The grace of black nonchalance

Namwali Serpell
The activist Gloria Richardson walking past National Guardsmen during a civil rights march in Cambridge

The activist Gloria Richardson walking past National Guardsmen during a civil rights march in Cambridge, Maryland, June 1963. Courtesy Baltimore Sun Media, Baltimore

I watch it on Twitter, in a small dark box in the middle of my glowing screen. It’s night, the scene spotlit by a news chopper. A white lady newscaster drones on about protesters and police. We see a sparse crowd milling around a giant white statue. A young brother half its height is standing casually on the statue’s pedestal. He wears black basketball shorts and black crew socks and black sneakers. Something red and white hangs from his waistband. Something white is wrapped around his neck like a scarf. His chest is bare. He reaches up to hold the statue’s hand, for balance maybe. He’s talking to the crowd, but you can’t tell what he’s saying because of the choppers and the hushed, schoolmarmy voiceover. The camera swings away, then back, as with utmost grace he gently tugs the large hand of the statue, pulls it right off, and in the same motion, swings himself to the ground—leaps, lofts, vanishes among the people.

They say the statues are for history. They ask, Without a statue like this, how will we know that there was once a king in France named Louis, that this city in Kentucky was named after him, that a revolution more than two centuries ago cut off his head? But the thing is, we do know. We been knowing. Just look at that beautiful man, leaping free, nonchalantly taking that hollow cut-off hand with him. Just look at how much he knows.

The word nonchalant
comes from the French, the present participle of nonchaloir, which is to say, it was a verb before it was an adjective. The non- negates chaloir, which ostensibly means “to have concern for,” though concern is a temperate translation for a heated root: the Latin word calēre, from which the French derives, means “to be hot.” Unsurprising then, that among the definitions and connotations of nonchalant, we find not just “indifferent,” “unconcerned,” and “careless,” but also “cool.”

It might seem that nonchalant knowledge is about not knowing. Keke Palmer sits at a table in a low-lit room. She’s wearing a cream suit with wide lapels and black hoops dangling from diamond-crusted clips. Her brown hair’s in a high bun, her black eyelash extensions furring her eyes. Her skin is so smooth, it’s like stone. She’s taking a lie detector test for a Vanity Fair video—some publicity shtick. The voice of a man offscreen asks her about the fashion-company vice president that she plays on a TV show:

“Would you say that True Jackson, VP was a better VP than Dick Cheney?”

Two white fingers slide a photo toward her of George W. Bush’s former vice president.

“Who the hell is…?” she begins. “Oooh, y’all are really testing me on some stuff that I—” She pauses and gently shakes her head. “I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous. I don’t know who this man is? Yeah, I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man.” She smiles, shakes her head again, and slides the photo back. Her apology sounds both sincere and ironic. When the lie detector consultant confirms that Keke’s telling the truth, she bursts into laughter, unembarrassed, unbothered.

The clip immediately became a meme, the latest in the internet’s vast collection of black women expressing feelings: of grief, fury, amusement, ecstasy, and feelings harder to name, feelings that seem to require reaction GIFs, feelings like I love this song or told you so or if you say so or lemme walk away fore I say somethin. Lauren Michele Jackson has theorized that in the world of memes, black people are treated as emotion machines, “as walking hyperbole”: “white and nonblack users seem to especially prefer GIFs with black people when it comes to emitting their most exaggerated emotions.”

Black nonchalance has long been mistaken for laziness, lassitude, indolence, ignorance.

This relationship to black expression may be the most developed language Americans have for emotion as such: even the most subtle and complex reaction GIFs don’t require sound or captions for us to read them. As Jackson points out, “Our culture frequently associates black people with excessive behaviors, regardless of the behavior at hand.… Officer Darren Wilson perceived a teenage Michael Brown as a hulking ‘demon.’… It’s an implication that points toward a strange way of thinking: When we do nothing, we’re doing something, and when we do anything, our behavior is considered ‘extreme.’” In these memes, the funhouse mirror of American racism is what exaggerates the mildest of emotions into visual legibility: tea sipping (gossip), side eye (shade), eye rolling (sarcasm), hand waving (dismissal).

