Rocking the Running Spirit: Meditations on Sisterhood and Occupations
by Anna Martine Whitehead
I am hitting a rhythm. Like the ancestors at Igbo Landing, I am hitting a rock, rocking out to sea. I am rocking in my seat, my heels; my body rocks. My ghosts have memories past time of rocking. We’ve caught the spirit, we’ve jigged and jumped, we’ve danced and grooved and broken. Ancient memories of being elevated in a trance, with hands laid upon memory, remembering in sema, swaying in shucklen, and so on – who knows what memories these ghosts hold. In New Orleans, supine with toes up, in close enough proximity to the other Black women here to feel their sweat pool around my shoulders, I begin to rock my heels. I am rocking my heels, my body rocks, memory is activated, I am unlocked. I am available as Toni Morrison identifies availability: The body “hanging around,” accessible to spirit.1
We are a new ensemble in the early stages of developing interdisciplinary work addressing freedom. This week we are exploring the hull-of-the-ship Middle Passage experience, asking ourselves how those folk down there shared stories with each other when they couldn’t raise their voices, didn’t have room to stand, didn’t speak the same language. We know this is powerful work – ancestor work– so every day we enter the studio and build an altar, set intentions and ground ourselves spiritually before rehearsal. We are a small group of Black women, femmes and queers, with varying creative practices and spiritual, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. Without necessarily naming it as such, every rehearsal is a re-enactment of the ritual we have collectively created to re-collect our ancestors and carry them with us into freedom. To get there, we often start on the floor, toes up, rocking.
Rocking has been long been used by many as an entryway into a trance state, a border-crossing action that allows the soul to vibrate more easily between the physical and astral planes. Similarly to another vibrational practice – singing – it has been used by Hebrews, Sufi, Hindus, Evangelicals and Baptists, among others, as a self-contained and sustainable method to “change [one’s] condition.”2 Like singing – a process of “running sound through your body” – rocking is an activation of spirit in the flesh. In our ensemble, the practice is rooted in the imagined experience of enslaved Africans shackled to the floor of a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean. We imagine the storms at sea, and the proximity to other bodies shaking (for we know that while in the hold babies were born, seizures were had, illnesses were fought and so on) over the up-to-six-month journey would have made for a turbulent passage. So we rock from the ankles to connect to the physical experience of our ancestors en route.
(A memory of the Middle Passage.)
We rock and we run the spirit through us. I am on this studio floor-ship rocking with the others when I am overtaken by spirit. I am penetrated by an energy, which enters through my chest and takes up residence throughout me, toe to head. Over the following weeks and months I will reflect on this time using a litany of synonyms, trying and failing to attach language-meaning to the experience of being entered, possessed and activated. Occupation is the word I return to. Occupation as a feeling, if one can imagine the feeling of occupation, though “feeling” – neither in the sense of emotion nor physical sensation – is an imprecise term for what is happening.
The more recently colonized may recognize this feeling-not-feeling of alien occupation. A feeling of the Other that also becomes you until you move as the other moves and the point where you distinguish yourself from your occupier is so slippery that you must wage wars to maintain your borders. Or you must allow your borders to grow soft. This “feeling.”
What does it feel like to be a Palestinian elder in Gaza? The feeling of losing one’s grasp on one’s memories of life before the nakba; the feeling of knowing that your children have never tasted water that did not come from Israel or looked up at a night sky that was not owned and contested by foreign governments. And you yourself cannot remember such a sky, and it is only in the poems in your head that water and sky and living are free. How is it to be the elder’s grandchild who plays intifada games in seized and regulated streets, and laughs with the eruptive joy of a child. This “feeling”?
What does it feel like to be young, gifted and Black in Chicago, locking arms with your peers and refusing to leave Homan Square, or King Drive, or City Hall? City Hall: The feeling of proclaiming your right to a space that is not yours and was never intended to be, but despite your hatred for that space you still need it, though you barely know what “it” is – but you have dreams and in your dreams you are as powerful as that place, and in your waking life you feel most woke when you demand of that space that it acknowledge your incumbent power and, yes, even care about you? How does it feel to stand empowered by the knowledge that, as Baldwin said, “nothing… can take away our title to the land which we, too, [have] purchased with our blood?”3 This “feeling”? This bloody purchase of our selves?
