A central tenant of modern feminist thought has been the assertion that “all women are oppressed.” This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women. Sexism as a system of domination is institutionalized, but it has never determined in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society. Being oppressed means the absence of choices. It is the primary point of contact between the oppressed and the oppressor. Many women in this society do have choices (as inadequate as they are), therefore exploitation and discrimination are words that more accurately describes the lot of women collectively in the United States.
- bell hooks, “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory”
Derogatory terms do not mean; they assault. Their intention is not to communicate but to harm. Thus they are not discursive signs or linguistic statements but modes of aggression. They express a structure of power and domination, a hierarchy that contextualizes them and gives them their force.
- Steve Martinot and Jared Sexton, “The Avant-Garde of White Supremacy”
I have long contemplated my relationship with Black feminism. My understanding of it, my hostility toward the way it reorients things, my reliance on its strong explanatory power, my exploitation of its unique ability to ground arguments in radical shifts toward acknowledgement of the anti-Black world, and my tenuous inabilities to actually capture, sit-in, or experience the Black feminist perspective.Which is to say, or perhaps attempt to address, a certain tension between theorizing and progressing Revolution and being situated at or embodying the locus of complete abjection. Where ontology meets a particular lived experience, and the two dance a two-step of death, only to be broken by a kick-ball-change of rape, violence, and silence. I choose my words carefully, for at this moment, it is only these words I have to get my point across, to reach my reader (if only myself) and we meditate on an understanding of our condition. Too often I’ve been at odds with people surrounding choices in language, trying to understand exactly what is meant when things are said to or at me, as well as defending my own positions because of lazy attempts at humor or colloquialism or at my best moments: unflinching stances against racist heteropatriarchy. But what I always fall back on is an interrogation of conversations (and I do not escape my own investigations), trying to capture or document the intricacies of power—where the discursive reveals, conjures, and rest upon my own or others relations to power. This has been made possible through the opening sentence of this statement: I have long contemplated my relationship with Black feminism.
At this point, I don’t recall whether it was by happenstance or if someone pointed me in the direction, but when I was beginning a development of consciousness surrounding sexual identity and sexual politics, Audre was there. I remember long days spent with the Sister Outsider collection and thinking through notions of “difference” and theorizing and acting from the margins. Trying to understand and deal with my own position in activist spaces, classrooms, work environments, and personal relationships. I look back on that time as a great moment in my political development, personal growth, and academic grounding, but also as a dark time of misreadings, abuses, and bad-faith advancements of self (and a particular position) founded upon a specific relationship to power left unexamined. Held as one of the founding documents of radical Black feminism, the “Combahee River Collective Statement” (1977) purports Black feminism emerging in response to the failures of racist white feminism and sexist Black Nationalism. The Statement demands an intersectional analysis that accounts for the ways in which race, gender, class, and sexuality intersect in the lives of Black women.In its view Black feminism was the logical conclusion for those who sought a framework that was inclusive of all women. And many critics have pointed to the “problems” of the Statement; taking issue at points in the document that imply only Black women could be Black feminist. And in that tension I situated myself at odds with its purpose and in need of its analysis. At that particular point in my consciousness raising, there was no voice quite as pronounced as that of radical Black feminist scholar-activists. They resonated with me as I had grown up with the teachings and love of my mother, grandmother, aunties, cousins, and a few family friends I claimed as my sister. And my experience of growing up as a feminine queer boy put myself at odds a lot with my father, grandfather, uncles, cousins, and a few family friends I claimed as brothers. Which is not to say I found my place with women and not men. Rather, my relationship to maleness was complex and upon reading Lorde and her company of Black feminist it became easy to conflate their relationship to patriarchal power with my relationship to the feminine and sexual identity. And their plight against racist White feminism and sexist Black Nationalism was misread as a universalizing battle for the Black sexual deviant. Putting stock in the critique of the Combahee River Collective Statement, but also understanding the valiance of a vertical understanding of oppression, I made Coltrane-styled ‘giant steps’ toward applying myself as a “Black feminist” and acting in manner as if I suffer just like them, all the while quoting Black feminist for their unique perspective from the bottom of the hierarchy. Which was a struggle on a political level, how does one organize a bottom-up strategy without knowing what it means to be on the bottom?
