Where Does All That Ugly Go in Our Beautiful Blackness?
I’m interested in powerful images that strike chords embedded deep in the resevoirs of our subconscious
Trapped within the mundane white living of Orange County, California it becomes of paramount need to find the quiet moments of mental escape.[i]. Those breaks in the reality of the situation when I surround myself with nothing but Blackness, Black ‘living,’ Black thought, and Black ‘culture.’ When I scroll down my tumblr dashboard I’m always in a state of shock-excitement-peace seeing the numerous blogs devoted to maintaining a loving relationship with this thing we call Black. That thing/stuff that is constantly misrepresented, unrecognized, feared, yet still hypervisible and overdetermined. One of the themes running across these blogs (my own included, in my relationship/work with Black visuality) is beauty, often addressed through the notion of Black love—of self and culture. I’m pleased to be linked with others in this remarkable act of unapologetic Blackness, not new, but now hip, chic, and constant—in step with the ever-evolving technology age. My, your, our Blackness is represented as just as relevant and pleasing as the MacBook I type these words from. The blog world has become a space of representing our interest in transforming, self-making, and ultimately protesting. What is to be said of this affirmation of beauty? Or what can be made in these life-affirming words and images of Blackness? A lot can be said on those questions, but I’m currently most intrigued/engaged with another question: where does what we transform, make, and protest figure into our notions of Blackness?
The work of Wangechi Mutu plays with all of these questions and pushes our ideas of transformation and beauty to the (performative) limits. In responding to and protesting stereotypes, our blogs often obscure and avoid the violent notions of Blackness we daily encounter. But where does that violence go in our mental escapes? What happens to those things not spoken? They certainly don’t evaporate.
As I have stated elsewhere, what is remarkable about the work of artist like Carrie Mae Weems or Michael Ray Charles, is their ability to confront what is known/thought and bring it out for all to speak, contemplate, and confront. Kara Walker mines the same vein and abstracts, imagines, and digs into fantasy space toward an account of the same notions of Blackness. Particularly concerning the idea of beauty and self/Black love, I am captivated by Wangechi Mutu’s ability to abstract and amplify stereotype.
In an interview with Lauri Firstenberg, Mutu noted:
"Camouflage and mutation are big themes in my work, but the idea I’m most enamored with is the notion that transformation can help us to transcend our predicament. We all wear costumes when we set out for battle. The language of body alteration is a powerful inspiration. I think part of my interest in this comes from being an immigrant but I’ve also always been interested in how people perform and maneuver among one another."
In contrast to the Walker, Weems, and Charles, Mutu’s work does not present clear cut renderings of stereotypes, but they are always present. The violence forming and shaping Blackness is highlighted, exposed, and abstracted in such a way that flips the formula: finding beauty in what is equated to ugly (transforming, self-making, protesting), toward highlighting the complex/constant relationship between beauty and ugly: the two are always with each other and always visible.
Mutu is a New York artist from Kenya who was educated both in Africa and the States. Her work uses collage not just as a crafty, chic art medium, but rather to speak to the ways in which one’s life is organized. She culls sexual imagery from fashion and porn, ethnographic photographs in National Geographic and high-gloss populist coffee table books such as Africa Adorned toward deconstructing the female body until it becomes a series of leprous dismembered pinups.[ii]
“Violent incidences are often fastened to images of privilege in my drawings. Images of altered or slightly mutilated bodies with diseased skin sometimes look like bizarre and colorful fabric costumes. There is this tiny percentage of people who live like emperors because elsewhere blood is being shed.” -Wangechi Mutu
“Women’s bodes are particularly vulnerable to the whims of changing movements, governments, and social norms. They’re like sensitive charts—they indicate how a society feels about itself. It’s also disturbing how women attack themselves in search of a perfect image, and to assuage the imperfections that surround them.” -Wangechi Mutu
[i] I say Orange County simply because that is my current physical location. I keep in the forefront of my thinking, “what Black utopia exist where this would not be a need?”
[ii] Lauri Firstenberg, “Wangechi Mutu: Perverse Anthropology: The Photomontage of Wangechi Mutu,” in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora.Lauri Ann Farrell, editor (New York: Museum of African Art), 136-143
“How should there be Black poets in America?
It was not natural. And she was the first. It was 1761—so far back before the revolution that produced these United States, so far back before the concept of freedom disturbed the insolent crimes of this continent—in 1761, when seven year old Phillis stood, as she must, when she stood nearly naked, as small as a seven year old, by herself, standing on land at last, at last after the long, annihilating horrors of the Middle Passage. Phillis, standing on the auctioneer’s rude platform: Phillis For Sale.
Was it a nice day?
Does it matter? Should she muse on the sky or remember the sea? Until then Phillis had been somebody’s child. Now she was about to become somebody’s slave.
Suzannah and John Wheatley finished their breakfast and ordered the carriage brought ‘round. They would ride to the auction. This would be an important outing. They planned to buy yet another human being to help with the happiness of their comfortable life in Boston. You don’t buy a human being, you don’t purchase a slave, without thinking ahead. So they had planned this excursion. They were dressed for the occasion, and excited, probably. And experienced, certainly. The Wheatley’s already owned several slaves. They had done this before; the transaction would not startle or confound or embarrass or appall either one of them.
