By Tav Nyong’o
One of my favorite albums growing up was the soundtrack to the reggae classic The Harder They Come, and I loved in particular the song “By The Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians. It’s lyrics adapt Psalms 19 and 137, which lament the bondage of the Israelites, and issue an ethical challenge that continues to haunt makers, documenters, and critics of black performance to this day:
For the wicked carried us away captivity
Require from us a song
How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?
In words a seven year old can understand, this sung lyric performatively stages the constitutive ambivalence of coerced performance. How can we sing when we are oppressed? How can we sing when that singing is required by our oppressors? How can we sing without somehow colluding in our oppression in a strange and hostile land?
One might think this question is paradoxical or beside the point: if you don’t want to, or can’t, sing for in a strange land, then why are you? But if you dwell on the question a little, if you let the song settle into you, I think you will see that the question only makes sense if you are singing it. It only resonates when couched in the very idiom it challenges. It is a question about complicity that is immanent to the scene of complicity. Singing or not, we remain strangers in a strange land.
Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic work of new queer cinema, screened at Prospect Park over Pride weekend, before a crowd through which the day’s news of gay marriage for all was rippling. Sometimes one is lucky enough to be in the right place and time to hear the hinge of history turn. There in the heart of gentrified Brooklyn, on the day the president eulogized the slain in Charleston, all kinds of queers and othered gathered in a park, and there was an opportunity to wrestle with the ways we are and aren’t one community. Park Slope lesbians and Bushwick hipsters, socialists and liberals, homeless youth and homeownersexuals. Black, Asian, Jewish, Latino, and possibly a transracial or two. The defiantly and the demurely gender nonconformist. Transgender and not, people of color and people of pallor, all gathered to watch a film that is now 24 years old (in one more year, it will be able to legally rent a car).
When this public screening was announced earlier this spring, a vehement internet campaign arose against the program, which featured no living members of the ball community. It quickly extended to screenings of the film itself, which are seen by some as furthering exploitation and catering to a white gaze. Why should the filmmakers continue to be lauded, critics demanded, and continue to profit off the lives and creativity of the film’s subjects, many of whom died in poverty of HIV/AIDS-related causes? In response to criticism, the original opening act for the film backed out, and, after several days of impassioned and sometimes vituperative exchanges on social media, Celebrate Brooklyn announced it was going back to the drawing board.
Paris is Burning is a film that, over the years, has remained a flashpoint of the very issues it sought to document and explore: racism and self-worth; transphobia and transgender worldmaking; families of origin and families of choice. The dreamworlds of work and ambition, opulence and violence, in New York City, circa 1987. It has drawn its share of detractors over the years, most famously in an impassioned but problematic takedown by bell hooks. Not stopping at faulting director Livingstone for exploiting her subjects, hooks criticized the ball children for embracing aspirational class, racial, and gender status in a white heterosexual capitalist patriarchal society. I was unpersuaded by this critique when I first read it over twenty years ago. It seemed to me elevate hooks’ personal reaction to the status of a representative feminist of color reaction, but this failed to account for the incredible thrill the film gave me and so many queers of color around me, despite our ambivalence. It also completely shortchanged the aesthetic merits of the film itself, which are substantial.
I came away from this and other critical reactions to the film thinking that it is always best to try to walk a mile in someone else’s pumps before you criticize how they choose to survive oppressive conditions. A more useful, if unfortunately less circulated, analysis came from Phillip Brian Harper, who pointed out that the real problem lay neither with the filmmaker nor her subjects, but with the economic and racial conditions that precluded working class people of color from making their own films, and thereby realizing the full benefits of creative control over their own community and art forms.
Harper’s critique has grown newly relevant in the intervening decades, as a technological revolution in communication has brought the means of representation into the hands of a wider and wider population of producers (albeit under highly problematic terms, as any student of new media knows). It has also changed our expectations of documentaries like Paris if Burning. Webcams and Reality TV have increasingly inured us to the idea that broadcasting our daily lives is a potential revenue stream, if only we make that life interesting/outrageous/abject enough. In this new environment, I suggest, in which performance is almost a default setting for everyone, a film like Paris is Burning just feels different than it once did. Octavia St. Laurent’s and Venus Extravaganza’s expectations of celebrity, that once seemed tinged with pathos, now seem like viable career ambitions. Dorian Corey’s world-wise wisdom about the illusions of fame seem to come from a vanished queer world now lost in the glare of mass media visibility. Everyone these days, it seems, is trying to serve executive realness, even actual executives. And to that extent its increasingly hard nowadays to understand the degree to which the film once gripped us as a powerful critique of wealth and fame, and as exemplifying the cultivation of queer and trans worlds as viable alternative modes of sociality. It is one of the many costs of our new incorporation into official national culture that what once looked like radical outsiderhood is now fodder for the latest crop of internet memes and reality show catch-phrases.
