The importance of joy amid the anger of the protests
“But the protest could not begin until the tambor was brought,” said Chris.
Chris, a friend of mine who’s quarantining-in-place with me after fleeing the ambulance-siren-filled streets of Brooklyn during the pandemic, stands barefoot in my kitchen telling me about a protest in which he participated in Tegucigalpa after the coup d’état of president Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2009—a protest that couldn’t begin until the tambor, a hand-carved drum, arrived, and with it, the music, dance, and marching of the protestors. As he talks, we periodically glance down at our phones. They beep and buzz with updates about the uprisings happening in Austin, Atlanta, Durham, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Houston, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, uprisings that began in response to Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, suffocating George Floyd, a black man, to death. The fire, the smoke, the protests in Tegucigalpa are like the fire, smoke, and protests happening in America. In Honduras, it was the Garifuna—descendants of West African runaway slaves and Carib and Arawak Indians—protesting the Honduran military storming Zelaya’s home at night, taking him from his bed, and, in his pajamas, putting him on a military plane for Costa Rica. It was the Garifuna who helped to lead the protest in Tegucigalpa, because the post-coup Honduran government targeted their lands for expropriation for tourism development (hotels) and agribusiness. In America, it is the body of black folks that must be conquered, expropriated, extracted from, and killed for the democracy to continue its experiment, an experiment languishing on gurneys in pandemic-filled hospitals. In fact, our pandemic-filled hospitals are another sign of the failing experiment, our failing democracy. It is as if beneath every presidential news conference—beneath each presidential dismissal of the seriousness of the pandemic and anti-black racism in the country—R.E.M.’s “It’s the end of the world as we know it / and I feel fine” is playing. Or the president is humming it in his head.
Chris and I discuss the overlaps of living in and through several apocalypses—the police and military rapaciously beating protestors and occupying the streets, the state-issued curfews, the small flights of fugitivity and pleasure that animate the days of a populace under lockdown.
But what brings us to talk about the tambor is the news of black folks, here in America, dancing as they protest, on highways, in front of houses of state, while singing Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go.” Here, as in Honduras, we, black folks, must not only march, but dance into catastrophe. Though it might seem strange, it is no accident in this recent round of protests in the United States that protestors brandish and deploy civil disobedience and joy in the face of tear gas, rubber bullets, dogs, and dour, helmeted police. As Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman points out, “The future is yet to come and already past.” In other words, if we wait for legislation, corporate benevolence, or some amorphous future, we might never experience the ecstasy we imagine, and that we know we deserve. So we must turn from the teleological, its notions of patient progress, and embrace the joy that allegedly lies on the other side of conquering struggle. Ecstasy now. I tell Chris about an essay I’m writing about this idea—ecstasy as a type of protest, that we might pinch our pleasure in the middle of surveillance and sequestering, much like enslaved Africans did while being surveilled by the masters during plantation dances.
Chris dips his head for a moment, falling into silence, one those silences in which memory moves you out of one time and into another. He is back in Tegucigalpa. The tambor has finally arrived at the protest. He is telling all of this to me while looking out over the kitchen, into the darkness of the backyard, out, out into the past. The tambor is played, and the dancing begins. And the ritual smoke and the ritual bathing in smoke. Those who are not Garifuna join, invited in to be blessed and covered; however, they begin to make a mockery of the ritual, erotically dancing, gesticulating, and guffawing over themselves.
Something similar is happening in America. During protests against anti-blackness in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Newark, Durham, and Washington, D.C., following the killing of George Floyd, demonstrators have juked, krumped, and danced while chanting “no justice no peace/ fuck these racist-ass police” in the middle of intersections. Calling for ecstasy now, black folks luxuriantly revel in the aliveness of their bodies. In the flexed arm, in the arched back, in the hop and turn, we subvert the prevailing myth of the disposability of black bodies. We ironize and wallow in the abjection of our surveillance. Holding up signs that read “LET JUSTICE FLOW LIKE A RIVER,” we enact an ecstatic present and future without the need for legislative or executive order. We are not waiting on some benign congress of politicians to grant us a future. We are granting it to ourselves in the form of embodied ecstasy.
And that ecstasy calls out to others, including, ironically, the National Guardsman and police officers who stand by watching. They, too, want to shuffle and drop it low. And some do. As Hope Ford, a reporter for Channel 11 in Atlanta, noted in her broadcast on the night of June 4th, once protestors started dancing at the corner of Centennial Park and Marietta, the National Guard kept glancing toward their commanding officer asking if they could dance. Finally, the commanding officer gave his permission, and the soldiers joined in. They moved toward the joy they saw in the protestors. The National Guard’s desire to dance exposes the irrepressible joy of being in one’s body, the seduction of a freedom that is inhabited in spite of its possible impermanence. Quite simply, the body will always move toward ecstasy. Even if only for a moment. As Ford reported, after the dancing was over and time drew closer to curfew, the National Guard and the Atlanta police began expelling their former dance partners in an effort to clear the streets. Conflict arose. The space of joy was closed, and state-issued catastrophe was reinstituted.
I don’t read this short-lived moment of relational joy as a failure because the Georgia National Guard and the Atlanta police settled back into their state-issued instrumentality behind their batons and shields. What this moment ushers in is the notion that moments of relational joy can be opened up whenever and in front of whomever. It makes the possibility of ecstasy in the face of catastrophe more possible. As Sun Ra wrote in poem originally published in Esquire in July of 1969 to commemorate Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk, when humanity achieves one impossible, the probability of achieving another impossible is more likely. These dancing-demonstrators have touched the impossible, have made joy a possibility in the middle of catastrophe. Now, this impossibility calls out to other impossibilities. They call out to their kin: come out, come out, wherever you are. And, in their calling to their kin, they make a tradition that hitherto did not exist. The make another pattern. A black future. Liberation.
Roger Reeves’s poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming from Poetry, The Believer, and Boston Review. He is an associate professor of poetry at the University of Texas at Austin.
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.