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Abbey Lincoln’s Scream: Poetic Improvisation as a Way of Life

Abbey Lincoln

We are standing under a glaring spotlight screaming at the tops of our lungs, from the backs of our throats which we grind together to access black blues unwords, thymus against heart, blue in green meridian, that aquamarine plexus that water and sky correct and regulate in us. We want ugly beauty. We want to repel you, but you just keep watching what we do and clapping and we can’t hear the water and we can’t see the heavens blocked by a land of heathens and cameramen. If reparations begin in the body, where does the body begin? Where and when does the black body begin to exhibit the deficit for which reparations must pay? And how, as excess or lack, or both? Hyper-expressivity or tight-lipped reticence, a story, or a gaping silence where the narrative would be, scattered impressions there instead, the head of the father in the brother’s heart, Abbey at the piano dozing into a melody she was as tender as a rose, she was as soft as snowy down, and from her head down to her toes, she was a dream that hung around … she came back walking all alone, she wasn’t gone for very long…

The body does not begin with the spectator as these imposters would like you to think. You are not inducted into existence when they gawk at you or listen closely to see if you’re gossiping about their evil in pretty/ petty volunteered slavery tones. Does the body begin on the slave ship, on the plantation, in the house, in the factory, before all that? To create a body founded before oppression we have to recall sensations anterior to our time here in this wasteland of values, and that harrowing remembering requires sound, a sound with its own senseless, untraceable and ever retracing grammar.

The body begins with the scream, the violent sounding of itself, and echoes back into spirit, the hunger for unadulterated human milk, uncultivated plants, something wild and unwilled—paroxysm, orgasm, whipping, laughing. Then where does the scream begin? The scream begins in the woman, in the black woman, in her womb, and reparations are hers first and begin in her body before emanating elsewhere. Her body is revered, her body is tormented, it will be repaired, it is terrifying and perfect, it’s even getting expensive, you owe us our bodies back. It’s expensive to copy them: butt injections, lip injections, thick sun-hinged smiles, the fast scent of our men in the mines of themselves craving ivory, you owe us so much carbon. Our souls have come back to collect our bodies and love them. We owe ourselves so much love. Our souls announce themselves, screaming. Our screams are tender and merciless. What begat this ruthless sonic? Was it agony or ecstasy or some lenient union of the two leaning in? Can we find a shelter in this sound, a refuge, a true Helios Biblios, Holy Bible, Sun Book, by and for the black woman whose scream courses through the slurred heliocentric air.

Is our distress a factor in liberation, does suffering teach transcendence? That’s too cliché to be it. And dangerous, to think of our oppression as a rite of passage. Safer to face the ways we oppress ourselves. Then we have to wonder: is transcendence itself a form of suffering we defer because we feel guilty when we exceed people, even our captors when we are made slaves, even the thieves who steal our sad days, are we ashamed of our own boundless capacity, our own greatness? The sound in my belly, my baby born kicking and screaming as my song, the most patient phantom, every person you’ve ever come across or through or from, has origins in the depths of the black woman’s scream.

Triptych Consciousness

Abbey Lincoln, master screamer and master teacher taught me how to scream, screams for us all. Most famously in 1960 on Freedom Now! Suite, an album she made in Paris with her then husband Max Roach. An album she carries with her screams and singing despite the fact that her image is omitted from the cover and gatefold, gates swung closed, she’s named but unseen—we don’t see the woman whose voice is shredded sheer for demanding freedom, whose body, aggressively delicate, releases itself to the music, makes a language and a song out of guttural wordless howls. We read Fanon and comprehend the dual consciousness of being black in the West. How you know the white man better than he knows himself, you know how to code yourself to his liking, you know what about you sells and is for sale. You often forsake yourself to that market value. But beyond that dualism, and even more glorious and more horrifying, is the triple/triptych consciousness of being a black woman in the West. You know the oppressor and his shadow and your image founded on the idea of you, and its shadow and how to sell those back to themselves to survive, how to load the ego with delusion’s cargo that way, and reify the false archetypes. As a Black woman here you also know how to perform as someone ‘whose possibility is governed by an idea of them,’ as Fred Moten describes—to feign that level of self-abnegation in a land where both black men and all of white society are threatened by and even quietly envious of your effortless power, you know how to develop or pretend low self-esteem as a protective mechanism, how to be violated by both those you trust and those you pander to or placate. You know that the idea of you that is trying to govern your possibility is wrong, can’t win. You also know how the power of your love has fueled the whole system. You know you are a supreme being trapped in a grand lie and make plans to exceed the triple fallacy of your identity with grace.

