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For Colored Boys who Have considered Hypermasculinity when the Gender Roles were too Tuff.

26 Oct

By Tav Nyong’o

(originally posted at Earthling.)

 

Halfway through the first act of Moonlight, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), a hounded-looking boy turns to a man he thinks might be a father figure and asks him, “what’s a faggot?”

Sitting around the table, the man who has plucked the quivering child out of the mean streets several times already by this point inthe film, shoots a quick look at his girlfriend, who expertly guides him, with no more than a facial expression or two, through the right words to say. A faggot is a word people use to make gay people feel bad about themselves, he tells the shamefaced child, but it’s also a word that some gay people … here the woman, named Teresa, (played by afro-cyborgian rock star Janelle Monáe effortlessly transformed into a ’round the way girl for the film) quickly shuts down his attempt at queer theory 101. Instead, she nudges him let their primary message reverberate through the boy’s traumatized body: words are weapons, and in this place we all live in, they can certainly break your bones. But if you choose to go the way your blood beats, there will be people like us there to meet you.

There is no dad at this table. By the end of the scene, the boy has fled Teresa’s home, after wringing a humiliating confession from her boyfriend Juan (played by the steely Mahershala Ali, currently thrilling fans as the villainous Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage television series). Juan, the boy knows, is the drug dealer who is selling the crack to his addicted mom (played in all three stages of his coming-of-age by Naomie Harris). This is a plot twist that, in lesser hands, would reek of melodrama or blaxploitation. But Jenkins’ fearless and patient direction never lets the aching home truths of the screenplay that Tarell McCraney has adapted from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue turn into a morality tale. Instead, we have in Moonlight (the film) a masterful three-acter that I left the theatre calling, in conscious nod to Ntozake Shange, For Colored Boys who have Considered Hypermasculinity when the Crack Wars got too Ruff.

A little glib, I know, but my alternate title does roughly approximate the story arc of the protagonist, played in each of the three acts of his life by a new actor: the prepubescent Little (Alex R. Hibbert); the teenage Chiron (an unforgettable Ashton Sanders); and, finally, as the adult man Black, at whose first screen entrance the audience may confuse for the reappearance of Juan, so exactly does actor Trevante Rhodes slip into the skin and corporeal schema of the man who, it turns out, maybe was Little’s father figure after all.

This is not a story about the “cool pose” young black men adopt in order to survive, however, nor a parable of how the “code of the streets” produce a wild violence that can only be tamed by the narrative arrival of white knight or white savior figure. It is a love story about two boys who found a way of touching each other once, in an impossibly brief beach idyll, and then careened through life as best they could wearing each others bruises under their skin.

Readers of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, or the DC poetry of Essex Hemphill, may recognize the world of dangers confronting Little/Chiron/Black in Messrs. Jenkins and McCraney’s Florida, a brown and black world achingly reconstructed from their own childhoods in that state. The chopped and screwed soundtrack is liquorice-thick with love for the bounce and drawl of a black Floridian life that is springing up from what we might think of, with the work of Alexandra Vazquez in mind, as the mudsill of the Caribbean. This mudsill sociality cannot be prettified, but it cannot be talked down to either. Moonlight grants no Scarface-like glamor to the drug-dealing, gang-banging life, choosing to spend its time lingering in the folds and fissures of the human clay out of which such soldiers are kilned.

As the gangly boy-turned-muscle mary (a feat so reminiscent for me of “Rocky” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an movie classic which has been on my mind because of  this week’s TV remake starring Laverne Cox), Trevante Rhodes looks so brittle he could break. His performance serves us the necessary reminder that as much as black boys and men are dying from police bullets, they are also dying to be touched. To be held, fed, sexed, and loved.

His love interest-turned-nemesis Kevin, also played by three actors, is the sort of freewheeling lothario we all knew at one point, the charming cad who hopes to wink through life on promises he never intends to keep. It is fully believable when he turns Chiron out one night, and then punches him in the face in school the next day. “Stay down!” Kevin whispers to Chiron after he decks him, in a tone that makes you desperately want to believe that his are fistfuls of love. It is a scene of abjection that Darieck Scott would call “extravagant”. If mudsill black masculinity entails a constant shadowboxing with the “big black buck” image that might save your life (when it doesn’t get you killed), then “staying down” might be more than a survival strategy. It might be an erotic pose of its own, a sexual compact with those bruising and battering fists.

Moonlight is a noticeably chaste film for an era of ubiquitous sex tapes and raunchy pop. But the poetry of its repression is never in the service of some figment of respectability. It instead works to slow down the “implicit bias” of the anti-black gaze, to stroke its itchy trigger finger, and force it to absorb the subtle changes the blueblack and redbone boy lovers must go through, if they would find their way to an adult reckoning.

That both (openly straight) Jenkins and (openly gay) McCraney can now publicly discuss their own personal trauma of being raised by crack-addicted mothers lends the film’s arrival in cinemas this weekend a deserved gravitas. Autobiography certainly raises the stakes around the performance of  Harris as the protagonist’s mom Paula, a role who could easily turn into a tragic spectacle or another exercise in blaming the victim. By no means is this Paula’s story; but the audience I sat with never turned against her as she struggled, with what limited means were available to her, to make a way out of no way for herself and her only child. That Theresa is able to step in as a surrogate with such understated and non-rivalrous capacity (the two women never share a scene) just speaks that much more eloquently to the enduring wonders of “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

There may be those who feel such stories of dereliction, abuse, and fugitivity are simply too dangerous to tell in public; to tell stories from the mudsill may be too pathologizing of black life in this moment of danger (but when is black life not in danger? When is storytelling not a risky act?). Notwithstanding, it is clear that Jenkins and McCraney stand with those who are ready to bring the pain that never hurts (those who believe, in Sufi terms, that one must feed the demon or, in self-help jargon, that one must “feel it to heal it”). This is a film that knows in its bones that only way out is through. And the honesty, measure, and  even the joy and beauty with which it takes us there, lends a vibrant new myth for bluegum boys of all colors, and those of us who want and need them in our world.

Papa Doesn’t Smell The Heat

10 Oct

Mykki Blanco – High School Never Ends (ft. Woodkid) (Official Music Video) from The FADER on Vimeo.

By Tav Nyong’o

My constant teaching has been this: live for the drama, but don’t let the drama live you.

You are not your gadget, you are not the face at the end of your selfie stick, or the Emoji, Bitmoji, Ebroji. You are not the little techAsian monster avatar that the sea of oblivious and negligent faces see you as. Put your phone away and talk to me. You are not the tone that is being policed, or the body that just got housed. Some of us go to protest wearing our graveyard suits, as Brother Corn likes to say. And some of want to be downlow hanging in them baggy jeans that give you nice dreams.

