Black Out [White Wash] Fall Out

Gabrielle Civil


blackout [ whitewash]  **fallout**
blackwash syllabus. hit the books.
cut it out.

After a full day of rich actions and powerful readings, we are here to discuss together questions of “Violence and Community.”

As a black woman poet, professor, and performance artist; a person who grew up in the city of Detroit at the rise of crack and gang violence; as a woman who encounters threats and accounts of gendered and sexual violence everyday; as the child of a Haitian immigrant who both told and kept conspicuous silence about the wages of dictatorship and systematic state violence; as the sister of a pediatrician just deployed through Doctors Without Borders to a conflict zone in French Guinea, I feel strong connections to the topic of “violence and community.”

I recognize violence as bloodshed, warfare, brutality, physical injurious force in local and global communities. Yet, in the face of this, from the start, at all my intersections, I was interested in exposing and embodying notions of intellectual violence.

What does that mean?

Performance Action: Incur–Inflict–

A black woman is tied by a rope to the library.
She takes a Worldbook Encyclopedia in her hands.
Volume 10. Letter I. (Idaho, Indians,
International Relations, Interest.)
The book is red. She writes her name in black on the cover.
Some things get blacked out. Some things she blacks out.
Some things get pushed across the line, the rope on the way
to and from the library. Some things get dragged.

Some things get offered from the crowd, held,
discussed, energy transferred, transformed.
Some things get cut.
Oh yes—the cutting.
In the  blackout  [ whitewash]  **fallout**
Foucault’s dictum holds:
“Knowledge is for cutting.”
But what does this mean?
Ideas, language, texts cut out from the world and cut from the world,
cut out from us, and cut from us, cut into us and cut by us.
And yes, this is a violence.
Intellectual Violence. Volume I.


The ideas that have cut us that need to be cut from us.
What do we need to do to cut it out? As a person, a poet,
a performance artist, what have I incurred?
What do I incur by doing this? What do I inflict?
What happens to the bits, the debris that fall?
What needs to be gathered? Who will gather it?
I won’t. Not volume I. This thing cut from me has to fall.
Fallout. The reminder of what has happened.
Will it be swept away—by the wind, by the workers?
Gathered by hands? (What if you have no hands?)
Reabsorbed into the earth? Collaged into something new?

A Reading: “Blackwash: A Primer”

A collage of cuts. Upper cuts, lower cuts, a bobbing and weaving
of offensive and defensive rhetorical stances. The new syllabus:
Hortense Spillers, Adrienne Kennedy, Ralph Ellison,  Jacqueline Beaugé-Rosier,
Claude McKay, Amiri Baraka, and me. All having incurred intellectual violence,
all engaged in ideological combat, an attempt to illuminate the flashing FUCK YOU.
The link to these ideas, this language, these texts, and my own experience of body.
What my hands can do. When I have no hands.

Together in the blackout  [ whitewash]  **fallout**, our voices mix like pain,

like paint, to create a new primer, to change the whitewash into blackwash.
The idea of something as both a cut and a wash.
The attempt to bring both back into the body.

A Question: for us here at Naropa University.

How to bring it back to the body?
Or to ask it another way: What exactly are disembodied poetics?
Yes, the idea of a program starting without a building.
Yes, the idea of reconsidering structures of space.
Yes, the possibilities of transcendence, emanation, eminence.
But what happens when aesthetics, imagination, expression, ideas
are divorced, deracinated, pulled away from the body?

Is this a heroism, an ego so supple that it floats, a muscular,
heart-wrenching howl over the roof of the Allen Ginsberg library?
This seems extremely embodied to me. . .
Or are disembodied poetics a manifestation of Descartes’ split
between the body and the mind, Hortense Spillers’ distinction
between the body and the flesh?
Are disembodied poetics the architecture of slave ships?
The possible start of intellectual violence? Or a form of such a thing?

Or perhaps let me ask a more constructive question:
what does it meant to re-embody poetics? To reintegrate imagination,
ideas, language, aesthetics with the specific presence of body and bodies,
individual and community body politics and body politic.
This seems to be the aim of this very symposium.
Again, to reintegrate imagination, ideas, language, aesthetics
about community and violence with the specific presence of
body and bodies, my fellow brilliant panelists and you members
of the Naropa community, navigating individual and collective
body politics and body politic.

I am so heartened and invigorated by the work of my fellow panelists:
David Buuck, Melissa Buzzeo, and Kate Zembreno with John Vintner
for their sculptures, rituals, live political streaming and searing, vital, brilliant words.

