[Les Carnets de Camargo] Code

by Matana Roberts
November 2013

In 2013, Matana Roberts created this short documentary Code in collaboration with filmmaker and media activist Laura Hanna based on her experience of  police harassment towards African Americans in the United States.

As composer, saxophone player and sound artist Matana Roberts walked across the Williamsburg Bridge one night in May, she asked herself a familiar question: “How am I going to survive as an artist in this town?” It was too enchanting an evening for her concern to spiral into despair. Roberts looked at a wall lined with graffiti tags and told herself, “Don’t worry about that, Matana, it’s a beautiful night, and you live in New York City!” Her thoughts were abruptly interrupted as she felt her body pushed up against a fence and a police officer grabbed her bag.

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We Can Do Better

Published in Sound American

Alien is defined in random online dictionaries as “unfamiliar, unknown, strange, exotic, incompatible with, foreign, in conflict with, at variance with” or, my personal favorite, “oppugnant to.” There is also the classic “extraterrestrial, unearthly, otherworldly.”

In all honesty, with the exception of “unearthly,” or on a good day “otherworldly,” maybe “in conflict with,” I did not realize how much more this word applies to me in my 21st-century art life until recently. Something my American-born privilege only saw through a filter that I had become so numb to after experiencing the countless microaggressions afforded to me just being a brown person born with ovaries—by no choice of my own—in America.

My mother once said that she knew when I was a toddler that I would be a traveler. I would often be hard to keep track of even then, constantly running to and fro as a wee one, acting as if I had someplace to be, other than the playground. And it has proved prophetic, as I do indeed travel a great deal. I am in fact writing this essay while 10,000-plus feet in the air, cramped in economy, trying to stay calm in this temporary state, dreaming of the moment of arrival.

I could write a book on jet lag at this point, and my travel life has not been without common rookie mistakes—wrong airports, wrong stations, wrong cabs, etc.—but I can now say I have been an international traveler for a good 20-plus years. I have traveled through at least four different presidential administrations now, and felt the weight of that in every country I have entered as a foreigner. I have endured small bouts of commentary that are directed at either my assumed gender or my assumed nationality. I have dealt with unwanted touching, kissing, and space invasion. I have endured the search of my hair at random airports around the world (one of the many reasons for my recently shaved and liberated head). I have stood behind other brown people in foreign places of travel and have been assumed to be with them, when I have never met them in my life. I have apologized for my American-ness countless times. I have had my passport demanded by police in different countries, while just walking on a random street, breathing a sigh of relief at what the sight of an American passport granted me. Once I was angrily confronted at a gig by a patron who came up very close to tell me how ashamed I should feel to be an American, and I did not disagree. Partly because at the time it felt true, but also because I sensed danger if I did not comply.

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Learn more about Les Carnets de Camargo.