I can learn from you even if I can’t trust you: you just might get my stone face. But still, my teaching has been this: you are not your stoneface, your nervous giggle, your catalogue of embarrassments, or your family basket of deplorables. Get serious for a second, but not too deadly serious. Remember to breathe when you can. There is peace beyond passion, but that great gettin’ up morning already happened, and those who need to know it already do. I need the right to sing those blues.

Mykki Blanco knows it. Mykki has the right to sing those blues and swing them. I spent Sunday evening being happily triggered by his latest video, “High School Never Ends.” It’s off his excellent debut album. Debut album? I feel like I’ve known Mykki forever but we’ve only met once in an elevator. I saw him play out one night in Berlin this summer, while I was still in a cosmopolitan funk about lost dreams, the funeral circuit, fleeting youth, and black bodies getting shot down in the streets of America, hustled out of cabs for a beat down in Germany, or drowned unheralded off Lampedusa. And yeah, I kinda know how that all sounds.

High School Never Ends is “black queer studies,” as the academy wants to call it, no tea, no shade. But those theory drugs may not love you the way they love me, and that’s okay too. It is a raw video, in painful focus, and watching it on my big screen (trigger warning for class privilege?) was its own small drama in my living room. I had to turn it off before the end to spare my friends and my beloved, giving new meaning to the guest croon of French singer Woodkid: “Why don’t you just delete me?”

Why don’t you just delete me … talk about… a great pick up line! Ha! (I hope you laughed) If only, if only our lives could be blanked out like that, if only we could delete ourselves and get contorted and connected somewhere under cover of dark.

If only we could peace out just like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet did.

Loosely based on Romeo + Juliet (Lin-Manuel Miranda isn’t the only one who has figured out how to get the mainstream to pay attention to black or brown lives by encapsulating them in white roles), High School Never Ends is really a love letter to the black bwoi or gal who may be planning his next ticket to Berlin after the “Get behind me Satan” moment last night during the debates.

I was that boy once. And, like James Baldwin  before me, I hoped that Europe would be a place where I could breathe. I didn’t want to assimilate, although ich spreche ein bisschen mehr Deutsche jetzt, so there. (Shout out to LaTasha Nevada Diggs for that courage to twerk the English tongue as she is spoke!) I wanted to interinimate, a word I learned from Fred Moten that comes from metaphysical poetry but could also apply to how we move through the world. Tickets, money, passport is the drill: get your life in the dank basement of a Neukölln bar, get bounced by the style fascists at the door to Berghain, do some “research,” and sun your nude ass by one of those lakes or canals that, quiet as it’s kept, the city is really known for. Stay woke, stay hidden, stay sleep.

Wear protective coloration, develop a tolerance for second hand smoke, explore polyamory, private FaceBook group sexscapades, and collective feminist accountability. Eat, pray, love or drink, grieve, fuck, and fuck up badly, as the case may be. Get your life and try not to notice how often protective coloration doesn’t really protect you, but is a ruse of your own making, a trip you may be on solo, an emotional aphasia in which you remain stone face everywhere outside the uchromatic dark. I can tell you; I’ve been there, and I will be again.

I feel Mykki has too: she is a transformer, a rager, someone who has left and returned to performing like so many of my friends, comrades, students, and intrigues. Like me, I think she finds the exit door from professional visibility is a revolving one. “I want to be here now,” I once heard her sing, “because the future is stupid!” And here we are, stupidly, in that present. Mykki is an alter ego, of course, a messy bitch who lives for drama. But don’t conflate her with Joanne the Scammer. Mykki will clock your nazi white Ass, and, if High School Never Ends is any indication, she also subscribes to the Frank Ocean mantra “I never ever fuck someone I wouldn’t beat up” or words to that effect. Call it black queer studies, or queer black studies, or black feminism. Or call it a troubling reverie up I had one night in my brown study: not the “brown” that is halfway to white, but the rocking posture you assume to keep the body thinking and feeling when you feel yourself trapped in some white supremacist freeze-frame.

I’m not the old head here to tell you “high school ends”, “it gets better,” or any mainsplaining shit like that. I refuse to be a man, and Mykki does to, (even when she is). In the video, she plays a game of fuck, marry, kill with the neo-Nazi youth that, quiet as it’s kept, the Left in Berlin has never stopped battling. I fuck with our Anarcho-Marxist dadbros so you may not need to: each one teach one.

After turning the video off after Woodkid’s sweet solo, my dear comrade suggested immediately I teach this video in my class next semester. I jumped up for a second, But then I thought about the student demand. I thought about triggering, boundaries, and this little thing called the traumatic kernel of the Real. (A little Lacan now and then does the body good, but I can also spare you). So I’m going to let that simmer a bit, and let this one circulate in the meantime out in what some smart folks down in Durham may have begun to call the Black Outdoors.

The Black Outdoors: Fred Moten and Saidiya Hartman in Conversation with J. Kameron Carter and Sarah Jane Cervenak

The Black Outdoors tickles my throat; better hyperlink. Are we there yet? Are we here now? I may not be ready for it, but I want to be ready. And I can’t not want you to be ready to; you who I fall a little more in love with every look.

I need to learn the dark arts of black feminist refusal, which are my constant study, and I’m so grateful some one schools me in them every day. “Life is a school, unless you’re a fool,” Carmen McRae once sang. “But the learning brings you pain.” She added.I hear her, but I also hear Billy sing “hush now, don’t explain.” So for  now I end this appreciation to an album and the black feminist poethics that helped me listen to it by saying, bring the pain!

And, possibly, a small proposition: Worry the line, but teach to the letter.

I hear José listening, so I’ll shut up now and thank him for tuning in from an undisclosed Caribbean location. I can say it now: no one belongs here more than us.

And so, my constant teaching has been this, with a nod to the old gods whose language I won’t speak here or now: a greeting passed from mouth to mouth, head to head, from deepest darkest Africa to chocolate city. Let the master be your messenger. Let the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house. Just don’t let yourself be caught out up in it! Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The sky is open. All the rest is commentary. And night moves.

Twinks and Trolls

4 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Screenshot 2016-03-23 09.39.21.png

Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trumptroll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.

Back in March of 2016 (that more innocent age!) it was still possible to believe that parody might still hold the power to expose the inherent incongruity of a Trump candidacy, much less a Trump presidency, and bring the hot air balloon crashing back to earth before it could land in the White House.

 I sent my draft around to some of my friends on this blog, found myself in the curious position of having to explain what a twink was, met the lesbian feminist killjoy argument that gay men really do have fascist tendencies and this wasn’t funny, and, finally, made the unfortunate discovery of the existence of one Milo Yiannopolous, the latest gay darling of the racist so-called “alt-right.” Lesbian social theory, as usual, was unerring, and for those who can stomach it, Laurie Penny has given a complete account of Yiannopolous’ hijinks at the Republican National Convention. My jaw dropped several times while reading her exposé on the dark cynicism of the gay alt-right, and their dangerous predilection for anti-black and anti-Muslim violence. (And on this score, I will be reading Bobby Benedicto’s forthcoming essay on gay necroaesthetics — which he gave an excellent preview of earlier this summer, with great interest).
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Geert Wilders speaking at “Wake Up” event at RNC, in front of “Twinks4Trump” photo spread.