These scenarios I am using by example still do not quite get to the kind of occupied feeling I am experiencing on the floor in New Orleans. It is uncomfortable, yes, and violent. And there is certain- ly an element of myopic non-consensuality in my relationship to my Other, at least in terms of my inability to even acknowledge her existence before this moment. But I did not steal what belonged to my ancestor-occupier, inasmuch as once you are dead everything and nothing belonging to the living is yours. And the young, slight, enslaved African woman whose energy occupies me in New Orleans does not mean to take anything from me by force. She just needs to get something done, and, perhaps, she needs me to know something. She – that is, vibrations resonant with a soul’s memory of some particular body – takes up residence in and throughout me, not with the force of hatred or defiance, but with a life force that disturbs me into a fuller life-in-my-body. I am occupied forcefully, but there is no ill will between us. Together, we become multi-spirited.
- * *
This is just the beginning. Once I am occupied by my ancestor, I am visited by the ghost of a white European slaver. Like all the ghosts I have ever known, this one has a weight, a shape, which it brings down on top of us as my body rocks – and it begins to rock us. That is to say, we are raped. Here I am further spirited as the presence enters me – the rocking becomes a combined result of my muscles moving and the ghost moving us from the inside of my body. During this time of vesseltude, in which my body experiences multiple visitations, my own psyche remains present – in fact, it is hyper-present. For example, I am present to the piece we are making in this studio in New Orleans right now, and I know there is a scene after this one. It is almost impossible but I rise off of the ground in performing the sequence. Somewhere in the process of standing, I am vacated of these spirits. Later on, I will collapse.
She comes to me again the next day during the same scene. I feel her arrival and then her residence inside my body, and I welcome it. The ghost comes too: another white European slaver, un- mistakably different in form than yesterday’s. Again we are raped, though this new ghost’s feel is less heavy and more rapid. Again I am vacated upon standing. She comes to me a third time the following day, as does a new aspect of that slaver’s variegated violent energy. She comes a fourth time on the fourth day, and so does he/it.
But this fourth and final time, something is different. She occupies me and then, for our protection, she calls her spiritual allies to join us. They come immediately, one after another, so that I almost instantly feel myself extend beyond my self with ancestors. I become extensive; I become robust with energy and socially bonded to an expanding spirit. My body is made into a vessel barely containing myself, my visitor and all of her visitors; and all of our individuated and collective memory, terror and rage; and all of our combined resplendent resilience and our joyful passion and our love. This energy wraps around and through me; it courses through my body electromagnetically; it lights my cells on fire. We wrestle our attacker(s) with the strength of millions. We are more powerful than him/it – we are literally infinite and will devour him – and we use our strength to carry him inside us from out of wherever we are, take him to the poop deck and over the railing, where we drown all of us in the sea, and become finally free.
When it is all over, I will hear the scene described back to me by onlookers as a wild rolling scuffle inside of myself, as if I were be-bopping myself to an untraceable polyrhythm trapped inside a seizure. Something like dancing.
As I reflect on New Orleans from the illusion of distance that time provides, I am learning to better distinguish between an occupying spirit and a guardian spirit who helps create the soul – and both as wholly different from a ghost. Through conversations with two-spirit friends, I am coming to empathize with the feeling of living with a daily awareness of multiple spirits inside one’s body – two or more spirits who remain fully at home and a part of one’s soul. Occupation isn’t necessarily possession – a _zombie_-like state of total acquiescence to spirit. In my case in New Orleans, the occupation was a sharing of my body, a kind of intimate collaboration. Fred Moten describes this type of collaboration as the “consent to not be a single being; to become an instrument for one another.”4 Like Akasha Gloria Hull who writes extensively on the “creative partnership with spirit” that Black women maintain, Moten also stresses that the expression of this becoming-instrument is an act of simultaneous composition (making the work) and dispossession (losing the self).5
Moten and Hull both speak to the idea of a community whose members are not only in solidarity with one another but who also remain in a constant state of becoming one another. This is a spiritual community – one that exists on both the physical and astral plane – as much as a social and embodied one. It is a community made through coalition. The living are not the dead, but we do coexist, and in our coexistence lies our potential for building together. As Martin Berger notes, the “living and dead were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of egotism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results for the living, who now think of the dead as eliminated.”6
To flip Berger’s thesis, we might consider the ways we think of our eliminated as dead. Who else has been eliminated? To where have the over 7.2 million people living under carceral control on U.S. territory gone? Where are the absent Black bodies whose labour produces the physical, intellectual, cultural and psychic power the world so greedily consumes? What are we, if not present? Are we dead in the context of the modern egotism Berger references, where dead is synonymous with “dead and gone”? Does our elimination render us ghosts – even as our gone-ness produces living capital, even after the point of death, as though the vibrancy of our spirit after elimination was only the spoils of a blood-thirsty parasite?7 Is that all that we are – hosts to the living?
