Raising the Dead

Three writers on engaging and honoring their ghosts

Aricka Foreman, Krista Franklin,
avery r. young

“THEY RIDICULED AND MOCKED the idea that any smart person could sustain belief in God,” bell hooks writes in her essay “faith, writing, and intellectual work” from her book Remembered Rapture (1999). hooks understood the necessity of a spiritual practice that would sustain her amid the skeptics in academia; unlike her colleagues, she knew that spirituality and intellect were two sides of the same coin. Now hooks is gone. Yet we still carry her with us, as we carry all our ghosts.

This is hauntology: that thin veil between the world of the living—the present—and the world of the dead—the past. Black people know hauntology deeply. We know that ghosts shift our language, shift the air around us. We know we are both progeny and testimony. We know that while the haunting is devastating, it is not bereft of wonder, lessons, and magic. If we are truly, as the astrophysicists say, made of stardust, we are also timeless. In small to large ways, we know this too.

Krista Franklin and avery r. young, both of whom are poets and interdisciplinary artists, joined me over Zoom in August 2021 to discuss the ways that hauntology informs their lives and artistic practices. They each use poetry and multimedia visual art—as well as, in avery’s case, a fusion of gospel and Afrofuturist music—to pay tribute to those who have come before. Their conversation, which has been edited and condensed, is a testament to the fact that hauntology exists nowhere more than in our dialogue and conversation—our sharing.

Welcome, take a seat. You might hear your beloved call out to you from the dark.

Aricka Foreman

Krista Franklin Just living in the body of Blackness—the bodies of Blacknesses—means we are constantly walking with the dead. As Black people and as Black makers, we often feel in very close proximity to death, which is ever circling, like a vulture. There is the ever-present specter of a violent end, due to white supremacy and factors we have absolutely no control over. Because we have that specific relationship and understanding to death—because the hauntology is something we are constantly living in—our stories are full of those who have passed on, or who are passing on, or who have not yet arrived.

Engaging with the dead is instructive: the people who came before us had to endure so much, from the transatlantic slave trade to the Civil Rights Movement. You had to be a strong person to persevere and stay alive in environments where you were not even deemed human. Our ancestors told their children to go places they knew they were not ever going to go themselves. They said to their children, “You can do better than me.” Through their collective imaginings, they opened the portals that make it possible for us to be in the world. Listening to the dead means harnessing some of that power.

Avery R. Young In my work, sometimes I am communicating “with” and other times I am communicating “for” or “as” the dead. For as long as I can remember, ghosts have played large roles in the stories of my family elders. I am continuing that tradition in my work.

There is a lot of fear around ghosts, traditionally. Think about the Ku Klux Klan riding around in these white sheets. But to not fear the dead is to then be able to gather their power and use it. I often feel the dead navigating me backwards in time, saying, “We’re with you. We got you.” To me, the decision to communicate with ghosts or the dead is a decision to acknowledge their presence and denounce the fear of them. Remember Ray Parker, Jr. from the Ghostbusters theme song? “I ain’t afraid of no ghost.”

I am currently working on a libretto in which the first scene is set in 1953, the second in 1948, and the third in both 1912 and 1909. The shifts in time suggest that what is happening to the characters in 1953 also happened in 1912 and 1909. In the play, there is an unborn baby who is already shaped and formed by all of the experiences that came before her birth.

I am in such relationship with ghosts—with spirits—that I can’t keep them quiet. I think somewhere in the world the ghosts are going, “Oh, that dude writes stories about us. Let us go holler at him!” And I’m like, “But I’m in the shower, y’all! I’m not even trying to access this right now. I’m just trying wash my ass and put on some clothes.”

That’s the thing with being a Black artist or writer: what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us now are oftentimes the same thing.

KF We have to bring the greatest ghost story ever written into the room: Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In the book, Sethe’s whole life—intellectually, spiritually, mentally—is in service to the spirit of her dead child. That ghost scares her apart, literally; she comes undone, unclothed, from engaging with that ghost. Beloved teaches us that if you play with the energy of the dead too long in the wrong way, it will tear you up mentally and emotionally. Once you open up the floodgates to communication, you will find yourself surrounded.

