Words are completely inadequate for describing this event but I wrote a few notes in my diary on the day I attended Marvin K. White’s incredible piece “White Noise: Black Masks: how high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”
A week or so ago, my artist buddy Pat Hayashi recommended reading “Who We Be” by Jeff Chang. So good, so dense, so page-turning. I ordered more from the library. I went to lots of exhibitions here and there. I picked up Chang’s most recent book “We gon’ be alright” was published in 2016 as Trump’s campaign gathered momentum and highlights the way society at large is the only beneficiary of diversity, which can be traded fro grants and social approval. He goes on to describe what is in effect, the re-segregation of the US. The next day I met with some art friends over coffee. We discussed Trump, our work and Rauschenberg. We went to the Richmond Art Center: saw the wonderful Pogo Park project, life drawings by Joan Brown and an interesting landscape exhibition. The day was hot and I was so happy to be in Berkeley. I finished Jeff Chang’s book in the afternoon an hour or so before going to the BAMPFA to see White Noise: Black Masks. As the website declares, this is “a sonic stage and environment that includes life-cancelling “white noise” and life-cancelling “white space” while centering marginalized, creative black voices. Local poets (Marvin K. White, Michal MJ Jones, James Cagney, Nancy Johnson, and Arisa White) read their work, surrounded by a circle of loudspeakers emitting white noise. How high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”
I was blown away by the power of this sonic installation and poetic performance. The event begins with twenty minutes of white noise as the audience assembles and settles. There are five poets fighting against the ever-rising white noise, each becoming more physical and more emphatic in their delivery as the tide of sound envelopes them and us.
The white noise accumulates slowly but surely, and as an audience member you become an active participant, straining and concentrating to hear snatches of words and phrases. While sitting in the hostile space of the white noise we also have snatches of inner space for our own thoughts.
Marvin K. White is someone I love and without question adore. He is a poet and force of nature, and I met him as a fellow member of the ybca Equity cohort for 2017. He embodies the infinite power of a poet.
He stands to begin the performance without ceremony. He delivers what I know are beautifully crafted works, and words that I cannot hear so I can only cling onto snatches here and there. He is serious, the mood is serious. We applaud, the white noise recedes as the next poet stands at the microphone. Michal MJ Jones, a young poet whose work begins with the life-changing experience of being a new parent. In the white noise space I think of my own children and the huge excitement it brought to my life, and how precious each one is. I hear the names Eric Garner and Oscar Grant and the words “police car” and the white noise is relentlessly drowning out the voice and I want to hold out my hand to all and share my palms full of the words from Jeff Chang’s scholarship. We all know there are countless other names to add to the list. I wonder how many people in the audience are aware that today, September 15, 2017, yet another white policeman has been acquitted of the murder of an African-American man, Anthony Lamar Smith. And straight away another man stands at the microphone. “My name is James Cagney.” he says “And I have a right to be angry.” So true. “And You, You have a right to stand your ground, you have the right … and on he goes with a long index of what I fear to keep hearing but know we must. It’s the hideous list of ‘rights’ that signify white privilege pushing down on any minority. I can’t hear his precise words but I feel that he is so very sickened by it all. And the white noise rises up until he is almost physically drowning and peeping out over the top of the situation, on a day when another white cop faces absolutely no consequence from killing a black man. And he is straining and angry and powerful and we are all rapt. A group of five young blond white women sit off to my right, serious, almost ashen faced. After James Cagney, stands Nancy Johnson whose kind face belies the steel of her words. She moves and animates her words and we hear the odd phrase but the white noise is drowning her out and I want it to stop so that I can hear her soft, kind voice speak her words of white heat. She stands her ground and speaks and performs her poems so tenderly that we want to savor each one but cannot reach.
Finally, Arisa White speaks and again the noise has reduced so that we can hear her begin. Her long poem rises slowly, as the white noise encroaches and she is pushing back, pushing back against it. She speaks and we cannot know the actual words, we focus, we concentrate but the white noise is deafening. She nails the landing, shouting now with rising volume “But you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come!” A perfect ending, to which applause seems a completely inadequate response, though there is much of it.
The Q & A after the performance was equally profound. Each questioner was handed a microphone but before they could deliver their question in full, the white noise re-appeared and overtook them. The five poets answered, often with replies that may or may not address the unheard question. I like to imagine that the youngsters in the audience were not only surprised by this treatment but also changed by the whole experience as we all sat. Five questions and five questioners were drowned out, and then suddenly it was all over and I thought it was the most wonderful and most profound thing I have experienced in a very long time. I really, really hope this is repeated and repeated and repeated because the cultural work and the heavy lifting it performs are urgently needed here and now, again and again until something shifts.