“Alt-right” is a fancy, internet-themed name, but the phenomena of right-wing, race-baiting gays is not new (just ask Roy Cohn)! Back in 2002, Village Voice editor Richard Goldstein wrote an entire book critiquing the media prominence given to a group of figures he dubbed “The Attack Queers” — professedly liberal Democrats (Andrew Sullivan, Norah Vincent, and Camille Paglia came under particular fire at the time) who nonetheless appealed to the conservative right by skewering “political correctness” and “liberal groupthink.” The alt-right is sort of a funhouse exaggeration and dangerous extrapolation of this kind of trolling behavior, with intelligence-free hate and fear now seen as viable career options for the nihilistic and attention-craved (one of the most frequent Google searches for Yiannopolous is “net worth”).

trollking21

King of Trolls?

Actual white supremacy and Islamophobia sort of spoiled the fun of Twinks4Trump for me, and brought me to question my long-held belief in the transgressive power of queer satire and invective. I even grew uncertain of my initial assumption that Twinks4Trump was a parody, and I wrote to the account holder, Cody Permenter, to be sure. To my relief, he confirmed his parodic intent, and we pondered a little where all this would go. Although he created the account to troll Trump and his followers, Permenter told me over email that:

“When I created the account, if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a clear goal in mind. It was more for humor and because I was bored. But I think I tapped into something, a kind of cultural critique that I can use for some good. And if not…well, at least it’s still funny, which also has value. This election is volatile and draining, and humor shouldn’t be lost no matter how ugly it gets.”

I agreed then and still do, although I increasingly wonder whether humor is enough any longer. In our email exchange, I had compared Twinks for Trump to earlier feminist and queer agitprop groups such as Ladies Against Women and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and we discussed what might happen if someone actually tried to troll the Trump campaign as “Twinks for Trump.” I think we both thought at the time that such a troll would have a disruptive impact on the Trump campaign, that it was possible to, in Permenter’s words, “troll America’s greatest troll.” As it turns out, the joke was on us: now self-avowed gay Republicans are claiming the hashtag, Permenter has been obliged to tweet out “We’re parody. And he’s…serious…oh god.”

coyote

I know that sinking feeling. Things turned out a little differently than either of us expected. Internet lore states that no position, however outrageous, will fail to be mistaken for a sincere conviction unless clearly marked as satire. The subsequent takeover of Twinks4Trump by actual alt-right operatives and attention-mongers suggest that the obverse is also true: there is no online parody so obvious that someone will not try to make malevolently serious use of it. As Whitney Phillips notes (see below), the thing about Trump’s trolling statements, for example, is that “millions of people believe in what Trump is saying.”  And, unfortunately for us, there may be no real operative distinction between “serious” and “parody” anymore: we can no longer afford to think of either seriousness or parodic intent as having any automatic political valence or implication: both can be used (and in conjunction) for evil.

For me, Twinks4Trump stopped being funny for me the day actual gay conservative politicians like Geert Wilders began to embrace it. A least it was fun while it lasted.

But why didn’t it last? Why was it possible for the Trump juggernaut to incorporate “the young, dumb, and full of cum” among the constituencies that Trump now claims he will be a voice for? The Pulse tragedy was one obvious reason (see Eng Beng Lim’s excellent Orlando Syllabus and previous Bully Blog posts by QuirogaLim and Halberstam). It enabled Trump to fold “LGBTQ” into his rhetoric in a way that shouldn’t have been that surprising in retrospect. Why did anyone assume that just because Trump was racist, sexist, and a bully, that he was also homophobic? He is a lifelong cosmopolitan New Yorker who works in the entertainment industry, and he is not religious. He is also a narcissist enraptured by his own self-professed sexual charisma and endowment: why on earth would a creature like this be upset at being called “Daddy”?

Screenshot 2016-08-04 10.52.03.png

In Slate, Whitney Phillips even makes the compelling argument that it is counterproductive to call Trump a troll, however satisfying the resultant image of the Republican presidential candidate as an orange-skinned, fright-haired creature. Pointing out the origins of trolling activity on early internet newsgroups, Phillips argues that calling Trump a troll minimizes the harm he does by comparing it to online activity that, however infuriating, we can simply walk away from. While trolling has now spread beyond its online origins (and bullying and violence are hardly less real because digitally mediated) her point is well taken: the left cannot afford to encapsulate Trumpism as trolling, when that is just a part of what is going on.

Phillip’s argument suggests to me that the conventional (if oft ignored) wisdom — “Don’t Feed the Trolls” — does not fully apply in the case of Trump’s bullying, baiting, and chaos-mongering. “Trump deserves so much worse than troll.” Phillips concludes, “He deserves the harshest fate of all: to be described accurately.” But if feeding the troll is a mistake, is there any hope of trolling him? Twinks4Trump didn’t seem to work: is there another little monster waiting in the wings? Perhaps there is: queer irreverence and invective hasn’t yet exhausted itself, and there is nothing like the shock of the present catastrophe to stir up the creative juices. Stay tuned!
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The Student Demand

17 Nov

By Tav Nyong’o

 

A question has been ringing through my ears this past week, growing louder with my every attempt to brush it away.

“Who the fuck made you master?”*  It was a question asked, no shouted, in a moment of despair and righteous discontent. An angry, no, an uncivil question, and to that extent, a question without any answer in a civilized society whose underside, as Walter Benjamin well knew, contains countless barbarisms.

“Who the fuck made you master?”

The questioner has been mocked, admonished, even physically threatened for daring to ask it. In this era of viral publicity, bullies morph into the bullied and back again with dizzying speed. We feel constantly pushed around and always on our last nerve. But we should always stop and pay careful attention to those moments when someone — a young black woman in this instance — is threatened with physical retribution for asking an inconvenient question.

The questioner’s location as one of the privileged few at Yale University should not distract us from the relevance of her demand for the rest of us. We all have parents, bosses, teachers, authority figures charged with our safety and well-being. Many of us are fortunate to receive the care and support that is promised and expected. But all of us know or have experienced situations where an authority figure has grievously failed. It is disorienting and difficult, which is to say it takes tremendous courage and conviction, to stand up to that authority figure and simply ask where their authority comes from. Democracy, real democracy, always begins with a question that cannot but provoke a conflict with the status quo: who made you the boss of me?

I could only bring myself to watch the viral video in question this morning. I felt I already knew its content and, even more, I knew how it would be received by an anti-black, anti-woman, anti-intellectual culture. I knew the clip could not possibly provide a full or accurate picture of the black and native student struggle at Yale, and that it would be all the more of a misleading caricature for being a decontextualized fragment of something that did indeed happen.

