Preorder the Memphis Music Issue TODAY and lock in an exclusive limited-edition vinyl record!

Become A Member Shop Login

Issue 124, Spring 2024

Sunny Side Up

Notes from inside the crate

In 1849, Henry “Box” Brown packaged himself in a 3 x 2.67 x 2 foot box. He mailed himself to freedom. The twenty-seven-hour journey by railroad, steamboat, wagon, and ferry took him from Virginia to Philadelphia. October 11, 2021, I was freight-shipped from North to South in a 4 x 4 x 8 foot box on an open-air, goose-neck trailer. The contracted driver was not aware of the crate’s content. The fifty-nine-hour trip from Rhode Island to Hale County, Alabama, was recorded in full. Inside I began Black Dictionary (aka RaMell’s Dictionary).

From Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body by RaMell Ross.

There is a folding spectrality to the Black Dictionary (aka, RaMell’s Dictionary). Once going, the folds fade and disintegrate. The creases disappear. Still, the gesture distinctly articulates seams within, hiccups during abduction, Black hiccups along the way. Where every once in a fold the black + word arithmetic produces a eureka! A black eureka? A methodological eruption of madness, and or common sense, like, I know what I’ll do: pull the teeth out the hungriest idea, and give it gum.

So, will it be a tome or a sarcophagus? Or should I wonder: will it be a black tome or a black sarcophagus?

Well, in a cave is the sky. Or should I say, in the black cave is the black sky? Regardless, a low-drawn voice commands: play with the linguistic possibilities of being framed black, backlit by history, cast in infinite silhouette.1

And so here we are, in a mirror’s involution. Recursive and discursive, a meta(dis)organized (con)text, like a habitual prayer, but fully off the tongue like off the chain, roaming and rogue, industry-less, a runaway, eternal algorithm for thinking Black, and for Black thinking. An anagrammatic chicken or the egg.

Or should I have wrote: an anagrammatic Black chicken or Black egg?

To exhaust the formal pairs of black + word is to cook the determinism of American racial casting, sunny side up, on low heat, a newfangled Dixie entropy, so that black déjà vu precedes black fate like a dispatch unfolded from the grave. Need I say there is a fear of something existential, of being caught, born still, in a different paradoxical arm wrestle, with the same ha-has, costumes, and narrative restoratives of a Victorian sensibility?

I took the label off each water bottle. They were the disembodiment of an itch you’d scratch, and forget, as a child. In the crate I’d watch the bottles Jitterbug to the forces of energy exerted around them. And the sun I brought, boy did it shine.

Closing my eyes as I traveled invited a totalizing physiological embrace of noise. It had no time or direction, no point of beginning or signal of end. It was only when the carrier stopped, was it calm enough to write the text: black + word, black + next word, black + next next word.

Soon I’d peck the ceiling with a marker, populating in compulsive delight the infant universe above. I could create them while we rockily hurled toward Hale County. Around the sun they came, stars, black stars!?!?!

Astraeus is headed to the American South!

Here here, the Black Dictionary’s firmaments!

Come all, come none!

The universe have never been smaller.

1. From “Goodbye, Pluto: An Elegy on Loss, Memory, and Photography.”

Stills from Return to Origin, 2021, by RaMell Ross. From his book Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, published in 2023 by MACK. Courtesy the artist and MACK

RaMell Ross

RaMell Ross is an artist, filmmaker, writer, and liberated documentarian. He was a 2022 Solomon Fellow at Harvard University. His feature experimental documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and 2020 Peabody Award. It was nominated for an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards and an Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Film. His work is in various public and private collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the High Museum of Art.