To be black and resting on the body of the earth – Guernica
when no sweetness came, we looked for fatigue in each other’s knees. Held by the fingertips, weaved a bed where one could dream. When no sweetness came, I cried in the shower and gave my anger to the sea. I forgot that I was not alone until the spirit of nine hundred and sixteen was come and push me to stay alive. Lying back on a moving horse, the character in your tapestry seems to be doing an impossible thing. I recognized it as I walked through the gallery – the tension and tenderness of seeking rest in a place swirling with its impossibility.
The black cowboys they show us in school, in movies and in magazines are upright, stoic. They gaze defiantly at us from grayscale photographs, demanding that we mark their presence in the messy expansionist histories of the so-called American West. Growing up, I never thought to ask if Bass Reeves ever got tired after long days chasing horse thieves and fighting over cattle on Chickasaw land. If Stagecoach Mary just wanted to lie next to the woman she’s driven a thousand miles for and never deliver mail again. Diedrick, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the image of the horse – in the visual arts, in the archives – sometimes seems irretrievably linked to a myth of masculinity and war, an imperative for action . That a horse’s back is so often the site of the most scripted discursive struggles for who we can be.
I am thinking here of Kehinde Wiley’s painting of a black Napoleon, a man dressed in durag on a rearing horse, preparing to lead invading armies across the Alps. I think of Kevin Quashie’s observations of black culture’s over-identification with a reductive and callous notion of public resistance, how it makes it so easy to ignore the complex power of our quiet, vulnerable moments. But when I saw your tapestry, something in my body landed in relief, stretched and unfolded in an imagined elsewhere.
There are no grand proclamations here, no stiff backs. The character in the tapestry could gallop into battle or race his friends to the lake, but he doesn’t have to tell us which. Secrets are allowed here. My black interior is allowed here. In the infinite space before the horse’s hooves hit the ground, our stubborn and incoherent inner selves are nursed, given the uncanny gift of new body shapes, new imaginings of posture, whispered lessons in a world that never let us stop moving.
During my years of equestrian teaching, I was familiarized with the doctrine of righteousness. The body was meant to be flexible and responsive; the lower back had to move organically with the rhythms of the horse’s gait. But always, shoulders back. Eyes up. No sag. Phrases repeated by many teachers – the raspy-voiced Long Island women who spent their days ferrying children to local horse shows, dry-cleaning outfits and lending clothes when parents were too busy; the college coach who, after registering me and a Thai teammate for an event, joked that she misses the good old days when surnames were easier to spell. But always, shoulders back. I mean, and I’m sure you know this, these institutions shape our frameworks. They have a vested interest in a stoic (black) back. They have charts and things about how a body should be.
Another thing about righteousness: the earliest occurrences of horseback riding as a sport in the western world were tied to the military. One of the oldest treatises on horse training, On horseback riding by the cavalry officer Xenophon, established dressage as a means of conditioning horses. Throughout the history of the British Empire, riding practices were created with the mounted soldier at their center. The American Equestrian Team was originally trained and managed by the military. I wonder what it means to me to shape my body within a lineage of male conquests, within a received tradition of earthbending and genderbending. To shape this scoliosis backbone, this twisted black self, this crazy. It exhausted. To imitate the postures of the soldiers who invade my ancestral lands, because there is a kind of security there, or so we are told. Right means productive. A good soldier is ready to kill.
When I saw the figure on horseback in your tapestry, I smiled to myself. Kinfolk is tired, and they’re not afraid to show it. They sleep? They dream ? Perhaps only in dream space could a small black child gallop across the world backwards, belly up, shoulders in sweet repose. From dream space to gallery space — a spell that transmutes the matter of this reality. A spell of what could be.
I recently reread Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, a novel about three black sisters who grow up in a family of South Carolina weavers. Their mother and the women before her have woven clothes for the same white family since slavery, and now do so for money. The eldest daughter, Sassafrass, begins making artistic wall tapestries in high school, and her impractical form of weaving baffles her mother. Later, when Sassafrass weaves in front of her activist boyfriend, he berates her for not doing something to improve the black condition. Sassafrass sees visions as she weaves. She commune with spirits, finds moments of escape from her violent home (“because when women make clothes, they have time to think”). Through the tactile work of weaving, she shapes and remakes the material of her universe.
Diedrick, you said about the weaving on your loom that “even if you act on this machine, it also acts on you. There is so much room to extract these emotive qualities, lines and gestures from these simple threads. In your weaving, an embodied practice that harks back to crucial and undervalued black craft traditions, you reconfigure the possible. You give us time to think. When I stopped in front of your tapestry, when I left and when I came back, I felt the gift in my bones. When I look for a lineage in the long canon of mounted figures, centuries of statues of generals and oil paintings, I choose this child woven with bright green thread. Lying on their way to who knows where, beckoning, Listen, that’s how a body can be. Their horse with an unfinished tail and hanging threads, a haptic and imperfect vision of care.
Something I come back to every time I look at this piece is the sweet echo between the human figure and the horse. The curve of the child’s back imitating the horse’s neck and back, the call and response between the horse’s legs and the child’s hanging limbs. Much of the doctrine of righteousness resembles an ideology of separation. The fantasy of a white soldier taking his rightful place in dominating other living beings (including the one who carries him into battle). A colonial project to put things in their place. A theory of conquest. But here, the bodies of the horse and the rider are in concert. It’s normal to surrender to what carries you. It’s normal to be transported, to be tired and confident in the presence of the other. Seeing the movement of the horse and the gentle stillness of the child and the frayed, knotted edges of the earth they traverse, I recall a line written by ecologist and somatic thinker Jeanine M. Canty: “I am a body on the body of the earth.”
How glorious it is to be black and resting on the body of the earth.