“Playing the Changing Same,” by Douglas Kearney:
With thanks to Yona Harvey and Nicole McJamerson
There’s a saying that goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same.” It’s worn, maybe, but not played out. More than whatever truth it holds, I’ve been drawn to the maxim’s symmetry and paradox, something I might describe to my students as holding a contradiction in its hands.
Yet, it does make an argument. If I take the saying and break it down, as a philosopher might have once suggested, to its very last compound, I find myself at: “change/same.” In this, I see the formula for “pattern”: a structure that requires—and amplifies—the simultaneous presence of change and sameness. In full, the adage includes “more things,” and this, I think is important to remember. In “more things”—imprecise and multiplicitous—we have the opportunity for variation, difference, changes on the changes. These should not, however, distract us from recognizing the big pattern, the changing same at the saying’s bottom. And that big pattern? It stays happening despite the differences playing over its surface.
This is one route of coming to get to the idea of the changing same. It isn’t the way I came. I couldn’t retrace those exact steps if I wanted to. Probably don’t.
There’s a root route, which we’ll get to indirectly—an A.B. selection to sing: “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music).” In looking back at that essay, published in 1966, I think about “tradition,” (quotes in the original)—working in it, through it. Where one measure of change is time, and same is incident. Yet, in Baraka’s essay (written then, as LeRoi Jones), the changing same also accounts for a way in which Black people participate in composing change that reveals a sameness, and that this isn’t a foreclosure of possibility, but a demonstration of discerning core aesthetic structures in an array of “more things”—signals in what some might (mis)figure as noise or theirs to possess. Also a changing same.
Here’s another route, through a bit of briar, though: More of the same sameness keeps happening over and over and it puts you through changes. You say to the sameness that you want change so you can get out these same changes you been going through. And even though the sameness says it will change and matter fact, can’t you see, it has already changed, it’s just the same sameness putting you through the same changes it stays putting you through over and over.
These are means of understanding the changing same I play in. A state which is to be in a pattern with some difference. On the one, this is compositional. On the other, conceptual.
Think of a riff, a series of notes played a way, again and again. Slight variations can occur within the riff without upsetting the compositional understanding of it. Which is to say, one can make some changes within the sameness of a riff without conflict—conflict, here, being a definition of “riff” I picked up from late 80s, New York hip hop, rapped over dug up drum loops. Hearing the pattern there, the same under its changes, shifts in a riff that doesn’t riff, that pattern, when pleasing, is a groove.
“A groove” is a way to say a rut. See it there, a mark in the ground, grown now, into a line dug past the dust and into the dirt. Sense: prairies cut with such ruts become farmland. Imagine: a trench dug between forces becomes a battlefield. But what keeps “a groove” from being a different kind of rut? A rut as “a played out habit.” The groove, to which we arrived via the riff, plays out of what constricts it, while still digging deeper and deeper into itself, getting down into the groove. Getting down by way of going back to its head—its core riff or compositional sequence—playing what’s after that, and going back to it. A kind of looping that accumulates even if it travels light. Even if it strips off its fits.
This groove. The one I want to get down into, maybe on the one, is one that works or works out, which is to say—it can provide me a means and an end. Not to—which is the tongue of instrumentalization. But and. The other groove, the one that’s a rut, that’s played out, is just one being worked over or overworked. Beaten and instrumentalized.
The changing same, then, as I tend to think of it, as I try to play in, to, and through, to extend, to comp to what Amiri Baraka put down in 1966 in “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)” is a way to here and hear the idea of tradition. Or to take a different angle, a response to conditions that repeat, bound to those conditions themselves. When what’s played is played out, the groove becomes a rut, the changing same becomes the same ol’ same, thus an SOS might need sending. But the changing same that come four-finger ringed with love and truth been and stay knowing that the hills from whence come our help ain’t Beverly, and Sugar only account for one of them. That tradition is something we can get down into, sometimes that groove is a version of joy, sometimes that groove is a trench, like in wartime. Sometimes, even, a dance tune plays in a foxhole.
