Crescendo. Decrescendo. Adagio. Adagio.

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submitted by Ceylon Chang

If you are listening closely, you will hear it. Do you hear it? It’s the sound of me. I’m walking past you or standing next to you and you can hear the subtle vibrato made by the bow string on violin movement of my pointer finger on thumb. My body doesn’t look like an instrument. I do not curve like a cello and my posture is not as elegant as a flute’s, but from me you will hear music – an anxious jazz, lonely blues, or jittery baroque. I let the fiddle of my fidgeting fingers speak, though I do not always know to whom they are speaking. Perhaps, they are simply mimicking their surroundings, experimenting with the different noises of the world - trying to find their own noise as did Indigo, in Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo.  

I started picking at the skin surrounding my fingernails at an early age. It’s just that I hate the way the cuticles look. But, then of course it was never just about how the cuticles looked. Sometimes, my fingers would unconsciously rip too deep into themselves. Crescendo. A small dot of blood would appear. Decrescendo. I would watch it for a moment before slowly bringing the new wound to my lips to ease the sting. Adagio. Adagio. Around the same time that I began this new formed habit of picking at my skin, I started playing the cello. The cello, though widely known, is often described as a “big violin without the chin thingy” or “small bass” finding itself as the ambiguous medium sized instrument. However, I found beauty in its ambiguous state, in its not quite being-ness. The cello reflected a similar ambiguity that resided within me, and as my fingers learned to play the music on the strings, C, G, D, and A, I felt as though the cello and I had come to a sort of understanding. Although we had different bodies, bodies that might have at times felt hollow, we were both able to fill ourselves with the music we chose to create together. That being said, I was terrible at playing the cello. However, I continued on with it for seven years, deciding to stop my freshman year of high school. I will always regret not having continued playing. Though, I doubt those who had heard me play had any qualms with my decision.  

I found beauty in its ambiguous state, in its not quite being-ness. The cello reflected a similar ambiguity that resided within me, and...I felt as though the cello and I had come to a sort of understanding. Although we had different bodies, bodies that might have at times felt hollow, we were both able to fill ourselves with the music we chose to create together.

The cello was born in the 1660s in Italy around the same time that the birth of slavery was taking place in United States of America. Specifically, The Virginia Slave Laws, created to silence freedom and justify inhumanity. Four notable laws would be enacted from 1662-1669, each law would play out in history as if on the body of cello – a scale. Listen.

Virginia would start by placing its bow on string C, December 1662: “Whereas some doubts have arisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free, be it therefore enacted and declared by this present Grand Assembly, that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” With a slow lift of the elbow the state would then, in September of 1667, from tip to frog glide its bow across string G: “It is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.” And, thus with a steady push into September 1668 on string D: “It is declared and enacted by this Assembly that moderate corporal punishment inflicted by master or magistrate upon a runaway servant shall not deprive the master of the satisfaction allowed by the law, the one being as necessary to reclaim them from persisting in that idle course as the other is just to repair the damages sustained by the master.” Finally, reaching the highest string on the body of the cello, October 1669, string A: “…It [is] enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly if any slave resists his master (or other by his master’s order correcting him) and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not be accounted a felony, but the master…be acquitted from molestation, since it cannot be presumed that premeditated malice (which alone makes murder a felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate” (William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia).

If you’re listening closely, you can still hear it. Do you hear it? It is this simultaneous birth of the cello and the Virginia Slave Laws, both periods in history that about 340 years later have come to shape me. It is what keeps me picking at the skin around my fingers to this day, the music of the atrocity, the soundtrack to cruelty. Crescendo, Crescendo.

 

At times, it is difficult for me to grasp how beauty can be cultivated within such harsh environments. And, how relevant the coexistence of the two are in my own life and family. As the cello had been my means to finding a voice, my grandmother's use of a sewing machine was hers – stitching together the rough seams of her life to its soft, however vibrant, music. When she was my age, Trinidadian women used rice sacks when fabric was scarce. While others made simple mattresses and pillows, she piped the edges and deftly tufted dimples, turning Trinidadian jute into French velvet. Later, those skills would help her enter this country as a seamstress in the garment district. Her stories of creating beauty from ordinary things in her little village inspire my creative pursuits. My grandmother symbolically threaded a path for me to follow my voice - a generational inheritance, despite the generational trauma. It is because of her that my existence as a young girl felt safe. She faced beatings and was left to starve, while other members of her family ate, so that her children and theirs would not have to endure that kind of pain.  It’s as though she took her poverty, and from it made a quilt of hope to keep the future warm - to keep me warm.

 

The music that comes directly out of oppression and speaks with it is powerful because often it directly engages in a conversation with the law or with the sociopolitical climate, such as hip hop or its ancestor - Negro Spirituals.  Du Bois writes in his pageant Star of Ethiopia “There is silence. The confused moaning out. Out of the moaning comes the slave song. 'Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,' and with it and through the chained and bowed forms of the slaves as they pass out is done the dance of death and pain.” The transformation of groans to song emphasizes the reality of how beauty can come out of struggle or pain. This beauty is the “Struggle toward Freedom” a Gift as called by Du Bois given by the Negro to the world.

