As a poet and an anthropologist, I often write about the cycles of Black grief, death, celebration, and life. As a Black queer descendant of people who were enslaved, I’m often writing autoethnographically about myself and my people, always in a time where the lives and worth of myself and my people are under attack.
I am always writing against a system of anti-Blackness that seeks to paralyze myself and my people with abject terror and indescribable loss. I do not know a time in the history of the U.S. when that was not the case.
But, likewise, I do not know a time when it was not also the case that my people fought, wished, and freedom-dreamed to the ends of their own rainbows for more.
“The Cookout (and All Other Manners of Heavenly Black Things)” engages with how a public or applied anthropology might aid in the practice of “dreamwork,” the realization and construction of the freedom dream. This piece explores dreamwork through poetic prose to access an alternate ethnography of our (Black folks’) dead and what their lives might have been like if not for their threads cut perilously short.
As an imaginative ethnography, this work builds on concerns often investigated in contemporary anthropology. Many anthropologists study issues of power, history, racism, anti-Blackness, violence, memory, and other aspects of social and personal life to speak to how these are revealed—how these operate and manifest—in people’s lived experiences.
In my poem, I am responding in the continual wake of a history of systemic, anti-Black violence where so many Black folks are denied their right to life, much less any liberty or “justice” stemming from their deaths. Here, I am attempting to craft what a space of freedom might look like if folks like Tony McDade, Brooklyn DeShauna Smith, Alton Sterling, Breonna Taylor, and countless others both present and past were able to just simply live.
As an anthropological ethnographic experiment engaging a poetic methodology, this exploratory dreamwork manifests a version of a future foretold through communion with the dead.
I call this process necrographic divination, and in “The Cookout,” I use it to construct a freedom dream in the form of speculative narration that engages in the intimacy of Black sensation, grief, celebration, trauma, play, and being-ness as a means to craft a “Life-Otherwise,” revivifying those we have lost. I draw from the Greek myth of Eurydice, a young woman who, through no fault of her own, dies and is sent to the underworld. Her husband, Orpheus, attempts to save her, but, as a result of his own hubris, he fails.
I use the subject and structure of this myth to reconstruct a version of Eurydice who is Black, and still blameless, and still dead, and still should not be. This embrace of the dreamscape and re-envisioning of this ancient myth allows us to (re)imagine the (im)possible, entering into a plane where the division between reality and dream thins.
Memory itself is thin, and sometimes we wake still wrapped in the emotive capacities of our dreamscapes. Parts of our memories are inextricably linked to dreams, and there is a freedom in that. A freedom in allowing the dream to entangle itself so far into our reality that we cannot help but see the potential of something better, something different. A place where we cannot help but see the potential for a “Life-Otherwise.”
This dreamwork not only invokes something intricate about loss, it speaks into existence something tangible about a “Possibility-in-the-After.” It paints something about a “Life-Otherwise” and “In-Spite-Of” that is also a “Life-Simple” in its “Just-Because.” And this life? It ain’t gotta be Magic, but it can be. It ain’t gotta be Galactic, but it can be. It ain’t even gotta be simple, but it often is, and this is.
The Cookout is simple. The Cookout is ordinary. The Cookout is a freedom dream of the exquisite quotidian.
It should be noted that this work, first and foremost, is for Black folks. For Black folks with an invitation to the Cookout and all other manners of heavenly Black things white folks just ain’t invited to. For Black folks with a freedom dream for a life otherwise. For Black folks who cannot help but find celebration in the simple, in the quotidian, because it means that, at the very least, has not been taken from us. That we are still alive.
This dream’s ours.
(and All Other Manners of Heavenly Black Things)
Imagine yourself as Eurydice.
All Black, all ain’t-never-got-to-just-be a girl, all tight curls, all glistening and tall/ they call you Eury/ they call you RiRi/ they call you Diché/ it don’t matter/ it’s all your name and they call you by it.
Imagine yourself as Eurydice.
Another lil Black girl/ dun found her way into the underworld/ not her fault/ ain’t never her fault/ we know that/ she can’t remember exactly how it happened anyway: she was sleepin’ /or/ she was attacked /or/ she was aggressive /or/ she was dancin’ /or/ she was sittin’ /or/ she was servin’ /or/ somebody said she wasn’t no “real” woman /or/ some man said she was gettin’ too big for her britches /or/ some shit like that.
Whatever the case, she here.
You here/ like everybody else/ like everybody else here you early/ you upset/ you can’t remember why/ just know that you early/ some lingerin’ feelin’ of “here-before-time”/ some mis-placed-arrival/ some decided aggravation/ Thass cause you ain’t supposed to be here, baby. Anybody could’ve told you that. You could’ve told yourself that. You did./ You ain’t supposed to be here/ not yet/ and it ain’t okay/ but it is/ as in “state-of-being”/ as in this is how it is now/ shouldn’t have to be/ don’t have to be/ and we can’t change it up here, nohow/ can’t change the past.