There’s another kind of rut that has to do with reproduction, that the again and again slant rhymes with more and more. But that rut also suggests fight. It also suggests prey. Not pray as in to have a talk with Whom from whence comes one’s help, but prey, the noun, those hunted by others. In rutting season, bucks fight to mate with waiting doe. At rutting, they riff with each other, but does and bucks struggle against predators ever and always. Again and again as more and more.
What I’m saying is the changing same, compositionally and conceptually, stays playing. With variations depending upon who’s wailing the head or who’s working the baton or who’s beating their time. So when some people tune in to the station they thought was just static, just noise, way on the otherside of the dial, and of a sudden, they hear signal and wonder: what’s the new now sound from way out loud? They may be hearing a newsbreak what sounds like a heatrock from the changing same. Like say, remember that brand new oldie from memorial day 2020? You see it in your earbuds loud and clear? How when the Police aka 12, or ParaPolice aka Half-Dozens take Black lives—be they Black Men’s lives, Black Women’s lives, Black Trans’ lives, Black Children’s lives—so many radios, for a spell, blast the same station. For so many, though, the song, they say, is one they never heard before. But for many others, our radios been staying on this station steady even when we mean to tune to other music. The needle stuck in it, digging a rut like a vamp that won’t fade. The blood thuds in our ears on some polyrhythm. Contrapuntally, we swing back as we look at right now, and what’s ahead. The changing same we call George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland, Korryn Gaines, Robert Fuller, Titi Gulley, rhymes with the changing same of so many.
But I want to speak about two in particular. Two who got played out by the bad habitual changing same, that rut of grooves dug like graves. I speak of Emmett Till and James Byrd, Jr. And then, I speak of how two genius poets played to them and for them, into and through the changing same from whence some love, some truth, some of our help come, though it comes sometimes with little sugar and can feel like hills that don’t feel like they heal. I speak of Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton.
Then, I’ll end knowing it don’t stop, with the changing same as tradition, how I made to pick up the changing same as put down by Brooks and Clifton.
Two white men murdered Emmett Till in 1955 in Mississippi. The murderers: Roy Bryant and JW Milam. It was over for Emmett because, they said, it was over him harassing Carolyn Bryant, Roy’s wife. Did he grab her? Did he whistle at her? Did he leave the Bryant’s general store wolfing, “Bye, baby?” Carolyn Bryant later admitted to lying about being grabbed and menaced, but it was over for Emmett, who was 14 when them grown men, Roy Bryant and JW Milam took him from his uncle’s home, beat him and shot him through his head, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck, and threw him, dead, in the Tallahatchie River. The all-white jury acquitted them, though they copped to it later in Look magazine. Some people still can’t see it.
But Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, wanted people to look. And to see. So she allowed photographers to photograph the open casket funeral of Emmett Till. Look. Jet magazine ran the photographs. Look. See.
The question of how to write about violence without re-presenting it is a riff of the changing same. Both kinds of riff. In describing what Bryant and Milam did to Emmett Till, I bring a version of that violence back. I didn’t describe the physical effects of their violence—that was a choice, it’s a choice. And it faces those who work in this tradition—what we’ll put down, what we’ll see to say, say to be seen.
In Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till,” the genius, Brooks, makes as if to remove us from the site and sight of the violence—a note under the title tells us we are after both the murder and the burial. But her use of figurative language and choices of description provide a family resemblance of the violence that favors Black people, a resemblance, here, the white supremacy of the Bryants and Milam put on Emmett staged into the poem as well as resemblance to Emmett and then Mamie—reflected in the upside downness of a mother outliving her child and the crime itself which stays, stuck). It’s worth noting that when George Zimmerman murdered 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin in 2012, that turn of the changing same tuned more people back on to the station that plays Emmett Till among other US sure shots.
