I met Derrais at night on the street outside a venue in Berlin last spring. Derrais had an impressive coat with even more impressive pockets, which we all admired—the pockets could store all sorts of things: bottled water, books, maybe even a kitten. When I was lucky enough to get a copy of his book Black Revelry: In Honor of The Sugar Shack, lo and behold this thing is also filled with pockets. This book pushes the haptics of what a book can be. It is an unbound collection of responses by Black writers, artists, and thinkers to Ernie Barnes’ iconic painting, The Sugar Shack. Each response stretches the ekphrastic form, describing and responding to a detail of the painting, and is paired with a song and a drink. There are linocuts, poems, essays, even a cocktail napkin, and a vinyl record of Derrais talking about the project. I caught up with Derrais to hear more about Black Revelry, which was published through Amsterdam arts organisation, If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part Of Your Revolution.
This interview has been condensed.
Anna: It’s a beautiful project. I haven’t listened to all the music and drunk all the drinks but it really invites you to have people over and do that together—it feels like a collective experience. I mean, you could be drinking alone and listening to it, but it feels like something you should do with other people.
Derrais: I think that’s one of my favourite things about the project. I spent a few days in Valencia with a friend of mine and we were having a cocktail, combing through this book. And it was something, to have this sprawl of an object to hang out with, to obsess over colour and paper and, you know, oh, shit, there’s a napkin. It’s been nice to sit and have conversations with folks over the last two and a half months and just take in the book because it was difficult to do on my own. Increasingly, as I sat with more people, I was like, Damn, we made a book. We made a beautiful little book album.
Anna: I want to ask you about the launch at Hopscotch Reading Room in Berlin last spring. You and I met just a few days later. Did you listen to music and did people have the drinks paired with the different responses to the painting that are published in this collection?
Derrais: Yeah, we played some music before and a little bit during the launch—we played it until my little Bluetooth speaker died and it was good. We could take a piece of writing from the book, like the piece called “Hiram, Georgia” written by La Marr Jurelle Bruce. It’s on khaki-coloured paper with blue ink. That piece is connected to the man in the painting who sits just beyond the stage. He’s dour looking. He’s clad all in denim—with a sad little face under a blue hat. Everything about him is so specifically blue. So we read some of that piece by La Marr and played the song that I associate with that man, which is I Miss You by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes … The wailing that’s in the song really, really hits.
Anna: When I was reading Lynnée Denise’s “The Deep End” and she talks about sampling the painting—how they are almost like DJ samples, these little pieces—I was wondering, is that her interpretation or is it something that was intentional when you were thinking about how to put it together?
Derrais: That’s the whole project right there. I came to writing about Black history and art through sampling, through the record collection that my dad gave me. When I invited folks to the project, I thought, The conceptual anchor is the detail which comes from my interests in the sample … they can open up a whole other kind of engagement. I just love the idea of every contributor having one small component of the painting that becomes this really ebullient text. Just hang out in that space of the painting; use it to invite all these different readers into it.
Anna: I want to ask about the interplay between the audio and the textual and the visual and even…tasting things. What is it that made you decide to do all of those things at once?
Derrais: Mm hmm. Increasingly, I’ve been trying to get out of my own head. I think it’s a byproduct of being invested in a particular way of being in the academy for way too long. With The Sugar Shack painting specifically, I absolutely refused to write a scholarly article about it. I needed a different kind of form and I wanted the reader to know that. I kept trying to figure out—How does an idea live beyond the page?—and it’s through, at times, a kind of personal curation that we do on our own. We’re just trying to get settled in to be with an object or an idea or a project. So, for me it made more sense to do pairings. I always think about the painting in relation to music and drinks. There are different songs that I associate with the painting, and it didn’t make sense to me to just focus on one or two. I thought, No, we need as many damn songs as possible. Same with the drinks. Same with the visuals. I want the reader to be comfortable and I want them to feel invited into it.
Back on the street outside the venue where Derrais and I met, people smoked and chatted, squeezing onto sidewalk benches as if no pandemic had ever swept through. Inside the bar, gold disco light spreads across the ceiling. In the doorway of the two tiny, stuffed, adjoining rooms, singer Lucile Desamory leaned against a gold-painted crown moulding under the spotlight of a desk lamp and pulled the audience in with her nostalgic French singing as the street sounds of sirens and car horns wafted inside.
Anna: In a couple of your talks, you recommend that people should have pillows and get comfortable—we’re tasting, or listening, or resting. Is that something you’re thinking about, the need for rest in the Black body? Or is it more just about comfort in engaging with this work?
