Ode to Babel

The ecstasy of Michael K. Williams

Roger Reeves

The dead dance and yelp far beyond their dying. This, the irony of our digital age—the dead undead in the afterlife, dancing. The image of them easily obtained with a few strokes in a search bar—“Michael Williams dancing.” There, on the screen: the scar across Michael’s face, his dark skin, gold chains bounc­ing against his chest, his arms striking the air as if beating a large invisible drum. I watched this video every day, multiple times a day, in my hovel of a studio apartment in Cambridge after his death. Michael, dead, yet released from his death each time I clicked the YouTube video’s link. His body full of motion and vibrantly so.

Maybe it’s not ironic. The dead have always done this—moved, danced—in the phantasmagoria of memory. But now we can touch them with pixelated accuracy, where the blue of Michael’s shirt becomes midnight blue, and the red a gutbucket red. In this digital age, detail that would have become a casualty of time refuses to lose its luster, refuses to slip into the fog and sublimity of an aging mind, of a bygone world, of history.

So for weeks after his death on September 6, 2021, Michael K. Williams, native son of Brooklyn, dances in a park in Brooklyn on my screen. Michael, the actor known for playing Omar Little on The Wire and Montrose Freeman in Lovecraft Country, known for groundbreaking roles that complicated American representations of Black masculinity and sexuality, known for holding his dark body unashamedly up and against our eyes, for the scar that ran down the center of his head over the right side of his face, con­tinuing over the bridge of his nose and down along his cheek, a scar given to him in a fight at a club, a scar that defies the patina’d beauty of Hollywood. In the video—recorded in October of 2020, well into the pandemic—his arms wash the sky in front of him as if they have transformed into the limbs of some dark tree. He bows, spins, bounces, jumps, beseeches, hops, and tosses himself into the heat and thump of the house music playing in the background. The driving bottom of the beat lifts him into ecstasy, causing him to clutch his head, to yip and growl in pleasure. I watch and watch and watch Michael not only because I am looking for something to hold onto, for some memento that defies and counters the tragedy of his death, an overdose. But also because he’s beautiful and loved to dance, and his darkness, his dark skin, reminds me of the hue of my own skin, my own beauty, my love of dancing, and the necessity of reveling in what one loves, even if it has taken you years to love it. The necessity of loving the way your skin moves against the skin of others or disappears when a lover puts her body on top of yours. The disappearing not a relief because my skin could no longer be seen but gratitude for the way she could see me enough to want my body beneath hers and know that as love, as the feeling she wanted.

His dancing is improvised but it contains the sprezzatura of a man who knows how to turn grit and grind into fine art, into a delicacy.

Watching Michael dance, getting caught up in spirit, reminds me of my time wrestling with a deathless God on the floor of Full Gospel Church of God, the Pentecostal Church I grew up attend­ing. The church was nomadic, housed in homes of parishioners or the pastor, or in storefronts and strip malls up and down the Delaware River in southern New Jersey. In the summer of 1997, services convened in a storefront that shared its parking lot with a barbershop. Everything in the sanctuary—from the crosses on the Christian flags in the corner of the pulpit to the folding chairs to the long heavy curtains that covered the large plate-glass window—was burgundy or red. In that bloody sanctuary, when I was seven­teen, I tarried, wept, and called out to the Christian God for relief, for salvation. My back arched and bucked against the cloth-seated folding chairs. Eventually, I found myself on the floor, my mouth stumbling over itself, stumbling after God.

The saints—the congregants of the church—implored me to call harder, to chase this God who would come closer only if I showed myself worthy of His touch; they gathered about me praying, crying, and beating bottoms of tambourines until the metal zills latched to the wooden frame of the tambourine broke off and fell about me. This god would cease his fleeing from me if I would humble myself there on the floor, becoming something for him to walk or lie upon. Clean, white as snow. Fear had driven me down onto the floor of the church. Fear of going to hell for wanting to bring my mouth to the lips of K or J who sat by me in school or at Clementon Amusement Park, the press of their backs against my chest. I feared what my life would be after submitting to those desires. Where would I reside after going underground in a casket and my flesh became the road the maggots traveled and churned to milk?

My tongue tumbled through the dark of my mouth calling “JesusJesusJesus,” moving so quickly it sounded like a child’s feet shuffling in fallen leaves—as if my words were the brown, red, and yellow murmur and cry of the leaves. I wanted to drive those feel­ings from me. I wanted relief from having to worry about living and what my life would come to after the living was done.