But the clip of Keke Palmer—my mental shorthand for it is “Sorry to This Meme”— doesn’t quite fit this theory. The feeling it conveys is not an extreme one, nor the exaggeration of a mild one, exactly. It directly and effectually signals nonchalance, which is a kind of non-feeling, an un-doing, a non-knowledge, a refusal to know that isn’t rebellious or ignorant but above concern. The projection of extremity onto black people has had horrifically violent effects, but Sorry to This Meme suggests that we have also wrought beauty and richness from the strange fact that “when we do nothing, we’re doing something."

. Whatever you say. Keep it pushing. You go on and have a good day, now. I wish you the best. Bless your heart
. I’m praying for you. Girl, bye. Bye, Felicia. Be blessed. Okay, my guy. Say less. Miss me with that shit. Anyway. Ok, sweetheart. Suit yourself. Sorry, beloved. Do you. Bet. If you say so. We good. Noted. Not today. Carry on. Go on ahead. It is what it is. Imma let you go. Aight. Oh ok. Be cool now. No. You done? You be easy. Run along. No worries. You good. Y’all be easy tho. Goodnight. God is good. I’m not the one. Not today. Don’t let that bother you. Don’t mind me. It’s whatever. Nah, boo. Moving right along. You sho right. I hear you. Mhm. If you say so. As I was saying. Boy, bye. I’m good. Stay blessed. Gone head on. K.

BLACK NONCHALANCE HAS LONG BEEN mistaken for laziness, lassitude, indolence, ignorance. Not having a care in the world can easily be taken for carelessness. In 1802, Sylvain Meinrad Xavier Golbéry, a French engineer and amateur naturalist who lived in Senegambia for several years, published a travelogue translated the following year as Travels in Africa. Watch how the alembic of white supremacy begins to distill a cross-cultural encounter into a racist ideology:

The climate and character of the African blacks assimilate in such a manner, as to render them singularly happy.

Gifted with a carelessness, which is totally unique, with an extreme agility, indolence, sloth, and great sobriety, the negro exists on his native soil in the sweetest apathy, unconscious of want, or the pain of privation; tormented neither with the cares of ambition, nor with the devouring ardour of desire.…

All the wants and pleasures of a negro are gratified without occasioning to him the least trouble either of mind or body: his soul hardly ever rouses itself from its quiet and peaceful indolence; all violent passions, inquietudes, and fears, are almost unknown to him; his fatalism makes him neither hope nor dread any event; he never murmurs, but submits to all; and his life passes in unruffled calmness, in voluptuous indolence, which constitute his supreme pleasure: hence we may reckon the negro among the most favoured and happy productions of nature.

Such is, in fact, the picture of the blissful situation in which the negro lives on his natal soil. His soul is always tranquil and satisfied, and invulnerable to ennui, that fatal poison which afflicts only civilized, rich, ambitious, and prosperous societies.

A review of this travelogue in the British journal The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure calls it a “captivating” account of “negro nonchalance.” In it, we see that sordid mix of resentment and wonder, exoticism and condescension necessary to forge the oxymoron “the Noble Savage.” On one hand, the negro is naturally tranquil and satisfied; on the other, it’s implied that his dearth of “ennui” is the very reason his societies are supposedly not “civilized, rich, ambitious, and prosperous.”

Golbéry presents the African climate as ever-accommodating. Endless sunshine obviates the need for clothes and shelter. “Healthy and fertile countries” issue an abundance of food and, in African societies, “the harvest is made in communibus.” This plenitude and balance, he argues, deplete the “energy” of the “hunger of the negro.” The implication is that black nonchalance is an ancestral inheritance, indolence and apathy genetic vestiges of an easy life in the motherland, a life of needs met by sunny skies and the wisdom of others. Who would want “to be hot,” who would bother chaloir, if there’s already warmth everywhere?

Golbéry forgets or purposely elides the historical evidence of violent conflict between neighboring kingdoms and villages in Africa at the time. But his view of an environmentally conditioned negro nonchalance persists even when we cross the Atlantic and a century, even when we turn to the analysis of a black philosopher like Alain Locke in “Enter the New Negro” (1925):

It must be increasingly recognized that the Negro has already made very substantial contributions, not only in his folk-art, music especially, which has always found appreciation, but in larger, though humbler and less acknowledged ways. For generations the Negro has been the peasant matrix of that section of America which has most undervalued him, and here he has contributed not only materially in labor and in social patience, but spiritually as well. The South has unconsciously absorbed the gift of his folk-temperament. In less than half a generation it will be easier to recognize this, but the fact remains that a leaven of humor, sentiment, imagination and tropic nonchalance has gone into the making of the South from a humble, unacknowledged source.