Was it a nice day?”—June Jordan, “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley” February, 1985
for lack of a better title: a short story about (gay) marriage and adoption
Elliot answered the phone quietly to not wake Jesse sleeping next to him. It was forty-five minutes earlier than the normal six a.m. alarm and the boys had stayed out late last night. “Hey,” whispered Elliot into the phone. His mother replied frantically, “Your sister and I need your help.” He rose from the bed and took the conversation into the next room. Jesse woke as he heard Elliot open the bedroom door to leave. Looking at the clock that read a time earlier than Jesse wanted to see, he rolled over and clutched Elliot’s pillow. A few minutes later, the door opened and Elliot crawled back into bed.
“Who was that? Everything alrite?” Jesse asked.
“It was my mom. CPS wants to take my sister’s kids from her. I guess they’re pressuring mom to take them.”
“Why do they want them?”
“Do they need a reason?” Elliot replied, “I mean, its been tough for her since Donald went in, and I think she lost her job a few weeks ago, but she won’t tell me.”
“So what do you want to do?” Jesse asked as he rolled into Elliot’s arms.
“I’m not sure. We don’t really have money to send, and mom is stressed enough taking care of grandpa and Aunt Issie.”
“Yeah. Well, we have space though. And money we can figure out with your mom later,” Jesse suggested, “How old are the kids again?”
“Maya is nine, Cameron seven, and Sam is sixteen,” Elliot sat up, “are you sure?”
Jesse looked up at Elliot, “don’t act like you didn’t already offer this to your mom on the phone out there” he smiled and got up and began putting on clothes, “Maya and Cameron can use the air mattress, we’ll put it in the office. And Sam can sleep out on the couch.”
“A boy and girl sharing the same bed, is that weird at their age?” Elliot asked as he rolled over and watched Jesse dress.
“Weird? Well, first of all, they’re brother and sister, it’s not like we are throwing strangers in bed together, though I guess we’ve both had enough experience with that situation” they both laughed, “and, these kids are about to come live with their gay uncle Elliot and his, to quote your mother at your parents anniversary, ‘special roommate.’ Shit will be weird for them no matter what.” Jesse walked over to Elliot, kissed him and pulled the blanket from atop him, “get dressed, I’ll make some eggs. Will you take Miles out for a walk?”
It had been two years since Elliot had been back to the house he grew up in. It wasn’t because he wasn’t welcomed, and it wasn’t because he hated it. He just associated it with something different from where he was now. Elliot turned his key in the door, and paused for a minute. “Scared it wouldn’t work anymore?” Jesse nudged Elliot, “yeah, I have that fear sometimes too, but my family is on some Huxtable shit. The door is always open.” Elliot laughed and opened the door. The two walked in and found Grandpa and Aunt Issie playing cards at the dining room table.
“Aw baby, come on over her and give your Aunt Issie a hug” Elliot crossed the room toward the table and hugged his grandfather’s sister.
“Hi papa” Elliot greeted the old man who hadn’t bothered to put down his hand to greet company.
“How you doing boy?”
“I’m good. Where’s mom?”
Aunt Issie replied, “Oh, she took the kids to get some things from the store. Come on over here baby” she signaled to Jesse, “have a seat.”
Grandpa folded his hand and got up from the table and left the room.
“Don’t y’all worry about him, he ain’t no enemy, just a little lost and stubborn. Sit on down boys.” Aunt Issie took Elliot’s hand, “What y’all doing is great. I know it ain’t easy, but your mom and sister really do need and appreciate it. And your favorite auntie appreciates it too. And I’m going to help you in whatever way I can.”
The front door opened and in walked Elliot’s mom and the kids with a few grocery bags.
“Oh, y’all are early. Were you waiting long?” Elliot’s mother asked.
“No, we just got here. How are y’all?” Elliot responded, “Hi Maya, you’re getting big. And look at you Cameron, how old are you now?”
Cameron responded, “I’m seven. About to be eight!”
“And Sam, how are you?” Elliot asked.
“I’m cool. I’m going to go get the bags.”
“Y’all aren’t going to stay for dinner?”
“No grandma, Elliot and Jesse have to get back to the Northside for some meeting, we’re going to go with them” Sam announced.
“Yeah ma, I texted Sam earlier, I thought he’d tell you that.”
“This one doesn’t tell me anything! If he can’t text it, he doesn’t bother. And you know I don’t know anything about that. So what are you going to do for dinner? I bought these groceries for your apartment. Kids, go help your brother with the bags.”
“After the meeting, I’m going to cook” Jesse announced.
Aunt Issie slapped the table and smiled, “Oh, check you out Elliot, good looks and he cooks too! No wonder you haven’t been around in awhile, got everything you need right there.” Elliot laughed, and Jesse blushed.
“Hush, auntie” Elliot’s mother interjected, “you can bring them kids around for dinner every once in awhile. And Sam can cook sometimes too, I taught him a bit,” she proudly smiled. “Now, Sam is fine to ride the train to school, but Maya and Cameron, I called ahead and they are expecting them at Valencia on Monday.”
“Yes mom, I called too. We’ll have them up there. Its right around the corner from our apartment, so we’ll walk them the first week, then they can walk themselves after that right?”
“Yeah, that will be fine. What type of meeting y’all got tonight?”
“An organizing meeting” Jesse replied.
“Y’all still doing all that stuff, won’t that be boring for them? Want me to bring them up to your apartment later?”
