Sacharja Cunningham

USA

“and then our listening becomes our memory” is a poem inspired by Melvin Dixon, a Black gay writer whose work explored Black literary traditions, gayness, place, and the HIV/ AIDs crisis. I build upon his definitions of listening and remembering from the 1992 OutWrite Festival to offer a definition of Black listening: Black people listening to our ancestors through spiritual studies of their archives as they listen for their names in our remembering of them. Through this listening, I explore how politicized, Black, queer literacy practices have and must continue to center memory as a critical part of ongoing liberation struggles.

“and then our listening becomes our memory”

Artist Notes

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Transcript for "and then our listening becomes our memory" by Sacharja Cunningham

[Melvin Dixon]: “I may not be able to celebrate with you
the publication of many important works
of gay literary history,
but I’ll be somewhere
listening for my name. . .
You, then, are charged
by the possibility of your own health and happiness,
by the broadness of your vision,
to remember
us.”

[Sacharja]: and then our listening becomes our memory

Melvin Dixon,
your name is alive with me
here [hear]
I speak this space for us
where our language meets
because we couldn’t
a soundscape synced
to the political landscapes
of your lifetime and mine
but no time period of our making
is greater than we are

here
together, not again
although I still echo Janet’s promise
I’m listening here
this space where I’ve been going
ever since my heart started breaking
but there hasn’t been a breaking point… yet
I don’t know if that would be physical death
or if breaking points are just that
points along adolescence and adulthood
consistent and indefinite heartbreak
how do we listen to the tears?

I
here [hear]
you, Melvin Dixon,
somewhere
listening for your name
with your self-described unbroken spirit
I know at that podium during your last speech
you called your body broken
it’s not my place to critique that language
I do sit with––and pace back and forth with––
the implications of calling disabled people’s bodies broken
I don’t think it’s a poet’s place
to find more beautiful adjectives
but I do know you were never disposable
so I’m listening

Melvin Dixon,
our bodies don’t break in the same ways
my brokenness comes from a different pandemic
and it took time for me to be able to say that last line
maybe me saying I’m broken is me saying I need care
maybe me saying I’m broken is me saying I need people to care
maybe me saying I’m broken is me saying
I need people to pay attention
I need people to listen
and have that listening become memory

I’m listening from this space
where I return too often
to make it so that
when folks like you join the ancestors early
it won’t be the same as you becomin history
that sounds like you’re lost to something
something intimidatingly infinite

history is ruthless in that way
and not the same as memory
memory leads us to question
where are the people and the poetry
to gift us the specifics?
I wanna know what you sounded like
I’m listening

Melvin Dixon, you know,
I couldn’t find any footage of you
then it took me a while before I could listen to you speak
gauging the difficulty but also my dedication
with refined keywords in repetitive Google searches
two finger scrolls on my trackpad
a rhythm of digital digging

because there had to be something
some sound at least
and there eventually was but
finally, I’m listening to you speak
what would become your last public speech
I get angry at how the archives feel especially inadequate
I get angrier at the state for being the reason why

[deep breath]

so I gotta remind myself
to be listening to my body, too
the soft nasal breaths in and out
and the hm when
what I’m reading registers in me
and I learn of new people
whose paths previously paralleled mine

like Gregory from your speech
who went to Exeter
and then a small liberal arts college
like you, who went Senegal
if I only could’ve read your work sooner
as I prepared to go to Ghana
you also turned to poems to process
how our Black personhood responds to place
you also turned to poems to proclaim that
our mutual listening is Black
like the insistence on spirit worlds
in our traditions and religions
where we didn’t and don’t insist on scarcity
how could one heaven ever hold all of our spiritualities?

our mutual listening is Black
Black like our writing
and what did Toni Morrison say about Black art?
“stories can be read in silence…
but one should be able to hear them as well”
I heard your words before I heard your voice
that was Black listening
off the audio frequency spectrum

and as I look here at the visuals of our voices
this spectral frequency isn’t proof
that there’s science behind this ceremony
but it is proof that much of my personal library
has become a cemetery, too
where I listen til I’m livid
and you listen to the living
and then our listening
becomes our memory

Melvin Dixon,
I don’t have a religion
that tells me those responsible for your early death
will pay
I think about how your many killers got to grow old
and may never experience a hell as cruel as this country
wikipedia tells me, “At the age of 93 years, 120 days,
Reagan was the longest-lived U.S. president in history
at the time of his death” in 2004

so my rage can’t become consequences for him
and I don’t have a politics
that makes me believe in justice
during and after genocide
still, you are my dead
can we: the living
only do right by you and yours
by makin sure these deaths
don’t happen again?
makin sure your death will never be
the state’s success story
as it insists on the “afterlives of slavery”
at the expense of your afterlife
but you are my dead
and I’m listening