As our symposium moves into this next phase of conversation and future action,
I want to reinforce the link between all of our work and the possibilities of re-embodied poetics and re-integration.
Navigating the fallout of violence and community, this can be our way.


A black woman walks into a room
and regards a wall of whiteness,
from floor to ceiling, rows and rows of books.
The spines are white. The pages are white.
The words are white. How can she read
such blinding whiteness? The black light of her body
illuminates the words. Reverses impressions.
She feels it as a violence in her body.
A throwing up. Of words, of bile.
She would throw up her hands if she had them.
She no longer has hands. She is no longer a body.
She swallows. Disembodied poetics.

What to name this thing that has happened to me?
That has happened to my people?

A wraith arrives.
A black woman professor stands before the class.
She is a guerilla. Not a monkey, although some might think so.
A warrior. A black savage intellectual with a flat cut diamond on her finger
spread as large as her palm. It is like a slice of mining on her outstretched hand.
Her reminder of the wrongness of everything, catching the light.
She is jumping, screaming: “YOU HAVE TO BE READY!!!
This Is Intellectual Warfare. What They Are Saying Is We Don’t Exist.”

Spill her here.
The first paragraph of “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” first published in Diacritics/summer 1987. “Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everyone knows my name. “Peaches” and “Brown Sugar,” “Sapphire and Earth Mother,” “Aunty,” “Granny,” “God’s Holy Fool,” a “Miss Ebony First,“ or Black Woman at the Podium.”
I describe a locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments
and privations in the national treasure of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me,
and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.”
Yes, this would be our first text.


The spooks in Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 play “Funnyhouse of a Negro”
Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus who was described
as a hunchback albino, Patrice Lumumba wandering the jungles of Africa.
they all screamed in the visions of the hero of the play.
A quiet, modest black college student named Negro-Sarah.
Negro-Sarah “spend[s] her days preoccupied with the placement and geometric position
of words on paper. [She] writes[s] poetry filling white page after white page
with imitations of Edith Sitwell.” Her hair falls out incessantly throughout the play.

What to do with these visions of history?
the problem of these bodies? the grappling of power and violence?

In the plays of Adrienne Kennedy, the world of history and knowledge
reckons and constitutes a world of violence, the world we live in.
Negro-Sarah tells us her mother was “raped by a wild black beast.”
This beast is her father. Or the Suzanne Alexander plays, the ones I always return to,
a black woman professor named Suzanne Alexander witnesses terrible murders.
In her college years, she loved 19th century English verse and wrote
long encomiums about the wind on the moors, so good that her white
professor was sure they were plagiarized. In the plays, he seduces her,
wide-eyed and innocent, and leaves her in the lurch with a baby to raise.
The mingling of violent urges, the body and the mind.
And what to do with the fall out?

I am trying to explain to you something that you already know.
That insidious twirl of brown ivy feeding green on white ivory towers,
the way a certain kind of violence enters the body, is intersected, intercepted by ideas.

A few months ago, I was grabbed on the street.
It was a dark street. He was a stranger.
Although the idea of him was familiar.
The intimacy of touch. Grabbed from behind.
Swiped. Snatched. It is so easy to snatch a body.
I told my lover—a man grabbed me in the street.
He said why didn’t you hit him.
I did, I told you that I hit him.
That’s right baby, you hit him. I forgot.
False memory.

Vi·o·lence            noun

  1. swift and intense force: the violence of a storm.
  2. rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment.
  3. an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws.
  4. a violent act or proceeding.
  5. rough or immoderate vehemence, as of feeling or language

The violence of feeling or language.

The backwash of what you have to swallow.
It gets thrown up. Hands thrown up in the air.
But you have no hands.
I told him that I hit him.
I hit him and kicked him in the stomach.
I ran after him, and my shoe fell off in the street.
A violence was done to me, but it gets blacked out.
I can’t remember the moment precisely.
An unwanted—turn, shove, push, kick.
The idea of such a thing. The idea.
The thing is happening. Me, the thing.

Go back to school.
Forget it happened.

In Poetic Justice, the second feature-length film by director John Singleton released in 1993,
Janet Jackson plays a young hairdresser named Justice who falls in love with a postal worker played by Tupac Shakur on a road trip in a mail truck. In many fanciful dream sequence like scenes, she incants poems actually written by Maya Angelou. These poems exist only inside her head. She never says them aloud. The actual dialogue of the movie goes something like this.

When I am invited to participate in a symposium on violence and community, I think of this.