“No, its okay ma. That’s a long drive. There will be other kids there around Maya and Cameron’s age, and Sam is old enough to occupy his time with himself.”
The kids came out the back with their bags, Jesse and Elliot picked up the groceries. “I’ll call you later ma,” Elliot said. He hugged Aunt Issie, kissed his mom and led the group out the door.
The meeting went on for about an hour, going over legislation in different states and how much money had been raised for the ‘cause.’ There were maps of canvassing plans and list of potential donors to call. Elliot and Jesse sat in the back of the room feeling somewhat disinterested, but also like they were supposed to be there. Maya and Cameron played in the room next door with a few other kids around their age, while Sam got lost in his ipod outside on a stoop. At the end of the meeting, Elliot and Jesse walked over to the refreshment table, poured cups of wine and engaged small chat with some of the other folks in the room.
“Our kids are playing well together. I didn’t even know you two were in the market for adoption” Ellen said to the two boys standing at the refreshment table.
“Ah, the market” Jesse replied, “well, you know.”
Elliot interjected, “We aren’t actually. These are my sister’s children, they are staying with us for awhile.”
“Oh, very nice,” Ellen replied. Her partner Kathy walked up and joined the conversation, “You know, ever since we brought Nate and Patrice home, we’ve been looking for them some playmates they may relate better too.”
“I don’t understand. Are they not making friends at their school?” Jesse asked.
Ellen responded, “Oh, no they are. Its just there aren’t, well you know…” Jesse and Elliot stared blankly at the couple, “a lot of African-Americans around.”
“Ah, yes. Then there’s that” Jesse replied.
“You know, there is this African dance class at DePaul being taught on Thursday nights, we were thinking of taking them there, maybe your niece and nephew would want to come?” Kathy announced/asked.
Jesse laughed and walked away. “Hmmm, maybe. We’ll have to see,” Elliot replied.
Dan, another member of the meeting, joined Elliot and the two ladies in the conversation. “Hey Elliot, I didn’t know you and Jesse were adopting. Are you two civil-unioned or did you make the trip to Boston?”
“Oh, they aren’t married” Kathy answered.
Dan replied, “oh my gosh, I bet the state is watching you like a hawk, a gay couple not married and with kids, oh that must be hard.”
“Marriage didn’t save my sister, nor her family” Elliot announced. Dan, Kathy, and Ellen stared at Elliot as he walked away to find Jesse.
Jesse grabbed Elliot’s hand as he joined in on a new conversation with Beth and Susan. “Hey babe, these nice people are trying to decide whether or not they should go talk to that poor boy on the stoop outside. You know, he may be having trouble committing to coming in to the meeting” Jesse looked at Elliot and smiled.
Beth commented, “Yeah, thank god for you two, such great examples. I know it can be tough coming from your community, being queer, and trying to live proudly. And dealing with racism. My gosh, I can’t imagine.”
Elliot smiled, “I think we have to go. Yeah, we have to go.” Jesse and Elliot grabbed Maya and Cameron and headed out the meeting. They met up with Sam and the five of them went home to have dinner.
Four months had gone by since the kids had come to stay with Jesse and Elliot and everything was working the best it could. Elliot brought the kids to his mother’s house every Sunday for dinner, a new tradition that was needed for everyone involved. His sister was still searching for a job; she had lost her apartment and had to move in with a friend until she could get back on her feet. Money was running thin though for Jesse and Elliot, despite the fifty dollars a month Aunt Issie had been slipping Elliot under the Sunday dinner table. So, Jesse encouraged Elliot to file for state assistance to get through for a while. “Don’t be too proud for welfare babe, we need it” Jesse had whispered to Elliot every time a bill was due.
Elliot, Sam, Maya, and Cameron sat in a cold office staring at a tired, uninterested state official across a boring, mundane desk. “Sir, since you aren’t these kids legal guardian, you have no standing to be receiving financial assistance,” the state official announced.
“Yes, but these are my sister’s children, they are staying with me for awhile. I’m their main support right now,” Elliot replied.
“Well, until your sister makes that official, there is nothing I can do right now.”
“What does making it official entail?” Elliot asked.
“Relinquishing her parental rights and awarding you custody over them.”
Elliot looked over to his niece and nephews, and then back to the state, “That isn’t going to happen. These are my sister’s kids, she’s not giving them away, and they’re just staying with me for awhile.”
The state official looked at the children, “well if you can’t provide for them, and your sister can’t, the state always can.”
Elliot stared at the state and thought about African dance classes at DePaul with Ellen and Kathy. He led the kids out the office and they returned home to Jesse who was preparing dinner.
i couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old. i was driving across country with my grandparents (san diego, ca- birmingham, al). we were in the middle of texas, and i was in the backseat with my walkman playing (can’t remember what i was listening to), but i took my headphones out and my grandma and papa were singing "a-tisket, a-tasket, a brown and yellow basket, i send a letter to my mommy, on the way i dropped it. i dropped it, i dropped it, yes on the way i dropped it, a lil girlie picked it up and put it in her pocket."
i didn’t put my headphones back in, we listened to ella fitzgerald for the rest of trip. i wouldn’t let them put anything else in. everytime the tape stopped, i hopped in the front seat to flip it over.