The Internet uproar that followed the initial announcement of the Celebrate Brooklyn had at least one positive outcome: the organizers did the outreach they should have done in the first place, brought the ball children to the table, and let their planned evening be upstaged by a Houses United ball. Watching the ball, I did feel the contradiction in having the solution to this performative dilemma be … more performance. Vogueing and walking on the Celebrate Brooklyn stage — welcome as it was — does nothing to transform the real conditions of poverty, racism, and transphobia. Understanding this, some activists are increasingly reluctant to countenance performance for the public in any setting, castigating all circulation of vogueing beyond the ball scene themselves as cultural appropriation. Even a pop star like FKA Twigs, who assiduously credits her dancers, acknowledges herself as a dancer who is learning the form, comes under fire for not being an authentic participant in the culture.
If the Houses United brought to public attention the ongoing vitality of the balls and the houses — reminding us that although many stars of the film have died, their houses are still going strong — it always did so under terms that José Muñoz once termed “the burden of liveness.” This is the burden under which queers of color are expected to perform liveness and vitality under conditions of temporary visibility that erase our histories and futures. This burden need not always weight us down entirely, it need not preclude us from ever singing in a strange land. But I do think a hint of it is always there on even the most glorious and celebratory occasions.
Perhaps it is by understanding Paris is Burning as part of our history that we can shirk the burden of liveness and come to a new appreciation of the film. The film wouldn’t still be controversial, after all, if it weren’t such an enduring classic. It is a testament to the achievement of both Livingston and her subjects that thousands of people would show up, a quarter of a century later, to watch and cheer, many of us having memorized every line. Rather than standing in for ball culture — an unfair expectation of any single film, no matter how amazing — the film could be understand as part of queer history, and specifically part of the ball culture’s history, and even part of its futurity as well.
After all, the widespread success of the original release led to the spread of ball culture beyond its New York City origins. My own first contact was with houses in green leafed Connecticut. Marlon Bailey’s prizewinning study Butch Queen Up in Pumps documents another such regional scene, in Detroit, Michigan. The circulation of ball videos online has led to the dance and culture spreading so far and wide globally that one choreographer, Rashaad Newsome, has called the culture “open source.” The idea that ball culture can and does circulate through open source modes of sharing, exchange, adaptation, and transformation will not please those who feel it to be the exclusive property of the ball children. And certainly, recognizing the open source basis of culture should also not be license to pillage, to take work without credit or compensation, or to only focus on minority culture when it is in the white glare of media hype. But shutting down screenings of the film, or shutting the culture off from outsiders, seems counterproductive in the long run, and overprotective of a culture that thrives precisely due to its own internal strengths.
Its all the more quixotic to seek to protect ball culture from commercial exploitation given how successful the ball scene has been at maintaining itself as a viable underground movement long after many other “subcultures” have burnt out or turned mainstream. Not even as powerfully a commercial force as RuPaul has managed to denature the art form, or alter the terms under which it sustains the communities to which it belongs. Watching the Houses United ball, I was reminded again why that is: while the form is very presentational and solicits the onlooking gaze, it possesses its own internal logic and aesthetic standards, and rarely stops to educate its audience about. To walk a ball is the only real way into the performative logic of vogue and runway, and that seems both right and just. Just because the ball is on display, just because a dancer is in your video or at your concert, it doesn’t mean that everything is on display. The right to opacity, as the poet Edouard Glissant put it, is still maintained (Teju Cole discusses Glissant’s theory of opacity here.)
The status of the ball as a rite of opacity was underlined to me at one point when the commentator told the audience: “If you don’t get the secret, well then, that’s the secret!” I knew what they meant, and I was okay with not knowing entirely what they meant. I knew the children were not walking for me, even if I was there and privileged to watch. If the wish to be in on the secret is part of what keeps the cool hunters forever sniffing around the ball scene, trying to break off and cash in on an iota of its glamor, the public performance and dramatic display of the openness of the secret is what keeps them clueless and forever guessing.