Power Trip

The Power of Strutting in a Black Body

It’s a vision of a free black future that keeps us on our feet

Illustration: Daniel Fishel

InIn ideal circumstances, the human body flows in a state of strut. A jauntiness, an ease. A response to the rhythms that animate the earth. To strut is to reflect the graceful rotation of the planet in one’s breath, in one’s step, in the pace and melody of one’s speech, in one’s swerve and laughter. I strut, therefore I am.

Strut is the body in motion, occupying, manipulating, and moving through space. Strutting requires freedom, the liberty to flex and stretch. Lately I have been habitually watching a short film by Andrew Margetson. His camera follows the brilliant dancer Lil Buck as he floats, pops, and glides through the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Dancers are often so supple that they can’t help themselves, walking with a distinctive grace that signals their talent. Lil Buck doesn’t walk like that. He enters the museum as any ordinary mortal would. He is lithe and trim, to be sure, but with an unassuming gait that hides his kinetic genius. Then the music begins, and he leans into the air, his ankles as improbably bent as a hapless guard defending LeBron James. He bends to the point of crumpling, only to reassemble, restoring his smooth musculature as if by magic.

The beauty of the dance is a timely distraction. Lil Buck moves adroitly in a space where figures like his have seldom been regarded with respect or delight. His sublime whirl helps me forget, however briefly, that darkness in a body complicates even the most basic stroll, reduces an inalienable right to an elusive privilege.

The unbound black body is profoundly inconvenient. The dark muscles, the bones underneath, the vulnerable organs, and the sheltering skin — each comprises a segment on the map of a plundered continent, each is redolent of conquest and empire. Four centuries ago, our ancestors were marched at gunpoint across sand and savannah, far from their home villages to near-death and misery in the confinement castles of the African west coast. Those who stumbled and lost their footing never made it even that far. Inevitably, history complicates our strut.

Then as now, locomotion sometimes can require treading the slender border between life and death. Lately, headlines remind us of all the same and different ways a black body can collide with its inconvenience. Breathing. Walking. Waiting to cross at the light. Using a golf club as a cane while crossing a Seattle intersection. Heading home while carrying candy and a can of ice tea. Any of these can be seen as unforgivable trespass, alien intrusion on ground that must be defended. The wrongful arrests, the point-blank executions, the gunshots to the back, the militarized police responses, the illuminating silence of white self-styled liberals, and, most critical, the paucity of convictions all point to the same existential question: How can we strut in a strange land?

Have I thought of the body as sanctuary?
— Lia Purpura (“On Looking”)

While my contemplation of strut respects the question of how to live in a black body, I am more interested in how to escape my own imprisoning concept of that body. I don’t believe the black body has any more potential than any other kind, but I am concerned with the extent to which its capabilities are suppressed by one’s own internalized limitations. Racism and its accompanying cruelties have shaped me to police myself, to restrict my own movement through spaces. And by spaces I mean both actual and metaphorical. The great resister Carter G. Woodson warned, “If you can control a man’s thinking, you do not have to worry about his action.” He might have added, “Independent thinking seldom goes undisciplined.” Some black people use this fact to justify subjecting their children to corporal punishment. They contend, incorrectly, “I beat my son so the police won’t.” On any given day, how often do I manage to keep oppressive thinking out of my head? Am I ever free from an imagined white gaze? How often do I succumb to beating myself?

If he should Runaway, he must wear a Pothook about his neck, and if that won’t bring him under, he must wear Iron spaneals upon his Legs till you are pretty sure he will be orderly; for as he is my slave he must and shall be obedient, but if he be orderly use him kindly.
— Joseph Ball, colonial planter

