The L1 Collective’s Insurgent Media Cypher is a gathering call for potential L1s who feel themselves responsible for the proliferation of amplified Black voices through the development of strategic and systemic Pan-African cohesion, for the utilization of culture and connection in pursuit of Black liberation, and for the harnessing of the power that collective naming yields. If what you read resonates, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to join the L1 collective.
FOR US BY US: A Call for Black Distribution
Black skin, black braids/ Black waves, black days/ Black baes, black things/ these are black-owned things/ Black faith still can’t be washed away/ not even in that Florida water
I cried the first time I saw Kerry James Marshall’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Despite being in a space emblematic of whiteness—the gallery, its foundations and funding, a mirror for whiteness—I felt Black. Black everywhere. Blackness infiltrated the space of the museum tugging on a deep-rooted emotional trigger. Here I am: getting to know myself and my selves are beautiful.
In an essay collected for his retrospective exhibition, Mastry, Lanka Tattersall writes, “…Marshall’s bodies are literally black. To render his figures, he adds a bit of cobalt blue to cool down a paint’s tone or yellow ocher to warm it up…Yet, the material substance of the bodies he paints is black.” The paintings become rewrites of history (of a canon) in our own images of desire and rebellion. Examples that come to mind are: “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master,” “Black Painting,” “Vignette,” or “School of Beauty, School of Culture.” The black figures rebel off and out from these massive paintings through different techniques and strategies.
These methods are not just painterly (uses of collage, color, or text), but also different historical strategies towards freedom. Sometimes these efforts are hidden and opaque, like in “Black Painting” (2003-2006) which imagines the moments before Black revolutionary Fred Hampton’s murder by the Chicago police. The painter practices an act of tenderness before a brutal awakening, the entire painting covered in blackness. Peeking out, is a book written by Angela Davis, paintings on a wall, the Black Panther Party flag, and the almost indiscernible curve of Hampton’s body. This painting does not just speak to the violent surveillance and policing of Black people, but Marshall also provides a protective space for Hampton and other revolutionaries in his work through the medium and materiality of black paint.
In Mastry, this painting is at home among other practices of liberation. Consider “Vignette,” wherein black figures run between the edge of a tall field of grass and the sidewalk. Birds and butterflies adorn young black people. They are framed in freedom—running with each other—their dancerly bodies in flight. “Portrait of Nat Turner with the Head of His Master,” reveals Nat Turner in the foreground of the painting, daring the painter, claiming the space of his narrative. The predominant subject enacting his freedom. Marshall documents and remembers Turner’s act from the future. The images, in relationship to each other, reveal the insurgent Black past; they name and portraitize it, connecting Black histories with Black futures. These black figures are embedded in their present circumstances, but painted and decorated in reverence.
made this song to make it all y’all’s turn/ for us, this shit is for us/ some shit is a must/ this shit is for us.
I don’t speak of Marshall to idealize him, or to put him on a pedestal, but to create my own meanings and respond to the potential in what/who/how he paints. The strongest response I have is to “School of Beauty, School of Culture.”
Can you imagine what music is bumpin in this beauty shop? Imagine how they talk—an expansive laughter, the dance, a shift toward joy. See their bodies in continuous movement, care and fluidity. I see it in the dynamic, vibrant colors and patterns; the paintings and posters of Ms. Lauryn Hill, Madam CJ Walker; the images of products developed and made for Black women (yes! We have complicated relationship to these things). Look at the figure in the way back of the mirror, the one who is taking a picture of this ever-unfolding moment. Who are they? Who are they to capture the woman posing in the foreground; the sweet, grooving, and free babies; the folks looking at each other, hyping each other up? Who are they to capture this moment and what is it for?
I dream of seeing images like that of myself and my people. How do we communicate to each other that our ways of living are artful just in the ways that we be, in the ways that we breathe? And, of course, that already exists, but I’m asking something else.
I just wanna wake up on CP time.
Marshall’s artwork is revelatory and groundbreaking, but it’s work that has seen its distribution through contemporary museum settings. The first essay in Mastry is written by a white woman, giving praise and well-informed criticism, historicizing the work in terms of Marshall’s mastery of Renaissance paintings.
