Soul on Ice: the Afrofuturist Twist (rhythm III)

September 7th, 2009 | No comments yet

It was Chubby Checker’s mission, bearing the Twist as good news, to teach the whites, whom history had taught to forget, how to shake their asses again. It is a skill they surely must once have possessed but which they abandoned for puritanical dreams of escaping the corruption of the flesh, by leaving the terrors of the Body to the blacks. (Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice: 174)

The writings of Eldridge Cleaver distort something of Cleaver’s usual image as a prison writer, Black Panther and ex-militant who found religion (though he is all of these things as well), for they also offer a different path into thinking Afrofuturism. Check out the quote above, collected in the prison writings of Soul on Ice. Afrofuturism as a philosopheme, a kind of protoza concept, is at work here. In Cleaver, the transformational potential of embodied rhythm is seen as not only part of a political critique, but an entire theory of embodied, near-Gnostic metaphysics, in which blacks and whites are long-separated entities, each requiring the other to achieve balance and harmony.

Chubby Checker – The Twist by slackerofthemind

Cleaver takes up the cliché that whites have brains, blacks shake booty, and retells the history of the Civil Rights movement and black liberation through the introduction of black rhythm into white consciousness by way of Chubby Checker’s The Twist. Rock ‘n’ roll is a revolutionary agent. Media plays a role here too in this invocation of a new rhythm, as the primarily white TV nation sees itself Twisting away on television. Cleaver’s black/white division of labour (body = black, intellect = white) shocks the senses (of identity politics, pluralism, correctness) in regards to race. It also injects a Futurism – a futurity where the healing of the human race comes through the near-Gnostic reunification of the two contrasted races, black/white, brain/body, by way of the Twist, but always, it seems, with the tongue firmly in the cheek (just as Cleaver always has his other hand, the one not holding the pen, on his gun). In Cleaver’s clunky, but embodied metaphysics, each race is also split in gender. The whites are spit between the Omnipotent Administrators [white males] and the Ultrafeminines [white females]. Strong black females are too masculine for Cleaver, and black males not intelligent enough; not only a white/black synthesis must come about, but a cross-synthesis between genders on both sides. In short, racial liberation is also gender/sexual liberation. Something of the totality of human potential has been split into a quadrant, along both gender and race lines. Time to Twist them together:

The stiff, mechanical Omnipotent Administrators and Ultrafeminines presented a startling spectacle as they entered in droves onto the dance floors to learn how to Twist. They came from every level of society, from top to bottom, writhing pitifully though gamely about the floor, feeling exhilarating and soothing new sensations, release from some unknown prison in which their Bodies had been encased, a sense of freedom they had never known before, a feeling of communion with some mystical root-source of life and vigor, from which sprang a new awareness and enjoyment of the flesh, a new appreciation of the possibilities of their Bodies. They were swinging and gyrating and shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life, rekindle the dead limbs, the cold ass, the stone heart, the stiff, mechanical, disused joints with the spark of life. (Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice 178)

Cleaver’s appreciation for the change in white cultures signals Afrofuturism, insofar as Afrofuturism sets into motion a Twist to the forever divisions (we could say: transcendent categories) of race. Afrofuturism has many founding moments: one is when Malcolm X returns from Mecca in 1964, declaring in an interview that “No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition whites show toward me, as far as I’m concerned as long as that same respect and recognition is not shown toward everyone of our people in this country it doesn’t exist for me.” The statement hinges on what is meant by our people, in which Malcolm X plays precisely between the racial possessive (black people: there is no respect for me until there is respect for all blacks) and what we might call the Afrofuturist possessive (all people: there is no respect for me until there is respect for all).

In 1964, still in prison, Cleaver sides with Malcolm X against Elijah Muhammad, startling his fellow Nation of Islam Brothers (Soul on Ice 61). Malcolm X famously broke with Muhammed and the Nation of Islam, rejecting race-based separatist beliefs, all forms of racism, and advocating world brotherhood. Playing on this general theme – that white culture might be Twisting ’round – leads Cleaver to an analysis of what a Twisted white culture might mean to black culture:

This spectacle [the Twist] startled many Negroes, because they perceived it as an intrusion by the Mind into the providence of the Body, and this intimated chaos; because the Negroes knew, from the survival experience of their everyday lives, that the system within which they were imprisoned was based on the racial Maginot Line and that the cardinal sin, crossing the line – which was, in their experience, usually initiated from the black side – was being committed, en masse, by the whites. The Omnipotent Administrators [white males] and Ultrafeminines [white females] were storming the Maginot Line! A massive assault had been launched without parallel in American history, and to Negroes it was confusing. Sure, they had witnessed it on an individual scale: they had seen many ofays destroy the Maginot Line in themselves. But this time it had all the appearances of a national movement. There were even rumours that President Kennedy and his Jackie were doing the Twist secretly in the White House; that their Number One Boy had been sent to the Peppermint Lounge to learn how to Twist, and he in turn brought the trick back to the White House. These Negroes knew that something fundamental had changed. (Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice 178-179)

The Twist is the way in which gender and race form a matrix. The Twist is a dance, an infection, a virus, that moves across race and gender. It twists races and genders together. Dance music culture has always held this radical potential to let loose bodies without regard to gender, race, nationality or sexuality. The Twist, however, is also a catalyst within black culture, which foments the return consciousness of black culture, a culture watching something of its culture – Chubby Checker on the television – entering into what was primarily a (white) system of consumerism. To this end, the white Twist can twist itself further into black rage. If the Twist was black property, the communal property of black rock ‘n’ roll given sonic signature by Chubby Checker, it was in part twisted out of its context into a white commodity. It is through this Twist that Cleaver’s meditations on militancy and rebellion must be read. The question of property does not escape Afrofuturism. Afrofuturism is not a lily white ideal of racial harmony and immaterial equality. Afrofuturism aims for the heart of property – it invents ways to remix property – and Afrofuturism, in the 1960s, will even share what was once scorned by white culture, the embodied Twist itself. But, as Cleaver insists, it will not give up the question of property:

It’s no secret that in America the blacks are in total rebellion against the System. They want to get their nuts out of the sand. They don’t like the way America is run, from top to bottom. In America, everything is owned. Everything is held as private property. Someone has a brand on everything. There is nothing left over. Until recently, the blacks themselves were counted as part of somebody’s private property, along with the chickens and goats. The blacks have not forgotten this, principally because they are still treated as if they are part of someone’s inventory of assets – or perhaps, in this day of rage against the costs of welfare, blacks are listed among the nation’s liabilities. On any account, however, blacks are in no position to respect or help maintain the institution of private property. What they want is to figure out a way to get some of that property for themselves, to divert it to their own needs. This is what it is all about, and this is the real brutality involved. This is the source of all brutality. (Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice: 126)

The shift occurs, a shift properly Afrofuturist, from the destructive war on white cultures (and the self-destruction of black cultures) to a deconstruction of the matrix of gender, sexuality and culture by way of the Afrofuturist Twist. In the destructive war, property is the target and the goal, that to be appropriated through destruction. But as it is also the source of all brutality, the desire to attain property becomes the self-destruction of one’s own property, of the community property (and so the buildings burn in Watts – just as they burned again in 1992, and the Paris banlieues in 2005). In the Afrofuturist Twist, a nearly intangible, but deeply affective property is dismantled, infected with a virus, and sent packing back to white culture to consume, dangerous contents and all. And 9 months later the Twist comes rolling across the radio, white bodies on TV, dancin’… suddenly, abandonment of the proper white body, the black body imitated, improperly.

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