I remember Audre. She spoke unapolegtically Black, feminist, and queer. And perhaps gave me a glimpse of the location I should be organizing from, but somewhere along that consciousness raising, experiences became intertwined in such a way that I lost her, and I lost myself as well. I have chosen not to reproduce any Audre Lorde quotes here because of the way I see her overly used, often taken out of context, and the weight of her words often ignored toward a preservation of the one who wields her words. All mistakes I made myself: when I needed to point attention to race inside of queer spaces I spoke Lorde; when I needed to make a queer point in Black spaces, I spoke Lorde. Largely ignoring the unique specificity she was speaking to and from as that of the Black queer female position, thereby casting myself at the locus of racist, sexual oppression: an authority I assumed through speaking from my own experience which was validated on the back of Black feminism. Of course this (I hope) unforgiving meditation on my relationship with Black feminism is an attempt at an apology, but not a call to put down the tenants of Black feminism(s), particularly radical Black feminism if one is not centrally located in that two-step of death, only to be broken by a kick ball change of rape, violence, and silence. Instead, I hope this becomes a moment to (continue to) reflect on the radical potential within Black feminist analysis and reevaluate the ways in which certain discursive moves fleet away from Black women, while claiming the tenants of Black feminism.
Toward a radical queer critique, spoken by Black males, that doesn’t displace Black women.
A good friend sent me the video link I post here now on negrosunshine. I watched it the other night and was excited to see the three men featured in the short documentary were here in the Chicago area at DePaul University AND talking a good game around issues of gender and sexuality (if anyone knows these guys, hit me up! I would love to sit down with them and talk more). And overall I thought the video was an interesting look at the word “faggot” and the gay-male relationship with the feminine. And while I will take the risk of sounding overly critical, I want to point to a few discursive strategies in the production and the responses of the participants that inspired me to write.
The first instance that revealed contradictions in the intent of the film and the way it was laboring came at 1:14. Zach explains that he is often the target of hate due to his sexuality and the camera pans down to his shoes. The quick glimpse of his boots can be misunderstood as displaying “girl shoes,” which links the hate Zach receives to his performance of femaleness, or a transgression against gender norms. An interesting shot, which I thought/hoped would open the discussion into the complex relationship between gender and queer identity. However, the conversation is cut to Kylon who announces he does not experience the same treatment as Zach, despite wearing his “lady Uggs” around campus. The three men discuss fashion, and the screen goes black with a title shot reading “5 minutes later,” implicating the three gay men with accepted stereotypes of women and fashion, women and shopping, women and shoes. Which one could read as a now accepted gay male stereotype, but we must keep in mind the ways in which gay male stereotypes are often used to effeminize gay males, thereby linking them with something innately female (inferior)—the inner workings of heteropatriarchy.While the film’s overall intent was giving voice to gay males, it rested on a power tied to patriarchy that largely went uninterrogated.
The title of the film is “The Power of Faggot,” which in and of itself leaves the reader/viewer (pre-screening) largely open to interpretation. A ‘reclamation versus abandonment’ argument immediately comes to mind, and one is left to ponder, what is the power of “faggot?” I tend to leave these conversations alone because I myself can’t even commit to one side of the debate and speaking on the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality I am guilty of using nigger, bitch, and faggot…often. However, what always shakes me to my core and causes me to reflect on my uses of language is the second epigraph of this post. Sexton and Martinot aptly point us to the power inscribed inside of language, specifically derogatory terms. When the terms enter conversation, whether or not they have insulted someone, they always assault certain positions, because they reveal, conjure, and rest upon ‘a structure of power and domination.’ And while this film attempts to dance with this argument, it falls secondary to its labor of linking sexual identity with gender-bending, and a conflation of the feminine with gay male transgression. In a nine minute video about the word “faggot” a discussion of the word does not commence until two minutes in, on the foundation of “lady Uggs” and “switching of the hips.”