But when I did finally watch it, the angst with which the questioner spoke those words moved me in a way that I was unprepared for. What few seem to notice or give credence to was what it had cost her to lose her temper in that way, to meet the establishment defenders of “free speech” with her own brand of “fearless speech.” What was that cost, I wanted to know? And aren’t we all now, because of that cost she paid, in her debt?

Black studies as a the critique of Western civilization teaches us to ask: What do we owe each other for the sacrifices we each are called upon to make to rebuke and repair this world? How can we — those of us who profess to educate — accept the student demand not only as a rebuke, which it certainly is, but also as a gift?

I am now glad the video has been seen by so many, not because it provides visual proof of  a privileged millennial “crybully” asking to be protected from free speech and intellectual inquiry, but because it forces again a question America keeps refusing to answer:

Do black lives matter? And, if they do, or if they should, don’t we have to immediately change everything about how a society and culture founded in white supremacy and settler colonialism continues operates?

How can any institution — a school, a corporation, an army, a police force, a prison — expect to continue along with business as usual after conceding that it is founded upon structural racism and colonial settlement?

And yes, who, exactly, made you master?

Black students in Missouri, South Africa, New Haven and beyond have in the past few weeks renewed the promise of a #BlackLivesMatter movement many of us feared was beginning to falter. Without conceding an inch on questions of police and vigilante violence and killings of black women, transgender black people, black men of all ages, these students have broadened the scope of concern from the moments of our dying to the days of our living. This is crucial for those of us who don’t want to live our lives in a constant state of mourning, even as we honor and remember our dead. Those of us who need to dance at the revolution, who have to sing at the sit-in, who want to feel the joy and solidarity of being alive while we still can. Those of us who understand that beauty, friendship, peace, and mutual aid are always fragile things in this turbulent world, and never to be taken for granted or dismissed as secondary pursuits, (to be taken care of perhaps by the women and queers, as the sad militant pursues his ever more totalizing view of some ever more grim and punishing “reality.”)

I was asked recently: was it ethical for a student to go on hunger strike to oust the president of the University of Missouri for incompetence in addressing racism and economic gender inequity? I felt a note of care and concern for the consequences of “student extremism” was behind the question. I don’t know how I would have counseled a friend who was considering such a path; I haven’t yet walked in those shoes. But I do know that hunger strikes belongs to a venerable tradition of non-violent resistance to civil government. It is a complex and rich question that Patrick Anderson’s insightful book, So Much Wasted, explores in greater detail than I can here. But how could I do anything but honor and salute the bravery of a student who stood publicly to declare unacceptable the arbitrary withdrawal of health care — and in particular of reproductive medical care for women —  because of political and budgetary pressures?

It may seem wrong to endanger our health, but it is right to stand by passively as the health of thousands is endangered by the  sanctimonious and the greedy?

The new black student movement is teaching me that it is not enough to protest wrongful death, or to chant each others names (as we must) when another one of us is murdered. We must also challenge the terms of our living as well as our dying; we need an actual say in how we live and thrive, how we learn and grow.

We need to “decolonize our gratitude” as someone told me on Twitter; we must challenge the quietist assumption that black and brown people should express more and frequent gratitude over just being allowed to live (rather than killed), over being given educational opportunity (rather than being jailed or beaten), over being citizens of a wealthy and privileged nation at a moment of great chaos, poverty, and disaster in our present world (rather than held in infinite detention at the bleeding borders where the desperate, fleeing extremism, meet the accusation that they themselves are the bearer of the horror they flee).

The new black student movement is changing the terms upon which our culture responds to the performative utterance: Black Lives Matter. Only yesterday, the best that the irrelevant could say in response was to retort, “well, All Lives Matter”! But the student movement has already moved us well past this feeble stutter. Now we actually have to face the question: if black lives, like all lives, matter, then what? Why would expect that answering in the affirmative — yes, black lives do matter — would be the end of it? The students aren’t looking for a cheap affirmation. They already know that their black lives matter; it’s a rhetorical question!

The real challenge is not just to verbally concede the equality of human dignity and the unacceptability of racist speech, conduct, and of violence targeting black, brown, muslim, Asian, and indigenous people. The real challenge is, having conceded this principle, to follow up on actions that actively transform this situation. “Act from thought should quickly follow,” the poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “what is thinking for?”

No one thinks it acceptable, in the name of transgressive free speech or adult child development, for white Ivy League students to mock and abuse native American and black students by dressing as rastafarians or Indian chiefs for Halloween. This is not a question of “safe space” or hypersensitivity: common sense tells us that no civil society could accept such behavior without public reprimand. You cannot study and live together with someone you think of as your inferior, or treat as a laughingstock. You cannot leave the slain unburied in the hot sun for hours, or leave the murders of indigenous women unsolved and uninvestigated. When we act in uncivilized, barbaric ways towards Muslims, blacks, and native peoples, we deserve to be admonished, upbraided, and chastened to do better.

No one thinks it acceptable for Americans to continue to lampoon sacred native rituals in “war dances” or paint their faces at sports competitions featuring teams with names like “Redskins.” The resurgence of native survival and resistance  — no, of intellect and creativity — in North America and beyond is one of the most exciting developments in recent years, where have you been? Do you want to live in the world of Clinton the Second or Bush the Third, or is another world not only possible, but already present in the epistemologies and ontologies of the oppressed?

Movements like #IdleNoMore and #BlackLivesMatter are first and foremost movements among black and native communities to regain the self respect with which we can say, without fear of reproach or ridicule, that triumphalist signs of genocide, slavery, and segregation cannot possibly remain at the symbolic center of our culture. Rhodes must fall. So must any other name that serves to honor those who would prefer we never walk their halls except as servants. I once took ironic pride in belonging to institutions named after racists, anti-semites, and other disreputable characters. My very presence was a rebuke, I once thought. But I am starting to wonder whether I need to start dreaming bigger dreams.

The students are doing nothing more than demanding that society actually live up to the values it professes. And they bear the unbearable truth that society can never openly admit: that to actually live up to its stated values, it would have to become something wholly other, even something unrecognizable to its former self.

Transformation is never easy, and rarely is any local struggle fully cognizant of the broader canvas. What is more, the passionate rebuke of the status quo is difficult, dangerous, emotional work. These students are adults, not children, and it is wrong to infantilize them, and a mistake to draw on our expertise in child psychology or our experience as pedagogues to talk down to them.

At the heart of all the student demands heard ringing through the world these past weeks and months, there is this singular fact: the fact of the student demand.

What does the student demand?

The student demands to know who made you the master and her the dependent. The student demands to set the future conditions for her study, which she understands to be a collective study, a study that cannot be contained by Ivy or state school walls.

The athlete demands to know who made you coach, and why he has been robbed of an education and possibly injured for life while you make millions off of his play.

The student demands the right to reclaim her study; to know the world in order to change it. That demand is the freest, most fearless speech we may have the privilege to hear. Will we listen?

*A free, indirect paraphrase of a range of student speech acts heard recently, rather than a direct quotation of any individual person. Thanks to Zahid Chaudhary for reminding me to add this clarification. On free, indirect discourse, please see Typewriter.