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Abbey Lincoln knew these things and was able to wear a mask of mirrors, so that those who watch and listen to her are forced back into their own subjectivity, forced toward the self-reflexive vulnerability that spectators usually seek to avoid. Her voicings shift the long tradition of black art offering catharsis to the consumer at the expense of the artist, she is nobody’s minstrel showgirl. She bucks that role in spite of the fact that the showbiz machines were roaring at her beauty as soon it blossomed. Abbey was a coveted Jet girl of the week, pin-up-worthy, before anyone had really heard her sing. And then, as soon as sound captivated audiences she was ushered into Hollywood and debuted wearing Marilyn Monroe’s cherry red dress in the film The Girl Can’t Help It . While ironically singing spread the word, spread the gospel, speak the truth it will be heard for an all-white audience in her scene in the film, a white torch singer schemes to get her job from the club owner. Instead of succumbing to empty idol making, Abbey went on to leverage her looks and talent to create more meaningful work. She made Nothing But a Man in 1964, an on-screen depiction of the clash of working and middle class blacks in the home, of the struggle of a working class man and a middle class woman to create a family and not allow economic pressures to pull them apart. In the film her husband lashes out and takes his plight as a man who can’t find work out on her body. So too in her personal life at the time Abbey was dealing with how her husband, famed jazz drummer Max Roach, reacted to her two-fold celebrity. He wanted her at home even while he was out pimping and drumming, he too lashed out, his own success wasn’t enough to prevent hers from emasculating him and turning him into a typical tyrant.

We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite), which Max and Abbey made together, along with Oscar Brown Jr., Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little, Julian Priester, and a full cast of Jazz luminaries, is a chilling crossing of the personal and political. Meant to follow the path the slave took to citizenship, we start out in a work song ain’t but one thing on my mind, driva man and quittin’ time, Abbey sings, proudly, and then moves on to a jubilee in the form of the song Freedom Day!  Whisper, listen, whisper, listen, hear the news we’re free. And then we arrive at a crossroads where nostalgia for bondage takes the form of utter disorientation. We get to the place where we realize that emancipation is just post-plantation slavery, a sick and twisted joke capable of seeping into the subconscious so deeply that we willingly acquiesce to menial labor and urban or rural impoverishment, still making corporations rich with our bodies, still landless and law abiding, where the laws of the land are meant to destroy us. Abbey starts moaning sensual wordless vocals while Max’s drums flutter with appreciation. That doesn’t work, the lights don’t appear. She offers operettas and subtle pauses to investigate the aftermath—nothing happens.

Abbey begins to scream. At first it’s as if she’s in a haunted room alone and the light abruptly vanishes, total darkness, the voice looks from side to side for saviors, and when it sees them it attacks, imposters!, one lone jolted, shuddering, scream. Then in a loop, she sounds relieved to hear a human voice, even if it’s her own. She likes the noise it makes, repeats it, is startled by herself like someone who has been caged and cut off from social contact. But in a pleasant way, she has realized how to break free and how to disturb white society’s peace as well as create her own. She is a child just learning to speak and using the same wordless word for everything. By the third round of screams, we all know this is music landing in the crevice where hedonism meets struggle, where there is pleasure in announcing pain. The womb vibrates, chills run up the spine, the air whips the skin, the skin darkens with blood and mellows into canvass, the scream gets louder, etches itself there and joins its fellows in a litany. This is not a body trying to escape, rather one realizing itself, completing its helix, this is a body being built with sound, tearing itself apart and reconciling into a middle passage where the terror in the screaming is finally meant to terrorize. We will use our songs as weapons this way, always. We want ugly beauty. We want to repel you. You keep clapping, admiring, copying. This long screamed song is called “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace.” It is a complete manifesto for how we get over. By the time we get to “Peace,” we’re lilting. Children tumbling down soft grassy hillsides. Abbey is finding love, Max taps the drum like an entrance and she opens. Glory, the chokehold of “Prayer” and “Protest” released. Shore. Reparations begin by getting ugly and wind up with an elite beauty. They begin in the body and the body begins in the scream, the black woman’s scream, which begins in the horror or forced and inadequate labor which calls forth the healer who swallows false mirrors to liberate her. Hysteria and remembrance. For no reason at all scream at the top of your lungs and watch it order land and limb to their highest purposes.

