the déjà vu: black dreams & black time
(Coffee House Press, 2022)
Black feminist performance artist and educator Gabrielle Civil’s most recent book, the déjà vu: black dreams & black time, is a catalogue of the past, the pandemic present, and a contemplative future. The book has been described as a performance memoir; I found it to be Civil’s most personal book to date. Civil’s previous works—Experiments in Joy (2019), Ghost Gestures (2021), and Swallow the Fish (2017)—similarly contain a compendium of performance texts, unpublished works, journal entries, and correspondence. But the deja vu differs as a moving record of the interior life and public performativity of a Black woman in her body. While the concept of “déjà vu” is often loosely defined as a feeling that one has had an experience before, the déjà vu amplifies this notion beyond the intangible into pivotal, concrete moments of repetition throughout the author’s life.
The opening section, “Double Negatives,” presents a clever entry point for a book in which revisitation is the framework, creating a glossary of definitions, Black feminist references like Henrietta Lacks and Kara Walker, while always returning to our very reliable narrator Civil, who considers: “the déjà vu is like that, the you doubling back as me.”
Black feminist memoir often utilizes an associative scope, residing in the multi-dimensional aesthetics culled from quotidian delights, microaggressions, and aphoristic musings as prompts. the déjà vu arrives at a thrilling rise in the publication of such works, like Shala Miller’s unique pastiche of poetry and photographs titled Tender Noted and the imitable Margo Jefferson’s latest, Constructing a Nervous System, which shuttles between recollections, Black male performance personas, and inner monologue. These works are not only daring in their non-linear form but also in the attention they command from their readers. the déjà vu disavows linearity by placing “black time” and “black dreams” as focal points, and not equanimous poles. Early on readers encounter black dreams and black time as areas of contradiction and states of embodiment for Civil. Black time offers a more languid intention, along the edges of the worldly and psychological threats against Black life. To that end, black time is best encapsulated by a question Civil poses often, “what happens if we take our time?”
In “Blue Flag,” Civil recounts the moment she was asked to contribute the foreword for the reissue of Wanda Coleman’s first manuscript Art in the Court of the Blue Fag (Black Sparrow Press, 1977). Finding herself both honored and troubled by the request, Civil belabors the potentially derogatory title within the context of Coleman’s controversial and crucial legacy as a Black women poet. Readers witness the dilemma through email exchanges with her editor, epistolary drafts of the foreword in which Civil lovingly addresses the late Coleman as “Mama Wanda,” and correspondences with friends about the problematic title. Her most significant concern understandably involves “cancel culture” and the contemporary standards of language when context is slippery throughout generations. This internal conflict in this section illustrates the performance version of Civil and the “reality” or the persona of self that she incorporates in her books. (Readers receive a glimpse of this persona in an earlier piece called “On Commemoration.” Civil reenters her journals from a 2006 trip to Montreal where she encountered a defaced mural meant to honor sixty killed and kidnapped mostly-Indigenous sex workers. Marginalia and pop-ups amplify and interrogate her early notions, or comments on words that are no longer used. Civil displays the worldly strictures that can often confine and politicize recollection.)
Ultimately, she invites her reader to give Coleman the artist “space” she wasn’t afforded in her career. This parallel nature of the déjà vu renders Civil and Coleman alongside one another, vastly different, but troubled by similar scrutiny. Never mind exploding archetypes, Civil introduces the edgework of Black womanhood with a profound commitment to a Black woman’s complex interiority, weighing the potential penalties through intimate questions and close talk, in the nature of “kitchen talk,” the secrets between us and to ourselves.
Central to the déjà vu is a medical emergency that eventuates in the author no longer being able to have children, a long-held dream, bringing to light larger questions of mortality and art as satisfying progeny. Much of this book occurs in the “after space”—the space we call hindsight, where vision is dilated and less distorted. “After the End” is a performance dossier in which Civil and artist and former lover, Moe Lionel, revisit the despair of their individual health crises by passing a red rope between them—a lifeline—in a loving display of mutuality and healing. In it, Moe questions, “What can I say to you that you cannot ask of yourself alone?” In this exploration, Civil, known for her intricate explorations of joy, scours the contours of loneliness in its varying forms. Her readers must face her loneliness along with her, just as much as we encounter her joy, brilliance, and ecstasy.
The psychosis of the déjà vu—the act of creating itself while looking at itself —instills Black feminist memoir as a genre all its own. In a letter to the reader in the final pages of the déjà vu, Civil describes herself as an “idiosyncratic writer”—a brilliant synthesis of the subtly self-conscious thinking-out-loud displayed throughout the text. Alongside Alexis Pauline Gumbs and other self-proclaimed Black feminists who have risen on the shoulders of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan, I count Civil as a trailblazer with my generation of writers committed to Black feminist consciousness, as a fluid, genre busting, “idiosyncratic” archive, dedicated to uncontained, vulgar, and shimmering cycles of curiosity.