After the Ball

8 Jul

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.

image

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.

The Shipped and the Bereft, or, Seven Backward Glances that won’t turn you to Salt

6 Mar insp_sexual_tension_preview

By Tav Nyong’o

insp_sexual_tension_preview7. It’s S/K, not K/S (yes, it matters)

 As any slash fiction writer, or semiologist, will tell you, order matters. And so the fantasy of a love relation between Spock and Kirk is no more reversible than any other romantic entanglement. Identification always runs to one side or the other of the slash between Spock and Kirk. Outsider that I am, my own identifications have always run to the half-alien, S/K, not K/S. This is a S/K story.
In the image above, Kirk glances  up from his seat of authority and is startled and allured by the nearness of his enigmatic “number one.” As he extends one arm unnecessarily, invitingly far, draping it over the back of his chair in faux insouciance, Spock leans in with both arms around him, as if he is about wrap Kirk up in the folds of his logic. Okay, maybe this is a K/S story too … we will have to see how it goes.

KirkSpockWallSfSI never quite got it, by the way. Slash fiction, that is: the fan genre of narrative that fantasizes catching Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and Mister Spock in flagrante delicto. I’ll say it here: William Shatner does nothing for me. And I think I identify too much as a Vulcan to really relish being with a Vulcan like Leonard Nimoy. So despite a queer trekkie, I never “shipped” Kirk and Spock, as the kids now say. At least not until the latest reboot of the franchise — with its casting of queer, doe-eyed Zachary Pinto in the role a knowing wink at its shipping audience — practically begged me to.

6. Slash is neither the love of sameness nor of difference, but of the performative punctuation of the two

A slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign. Two bodies in color put the rest of the world in greyscale. They are not the same, not different. Not “men.” The military hierarchy, the ship of state, the errand into the astral wilderness, these masculine concerns are as nothing compared to a friendly look of concern across the species divide on the harsh passage through life. Two actors given genre roles on television in the Sixties invented one of the twentieth centuries great cinematic love affairs, conducted through the subtle innuendo they developed in a command performance that, by the time the franchise was reinvented for the millennial generation, had to be incorporated into the making and marketing of the film, a knowing if anxious calculation that covert queer tension could outlive the closet.
 roflbot-kirkspockxishipFor more on the queer performativity of punctuation, see here. The principle that a slash is a punctuation mark, not an equal sign applies, by the way, to the delight slash fantasy takes in reconjugating the relationship between actor and role. Long before Hollywood wrapped it’s head around openly queer actors playing straight, slash writers and artists understood the pleasures to be found in the interstices between what is seen and what is shown, delighting, as proper fans will, in candid shots of the actors on set, or in their leisure time, displaying the kind of foreplay affection that would find, in their fan fictions and images, a more heated description. Depicting not just the characters but the actors in shipped roles becomes a key more fan participation; creepy at times, to be sure, but also silly and playful, an little sharing out of the unshareable (J-L Nancy) in an unequal, unfair, hostile and unforgiving world.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA tumblr_kxxjxje0Fo1qaoozxo1_500One received wisdom holds that slash fiction is actually a genre written by and for straight women, who insist on projecting romantic scenarios where no screenwriter had gone before. Despite being an ardent Trekkie, I have however never really immersed myself in this particular fan archive, so I just, a bit idly, imagine slash to be a kind of feminine ecriture, a queer feminist rewriting of a master text whose blatant violations of the Bechdel test admits no possible response short of a complete transcoding. In this world, Kirk and Spock are not lonely bachelors stranded in space, but loving bedfellows who exchange thoughts and sentiments (the one more thought, the other more sentiment) and give themselves over to langour and play.

Kirk-Spock-Behind-the-Scenes-james-t-kirk-7759433-650-450a2100fbd46106c9f66399fb79bf059a6I suspect, nonetheless, as does the cartoonist below, that any number of straight men also “ship” Kirk/Spock (probably, fewer I am guessing ship Spock/Kirk). I have no novel theory of heteroflexibility to offer to account for this: Freud taught us a century ago that everyone is capable of making a same sex object choice and in fact has already done so in their unconscious. And if shipping is just having a wet dream under erasure, perhaps it is no surprise to find Kirk and Spock still secluding themselves from this generation’s pornographic spotlight. Not closeted, not self-hating, they are simply discreet. Three’s a crowd.

826480_original5. Spock is a Jew

 See #7 above. And “Vulcan logic” could be another term, of course, for “kabbalistic” ritual; according to my web sleuthing,  the other features of Spock’s Jewishness are very apparent. The absence of an openly Jewish character from the ostentatiously multicultural cast of the original Star Trek is a historical chronotope of a moment of American assimilation that is even now passing, one rendered all the more glaring by the casting of two Jewish actors to play the leads: assimilation into whiteness in action. Hiding in plain sight, however, was the Live Long and Prosper gesture of the Vulcan race, invented by the actor Leonard Nimoy based on a sign he had encountered during his orthodox upbringing. Through this gesture, Nimoy held open an allegorical door for all of us for whom the price of assimilation into or accommodation with white supremacy always remained too high. Now everywhere on the web, even in outer space, hands can be seen making the gesture, hashtaged #LLAP.

kirk_Spock_by_Athewvulcan_kiss_by_anubis_admirer-d52fs96

4. Spock is Asian, and a woman

The orientalist overcoding of the Vulcans as some ancient wise race from the East increasingly finds a contemporary sequel in manga depictions of an Asian Spock and blond Kirk. Again, I have no theories beyond the obvious nod to postmodern pastiche and cultural globalization, but I do find it both interesting (and maybe even a bit worrisome) that K/S should be pulled out of taciturn obscurity and made to conform too easily to a legible East/West dualism. On the other hand, when the creativity capacity of queer fabulists the world over fully outstrip the source text, they unsettle a certain white supremacist logic of discovery and conquest, opening outer space to other, decolonial uses.

It is also interesting to see the loving pair grow younger as they age, a fate as inapposite as that of the original Number One in the un-signed 1964 pilot for Star Trek, played by Majel Barrett. Somehow the brainy, intellectual foil to the passionate captain did not scan for studio executives when that foil was female bodied. Although Spock appears in that original pilot, he steps into the Barrett’s role as number one in the series proper, and, thereby, into the romantic sub-plot of aloof feminine reserve played against passionate male impetuousness that she had set up in that unnumbered, unaired episode.