“Running away is easy / It’s the living that’s hard,” sings Samuel Herring on the band BadBadNotGood’s “Time Moves Slow.” I knew this at seventeen—the jumble of my desires to touch, to be touched, to run away from all of it. As a young Christian raised by a mother who was devoted to the denial of the flesh, a mother who never drank an ounce of liquor or wine, who upon rising fell imme­diately to her knees in prayer, I was taught to eschew the carnal, which included anything corporeal. If I was found dancing, I was severely punished. Any mention of desire for another was met with a disapproving face. To live in my house was to live with your body shepherded and locked away from itself—except when it would rebel. And there’d you be, at the park or on a rollercoaster at Six Flags pressing your body into another, a lock of their hair brushing against the side of your face, and for the rest of that day and for many days after you felt only that—the lock of that hair against your face. I wanted to be free of my rebellious body, to be possessed by the same spirit that kept my mother calling “JesusJesusJesus” throughout the day. I wanted to be down onto the floor of that church so that I could come up possessed, with the language of God on my tongue.

But what possessed Michael in the video I was watching? What sent him up-rocking, winding his hips, grabbing his head, yelp­ing in ecstasy—if ecstasy is what he felt? A neon yellow bike lies discarded on the ground behind him. Maybe he heard the music wafting out of the speakers (somewhere off-screen), leapt from its seat, and started dancing. In the precision of his footwork, you can see the professional he once was—he choreographed for pop stars like Crystal Waters and danced on tour with George Michael and Madonna. His dancing is improvised but it contains the sprezzatura of a man who knows how to turn grit and grind into fine art, into a delicacy. His voice mirrors his dancing. His yelping moves in many directions at once—toward ecstasy, maybe—but not the ecstasy of the erotic; rather, it is the hard-worked-for ecstasy of a body that understands the weight of itself. A body not relieved of its flesh, its age, its mortality.

In the video Michael sports a thick white beard, which star­tles me a bit, because it conveys his age in a way his dancing and even his roles as an actor did not. Maybe the beard is another sign of the pandemic, of the isolation, of the weariness of having to sit in an apartment alone and pass the days watching the seasons announce themselves on trees, the leaves the only thing allowed to go unmasked in the streets. The dancing seems to convey all of Michael’s fifty-three years, his wrestling with addiction, his vulner­ability that always seemed just below the plane of his face, his aches and wants. In the video, the moaning and yelping calls to and out beyond limitation. In his arms reaching out to some unseen thing, unseen desire, it seems as if Michael is trying to call something to him, a something else. A something else that only a moan locates: a desire expressed without the locutions and grammars of language. Some din that replaces discourse.

Nobody’s walk­ing into your house and turning down your funky little stereo or telling you how to make your French-pressed latte. So don’t tell us how to make ours.

Michael’s grunting coupled with his dancing reaches out beyond ecstasy, reaches out to grace, to the desire for it, reaches out to the community who’s there dancing with him in the form of a woman who wears a black surgical mask over her mouth and a long black sweater, her dancing sometimes mirroring his. Sometimes she takes the lead, her footwork mimicked by Michael. At other times they work together but contrapuntally so, her mov­ing in and Williams moving out. Folks like to call this collective, improvised art-making “call and response.” But that’s not quite it. At a conference on Black poetry at Princeton University in 2019, the scholar, poet, and critic Fred Moten called it “Black sociality.” I’ve come to think of Black sociality as a type of social work or working the social, a making of society that affirms the luxuriance and fecund materiality of Black life in America. The term “call and response” positions Michael’s dancing as merely technique, as an apolitical, facile motion of brute force rather than as what it is—world-building, an epistemological and ontological intervention that disrupts the ongoing catastrophe of racism and gentrification. Michael K. Williams and the Woman in Black build a world in the middle of gentrifying Brooklyn, in what I facetiously call Season Three of the pandemic: a period when the vaccine was on the hori­zon and an inept attempt at a coup took place on the white steps of the United States Capitol Building.

Michael and the Woman in Black risk stepping out into the end of the world, stepping into their potential deaths to build a zone of autonomy, one that contradicts gentrification. It is a zone full of speculation, a zone of what-if, “ontological & lustrous,” even science-fictional. If Octavia Butler were a choreographer and designed this social dance, it might be called “Parable of the Dancers.” It’s as if Michael and the Woman in Black have escaped from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” Like Harrison, the main character, who throws off his government-issued and man­dated impairments, Michael and the Woman in Black cast off their metaphoric chains, shackles, and masks and dance defiantly in the street, overthrowing the sequestering of beauty, the corralling of Black life. Unruly and unbothered, they dance and dance and dance despite the handicappers who might come with their blue lights, batons, dogs, and heavy faces. Handicappers who fear their beauty.