More classist than racist, Locke’s view of black nonchalance still maintains a quasi-eugenic flavor: the qualifier “tropic” and purported origin in “the South” both suggest continuity between a balmy climate and the negro’s humble “folk-temperament.” But Locke at least acknowledges the artistic and spiritual influence of black culture on America, a sense of “humor, sentiment, [and] imagination” that is more oblique and complex than the exaggerations and crudity implied by minstrelsy. No, black nonchalance isn’t some genetic memory of the “quiet and peaceful indolence” of Africa or of the South. It’s a performance of the double consciousness, double meanings, double dealings required to navigate the intricate labyrinth of racism and its seemingly infinite threat of violence.

In Live in Concert (1979), Richard Pryor does a bit about why, “statistically,” black people don’t get bitten by snakes as often as white people do. You might think this would have to do with the stereotype that black people don’t like camping or the outdoors. But Pryor says it’s actually because “Black people stroll too cool in the woods. They do. Niggers be in the woods and be havin’ a different attitude about the woods.… Now, white people get bit all the time, cause they have a different rhythm.” The critic John Limon describes the physical comedy Pryor times to the joke like this: “Pryor mimes walking in the woods as a white man: goofy, head lolling in the clouds. When Pryor walks as a black man, he strolls to the rhythm of nature itself. He sees the snake, says ‘snake’ nonchalantly, and executes a small sweet dance step aside.”

The joke: How could you not know this man? Her implication: Why would I know this man?

If, for Limon, Pryor’s smooth black man “strolls to the rhythm of nature,” Pryor’s jerky white man—duckfooting like Charlie Chaplin, jumping when bitten—amuses the audience because the comedian enacts what Henri Bergson called the “mechanical encrusted upon the living.” But Limon puzzles over the fact that “black nonchalance gets an equal laugh”: “At no moment are whites and blacks in Pryor’s audience laughing for exactly the same reason.… But they all laugh…and for the same duration. What could that mean?” The incongruity theory of humor might apply here: each group in the audience expects one thing and gets another. There’s also something inherently delightful about the dancing sidestep, which doesn’t just skirt the threat but lightly names and nullifies it: “snake.” What hums at the heart of the joke for me is this: violence is no surprise to black people. This is the rhythm of nonchalance—to turn everpresent danger into a dance.

The white pianist Charles Cornell has achieved internet fame by composing music to accompany online clips. The ones that have gone viral are of black people—some famous, some not—talking. His pieces showcase the remarkable musicality of the varieties of black speech in pitch, tone, rhythm. But his most popular ones also rely on the high-contrast oxymoronics of minstrelsy: the raw diction vs. the technical-seeming expertise, the poker-faced white musician vs. the labile expressions of his subjects, the essentialist overtones vs. the ventriloquist premise. And underlying it all is the pleasure of slumming: white folks delectating in black folks’ seemingly outsized reactions to outlandish phenomena, from a clip of a Timberland boot that has been disassembled by a furious girlfriend to a clip of Cardi B advertising Swisher Sweets Uggs.

Cornell has not yet set a composition to Sorry to This Meme, but Keke Palmer’s speech, sashaying between what she’s assumed to know and what she doesn’t care to know, is clearly musical. She starts off with a high-pitched squeak who the hell is…? then drops an octave, the Oooh sliding down into a rhythmic patter like a bass line y’all-are-really-testing-me-on-some-stuff-that-I…followed by a pause, then another train, alto now, I-hate-to-say-it, I-hope-I-don’t-sound-ridiculous, each syllable of the last word articulated with the same stress as it leads into the climax: I don’t know—a slight questioning rise into—who this man is? She answers herself, Yeah, I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t…then pauses before she confirms in a low vibrato: I wouldn’t know a thing. And finally she gives us the denouement, as satisfying as a last-second shift to a minor key: Sorry to this man.

Cornell would have a hard time capturing other aspects of this passage in a composition. Palmer’s accent, from outside Chicago, lops off the final consonants on testing, sound, don’t, wouldn’t, but leans into those in the middle of ridiculous. There’s the echoed meter of the last two lines: wouldn’t / know a / thing. // Sorry / to this / man. Tonally, there’s a scintilla of shade, a patina of placidity. And there’s the attitude, the posture: unforced, unbothered.