Triptych vs. Plessy vs. Ferguson

The rhetoric of equality can be a bit naive. We are different. We are Another Country. Imagine watching your children auctioned off to work on a sugar plantation and then being sold yourself as a comfort girl to make sweet confections for the evil owner who sold your children, and watch that man and his children eat the food you make, and eat at you, year by year. The man you love has a spine full of bulbous lash wounds from when he tried to run or ruin, his nervous system thus wired to a muted tremble that makes you shiver and weep when he touches you. Tenderness becomes a lie and lifeline. Karintha from Jean Toomer’s Cane lunges out from the mirror her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon, oh can’t you see it, oh can’t you see it, and you stop short of dreaming of taking revenge on these soulless and utter enemies, because you don’t want to touch their blood, because violence is more intimacy than they deserve, because war is what they hunger for, and spiritually they are unworthy enemies. So when you dream, you dream up romances wherein they suddenly love you and your people enough to let you go. But go where, you have no real homeland, you have a body. It’s all you have holding you here. Such a beautiful replica of the cosmos which are dark and shining like you, you scream like an archangel to celebrate your black body and variations of that yelled vibration carry you to 1960, more black and beautiful than ever, still in a strange land. And in your womb the memories of your children from past lives, screaming, being sold. And in your mind, you’re a lady, lazy English word to mean domesticated, decorative, looking to be owned by a man, poised as a gesture, not in a spirited way: lady. And then one day you decide that being a lady in this strange land is not a worthy enough cause. You crave ugly beauty. You want to repel them. That is where Abbey Lincoln’s scream begins. It begins with the president and carries through the arbor to the slave quarters where he took Hemming’s body and writhed with satisfaction.

It begins when Abbey realizes that there is more than one way to tell a story, that she can be poised without being polite. We are not the same as those who are born giggling, we are born avenging. Even our joy is vengeance. The recording of Abbey screaming on Freedom Now Suite is one of the most subversive acts we have in the history of recorded music in this country. In gut-wrenching pitches she confesses everything, that her country wants her dead and marionetting on stages, that her husband might betray her or maim her if she stays on stage too long, that on the inside are memories she reviles until finally ejecting them with her voice so they can function as R e p a r a t i o n s. Reparations begin in the black woman’s body as it clenches to unfold into scream. The poem begins there or nowhere. That action makes it impossible to turn back, to mute again.

Abbey speaks of how all the untrained screaming she did in the 60s caused permanent damage to her voice, but it gave her the courage to walk away from the remedial dream she inherited from her captors and even her husband. Her scream etched a passage between hope and habit that she had no choice but to traverse, and even falling into the cold river of anonymity underneath would have been relief, so she walked, carefully, made a way of life so counter to what plantation groupies were trained to covet, that she was dangerous. Blacklisted. Happily. When life becomes that freely improvised, both poetry and reparations are inevitable. Abbey is Reparations. Reparations are a way of life, a way of screaming until all the shiftless demons back away in horror. We want to repel you. We use ugly beauty. As a weapon. When we have to.