Much Ado About Something: 2000 words on black, queer, and hope
Once upon a time I wanted to be a constitutional lawyer. Which was actually a front for my real ambitions of wanting to be a U.S. Senator. Much in my college career effectively closed the door on the latter dream, and while the former is still very much possible, I would have to do some mental gymnastics in forgetting many of the lessons instilled in me through lectures, seminars, readings, and the political organizing I engaged as a student. However, though my understandings of institutions and political change have altered quite a bit since my days sitting in the back of pre-law classes, the root of my desire for change has remained constant. As a lawyer and a senator, I would be admitting something is wrong and put simply; I want to do something about it. Well my “fellow” Americans, something is wrong and I want to do something about it. But before we start composing our “to-do” list, I want to trouble our notions of the “something is wrong” while attempting to further complicate the, “to do something about.”
What my old-self, the budding con-law scholar and the present-self, the hungry radical Black-queer writer have in common is a certain political hopefulness, but, what can never be discounted is the trip from old to new, a certain walk through a valley of despair and hopelessness that is still being worked out in the day-to-day of my living. I want to play with notions of hope, politics, and hopelessness while joining Lisa Duggan and Jose Esteban Munoz in their conversation on the same topics, while hopefully illuminating a certain position, a critical juncture, I believed missed by the two queer scholars.[i] There is something to be said of the similarities, the hunger of my old and new self that does not explain away the “something is wrong,” but instead reorients the “to do something about.” And it is in the “wrong” that hope finds its life, and that is where I situate my current project, the further illumination of the “wrong” which in turn I believe will breed a certain type of hope. But first some parameters of a critical thinking through must be set and it is here that I join while simultaneously diverge from Duggan and Munoz.
The arch of my work I believe to be engaged most critically with the question of how do Black queer people speak of themselves, the world, and organize politically? @howtobenoladarling made a statement on his tumblr the other day that caught my interest, “I don’t Identify as queer lol because its closer to whiteness”, which was not a surprising statement for myself or a host of Black queers writing and organizing around the nation, but it still seems to be shocking for many non-Black queers organizing under the banner of radical queer politics and radical queer scholarship. @howtobenoladarling continues, “I dont just happen to be black. I am black. was born black. the system reminds me that I am black every fucking day, sec, min, hour of my life. so I wont EVER forget that shit.”
Though I define myself as a Black-queer, I don’t take issue with @howtobenoladarling’s repel of the word queer. While Duggan and Munoz theorize a certain hope in realm of politics, the starting point for their analysis differs from the fact of Blackness @howtobenoladarling starts at, and raises questions on what does it mean to be a Black-queer? To really give pause at the hyphen that joins identity while simultaneously separating, what @jeromeiznice has repeatedly, eloquently, and convincingly made clear are antagonistic positions, or an ontological conundrum in need of some attention.[ii] To think critically at that hyphen is to think critically at the way we Black-queers organize with queer theory and politics. Some will ask, why am I not thinking through the way Black-queers organize with Blacks? Besides the fact that I always am, I would say that question misses the point of a structuring Blackness @howtobenoladarling is pointing us to while also taking us out of the ‘ensemble of questions’ @jeromeiznice is pushing us to reckon. Lisa Duggan posits her battle as a “queer-leftist,” as that of displacing: “supposedly populist left-liberal politics (Tom Frank 2004; Todd Gitlin 1995) based on a falsely unified past, a call for the commonsense priority of economic interest over cultural issues, and a vision of a homogenizing political future somehow always best represented by straight, white guys. Such hope suppresses the messy vitality of political longings emanating from an elsewhere that is always already marginalized” (Duggan & Munoz, 275-6).
I’ve learned to take caution in conversations where the enemy of leftist organizing is the “straight white guy.” Not because straight white guys are necessarily comrades, but rather because the frame of the conversation relies upon an assumption that the essential battle (and this is when the conversations are at their best) is against white capitalist heteropatriarchy, while leaving out of the frame or the conversation actually resting upon an essential anti-Blackness.[iii] One is left to wonder, what “political longings” does Duggan speak of, what type of suppression is she speaking out against, and is there a place of marginalization in which @jeromeiznice’s questions can be set aside and all us queers can theorize and organize together?
Stepping back to survey the field of queer theory/politics from where Cathy Cohen made her appeal in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (1997) to where we are now, or “Hope and Hopelessness: A dialogue” (2009), I would have to offer an answer of ‘no.’ Perhaps this is my stake in the hopelessness Duggan and Munoz think through and my agreement with @howtobenoladarling’s statement. However, that ‘no’ or the hopelessness is not the complacency that Duggan and Munoz are (and I would actually place myself alongside) working against. Instead the ‘no’ is a diverging force that separates Black from queer and attempts to highlight the unique specificity of anti-Blackness.
No other being is structured by way of violence and captivity like that of the Black. This is Saidiya Hartman’s plain truth when she comments on the nature of the slave community:
It cannot be assumed that the conditions of domination alone were sufficient to create a sense of common values, trust, or collective identification. The commonality constituted in practice depends less on presence or sameness than upon desired change—the abolition of bondage. Thus, contrary to identity providing the ground of community, identity is figured as the desired negation of the very set of constraints that create commonality—that is the yearning to be liberated from the condition of enslavement facilitates the networks of affiliation and identification (Scenes of Subjection, 59).