The joke: How could you not know this man?

Her implication: Why would I know this man?

The assumption: You’re willfully ignorant of a man who famously abused his political power, in ways that may have made a concrete impact on your material well-being.

The truth of the matter: How would knowing this man have changed that?

There’s always a man with power somewhere doing terrible things in America to other Americans, especially black ones. He isn’t worth knowing. If I don’t know him, if he has not been anointed with the light of my acknowledgment, that’s a shame—for him. Sorry to this man.

Brush your shoulders off. So just chill, ’til the next episode. I’m so unbothered, I’m so unbothered / Y’all be so pressed while I’m raising daughters. Tokin’, smokin’, coolin’ out as I parlay in my room / ’Cause it’s a lazy afternoon. I’m cool like that…/ I’m chill like that…/ I groove like that, I’m smooth like that, / I jive like that, I roll like that. Me and the rap’s laid back / Nonchalant and relaxed in the track. We climb into the back of the four / Nonchalant flavor fo’ sure, Timbs with the aqua valor. Is that Gucci on my feet? / Shit, bitch it might be. Laid back, with my mind on my money and my money on my mind. Real bitch, I don’t be with all that drama / Mindin’ my business, unbothered. In the strip club chillin’ so nonchalant. I’ve got plenty moves, eyes open or eyes closed / But my best move baby is when I blow my nose. At first, I’m like “nah,” I’m nonchalant from afar / Then strike to cut the fake rap star jugular. Beep beep, who got the keys to the Jeep? Vrrooooom…

Nonchalance is hip-hop’s bloodstream. There are rappers named Nonchalant, Chilla, and Casual; others, like Del The Funky Homosapien and André 3000, have made a poetic art of the meander. The highest measures of skill in rap are “flow” (loosely, rhythm) and “bars” (loosely, wit). A chill flow evinces mastery; wit isn’t wit unless it’s effortless. These features are prized in freestyling, which has the improvisatory ease of what Renaissance Italians called sprezzatura, or “studied carelessness.” Rap battles might seem menacing, but they carry threats like pretty thoughts: the knives and guns are mostly ornamental, their availability for rhyme more crucial than any reality they might gesture toward.

Take this sampling of Megan Thee Stallion’s lyrics about guns:

Make a Bag
They checkin’ him but the gun in my purse
I’m killin’ these hoes and I know that it hurt

I know how to work a gun, I don’t need a range
And I could take a hit, I ain’t scared of the pain

But in a recent Twitter post about being shot in the feet by Tory Lanez, Megan writes: “This is my real life and I’m real life hurt and traumatized.” The nonchalance in Megan’s songs isn’t hypocritical. It’s lyrical. She participates in a long tradition of poetic boasting—from flyting to signifying—as a form that turns the perils of “real life” into a performance. Hip-hop’s nonchalance isn’t a pretense to toughness but rather a deliberate artistic act that both admits and scoffs at vulnerability. After all, a mask of nonchalance wouldn’t be necessary if violence weren’t the very air we breathe here.

In the puerile Manichaean world of American racism, there are only extremes: cowardice or courage, faith or betrayal, knowledge or ignorance. Nonchalance isn’t a form of moderation between these poles, but a negation in action. It empties out the feeling that’s expected, that ought to be there, that still is there as a haunt, an outline. Nonchalance is a giant hollow hand gently plucked from a statue. It doesn’t echo the American Yes! It doesn’t cry No! either. It smiles, chuckles, and says: Yeah, nah.

Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener prefers not to. Nonchalance does not prefer to.

In the pantheon of black feeling, nonchalance is not a god like righteous anger or crazy love. Nor is it a minor deity, like Sianne Ngai’s racialized affects of “irritation”—the tendency to experience racial micro-aggressions as a pervasive dissatisfaction—and “animatedness,” which treats black people’s bodies as malleable, manipulable, excitable objects. Black nonchalance doesn’t react to racism. Or rather, it performs nonreaction. It isn’t unfeeling; it’s unfazed. It isn’t callous; it’s cool. It registers and refuses at once. It declines, in the sense that it withholds consent. What does the nonchalant person decline? She declines to be a puppet: to take on, channel, and express for others. She declines to be a tool: to resist, rail, and fight for others. She declines to be a sponge: to absorb all that this racist, capitalist country pours out of its bloody, gaping maw.

Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener prefers not to. Nonchalance does not prefer to. This difference might seem semantic, but what I mean is that nonchalance obviates preference altogether. There are no choices here and to pretend that there are would be beneath us both. While Bartleby critiques capitalism by refusing to choose, nonchalance luxuriates in the profound absurdity of capitalism itself—the foolish notion that it gives us real choices, that it ever was a choice.

Have you seen the video of the young man walking around his workplace, filming a goodbye tour? He saunters in and out of a series of trailers as, in a tone twangy as a banjo, he narrates his departure:

Hey, I quit today. Frankie, you a bitch. If you weren’t that old, I woulda knocked your old ass out. On my mama. You a pussy, you been a pussy, you a bitch, you racist, I been racist—or what? You gon’ call the police or what? You gon’ call the police? You a bitch, puss-ass cracker. Or what, Frankie? The fuck up? Or what? Or what, puss-ass nigga? I quit. All these racist-ass crackers know why. I been racist. They racist as hell though. They play on my check. This office lady right here play on my check. She the one be doing the checks. I quit. I just—I always wanted to let you know, I knew you was a racist, a racist-ass white bitch. You gon’ get your day in hell with the rest of the racist-ass people, cracker bitch, I hate you too. Where her old-ass at, so I could treat her ass? It’s the other racist-ass white bitch right here y’all, stupid-ass white bitch. [The woman turns and silently gives him the finger.] Cracker bitch, I’m racist too. Fuck it, I quit, Joe. I’ve got utmost respect for you. Only thing about you, you did that shit with that ticket, like you wanted me to pay for that ticket or something, but other than that, utmost respect for you. I love you, Joe. But this white bitch right here? She racist as fuck. She gon’ have her day in hell, that bitch’s gon’ burn in fucking hell. I quit, you can’t tell me nothing. [Joe says this is “unnecessary.”] Call the police, what they gon’ do? She racist as hell, Joe. She’s racist as hell. I see you bitch, every day. You a blue-eyed devil. Fucking racist bitch. I quit, y’all.

Remember that video of the brother who declines to let a racist customer check into the motel where he’s working as the concierge? He records on the sly as he matter-of-factly responds to her increasingly hysterical reactions, his nonchalant refrain “it’s above me”:

I got called a nigger by this lady, who will be arriving in ten minutes. So, I’m just, you know, gonna play with it. I don’t get activity like this, and this is like the third time in my life ever being called a nigger, so. This should be fun.
[The woman arrives.]
I understand that but you called me a fucking nigger.
Well, I need to stay here. My mother died.
I understand that, but you called me a fucking nigger.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Nooo, you weren’t sorry when you said it on the phone.
I was—listen, there was people screaming and honking. I need a—I need the room.
No, but, at the end of the day and the climate that we live in today’s society.
I said I was sorry.
I understand that, but it’s above me now.
Could—I need a room tonight.
Well, there’s the Best Western next door.
Oh please, let me here. My daughter’s here.
I’m sorry, but I mean, I was on the phone when you said it.
I said, I’m sorry. Please, I’ve been—I’ve had a horrible day today.
And I’ve had a horrible time when hearing that.
[Woman to her daughter.] He won’t let me in.
It’s above me.
[Daughter] Why?
She called me a “fucking nigger.”
[Daughter] Sir, my grandma just died.
I understand that, but it’s above me.
Let me? Please let me.
It’s above me.
I’ve got my credit card.
Sorry, the Best Western is next door.
[Daughter] Sir, the rest of our family is here.
I understand that, but it’s above me.
Please, I apologized.
She said what she said.

Stills of Craig Brooks speaking with purple devil and laughing emojis.

Stills from Craig Brooks, “It’s Above Me Now,” 2019. Courtesy Craig Brooks

And I’m sure you’ve heard that voicemail: “This is for Rachel, you big, fat, white, nasty-smelling, fat bitch. Why you took me off the motherfucking schedule, with your trifling, dirty-white, racist-ass, big-fat bitch?” Maybe you assumed Jasmine Collins was really threatening “to beat the fuck out of” her manager. Yet as it goes on, the very length of her warning betrays its ultimate futility: nothing will come of this but unemployment. Nevertheless, its casual sense of control makes it into art—we’ve already set it to a beat and made a song out of it—as do its rhythmic epithets and its vivid, virtuosic figures of speech: “Oompaloompa-body-ass bitch.” An intriguing intimacy simmers under the story: “I know what kind of car you drive”; “the first day I came up there, talking about a bitch that had on pajamas, but you walking around here in some ten-dollar-ass jeans on.” And once again, the insult, the true betrayal is that race has come between those who are in fact social and economic equals: “You white motherfuckers hate to see black people doing good…or doing anything for them-motherfucking-selves.”

