A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib:
I have had the dream where I hold Al Jolson wearing a dark coat of blackface under the water of an old bathtub. I do not know how I arrive in the scene, but I arrive with my hands on his shoulders, pushing him down below the water, which seems endless from my angle. In the dream, he’s wearing the brown suit he wears while playing piano in The Jazz Singer. That movie was in black-and-white, as is this dream, but I know the suit is brown. I know the suit is brown because I have, in my waking hours, stared at the poster from the film, which is painted in color. I know the suit is brown because on the poster, Jolson’s face is not brown. The suit is the only interruption of white on his whole body. In the dream, Jolson does not struggle when I hold his head under the water. His eyes stay open. I scrub at his face with my hands until the scrubbing becomes clawing, trying to remove the layer of caked-on dark skin, to address the man underneath. In the dream, I don’t know what I would say to Al Jolson if I could peel the mask from his face, but I keep peeling, and Jolson does not fight, even as I swipe fingers across his eyes. Eyes that, surrounded by the darkness of his makeup, gleam from underneath the water. When I push him down far enough, his face vanishes entirely, or at least I think it does. In a dream, nothing is tangible, even in a dream that arrives and arrives again. Only the smallest details remain: I know the tub is old—it’s one of those with massive claws as feet. In the background, a version of “Blue Skies” is probably playing, but in this dream, I have convinced myself that it isn’t Jolson’s version because it is being sung by a woman. Which means I tell myself it is Ella Fitzgerald. Who, I imagine, would also want me to scrub the black makeup off this white man’s face. In the dream, I think I hold Al Jolson down because if I can’t detach him from skin that looks like my skin, I at least want his eyes to stop glowing from beneath it. But the further I push his face down into the deepest parts of the water, I am left only to search the water for my own reflection, which looks dark, darker than I’ve ever been. So dark that it creeps along the water’s surface like a shadow’s dancing limbs. And then, as I lean closer to the water, I feel Al Jolson’s suit snap itself empty, and I am not holding a body anymore, and then I wake up and in the darkness of my real life bedroom, I can’t even see my own hands.
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