(Litmus Press, 2019)
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s SIR is equal parts artist book, poetry collection, and memoir. Hinkle’s visual, performance, and written works study what she calls the “historical present,” or history’s impact on contemporary daily life. SIR explores Hinkle’s childhood and family, her mother’s pregnancy with her oldest brother and decision to name him Sir, the aspirational power of names and what they carry for their bearers, and Louisville’s history of slavery and segregation. As she writes in the afterward, Hinkle was fascinated by “historical and contemporary naming / labeling of the black body.” This personal case study of her family and hometown emerged from this interest.
The cover of the book reproduces Hinkle’s Wite-Out drawing, “Lineage of A Kneegrow” (2010), which, according to the artist’s website:
interrogates the historical and contemporary labels that have been assigned to the Black body. Riffing off of the homonym Negro/Knee Grow Hinkle creates an elusive identity that blurs fact and fiction allowing the viewer to enter into a space in which the dichotomies between self-hood vs. collective history and the negotiation between survival and becoming through language take form.
It’s an appropriate casing for her book, which looks at the tensions between her mother’s hopes for her son, encompassed in the powerful name Sir, and the realities of Sir’s life as he learns to grow into—or against—the name while facing the societal assumptions and stereotypes surrounding black men in America. It opens with a simple yet illuminating quote from Hinkle’s mother, Delia Reneese Hinkle: “Every time I go into the grocery store and call your brother’s name, all of the white men turn around as if I am addressing them and I tell them, ‘No, I am talking to my son.’” It wasn’t until Hinkle moved away from Louisville to attend art school that she “began to understand the political power (both positive and negative) that mama’s naming gesture evoked.” Anecdotes about her brother, mother, and grandmother are interspersed among quotes about identity and power by Judith Butler, Amiri Baraka, and Audre Lorde; family photographs of Hinkle and her siblings, Sir as a young man, and Hinkle with her own young son; newspaper clippings related to the ongoing battle over desegregating parks and schools in Louisville during the 1950s; and conversations recounting her mother’s childhood during desegregation. SIR oscillates between the personal, political, and historical—proving the extent to which those with marginalized identities often are not afforded the luxury of depoliticizing their selfhood.
The book navigates cultural assumptions about African-America men and the ways they are mistreated in American society. “No matter what my lineage would not be disrespected. We gave him that name so that he would not have to defend his honor until he was old enough to do so,” Hinkle’s grandmother tells her. There is an optimistic power in the act of naming. The Black mother’s fear of birthing a boy is a recurring motif throughout the book: “The nausea. All Black pregnant women have the nausea, when they find out that soon the embryo will become a child,” writes Hinkle. “A mix of fear, apprehension, anxiety and a strong feeling of hope. Hope that you don’t get the call that he is strung up somewhere. […] The Black mother knows these forces are out there.” This is echoed by Hinkle’s addition of her own emotional experience when she and her child’s father discovered that they too would be having a son, “We didn’t want to think about us truly birthing him into all of that [violence] which we thought the privilege of time should have erased by now.”
Though the book mainly consists of text, the collaged photographs and newspaper clippings give the feeling of a diary or a household scrapbook. It has an ekphrastic quality, at times directly describing photographs we never see, such as an early Polaroid of her mother taken just after giving birth to Sir (“There was a whisper that everything would be all right hovering in the ethers of the Polaroid’s murky resolution”). Other descriptions are viscerally evocative, conjuring images of Black bodies being handcuffed by police or prisoners lined up on the streets (“suddenly a line of chained bodies” and “Their skin gleamed dark and its color danced with the neon orange and white of their new/old cloth”). The visual descriptions, photographs, and newspaper clippings paint a picture against which the life experiences of Hinkle’s family rest.
A name is a label bestowed on a child, but it can also be “a song within itself.” In a letter to her brother, who she has never directly asked about his name, Hinkle realizes that “Sir” is a “heavy powerful thing to carry that like lead and water it leads to shame and a hidden pride at the same time.” She adds, “Mama was giving you a gift but you wished she kept her receipt.” Ultimately, the book offers an escape from given names, stereotypes, and expectations in the gesture of self-naming. Stories about friends and girlfriends calling their childhood home and asking for Sir by his middle name are juxtaposed with those about the moments, often when speaking to white authority figures, in which Sir does claim his name. In one of the book’s final anecdotes, Hinkle recounts how her own son decided to change the pronunciation of his name: “I must say it was so hard to let go of the way YO-HAR-EE sings from my lips filled with all of the gentleness and love that I have for his fearless and courageous five year old self.” As she writes in the afterward, “I decided to make a book of naming that undefined the defined.” SIR is a wish, made by Black mothers across America, that their sons may live a life undefined by history.