When my wife and I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture during its opening weekend, immense crowds made it impossible to linger before any of the exhibits. Still, it was easy to make connections between past and present even while moving rapidly. Easy, for example, to note the painful irony of tolerating forced elbow-to-elbow intimacy with strangers in underground passageways while looking at displays about the cramped horrors of the Middle Passage. Easy to look at shackles and think of Alton Sterling, executed by police a few months earlier while bound and subdued in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Or Kajieme Powell: After killing the mentally disturbed man, St. Louis police officers rolled his corpse over and cuffed his inert wrists behind his lifeless back, as if mocking that whole freedom-in-death thing. Similarly, it was hard to look at images of Africans chained in the holds of storm-tossed trading vessels and not think of Freddie Gray, shackled in the back of a speeding Baltimore police van, on a rough ride to his death. Hard to avoid the unsightly realization that rusted iron manacles from the mid-1800s, forged specifically to hold a black body in place, still look sturdy enough to do the job.

I could find little information on the “spaneals” Joseph Ball referred to in his letter. He may have been referring to an iron version of spancels, which, according to the dictionary, are noosed ropes used “to hobble an animal, especially a horse or cow.” Ball, who owned the Epping Forest plantation in colonial Virginia, enslaved and traded human beings from Africa until his death in the early 18th century. His nephew, George Washington, was also obsessed with policing the mobility of his enslaved. In Henry Wiencek’s book An Imperfect God, the historian writes that the man who would become president “created a new problem he called ‘night walking’ — men and women going out at night to visit family members. A man named Boson, who was twice caught running away in 1760, may actually have been night walking to visit his lover when he was caught.” Yet do I marvel at the complexity of such a strut, the strategy and fortitude employed in traveling great distances, avoiding paddy rollers under cover of darkness, indulging hurried kisses and urgent embraces before rushing back to begin the day’s drudgery.

It’s a vision of a free black future that keeps us on our feet. Bodies in motion, we strut despite the persistent riddle of history, hard at our heels.

Sometimes I picture in my mind a crimson thread originating in Africa, unspooling alongside a young boy stumbling and choking as his coffle yanks him toward the sea. The thread extends apparently without end, through the bloody spill of centuries and across fruited plains and fetid plantations, trailing the double-time stomp of a black Union soldier and continuing to unspool beside the swollen ankles of a church matron marching her way from Selma to Montgomery. I could see the thread snaking along Pennsylvania Avenue during Barack and Michelle Obama’s stately walk to the White House. It’s a spirit-lifting fantasy of black endurance and triumph, a useful antidote for the Weary Blues. I imagine the black refugees that DuBois wrote about might have been similarly revived by the sight of dark-skinned soldiers garbed in Union blue, counting off cadences while picking them up and putting them down. Just such a scene unfolds in Glory, the Oscar-winning 1989 film about the mostly black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. A group of black children scurry across a yard and line up at a picket fence to gape and grin at the regiment as they proceed down a Southern lane, rifles poised on their shoulders. With fifes and drums providing accompaniment, Morgan Freeman, portraying Sergeant Major John Rawlins, pauses to smile kindly at the children. “That’s right,” he tells them. “Ain’t no dream. We run away slaves but we come back fighting men.” The children, bathed in a sepia glow, stare in awe at the soldiers’ retreating ranks. In the background, a choir sings soaring angelic notes.

By the end of the rebellion, nearly 200,000 black men had helped defend the Republic against the Confederate traitors (179,000 in the Union Army, 19,000 in the Navy). At the same time, black women like Harriet Tubman engaged in a stealthier strut, risking their lives to assist the war effort by gathering intelligence behind enemy lines. While their deeds were inspiring to their fellow black people, most whites had quite a different reaction. For them, the notion of armed, marching Negroes was the stomach-churning stuff of nightmares, frequently involving the violation of white women and the pillaging of land claimed by whites. They saw a weaponized and rapacious swarm, lockstep in bodacious strut. Marching — unarmed — would indeed become a favorite method for nonviolently protesting white “supremacy,” especially as black activists and their allies came to rely increasingly on civil disobedience in the century to come. In the meantime, whites set about repairing their broken commonwealth. After a brief flirtation with genuine reform, they rushed to reconcile with their former enemies, easily finding common ground in a seductive compulsion to confine the black body to its proper place — geographical, social, and metaphorical. The black strut developed a dispiriting pattern: two steps forward, one step back.