Stills from “Michael K. Williams Knows House,” YouTube, November 14, 2020.

If you listen closely to the video, you can hear a woman’s voice, off-camera, chanting “Still Brooklyn, still Brooklyn, still Brooklyn” and “Welcome Home.” Michael seems to dance harder, dance toward her chanting, as if she were calling him back into the bor­ough after a long journey, saying, “This is where you belong, where you will always belong.” Her voice, the tether between who he was, who he is, and who he will be. But this exchange occurs improvisa­tionally. The dance, then, becomes a co-performance between him and his community. Together, they make a polis, a citizenry, a state of sorts, one that is constantly under revision, augmentation, and subject to debate, unlike most of the political states we suffer under today. The “state” that Michael and the Woman in Black dance and chant into being is not based on the exclusionary politics of citizenship and statehood—federal and state governments decid­ing who is foreign, domestic, or alien, who and what should live and who and what should die. Rather, they articulate a vision of a hierarchy-less future, one built on the need for an improvisational and flexible politics. A politics that calls everyone in, thus erasing the fiction of who and what is centered and who and what suffers at the margins.

By dancing, Michael and the Woman in Black resist their disap­pearance. They slip the yoke and dodge the arrows of gentrification that are aimed at shutting down these social acts of community. In Prospect Heights, for instance, the latest round of gentrifiers, these covered wagon white settlers, complained of the inordi­nately loud music coming from a Crown Heights bar called Ode to Babel, a fixture of social life in the community. Owned by two Black women, Ode to Babel caters to the Black Diaspora. Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Puerto Ricans, Guyanese, and all manner of Black Americans (from Up South to the Dirty Dirty) sit in the concrete backyard on wooden benches, their glasses and elbows touching, while inside the bar, “the DJ sweat[s] out all of the problems and troubles of the day.” And if you want to chase some of those prob­lems with a shot of Barbancourt or Flor de Caña, all the better. Sometimes, the sweating and the funk spills out onto the sidewalk in front of the bar. Unable to stomach these rowdy Negroes, an alabaster-complexioned neighbor complained to the community board, hoping to block the owners of the bar from renewing their liquor license. The local Black community rallied behind the own­ers, attended the next board meeting, and reminded their white neighbors that the area where they decided to lay their weary heads is a historically Black one: alive, vibrantly so, and not in the bull­dozed past. In other words, mind your manners. Know how to act when you’re coming into somebody else’s house. Nobody’s walk­ing into your house and turning down your funky little stereo or telling you how to make your French-pressed latte. So don’t tell us how to make ours.

This problem does not stop at the boundaries and bridges of Brooklyn. It’s an everywhere problem: San Francisco, Austin, Oakland, Cambridge, Atlanta, Chicago, Puerto Rico.…If I were to borrow or playfully signify on W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous pronounce­ment in the first paragraph of The Souls of Black Folk (“the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”), I might say: the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the American empire, the cyclical and savage nature of it.

Here’s the cycle. Those that have been colonized and subjugated, their resources stolen from them, migrate to a metropole (some place that explicitly and implicitly supported the pilfering). When they arrive, they set up enclaves and communities on the edges, in the bottoms, in the crevices, in the nowhere and abysses on the margins—where bourgeois and high society refuse to reside. Here the marginalized make life, building, improvising, and continuing the traditions and practices they brought with them. Those hoods and zones of nowhere, neglected by civil society and social pro­grams, become havens to the children of the well-off to experiment artistically and socially, a dynamic that eventually attracts social services, dollars, and commercial development previously denied to these communities. These former zones of nowhere experience “urban renewal,” which begins the grift again. The once-colonized are subjected yet again to the whims and wishes of the colonizer, forced out of their homes through rising taxes, their communities bilked of the few resources they’ve squirreled away, their home­grown culture seized and repurposed. A park where musicians gathered on Sundays to play bomba and plena into the evening is now a dog park where French bulldogs struggle to breathe through their inbred noses, and the music that once carried over the catal­pas and maples and ginkgos is now only alive somewhere in the trunks of the trees these pure-bred dogs pee against.

Video allows us to watch ghosts move in the afterlife, turning them into facsimiles of a deathless God. The dead—the ghosts—are made into objects that are beyond mortality.