Whereas I would never discount queer identification without the burden of homophobia, heteronormativity, and heteropatriarchy, it is crucial that we do not displace questions of history (pace Hartman) and questions of structure (pace @jeromeiznice). Jose Munoz’s starting point is Paolo Virno’s theorization on the worker condition. Munoz examines notions of hope based upon an interrogation of capitalism, one in which we understand worker exploitation is not simply the problem, but that work has become the dominating condition of human life (Duggan and Munoz, 277). He goes on to question, “what would it mean, on an emotional level, to make work not the defining feature of our lives? How could such a procedure be carried out?” All fine questions when organizing a worker revolution, but under a queer banner how do we fold in, or make present the questions of the Black, she who is not defined by work, rather by enslavement (Hartman), or social death (Orlando Patterson)? Both Munoz and Duggan labor in a way that collapses structural position by way of identification with queer—Duggan’s above shift of focus toward “straight white guys” and Munoz’s later analogous listing of “illegal border crossing, real or symbolic escapes from chattel slavery, [and] xenophobic immigration laws” (Duggan and Munoz, 277). And this is not a clarion call for intersectionality, which in my view has been watered down into a tangled mesh of identity over identifications, which reinforces emphasis on the white/non-white divide while ignoring the ‘structuring irrationality’ of anti-blackness.[iv] Rather, I turn to Zakiyyah Jackson’s radical call for queer theory to engage the ontological work of David Marriott. In her article “Waking Nightmares[v],” Jackson highlights Marriott’s theorization of Black positionality—the shattered subject—while doing much needed and important work by way of understanding questions of queer discourse in relationship to racial Blackness and modernity. She states:
Marriott’s scholarship reminds us that queer theory may unwittingly diminish its criticality if it fails to acknowledge the role antiblack racism plays in shaping the discursive practices of gender and sexuality. The violence that produces blackness necessitates that from the existential vantage point of black lived experience, gender and sexuality lose their coherence as normative categories. Moreover, as queer theory attempts to map a territory that encompasses an increasingly generalized nonnormativity, it may unwittingly overlook the function of blackness in modernity, since the black body has been rendered the “absolute index of otherness”(Jackson, 359, emphasis mine).
I worry, as Jackson does, where do Black-queers go, when the banner of queer displaces a critical engagement with the language of race? Or what @howtobenoladarling reminds his reader, “the system reminds me that I am black every fucking day, sec, min, hour of my life.”
So what can be made of our question of hope? Jose Munoz reminds us “hope is a risk. But if the point is to change the world we must risk hope” (Duggan and Munoz, 279) Duggan follows and cautions “those among us who forsake ossified modes of security, or who simply cannot enlist them for ourselves, take terrifying risks everyday. Bad sentiments, pursued as escape, can lead to isolation, poverty and death” (Duggan and Munoz, 279). However, as Jackson reminds us (borrowing from Omar Rick) the black body has been rendered the “absolute index of otherness.” Therefore we must account for these bodies that exist in risk at all times, this place of isolation, poverty, and death Duggan fears to go. I still call myself queer, perhaps because I hold out for the “radical potential,” but until the Black is accounted for and we go the place we fear to be, my hope will continue to be violent, and well, we’ll just save that for another 2000 words or so.
[i] Lisa Duggan and Jose Esteban Munoz, “Hope and hopelessness: A dialogue” Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory Vol. 19, No. 2, July 2009, 275-283
[ii] This line of thought is taken from various conversations in which @jeromeiznice and myself have been involved: email exchanges, private conversations, seminar-table discussions, and my own research presentation in the Spring of 2011. I also owe a great debt to the Black Queer Collective of UC Irvine for influencing my research and pushing the bounds of thought on the ‘peculiar’ position of the Black-queer.
[iii] If I am reading Jared Sexton correctly, I believe this is one of his key points in his stroke of genius article, “The Curtain of the Sky.” How do we call for a critical engagement in politics and theorization that does not posit the central antagonism as that of a white/non-white divide, but rather examines political ontology (Wilderson) by way of illuminating the non-Black/Black divide; a world structured by anti-Blackness. How do we deal with this fact of Blackness? or what Sexton writes, “one can reject without contradiction the thesis that it is best to be white and Christian—the postulate of white superiority, and even pursue the re-signification of a historically disparaged Jewishness, Indianess, Asianess, etc., while endorsing, in whole or in part, the thesis that it is nonetheless worst to be black—the postulate of black inferiority” (pg. 12).
[iv] I must give thanks to @abolitionista for encouraging my rethinking of the term ‘intersectionality’ and its uses. She commented eloquently on the complications of Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking article “Mapping the Margins,” at a panel discussion hosted by the Black Student Union at UC Irvine, winter 2011.
[v] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Waking Nightmares: on David Marriott” in GLQ 17:2-3, 2011
“Too often our work is singularly focused on individual experience or relies on a Cartesian form of consciousness. Such work focuses on black people’s identities or stops at what black folks say about their experiences without interrogating the limits of consciousness itself. I worry that in this work, history and structure disappear. It is my view that the lives of black people of all genders are structured in the context of anti-black existential negation, but it is rare to have our position as shattered subjects theorized and even rarer for it to be theorized with deep attentiveness to gender and sexuality—as Marriott does.”—Zakiyyah Iman Jacksonon David Marriott, “Waking Nightmares” in GLQ
2. would you date an 18 year old at the age you are now? severely depends. i mean, im not necessarily in the market for an 18 year old, but Fred Hampton was only 19 when the FBI opened their file on him. Im 23, what have I done with my life to be discounting an 18 year old.