Number-One-star-trek-women-8427144-750-600The original pilot didn’t feature the African American starfleet member Lt. Uhura, but it was a story — deemed “too cerebral” by the network — of human captivity. Captain Pike (Kirk’s predecessor) is trapped by an alien race, the Talosians, who tries to get him to reproduce with another human, captured in an earlier crash, in order to generate a servile class. He is obliged to make love to a trapped woman at the pain of being sent mad by the mind-controlling Talosians, Vina, but his contempt and hatred of being enslaved prove too strong. (This is a classic motif in the white mythology of Anglo-Saxon liberty by the way: slavery may be a condition suited for other, lesser races, but not for us!) While the Talosians snare the two additional women from the starship Enterprise, the Captain won’t deign to mate with them either (female willingness and suitability for both marriage and slavery is, of course, assumed by both the Talosians and the screenwriters of this teleplay). Having survived a raw clash of wills, the Talosians give up and return all three starfleet members to the ship, leaving behind Vina who, it is revealed (spoiler alert) is not young and beautiful, but aged and grotestquely disfigured from her crash. Too late to be rescued by reality, Vina waves a sad goodbye to the Captain before walking off, hand in hand with the illusion of him created for her by the Talosians.

Having turned down three possible Eves in a single pilot episode, Adam is himself replaced by the second pilot (and first aired) episode of the series. Now we have a new, familar captain, James T. Kirk, who will have many lives and loves over the course of the series, but as far as the shipped and bereft are concerned, each such heterosexual plot point will be another illusion masking his singular, imperceptible, Number One love.The plot of rejected pilot, after all, could have been cribbed directly from the argument of William Blake’s poem “The Angel,” from Songs of Experience (1974):

I Dreamt a Dream! what can it mean?
And that I was a maiden Queen:
Guarded by an Angel mild;
Witless woe, was ne’er beguil’d!

And I wept both night and day
And he wip’d my tears away
And I wept both day and night
And hid from him my hearts delight

So he took his wings and fled:
Then the morn blush’d rosy red:
I dried my tears & armd my fears,
With ten thousand shields and spears.

Soon my Angel came again:
I was arm’d, he came in vain:
For the time of youth was fled
And grey hairs were on my head.

Blake is K/S, by the way, I think. At least in his dreams.

3. Spock isn’t Black, but Star Trek began as a captivity narrative

Which brings us to Uhura/Spock in the series reboot. Somehow the re-inventors of the franchise decided that both Spock and Lt. Uhura had to be sexed up, and given a more dramatic and turbulent inner life. Rivals for the captain’s affection (the actor who created the role of Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, also read for the part of Spock, which was a non-gendered casting), Uhura and Spock find themselves in the update thrown into a tempestous teen romance. Technically a prequel, this new scenario also plays off the idea that the starfleet officers are all younger, more impetuous, confused. (Which was is civilization heading, by the way?)
Taking all this in stride, shippers have decided that Uhura/Spock is real, but only because Spock is still confused about his feelings for another man and because, like many a white gay man before and after him, he is so compelled by what he projects to be the sassy, strong resilience of black women that he is prepared to go along with a relationship, even one with zero sparks, in order to be a little nearer to the source of that glamor. A little callous, a little racist, K/S and S/K shippers alike find it easier to imagine a cross species relationship than an interracial one, at least when one half of that race question is black.

PSSpockUhuraRomantic Are shippers just digging deeper into homonormative pathologies, or are they displaying the restless and recombinant inventiveness of a connective generation, when they attempt to resolve the real contradictions of race, gender, and sexuality by reimagining slash fiction, beyond the erotic dyad, as a kind of super team: S/U/K?

tumblr_mmwdmfScuS1qeqx7ko1_5002. Where life is an illusion, love is only logical.

The enduring appeal of slash, such as I can discern it, is that even the nerdy, awkward, overly rational and reticent can and need love. I doubt this appeal has lost its relevance in our era of alleged nerd ascendancy. Anyway, Spock wasn’t that nerdy, wasn’t that geeky. He was aloof and enigmatic, loyal and logical, cool and conflicted. Now that the actor who created the role has passed on, the actor who succeeded him might be able to perform out from under his long shadow. More likely, however, as Joseph Roach notes of all acts of surrogation, the real replacement for Spock will be found elsewhere than in his official successor.

1. Number your days

Spock cannot be replaced. He is finite, and falls back into the one. An alert shipper notes that the hashtag #LLAP may be too  crypto-Christian in its patterns of memorialization, especially in the image of an afterlife that is implicitly promised. The Vulcan do not offer that sign to the dead. When Spock or Kirk die (as they seem to die repeatedly in the incompossible worlds of Star Trek, where Adam sins and does not sin) the surviving lover refuses to receive a parting benediction in his mourning. Live long and prosper? I shall do neither. Live long and prosper. No.

The shipped and the bereft are thus brought back to the one, which teaches us to number our days, that we might get a head of wisdom.

neitherIn Memoriam: Leonard Simon Nimoy. Mar 26, 1931 – Feb 27, 2015

The Good (Enough) Life: On Empire and The Black Queer Son

21 Jan

By Tav Nyong’o

In Adorno’s notorious critique of jazz, he consigned the efforts of black musicians to a quixotic struggle against racial capitalism. “With jazz,” he wrote in 1936, “a disenfranchised subjectivity plunges from the commodity world into the commodity world; the system does not allow for a way out.” This double-bind of the commercial black artist remained on full display during the pilot episode of Empire, black gay director Lee Daniel’s new foray into episodic network television.

empire-tv-series-cast-wallpaperA primetime melodrama about making it in today’s music business, Empire is also a test of the ongoing viability of a mainstream show about black people. As an entertainment about the entertainment business, Empire is more interested in finding a way into the system than imagining a way out. So why was I gripped to my seat for every soapy, cliché-riddled plot twist?

An opening scene from Empire demonstrates that, wrong as Adorno was on the aesthetic merits of black music, he remains disturbingly prescient about the structures of racism and exploitation within which it continues to get made. In the studio, Lucious listens dissatisfied to a singer deliver a ballad. He demands take after take before finally telling her to sing as if she were singing to her brother who has been shot and killed. When that trauma finally triggers the soulful vocal he was listening for, Lucious grins at the sound of a hit. Black suffering and death, yet again, is spun into commercial gold.

The premise of Empire revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, in his usual mode of unintentional Brechtian acting), rapper turned music label head, who has just been given a fatal medical diagnosis, and deliberately sets into motion a war of succession among his three sons. His plans are upended by the unexpected release from prison of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in a scenery-chewing, scene-stealing role), who took the fall for the drug deal that gave Lucious his original start-up capital, and has come back for her dues. This is the kind of over-the-top material is catnip for a director like Daniels. If it therefore invites filing under “guilty pleasure” for the rest of us, the inclusion of a gay character among the principle cast remains a novel enough premise to keep queer viewers skeptically engaged.

Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is what the mainstream press would like to call “non-stereotypical,” and what a more critical queer studies vocabulary would term “homonormative.” Neither an effeminate nor a homo thug living “on the down low,” Jamal would hardly be out of place among the cast of HBO’s Looking. That he is a talented musician (portrayed by an actual singer Smollett) lends his character a timely pathos. On the one hand, his father’s homophobia keeps him out of the spotlight that would otherwise seem to be his birthright. On the other, being out of spotlight spares him the fate of black masculine hypervisibility that his straight brother Hakeem seems consigned to. Homophobia forces him to the margins, but that is where the music is.

