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Horizontal Theory: d.a. carter, “Black Want: A Hennessy Lecture”

Shawna Lipton

“Celebration is the essence of black thought” –Fred Moten

A unique aspect of the TBA festival is the invitation extended to guest scholars to engage in the festival, not only by participating in panels and discussions with artists, but also to present critical lectures in an experimental and performative fashion (much credit to PICA’s Roya Amirsoleymani for curating this programing). One such lecture by bart fitzgerald examined the religious themes and aesthetics in trap music. Another, by madison moore on the queer worldmaking potential of house music included a raucous dance party interlude. But the standout was d.a. carter’s “Hennessy Lecture", in which the Professor of Black Studies invited the crowd to think with him about the potentiality of black scholarly writing over a shared bottle of brown liqueur. carter’s stated intent was to recreate the ambiance of his father’s basement. Heavily influenced by 1970s aesthetics, carter began with a tribute to a formerly incarcerated dancer turned muse to Isaac Hayes, Helen Washington, who was basically a more talented Amber Rose before Amber Rose. As Ebony Magazine wrote in May 1972: “She floats on stage as if on invisible wings. Her sylph-like figure, supple, flowing, enchanting, is incongruously topped by a head as hairless as a cueball” (Higgens, 133). After laying out the sensational imagery of Washington’s lithe moves, carter shifted to an appreciation of football player Jim Brown’s centerfold photo from the September 1974 issue of Playgirl. carter allowed time for the audience to drink in Brown’s image at the same time he passed the bottle of cognac for the crowd to sip.

At this point carter shifted into a more open line of questioning. As a writer he wondered how he could possibly capture the sensation of looking at Jim Brown on a page in Playgirl: how to manifest such feelings of desire in writing. In the context of a dance and performance art festival carter examined the role of the critic. He aspired to evoke embodied sensation in the disembodied medium of writing. In an ode to artists keyon gaskin and sidony o’neal, who performed earlier in the week as the duo Dead Thoroughbred, carter claimed he is, “not in my body the way DT is in their body.” carter celebrated gaskin and o’neal in that moment, even as he points out the intellectual's differing skill set and techniques for engaging the sensorium.

In my own work I have been inspired by feminist scholar Jane Gallop’s call for “a more literary theory” (Gallop 2002), but carter takes this further, desiring a more embodied theory—writing that makes you want to get horizontal, to recline, awash in warm feelings, Hennessy in hand. I appreciated this invitation to think through the potentiality of writing with carter, at the same time basking in his demonstration of what theory can be when it is loose and inviting, thinking in a collective instead of top-down like a traditional conference presentation or lecture. As scholar of black embodiment Kemi Adeyemi has argued, hegemonic culture, which perpetuates patriarchy, white supremacy, and domination over others, privileges verticality, standing at 90 degrees, an “upright citizen.” But carter reveled in the downlow of the basement, and lingered in the snifter on the sofa, lying at 180°, not prone in subjection, but in repose. carter’s “Hennessy Lecture” was a celebration of a more horizontal theory.


Adeyemi, Kemi, Gestures of Dissent, November 9, Chicago, Illinois, 2017.

carter, d.a., Black Want: A Hennessy Lecture, September 15, Portland, Oregon, 2017.

Gallop, Jane, Anecdotal Theory (Duke UP: Durham, 2002).

Higgins, Chester, “Ex-con Dancer Finds Savior in ‘Black Moses', Ebony, (1992): 133-138.

Playgirl. September, 1974.