You hear somebody’s elder ask as a whisper on the wind,/ “You hungry, baby?”/ And yeah/ you are/ dun had a journey/ you hungry for a lotta things/ thirsty for a lotta life/ and that wind whispers again/ takes yo hand and says,/ “Well you dun came to the right place.”
An’ you step yo foot in.
And here I am/ here to guide you/ call me Cuz Dante-Deonte-Dion/ whatever you prefer/ you somehow got an early invitation/ so we gon’ make the most of it/ Welcome to the Cookout, baby/ you see this space here/ this land here/ this ours here/ these rollin’ hills/ this Sunday sun/ you smell this fresh?/ you could bathe in this breeze if you wanted to/ and look/ the friends are already here/ summa the family dun already gathered/ you see ’em don’t you?
There go Tony and Breonna/ they just got here too/ they sittin’ up at the card table/ you see?/ right ova there laughin’ wit’ Brotha Mike and Sista Sandra/ they playin’ spades/ and Toyin there, too, instigatin’ an’ gigglin’/ speakin’ some unholy curses and inside jokes/ and it’s all simple/ and they just havin’ a good time/ a good time.
And we all just waitin’ on Philando to finish up with them ribs on the grill/ You see him ova there?/ Since before he been here/ he dun fashioned himself a chef/ and he is/ he dun already finished tha rest’a the spread ova there too/ you see that mac and cheese lookin’ good/ and you know he made it/ remixing somebody’s mamma’s mamma’s recipe/ got them greens simmerin’ with the neck bone in it/ got the wings already done/ marinatin’ in some barbecue sauce/ got the green beans/ the cornbread/ the baked beans/ the fried okra/ the yams/ oh oh and the pies/ baby smell the pies/ sweet potato peach apple/ everything/ everything/ and you can’t even name it all/ but it’s all there/ it’s all there.
And here go Alton an’ George an’ Eric’ an’ David/ under the tent cuz you know/ you just know/ it wouldn’t be no cookout without the Uncles holdin’ court ’round they beer cooler/ jiggin’ to Mel Waiters and Teddy Pendergrass/ talmbout some whiskey they got today/ and some money they ain’t got just yet/ but they will/ singin’ along hard/ tryna make all the lights go off/ in broad daylight.
An’ come on now!
Ova there is miss Pamela an’ Michelle, miss Tanisha an’ Atatiana, miss Korryn an’ DeCynthia/ cuz you know/ you just know/ the Aintee delegation is represented too/ and they over there/ just’a shittalkin’ and smooth grindin’/ to some Jill Scott/ some CeCe Winans/ some Erykah Badu mix/ talmbout some/ “we sanctified AND saucy, baby”/ and they are/ “we the holy oil, the drip immaculate”/ and they are.
The nieces the nephews the niblins/ they all here too/ Emmett and Tamir ova yonder playin’ tag with Andy/ with Aiyana Mo’Nay/ with Kiwane/ and DeAunta/ and they all just’a yellin’ an’ yippin’/ an’ joyous/ screamin’ loud as they can/ ’cause they can/ got a million pearly gates worth’ah smiles plastered on they lil faces/ an’ they just’a playin’/ just playin’ with they water guns.
An’ oh man!
There go my bro Freddie/ and my mans Ahmaud/ they just’a Jesse Owens runnin’/ just’a Usain Bolt runnin’/ racin’ round and round in wide arcs’ah hallelujah/ got a whole field just for them/ just for them/ runnin’ just as fast/ as fast and as round as they can/ ’cause they know/ they just know that here/ at the Cookout/ they ain’t never gon’ lose they breath/ naw/ not again/ not never again.
Right ova there/ at the edge’a the field/ you see my boy Trayvon/ He just’a smilin’/ just’a cheesin’/ just’a drankin’ his juice/ and man he just’a walkin’/ walkin’ to the edge’a the world and back/ look at alla this stunnin’ triviality/ look at alla this unmolested magnificence/ look at alla this mundane grace/ look at alla this peace he finds in himself/ and don’t nobody bother him/ he’d walk forever if he could/ and he can/ he just love walkin’.
And the cousins?/ they all out in full force too/ they got Kendrick playin’ through the neck uh’that Henny bottle/ you can hear Solange hummin’ through the ash/ at the edge’a that blunt/ and they sendin’ both ’round like it ain’t the Last time/ like it’s the First-of-Many Suppers/ Akai, Gabrielle, Janisha, Botham, Demarcus, Rekia/ and they take the blunt/ break it/ give thanks to the Mother Earth/ sayin’ to each other:/ This our body/ which is given back unto us/ this do in remembrance of ourselves/ and then Alteria, Antwon, Chop, John III, even Sean and Sylville/ respond with the Henny sayin’:/ This our cup/ the testament of our blood/ but unshed this time/ and all for us this time/ and ain’t no sacrifice this time/ ain’t no betrayers at the table this time/ and you see?/ it’s all so beautiful/ so picturesque/ so full’a communion/ so common/ so Holy Love/ da vinci couldn’t make a painting outta this one if he tried/ and believe you me/ he tried.
