Diedrick Brackens, when no softness came, 2019. Photo courtesy of Various Small Fires LA, via the Brooklyn Museum, as part of its exhibition The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Resistance in the Art of Our Time, on display until April 10, 2022.

when no softness came, we looked for the tired in each other’s knees. Held it up by our fingertips, wove a bed where we might dream. When no softness came, I cried in the shower and gave my anger to the sea. I forgot I wasn’t alone until the spirit with nine hundred and sixteen selves came and goaded me into staying alive. Reclining backward on a moving horse, the figure in your tapestry looks like they’re doing an impossible thing. I recognized it as I walked through the gallery — the taut and tender of seeking rest in a place swirling with its impossibility.

The Black cowboys they show us in school, in movies and magazines, are upright, stoic. They look out at us defiantly from grayscale photographs, demanding we mark their presence in the expansionist and messy histories of the so-called American West. Growing up, I never thought to ask if Bass Reeves was sometimes tired after long days chasing horse thieves and wrangling cattle on Chickasaw land. If Stagecoach Mary ever just wanted to lie next to the woman she traveled over a thousand miles for and never deliver mail again. Diedrick, I guess what I’m trying to say is that the image of the horse — in visual art, in archives — sometimes seems irretrievably bound up with a mythos of masculinity and war, an imperative of action. That the back of a horse is so often the site of the most scripted discursive struggles over who we can be.

I’m thinking here of Kehinde Wiley’s painting of a Black Napoleon, a durag-clad man on a rearing horse, getting ready to lead invading armies across the Alps. I’m thinking of Kevin Quashie’s observations about the overidentification of Black culture with a reductive and unforgiving notion of public resistance, how this makes it so easy to overlook the complex power of our quiet and vulnerable moments. But when I saw your tapestry, something in my body lay down in relief, stretched, and unfurled into an imagined otherwise.

There are no grand proclamations here, no rigid spines. The figure in the tapestry could be galloping toward battle or racing their friends to the lake, but they are under no obligation to tell us which. Secrets are allowed here. My Black interior is allowed here. In the infinite space before the horse’s hooves meet the ground, our stubborn and inconsistent inner selves are tended to, given the queer gift of new shapes for the body, new imaginations of posture, lessons whispered in a world that never lets us stop moving.

During my years of equestrian instruction, I was made intimate with the doctrine of uprightness. The body was supposed to be supple and responsive; one’s lower back was to move organically with the rhythms of the horse’s gait. But always, shoulders back. Eyes up. No slumping. Phrases repeated by many teachers — the husky-voiced Long Island women who spent their days carting kids to local horse shows, dry-cleaning outfits, and loaning clothes when parents were too busy; the university coach who, after registering me and a Thai teammate for an event, joked that she missed the old days when people’s last names were easier to spell. But always, shoulders back. I mean, and I’m sure you know, these institutions shape our frames. They have a vested interest in a stoic (Black) back. They got charts and things of how a body should be.

Another thing about uprightness: the first occurrences of horseback riding as sport in the Western world were linked to the military. One of the oldest treatises on horse training, On Horsemanship by the cavalry officer Xenophon, established dressage as a way to condition horses. Throughout the history of the British empire, practices of horsemanship were created with the mounted soldier at their center. The US equestrian team was initially formed and managed by the army. I wonder what it means for me to shape my body inside a lineage of men’s conquest, inside a received tradition of mastery over land and gender. To shape this scoliosis backbone, this Black and crooked self, this mad. This exhausted. To mimic the postures of soldiers invading my ancestral homelands, because therein lies a kind of safety, or at least that’s what we’re told. Upright means productive. A good soldier is ready to kill.

When I saw the figure on horseback in your tapestry, I smiled to myself. Kinfolk is t-i-r-e-d, and they ain’t afraid to show it. They sleep? They dreaming? Maybe only in dreamspace could a little Black child gallop through the world backward, belly up and out, shoulders in sweet repose. From dreamspace to gallery space — a spell that transmutes the matter of this reality. An incantation of what could be.

I recently reread Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, a novel about three Black sisters growing up in a family of South Carolina weavers. Their mother and the women before her have woven garments for the same white family since slavery, and now do so for money. The eldest daughter, Sassafrass, starts making artistic wall tapestries in high school, and her impractical form of weaving confuses her mother. Later, when Sassafrass weaves in front of her militant race man boyfriend, he chastises her for not doing something to uplift the Black condition. Sassafrass has visions while she weaves. She communes with spirits, finds moments of escape from her abusive household (“because when women make cloth, they have time to think”). Through the tactile work of weaving, she shapes and remakes the material of her world.

Diedrick, you’ve said about weaving on your loom that “as much as you’re acting on this machine, it’s acting on you too. There’s so much room to coax out these emotive qualities and lines and gestures from these simple yarns.” In your weaving, an embodied practice that calls back to crucial and undervalued Black handcraft traditions, you reconfigure the possible. You give us time to think. When I stopped in front of your tapestry, and left and came back again, I felt the gift of it in my bones. When I look for lineage within the long canon of figures on horseback, the centuries of generals’ statues and oil paintings, I choose this child woven from bright green yarn. Reclining on their way to who knows where, beckoning, Listen, this is how a body can be. Their horse with the unfinished tail and hanging threads, a haptic and imperfect vision of care.

Something I return to each time I look at this piece is the gentle echo between the human figure and the horse. The curve of the child’s back mimicking the horse’s neck and back, the call-and-response between the horse’s legs and the child’s dangling limbs. So much of the doctrine of uprightness feels like an ideology of separation. The fantasy of a white soldier taking his rightful place in dominion over other living beings (including the one carrying him into battle). A colonial project of putting things in their place. A theory of conquest. But here, the bodies of horse and rider are in concert. It’s okay to surrender to what carries you. It’s okay to be transported, to be tired and trustful in the presence of another. Witnessing the horse’s movement and the child’s gentle stillness and the frayed and knotted edges of the land they move across, I am reminded of a line written by environmentalist and somatic thinker Jeanine M. Canty: “I am a body on the body of the earth.”

How glorious to be Black and restful on the body of the earth.

Amber Officer-Narvasa

Amber Officer-Narvasa is a Brooklyn-born writer and land worker based in Philadelphia. Amber’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, The Brooklyn Rail, Arts.Black, and the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, among other publications.

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