The Power of the Return

Curator's Note

I was honored when asked to preside over the opening night artist panel for liquid blackness’s tenth-anniversary symposium titled “Music Video as Black Art: Claiming the B-Side.” As a founding member of the liquid blackness community, a contributor, and now a member of the journal’s editorial board, I have had the blessing of watching this community flourish under the visionary leadership of founder Alessandra Raengo. I have also witnessed the impact of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies; a formidable, open-access forum for cutting-edge work published by Duke University Press and shepherded by editors-in-chief Raengo and my dear colleague Lauren Cramer, also a founding member.

To celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the liquid blackness collective, I returned to its founding institution, Georgia State University, where I earned my master’s and doctoral degrees and where I began my career as a scholar and a teacher. This was a homecoming of sorts for me, or as Raengo would describe it, “a family reunion.” Homecomings and reunions are both longstanding traditions that commemorate, as I stated in my opening remarks, “the power of the return.” As we come home, reunite and return, we revisit those significant spaces, memories, and people in our lives. We are reminded of our journeys and of the formative, sometimes painful, challenges and turning points that made us, nurtured us, and stretched us. 

On that opening Thursday evening, I encouraged those in attendance to embrace the moment of return and to honor the paths we have taken. This is a moment not simply to mark the passage of time, but to evaluate how we inhabit time and space, to celebrate the quality of our relationships, and to express gratitude for what we create together. This event was a moment to take a contemplative breath, one which allows us to release old dreams and to experience the rebirth of new ones, knowing that, to quote the title of Jenn Nkiru’s prescient film, rebirth is necessary.

On that opening night, I was privileged to be in conversation with six brilliant artists (Elissa Blount Moorhead, Stefani Saintonge, Kya Lou, Shawn Peters, Bradford Young, and Jenn Nkiru) whose work has inspired us and, in keeping with liquid blackness tradition, we would screen a work we found meaningful, engage in generative discussion, fellowship, and EAT! Creating events, building community, and collaborating are meaningful, but challenging endeavors and good food, generously provided by Lou Ruprecht as head of Hellenic Studies, are requirements. 

For this occasion, we decided to screen the luminous twenty-minute or so short film As Told To G/D Thyself (2019) created by the Umma Chroma Collective composed of Bradford Young, Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Marc Thomas, Kamasi Washington, with Elissa Blount Moorhead, who spearheaded community casting outreach.[i] Screening this film was particularly meaningful, as I have been processing it as part of my own research for years, and the occasion gave us all the opportunity to see this vibrant film, which I had only seen on my laptop, on the big screen.

The film, created to accompany the musical imagination of saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington, specifically his 2018 album “Heaven and Earth,” foregrounds the beauty of a resplendent universe into which life is born. The film’s opening animated sequence suspends the viewer in the inner workings of the cosmos, accompanied by the hum of vibrating strings and the tinkling of piano keys. We see a tiny primordial figure propelled through a universe of light, waves of color and motion, and an orbit of planetary beings. The figure is drawn into a vortex of energy, and a voice gently queries, “Let’s Ask God” as onscreen text reads “Submit to a Moment.” The film then jarringly transports us onto the human plane where the urban landscape of Baltimore and its majestic figures navigate another dimension. As Told to G/D Thyself embodies the visual and sonic complexity of the work of the artists on the panel and articulates the power of this moment as a convergence of past, present, and future imaginings. The film and our excellent panel discussion provided an opportunity to explore the powerful connections between aesthetics, black studies, and the nature of consciousness.

As much of liquid blackness’s inquiries have explored the nature of generative practice, collaboration, and practices of ensemblic communities, I asked our panelists to help us contemplate what this film (or perhaps any film) is “asking God.” How do they use the tools of art and filmmaking to capture and visualize the ethereal nature of the cosmos, God, and the Universe on such a collaborative project? They each reminded us that the nature of black life, art, and community is found in how we live—the ways in which we return to those things that sustain us, not simply in the processes of filmmaking. And artist/colorist Kya Lou admonished us not to be rooted in the outcome, but to practice a kind of detachment from the external pressures, pressures, which I would argue, diminish the vibrant potential of creation, study, collaboration, and sustainable living. 

This tenth-year liquid blackness celebration allowed us to return to the things that matter most, to be grateful for the now, and excited for what is to come.


[i] As Told to G/D Thyself is available at online


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