The grids of class warp when you try to apply them to a white supremacist society. Apart from these fraught workplace scenarios, this is why accusations like gauche, nouveau riche, tacky, kitsch don’t really stick when you apply them to black people. Fur, chains, ice, designer clothes—black nonchalance accepts these as our due without bothering about real value. What could possibly be real about these objects to those who were once bought and sold beside them? Why submit to “earning” things with underpaid labor at exploitative, racist workplaces? Why not reclaim them for ourselves? (“You have stolen more than we could ever loot.”)

Gold and diamond grills. Stilettos you can’t walk in. Grandly arching fingernails, lovingly adorned. Such flouting of functionality is an obvious fuck-you to the days of scrutinized teeth at auctions and picking cotton on plantations. I’m not saying nonchalance is about reparations. It isn’t even about black capitalism. Nonchalance is above grasping. In this posture, all evidence of material want, of thirst, must be banished. If nonchalance is an “I could take it or leave it” attitude, even to have that attitude is to possess something of great value. When Snoop says, “with my mind on my money and my money on my mind,” the chiasmus itself undoes any sense that he’s worriedly counting coins. In the second phrase, my money’s on my mind like a cash blanket, a reliable comfort, the psychological luxury of taking lucre for granted. This is the spiritual wealth of seeing worldly wealth in perspective.

Black nonchalance is simply this: a dilation of perspective. You’re nonchalant about money and work if you see them in the context of capitalist expropriation. You’re nonchalant about time if you see it in the context of a life, rather than a day or a job. You never mistake immediacy for urgency. Late? Late for what? Nonchalance rebukes the rigged proportions of a market-driven value system. As the examples above suggest, it isn’t respectable or woke. No, it doesn’t revolutionize or fight the power. Nor does it strive for balance or compromise. It just declines to engage with what it considers to be trifling. This is neither political action nor political passivity. It’s style. Nonchalance doesn’t step forward or turn its back. It loiters, hangs, leans, brushes past.

A WIDELY CIRCULATED PHOTOGRAPH from the 2017 Women’s March features three white women in bright pink hats (let me not digress on the question, Why pink?) standing next to one another up on a road barrier. In the background is the Capitol. In the foreground, Angela Peoples stands, wearing a white cap (ILLING PEOPLE is visible above the brim) and gold hoops. She’s sucking on a lollipop and holding a sloppy homemade sign saying, Don’t forget: White Women Voted for TRUMP.

In a photograph from a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest, Ieshia Evans stands in the middle of the road outside the Baton Rouge police headquarters. Two cops in full military-style gear are running toward her, bum-rushing her; they look heavy and clunky; one seems on the verge of tumbling backward. She wears glasses, flats, and an ankle-length dress—a sheer, almost vaporous black with a pattern of vertical white ellipses, strings crisscrossed over her bare back, and side slits floating open to reveal her calves. Her feet are in first position, her arms bent at the elbow, her hands before her. She seems suspended, as poised as a drop of water.

Two photographs from a 1963 protest in Cambridge, Maryland feature the civil rights activist Gloria Richardson. In both, she’s in jeans and a white shirt, walking before a crowd of protestors. In the foreground, we see the back of a thickset national guardsman in a gray uniform and a round helmet, his belt sagging with some piece of artillery. He’s holding a jet-black bayonet rifle horizontally against Gloria’s body. Her hand is raised up to the gun, as though to push it aside. In one shot, she is in profile, not looking at him; in the other, her face is turned to him with a look that can only be described as imperious disgust.

Black nonchalance is a form of grace, which is to say, a way of seeing the long view, a way of surviving the eternal return of white supremacy, a way of making something out of that vast and terrible nothing.