An’ hey now!
We don’t forget the sistas on the dance floor/ baby we got Monika, Yahira, Lexi, and Nina over there/ they just stay pop lock and droppin’ it/ and don’t nobody mind/ don’t nobody mind them/ don’t need to/ hell Bee Love, Bailey, Zoe, Muhlaysia, and sis Tamika poppin’ in with some dips and duck walks/ they getting ready to battle that slick ass J-Sette I saw Denali, Ashanti, Chynal, Pebbles, and Kiki preppin’ earlier/ and oh oh oh we don’t forget sis Layleen/ we can’t forget sis Layleen-Thee-Xtravaganza/ and we watchin’, baby/ we got our eyebrows raised happy/ got our lips curled-up jubilee/ we see her ova there dancin’ a love dance with Stephon/ and he just spittin’ game all slick-mouthed and holy-tongued/ and it’s just so beautiful, ain’t it?/ got a girl dancin’ soft with her boy/ ’cause she can/ just the simplicity of the celebration/ it’s CeCe Penniston/ it’s Brian McKnight/ it’s “Finally We Back at One”/ and it’s blastin’ loud through her heart/ it’s cascadin’ ’cross the floor in undeniable happening/ fillin’ on out in front of our faces/ finally/ and can’t nobody hide it/ naw/ wouldn’t nobody ever dream’a hidin’ this.
An’ aww, look at ’em!
The babies/ we ain’t forgot ’bout the babies/ they all there too/ there go lil Virgil and lil Addie Mae/ they gigglin’ over the colors while they chalk outlinin’ a hopscotch board/ and there’s Denise, Carol, and Cynthia goin’ down/ singin’ they Jesus-songs ’bout Moses/ rhythm beatin’ angel wings in time to tha sound ah’them jump ropes/ they double dutchin’ they way into paradise/ an’ they makin’ it too.
You smell that on the breeze, RiRi?/ Thass that cocoa and shea butter baby/ that coconut and jojoba oil/ in the air/ look/ you can even see it in the shine on our faces/ that ain’t sweat/ thass that glisten, baby/ thass our divinity leakin’ out all over the place/ got our hair all shiny and moisturized/ got our skin all youthful and tight/ got the pool ova there exuberant/ lookin’ like a Holy oil slick/ thass that Fountain of Youth/ gon’ ’head and take a dip/ baptize yourself in the drip miraculous.
An’ look here, Honey.
Look here, Eury-baby/ These just the ones I know./ Can recognize by face./ I can call them by name./ But everybody else?/ They out here, too, though./ Everybody else here at the Cookout too./ And there’s somethin’ heartbreakin’ in that./ Some thread cut perilously short in that./ Some acutely inflectioned pain in that./ Somethin’ that leaves a whole host of our somebodies left full of immensurable grief in that./ But ain’t this/ this here/ right here in front of our faces/ ain’t it yet beautiful?/ This superb regularity./ This exquisite quotidian./ Where the music always playin’/ just as light and as loud as we want it to be./ And our folks is always dancin’/ just as high in the wind and free in the grass as we want to be./ And the sun?/ The sun don’t never go down/ naw/ not on the Cookout, baby/ and there’s always enough food for everybody/ always enough sweet tea for everybody/ always enough greens.
An’ now, my darlin’ Diché.
Would it were that you got to decide for yourself./ But this here?/ This ain’t like that old myth/ where there’s that dark hallway/ and there’s that bright door/ and there’s that pretty-singin’ ain’t-shit-ass-white-boy thass ’sposed’ta lead you on back to the livin’./ But, baby, you can’t go back/ and maybe never really should either/ Maybe thass the point./ Ain’t no goin’ back no mo’, baby./ But you know that./ And you know I’m sorry ’bout it.
But at the Cookout, sweetheart?
Here?/ Here we can breathe again./ We can thirst again./ We can hunger again./ We can live now anew./ So gon’/ Live/ Anew/ Join the Cookout, baby/ Take of thee and drink/ The dance floor is yours, too, baby/ Take of thee and eat/ Gon’ ’head, sis Eury!/ Go, RiRi!/ Go, Diché!/ Gon’ ’head, babygirl, and dance/ Dance to the rhythm of your name sung in celebration/ Dance to its beat uttered over and over and over again/ Dance in time to all the easy Love packed tight in each exaltation/ And keep dancin’/ ’Cause you can./ It’s as simple as that./ ’Cause you can.