Black suffering is also at the center of a later dramatic scene, this one from Jamal’s childhood when the family still lived in the ghetto. In flashback, we see a thuggish Lucious dump Jamal in a trash can for daring to dress up his mother’s pumps and headscarf. Based on an experience from Daniels’ own childhood, this trauma is replayed over a scene of the now-adult Jamal performing “Good Enough,” a plaintive ballad addressed to his punishing superego, the father figure who will never be proud of him no matter how hard he tries. As his mother Cookie watches in the wings, Jamal stages the drama of “the best little boy in the world,” the angst of the black queer son whose overachievement serves as compensation for the paternal love he will never receive.

Can upwardly-mobile black queer sons and daughters like Jamal escape this “good enough” life? That is the unasked question behind this scene of black homonormative striving. The Lyons are, after all, remarkably functional as a kinship unit, despite all the melodramatic stigma of prison, crime, violence, and addiction that surround them. The incongruity of soapy drama like this lies in the fantasy we cling to as an audience that even people as rich, talented, and attractive as Jamal and his family nevertheless face the same demons as we do. The good life is really just the never good enough life.

Wouldn’t Jamal be happier without his father’s approval, without celebrity, without a corporation to run? What if the one thing he can’t have, full social acceptance, is the last thing he actually needs?

Works mentioned

Theodor Adorno, “On Jazz” in Essays on Music Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2002.

Civility Disobedience

18 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Has incivility become the new obscenity?

Everywhere one turns these days, it seems, ‘civility’ is being held up as a norm to which we all agreed to be held accountable. When was this consensus to be civil arrived at? Nobody can quite say. It must have been when we weren’t looking. But it’s suddenly everywhere: in open letters and videotaped homilies by university presidents, in the conference themes of progressive scholarly organizations, even in the campaign ads of Midwestern sheriffs (HT Ali Abunimah). Liberal icons John Stewart and Stephen Colbert even convened a national rally in 2010 “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a sardonic retort to what those who attended perceived to be the raucous incivility of Tea Parties (HT Lisa Duggan). And indeed, civility sounds like a value all but a lunatic fringe should consent to. But it’s effects on our freedoms can be surprisingly negative. The exercise of what we could be forgiven for assuming were our “civil liberties” — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, common use of public space — increasingly hit tripwire detectors for incivility, often with arbitrarily punitive consequences.

Sign1

At the moment, the charge of incivility is most frequently being wielded against those whose political speech touches a third rail in American politics: the near-universal support our political class and academic leadership gives to the State of Israel. Steven Salaita, a scholar of indigenous resistance in Palestine and North America, lost a job at the University of Illinois when his righteous indignation, as expressed on social media, over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this past summer offended some of the university’s donors and trustees. Civility here must be read as a barely veiled code for ‘civilized’; and this recourse to ‘civil’ as a standard to which all must adhere calls to mind Malcolm X’s famous critique of ‘civil rights’ as a limiting framework for the black freedom struggle. Malcolm implored black people to internationalize our struggle by refusing the US and state-centric model of “civil rights” under law and instead appealing to global solidarity with the oppressed through the rubric of “human rights.” It is precisely this global appeal to a planetary, anti-racist standard of human rights that led to Salaita being indicted for his “incivility,” transgressing the political quietism of the imperial university was enough to get him booted off campus without the pretense of due process.

image10-Jennifer-Doyle-Campus-Security

 

Scathing, funny, and impassioned political speech did not originate on Twitter; our right to it is in fact the reason we have a First Amendment. But in the “incredibly shrinking public sphere,” as Lisa Duggan has termed it, declamatory speech of the kind that would not be out of place as at a campus rally is now occasion for professional reprisals, with even liberals handwringing over how to ‘tolerate’ the ‘intolerable.’

Ostensibly, the new civility codes have little to do directly with sex. But the neoliberal rhetoric of the campus as a space under threat is deeply intertwined with in the continued infantilization of the democratic sphere, and is thus deeply connected to moral and sex panics. Jennifer Doyle demonstrates this point in a powerful recent pamphlet, Campus Security. Doyle recounts how one police justification for the notorious pepper spray incident at the University of California was the need to protect students, gendered as feminized victims, from the masculinized and racialized threat of occupiers who weren’t currently enrolled students. The justification of the use of real force against students in order to protect them from hypothetical aggressions is the kind of security state doublespeak we routinely confront these days. At the University of Illinois, for example, it apparently fell to administrators, trustees and donors to protect students from the political viewpoints of prospective professors, when and where those views could be adjudged (unilaterally, without any grievance process) to create even a potential situation of harm, discomfort, or threat.

The imposition of civility comes at a curious juncture when privacy is also everywhere under assault. The appeal of civility for those who stand to be regulated by it is that it will provide shelter from the radical loss of privacy that new technologies are unleashing. As Mark Zuckerberg once retorted when challenged regarding insufficient privacy controls on Facebook: what’s the problem if you have nothing to hide? Similarly, those who defend civility as a standard assume that only the truly aberrant would have anything to say that couldn’t be expressed civilly anyway. And why would we want to extend them the protections enjoyed by others?

These protections ostensibly extended by the new civility, of course, fall unevenly on actual students and other young people. Civility failed to protect Michael Brown, due to begin classes at Vatterott College this fall, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri while walking in his neighborhood. Immediately after his murder, he was retrospectively vilified as a dangerous hoodlum, not a recent high school graduate with no prior criminal record, much as Trayvon Martin and so many black women and men before and after him have had their histories, rather than those of their assailants, placed on public trial. When Brown’s community rose up in righteous indignation against police occupation, the black exercise of civil liberties was met with tear-gas, rubber bullets, agents provocateurs, tanks, snipers and police screaming “animals!” at the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve.

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In the wake of Ferguson, many more Americans learned that “civility” is experienced by black Americans primarily as compulsory and non-reciprocal compliance to arbitrary state violence. There were many messages of solidarity, and practical exchanges of resistance tactics, between Gaza and Ferguson. But, despite these rhizomatic uprisings against antiblack racism, imperialism, and war — all of which challenge us to be radically critical of the promise of freedom, democracy and civil society dangled before us by our rulers — the answer in some quarters remains, stubbornly, more of the same. More civility, rather than a radical questioning of its terms.

In the wake of such brutal and total abrogation of basic constitutional protections, international human rights, and the rule of law in the summer of 2014, one must ask: what is the point of being civil? If civility means the censorship of intellectuals, deference to racist cops, complicity in our state’s funding and support of aerial bombardment of civilians, and acquiescence to a decayed and corrupt system of democracy-turned-plutocracy, of what value is civility, exactly? What alternative to it might there be?