THE SCHOLAR HORTENSE SPILLERS ARGUES that “America’s Black female vocalists…suggest a composite figure of ironical grace.” In his analysis of black church women such as the Clarke Sisters, Ashon Crawley cites Spillers to describe a “holy nonchalance” that is resonant with but distinct from “black nonchalance.” For Crawley, “holy nonchalance is not innocence or indifference nor ignorance: It is fully aware of the context of its emergence.” When we reduce the work of the Clarke Sisters to mere style, he suggests, we “[fail] to understand style as a kind of knowledge. We forget that this styling itself encapsulates the holy nonchalance of Black living.…It is a kind of protest that emerges from, even though it is not primarily about, a time like this. A holy nonchalance that glances at the momentary rupture while it sounds out alternatives to the norm.”

This theory of black style as “ironical grace,” as knowledge, as protest, and as a vision beyond the present moment helps me understand what I sense in my examples of nonchalance. But while I feel that black nonchalance is endemically ambivalent about feeling, capitalism, and time, Crawley argues that holy nonchalance is grounded in joy: “a zest for life and breath, a kind of love for creaturely existence and a desire to share with others to alleviate suffering and harm, to carry burdens as a collective kind of care.” He believes that holy nonchalance is a “saying-yes towards birth and breath.” And he claims that, as Audre Lorde says of poetry, it is “not a luxury. It is urgent.”

Maybe our differences are a matter of our respective tastes for luxury, for political pragmatism. Or maybe it’s just that Crawley’s talking about gospel music and I’m talking about the blues.

IN BLUES LEGACIES AND BLACK FEMINISM, Angela Y. Davis argues that the blues took over gospel music after abolition, becoming “the most prominent secular genre in early twentieth-century black American music. As it came to displace sacred music in the everyday lives of black people, it both reflected and helped to construct a new black consciousness.” But this was less a complete takeover than a syncretic merging: the blues became “secular spirituals.” The blues were bodily, raunchy, immediate. They expressed the new availability of freely chosen sex and unrestricted travel. Yet they continued to speak to the “collective…yearning for freedom” expressed in older spirituals and slave songs.

Blues women are, in a word, cavalier about violence, whether they’re under its hand or wielding it

If the blues are, for black people, what August Wilson called “life’s way of talking,” that talk has always been slant. Davis points out that some scholars have misconstrued the nonchalant tone in blues songs, overlooking the singers’ “abundant use of humor, satire, and irony.” Davis argues that these features reveal the songs’ historic roots in slave music, “which often relied on indirection and irony to highlight the inhumanity of slave owners so that their targets were sure to misunderstand the intended meaning.” In blues songs that ruefully ironize abuse, for example, some listeners have heard only “a celebration of masochism” or a “hit me, I love you” tradition. But listen again:

Then he knocks me down and says, “It’s just a little love lick, dear.”…
Gee, ain’t it great to have a man that’s crazy over you?

Child, then he turned around and knocked out both of my teeth
Outside of that, he’s all right with me.

Because I love him, ’cause there’s no one can beat me like he do.

The irony of these lyrics is even more clear in the songs’ tonal inflections in performance. Blues women are, in a word, cavalier about violence, whether they’re under its hand or wielding it:

I cut him with my barlow, I kicked him in the side
I stood there laughing over him while he wallowed ’round and died.

If I see him I’m gon’ beat him, gon’ kick and bite him, too
Gonna take my weddin’ butcher, gonna cut him two in two.

“The striking postures assumed by these women offer not even a hint of repentance for having taken their lovers’ lives,” Davis notes. She draws a historical parallel to these songs by quoting a story from Bessie Smith’s biographer about how the singer dealt with the Klansmen who tried to disrupt her tent performance in 1927: “‘Bessie hurled obscenities at them until they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness.… Then she went back into the tent as if she had just settled a routine matter.’”

BY THE TIME RHYTHM AND BLUES reached my young ears in the nineties, Aaliyah was our queen of nonchalance. Next to Aaliyah, even Sade—our queen of eighties’ nonchalance—looked like she was breaking a sweat. Though Aaliyah was locked in what we now know to have been a grotesquely abusive marriage to a man twelve years her senior, she always exuded such ease, such effortless grace. The briefest brushes of tone, gesture, expression. She was, in every sense, glancing. Her dance moves slipping, her hair swaying, her falsetto trickling. What tenderness, what sweet, asymptotic desire, just enough to rock the boat, rock the boat, rock the boat, but never so much as to tip into dissolution.