The second major issue I found was the respondents’ use of certain language that signaled a homogenization of sexual deviants despite the intent of their message of intersectionality. Kylon and Zach’s use of the term “sisters” and John’s use of the word “oppression” revealed an understanding of Black feminism while also displacing a reference point that could adequately speak to/from a site of oppression. And this critique is by no means made to disregard the intent of their message, but rather made in a ‘spirit of solidarity’ as an analysis of the discursive toward an articulation of a radical queer position. How do queers, particularly Black queer men, think through relationships to the feminine in the face of Black female subjectivity? What reveals itself in our notions of gender and sexuality when solidarity rest upon uses of “sisterly” bonds? Perhaps our difficulty in answering further reveals itself in our thoughts on the word “oppression.” In the leading epigraph of this post, bell hooks points us to the uses of language, much like Sexton and Martinot, but explicitly takes a bold step in highlighting certain positions that are conjured when we rely on generally accepted terms. The ‘absence of choices’ hooks speaks of is quite the position to be in, and my experiences in activist spaces, the classroom, and personal relationships reveal I may not know what it means to be without choices. But conversations on oppression, at their best, point to differences in experiences, “your oppression is not like mine,” but rarely take that radical leap toward, “you are my oppressor.” And if we accept hooks logic, can there be a position void of choices, yet wrapped with the ability to oppress? Perhaps here I open myself up to the same critique made of the Combahee River Collective Statement: “only Black women can be Black feminist?” An answer to that question I do not possess, and maybe it’s not even my place to attempt a solution. Rather I want to point to the ways in which discursive strategies work to do harm, and how we desperately need a language of Revolution.
As I said earlier, I hope this article sparks a moment of reflection and further conversation, because holes in our tactics won’t bring about the liberation many of us are searching for. And I’m not the first to make this call. I remember Audre (and many before and after her). To harken: what is the theory behind racist liberalism? Or essentializing queerness?Or perhaps more aptly, what is the benefit of radical thought with blind-spots in its analysis of power?
i was shakinnnnnnn and grinnnnnnndin and groo00o0ooovin down at The Shrine.
Fela, the musical was in town and it was the opening party. drummers were drummin, tambourine man was workin his tambourine, getting dance circles started the way he does. house beats were thumpin across the room… you know that chicago house bass line when it drops. and there was free food! the jerk chicken was spicy, the cabbage was melting in my mouth, and those goddamn plantains—had me feening.
anyway, i made eye contact with a boy. he was in show and he was looking real cute swagged out with his beanie and cute frames. you know that game when you stare from the across the room, quick glances to make sure the other person is looking at you. or you shuffle your way into their direct line of sight and stand there staring at your phone. you go to the bathroom, not because you have to, but you know you can put that walk on that holds attention. enticing not so subtle looks as you cross and exit the room. yeah, all that was going down.
but i never talked to him. laziness. or comfort in the fact i know he was staring at me, and he knows i was staring at him. and i know the show was only in chicago till saturday, and i know he’s from new york, so what’s the point of walking through a room of perfectly fine ass chicago prospects to engage a fleeting hello and goodbye?
or maybe i just got scared. brother was pretty fly.
so i went home that night. alone and feeling sanctified, the music had been right, the food was nice, and dancing always feeds my soul. woke up the next morning, got my shit together for work and headed on the train, redline going north.
a few stops in to my commute, in steps that fly ass boy, cute frames, same beanie, looking dapper in the morning light. AND THE NIGGA WALKS STRAIGHT UP TO ME!!! oh my oh my. “weren’t you at the party last night?” he asks. i smile and say yes, and we begin to kick it. quick words on how he’s headed to check out Luna Negra Dance Company, and i’m off to my boring ass job slaving away for capital (not that i said that, it was just what i was thinking when i said “im headed to work”). we rapped until he had to exit the train. he grabbed my hand, shook it, and let it linger just enough to exchange our vibes. i smiled, and said goodbye.
and thats it. i didn’t even catch his name. but i bet it was something sweet.
* i was googling some info about Alvin Ailey, and this post was one of the links! fair warning: this post has NOTHING to do with Alvin Ailey. However, it is as relevant today as it was the day i wrote it.
its quite funny the way the spirits work.
friday night before i headed out to dance, i got caught on tumblr in a conversation with howtobenoladarling. we briefly discussed the way in which skin tone, colorism, and antiBlackness operate in conversations surrounding the “valuing” of “light skin” and the humorous nature in day-to-day rhetoric focused on standards of Black beauty. i took a somewhat defensive tone in the conversation because of my own “light skin” and my experiences in spaces where whiteness is the pinnacle of beauty (the world) and light skin could be used as an ?advantage?… not quite the argument adrian piper makes surround the notion of “passing,” but something similar in nature. and here i pull specifically from my experiences in queer and hipster spaces.