I consider myself to be a student of so many individuals who have already gone on, “the ascended masters:” Frida Kahlo, Romare Bearden, James Baldwin. Even some white folks: William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, David Bowie. These people made mistakes and missteps; we don’t need to put their lives on a pedestal. But their art has allowed me to better understand our place in the world and what has happened before us. That’s the thing with being a Black artist or writer: what has happened to us in the past and what is happening to us now are oftentimes the same thing. Time slips—there isn’t past or present.

A lot of people, especially those who don’t have a spiritual background, find it miraculous that somebody could believe in multiple worlds happening simultaneously. But you and I share that belief, avery, partly because we both grew up in Baptist, Pentecostal, and Charismatic churches; you in Chicago and me in Dayton. My mother brags about taking me to church two days after I was born: “You were alive for two days, and I thought, that’s long enough.” Obviously, if you’re someone who was in church in the first week of your life, you’re used to a kind of fervor of energy around you—both physical and non-physical. You come to believe that these two worlds are naturally one.

For me, church was less a form of religious dogma and more a kind of informational system about supernatural activity. Some real wonderful, miraculous shit happened in those biblical stories. At the same time, I was being indoctrinated by books, films, stories, and television shows that dealt with paranormal activity: Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), Stephen King’s Carrie (1974), Brian DePalma’s The Fury (1978). I grew up thinking that invisible forces were always at work.

ARY Coming up in a church, I was indoctrinated in the belief that somebody died so that I could be free. Jesus’ death is the foundation of the faith. I don’t believe people in church ever used the language of ghosts in the sense we are using it here—but if you are a believer in Christ and a reader of the King James Version of the Bible, you understand that Mary Magdalene is hearing a ghost speak when Jesus says to her, “Don’t touch me, I have yet to ascend.” The burning bush is a spirit speaking to Moses. Another spirit says to Abraham, “Hey, wait, there’s a ram in the bush. You ain’t got to kill.” In other words, there is always communication with entities that are not necessarily physically present. If you are in tune with your existence as a spiritual being, you too will have communications with people who are no longer here or who are yet to arrive.

I always go back to that part in the King James Version where Jesus tells Peter to walk on water. At this point, Jesus is a political prisoner, and He will soon be executed. But there ain’t no motherfucker badder than Jesus. He is still a threat to the state, because He is telling these people that He isn’t the only one alive who can do this. By instructing Peter to walk on water, Jesus is saying, “You can do everything I’m doing, if you just tap into your knowledge of who the fuck you are in this world.” We all have access to supernatural power.

So, it’s not about being religious; it’s about understanding life as a spiritual practice. You can call it Baptist or whatever you want, but it is a spiritual practice. And what you learn in communicating with ghosts is to defy whiteness.

This extends to art, too. Artmaking is a process that turns an idea into a tangible thing, that gives the imagination a physical form. The fact that we do that makes us magicians. Many people wake up with ideas but don’t have a process to make those ideas real. That does not mean they cannot make those ideas real, but that they have not yet accessed or come into contact with the entities within them that allow them to do it.

For me, church was less a form of religious dogma and more a kind of informational system about supernatural activity.

KF Jesus was working to empower people, to make them aware of their own potential—which also breaks them free from master-slave narratives. In 2012, I saw the artist Rashid Johnson’s exhibition Message to Our Folks at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago which featured a mirror spray-painted with the words “Promised Land.” When you experience Johnson’s piece—when you walk up to get a closer look at the promise—you encounter yourself in the mirror peering behind the letters. The promised land is you. When I wrote the ekphrastic poem “Promised Land,” after Johnson’s work, I wanted it to reflect the encounter with that mirror. I thought about the religious phrase, “the promised land,” and that land being holy or sacred. The poem is a chant of two words repeated over and over—“It’s you”—a consistent reminder that we are the sacred promise, and the healing that comes from seeing ourselves as that.

ARY In 2015, I released a track called “Lament” about the four girls who were killed in the KKK bombing of the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham in 1963. In writing that piece, I felt beckoned. It was like the angels were saying to me, “Tell this story about us the way only you tell it.”

That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever made. I was very conflicted about the beat in the song. I remember one time when I was performing “Lament,” people started snapping. Snapping. The snapping made me feel like people were paying more attention to the song than to the story. It was not my intent that people snap to the song; it was my intent that people just listen and engage and experience it.

