artist Charmaine Minnefield plans to oversee the construction of a small house-like structure on the grounds of Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery where she hopes to perform a singular Black memory of self-affirmation, community, connection across time and death.
…arms bent, [Avey] began working her shoulders in the way the Shouters long ago used to do, thrusting them forward and then back in a strong casting-off motion…her feet held to the restrained glide-and-stamp, the rhythmic trudge,… the shuffle designed to stay the course of history….[v] fr. “The Beg Pardon”, Praisesong for the Widow (1984) Paule Marshall
Caribbean-American novelist Paule Marshall anticipated the psychic pain of cultural fracture in her extraordinary novel, Praisesong For the Widow. The widow, Avey Johnson, is a “suffering soul”, a Black woman trying to patch the absences in her life with material comforts. Led by dream or visitation, she travels to a tiny island in the Caribbean where she is drawn into the powerful communing of the Shout and rediscovers what she has lost—her self, her sacred memories, her life force.
Marshall uses language to capture the form and summon the hypnotic energy of the Ring Shout. Her figures are elderly; they are full of a history of endurance. They are people whose names were never meant to be known or faces represented on murals. Artist Charmaine Minnefield is widely known throughout the Atlanta area, especially for her mural art— works that she calls “site specific placemaking.” These murals celebrate iconic Black women: Ella Josephine Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, Maya Angelou, Bessie Coleman and Harriet Tubman, women who defied race / gender norms and social limitations. These and other well-acknowledged African-American historical figures whose names and contributions we have documented and memorialized into public memory must surely be joined with the unnamed women and men that Marshall celebrates in Praisesong, those whose names we do not know who forged the first links of an African-American collective identity in an alien and hostile environment.
I allow myself to imagine a cosmic joining of Minnefield’s Black women of achievement in a ring shout together with those unnamed, unrecorded and uncelebrated enslaved persons, each and all pursuing the steady “rhythmic trudge” moving counterclockwise against time. A Ring Shout for America? Minnefield’s murals become, for me, a precursor of her current project, Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives, an attenuated conceptual art work that remembers, explores, reframes and connects a nearly forgotten or abandoned Black spiritual practice, the Ring Shout, and the simply built praise house.
The traditional Ring Shout, born in slavery, is a fusion of African forms and American materials. According to one researcher, “there is little question…that the basic elements of the ring shout were brought from Africa….the call and response singing, the polyrhythms of the stick and hands and feet, the swaying and hitching shuffle of the shouters, all derive from African forms.”[vi] The traditional songs performed today by groups like the McIntosh County Shouters may include early hymns and spirituals. However, the earliest music was very likely improvisational and like the work songs, drawn from daily events or concerns of the enslaved.
In his recent documentary on the Black church, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. referred to the praise houses where these ring shouts were often performed as “spaces of imagination.” What Dr. Gates does not mention is that the ring shout was frowned upon by established clergy, including some African American religious leaders, and was rarely associated with established Christian churches. The shout was never a part of regular Christian religious services, during or after slavery. The ring shout was too African. The expressiveness of the shout and the element of spirit possession was not part of accepted Christian practice, although this feature did survive in the Pentecostal churches. The earliest praise houses were built by the enslaved themselves in secluded spaces in an effort to elude the supervision and interference of whites whose laws forbade large gatherings of unsupervised slaves for any purpose. The shout was considered by many to be “heathenish,” and unchristian. Indeed, the ring shout’s emphasis and intent was African; it was a way of forging oneness with the gods and ancestors and to one another.
The shouts were, at their heart, a creative act of identity formation and resistance. The praise houses were not “churches” in the accepted sense. They were, indeed, spaces of imagination. It is this aspect of the ritual and its ritual space that sparked and continues to fuel Minnefield’s emerging series of creative and site-specific works. In other words, Minnefield is not calling for a new church, or an old one. Her site-specific art projects suggest something more akin to what Toni Morrison’s character Baby Suggs demands of her gathering of Black freepersons—a purposeful act of spirit. A claiming of place and space, of self and love outside (and out of sight) of the constructions of racial division and anguish. Stepping into The Clearing is a commitment to remembering, and remembering one’s true being.
