To begin this introduction in the standard way, I am a scholar of African American literature and music who specializes in the period between 1865 and the present. My research interests include conceptions of race, gender, class and coloniality, with a particular focus on how communities draw—and draw multiply—from earlier gestures and practices of sounding to make lives, create joy and issue critiques in the midst of racial terror and violence. As I often tell those who are curious about my work, I hope to celebrate the myriad practices of African American and Diasporic exuberance, a term I offer as a counter to the often-invoked concepts of resilience and resistance.
This is not to dismiss these keywords outright. Indeed, the fact of coloniality and its many afterlives requires an attention to both. Nevertheless, their effect has, at times, subsumed Black experience under the problematic rubric of struggle and, in doing so, reduced individuals and communities of color to an oppositional abstraction. In more direct terms, our search for moments of resistance and resilience often reduces the complexities and richness of life-making to an obstinate toughness, which is then used to justify state-sanctioned violence (in all its forms). To be tough and resistant is to become—or be at constant risk of being perceived as—a threat.
My hope is that exuberance, and its nod to vitality and abundance, outpaces the limiting effect both resistance and resilience manifest. By privileging exuberance, we do not evict resistance or resilience so much as surrender the neatness of monolithic abstraction for the exponential ways that Black people have and continue to conceive and move through life. Thus, while it is true that racial terror and violence are ever-present realities for people of color, making practices of resistance and resilience necessary, it is equally true that the making of communities and lives within them are always in excess of violence and oppression.
At the same time, exuberance portends problems of its own. Its association with abundant joy and health threatens to aid those who would mistake—or misrepresent—instantiations of either as evidence of contentment. To be exuberant is to always, perhaps, signal a kind of vitality that obscures the structural violence communities of color face. This threat is enough to challenge its utility as a keyword.
And, yet, the strength of the term lies in how it cannot be thought of as a keyword. This is not just a matter of threat; it is also one of structure. Exuberance does not provide an explanatory complex, as keywords are believed to offer. Nor can it situate us within a modality of experience. In fact, exuberance even fails to provide the more modest frame of reference or focus. Instead, it signals the many ways that Black life operates within and through contingencies generated by individual, communal and structural will. It is, then, a term meant to (dis)orient, to point toward the wideness of black life—its rich abundance; its messy vitality; and the willful and willing lives that while always individually experienced have found ways to turn toward (and sometimes away from) each other in a complex rendering of communion and community.
Leading from this, my current project, Breaking into Time: Melancholic Practices in the LP Era, 1960-1985, argues that the rising importance of LP recordings in African American performance occurs due to the convergence of market interests and exploitation, on the one hand, and ingenuity and tradition, on the other. If as Maurice Merleau-Ponty argues, economic systems are “a cosmos, a human choice become a situation,” the use of and innovation through recorded formats and media by African American communities might be thought of as a melancholic means through which communal and human choice, however fleeting and limited, were retained.