Nowadays, we have Rihanna. She doesn’t twerk; she winds. All she does is work work work work, but she has forged an entire industry out of delay, making fans wait for her songs as she effortlessly launches other projects. Her voice in interviews is calm, bored even. Her rolling eyes alone convey more than many a Broadway actor’s whole body. And when she sings, even when it’s a yelled threat—bitch better have my money!—it’s as though she’s calling it over her shoulder.

I WATCH IT ON TWITTER, in that small dark box in the middle of my glowing screen. It’s night, a streetlight casting a spotlight over the scene. The camera is trained on what looks to be an arrest in progress. A woman stands next to a security guard in uniform. They’re both black, but he’s lighter, his beard a dusty brown under his black skull cap. She wears dangly pearl earrings, a black tank top knotted at the breastbone, and red tights polka-dotted with white flecks. Her stomach is bare and it hangs over her waistband. It looks as soft and buttoned as a cushion, and just as tempting. Her arms are cuffed behind her. The guard has her by the elbow, to restrain her maybe. He speaks only once during the video, but you can tell what he’s thinking during the rest because of the way he turns and ducks his head, hiding his smile.

The camera stays steady as with utmost grace the woman gently tugs away from the large grip of the guard, pulls to the right, and in the same motion, turns her head to address him:

[This is] how the fuck I act. Naturally. Ask anybody who know me.
What you in school for?
What the fuck are you talkin’ about? WHY are you detaining me?

This last question comes out as a scratchy shout, her head flinging to one side in punctuation. But it has no distortion or garble to it. It’s pitch perfect. It could be James Brown or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Tina Turner. And as if the same thought has just occurred to her, she starts stomping her heel, bobbing and screwing her hip to one side, and singing a song:

You about to lose yo job
You about to lose yo job (Get this dance)
You about to lose yo job
’Cause you are detaining me…for nothin’.

“Get this dance” is for the cameraperson, who has been abruptly recruited into making a music video. The woman keeps bopping, pivoting between the camera and the man she’s warning:

And detaining me for nothin’
And you ’bout to lose your job
You-ain’t-even-got-no job
’Cause you triflin’
You ’bout to lose-yo-job
You ’bout to lose-yo-job
You ’bout to. Lose. Yo. Job.

She ends with those three emphatic beats, then stands up straight to toss him a final rhetorical riff: “Is this shit worth losing yo job? ’Cause you ’bout to. ’Cause you ain’t got no reason.”

The video became a meme when it was remixed by DJ iMarkkeyz and DJ Suede, the musicality of Johnniqua Charles’s tiny protest lending itself to a bumping beat. This wasn’t exactly a profound act of resistance given that while the security guard let her go, he did not in fact lose his job. But the viral clip had other rewards: Charles, who had been an addict living on the street at the time of her near-detainment, was reunited with her family. Enough money was raised from meme-themed merchandise and a GoFundMe to help her get back on her feet. The remix of “You About to Lose Yo Job” became, for a moment, an anthem for the protests—the marches, the rallies, the toppling of statues—that were sparked by the murder of George Floyd this past summer. And it came back to life as a deeply satisfying swansong for the defeat of Donald J. Trump in the 2020 presidential election, ringing out from street parties, Twitter memes, and Saturday Night Live skits.

Like the best of the blues, Charles’s song reflects what Davis calls “the lives of working-class black communities.” It emerged spontaneously, a genuine improvisation that epitomizes the perspective, the command of black nonchalance: over reality (“for nothin’”), over time (“’bout to”), and over the intractable agon of capitalism (“yo job”). Her song disdains the naturalization of power. This isn’t a cop arresting a criminal. It’s a black person who “ain’t-even-got-no job” detaining another black person “for nothin’.” And this isn’t cancel culture, either. Instead, an antagonistic relationship becomes a meaningless opposition: rebuke and solidarity conjoin as she levels the playing field. We are equals, her song says. His grip on her elbow almost comes to seem like they’re arm in arm, doing a dance, however reluctant, undoing all danger. Is this shit worth losing yo job? is an echo of Sorry to this man is an echo of It’s above me now. This petty nonsense? This triflin’ shit? A violent, racist, capitalist state that conceals its power by continuously pitting us against each other? Yeah, nah. We’re above that now.

Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and a professor of English at Harvard. She is the author of Seven Modes of Uncertainty, The Old Drift: A Novel, Stranger Faces, and The Furrows: An Elegy.
Originally published:
December 1, 2020


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