Brooks was born in Topeka, KS in 1917 and died in Chicago—the city to which she is unbreakably linked—in 2000. She was the first Black author to win a Pulitzer, the first Black woman to hold what would become the US Poet Laureate position, and was the Poet Laureate of Illinois. She shifted her publishing to Broadside Press and Third World Press, Black-owned presses, as a means of investing in her community and divesting from a larger power structure. Brooks’ work explores and re-formulates forms, building buildings to house subjects who won’t stay inside, even when they’re indoors. A documentarian who knows most documents can’t hold who she wants to keep close, Brooks renders sounds that add rooms at angles more than zigzag. You really should read her work if you haven’t. Here is “The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till,” by Gwendolyn Brooks, published in The Bean Eaters.
(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
Look, see, how Brooks takes us away from the Tallahatchie and the Funeral at Roberts Temple Church of God, the site and sight of the violence visited to stay on Emmett Till. How the poem itself is a fragment, the last part of a life of Mamie’s “killed boy.” How the pulled taffy tint is sweet, a hue, but cries in the grotesque disfiguring of the face reflected in the casket. Reflected in the coffee where she, her own lips that are Emmett’s lips, sips, as if to kiss the face that is theirs, that they share, that pretty face, pulled now, one from the other, one from this world. The red room of murder that bleeds out into a prairie, back into the wind, the Chicago from which Emmett was visiting kin when the killers visited him, to stay, the same Chicago Brooks blew into, blew from prairie to prairie. How taffy and coffee chime in sound and sense, what can be consumed, like fruit—strange how what changes stays the same and what’s the same seems to change. How only she is sorry—Gwendolyn playing the role of Mamie—how she will not sleep, how the coffee will stain and the taffy will stick, though the crime won’t stick—Bryant and Milam acquitted, Bryant and Bryant and Milam all admitted, look, see—the stain stays, “chaos in windy grays” is all that remains making its way through a prairie that’s been red since settling. A changing same.
The “tint of pulled taffy” has come to make me think of Demetrius Oliver’s photograph “Till” (2004). The gruesome danger of being toothsome to voracious appetite is thick in it, where chocolate, maybe, smudges a profile, pinched into too-sweet peaks and gored cavities. Something’s bitten away, like the rest of Till’s ballad by Brooks. A horror of James Byrd, Jr.’s murder was what got taken away in the taking of his life. Shawn Berry, Lawrence Brewer, and John King, three white supremacists, dragged James Byrd, Jr. behind a pickup truck down a stretch of road called Huff Creek in Jasper, Texas. They did this after they beat him. They beat him after they picked him up when he was walking home from a birthday party. They tried to hang him, but couldn’t get that together. Huff Creek Road runs right along a woods called Big Thicket, a place where locals often went hunting for bucks. Berry, Brewer, and King murdered Byrd on a hot, hot, hot day in 1998, the number. Another summer. Red as a prairie. Red as 19 or 89 or 2020. They dragged him till, doing fishtails with their truck, Byrd swung into a culvert. This cut off his head and an arm. I’m telling you this, as a matter of fact, because the poet is going to do thus, and that choice of tone is central to her poem’s work. The poet is Lucille Clifton. The poem is “jasper texas 1998.” It’s from Blessing the Boats.
What’s the same between Brooks’ and Clifton’s poems is we find ourselves set in the aftermath of the crime scene and what’s seen after—thus the murders and the community’s response. What changes? The times. From 1955 to 1998. We’ll see that the choir of “we shall overcomers” maybe swells for the bittersweet by and by when the stereos are tuned in unison. But the speaker changes, too. Clifton lets the murdered speak, a decapitated prophet—knowing prophets drop judgments more than futures. Her prophet, who can sing like a jaybird, can look, can speak, and with that one hand, point to say: see!