11. see previous post
15. do you care if people talk badly about you? depends on the nature of the comments. if its about my politics, it usually means im doing something right by way of challenging the system. if its about my love for partying, whiskey, and sexing… i get a lil insecure.
32. do you like watching scary movies? i dont. but i do like psychological thriller TV, like Criminal Minds. But i have yet to conclude whether its because i like the suspense, or is it because of Supervisory Special Agent Derek Morgan. he (i mean its) currently on mute in the background as i listen to music.
38. do you think someone has feelings for you? im not sure. im so bad with reading signs (soberly). and its socially unacceptable to try and slip your boss shots of jack daniels at work.
61. how’s your heart? its good! at a steady pace right now, it was a lil iffy a few days ago when i was eating a double bacon cheeseburger, hot wings, and a coke slurpee.
70. see previous post
73. do you have someone of the opposite sex you can tell everything to? actually i dont. i have a few girl-friends that i tell alot to, and between the four really close girl-friends they comprise everything that i have to tell, but no one of them knows EVERYTHING.
99. have you ever kissed someone older than you? yes.
102. has anyone ever given you butterflies? yup! its always a nice feeling. but due to past circumstances, i approach he butterflies with caution now. i miss the days of blissful innocence/ naivete
1. Think of the last person who said I love you, do you think they meant it? Technically it was my grandmother on the phone yesterday. and certainly i think she meant. but i’m assuming that’s not the point of the question. the last romantic encounter with the word “love,” i spent too much time pondering whether he meant it or not. i don’t know. and try not to care anymore. :p
17. when was the last time you cried? i cried a few times last summer. had a lot going on emotionally in preparation of leaving a lot behind to start something new in chicago. been smiling ever since though :)
17. someone you miss: im pretty sure my mothers presence walks with me everyday, but i do miss her voice and touch. *prepare for shameless name dropping* i miss sitting/being around seminar tables with Jared Sexton and/or Frank Wilderson, the lectures of Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, in front of art slides with Bridget Cooks, and discussing literature with Arlene Keizer
19. a fact about your personality: im often vulgar
27. a description of a boy/girl i like: he is one of my bosses at work :/ super funny. vulgar like me (see above answer), and i cant get him out of my head.
30. what i hate about school: (when i was in it) its ties to the prison-industrial complex.
33. what words make me the best about myself: unapologetic
34. 11:11 wish: a fine ass revolutionary brother to go buck on the system with and we contemplate the possibility of having to go underground together but we never have to cuz the Revolution is here and ‘Black is new black” and the Revolution is real Black, so we alrite just living, being, and going buck together.
apparently my last post which contained a bit about the date i should be on right now came back to bite me in the ass. and here i sit alone on this sunday evening contemplating how a boy who actively sought my number at a party reveals to me his “closeted” status. and im not saying everyone needs to be “out,” it just brought a certain set of complications to the evening that severely affected the “first date” ambience. i chose to opt out.
negrosunshine: k. ill meet u there a lil closer to 945
boy: question, is it a gay bar?
negrosunshine: oh, yeah, it is. do u not like gay bars? sorry. its def not a like the usual gay “club” its supposed to be more of a lounge.
boy: i dont do gay bars
boy: or clubs
negrosunshine: oooo, haha. that’s awkward. lol. sorry, but may i ask why?
boy: im not out
boy: i thought you knew
boy: if thats not cool for u i understand
negrosunshine: ah, i see. nah, i dont think i did. and its not that its not cool, it just creates a challenge on where to go, what to do. it probably won’t work though. its a bit hard to mistake me for straight.
boy: aight then.
negrosunshine: just a tip though, its probably much easier to be thought straight in a gay bar than it is to see u and a gay boy on a date in a straight bar.
late last night i was on my way home and the whiskey was still dancing in my body. which usually means im going to stop into the 7-11 and have myself a slurpee and hot-dog which is always thoroughly regretted in the morning. however, this particular evening i decided to “treat” myself to a something a bit “better” from the 24 hour “restaurant” in which the menu ranges from gyros to a slab of barbecue ribs.
i step into the spot and two tables of guys are enjoying their own late night after-party feast. as i crossed the room toward the counter, the place fell silent and i felt the eyes following me. at that moment i remembered what i was wearing [earlier in the evening it was a friends “trunk show” party at a trendy logan square vintage shop (read: hipster as fuck). i dressed the scene and queered it to my satisfaction. but what worked in that space was a bit dicey in the late night food establishment, which is actually across the street from my apartment building]: black jeggings, jean cut-off shorts over the jeggings, a plaid button-up, tie, and striped sweater. it was the lower half of me that was the attention-getter. i always forget that when i wear my black jeggings with my black ankle boots, it looks as if im wearing black thigh-high boots (circa, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). whereas back in logan square i was complemented for my layered and patterned look of the evening, the boys in the place where i wanted my burger created a tense scene in which for the first time in awhile all notions of queer safety were thrown into the air.