In 2019 Minnefield, with the indispensible support of Anne Archer Dennington of Flux Projects, brought Remembrance to Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery as part of its Juneteenth celebration and to note the recent discovery of more than 800 unmarked gravesites in the African American section of the cemetery.[vii] On Juneteenth 2021, Remembrance will return to Oakland Cemetery adding a representation of the Praise House, which will “host” a digital projection of the Ring Shout in performance. If the ring shout served as “call” to Black selfhood—novelist Paule Marshall suggest such a power—then Remembrance invites a creative response to histories of systematic dismantling of Black communities and communality. In this artistic context, the Praise House becomes, according to Minnefield, “an emblem of the fabric, the tapestry of African American resistance practices through worship.”
The first tenet of Charmaine Minnefield’s Remembrance project rests on slavery’s epoch of psychic disturbance and the need for a recognition of loss. The first Black “churches” or sites of worship in the Western world emerged as architectural and sonic acts of radical creativity. The diverse collection of African peoples, though they were all from the continent of Africa, spoke a variety of native languages and observed different cultural practices, from animist to Muslim. These first Black sites of identity and worship were acts of radical creativity intended to resist efforts to silence, alienate, then redefine its captives into the arid space of a man-made legal manufacture—the soulless chattel possession. The Praise Houses were a counter-manufacture. They laid claim to a “free” space (inside of slavery? outside of it?) where an orphaned and abused people might gather, assert their identities and affirm themselves as divine creation.
Charmaine Minnefield’s Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives seems to me to be a meditation on the possibility of Black psychic coherence. I find in her evolution of works something spiritually akin to the quest of Kevin Quashie in his work, Black Aliveness: or A Poetics of Being (2021). Quashie’s “aliveness” seeks to locate and investigate a kind of beingness that resists the equating of Blackness with death. He scours our living archive of Black expressiveness to trace the elements of this quality, if it still exists, that would make his definition of Black world possible. Both artist and theorist seem to be stepping into and perhaps working to reanimate the West African concept of asé,[viii] an ancient effort to name—not life itself—but the impulse or thrill that sparks into life.
Minnefield’s steady evolution of Remembrance has asé. It has taken on a life. This current project learns from her early painterly imaging of girls and women, figures that have birthed the monumental women in her mixed-media digital mapping projection. Her media presentation is an ambitious collaboration (with creative partners) of moving image, soundscape and choreography. It has been presented at the Auburn Avenue library and at Emory University as a visual art studio installation. Each is an iteration and faceting of the former, the way that an oil painter paints into the paint. Or, perhaps the opposite—in the way that John Coltrane offers “My Favorite Things,” as borrowed melody, memory, comfort, set-piece then enters the tune, violates its preciousness and delivers to the listener a personal mystery he has located inside. The result is something powerful, faceted, journeying. Minnefield is exploring her theme of remembrance and resistance from a personal place in a way that she hopes those who enter into this imaginative remembrance will attempt for themselves in their own pursuit of beingness.
It is a powerful idea—that we might in the 21st century re-member ourselves— return, imaginatively, to the creative intention of those first African / Americans in a ritual performance, whose origins pre-date not only slavery but also the United States of America, pre-date memory—that we might make a space, apart from our social dismemberment. Re-member?
“To go back to the original hunger was impossible.” [Denver]
Beloved[ix], Toni Morrison
Denver is the youngest. She looks upon the beautiful woman who is her murdered sister whom slavery took and ponders a new, more potent hunger. Hunger more keen, more profound than appetite.
Minnefield encountered hybridized fragments of the Ring Shout in her Pentecostal church upbringing, particularly the church’s incorporation of Christianity’s third aspect of the Trinity—the mysterious Holy Ghost (also referred to as the Holy Spirit, the Spirit and other names). The Holy Ghost is not a person nor is it the “ghost” of a deceased person. It is not the Ghost of Jesus Christ. In the Pentecostal Church, a visitation of the Holy Spirit was made known when the body of a chosen worshipper would briefly host the Spirit and dance a dance of elation guided by the Spirit within. In my own church, the Church of God in Christ, we called it “getting happy”. It is possible to see how an African ritual could easily graft onto Christian belief systems.
The artist and I share a connection to Black Pentecostalism; she, growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and I on Chicago’s Southside. I pressed Minnefield on how her own experiences in the church connect to her project narrative on resistance. The traditional church, she explained, “retains African ritual practices but also validates standards that de-center women’s faith practices [such as] marking female bodies as sinful.” Minnefield’s early relationship to her church was fraught, as was my own. Her work does not emerge from an idyllic relationship with the Black church, nor does she idealize its beliefs and practices. Rather, Remembrance may be about hunger—a hunger different from the original. A hunger that is not about replacing the thing that you lost; a hunger more keen, like finding yourself in the eye that sees you for who and what you are.