Lucille Clifton was born in 1936 in Depew, NY. She died in Baltimore in 2010. She received a National Book Award, an Emmy, a Lannan, was nominated for the Pulitzer twice, and was Maryland’s Poet Laureate. The thing about Clifton’s genius? It’s sneaky. She’s working even when you don’t think she’s working, which means she can work you without working a sweat. People try to do this, but they get done, assuming she’s unassuming when really she just isn’t studying you. But I think she is a student of the changing same. Down to the bone of it. Here’s “jasper texas 1998.”
for j. byrd
i am a man's head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.
why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
what does my daughter say?
the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust. i am done.
To be a man’s head is to no longer be the man himself, though still his, even as he is gone now, unable to claim what was taken—the rest of him, cut away, like a boy’s ballad. All that’s left, the head, the core of the riff—e.g. the changing same and the dustup that only the dead get to be done with. They, instead, get grave dirt. But that man’s head a synecdoche for Byrd, lyrically and, politically as membered by his dis-membered body, only to be re-membered in death. The thrice-cried “why” becomes a refrain, that contranym I mean here to repeat that which we would have stop, it is the changing same in praxis and essence, an R&B balladeer singing “why” in a Black supper club that gets crashed by “a white person who walks into it” (per Baraka). Simultaneously, Clifton’s three whys play as soulful amplification of a pattern of spiritual struggle and three white men—Berry, Brewer, King—Byrd’s head must ponder over calling brother. Exchangeable, the same question. The question of humanity posed though none in town will hear, all perhaps too busy singing just as so many were too busy waiting for Look to see. The daughter, whose birthday he had attended—an inversion of Mamie to Emmett—speaks, though the head doesn’t hear her. We shall we shall we shall we shall. Pain bleeds away with hope—the blistering sun bearable to the dead, a light that hurts those of us working the changing same, covered in the dirt of that groove, that work put in on us, another that some of us, as playwright Aleshea Harris says, send up when the shit goes down.
The poem ends when Byrd’s head’s part of the song is at last done. The words are blood in dirt. Not yet, but soon come dust, until red once again touches something like a prairie. A road. A chaotic wind blown through a city or town. The place may change. The place may be the same. So much it seems will stay steady the same. How long will it stay played again and again? Worked until the groove is a grave some of us dig our way out only to find ourselves in the same dirt and dust, worked and working. And this work, this changing same where one might make a space for truth and love is a signal even when some people want to call it noise, and call the law on it. Only to call it signal after the law done brought the noise. Look. See. There’s a dirt that covers all of us. Blowing in from the reddened prairies. Who and who and who kicks it up? Listen. Hear.
My own contributions to the changing same of Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton follow. They are called “Tallahatchie LullaBye Baby” and “Big Thicket: Pastoral.” They were published in The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009) and Buck Studies (Fence Books, 2016), respectively.
TALLAHATCHIE LULLABYE, BABY
cattail cast tattles Till tale,
lowing low along the hollow.
crickets chirrup and ribbits lick-up.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.
skin scow skiffs upon pond scum skin
going slow along the hollow.
now may mayfly alight brown brow.
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.
maybe bye baby bye baby by and by—
lowing low along the hollow—
we will slip the knot not slip will we?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.
who’s a bruise to blue hue ’hatchie,
going slow along the hollow?
who’s a bruise to whose hue, ’hatchie?
what’s chucked the ’hatchie swallow.
Kodak flash tattles Till tale
going slow among the hollow.
who’s a bruise to bruise hue?
swallow what the ’hatchie chucks.
—Emmett Till (1941–1955)
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Selected Poems. Harper & Row Publishers, 1982.
Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988–2000. Boa Editions, Ltd, 2000
Jones, LeRoi (Baraka, Amiri). “The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music).” Black Music. Brooklyn, AkashiClassics Renegade Reprint Series, 2001.
Intro and outro from "Shift of Currents" by Blue Dot Sessions // CC BY-NC 2.0
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