A child’s Lite Brite emerges.
It reads an illuminated F U C K  Y O U.

from Invisible Man, 1952
“Meanwhile I enjoy my life with the compliments of Monopolated Light & Power. Since you never recognize me even when in closest contact with me, and since, no doubt, you’ll hardly believe that I exist, it won’t matter if you know that I tapped a power line leading into the building and ran it into my hole in the ground. Before that I lived in the darkness into which I was chased, but now I see. I’ve illuminated the blackness of my invisibility—and vice versa.” This from the black man who strings up 1,369 light bulbs.


A woman is writing in Haiti.
It is 1966. She is a schoolteacher. There is a dictator.
She teaches the children to sing hymns to him.
She teaches them to pray to him “Our Father.”
In the darkness, she writes of the darkness.
The dictator tries to whitewash their language
in blackness. In the BLACKOUT,
she writes in a different way.
Transforms whitewashed blackness to shadow.
She aims to move from the shadow to flight.

I am running up stairs.
I want to throw my hands in the air
with glee. I have no body. Fingers. Only rustling
through my pocketbook for change for the copy machine.
I have found the school teacher’s book in this place.
It is the black library. The Schomburg.
I will copy the pages to enter her shadow.

She writes:

Toute la nuit la persistance des marches
Toute la nuit le feu le verre
L’heure anonyme des lunes interdites
A longueur de jour la ronde chronique
De ta frayeur renversée contre mon mutisme
Les discours du temps des statuts du temps
De la stature du temps qui s’oublient
Dans l’espace
N’ont pas synchronisé la musique
Antérieure à mon appel à la vie
Je suis au seuil de l’histoire
qui passé le dépit le vertige
L’abîme d’ombre où je te retrouve
Vie de névrosée
En éclats brisées de verre
Dans l’ivrognerie de la douleur

I translate:

All night long the persistence of walking
All night long the fire the glass
The anonymous hour of forbidden moons
All day long the chronic round
Of your fright turned against my muteness
The discourse of time of statutes of time
Of the stature of time forgotten
In space
Have not synchronized the music
From before my call to life
I am at the threshold of history
Passing the vexation the vertigo
The abyss of shadow where I find you again
Life of a neurotic woman
In broken shards of glass
In the drunkenness of pain

What are disembodied poetics?
What does it mean to be a black woman poet?
How to chronicle and embody a certain kind of violence?

In college, I took a poetry class, which I hated.
We learned about sonnets, which I loved.
I was at the start of trying to reconcile content and form,
ideas and body. And so I did a project on racially righteous sonnets.


Tiger  [a sonnet]
The white man is a tiger at my throat,
Drinking my blood as my life ebbs away,
And muttering that his terrible striped coat
Is Freedom’s and portends the Light of Day.
Oh white man, you may suck up all my blood
And throw my carcass into potter’s field,
But never will I say with you that mud
Is bread for Negroes! Never will I yield.

Europe and African and Asia wait
The touted New Deal of the New World’s hand!
New systems will be built on race and hate,
The Eagle and the Dollar will command.
Oh Lord! My body, and my heart too, break-
The tiger in his strength his thirst must slake!

My professor hated this poem.
He told me that there were no good African-American poets
except for a few lines of Countee Cullen (which displayed promising prosody).
He told me he disagreed with my analysis of transforming poetic
form through poetic content. My professor hated my paper
and was I wrong in believing that he hated me too?

A paraphrase from the first lines of Wise Ys Wise, published in 1995
When you find yourself in a strange place
With strange people speaking a strange language
You know you’re in trouble

My professor gave me an A for the paper and an A in the class.
This is how I knew he really hated me.

Give a nigger an inch, and he’ll take an ell.
Mr. Auld said this about teaching
Frederick Douglass his A B Cs.
Something about epistemology.
I was born.
I was born.
I was born.

There is a dance called the Electric Slide.
You ivory tower vine to the left and snap.
You ivory tower vine to the right and snap.
You shimmy your hips back and snap.
You sashay forward, bend and twist.

What happens when you turn a person into a thing?
What happens when you think this?
What happens when a person is told she is a thing?
What happens when a person is taught she is a thing?
What happens when a person is taught disembody?
[Words no longer decipherable]

I am writing this in the dark.
Not just a room but a body.
Not just a body but a mind.
Illuminated by violent light.

[1] Thanks to Rosamond S. King, Sarah Hollows, Moe Lionel Norton-Westbrook for impactful conversations. Shout-outs also to Hortense Spillers, Adrienne Kennedy, Jacqueline Beaugé-Rosier, Monique Wittig, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, John Singleton, Frederick Douglass, and Rosmarie Waldrop whose presence helped to form the fall out of the primer.