Sandeep Mukherjee ’s studio isn’t far from my home, and I often go there as a break from my own work. In the past year, more often than not, he’s sitting on a massive painting, with a rag and a bowl of Windex, wiping away at blues and greens covering the floor like a reverse fresco. His images resist representation and call to mind a thing covered over, the thing that seems of nature but is not named in the natural world.
Sandeep, at times, works on canvas painted years before, and therefore his paintings have complex color histories that the Windex chemically dissolves but cannot completely erase. The name for this form is pentimento, where the earlier image, reduced to a color memory or trace, stays present. His process reveals sediment of color, as when one digs through layers of sand until the grains meet the darkness of the ocean. The difference here is that the Windex lightens. Eventually, it’s as if behind the massive canvas the sun is waiting. Sandeep’s mode of erasure peels back years of work, work that has been put aside, returned to and painted over, creating a depth of field.
My own process initially feels opposite to this. I start with nothing, except of course, everything I’ve read, seen and felt. It takes me a tortured while to write what I know. It’s a battle to trust what’s right there in front of me. Language feels inadequate to the skepticism that skips about in my head. I put my pen down. Why my thoughts initially feel like a melody, a chord or some note that won’t connect with its song, I can’t say. I have learned to remain at my desk without taking my temperature.
I think about Sandeep’s Windex in those moments of silence when I can’t find my way to a sentence. How do I cut through to the other side where expression is also something I own? The simple answer is, I read. I return to the world and do the thing I love to do: listen. For me, reading is listening. It’s the act of turning to another life or idea. Sometimes, I think I know the person; sometimes, I am under the impression I understand the idea. This was the state I was in when I began reading “Notes on the State of Virginia,” by Thomas Jefferson.
I read actively, underlining this and that, pleased to have found something to do with my pen. I have always thought of Jefferson as equal to people such as John Stuart Mill, men who, despite their times, recognized humanity when they saw it. I, like everyone else, knew that Jefferson had written into the Declaration of Independence a section — ultimately deleted — attacking the slave trade. He was one of the good guys. I made a mental note to visit his library when next I was in the District.
I read through the “Notes,” happy to be out of my own head, and despite not always agreeing with Jefferson, I read with interest because he seems to be portraying blacks and whites as people with the same emotional range, the same ambiguities. For example, on the question of why blacks shouldn’t be incorporated into the state, he admits to “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites,” and to the “ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” This is, after all, over 200 years later, where we find ourselves, with our justice system in line with the shooting and incarceration of blacks.
I let the phrase “the real distinctions which nature has made” slip by, though it narrows my gaze. But Jefferson wrote it as preparation for what was to follow in his description of blacks: “Their griefs are transient.” Therefore, the injuries referred to above don’t matter. Their recollections are without emotional attachment. I close my eyes, but I’m not asleep. The sentence won’t be forgotten. Even as I await the next thing, the sentence won’t be left behind. “Their griefs are transient.” And yet, I realize that in everything I have heard about Jefferson, this sentence and much more have been omitted.
He, unlike George Washington, refused to free his slaves. He sold at least 85, according to historian Paul Finkelman , to purchase finer things, such as art and wine.
There is something disorganized about refusing the entirety and being taken by the single sentence, the thing glimpsed, that which waits in the dark to be pulled forward like that bit of light in Sandeep’s painting that is alive or dead to the imagination depending on where you are standing. “Their griefs are transient.” I am running toward Jefferson in my mind saying, no, but disorientation is the real feeling.
As I watched Sandeep pulling off color in my visits to his studio, I felt him returning to an initial place. As morally ambiguous as Jefferson shows himself to be, I begin to wonder which moment was the first for him. Each of his sentences, whether in the “Declaration” or in the “Notes,” equals a layer of paint, each staining the other. He knew better, and he wanted his privileges to remain in place. If the finer things came at the cost of black lives, human lives . . . well. In 1789, in a letter to Edward Bancroft, he wrote, “I have no doubt but that they will be good citizens.” But he also wrote, “Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. — Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.” Yes, poetry and the blues and jazz and hip-hop, Langston Hughes and, and, and. . . .
Sometimes, language becomes visual, a text painting, a thing to be seen. “Their griefs are transient.” It slips away from simple communication and floods like a sensation. I feel it as an affront, as regret, distaste or disgust — no, disgrace. So much slippage over time, still the words look back at me. They are the color first laid down, the single thought, written in a sea of language, that offers a glimpse into something vexed. They take on a tone and become textured. They stain me. Erasure is no longer an option. I begin to write across time to dear Mr. Jefferson.
Claudia Rankine is the author, most recently, of “Citizen: An American Lyric” and is the Aerol Arnold Professor of English at the University of Southern California. At the National Book Festival on Sept. 5, she will speak in the Poetry & Prose pavilion at 12:45.