Black Escapism in Arthur Jafa’s “Dreams are Colder than Death”

Melissa Louidor, BCRW Research Assistant

The escape artist flashed by on a metallic blue motorcycle, pursued by a blur of pulsing red and blue lights. Drawn together by a sentiment exceeding mutual compassion, the sidewalk spectators stood inert, breaths and bodies taut with anticipation. For a moment, parts of us took flight alongside the fugitive, our lives reaching beyond the limits of our bodies; the moment did not last long. Soon he was on foot, bobbing and weaving past the threat of capture, circling the block, boxed in but refusing to surrender. The choreography of escape was altered as his body crashed onto the concrete, sustaining the friction of tense blue cloth, the pressure of cold metal, the bitterness of heated blood and antagonized sweat. There might’ve been a collective exhale, as we all stood watching, witnesses to our own fall and capture.

That we had been standing on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell and 130th, and that everyone in sight, besides the police, was Black, stood out to me in that moment. Some of us had urged the fugitive to run–Run! Our hearts leapt toward the sidewalk with his fall; a reminder that we were fallible. That even here–Here! in informal communion, closest to the bosom of Black America–we were not safe. As a routine police chase, this mundane moment marked itself as an extraordinary one, in which I served witness to the assertion of a claim to freedom.

This notion of witnessing was re-articulated for me during the recent viewing of Arthur Jafa’s Dreams are Colder than Death and a follow-up discussion between Jafa and panelists Christina Sharpe, Reina Gossett, and Tavia Nyongo at the International Center of Photography. Though the film touches on a range of topics explored by Black theory in regard to futurity, survival, and resistance, the act of escape remained a primary point of exploration not only through the viewing of Black fugitivity through art, music, dance, but in mundane movements that indicated tension between studied, self-contained calm and external chaos and pressure.

Articulated per Fred Moten’s analysis of fugitivity, the line of escape mapped out by the Black fugitive is a mobilization of political consciousness. In fugitivity lies a futuristic impulse to claim the not-yet-forged possibilities of existence. It is a mobilization of Black vitality, in which biomechanic and metaphysical forces are deployed to activate effort; an effort that is integral to claiming survival. It is in enacting such effort that agency is articulated.

Arthur Jafa’s Dreams are Colder than Death, is made up of a collection scenes that replicate this first-hand interaction with escape and survival. Jafa’s digitized portrayals of Black movement contain a quality of nostalgia, marking the film as an archival space set up for the recollection and documentation of Blackness. This documentary impulse should not be misinterpreted as an intent to recollect the already-lost past, rather, it should be viewed as an intentional effort to archive the very-much alive present that predicates what we are becoming.  

From the opening scene, flesh and body are set up as points of interrogation. Hortense Spillers’ voice inquires about the possibilities for recuperating that which is in danger of being lost: Black culture. Visually, we encounter moving Black bodies arcing through the air, somersaulting in reverse through time and space. This retrograde action is tied into Spillers’ question, one that incites anxiety about the ephemerality of Blackness, the mark of its susceptibility.

Spillers’ insight into lost flesh and dismemberment, through an intimate recollection of personal loss, is analogous to a later question she poses around the “intramural problem of slavery”. Spillers locates the Transatlantic Slave Trade within a set of relations that posit the trafficking of Black bodies as a cannibalistic dilemma and identifies this trade in human flesh as the “original sin”. But first, we must examine the flesh itself, partly through Spillers’ own analysis in addition to the flesh exposed by Jafa’s lens.

In Spillers’ work, specifically in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”, flesh is a starting place for a theoretical examination of the making and un-making of the Black body within the drama of racialization. Spillers’ invocation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade is an important reminder of where the drama began. It is in the context of trade and exchange that Black flesh became marked and assigned differential subjecthood. The flesh, dismembered and reordered, preceded personhood, reduced to what Alexander Weheliye–in his own reading of Spillers–termed bare life.

Jafa’s focus on the moving body can be read as an attempt to re-engage in a dialogue of bare life. His focus upon flesh in its active and dormant states, demands attention to breath, activity, movement. He is opening up the grammar, per Spillers’ analysis, that enables Black legibility. Bare faces and flesh become the starting point for examining Blackness. Subjects are directly positioned in view of the lens, their bodies lingering on screen, not inviting examination, impervious to any set of logics that de-legitimizes their right to move, breathe, be still. In the grammar set up by Jafa, Black livelihood flourishes per a set of logics that prioritize subjectivity. Through their movements and gestures, the Black people that appear on Jafa’s screen “enunciate quotidian claims to survival, resilience, and possibility” (Campt 29). These claims demarcate a critical space in which subaltern voices can engage in self-making.

Fred Moten makes a concluding interrogation of the possibilities of survival. Love, per Moten, is where healing takes place. And like fugitivity, it offers escape and the rerouting, or the re-mapping of the enclosed landscape Blackness must navigate. Unlike fugitivity however, love holds a limitless expanse of futuristic potential; it offers space to fall down and rise with redemption.

The Barnard Center for Research on Women engages our communities through programming, projects, and publications that advance intersectional social justice feminist analyses and generate concrete steps toward social transformation.

© 2017 Barnard Center for Research on Women | 101 Barnard Hall | 3009 Broadway | New York, NY 10027