None of this process is new; it is all pornographically and gra­tuitously known. Gentrifiers such as universities study and decry the effects of gentrification. They create think tanks around gentri­fication, hold conferences on it, pay professors to write paper after paper about it—and continue to gentrify. Ironic, yes. And vampiric.

“Still Brooklyn, still Brooklyn, still Brooklyn” acts as a poetics of resistance. The chant affirms belonging: despite the gentrification of the neighborhood, it is still a Brooklyn of the Black Diaspora, a Brooklyn of the Global South, a Brooklyn that is ongoing, alive, and moving beyond the catastrophe of its disappearance.

Michael’s dancing stills Brooklyn, holds it in place, calms and quiets it, even as he is juking and jigging the future into being. Michael ecstatically dances in the streets because we, Black folk, want to dance ecstatically in the street. We are alive in the middle of a pandemic, despite it all.

michael dances, raising and lowering his arms as if gently placing a top sheet on a newly made bed, and I wonder if I’m glimpsing his death. If Roland Barthes is correct, that photography embalms its subjects, stripping them of subjectivity and turning them into objects, then film and video act spectrally, embalming and simul­taneously animating the objects, the dead subjects, in the confines of the frame. Video allows us to watch ghosts move in the afterlife, turning them into facsimiles of a deathless God. The dead—the ghosts—are made into objects that are beyond mortality. However, the movement of the ghosts in film and video is like that of the panther stalking in the prison-house of his cage at the zoo: though his stalking accentuates the aliveness of his body, his life is con­fined, pent-up. This, the pornography of the medium: we watch the dead move behind the veil, but the ghosts are unaware they are in the prison of the afterlife.

Over and over, the ghost of Michael who is not yet a ghost spins and rocks on the chalked sidewalk there in Brooklyn. When he throws his body backwards, was he denouncing, resisting, nam­ing, or merely locating his death? My death, my death, my death here! Or was it the opposite? Rather than an announcement of his death, maybe Michael was calling out to his life—my life, my life, my life here! Maybe his dancing was a sort of tarrying, like what I had done on the floor of the Pentecostal Church, a calling for power, deliverance, relief; an abiding in the body, in its divinity, in its sweat and exhaustion, in wanting to get outside of it while moving firmly in it.

“Come on, come on, come on now, Lord, I can’t tarry,” the saints would sing and moan above the organ walking the bass line and tom-tom drum thumping the bottom of what was called “shouting music” in Full Gospel Church of God. The saints’ heads would tip toward the ceiling, singing out into the small expanse of the store­front church: during a shouting song, you might hear a grunt or yelp that sounded a lot like what Michael belted out as he walked in circles over the pavement in Brooklyn. A shouting full of its own logic. A logic that has not been codified or known until the shout bursts forth from the lungs and throat of the shouter.

Dancing would follow the shouting. The old folks in the church called it “getting happy.” The quick foot movements, the shuffling steps acted as way of articulating the unsayable, embody­ing the ephemeral, the opacity of desire. The getting happy isn’t like European partner dances or even the modern dance glimpsed in nightclubs and music videos. There’s nothing choreographed about it. Asymmetry, improvisation, the punctum of desire orches­trates and dictates the dancing. As singular as desire is—or at least the manifestation of desire—so is the dance.

You should have seen Sister M get happy when the spirit got to moving inside her during Sunday service at Full Gospel Church of God. Sitting in the second or third row left of the pulpit, her face wincing in pain from various ailments that sent her in and out of the doors of doctors’ offices throughout the week, Sister M squirmed on the padded seat of her folding chair, her body never comfortable despite an extra cushion she brought from home. To cool herself, she waved a small paper fan that depicted a brown-haired, blue-eyed Jesus sitting on a rock. She spent most of the service like this—fan-waving, fidgeting—until the music leapt out from the pulpit and lifted every saint in Full Gospel Church of God to their feet. When the organ started that bluesy walking that found its way out of juke joints and into holy tabernacles of Black churches, Sister M’s eyes would close, and despite the pain, a tambourine would start flying against her wrist. She’d try to hold herself in her chair, but it was no use. Once the feeling got going there was no stopping it. Sister M would stand and start this beau­tiful running-in-place, almost side-to-side, her knees pulled up, the hem of her long skirt in her hand.