It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain… Negroes [from the] using or keeping of drums… which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.
— Slave Code of South Carolina (1740)

The slaveholders’ fear of drums bordered on superstition. They believed them capable of stirring up frenzy so contagious and fast-spreading that it was nearly impossible to resist. Ironically, their suspicions were confirmed in the early 20th century, when jazz became a national fascination. Like lynching, it frequently brought whites together to entertain appetites often scorned in polite society. Then, as now, whites’ interaction with African Americans and their culture reflected a perplexing conjunction of lust and disdain. Many white East St. Louisans, for example, may very well have been in their parlors listening with rapt attention to a recording of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” before going out to mutilate and murder their neighbors in nearby Black Valley.

Released in 1917, less than two months before the East St. Louis massacre, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s rendition of the song quickly ruled. Written by black composer Shelton Brooks, the tune interests me because it was among the first to introduce the black strut to a mass “mainstream” audience. An all-white combo, the Originals made their name, as it were, copying the black music developed in and around the Storyville district of New Orleans. (A 1917 record cover proclaims them “The Creators of Jazz.”) The area’s most notable native son was Louis Armstrong, whose “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” (along with dozens of his other tunes) also became a jazz standard. In a French film called La Route du Bonheur (The Road to Happiness), Armstrong and his All Stars blew with their usual pizzazz.

The set is made up to look like a street lined with bars and clubs. “Armstrong” blinks from a marquee in the background as the band assembles and quickly starts to play. Meanwhile, vocalist Velma Middleton cavorts among them with a baby carriage. The performance is at once rollicking and polished, with Armstrong’s trademark trumpeting inducing in listeners an insistent urge to strut. Middleton’s charms are evident, but she never opens her mouth to sing, thus becoming a dark body whose purpose is purely ornamental (although one could imagine her as a proxy for Lil Hardin, Armstrong’s second wife and, more important, the composer of the song).

Watching the scene puts me at ease, as if my relatives at the family reunion suddenly sprang from their picnic blankets and revealed themselves as musical geniuses. Still, it’s impossible to dismiss the band’s mugging and what we might call extreme grinning, especially on the part of Armstrong and bassist Arvell Shaw. Radiating an unlikely exuberance that recalls the ruby-lipped caricatures on the sheet music of “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” they stretch their faces to such an extent that it becomes difficult to distinguish a grin from a grimace. Are they mugging to make their brilliance more acceptable? Or could they simply be caught up in the ecstasy of making art? Their elastic expressions raise the specter of a judgmental audience lurking just beyond the frame. Unlike my experience watching Lil Buck dance, I can’t watch Armstrong strut without phantom viewers threatening my enjoyment.

Unlike Lil Buck and Louis Armstrong, most of us can’t trip the light fantastic or transform trumpet solos into miracles of sound and feeling. We are left to rely on others in the struggle to rouse our bodies and spirits into motion. When I stagger from my house, still groggy with sleep, I turn to the generous gods of bop and groove to help me get my hustle on. I pop my earbuds in, press play, and soon I’m walking down the street like Bernie Casey in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, my theme music guiding my feet. My playlist is subject to the twists and turns of my fickle tastes, but some tunes never lose their favored status:

“Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s
“Groove Yard” by the Montgomery Brothers
“Steppin’” by the World Saxophone Quartet
“The ‘In’ Crowd” by the Ramsey Lewis Trio
“The Sidewinder” by Lee Morgan
“Giant Steps” by John Coltrane
“Soulful Strut” by Young-Holt Unlimited

My playlist propels me through public spaces where my presence might be questioned or challenged. One August morning, I was walking with earbuds firmly in place when someone called out to me. I turned and saw a white cop standing in the middle of the street, the sun glinting off his mirrored sunglasses. “You doing laps?” he asked. I told him I was.

“Which lap is this?”

“My second,” I replied.