Minnefield’s body of work provides a career-long reflection on the bodies of women, and their body and mind relationship to the power of faith practices, sublimity, inheritance. She mentions her interest in discovering ritual spaces, perhaps little known or studied, that have served women. Whatever that search may yield, or not, the predominance of women in her imagery threads back to conditions of power, what it gives and what it takes. Remembrance and resistance—resistance to what?
“Erasure,” she says. “My work—this social iconography—impacts the ethics of our day.”
The importance of the Praise House now planned for the Oakland Cemetery is not as objet d’art. It will be enlivened in an interplay with her Praise House projection mapping; it will manifest a still lively potential for engaging the work of making community across profound fracture, fear and loss and, as importantly, imagining a new story of “self”.
I want to take it for a talisman of our neglected imaginative space, an invocation of asé, a signifier for a fierce kind of hope—not hope as wish or magical thinking, but the kind of openness and seeking that Africans bereft of comfort disembarking from the bowels of a ship did surely summon. Or maybe this emblem poses the original questions: who do we think we are? What does it mean to be American, human, or free? What is the fight, and what is worth fighting for?
Can we enter into this spatial idea in 2021? Is there a path, for Black / African / Americans, into the Clearing? Charmaine Minnefield will take this question to the Oakland Cemetery on Juneteenth 2021. Whatever else is summoned, she will build a praise house in the midst of the unnamed Black souls resting there. In remembrance, in resistance, in community.
Flux Projects, led by Anne Archer Dennington, has partnered with the artist and will continue to document Remembrance As Resistance as it evolves. Artist interviews and various project materials, including important artist collaborations will be collected on the Flux website: fluxprojects.org
[i] “The Souls of White Folks” reveals a mature Du Bois, writing in or around 1896. Clearly he is revisiting his earlier thesis from 1903, the Souls of Black Folk
. Essay included in Dark Water: Voices From Within the Veil
, edited by Julie Nord. Dover Publications, NY (1920, 1999). Introduced by Dr. Manning Marable
[ii] Black No More
(date), a satirical novel by Harlem Renaissance writer George S. Schuyler, imagines a technology for turning Black people into white people.
[iii] Douglass Kearney performed “Property Values”, and other poems, as part of Emory University’s Raymond Danowsky Poetry Library Series. Seeing his poems in performance is invaluable, essential. I found this performance on YouTube.
[iv] Sterling Stuckey asserts, “…slave ships were the first real incubators of slave unity across cultural lines, cruelly revealing irreducible links from one ethnic group to the other….” citing the “common horror” of the passage experience as fundamental. Stuckey’s Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, published by Oxford University Press, 1987, reissued in 2013, is a rich critical pursuit of the importance of the Ring Shout in Black American cultural formation and a Black politics.
[v] My first encounter with the Ring Shout was in Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1984, E.P. Dutton) a novel that places the Ring Shout at the center of Black Diaspora identity-formation, like a force of gravity.
[vi] Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia is described by its authors Art and Margo N. Rosenbaum, with illustrations by Johann S. Buis, as a book with three voices—the authors, the oral histories of Black communities and the collective voice of the McIntosh County Shouters. For first-hand testimony from local performers of the Shout, it was invaluable to me. Published in 1998 by the University of Georgia Press. Athens & London.
[vii] The Historic Oakland Foundation is engaged in an ongoing collaborative effort, with Georgia State and Emory University, to identify and “map” 800+ unmarked graves at Oakland Cemetery using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology.
[viii] Panamanian artist and colleague Arturo Lindsay and I have pursued a long-running creative collaboration that began with his incorporation of spirit, asé or “life force” and art-making; the term traces to ancient Dogon (Yoruba) civilization and philosophy. His creative imagination and teaching centers African / Caribbean philosophy and ritual, and inspires my reading of the projects of Quashie and Minnefield.
[ix] Morrison’s novel, Beloved (1987, Alfred A. Knopf, NY) holds memory at the center of the story’s tensions, also forgetting and longing. Quotes, pps. 87-89, 119.