I’m thinking of Solange, too, another Black artist who has gotten wide critical and public acclaim. A Seat at the Table and When I Get Home are love letters to Black folks and Black ways of being. Especially in her videos—she testifies, prioritizes community and collaboration, and enacts in daily meditations of her Blackness. She explores the facets of being Black. These ways of being are multiple, existing everywhere, and Solange demands that we claim ownership of ourselves and our contributions. Yet, this work is still inside of white systems of distribution and communication—Youtube, Apple Music, music industries that benefit and co-opt Black labor but still reinforce whiteness. What could it mean for us to not just celebrate our Blackness, but to reclaim our methods of distribution?
We feel that it is absolutely essential to demonstrate the reality of our politics to other Black women and believe that we can do this through writing and distributing our work. The fact that individual Black feminists are living in isolation all over the country, that our own numbers are small, and that we have some skills in writing, printing, and publishing makes us want to carry out these kinds of projects as a means of organizing Black feminists as we continue to do political work in coalition with other groups.
This statement by the Combahee River Collective pre-empted the organization and establishment of the Kitchen Table: A Women of Color Press (1980), a feminist publication that centered the voices of women of color; many of them queer Black women. This publication not only sought to center these voices, but to build broader coalition across feminist of color liberation struggles. Two publications in particular, “Apartheid U.S.A.” and “Our Common Enemy, Our Common Cause” connected the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa with the violence enacted upon MOVE, an activist group based in Philadelphia. Kitchen Table Press “considered itself an activist publisher with the goal to educate a target audience not solely comprised of women or lesbians of color, but of readers across national categories of race, nationality, age, gender, sexuality, or economic status.” The press, and Collective, itself were explicitly demanding and creating avenues for distribution that were accessible to the masses. It also sought to explicitly be a connective tissue between movements—national and global—of people of color and feminists. Though this work was mainly literary and political, though the formats were limited, the intention for it was a wide-spread Black and feminist of color distribution. Not only should our content speak to us, and move us, it should also be distributed by us, and made in our ways of multiplicity.
Expansive Blackness and versatile Black methods help me to highlight the social power of queer scholar-activist-artists such as Alexis Pauline Gumbs (poet, activist, archivist) and Tourmaline (queer filmmaker and activist). Gumbs’ work ebbs from the Combahee River Collective and feminist organizing of the Kitchen Table Press—her work bolsters and adequately historicizes our movements. These methods of preservation, revive history to speak to the incendiary and insurgent potential of our daily lives. I want to think about the necessity of our media to be run by queer Black artists—coming from the margins of movements, but enacting deeply rooted practices of survival and communication.
Tourmaline’s work explores this duality of invisibility and hyper-visibility in her film on Marsha P. Johnson (trans activist, organizer of STAR) and in another film that bridges sci-fi and queer preservation. The work does not only make these histories more visible in the mainstream, but also tells these stories in ways that don’t reenact the same violence (through mis-telling, the lens of profit, and transphobia) the predicates these acts of survival.
I used to say, ‘I don’t know if I love myself.’ And one of my aunts put me in front of the mirror at age six and seven, and she said, ‘You are gonna look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I love myself.’ And then you’re going to say ‘I love Black people.’…And she was committed to that practice every time I saw her. Until it rolled off the tongue and there was no pause…
These acts beyond print distribution—fostered and nourished by queer Black artists existing in spaces of multiplicity—enact the spirit of our movements and of our ancestors. These methods of distribution and preservation that are not quite linear or “whole,” but are ever-evolving, model the idea that our knowledge and history still lives within us, and we are carrying on strategies and methods that continue to help free us. Media as a method of communication, has to protect us from surveillance but it also should be as mutable and flexible as we are.
The celebration of our joy and ways of being should not just be used as distraction, a celebration on display for white fetishization and consumption. This celebration can and should create necessary and intimate links, so that we are not just loving our celebrities, artists, cultural heroes; but we are truly loving ourselves. The celebration itself, the life of our movement—our ways of communicating, our art practices, our ways of being in relationship to each other—is embedded in our ways of contacting and sharing with each other. Distribution, this kind of sharing, is a language in and of itself that breathes life and love into the things that we can make for each other.
Knowles, Solange. “Almeda,” When I Get Home (2019).
Tattersall, Lanka. “Black Lives, Matter” in Kerry James Marshall: Mastry, ed. Helen Molesworth (2016).
Knowles, Solange. “F.U.B.U.” on A Seat at the Table (2016).
Knowles, Solange. “Binz” on When I Get Home (2019).
Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” (April 1977).
De Veaux, Alexis. Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, 2003 (p. 277).