[ToC]

 

REVIEW

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, University of Iowa Press, 2013

Reviewed by P. R. Griffis

[Review Guidelines]

Aisha Sabatini Sloan's

FLUENCY OF LIGHT COMING OF AGE IN A THEATER OF BLACK AND WHITE

is a wondrous accomplishment. These eight essays evoke and breathe the metaphors they meditate upon, chief among them the incantatory power of art, whether in still photography, motion pictures (both constructed [Fellini] and found [YouTube]), performance and installation art, or Jazz, Blues, Ska, Reggae, and R&B.

BIRTH OF THE COOL (LOS ANGELES, CA, POP 3.8 MILLION: THELONIUS SPHERE MONK AND GLINT)

Sloan traces with a finger from her own most proximate past, "my origin is Italian and Black—brown Afros on both sides," growing up in "a wealthy Westside neighborhood...the city's racial metaphor... like a pot of soup with a nice chef's salad, something casual and light and accompanied by a glass of iced tea," to her parents upbringing in racially combustible 60s and 70s Detroit; she sketches too the seeming fluidity [1] of diasporic outflow from Africa to the Caribbean, Africa to Alabama, Afro-Caribbean to England, Alabama to Detroit. Sloan contrasts this with the modern Diaspora from Somalia to Minnesota, among others. In all cases, there is a sense of the return, the closed loop, the cyclical, rather than the linear. Sloan's reach throughout is like a widening gyre while her gaze focuses ever more penetratingly inward.

FAWLANIONESE (DETROIT, MI, POP 700,000: CANDLES AND SEMINOLE STREET [2])

From the Detroit Riots to the Watts Riots to the LA riots to the London Riots to the scarred and spooky silence of no riot in present-day South Africa; to Paris and London and Los Angeles and New York: these migrations—cultural and personal, forced and chosen—culminate in a confluent self, a singular voice.

FADE TO WHITE (NORTHFIELD, MN, POP 20 K: PASSING AND TRANSLATION)

A meditation on blackness: what does it mean to occupy the overlapping spheres of having racial epithets hurled at you by preschool classmates and from moving cars in Tucson Arizona, but not knowing (by virtue of not growing up within the lexicon) what is meant by sugar, as in give me some—. [3]

There is a clear-eyed distillation of outrage in this collection, this nonfiction Künstlerroman, a setting forth of terms in an oracular voice, both disembodied and incarnate. To say that these essays are about ethnicity, or culture, or self, or the collision thereof, is to suggest that quilts are about scraps of cloth that might otherwise be discarded, that photographs are about the process of light reflecting off of objects and onto the medium of film.

THE STRONGMAN AND THE CLOWN (ROCCAVIVI, ITALY, POP ?: FELLINI AND SKIRT ALONG THE SHORE OF MORNING)

Yes. Race, culture, self, others, the negative space as employed by jazz musicians, auteur film makers, performance artists, and the African Diaspora. These are the mediums upon which Sloan draws to create these lucid explorations.

SILENCING CASSANDRA (LONDON, ENGLAND, POP 8.1 MILLION: COME AS YOUR FAVORITE BLACK PERSON: DARCUS HOWE: HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: NO BLACKS, NO DOGS, NO IRISH: SKINHEAD REGGAE)

There is, here, at once a sense of the observer and the experiencer; a sense, not so much of struggle with identity as of consciousness of conflict, the perhaps necessary clash between privilege, "I... attended schools dreamt up by former hippies," and culture, "I didn't know how to tell him that it was possible to see the illusion without feeling warped by it. To play your role in the game while fully accepting that it was fake, without feeling like you were going to lose your mind."

RESOLUTION IN BEARING (PARIS, FRANCE, POP 2.2 MILLION: FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS: 35 SHOTS OF RUM: PARIS, TEXAS (POP 25K): THE TERROR OF THE UNFAMILIAR)

What comes through ever more clearly, ever more incandescently, through the process of reading these essays, is a voice coolly removed and quietly furious; a voice equally at home invoking the cerebral remove of philosophy and the visceral response.

WHITE SPACE (BROOKLYN, NY, POP 2.5 MILLION ADRIAN PIPER: CLEANLINESS, LIGHT, AND LOSS: THE SHARP LINES MADE BY HANGING RULERS: THE BRIGHT, WHITE-BLUE GLACIER OF NATURE AS WE KNOW IT, COLLAPSING)

Sloan draws from a broad and admirable palette; perhaps the life from which she constructs these essays would be enviable if she did so any less deftly. As stands, we can only wait and watch expectantly for the next dipperful to be pulled forth.

CICATRIZATION (GRAHAMSTOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, POP 125,000: ANA MENDIETA: A KNIFE'S SLICE THROUGH THE SKIN OF SPACE AND TIME)

And yet, at the end, after the last page's turning, there is something more here, something indicated/nodded towards in the unsaid, something like the dark matter—which cannot be seen, only inferred by the way it affects the visible spectrum—that makes up the majority of our universe, something defined by all which it is not. Call it poise, call it gravitas, call it the first sustained utterance of a new and accomplished voice.

Call it The Fluency of Light.

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[1] Here, fluidity is meant to imply not a gentleness, an ease or grace (the centuries-long slave trade by which the African Diaspora was effected was none of these), so much as to note the cultural resilience in the face of crushing, systemic oppression.

[2] The Seminole Indians never signed a treaty with the US Government, and took in escaped slaves.

[3] Sloan attributes this to a lack of cultural context, and in this she is correct. However, she views this contextual lack as one of race, when it is regional in nature (read: Southeastern US). It is a lack, yes, but perhaps a blessed one, if mixedly so.