As I reflect on an individual’s capacity to become an eliminated subject en route to a dead body, I am reminded of the 2014 lynching of Michael Brown, in which, according to Marc Lamont Hill, the community was forced to “watch [Brown] lay there, as if he belonged to nobody… That nobodiness happens even before you encounter a Darren Wilson… If you’re not part of the 1% you just might be nobody.”8 Imagine a late morning in Ferguson, Missouri: A community brought together through their shared Blackness and poverty, which has rendered them a collective of eliminated nobodies, watching a fellow eliminated nobody lay dying. How does it feel to be nobody watching nobody die? How does one transition from living to dead – to the realm of ancestors resisting elimination – when one has already been eliminated into nobodiness? This “feeling”?
I look to our ancestors for answers. Like the one who occupied me in New Orleans, they resist elimination and make me a simultaneous host and composer. This particular ancestor compels me to refuse the elimination of my living and my dead through collaboration, which is really merely a manifestation of our rebellious spirit moving through us and demanding remembrance plus action.
She entreats me to reinvigorate thermodynamics’ first law, the conservation of energy: Nothing to be thrown away because there is no away. There is no dead-and-gone, no not-here, no town of nobodies-merely-bodies-in-waiting. Darren Wilson’s somebodiness exists only inasmuch as Michael Brown is equally somebody. The conservation of energy argues that the power of the state exists only by the power of the people, and the people’s power is flamed by the power of the unseen. We are recycled. We are connected: ancestors and the not-yet-ancestors, people inside prison and outside, people outside our borders and inside, people killing us and those of us who have been killed. I touched this interdependent spirit when my ancestor occupied me and we entered into an embodied and instrumental discourse on themes of freedom, which, in conversation, becomes collective. More precisely, I touched this spirit in the moment I was physically on the floor rocking with my sisters while becoming thick with ancestors and drowning together in the sea. Even that ghost slaver, working out his ghastly memories of violence in the physical realm; his own resistance to elimination – troubled as it was – was pulled into the conversation. We were connected through the cipher of my corpus. We touched spirit through flesh and pulled each other into the deep, and we all drowned together.
Our work in New Orleans is a re-collection: an invitation to run the spirit through the body, an acknowledgement of our interdependence. When we make spiritually rooted creative work, we offer this hand of collaboration to all of our ancestors and ancestors-to-be. We say with our art: “Welcome. Glad to meet you. Let me help you. Pull me up.” We offer this hand to those from the hold whose names we’ll never know. We offer it, too, to those whose names we have: Harriet, Audre, Fannie Lou, Langston, Sojourner, Toni, James, Nina, Marsha, Ed, Josephine, Nat, Grandma Maddie, Aunt Lula, Trayvon, Eric, Rekia, Emmett, Skye, Tyre, TT, and on and on. And then, too, we offer the hand to each other: those of us living, dancing, struggling, surviving – all at the same damn time. All of us – seen and unseen – we touch the spirit and we illuminate us all.
We are hitting a rhythm now; we are hitting our rock. We are on the studio floor, rocking. The floor is a ship, which carries us away and brings us back home. The rocking shakes the shackles as it shakes our loved ones and those we don’t yet know to love us. We are dancing with our breath; we are rocking. We are having a conversation about freedom. We are collaborating with spirit, which is infinite, which is to say: We are making ourselves infinite. We are making ourselves free.