so, last night i was out dancing again! it was a hipster club down in wicker park. the DJ was spinnin’ right and the whiskey had me actin right! i was standing in line waiting for the bathroom when i was approached by a hipster white man, late twenties, who had been on the arm of what i am assuming was his partner. he breaks from his other white hipster man, walks up to me and slurs, “i thought you were so cute until i realized you were Black”
i wasn’t really caught off guard in the situation, i think there were only about five Blacks in the room of about 200, so a racist comment was bound to be either uttered at some point, or wrapped in an awkward stare or two. i just thought it was so interesting that it would come bound to notions of beauty and passing, right after i just had a conversation with someone about that very issue.
unaware that i even had the option of passing, i was outed as Black at some point in this man’s mind and he just had to tell me! how dare i be cute and Black and in this space! and what was a drunk utterance for him, was a painful reminder of the weight of this world (his world) on my body. *warning: moment of tooting my own horn coming* perhaps my bomb ass body, and cute face (im laughing at me too right now) rival the european standard of beauty. and just maybe my keen sense of style, which is largely a product of my class privilege/ambitions, allow me to navigate certain spaces Black people just don’t belong in (flash to an Alvin Ailey piece in which the chant “Black people dance at home” replays in the background). however, “i thought you were so cute until i realized you were Black,” 12 quick words, brought in the truth of positions, he could make claims in me that i could never make in him. my body was open to his use until he ruled it non-beneficial, or the world wouldn’t allow it. of course i could easily walk up to white people and say “i thought you were cute until i realized you were white” (and perhaps i should, might offer momentary giggles and smiles to spring from me), the BIG DIFFERENCE is that his words really matter. they mean something. they have thousands of years of violence behind them, and an access to the state that would qualify his statement as a valid emotion. how dare i be cute and Black and in this space!
and there is where the dilemma arrives. i can dance and drink whiskey as much as i fuckin want, but when are we going to start producing the violence that would defend me in a situation where Blackness is tossed in my face like a brick across my head? and if my “community” can’t get over this light v. dark battle, perhaps when i open my ‘for Black by Black’ gun-shop, ill put a tanning bed in the back!
I’ve been getting lost in the best possible ways. And I’m slowly coming to realize I don’t know shit about being Black and queer. To be a Black queer, queer and Black, queerly Black or even the Blackest queer. But it’s lovely and a great revelation to come about as I slowly but surely realize what it means to be an adult, financially (ir)responsible, independent, and in/out of control. And it’s okay and a great adventure to go through in a new city where cold winds blow and make me want to stay in and write my heart away. Where I question, what do I write about? Not prose on where’s the revolution, but who, or perhaps what, is my revolutionary subject? Not a new thought process, especially for you who offers me so much love and encouragement when I write things here on negrosunshine, but like I said, I’ve been getting lost. Here are some rambles on the matter:
I recently moved to the Southside from the far Northside. And I couldn’t make it up if I tried: the first day after I moved in, I was coming off the train (the redline at 35th-Sox) and an older Black woman made eye contact with me. She began to inform me about how they don’t care about us. Her attention turned north to a view of the downtown Chicago. I nodded my head in agreement, though unclear about what exactly she was referring to. She exclaimed, “they call us crooks and heathens, and there they are, just as crooked as the devil,” she pointed toward the skyline. I began to laugh and nod along in full agreement. It was a nice beginning to my stay on the Southside, which I must admit is an adjustment from my comfortable Northside living over the past year and half. I’m quickly learning how difficult it is to access the city (where I work and tend to play) from the South. Public transportation is not the easiest to navigate with infrequent bus routes and inconvenient walks to train lines. A difference of night and day compared to where I was before. But I adjust, and find comfort in the fact Black folk standing on street corners will proclaim their frustration to the city.
I had a conversation with a dear friend, one of those conception-shattering conversations that happen unexpectedly and linger in your thoughts long past the initial interaction.
I struggle with gender pronouns, which is a shame because I find myself not only hanging around, but especially attracted to trans individuals. And this is what the conversation centered around.