Melvin Dixon,
I don’t have complete answers
and I don’t expect you to have them either
I’ve–– I’ve placed us here
because I know we’ve been displaced and placed
and it matters where we place ourselves
and it matters where we place one another
I know you documented your days in diaries
and made clear your duties
despite the state denying you your self-determination

I know between Diaspora and death
one thing we gonna do is find each other
whether it be oceans and seas
generations as fractions of centuries
or censorship separating us over and over again
because the state’s tryna make us cease
always and in so many ways
but we gonna find each other
and then our listening
becomes our memory

collective and “critical memory”
that stays alive longer than we do
so I’ve built archiving my life
into my life’s work
as I’ve only gotten more afraid
so I’ve started poems about
how I want my affairs handled
I won’t say my poetry or my other work
will ever have me prepared to die
and I don’t think preserving the pain and the people in your work
made the funerals more manageable

I will say that I hate the way this country
made you and your kin clairvoyant
but we both know
the state doesn’t just kill our people once
it’s killing is unsatisfiable, constant, and creative
so we come together to ask ourselves
still
are we listening to the silences?
the absences? the millions?
the unquantifiable memory of Black people
we must materialize into worldmaking

Melvin Dixon,
I’ve placed you
not on a pedestal but
at the root of my research
I took principles from your prose, poems
and other projects from your contemporaries
to piece together my educational practice
I took principles like how Black listening
is more queer than by ear
a lineage of poetics, not genetics
ethics and not just aesthetics
a locating of ourselves in the past, present
and in the promises

I’ll keep your name and your words
in circulation
in my body
in my classes and curriculums
continuously called and claimed
in and beyond
earth and ether
I’m ritualistically remade more radical
because I’m a griever
and again,
you are my dead
and now you know
I’m listening
to you listening for your name
and I’ll be listening with learners
to the maps you left for remembering
and then our listening
becomes
our
memory

 

 

 

Additional resource on Melvin Dixon

Learn about Melvin Dixon and his archive at the Schomburg Center: https://archives.nypl.org/scm/20894

Acknowledgements

Thank you to Obsidian, avery r. young, my O|Sessions: Black Listening cohort, Phil Spotswood, Tony Keith Jr., Amour Castillo, Kyandreia Jones, Amy Azubuike, and Marva Jackson Lord for all their support and generosity that made it possible for me to complete this piece.

I’ve included language from the following sources, which I’ve listed in order of when the language in quotations appears in the poem:

The sound recording titled “OutWrite Festival, closing plenary, 1992″ that includes Melvin Dixon speaking was provided courtesy of Bromfield Street Educational Foundation records at Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Morrison, Toni M. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, 339 – 345. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984.

Wikipedia. 2005. “Death and state funeral of Ronald Reagan.” Last modified on March 8, 2024. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_and_state_funeral_of_Ronald_Reagan

Hartman, Saidiya. V. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Baker Jr, Houston A. “Critical Memory and the Black Public Sphere,” Public Culture 7, no. 1, (1994): pp. 3-33.

Sacharja Cunningham

Sacharja Cunningham

Biography

 

Sacharja (he/they) is a cultural worker exploring Blackness, queerness, memory, grief, homespace, and liberation struggle through scholarship, multimedia poetry, and educational practice. They began creating poetry in 2013, though the post-2020 political context clarified how their poetics would function as part of their life’s work. Sacharja begins in the archives, engaging with materials including but not limited to various kinds of writings, interviews, speeches, and films. Media from these materials become epigraphs in or other parts of his poems, functioning as bridges between liberatory cultural traditions and his own ongoing contributions to them. He commits to documenting his life experiences in broader political contexts across time and space.

Sacharja graduated in 2019 with a BA in Africana Studies from Hamilton College, where they also explored Education Studies and digital media before becoming an instructional designer there. He then earned his MSEd in 2023 through Penn GSE’s Literacy Studies program to begin building his pedagogy shaped by his literacy practices as a cultural worker. They’re currently based on Lenapehoking (Philly), where they do adult literacy work and local organizing focused on political education as well.

Follow more of their work here: https://linktr.ee/sacharjaishome

My work is in conversation with past, present, and future stewards of Black queer cultural production. More specifically, it speaks to what Jafari S. Allen calls “the Black anthological tradition.” I understand this tradition to be rooted in the Black queer literacy practices of using literature and other mediums to preserve the memories of our life experiences. I center ancestors, elders, current practitioners, and descendants whose labor maintains these records across lifespans and lifetimes. I extend loving gratitude to the radicals, caregivers, scholars, archivists, organizers, educators, writers, and filmmakers who have made me as well as my work more possible.

Black Listening's website front page header art and Obsidian 49.2 cover art were  created by Nettrice Gaskins

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