Still from Something Good, 1898. Courtesy of the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
It’s the silent abandon with which they kiss, as if they are aware of someone striding toward them, this someone’s finger wagging, telling them, “No, no, not here, stop that now, or I’ll be forced to separate you, you profligate negroes.” But before this imagined censor can reach them, they pull each other close and kiss again, their mouths disappearing into each other, their mouths taking the shape of their longing. They touch each other as if they have just been released from something, as if their license to touch is short, stolen, or forged. In Something Good, which features the first known on-screen kiss by a Black couple, filmed in 1898, it appears as if the two actors, a peach pit–toned Black man wearing a bow tie and jacket and a peach skin–toned Black woman wearing a ruffled collared dress belted at the waist, are touching each other after a long period of denial, as if they have forgotten what the other’s mouth and hands and neck feel like and are now voraciously reacquainting themselves with each other. The pit of the peach swaddled by its flesh, becoming whole there on the limb of the day. Voraciously seeking itself, making itself happen—be. No, not quite voraciously, but without caution or care for who’s watching, though they are both aware, and we, too, are aware that someone is watching their performance.
They do whatever they like, their arms swinging back and forth between forays of kissing, as if they were going to a carnival down by the railroad tracks or have suddenly come out of a clearing, the man having drunk water from a stream, the sky all in it, and when he looked up, there she was, this peach-skinned woman. The man’s mouth moves as if he were remembering the taste of water, and the woman moves about him as water and as what he could not predict, which is the sky, and the shore that makes the water possible. In less than twenty seconds, they move together as earth moves with water, unpredictably, their kissing meeting and coming apart without a preordained or announced rhythm. Earth and water. Peach swelling into its flesh and pit on the limb of the day.
This was love unjailed, loose like corn silk, loose and free and scattered. This kiss, this something good could not be accounted for, measured, borrowed against, traded for, sold short, chained, marched from port to pesthouse, coffled, rented out, quartered, sliced, enclosed, leveraged, loaned out, compounded, bought, reduced, spoiled, shuttered, stunted, remanded to the margins, exploited, extracted from, “mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized,” mined, or dynamited into oblivion. This kiss, this something good, could not be killed, punished, burned, Jim Crowed, couped, circumvented, forced to sit in the balcony, hung from a telephone pole, hung from a bridge because it whistled at a White woman, hung from a tree in the middle of a town square for demanding wages earned for working in some White man’s field. This kiss was without tradition, and therefore inaugurates tradition. Pleasure that was once remanded to the dark of cabins and cornfields, to forest floors and swamps, is now lit in the center of a movie camera’s frame. Ecstasy without interruption or intervention. Freedom without the harness of propriety. Pleasure not yet yoked to spectacle.
Somehow, this kiss escaped the eye-bucking and over-exaggeration of minstrelsy, escaped the potential for it to become yet another manifestation of the White imagination circumscribing and speculating about Black life, escaped the pessimism and destruction of race in America at the precipice of the twentieth century. This kiss was love in the Nadir, in the Dark Ages of Black Freedom. The year of Something Good, the year of this kiss, 1898, was also the year of the Wilmington massacre. In North Carolina’s largest city at the time, a city where Black people made up the majority of the population, a mob of about two thousand White supremacists not only burned their way through the Black part of town, destroying the offices of a Black-owned newspaper and killing more than three hundred people, but also overthrew the local Fusionist biracial government, deposing both White and Black elected officials in the only successful coup in the history of the United States. This mob installed public officials who would inaugurate the brutal regime of exclusion that we would come to know as Jim Crow. The phenomena of White mobs burning and lynching their way through Black enclaves occurred all over the South during the Black Nadir. In the middle of such horrors, in a movie studio in Chicago, two Black actors, Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown, kissed, and it was recorded on celluloid.
Their silent kissing offers a symbolic counterbalance to the loud terror of the mob. And not just to the mobs of post-Reconstruction America but also to the paterollers and slave masters and senators who upheld slavery from the country’s founding. Suttle and Brown kiss in the middle of ongoing catastrophe, in the middle of our American eyes. They embrace a transparency that’s disarming in its vibrancy and clarity. It feels—no, it is revolutionary in its unabashed intimacy, an intimacy to be worn and borne publicly, an intimacy that seems to burst forth from its hiding place. During slavery, intimacy was fraught because slavery erected not only a barrier between the self and another but also within oneself. What is intimacy when it and the feelings that come from it can be claimed by another; when another, someone who calls himself master, can claim the body that feeling runs through?
In Something Good, it’s as if Suttle and Brown refuse the barriers and walls of slavery, refuse the surveillance and apartheid of post-Reconstruction America, as if they were the grandchildren reared on their parents’ and grandparents’ stories of having to eke out moments of pleasure during the spectacle and banality of slavery, stories of sprigs of lavender and mint placed in a doorway or in a handle of an iron to sweeten the sweat and labor of cleaning and cooking and tending and mending in a White woman’s kitchen, stories of going to bodies of water to hush the sound of study and meeting a lover one was forbidden to meet; it’s as if Suttle and Brown mixed in these stories with their own desire and kissed and kissed and kissed. Loose, free, and scattered.
