Preaching to the Choir
- By Jim Hicks
(Photo: "Because I have company." Carl Hancock Rux, in an interview about activism, conducted by Carrie Mae Weems)
The poet, playwright, director, musician, actor, and activist Carl Hancock Rux grew up in foster care. His older brother Ralph owned a restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and Ralph managed to locate Carl, who was still living with his foster parents. And then, as Rux puts it, they “had a brief, wonderful, beautiful time together.” One day, though, Ralph disappeared; when Carl chanced upon him, months later, he was almost unrecognizable, suffering from dementia, and dying of AIDS.
The younger brother cared for the older, at a time when AIDS patients were feared and shunned even by the hospital workers entrusted with their care. On the day the inevitable news came, Carl happened to be studying in Ghana, a continent away. As Rux tells it, “Outside my room that night a crowd had gathered”—the other students, all Ghanaian, from his program. They had heard, and they asked him to come outside. Carl responded that he needed to be alone, needed to grieve, but the Ghanaians weren’t having it. “Perhaps in America,” they said, that is what one does, “But you’ve come back to Africa. Come out of your room, we will be with you [. . .] And we’re going to celebrate the life of your brother until the sun comes up. Because you have company.”
For Rux, everything that came after began there. As he puts it:
“That was the first time in my life that I learned that I had company. And it was the first time in my life that I learned about the brutality of pandemics, epidemics, laws, civil rights, the importance of becoming an activist, the importance of having a voice, of fighting for freedom, of doing something for all the people whose names I did not know, who might die of this disease. I’ve lived through it, I’ve survived it, I’m on the other side of it. I’m not afraid of COVID-19. Nothing, nothing could ever make me afraid again. Because I have company. [Rux nods his head] I have company.”
As you know, one hundred and fifty-six years after its inception, Juneteenth, Black Independence Day, has at long last been recognized as a national holiday. I can think of no better way to celebrate and commemorate this event than to meditate on The Baptism, a video poem commissioned by the Lincoln Center, written and performed by Carl Hancock Rux, and directed by Carrie Mae Weems. On the video poem’s website, along with the film and its text, you’ll find four short interviews with Rux, also filmed by Carrie Mae Weems.
The first thing I must say about this achingly beautiful work of art is that it wasn’t written for me. As its subtitle states, the video poem is a tribute to John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, two towering figures in an ongoing struggle for the dignity, humanity, independence, and equality that no possible vision of a just society could have ever taken from a single soul on this planet for even a second, and yet which, to this day, in the midst of this, our Third Reconstruction, has never been granted by this nation to its formerly enslaved people, or to so many others, including those lived in this land for millennia before the people who look like me arrived to take it from them.
Within the video poem, the most direct references to Lewis and Vivian name them as “the sharecropper’s son” and the “boy from Boonville”—Lewis, thus, descended from those who tilled but did not own, and Vivian, raised in a town named for a legendary settler colonialist. By its end, however, we are told to see these “two tall shadows sinking into the hardened earth” as form, space, and structure: “two men as a building [. . .] Remember them well. They are over and over, and never die.” And we do. The enchanting incantation of the poet’s voice, combined with the winding threads of a Brian Eno soundtrack—like the Ghanaians for Rux himself on that memorable day—make certain that, though threnody in occasion, we never lose sight of the video poem’s lessons about struggle, about death, and about fearlessness.
The poet and journalist Maya Phillips, in her meditation on The Baptism for the New York Times last October, offered readers the sort of reflection that, I regret to say, one almost never finds in our dailies. What is most radical and inspiring about this collaborative work by Rux and Weems, she argues, is that it offers the very sort of deep, existential, universalizing and philosophical vision often granted or assumed present in white writers, and nearly always denied to Black artists, particularly when they write specifically and explicitly about Black experience. As if history—even the searing, incontrovertible, sometimes glorious history of the last four hundred years in this land—was somehow nothing more than a special issue.
As Phillips notes, “When we speak of the Black citizen in America, we’re so often in conversations about the body, and usually a body that is injured or dead or dying: with bullets or with a police officer’s knee on a neck, or, during the civil rights era, with a torrent of water from a ‘baptism’ by fire hoses aimed at protesters”; “But not here. ‘We do not die. We are always becoming,’ Mr. Rux says in the voice-over, speaking of blood, membranes, enzymes and bacteria, breaking down the Black body to its elemental parts and considering them individually, as pieces of a larger marvel of nature.” Descartes, with his cogito ergo sum, defined the essence of human identity as “thinking things,” absent any other predicates, sans history, race, class, or gender. What Rux and Weems remind us, as Phillips points out, is that no thing exists ever outside of history, and that the predicates we are go all the way down.
In my years on this earth, I’ve learned a thing or two about philosophy, and a bit about language, from other teachers, most of them white. But everything I’ve learned about history has been taught to me by people of color—it’s as simple as that. For me, The Baptism alternates between moments of willed abstraction and fulgurant passages that imprint before the mind even registers their meaning: “‘Are you the same flowers that died in the frost or are you different flowers?’ And the flowers reply: ‘We are not the same and we are not different. When conditions are sufficient we manifest.’”
As you know, at least in the US, we have a dismissive expression, often used, about “preaching to the choir.” But you also know: this country continues to lynch and gun down its Black citizens, it has let hundreds of thousands die needlessly in a desperate attempt to maintain minority rule, and its most privileged remain walled off so securely by money and power that they are able to remain oblivious or maintain oblivion as their world burns around them. So would a little inspiration for the choir be such a bad thing after all?
After all, choirs sing. Loudly. And who doesn’t think we need to hear a little more of that?
Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.