NYU Black Renaissance Noire NYU Black Renaissance Noire V. 16.1 - Page 99

“Yeah, I told you, it’s Walter,” she said impatiently. Not eyes but ears. I flash forward ten years to the present, my second visit to the Amistad, opening Dent’s typescript draft, “For Walter Washington,” and I’m back again in the aftermath of the storm: “We blk blues singers / we blken the chords / with shots of blue….” Yes, you do. Prior to that trip, I hadn’t really had much interest in the blues. I knew some things about what they call “cotton time,” the period after the Civil War, when the remaining native peoples were being removed from the delta of incredibly rich earth between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, that land drained and slashed and burned to clear it for the factory-fields that would follow. The rivers were strapped down behind levees. Then King Cotton came, worked by the sweat labor of mainly former slaves migrating internally from the east and south, now sharecroppers and tenant farmers, under a regime as abstract and total as it was concrete and specific, as continuous with before as it was something altogether different in space and time. My partner on this current trip, whose name is Lady, knew even less than I did about the landscape or history, slightly more about the music, but it was her first visit to this region of the States. At the age of ten she’d been brought from her native Cali, Colombia, to join her parents in Brooklyn, and the landscape we rode over together confirmed everything she’d heard about this place as another heart of darkness, heavy with strange fruit. BLACK RENAISSANCE NOIRE When the archive closed for the day, I packed up what I’d found and had copied or jotted down as notes and took it all with me, out to St. Charles Avenue, where my friend was waiting in the big Buick she’d just inherited from her grandmother. She’d driven it via Bed-Stuy — where she picked me up — all the way from Troy, that burning ruin of a working-class childhood. If there was any daylight left, we usually spent it driving silently through the wreckage of the Lower Ninth, where Tom had once worked and near where he died in a way that would have been preventable elsewhere, places my friend had known and no longer recognized. A Project called Desire. I don’t know where we went on the particular afternoon I’m describing — it was late and already dark. We ate dinner somewhere while I told her about my day and she about hers, moving through a disaster whose effects were the alibis of its causes. I didn’t mention the specific images I’d gathered, the three-quarter profile, the guitar strap made of chain. She’d arranged for us to see music somewhere that night, some bluesman whose name I didn’t recall, in one of the few places open and operating outside the French Quarter. We drove there after dinner through streets still blacked out and patrolled by National Guard Humvees. Our headlights rolled over heaps of wreckage on either side. The joint was an island of light in that haunted darkness, fired by generator, and as soon as we stepped out of the car, we could hear the guitar. When we entered, grateful for shelter, he was just warming up a nearly empty room. Something crossed. It was the same chain around his neck, holding up his instrument, maybe even the same instrument, the same posture and profile under the surface changes of nearly three decades. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It hardly seemed to surprise her, that coincidence, what with all the other levitating graves we moved among. 97 young guitar player in three-quarter profile. His guitar strap was a chain, was the distinctive thing. I had the archivist make a photocopy of the photograph for me, of that and a few other images and papers for something I was then writing, but that, in the years since, I’d abandoned.