You Ever Heard?

By Sasha Bonét

In response to Tschabalala Self’s Cotton Mouth audio piece
Eva Presenhuber, New York
November 2020

You ever heard the story about the flying Negros?

They was brought across the Atlantic in the barracoon. When they tell you the history of the Mayflower and the Santa Maria they leave this part out. Only some made it through the 80-day journey. Some died tied to another soul. Imagine three menstruation cycles in a space too shallow for you to sit up. The smell alone can choke you. Let alone the rocking of the ocean. The sound must be something like the inside of the womb. Water. Inaudible voices. Roars and screams. But there was also songs and folklore ringing out amongst them. The story of liberation is the redemption.

What is African-American? Afro and European? What is a Baptist but a blend of African Obeah and Christianity. What is American culture? America a’int nothing in particular, but somehow it’s everything at once. A goulash of a peoples. The main selling attraction today is the culture. But the creators don’t resemble the profiteers.

If you were once considered an object, a thing for sale, does that mean that all you produce becomes product? Your children, your cotton, your mythology? All of which is commodified and sold as American when only few can claim it. Cardi B named her baby Kulture because she births it. A reclaiming of her offspring. How much does a pickaninny sell for? How much is a football player’s body worth when we know he is sacrificing the stability of his cerebral? How do we determine the worth of a creation without first considering the source?

I remember playing telephone as a child. How completely impossible it was to pass a message from mouth to ear to mouth again and still retain its validity. Yet somehow, entire cultural practices have sustained hundreds of years, traversing dialects and vernaculars, spanning across oceans and continents. The Yoruba, the Santeria, the Voodoo intersect. The story sustains. Not necessarily the ones you find in books, as the page is often where further subjugation lies. The oral traditions remain and the truth rests in the liminal. You didn’t hear because you were listening wrong. It’s not in the words, it’s in the breath.

When she says chile, she does not mean the South American country. It is the length of the sigh that follows that tells us to brace ourselves for the subject. The cadence of an exhale speaks to the climax. This adds a song like structure to the sentence. The sonic experience transformed in the lingual. The breath is the horn and we are the fugue. The rise and fall of the pitch is melodic and the speaker points out to you the places of emphasis where the bass rises and falls.

Repetition and reverberations are signifiers of comprehension; signifiers of emphasis. These exaggerations offer comfort and entertainment, leaving one feeling held and heard. Pressed lips that hum and linger: Mmmmmm… tells me you’re following. The angle of the wrist can define subject matter and set tones that indicate humor and depth, guiding one through the arc like that of a director. Follow the finger. A mouth is only a part of the story.

But these performative dialogues ignite caricature like interpretation and othering. Text threads and tweets that contain no words. All memes. Black people exclaiming. The digital world offering platforms for marginal communal gatherings, but also further objectification and solicitation of stolen aesthetics. Screen shot. A different shooting. Trying you on like a costume. Perhaps memes are the new Black face?

This makes me and my homegirls feel some type of way.

Sometimes certain details are not expounded on because the emotional impact cannot be compromised by semantics.

Sometimes there is nothing more to say.

Sometimes all that is left is the breath.