i walked out the spot, burger in hand, just a few strides from my apartment door but one of the table of boys followed me out. i could hear some laughter and snide remarks behind me as I reached in my purse (oh yeah, i had one of them on too) searching for my box cutter. my usual move when a group of loud guys or obnoxious white folk are walking behind me is to step aside and let them pass, but I got distracted because the box-cutter wasn’t in its usual pocket and i noticed yet another group of loud/obnoxious guys coming down the street toward me (the hazards of living so close to Loyola’s campus).
and there i was standing at the corner, waiting for the walk signal, which had become an intersection of jokes from behind and awkward stares from ahead. and as I repaint the scene, i laugh at myself because standing on that corner with those pseudo thigh-high boots, i probably looked like a hooker. and in the midst of all the chaos a chicago police SUV rode up and stopped at the light. still not feeling safe i continued to reach around in my bag for my box-cutter.
i made it home last night without incident. enjoyed my burger and thoroughly regretted it in the morning. and as i sit and recount the scene from last night, im also contemplating what i will wear to meet this guy for drinks tonight (not in the sense of what’s fashionable, but in the sense of how safe do i want to look). and im kind of hoping he will pick someplace queer because i just got new jeans and they may be a bit tight for the straight crowd. im also wondering how much of this scene can i talk about with this date over drinks? will he understand my choice in fashion or secretly write me off as too feminine? will he reply at least the police were there? or can i have a conversation with him about how i hate the police and i’d just as much cut them as i would have the boys on the street? will his answer for my safety be: “you could live in Boystown.”
And again im running late, because I chose to write this post.
surprisingly this is not simply because i am in chicago. i found this same problem when i was back in cali:
when i tell people what i’m interested in studying (Black queers) and my current research project (queer-history making and the slave archive) (and of course i don’t simply respond: “Black queers and queer history-making and the slave archive,” its a little more elaborate than that) people always refer me to Dwight McBride or E. Patrick Johnson. And yeah, because I am in Chicago now… that referral has gone into overdrive.
I politely nod my head and secretly roll my eyes. no disrespect to their work, but there are many more scholars doing much more interesting work on queer theory/Black queer theory/ Black sexuality, etc.
a quick rundown of some of the peeps i read, learn from, and engage:
*this list is by no means exhaustive, just a quick list of interesting people/work everyone should be paying attention to.
**perhaps im not only single because im running late to a date because i took the time to post this. perhaps with this post i can now for sure cross Northwestern off my list to apply to. but again, i say no disrespect to their work! but there are other folks working on the issues im interested in.
a) because i am taking the time to write this post. which will be quickly followed by another post of a random thought.
b) because I was thinking of West Hollywood. and I was wondering what the “stop-and-frisk” stats would be for that city in comparison to the national stats and/or the other queer-cities in the country.
c) i got out the shower and proceeded to look up the stats, which apparently are not terribly easy to find. i got sidetracked and began looking up prison abolition efforts in the chicago area.
d) i thought some more on the “stop-and-frisk” tactics. basically my question is: what is the relationship between Black bodies in queer spaces and the specific policing of said queer spaces? i chose West Hollywood because I’m most familiar with that area, and to my understanding it is the only queer-neighborhood that is an actual incorporated city.
but tonight i learned it does not have its own police department, rather it is under control of the LA Sheriff’s department: which that website is a beast of its own to locate information.
e) i will probably talk about this random thought, loose research question, and quick google search with the “boy of the evening” and well, while policing and Blackness conversations excite me, they don’t make good ‘second date’ topics.
“One of the defining features of contemporary political and intellectual culture remains this metaphoric transfer that appropriates black suffering as the template for non-black grievances, while it misrecognizes the singularity of black struggles against racial slavery and what Loic Wacquant calls its ‘functional surrogates’ or what Hartman terms its ‘afterlife’.”—Jared Sexton, “‘The Curtain of the Sky’: An Introduction,” in Critical Sociology (2010), pg. 15
I’m a little tired of these Occupy LA folks (almost all white and definitely all non-black) clogging up my Facebook feed with these cries about the “pigs descending on them!” If only Black folks ever had an advance warning that the police were “descending on them” with the intent to do bodily…
There are some things that just come right on-time. Can’t really explain it. Can never rush it. No need to wait for it. It just comes. Much like this Lost Blaze mix of Jill Scott’s “Its Better.” Eight minutes and twelve seconds of a spiritual experience that I’m having in this coffee shop, playing on repeat. Listen-feel-smile-repeat. Click the link and let the sound be the track for this reading.
