Veiled Visions

*This post is part of our New Black Surrealisms series organized by Tiffany E. Barber and Jerome Dent.

Stevie Wonder performs on Feb. 25, 2009 (Pete Souza – Public Domain)

The aesthetic movement of surrealism set out to liberate the imagination of modern Western subjects so they could discover the “superior reality” hidden within nonrational forms of experience — dreams, stream of consciousness, associations, and other free plays of thought. Influenced by Sigmund Freud’s dream theory and symbolic interpretation methods, surrealists deployed highly figurative and idiosyncratic art expressions to provoke a confrontation, and ultimately a resolution, between the everyday reality of common sense and the vast expanse of dreamy reality disclosed through extra-sensory modes of perception.

To be Black in America, then, is always already a surreal experience. And surreal visions — the faculties and qualities of seeing what is, what is not, and what lies beyond — has informed much Black Diaspora cultural production, such as W.E.B. Du Bois’s heuristic models of the Veil and double consciousness that explain the incapacity of the white gaze to apprehend the truth of the fragmented Black soul. Ralph Ellison further developed this trope in Invisible Man, a surrealist ode to Black life in Great Depression America where he was invisible “simply because people refuse to see me,” giving his life the appearance of a “circus sideshow … surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.” This distortion was a cause of Frantz Fanon’s lament, when he considered the ways his Black sensibility was “woven” for him by the white man “out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.”

While one line in the genealogy of Du Bois’s “two worlds within and without the Veil” has emphasized the white gaze’s exterior problem of false sight, it is lesser-known that this formulation of Black people as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight” derived from Hoodoo, Rootwork, and Conjure lore used to identify those possessing double sight, or the ability to see into the spirit realm. Often called “two-headed” or “four eyes,” these visionaries made use of the Veil’s camouflage to fix their sight on those gnostic realms where they might receive fugitive revelations of ancestral knowledge.

Black visions disclose a folk eschatology that lodges its hope for rightness and justice upon other sensory planes. We can hear an example of this synesthetic longing in Stevie Wonder’s acclaimed 1973 album Innervisions, itself an audiovisual play upon the artist’s own visual “impairment.” Track 2, “Visions,” features the tender expressions of Wonder’s velvety tenor voicing the vividness of his vision-turned-inward. But instead of drifting into solipsism, Wonder’s interior sight opens onto otherwise social worlds.

Verse 1: People hand in hand / Have I lived to see the milk and honey land? / Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands / Or is this a vision in my mind?

Verse 2: The law was never passed / But somehow all men feel they’re truly free at last / Have we really gone this far through space and time / Or is this a vision in my mind?

Verse 3: But what I’d like to know / Is could a place like this exist so beautiful / Or do we have to find our wings and fly away / To the vision in our mind?

Chorus: I’m not one who make believes / I know that leaves are green / They only turn to brown / When autumn comes around / I know just what I say / Today’s not yesterday / And all things have an ending

In each verse, Wonder questions whether his vision of social reciprocity was part of the exterior world or only in his mind. This is not a measure of confusion, as Wonder asserts that he “knows just what I say,” no matter how contradictory it might seem to those with mundane sensory-perception. Wonder amplifies the dreamy location of this vision through his musical arrangement. Contemplative and arabesque scores of harp-like electric and acoustic guitar arpeggios are set against each other within a jazzy harmony that makes use of the dissonance and suspension of augmented minor ninths, sevenths, and elevenths to transport listeners to other sonic dimensions in a chordal cloud.

Echoing these celestial strains is the visual art of Minnie Evans (1892-1987), a North Carolina native with Trinidadian heritage who achieved public fame after New York art dealers “discovered” her work in the 1960s. The documentary The Angel That Stands by Me (1983) is an intimate profile of Evans’s oeuvre, often classified as outsider or visionary to capture aspects of her surrealist yet vernacular aesthetic. However, these categories are unable to communicate the full well-spring of Diasporic double-sight practices that attune Evans’s artistic output to ancestral coordinates. Evans explained her process as one of direct revelation, even claiming that she had “no imagination,” but that complete images appeared in her consciousness: “I never plan a drawing, they just happen. In a dream it was shown to me what I have to do, of paintings. The whole entire horizon all the way across the whole earth was out together like this with pictures. All over my yard, up all the sides of trees and everywhere were pictures.”

Though Evans was accustomed to such experiences — “My whole life has been dreams . . . sometimes day visions . . . they would take advantage of me” — it was not until she was a married mother in her forties that she first sketched these vistas on paper. Evans’s artistic explosion of color indexes the tropical hues of her Caribbean background, as vibrant fuchsias, electric teals, and ardent ochers dance across the surfaces of her drawings and paintings. Displaying principles of symmetry, Evans’s kaleidoscopic visions teem with winged creatures, angels, cherubim, and graphic instantiations of the universal eye that peer out at the viewer from between florid spirals and other fractal motifs. Like other expressions of Black double sight, Evans’s drawings exhort onlookers to see Cosmic Observation in all that emerges and transpires upon the material plane. This expansive perspective imbues all right action with a sense of justice known primarily by sight, despite its short supply in the world of the everyday.

Black sonic and visual works, whether “commercialized” or “vernacular,” express a clairvoyant quality whereby the realities of life disclosed within the Veil form true points of orientation for Black being. The certain knowledge that Stevie Wonder and Minnie Evans craft in their visions resonates with those of Ursula de Jesús, Nat Turner, José  Antonio Aponte, Rebecca Cox Jackson, Mother Leafy Anderson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless other freedom dreamers who insisted that “the map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes.” This combined accounts of expansive Diasporic double sight forms one more hallmark of a Black Radical Tradition that harnesses resources of Spirit to empower transformations upon the material plane. Or, as the old Gospel song urges, “keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on!”

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James Padilioni Jr

James Padilioni, Jr. is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Swarthmore College. His teaching and research foreground the ritual cultures and plantation lifeworlds of the African Diaspora, including magico-religious, ecstatic, and pharmacopic traditions, Afro-Latinx and Afro-American folk Catholicism, Black queer performance, and critical race theory. He is writing a book entitled 'Black Gnosis: San Martín de Porres, the African Diaspora, and the Problem of Knowledge,' Follow him on Twitter @ApontesGhost.