I didn’t know it then, but I would learn—after taking dance classes in Atlanta during college—that the sort of step where the knees come up and the hands go down belonged to several West African traditions of dance. As a boy, I didn’t know anything about the ring shout in the Antebellum South, a tradition of worship and praise in which Black people formed a circle and danced ecstati­cally during religious ceremonies. In it, they could often be seen lifting and stomping their feet—getting happy—like Sister M, like Michael, like me, at church my hand waving above my head as if trying to signal the Christian God, Lord, here am I. Come by here.

Under the tutelage of my first college writing mentor, I learned that enslaved West Africans brought their traditions of praise and worship with them in the holds of slave ships to the United States, secretly and not-so-secretly grafting them onto Christian forms of praise their white masters foisted upon them. I knew nothing of these traditions while tarrying in the Pentecostal church all those years ago while parishioners beat their wrists and cuffs with tam­bourines pushing their praise, possession, and bodies higher. I knew none of this while watching Sister M dance, her feet moving so rapidly it looked as if she were levitating above the burgundy carpet. Despite the arthritis, body aches, and what may well have been fibromyalgia, Sister M never stumbled or wavered, her head shaking back and forth as if answering questions, as if saying “no, no, no” to the pain in her body.

Maybe the God of Full Gospel was a differ­ent God altogether from the one in the King James version of the Bible.

Like the dancing disease in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the church sometimes broke open into a chorus of getting happy. Arms reached out and up, feet tore at the floor, bodies turned and turned in circles like Michael; the church shattered into a glorious tumble of tongues. You could feel the weight of longing—longing to be outside of diabetes, high blood pressure, insulin shots, short pay­checks, breast cancer, sick husbands and hospitalized wives, won’t-do-right bosses, wayward children who took to the avenue with an ounce of this or that in a sock, in a pipe, in a glovebox.

Was that struggle in Michael’s dance as well, the struggle to free himself from addiction? He had been open and forthright in discussing his bouts with substance abuse throughout his life. Was his dancing a plea to the body, as if the body—already belea­guered with its own wounds, worries, and struggles—had to be the conduit for the alleviation of its struggles? I can’t answer these questions for Michael, but in Full Gospel Church of God’s, the body was the conduit toward relief and release. While the Church’s teachings asked believers to mortify the flesh, Full Gospel Church of God version of God required the body to become a beautiful thing, a dancing thing. Maybe the God of Full Gospel was a differ­ent God altogether from the one in the King James version of the Bible. The King James God called for a “joyful noise” and a stifling of bodily desire. The God of the Pentecostal Church called for the grunt, the shout, the moan.

The only way out was in and through the flesh, lifting it higher. Higher as in taking its measure, luxuriating in its finitude, its exhaustion, its absolute presence. It must be done through the beat—the tambourine, the bass drum, the tom-toms—and the syncopated crash of the hi-hats and cymbals. Through repeti­tion. In Full Gospel Church of God, the saints clambered toward ascension through dance, yes, but repetition catapulted and cat­alyzed the ascension, was the meta-and subtext of it. Repetition prepared and activated the soil for the saints to grow their desires. Repetition was a type of devotion. A call. A prayer. If I dance in this one spot over and over again, my mouth calling after Jesus, then God, beauty, relief might visit me, might know I am serious—devoted. Lord, I only ask you to take the difficulty that doesn’t allow you to be seen in me. Like the Woman in Black pushing Michael, Michael grimacing, trying to reach where her dancing is pushing him. Going into the gut as if that is where God and all the beauty that one possesses resides. That is why Michael must grunt.

Yes, his grunting says. Here am I.

Here am I in Full Gospel Church of God, thrown down in memory, watching one of the saints tip her head backward, her eyes closed, singing just one word: Yes. Sometimes, she holds that yes for a whole measure, her voice trembling because she’s at the edge of herself and wants more. And can almost touch it.

Roger Reeves is the author of two books of poems, King Me and Best Barbarian, a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. His debut book of essays, Dark Days, will be published by Graywolf Press in August.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023

Featured

Books

Life in the Algorithm

It has reshaped culture—but how? Two new books reckon with our digital predicament.
Anna Shechtman

The Night Watch

I first sought sanctuary during the Troubles. I'm still looking for it.
Darran Anderson

Why I Write

The legendary cultural critic on finding a life’s work
Greil Marcus

You Might Also Like

You Were the Bird

Petite Maman and the axis between mother and daughter
Georgia Cloepfil

A Moral Education

In praise of filth
Garth Greenwell

Throwing Punches in a Dive Bar

Three years into the pandemic, what does care look like?
Jordan Kisner

Subscribe

New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.
Subscribe