Derrais: So I’ll say that under white supremacy, a Black body can never be at rest. It’s always working. So, with this project, I’m thinking about how Black people move, groove, and generate ease. I want us to be in repose, right? This is a project that, if my daybed wasn’t in storage, it would have been part of the launch—daybed, weighted blanket, this is the thing … I hope people fall asleep with a book in front of them and the music playing.
Anna: Yes, the painting is not made for or by the white gaze—it’s like a space of comfort and engagement for a Black viewer. But it’s also from a young boy’s memory, right? The painting was based on Ernie Barnes’ memory of sneaking into a dance hall as a kid in the 1950s. I heard you talk about your own experience growing up and witnessing that kind of scene in the Black community at the parties your parents were having.
Derrais: I’ve been thinking about the role that nostalgia plays in the making of the painting. I’m thinking about a memory from over 30 years ago of me and my brother being tucked into the staircase, eavesdropping. We were ear hustling and trying to figure out what was happening… It’s a trip to sit back and consider how Ernie Barnes generated The Sugar Shack painting based on a memory of something that he experienced, I think, in the fifties. And so he painted this piece maybe 20 years after that. I’m thinking about how he’s able, in that painting, to render all of these different scenarios. There are gamblers, there are folks fighting, there are these performers—it is multiple worlds in the painting. And as I sat with it and as I sit with it now and think more about it, it really was like me taking my own nostalgia around a particular moment in Southern California in the late eighties and trying to create a Venn diagram between what I’ve been imagining/remembering and what Barnes imagined/remembers in his work. Because memory, too, is sampling.
When I’m home in Ontario, a friend and I spread the book out on the coffee table in my back room, leafing through the pieces and listening to Derrais’ voice on the record player, pulling up some of the songs on my phone. It’s around 11pm, we’re just in from the bar and snow is pouring down outside. As bookmakers, we wonder at this book without a binding—a communal reading moment. Reading a book in this way is novel.
William H. Mosley, III’s contribution to the book, an entry called “How to stand out as a primary color; or when I saw Shango, Yemaya, and Oshun Dancing at the Sugar Shack” catches my eye. This triad of sensual poems (“a backside dipped in gold”) stands in the middle of two others on the back of a 12″ x 12″ paper. On the front side, three small sepia-coloured cutouts of The Sugar Shack, as if through a keyhole, with three different women are shown. This response is paired with Survivor by Destiny’s Child and a Dark and Stormy (rum, ginger beer, bitters, lime).
To pair it with this song launches me headlong out of this ’50s scene into contemporary R&B, disorienting me in a way that makes me realize how William H. Mosley and Derrais and I engage the painting differently from our different perspectives. Each single, unbound page of the book invites you to sit with it, slowly, and see the painting as it opens up from a different angle—an ekphrastic linkage specific to Ernie Barnes, to the painting, to the writer, and to me. Many voices, many drinks, many songs, each gathering to create an overall amplification of this painting that gets closer to what it is and does. “The blues of her dress mix with petrichor seat and hug a/ belly that makes no apologies for its presence./ She hikes up the hem of her dress–a flood is coming/ And she is the flood,” writes Mosley.
Anna: What is it that doesn’t fit the academic framing? What is it that’s so frustrating, that isn’t being allowed in that context?
Derrais: I think there are far too many projects in Blackness, Black life, and Black people to think about as a response to white supremacy. I often think alongside the theorist, Saidiya Hartman—especially her first book, Scenes of Subjection. She interrogates how so many thinkers and writers would use these scenes of violence to baptize the reader into a discussion of Blackness. But when I think of The Sugar Shack, I don’t think about that. It emerges from Jim Crow, North Carolina. For me, there have always been worlds operating under the arguments around white supremacy and Black life. I’m not interested in just restaging the confrontation over and over and over. I want to wade into the forms of life that Black folks are enacting—like Fred Moten does. He has this talk called “Poetics of the undercommons” where he says, “a number of people will talk about the Black Panthers, and they talk about them in relationship to state violence.” But he said, “They were the Black Panther Party for self-defence. And I’m interested in the forms of life they were claiming the right to defend.” That was such a pivotal moment for me because the argumentative structure of academic writing requires this kind of tension. But there’s also arguments that are implied in storytelling. And The Sugar Shack is the kind of project where the performance of the argument isn’t nearly as important as giving readers a context in which they can explore Black life. That’s not to say that the painting doesn’t have drama. What I’m more interested in talking about is those tensions within Black communities and cultures. I guess there’s a case that I’m making for just straight-up attention to Black culture and Black interior life.
Anna: I love hearing about this work and where it’s taking you and what you’re thinking about.
Derrais: Thank you. It’s just geeking out and having a good time—you know, being a lush and a hussy.