Shange’s aforementioned novel, Sassafrass, Cypress, & Indigo, speaks directly to this idea. I was given the book by a friend of mine during a time in our junior year of high school where the environment we were in felt unsafe. There was a debate that arose surrounding the N-Word, and the use of it by a sophomore boy, who used to attend the school, on social media towards a group of black women. This debate inspired many of the students of the school to push for institutional change as actions like these should no longer be permitted. From that, we created a list of demands. Similar to the simultaneous birth of the cello and the Virginia Slave Laws, our list of demands amidst the ignorance was beauty in dark times. Decrescendo. Upon reading Shange’s words, I felt as though I was looking into a mirror and staring at my own reflection. As a black girl, it is not always easy to find yourself reflected in beautiful things. Although where, how and when we grew up were vastly different, I understood her longing to play the things she saw and felt around her – to mimic the beauty and the atrocity in music. “Indigo wanted to sound like the sparrows & wrens. She mimicked the jays & peckers. Conversing with gulls was easy cause they saw her daddy’s soul every day. Indigo had mastered the hum of dusk, the crescendoes of the cicadas, swamp rushes in light winds, thunder at high tide, & her mother’s laughter down the hall…. Indigo couldn’t get enough. No creature that moved escaped Indigos attention. If the fiddle talked, it also rumbled, cawed, rustled, screamed, sighed, sirened, giggled, stomped & sneered.” (Shange, 36) Like myself, Indigo longed to play to world in order to find her own voice within it. While I continued to look to Indigo as a reflection of my experiences, I wondered to whom was she meant to look. She had to develop her own way to understand herself just as I began to understand myself through her story. And, though I could only read the sound of her music – I could hear her because I listened to what was hidden in the silence.

Upon reading Shange’s words, I felt as though I was looking into a mirror and staring at my own reflection. As a black girl, it is not always easy to find yourself reflected in beautiful things.

Playing the world does not always sound like beautiful noise. Indigo was untrained in how to play the fiddle, and her bow stumbled over itself. But, Indigo’s ability to find something sacred for herself, to find a voice as a young black girl in a racially polarized community, gave me peace of mind. There are always ways to give yourself a voice, you just have to find what “giving yourself a voice” means to you. Once you start to play the world you can control it, your perspective on things can be altered. It’s easy for me to feel as though I don’t own my place in this world because not so long ago people like me didn’t; it’s easy for me to feel anxious, lonely and jittery at times, which is why I pick at my fingers. Yes, I hate the way the cuticles look. But, then again, it’s never just about the cuticles. It’s about my inability to stop them from coming back.  

Indigo also uses the fiddle as a mean of protection, channeling the energy of many different things through it. There is a moment when Indigo is confronted by two boys who she tells to leave her alone. They persist. She then closes her eyes “Like she was fixing to run or scream.” (Shange, 37) and says “Falcon come in this fiddle. Falcon come in this fiddle. Leopard come in this fiddle. Leopard come in this fiddle. I’m on the prey. I’m on the prey.” (Shange, 37) She is then described as “bowing the daylights & jungles out her violin.” And, in her frenzy, she realizes that she has stood her ground and disrupted the boys from messing with her.

 

This idea of channeling different energies into myself is an incredibly powerful one. Whenever I sit down to write, I channel my grandmother. When I paint, I channel the two grandfathers I never really knew. And when I dance, I think of a moment I once shared with my friends in the sunlight. These all reinforce who I am, not just one singular body in the world, but a masterpiece within a greater masterpiece. I have learned through protests, marches, sit ins, long debates, and conversations, how necessary it is to stand my ground and that I am never truly standing alone, but rather alongside those who have stood before me.

My lack of authority over my own body is what makes me continue to play that jazz, blues or baroque. It’s my way of showing you that I’m here. Do you hear me? It’s small and most people don’t notice, but if I can control the state of my own body as a person whose body was once sold, taxable and still is degraded and killed, walking through this world feels a lot more secure. And, although there is the occasional rip in my skin at least I know that I can control that pain. Adagio, Adagio. I can heal my own wounds, like Indigo whose cartography details ways of self-healing and natural remedy throughout the novel. Indigo believes that black people need three things: “Access to the moon. The power to heal. [and] Daily visits with the spirits.” (Shange, 5) These three things promote the idea of being connected to something bigger than one’s self, while encouraging us to go outside ourselves, all with the intentions of self-care and ownership. Increase. Decrease. Slowly. Slowly. Once you hear me, you can begin to see me because the music I make is specific. We all are making small noises and together we can create a symphony, it all just depends on want we want to hear. Do we choose to play the beauty in darkness or will we continue ripping ourselves apart – starting at our very own fingers.

This piece was submitted to The Collective–a space for students outside of the Black Praxis staff to share their thoughts, opinions, and perspectives. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Black Praxis and its staff. To submit something of your own, e-mail black.praxis@dartmouth.edu.