In the Running
February 11, 2022
WHEN I HEARD THE AUDIO RECORDING of Malcolm Peacock’s feet running over gravel, his spent breath keeping the rhythm of his run, and then heard his voice—“Good morning. I wanted to provide some context this morning for what I wish to discuss on the topic of touch”—it conjured an intimacy familiar to me: when setting out early, in the quiet eclipse of day before the anxious demands of labor settle in, is marked by the presence of another in shared commitment. I am here as you are here: to breathe alongside each other. Otherwise, it may just be my body or yours moving alone against the dark, and isn’t that an invisibility we already know too well?
Over the three months of the Prospect.5 Triennial, Malcolm rode his bike all over the city of New Orleans to perform We Served. . .and they felt tiny bursts along the horizon, and now, in the show’s final days, he and I sat face-to-face in an artist’s studio three floors above Decatur Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. He had come in, taken off his shoes, and set a table with a container of red beans and rice—one of the city’s most quintessential dishes— and a glass of water. At the table’s edge was a small, portable speaker. He fluffed and mixed the beans and rice as a mother or caretaker would, then the speaker played Alice Smith’s cover of Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell On You,” Smith’s voice quivering and lurching under the strain of devotion and desperation, desire and torment. Her grievous ballad left no room for respite from the deep tenor piano, no reprieve from the song’s aching questions about possession, ownership, and unrequited love. Its swell filled the room.
In 2018, to memorialize the death of his cousin, Malcolm took up a practice of reading aloud a collection of texts that together spoke to some of the feelings he wrestled when confronting Black death as an ever-present shadow of Black life. Some of these readings he shared on his Instagram page, several of which I’ve listened to. (In the interest of transparency: one of Malcolm’s readings featured an excerpt of my writing.) So when, in the audio recording that became the sonic center of the performance, Malcolm began reciting passages selected from Hortense Spillers’s 2018 lecture “To The Bone: Some Speculations on Touch,” that, too, felt familiar.
In her text, Spillers mines the contradictory grounds of the haptic to unearth how the still-present ontological, psychic, and social legacies of slavery bind together seemingly-opposing valences of touch as at once healing and restorative and, inversely, as wounding and violative. In his recording, Malcolm—while still running— recounts two experiences of touch that made tangible Spillers’s “most formidable paradox,” both of which occurred while he was working in the service industry soon after moving to New Orleans. The first encounter was with a Black man who worked as a line cook in the city’s business district at the same restaurant where Malcolm worked as a server. Outside the restaurant—outside the physical and affective confines of labor—they found each other one day on the street and tenderly held hands. The second Malcolm recalled was with a white woman who repeatedly and angrily kicked a folding table in which his hand had been caught. Finding it difficult to describe the physical and psychological impact of these encounters, Malcolm recalls Fredrick Douglass’s “indescribable feeling” of witnessing the repeated brutalities of plantation slavery. Malcolm's experiences in the more-or-less recent past led to his question: “What is the meaning of feeling for those that are descendants of individuals who had to go looking for their bodies?”
In the wake of these legacies of slavery, and attentive both to the collective disenchantment with the given models for resistance to state-administered violence and the myriad conditions of terror that mark the present, Malcolm proposes another form of communal gathering, one that could “help us add a layer of understanding for one another.” The proposal: to move, collectively. To run, long distance, together. To attend to one another’s bodies, their efforts and cadences, their wills and determinacies, by listening carefully to each other’s breaths. It is an appeal to practice a type of mutuality that “honors those who had no access to mobility, who didn’t have any sense of access to moving around in this capacity.” It is a call to mobilize bodily autonomy in an effort to stay with one another, to keep pace. He suggests that this might offer a togetherness as intimate and immediate as touch, but without the production of its harrowing shadows.
Most of the time we sat together, Malcolm’s eyes were closed or downturned, so I noticed immediately when he looked at me and held up a spoonful of red beans and rice. Like a child, or an eager lover, I opened my mouth without hesitation. This gesture, like the title of the performance, pointed toward the particular intermingling of caretaking, forced proximity, and harm known by service workers, and especially those in New Orleans, a city with a long and complicated history of hospitality. Neither of us looked away after this offering. I don’t think either of us could. We listened to the recording of his panting breath while he sat before me with a mask covering nearly half of his face. In that stillness, the weight of the pandemic only sharpened our awareness of the entanglement between intimacy and violence. Knowing and feeling the shared burden of risk, we beheld one another.
The final moments of the recording captured Malcolm running from a gravel path and into a field. His thuds against small stones hushed into the padding of green beneath his feet. After a few steps on this new ground, he inhaled sharply, the rhythm of his breath beginning to unravel. The sound of his footsteps stopped, and then came the sound of him weeping. When I later asked about this catharsis, he told me that in that moment, he felt like he could see it: a group of Black people, running, by choice, together. He could feel, on his skin, the pulse of the communal breathwork he had proposed.
At the beginning of Baby Suggs’s sermon in “The Clearing,” a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) that Spillers turns to in her discussion of flesh, Suggs calls the Black folks in through collective movement. After they’ve laughed, danced, cried, then laid in the grass exhausted from movement and gasping for breath, she tells her people that “the only grace they could have, was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they could not have it.” As Malcolm and I listened to his splitting open in the meadow—the two of us held in each other’s gaze—I knew that what he saw was more than a dream. It was a way through.
— Amber Rose Johnson