When people speak of the “the Black community” I’m never quite sure what they are talking about. All I know is they are most likely not thinking of what I’m thinking when I hear “Black community”—the collection of slaves with no place in this world roaming around in need of belonging, but not quite belonging anywhere. Ah, the beloved Black community. However, I do find a certain sense of peace/piece conversing, energizing, and just being with other Black folks. When the revolt happens, I want to be around people that would seemingly most likely be ready to get down with get down (or at least the people I care to convince to get on down). Despite that void (the void as constituent to the only reason why I find some notion of piece/peace in looking across a room and finding a Black face—a certain shared “culture” of violence and captivity) my spirit is getting in touch with some other spirits from the same tribe. As Audre Lorde reminds us, the “Black community” is not some big vat of homogenized chocolate milk. We are a very different people, with very different “cultures,” yet we all share that essence of violence and captivity. But sometimes, things just come right on time; much like a reciprocated crush, or finding money on the street, or for a select few: seeing a pig bleed. As I meet folks here in Chicago, I feel “freer” than I ever have, and some of these people have really been healing/teaching me, ‘speaking to the burnings of the my soul.’ Let me introduce y’all to someone: I met Desla through a crazy set of circumstances, but quickly learned she is someone from my tribe. And I use “tribe” in a certain spiritual sense. Again, I’m not sure what people mean when they say “the Black community,” but I understand the collection of bodies narrated by a specific history and situation. Whether that narrative is viewed through a lens of “triumph,” “rebellion,” or “defeat” is not the argument I wish to engage now. Rather I speak of “tribe” as my own spiritual coping mechanism. A body severed from all claims of heritage, place, and space, seems to be in perpetual search of (be)longing. I have no answers (or redress) for that body, but I can dare to name and write my coping into existence. I can’t explain it, but there is a certain groove, rhythm, and comfort my soul gets when I meet certain people that I can exchange a life affirming energy with. And Desla came dancing into my life right on time.
About two weeks into my adventure in Chicago, I was lucky enough to stumble across the Earth Pearl Collective (EPC). This is a group of queer Black women who host a monthly variety show at Hamburger Mary’s in Andersonville. I’ve pretty much devoted the rest of my first Monday’s of the month to being at this show, so for those of you reading this in the Chicago area, you should be there too. It was at this show, that I first heard the voice! Desla opened her mouth and goosebumps rose on my arms. I can’t even adequately describe the tone and artistry in her, so y’all just have to come on out and hear her for yourselves. And the sister was slangin’ her self-made jewelry on the side of the stage, so you know I was real intrigued (my ear piercings are healing up, it’s a time to rock something fabulous). I was lucky enough to speak with Desla in depth after the second variety show I attended hosted by EPC. This meeting may or may not have been sparked through me blacking out at the bar after the show and leaving my phone, scarf, and earrings I had bought off her at the venue. However, that’s neither here nor there, what matters is that we vibed, and I got lost in her dance, so I write our connection into account here, now.
Desla is an artist. She started musical theater in 1999 working with Legacy Theater, which was a company dedicated to preserving the history of African-American music. Her first show was a tribute to Phyllis Hyman (ensemble and Jill Scott). She is trained in gospel, and raised on the vocal styles of the blues. We talked a bit about our shared love for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Koko Taylor. Her most current work is with Erasing the Distance, a non-profit arts organization that uses the power of performance to spark dialogues around issues of mental health. Desla credits the work she does with this group as some of the most amazing work she has done in her career, “I have really grown as an actor” she states, “The monologues I perform are real, real like the actual human language rather than the manicured style I’m used too.” The group takes real life accounts from individuals ‘suffering’ with mental health issues and turns them into the monologue pieces that they use to spark the much-needed dialogue. My use of the scare quotes is sparked by the dialogue we had regarding those often deemed crazy, “there is certain honesty, an ability or desire to speak out, that the people I work with, perform for, attempt to capture, have in their lives” she states.
negrosunshine: so in other words, there’s a certain freedom in the insanity?
Desla: Yes! We live in a society that is always trying to suppress the emotional self and run away from the freedom to express. We deem these people we see as “crazy” and never question, what is going on to make them speak out? We are in a society that is over-stimulated with drugs and what not and we are perpetuating emotional illness, emotional abuse. We just need to let go sometime.
negrosunshine: find a place in the insanity… to sit in that freedom and know its alrite.
Desla is a mother. Her son Donavan is 13 years old, “I gave birth to a revolutionary, and he defies all odds, but I see I’m raising a little monster as well,” she states. And over this I could bond with her and through her, with Donavan.
Being raised to be outspoken can often turn on the parents; a rebellious spirit should be cultivated, but it doesn’t always make for an obedient child: my ass and a few belts, switches, an occasional extension cord, a seat-belt, and an AKA paddle can attest to this. Like me, Donavan has very expansive ideas and wants to do everything, but Desla is there to show him, much like Vanessa showed me: “you can do everything, with a little balance.” She defined her role as mother as “showing him when to use his weaponry.” And I don’t want those reading this to rely on age old tropes of Black women in painting their picture of Desla, or my mom for the matter—Black women raising the revolutionary men and sending them off into the battle. Nah, that weapon training comes from experts of the tools (and no, not the Masters tools). Desla is a warrior, and my spirit is trying to dance right on along next to hers.
Last Friday I was lucky enough to join her at the Black Friday Frolic, a “House” party at a warehouse studio on Chicago’s Southside. This was really good y’all. Being in a room surrounded by good-looking Black folk ranging from 20s to 50s, grooving. I danced from 12am till 415am nonstop! “If House was a man, we’d probably be married” Desla states. And I understand her! I’m going to have to save my writing on House for a different post, I haven’t yet quite figured out a way to capture what happens in this space. But for those of you still reading, click repeat on the link I posted at the beginning and let the groove carry you out!
“House is my music! Its my church! My savior!”
“There’s a trauma we bring to it, and in the House music and dance, we can meditate”
“I don’t drink because the House is my alcohol”
Desla Epison was born and raised in Chicago. She is the owner and designer of Desla’s Creation, a project of turning junk jewelry into wearable jewelry. Donate and shop for your next piece! I’ll be rocking my earrings while getting lost in the grooves of the dance.