Fred Moten
May 19, 2023
Sayan Puangkham

In a conversation with the writer Hanif Abdurraqib, poet and theorist Fred Moten calls the familiar concept of cultural appropriation into question. “My problem with the various critiques of appropriation,” Moten says, “is that they assume the legitimacy of property. . . . They assume that the aesthetic sociality [that is Black cultural production] is something that can be understood as property.” For Moten, this misapprehension of the nature of Black aesthetic practice has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. The history of slavery, he points out, is not only a history of theft; it is also one of imposition—including the imposition of the idea of private property. Black cultural production “cannot be owned”; but it “can be stolen”—and the original theft is having “been conceived of in the first place as property.” To refute the ontology of slavery, then, is not to take back what has been stolen, but instead to cultivate the robust return of what has never been fully lost: Black social life. In his poem “covering,” Moten takes up a social practice that disrupts the logic of ownership. Absent a singular origin that can authorize proprietary claims, “black music can’t be / conceived. A music of covers, black music covers.” As the poem unfolds, Moten elaborates the art of being “held / mutual.” The mutuality here is not one of reciprocation between discrete parts, but of what “blurs // in proximity.” Upending the brutal fiction of self-possession that property requires, the ensemble instead makes up a polyvocal community—and wanders freely into the unknown.

Claire Schwartz

Listen to Fred Moten read "covering."


in the broadest conception of black music, which is the truest conception of black music, black music can’t be conceived. a music of covers, black music covers, and cover is nonconceptual. if you’ve ever covered, if you’ve ever been covered, or have you ever been laid down, held mutual and dappled, shift untempered, ensemble, and ardent in the only love, which is incandescent hate, so you know what covering discovers, hands on, so what it is to lay on—which blurs ___________________ in proximity—is all up in what it is to approach and, darkly, to reveal? if you’ve ever wondered if it’s some wandering in covering, if in separable is gone, to go awry and astray and still ain’t gon’ get there, and still on the edge in wait, then you gotta want not to get there just as bad as you wanna get away from here, blown back, been studying how not to know, unknown, black blue as black, black burying ground, blue as burnt black grounding in the broadest, blackest edge.

Reprinted from perennial fashion     presence falling, published by Wave Books. Copyright © 2023 by Fred Moten

Fred Moten teaches in the Departments of Performance Studies and Comparative Literature at New York University. He lives in New York with his partner, Laura Harris, and their kids, Lorenzo and Julian.