He gave me a thumbs-up. I nodded, unsmiling, and went on my way. I couldn’t tell if he was just being friendly or letting me know that I was under surveillance. To ease my troubled mind, I pumped up the volume. I might even cautiously assert that I began to strut. In my case, that means walking with an exaggerated rhythm and rolling my shoulders as if they’re too muscular for my clothing to contain, a misguided idea of masculine motion that I picked up during my impressionable youth. Most people who come from where I’m from refer to it as a pimp stroll, a nod to its preeminence in popular ’70s films like The Mack and Hell Up in Harlem — although I’m pretty sure Zora Neale Hurston was describing the same action when she wrote about slick New Yorkers “percolating” down the avenue in 1942.

I’ve seen brothers in Baltimore and St. Louis rock their wheelchairs with a similar gangster lean, thereby converting the pimp stroll to a pimp roll.

You don’t have to be a man to strut, although the typical heterosexual male imagination usually mistakes any other version for a favorable response to catcalling, a hip-swinging invitation to “take things to the next level.” Freed from the default gaze, strutting is more likely to reflect the enchanting intelligence of human beings who know their power and maybe even revel in it. Janelle Monáe walking a tightrope while Big Boi chants encouragement? Strut. Ava DuVernay headed to the set of Selma? Strut. Valerie Jarrett strolling through the West Wing? Strut.

Stony the road we trod…
— James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”

Since Darren Wilson’s killing of Mike Brown removed any doubt that an objectionable strut is grounds for murder, Black Lives Matter activists have marched in the path of their predecessors, challenging the popular compulsion to crush and consume blackness. Still, the best service they contribute may be their expressed willingness to question the sanity of returning again and again to request protection and justice from a government that will not save us. The question reflects a perspective older than the republic, offered by Thomas Paine long ago: “Common sense will tell us, that the power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us.” The bloodthirsty impulse — the desire to see the dark body suffer — shared by many of those who benefit from unfair advantage based on skin color may prove impossible to rehabilitate, a prospect that many of us are reluctant to acknowledge or confront.

In 1975, I was wowed by The Wiz. There was much to admire in the brilliant, all-black reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s classic. My favorite characters had no memorable lines, no crowd-pleasing solos. Instead of Dorothy, say, or the Scarecrow, I was drawn to the Road. In Geoffrey Holder’s Broadway staging, the famous Yellow Brick Road was embodied by a quartet of golden, nappy-headed brothers who escorted the main characters on their journey to Oz. George Faison’s Tony Award–winning choreography combined the exuberance of the cakewalk with the flashy footwork of a Jackson Five performance, which the four dancers executed to the tune of “Ease on Down the Road.”

In the big-screen version of The Wiz, produced three years later, director Sidney Lumet replaced the silent dancers with 26 miles of Congoleum. The film’s disappointing box-office receipts can’t be blamed on that single change, but it sure sapped the joy out of it for me. I think I found the Road dancers appealing because they reminded me of those smooth operators who bopped through our St. Louis neighborhood. In Big Apple caps, bell bottoms, and platform shoes, they looked as if they’d leaped out of those men’s fashion ads in the back of Ebony magazine. I thought men who looked like that were the epitome of cool; free-range strutters whose knack for swagger extended beyond the block. Elegant and powerful, they were high-stepping, hip-dipping masters of the slide, the glide, and the insouciant saunter. I imagined they could go anywhere, even to the white side of town, and return with their black bodies intact. It was a fantasy, I realize, similar to the collective African American dream that we’ll someday go from trodding James Weldon Johnson’s stony road to easing on down it.

It’s a vision of a free black future that keeps us on our feet. Bodies in motion, we strut despite the persistent riddle of history, hard at our heels. We strut toward a future that is neither clear nor promised. We strut with consummate style. We strut with surpassing grace. We strut, therefore.

From We Can’t Breathe by Jabari Asim. Copyright © 2018 by Jabari Asim. Reprinted by permission of Picador, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers.

Jabari Asim is an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College and the author of We Can’t Breathe.

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