Why is their kissing so loud? I hear it, hear them, despite the kiss occurring in the black-and-white silence of the film. Maybe this inexplicable and unlocated loudness is the “something” of the title. “Something” about a kiss. “Something” about the way it opens a man’s face into a bright noise. After each kiss, Suttle pulls back from Brown and his face bursts into an explosion of satisfaction and ecstasy. You can almost hear him say, “Ahhh, now that’s it—that’s it.” His face in its ecstatic glee, the sound of it, reminds me of the dark brown faces and voices of older men whom I have loved in my life—sometimes very difficult men who died very difficult deaths and lived difficult lives before those difficult deaths. One, for instance, was dragged down a road when his pant leg was caught in the door of a car, his body eventually thrown across a field, his body coming to rest only when a fence post impaled his head. The scar of it, the post’s impaling, he carried with him in and out of the barbershop he worked in, carried it with him when leaning back against one of the walls in the barbershop, a curtain of smoke falling about him as he puffed and grinned into a Newport. He carried the scar with him to his death, which occurred less than ten years after the incident. The scar, his cratered and forever-dented head, all because a woman saw her husband coming down the road and sped off before this man could exit the car properly. Despite these difficulties, I have glimpsed moments of this sort of ecstasy, the sort of satisfaction that creases Suttle’s face, this “something good” in the faces of these difficult men, these men thrown down by both life and unwise decisions, thrown down upon the road and dragged to their deaths. I have heard this joy, this bright noise in their faces despite their difficult lives, sometimes because someone or something beautiful crossed their paths or because a trumpet’s plaintive wail made its way out of a radio speaker and touched something deep down in them, and you hear them shout, “You ought to be more careful.”
“You ought to be more careful,” my grandfather would shout and shake his head when I made him laugh, delighting him while standing on the shore of some creek or river in the early morning, a fishing pole in my hand, the leaves overhead scattering their shadows on the surface of the water. My grandfather, too, was a difficult man who died a difficult death—a heart attack while in the hospital being treated for emphysema. The man gasping for breath, his heart, unable to take the stress of his laboring, gave out. The beginning of his life—orphaned, having to steal in order to feed himself—as difficult as his end. Yet the man loved to cut up and laugh, his thin brown face often becoming nothing but a large grin and cheeks.
In the bursts of joy that flood Suttle’s face, I hear a shout, I hear my grandfather’s “You ought to be more careful,” an announcement of a surplus of satisfaction—a “something good” that cannot be controlled, cannot be measured. It is an outburst that lacks self-consciousness. Not one stitch of embarrassment wrinkles Suttle’s brow or scatters across his face. There’s no worry of what we, the viewers, might think. There’s only the woman in front of him. Although he is an actor and therefore laboring, there’s nothing in his face that suggests fatigue or exhaustion, the laboriousness of work. Nothing feels contrived or says “I can’t wait until this is over.” There, in Suttle’s face, is a territory of possibility. His face conveys the joy of asking to be in joy and enjoyed. Could you imagine—being directed to be in a state of pleasure not for others but for oneself? It appears as if Suttle directs himself toward pleasure, finds something beyond the direction to kiss, finds something good.
Gertie Brown finds something so good that she can do nothing but shake her head at it, shake her head at the man on the other side of her who dips his head down and kisses her. In the writing, I typed “sips” instead of “dips.” Maybe that’s what Brown is shaking her head at—that she becomes what is on the other side of his thirst. And that he is on the other side of her—her thirst, her pleasure, her playing with pleasure in front of this new technology called a movie camera. I want to stay with her shaking her head for a moment. Maybe her bashfully shaking her head “no, no” is again another manifestation of a surplus of satisfaction and of the irony of being all in it, being in the middle of something that overwhelms you with its goodness. So overwhelmed, in fact, that she must turn her head away from his, as if in removing him from her sight she staunches the feelings that convulse and breach the banks inside her.
Turning her head away from Suttle, Brown reminds me of my grandmother refusing to look at my grandfather at his funeral. Yes, this the orphaned grandfather of the difficult life, the grandfather who left my grandmother in her late thirties for another woman, who was just two towns, a cornfield, and cow pasture over. My grandmother turned her head like Brown when she walked up to the casket to look at my grandfather one last time before the eulogy. I remember it well. Someone prodded her to go look at my grandfather because she had refused to do so throughout the service. Not even during the viewing of the body before the service did she cast her gaze toward my grandfather laying in a tan suit in the casket, a tan suit with a chocolate stain on the lapel. My grandmother sat, turned away from him in the small, warm chapel of the funeral parlor, the polished wood panels gleaming on that overcast afternoon. My grandmother kept her body tilted on the seat as if she were trying to overhear something my grandfather might say but without looking at him, her ear cast over her shoulder. It appeared as if she expected to hear an apology or acknowledgment of the life they had shared since she was a teen. Finally, when none came, because the dead cannot offer in death what they would not offer in life, someone cajoled her, nudging her, then pulling her gently up by the elbow, escorting her to the edge of the casket to witness what death and the mortician had done to my grandfather. It might have been my mother, her daughter, who escorted her to the edge of the casket and prodded her to look, to look down at her former husband. In fact, I think it was my mother who took my grandmother by the elbow and stood with her until she could no longer look at him.