Screams That Shatter Statues

The first head of the American Medical Association was a man named James Marion Sims, credited for curing a painful postpartum condition that causes feces to leak through the bladder of some women after they give birth. It was affecting the wives of white Americans and also sometimes affecting planters’ ability to breed slaves, so Sims decided to purchase a few slave women and rape them year after year to keep them pregnant and experiment on them without anesthesia until finally being forced to drug them numb with opiates, and after years of that he allegedly resolved the condition and was named head of the American Medical Association. The resolution he finally landed on had a lot to do with the basic hygiene that planters often denied slaves, and likely themselves as well. Statues of this glorified serial rapist remain aloft in South Carolina. His actions were painted as heroic. To this day he can be found being referred to as the father of modern gynecology. Maybe also the father of modern rape culture. This is just one instance, and after centuries of this depravity, the relationships between black men and women and our relationships to ourselves have come to reflect the value white society places on our bodies. We have been systematically violated and before even seeking full redemption, we violate one another and look the other way, we take the pent-up aggression out on ourselves more often than not, and wax insincerely about equality and forgiveness. You can’t forgive what you don’t confront.

In her writing, Abbey describes how she turned a lot of her pain on herself, as disdain for her female organs. Black women lead the world in hysterectomies and fibroid tumors, both disorders of the womb that begin in disembodiment, in our inability to scream, and our cowardice when it comes to claiming reparations. Even when we do scream too often it’s subconsciously at ourselves and not into the brutally contented faces of our oppressors. We scream alongside food and drink and sex and television, we scream tacit approval at our undoing. Meanwhile, there is nothing more powerful than needing nothing from the vampires who feed off of your anxiety and false sense of lack. Most empowering of all is no longer craving any kind of hand in the false values and acts this society upholds. Without that contrived desire not only is the West a far easier space to master, it’s also easier to laugh and scream at, and you become a threat when you cannot be tempted or shamed, not even by your own yet-to-catch-up friends and family, into espousing Western values. This is not to advise dysfunction, but to realize that to be high functioning without destroying your body here you have to meet the triple consciousness of black womanhood halfway, whether or not you are a black woman, that must be faced. If you have been ignoring her screams, or your own, you will be haunted when she walks away on her tightrope and leaves you with echoes of your misconceived notions of her.  If you have reveled in her exploitation or your own you will be lonely when she’s no longer willing to make all her art for the stage, or you will have to hear your real tone when the spotlight dims and hype isn’t so simple.

To be at productive odds with this society is a crowning achievement and Abbey left us this record of how to do so with grace, how to refuse the way only a poet refuses excess, how to carve a dancer’s body out of the sounds she moves to and make no excuse when you walk away in that decolonized new form.

Triptych is the kind of poem that we need more of, wherein tone is so exact and free it seems scandalous, it upsets you. We want ugly beauty. We want to upset you and soothe ourselves. Train you to come back and work on our land this time, hang on our songs waiting for a sign. We do that with language. We become what we do with language, reclaiming parthenogenesis through healing speech and writing.

Daily Use / The Triptych as a Poetic Form

I used to think that it was my job as a black woman to nurture black men out of the Tenebrae of this whitewashed world with my love and devotion, that we should be martyrs to this sense of responsibility; life instructs otherwise, tells us that it is more important that we make healing and nurturing ourselves first priority, that a nation of healthy black women with gushing screams will be the healing our men and children need, will build the new breed of humankind and land us in that fifth dimension to hear the neglected frequencies of ourselves. As long as we’re being called bitches and hoes in radio rap and allowing it, or playing into and competing with one another as such, ain’t no reparations. As long as we’re not willing to discuss how and why monogamy fails many black families and how that relates back to mass incarceration and farther back to West African matriarchies and completely alternative thinking about family and tribal structure, ain’t no reparations. As long as we are not organized around our own original thought, and as long as we’re called wild for saying these things… let’s run in the right direction.  Reparations require being maladjusted to the West and all that it produces, even the dystopian version of ourselves it creates, it requires our unconditional scream as bridge to unconditional love. Abbey’s scream was her rebirth as poet, the triptych is a black poetic form, let us write our own triptychs in its haloed image. For Korrine Gaines, for Sandra Bland, for Ganja and Hess in that cinematic field, for Ruby Dee in her windowsill tracing her thumb around the petals of that bright rose, for Abbey Lincoln on stage in a frenzy of generous rage, use your body to claim your land and survive! Insist, one triptych at a time across lifetimes.

Originally Published: October 26th, 2016

Born in Waterloo, Iowa, poet and choreographer Harmony Holiday is the daughter of Northern Soul singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday. Her father died when she was five, and she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. Holiday earned a BA in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA at...