despite my post college financial insecurities and the fact my three degrees in political science. art history. and african american studies (not listed in order of importance) are so abstract it qualifies me to work in pretty much nothing except the field of academia. i quit my non-academic full time job today and traded in my benefits to (in the romantic answer) sit in this coffee shop in the middle of the day and read and write. or (in the unromantic answer) i quit because it was a job made horrible by a number of factors, mostly constructed by issues of race, class, and sexuality. and while i knew my side career in the world of fashion and retail would be no comfortable space for a radical black queer writer/activist, rent needed to be paid and working various jobs as a stylist and visual merchandiser has proven something im good at and gives me an outlet to release some of my creativity. with a full understanding there is no “safe space” in an anti-black world, a loose form of toleration becomes a tool of survival, and an unsteady peace can be found in the silence of non-response. but there is only so much a black queer can take. or something on the matter of what happens to a black student activist trained in critical black studies trying to make it in the world without getting arrested (again).
when i was working as a student activist and community organizer, my comrades and i found ourselves (more than we wanted to) having to explain, speak to, and testify against the micro-aggressions of anti-Black violence—those spirit injuring qualities of Black everyday living. though we found ourselves center stage, celebrated, and given “support” during high times of anti-black racism (“nigger” incidents, nooses hung, acts of police brutality[i], etc.) it was difficult getting our environment to reckon its ‘latent anti-blackness,’ or the fact just being Black is stressful enough. we racked our brains to the point of insanity coming up with nuanced ways of addressing the invisibility of Blackness while at the same time defending ourselves and “community” against the hypervisibility of Blackness. a task much better fought in numbers than alone. and here i find myself, on the streets of chicago, largely alone, trying to make a life for myself. running into the same issues of the past and trying to figure out the right strategies of dealing with it. which is a polite way of saying, im trying hard to keep my Nat Turner ambitions at bay and resisting the urge to send out a distress call to my various comrades now scattered throughout the world. and while im positive they are dealing with similar situations, they would laugh at me for this particular form of resistance, i quit, but before i did, i used some waka flaka flame (to perhaps my detriment).
i accepted a position as a visual merchandiser at a downtown corner store with large windows! for those not familiar with the world of retail, this means i had a lot of space for me to create displays in the most focal part of the city. too bad i worked with a bunch of rude racist transphobic white hipsters.
in queer-social spaces, its no secret black queers are not automatically accepted as part of the group. ive learned to deal with that, usually leaning on my middle-classed demeanor. ive written elsewhere on notions of beauty and class in queer spaces and my particular experiences, so i wont hash that out now. but at this new job, i was assumed straight (until one day i wore some short shorts), and in that initial assumption i was deemed outsider, which made for a horrible work environment, largely because white queer boys can be evil brats, particularly when they are hipsters, working in fashion, and ugly (okay, that last one was just me venting and being stupid, but seriously). the black queers i used to organize with would always joke, ‘the world doesn’t think Black-queer, you are either queer or you are Black, and since the Blackness is undeniable, black people can’t be queer.” Well that joke preceded me in my new job, and everything that comes with being Black in the world of fashion followed. there is some really interesting work out there on the position of Black bodies in the world of fashion and im surprised there is not more prominent work done on the relationship between black consumers, criminality, and retail. general assumptions are made concerning theft when Black bodies enter stores, not because Black people generally steal (there is no research to support that), but because Black people are assumed criminal (there is research to support that). this plays out in particular ways concerning my creative job inside stores, and will be something i need to work out without quitting and/or resorting to waka flaka flame.
when i style, or create a look, or come up with a concept, im usually envisioning a Black woman (I work mainly with women’s fashion). what colors, styles, cuts, textures would look good on my sister, friends, mom, aunts, and cousins. further, what looks go with the world i surround myself with on a daily basis. what could i create that would repeatedly flow down my tumblr dashboard? that creates a particular conflict between my coworkers and myself. though i was working at a store where black people shop (not just steal from), my visions of Blackness were deemed irrelevant or suspect, and no amount of queer boy fashion stereotype (in my short shorts) could save me from that shadow. so my sense of fashion, taste, and style was in question (and rest assured it wasn’t because I don’t have style, come see ‘bout me!).
i don’t want this post to become a list of grievances with the job/company i just said bye to. i tendered my resignation to free myself from that burden. just know that after some tortuous days of catty white queer hipster boys, i seized my chance to make them a bit uncomfortable. it was late at night and we were changing around the store for the new spring season. i was in my zone choosing outfits for a display of nine mannequins, lost in the sauce of florals and pastels, someone asked me if i wanted to choose the music for the hour. i looked around as all the boys were watching me, walked up to the computer and thought about erykah or maybe d’angelo, but then i said to myself, i said, “self, lets get real ‘Black’ in here.” i put on waka flaka flame Pandora and turned it up. what i thought would be an interesting moment of awkwardness became a sad show of minstrelsy. two of the white boys knew every word, to every song and censored themselves from the word “nigga” but in a way that let me know, if i wasn’t there, they’d lean into that shit real good.
a few more days of contentious attitudes, and one particular email warning the sales staff to beware of the “trannies.” apparently “trannies” steal, and “trannies” are “African-American males with rough looking faces wearing girls clothes.” i tendered my resignation and here i sit, free to write and search for another job where i will have to keep my Nat Turner ambitions at bay. which doesn’t mean im not keeping them at bay right now.
[i] I paused before adding “police brutality” to this list. Blackness as criminal and criminal as Blackness structures the logic of U.S. policing; that said, the police structure is a day-to-day institution that reimagines, reinvents, and ultimately reinforces the aforementioned statement on the other side of the semicolon. The coupling of Black suffering and police violence is so naturalized that the conditions of possibility (time, space, and attributes) is a gendered race and class calculation when rendering a Black body “victim—” despite the mundaneness of police violence against Black bodies (psyche included). My list was meant to mark those moments deemed “events” in Black suffering, yet my comrades and I pushed back against the rhetoric of “event” and termed them “spectacles,” distractionary moments from the spectacular nature of Black everyday living. My pause comes from a meditation on the mundaneness of police violence and why so few Black bodies get turned in to “victims,” or cause for celebration, protest, and thinking through the institution of policing.