My mother was also my first example of loving, abiding, and being with difficulty, which I have yet to master. How could she love this man who left her mother in a house with one apple tree in the backyard, a falling-down shed, and bats in the basement? Perhaps my mother’s love for her father was because, despite the breakup between him and her mother, he never stopped loving and caring for her and her mother. When a bat that had taken up residence in a dark corner of the basement decided to fly about the house, sending us all to hide in the television room, it was my grandfather who came over with a net, trapped the bat, and brought his size-seven brogans down on its head (his words, not mine). And it was my grandfather, with his eighth-grade understanding of mathematics, who came over and built a new shed from scratch, albeit with his own sense of measurements, which meant that he had to rehang the door several times because he didn’t build the shed according to the specifications that came with it. It was also my grandfather who would sometimes watch me and my sister when my mother or grandmother had to work overtime.
But this is about my grandmother, her walking up to the casket, peering over the side of it, and when she was sure it was my grandfather, she turned from him, shaking her head as if to say, “Yes, that’s him, and he’s dead.” It was the same sort of headshake that Gertie Brown offers us and Saint Suttle—surplus, being in the middle of something and being in disbelief, which is a form of belief. My grandmother’s headshake of “yes” also bore a bit of “no,” as in “No, I can’t believe it ended this way.” I can’t be sure, but I believe I heard her say as much—that she couldn’t imagine my grandfather dying like he had—fearful, choking, then a heart attack. Sometimes, I see my grandmother standing on the plush burgundy carpet in the funeral parlor, looking down at my grandfather. I hold her where she had refused to stay, her head shaking at this love that was now dead in a casket wearing her grandson’s suit that no longer fit him, a stain on the lapel.
We are suspicious of beauty because of its shifting, opaque, and often diffuse definition. Depending upon who holds or manipulates beauty, utters something about it, there tends to be in that utterance, in that holding or manipulating, power—a wresting and hoarding of it. Beauty becomes the weather—the sun and the rain—by which all the people beneath it must ask or pray for mercy, for grace, for a kind visitation, for it not to bruise their heads with too much heat or flood their fields or houses with too much water. To be found outside beauty or without beauty is often to be found sitting in the seat of the scornful—unlucky, condemned, graceless, and unfavored. Beauty becomes tied to success, goodness, truth, divinity, and moral rectitude. A bean to be counted, to be measured and weighed against, beauty is a chit and so can become a weapon, a means of exploitation, a fungible commodity, a gimmick. And, in the transaction, those who possess and manipulate beauty hold and wield a power they should have never been given or taken. We are right to be suspicious of beauty. So when I say Something Good is beautiful, I am aware that I am wading into this fraught territory of exclusion, power, and marginalization. But dammit, their kissing, their frolicking in and with each other inside the frame of that film is beautiful because it lacks what exclusion, power, and marginalization do not—domination. When Suttle pulls Brown toward him or Brown turns her face away from Suttle, nothing about their pulling or tugging on each other is about a struggle for power. They revel in the pulling, in the tugging—being drawn to each other. They hold hands and swing their arms back and forth as if they are cradling and nurturing beauty between them—the beauty born there in the moment of them coming together.
There is also something else there, something I can’t name, but I know it’s participating in me calling them, calling this film, beautiful. Something ineffable and simultaneously delightful. It’s actually more than delight, more than pleasure, more than justice and permission. Maybe it’s freedom. It’s as if in this cinematic moment between Brown and Suttle we’ve been released from something, as if we’ve closed our eyes and now can see what we could not see before, feel what we could not feel before. Maybe it’s beauty. Maybe that’s what beauty truly is—sensing something that is beyond sight but that requires both a corroboration and subversion of what we think we know of seeing, feeling. Maybe it’s moving beyond or below noise. Maybe that something is silence—and that silence makes a thing—makes a life—beautiful. Beauty not in noise but in what is without. Beauty as that which takes away, and in the taking-away makes life more abundant. Maybe it’s that—sound without sound. Eyes closed and seeing. Maybe what Brown and Suttle offer for twenty seconds is paradise but without borders, dread, exclusions, a nemesis, or a need to keep out the other. Paradise without a gimmick or an angel at its gates with a flaming sword. Maybe they offer us an invitation to our own beauty, an invitation to feel without the previous harnesses and gates thrown up in front of us. And it is all done silently. Silently. Not because their love is without sound but because the absence of sound offers us more possibility, makes manifest what we couldn’t feel before.
From Dark Days: Fugitive Essays, forthcoming from Graywolf Press this August.
Roger Reeves is the author of two collections of poetry, King Me and Best Barbarian, which won the Griffin International Poetry Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Reeves teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.
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