Shortly after I moved to Chicago I met this person; someone I read as female, but fit a masculine aesthetic that I had grown attracted to (considering my last “relationship” before leaving California was with a trans-man in which we were able to explore sexualities and desires with, though in the end I found it too short-lived and somewhat unfinished). Though, when I got to Chicago, “She” and I vibed immediately, and one lovely night the whiskey got to working right and our energies connected and we almost ended up home together. *pause for thoughts on the greatness that could have been.* But we’ve both agreed, not going home together was for the best because of the great friendship that has been born out of our interaction. I learned my friend is two-spirited and I should refer to them outside of normal gender constructions. I struggle with it: assigning female pronouns every now and again, hearing it roll of my tongue unable to capture and contain the violence of assigning and normativity. But I work on it.
We talked about sexuality, and what it means for me to have a genuine attraction to somewhat masculine presenting queer females, or more specifically what I have referred to in the past as “Bad-ass Black lesbians.” And yes, I have had a few sexual encounters with some, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
I have a somewhat feminine spirit and my friend admitted that that is what probably attracted them to me in the first place. *pause for how queer things can get.*But what does it mean for me who identifies as male, and positions my political framework largely behind a banner of a Black man whose primary love interest is in men? I’ve always proclaimed the fluidity of sexuality and been able to hold conversations to the affirmative, but I’m finding more and more, in the fluidity there is mystery and vagueness. A mystery and vagueness I am learning to humble myself before and proclaim: I do not know.
I’ve been working for the past two with an old friend from high-school. He’s a choreographer in New York, currently in town setting a piece of original work at the Joffrey Ballet. He told me his piece was about Black women, my interest peaked. A ballet choreographed by a Black dancer (queer Black man) about Black women? He quickly changed to “women-of-color” due to the lack of Black dancers at the Joffrey. Disappoinment filled my sense of what was going on. I soon realized he knew very little about Black women, or Black feminism, or the particular plight of his soloist, the sole Black dancer in his cast. I stepped in, and have been having wonderful conversations with him about Blackness and what it means for him to be doing this piece at the Joffrey, and why there is such hostility. I have been pushing him to really comprehend and identify the subject of his piece, and question why he chose Black women, what is the focus?
Subsequently I’ve gotten a side job writing for him. He allowed me to write his program note, press release, and I’m working on a poem for him about his piece. Rest assured, it’s about to get real Black at the Joffrey Ballet.
I’m still here my friend. Thank you for reaching out. I’m still Black, queer, and exploring. Sometimes I just need to experience before I pick up my writing.
people often ask me if i’m religious or spiritual. i lean toward the latter, but in truth i believe whole heartedly in the healing properties of “Send It On” by D’Angelo.
earlier this evening i was riding the bus home, and “Send It On” popped up on my shuffle. about half-way through, my shoulders began to shrug on their own accord, my eyes rolled back, and my head began to sway side to side. i think my leg even began to quiver.
it wasn’t until the song was over that i realized what was going on. to anyone riding the 147 north tonight up Lake Shore, no i was not having an orgasm, or a stroke, “Send It On” by D’Angelo was playing. it was a spiritual experience.
“We think long-term monogamous partnerships are valid and beautiful ways of structuring and experiencing family, but we don’t see them as any more inherently valuable or legitimate than the many other family structures. We believe in each individual and family’s right to live their queer identity however they find meaningful or necessary, including when that means getting married. However, the consequences of the fight for legal inclusion in the marriage structure are terrifying. We’re seeing queer communities fractured as one model of family is being hailed and accepted as the norm, and we are seeing queer families and communities ignore and effectively work against groups who we see as natural allies, such as immigrant families, poor families, and families suffering from booming incarceration rates. We reject the idea that any relationship based on love should have to register with the state. Marriage is an institution used primarily to consolidate privilege, and we think real change will only come from getting rid of a system that continually doles out privilege to a few more, rather than trying to reform it. We know that most families, straight or gay, don’t fit in with the standards for marriage, and see many straight families being penalized for not conforming to the standard the government has set: single moms trying to get on welfare, extended family members trying to gain custody, friends kept from being each other’s legal representatives. We have far more in common with those straight families than we do with the kinds of gay families that would benefit from marriage. We are seeing a gay political agenda become single-issue to focus on marriage and leave behind many very serious issues such as social, economic, and racial justice.”