I ran straight downstairs and had a complete breakdown in my studio. I lay on the floor, saying, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for the audience to be snapping.” I was talking to them—the spirits of those girls—just like they were talking to me. Eventually my friend came down and asked what was wrong. I was just like, “I don’t want them snapping.” And then she said something like, “Those ghosts wouldn’t have given you their story if what is happening is not supposed to.”

We ain’t a people that just listens to shit without responding. In church, when the choir sings, “I love the Lord, he heard my cry,” nobody is just standing still and waiting to be asked to join in. There is rocking; there is call and response. When I thought about that, I realized, “No, avery. Snapping is exactly what they are supposed to be doing.” In that moment, the stories of these ghosts were communicating through all the bodies in the room.

KF When we engage with spirit world business, we have to bring a level of respect, because a lot of power resides there that we have no understanding of in this physical plane. We have to recognize that what we do, what we create, is sacred activity, sacred practice built on relationship and communication that transcends the stage or the page. One has to have reverence so that when one is communicating and co-creating they’re doing so with respect and in the spirit of mutual exchange.

Is that some of what you were grappling with when people started snapping to your song? Do you feel a specific responsibility to the ancestors, the Black dead—a responsibility not to be disrespectful or manipulative?

What you learn in communicating with ghosts is to defy whiteness.

ARY Yes. If the work is not respectful, it is exploitative. Performing this work means letting these ghosts take up rent in my body, and if I’m not respectful, what kind of tenants are these ghosts are going to be? If I’m not respectful, they are going to tear my shit up. I’m not going back to 1963; I’m allowing 1963 to filter through me.

We are always walking in the present, the past, and the future. Sankofa (1993), the Ethiopian-produced film about the transatlantic slave trade, conveys the way our ancestors, specifically our African and enslaved ancestors, are inside us all the time. One character is a slave named Nunu who fully understands her spiritual power. At one point, Nunu saves a baby by performing a C-section when the pregnant mother is killed during an escape attempt. When she brings that baby back, she is harnessing her spirit power and inviting the people around her to connect to it. She is working with a divine power, because she loves the people on this plantation, and she loves herself enough to be the master of her own experiences. She repeats, “This is just flesh, this is just flesh,” because she knows her body is just the vehicle for the spirits to use.

My mama always went to church expecting to have a spiritual experience, a transformation. She expected to witness a miracle, to witness the Holy Ghost. She thought she was going to trip on it, that’s how real the spirit of God was to her. She was like, “From the minute I wake up in the morning, I press this hair and put on my White Diamonds perfume and make sure I’m held together, because I’m about to go over to this church house and get busy. And get free. I’ve got to bring my body.” And the lesson, a lot of times, is that the sum of my life is going to be the humanity I extend to others.

KF Yes, we are exalting and venerating the dead so that we can then have a better life through the experiences they had. I have learned that even when I am not tending to my writing or art in a formal way, that creative practice is constantly at play. It is always with me. I am walking the story, I am breathing the story. I am breathing the performance, I am living the performance. And I carry that feeling into whatever it is that I’m doing.

I feel that the dead have more wisdom than people who are here in my realm. So I’m like, “Let me get in these books and sit at my altar and learn another way.” When you’re communicating with the spirit and ancestral realms, you’re calling a lot of power into the room. It is not just you anymore, but a whole army of people walking with you and stories you carry in and through you, in your flesh, your DNA. There are no more powerful forces than those.

Aricka Foreman is a poet and interdisciplinary writer from Detroit. Author of Salt Body Shimmer, she has earned fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and Millay Arts. She serves on the Board of Directors for The Offing and spends her time in Chicago.
Krista Franklin is a writer and visual artist. Her books include Too Much Midnight and Under the Knife, and she has received awards and grants from the Helen and Tim Meier Foundation for the Arts and the Joan Mitchell Foundation.
avery r. young is an artist working in performance, visual text, and sound design. His most recent book is neckbone: visual verses, and his most recent album is tubman. Previously, he was an Arts and Public Life Artist-in-Residence at the University of Chicago.
Originally published:
July 11, 2022


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