December 26th, 2019
This past February I met with Reginald Eldridge Jr. in Brown Butter in Bed-stuy. Later we would continue the interview at the Macon Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Some interviews move more quickly than others ––– I ask a question, and right away an adequate and efficient response is given; then I ask another question and we move on. Interviewing Eldridge Jr. was different.
If you read his work and look into his photographs, you'll notice that he takes his time. In the same way that being in conversation with him created a space where I was able to slow down and more thoroughly process and consider the connections he was making and the ideas that he was setting forth, his work has the same ability to hold a great amount of space, and to hold that space with care.
An excerpt from the interview, below.
Portrait by Emily Fishman
I have a theory that there are no bad writers, just bad readers. So really what it’s about is learning to read, and as I learn to read, helping to teach others to read. So much of what is denotative, or what’s called denotative in language is connotative epistemologically.
It’s really about insinuation, and black artists ––––– despite being locked in a particular kind of language that doesn’t come from the places from which they come, and a language that can’t really speak to the experiences that they’ve experienced, totally ––– have always found ways, through inflection, through reversal of order, and through various means, to basically tweak the language, to use it in such a way that people really start to get what’s being said.
Also, it’s been dangerous to speak truthfully as a black person in this country, and also to be literate. So in the context of those dangers that have been inherited, and that we carry along with us all the time, we have still found ways to get across what we need to get across.
One of the most obvious examples would be Harriet Tubman. Everybody knows Harriet Tubman. And one of the songs that she would sing, in order to alert folks, was “Go Down Moses,” which is a negro spiritual. One of the reasons that she did it was because black African slaves were not allowed to practice traditional African religious practices, they had to convert to Christianity. And so within the model of Christianity there is a story which is ready-made for their experience, which is why it was so easily adaptable to the experiences of the blacks in the south who were being enslaved and seeking freedom, and the only way to get to that freedom was through God, so it ended up being the perfect model to encourage folks, and to put spirit into folks, and to let them know that we’re going to get out of this, and that we’re going to get through it.
You can use the model you’ve been given; you’re given the language, and then you can use the tonalities that precede the language, and that are from the place that you come from.
Another example would be “Amazing Grace.” The tones and the music to it come from one place, whereas the words come from a different place. You can keep in mind that the sound is a form of language; the actual musical notes that are involved, and the sounds that you make with your body when you’re singing, or when you’re saying the words. You can be using the same words, but it’s through how you’re saying them that people start to understand what it is that you’re saying.
I still think that we’re not yet at a time where all of the black expression that we have has been adequately read; where our readings of the things that we’ve produced are equal to the things that we’re producing, in terms of interpretations.
Although I don’t know if it ever needs to be interpreted, as we say, “What’s understood don’t need to be said,” but at the same time . . . learning to read would be a very important step in this long story that we’re involved in. Coming to that has also helped me figure out and decide that I would take this year to take very seriously what this month, February, Black History Month, could be. Because the story isn’t finished, and we’re not out of the woods.