For queer politics, Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay, “Thinking Sex,” holds enduring relevance on this score. Her ostensible topic in that essay is sex and pleasure, not suffering and violence. But everything that is at stake in the essay has to do with the ability of the state and media — and ourselves — to magically convert the former into the latter, and to cultivate moral panics around harms where there are none. Rubin argued that our inability to recognize and value the range and diversity of means through which we seek and obtain pleasure, our reluctance to take sex seriously, is intertwined with a more general logic of repression, exclusion and violence.

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In order to challenge the logic of repressive tolerance that divides us into good, civil subjects and bad, disorderly ones, we cannot seek to rescue the most eligible of the socially stigmatized: those clearest to the center of what Rubin calls “the charmed circle.” We must directly confront the apparatuses that divide the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Rubin’s charmed circle resonates with an image Kimberlé Crenshaw turns to in her famous law review article that disseminated the concept of intersectionality. Here she compared antidiscrimination law reform to the effort to lift a group of individuals from a subterranean basement, and the temptation to start with those nearest to the top, those whose difference seems the easiest to rehabilitate. Intersectional analysis, in Crenshaw’s view, was the refusal to take this easy out, and to instead labor on working on injustice from the bottom up.

Whether from the outside in, or the bottom up, both Rubin and Crenshaw urged feminist, anti-racist, and queer organizing not to pick and choose those campaigns deemed most winnable, those victims deemed most telegenic, those tactics deemed most acceptable, or that language deemed most civil. I have to admit that this is a difficult standard to live up to. Particularly as the political center of the nation has drifted ever-rightward, as the scale of endemic crisis grows ever more planetary, one can plausibly wonder if principled radicalism grows self-canceling past a certain point. But there seems to be no way to ask this question without reinstating the hierarchies that Rubin, Crenshaw, and a host of other intellectuals and activists have urged us to dismantle. And so it seems we still desperately need more politically vital questions to ask and answer than the tired old saw of “where do you draw the line?”

The very drawing of the line, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten show in their powerful recent essay, The Undercommons, is a strategy of white settler colonial rule. “The settler,” they write, “having settled for politics, arms himself in the name of civilisation while critique initiates the self-defense of those who see hostility in the civil union on settlement and enclosure.” Politics casts itself as surrounded by the pre-political, the anti-political, the para- and the infra-human. Their radical critique of politics as we know it, in favor of social life as we feel, sense, think, study and celebrate it, points us beyond the stale coordinates offered up by yet another civics lesson delivered by our betters. We don’t need to learn to be better citizens; as the ongoing mobilization around the Salaita case, around Ferguson, and a series of other insurgent movements shows. We need learn how better to refuse the terms upon which citizenship and the good star of “civility” is offered, always provisionally, to the charmed few.

As commentators have noted, civility sounds like a venerable democratic principle, but is actually antithetical to the direct and participatory democracy many want to build. Democratic society — and in particular the social movements that push against the constraints of populist conformism — in principle relishes vibrant and vituperative antagonism. And yet one routinely encounters attempts (such as the recent NY Times opinion parsing an invidious distinction between ‘impoliteness,’ which may be acceptable, and ‘incivility,’ which is corrosive. The distinction, it turns out, is unworkable, begging the question: then why draw it?

Perhaps a more useful question than where to draw the line would be to ask: Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?

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Portrait of the Writer as a Young Private Secretary

I learned this lesson early in life watching A Passage to India, a film that had an indelible impact on my postcolonial childhood in Kenya. Indeed, the film instilled in me the anticolonial Kenyan ideology that Dinesh D’Souza hilariously attributes to our current president (if only!). In the film, Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian doctor during the period of British colonial rule, struggles to balance his genial and tolerant nature with the constant racism and snobbery of his English “betters.” In one unforgettable scene, Aziz pretends to have a spare collar stud (whatever that is) to lend to the Englishman who is brashly getting dressed right in front of him, which Aziz has to discretely remove the stud from his own impeccable suit. Later on, another Englishman, the local magistrate, mocks Aziz for appearing in public “in his Sunday best” but forgetting his collar stud (whatever that is). He casts racist aspersions on the doctor for being a foolish colonial mimic: trying to approximate British civil standards only underscores how innately different he is.

Dr. Aziz with the thingamajig.

Dr. Aziz with the all-important thingamajig.

The moral of the story for ten year old me was clear: a) these British colonialists are crazy and b) don’t ever assume that your efforts to live up to Euro-American arbitrary standards of civilized dress, deportment, or language will ever be enough to reverse the power imbalance.

I was too young on first watching A Passage to India, however, to truly grapple with the second half of the film, which turns darker when Ms. Quested, a visiting Englishwoman Dr. Aziz thought was a friend, accuses him of rape, prompting a dramatic trial which ends up putting the unjust colonial system of law in the docket, and sends Aziz bitterly fleeing from “civilized” English India. His personal effects are exhibited in court, he is accused of planning a trip to a brothel, and otherwise depicted as a sex-crazed savage, rather than a genteel, English speaking physician. At a climactic moment Ms. Quested withdraws her accusation (making this a tricky film to revisit in the current climate of victim-bashing, I well recognize), but the stakes in interpreting this outcome are not nearly so simple as racism versus sexism. The total abandonment of Ms. Quested by her white colonial society, once they cannot use her victimization as a legal cudgel against insurgent Indians, tells the viewer all she or he needs to know. The colonial state is both racist and sexist, even (or especially) when it is defending values such as civility, feminine virtue, rule of law and white supremacy.

In an earlier blog on this site, Jack Halberstam explored “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity” and argued that “neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change.” Watching A Passage to India again today reminds me of the long colonial prehistory to contemporary neoliberalism. As many scholars in critical race studies have noted, colonized and racialized people were the first “flexible” and “precarious” subjects: that flexibility often demanded through the dynamics of what Homi Bhabha calls “sly civility.” Dr. Aziz, until his powerful rejection of the British at film’s end, embodies this sly civility: only when he grasps his fate is a collective one can he discard the exceptional status bequeathed him as one of the educated “good ones.”

In a contemporary context, Joseph Massad has recently written powerfully about how civility is used to police the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and how we ourselves can get caught up in those police actions. “The war to control the university rages on” he notes, “but the forces of repression, which hide behind white Protestant normative civility that they deploy to advance neoliberal control, are sharpening their knives and learning from their past mistakes.” Behind every document of civility, he might as well have continued, is a document of barbarism. Creative disobedience to compulsory civility isn’t any kind of guarantee. But without its wild resources we would be greatly impoverished to wage the kind of struggles we are in the midst of now.

For José

20 Dec

by Tavia Nyong’o

 

José, I’m calling up thunder.

Through so many tears

Today, I’m knocking on your door.

Can you hear?

I’m listening for your laughter through the wall

That separates and connects your office and mine.

I’m eavesdropping for the murmur

of your quiet counsel.

Give me that counsel today.

 

Gimme, gimme the words,

help me name

what you were to us.

Because there are no words

without you here to help me find them.

 

José, I’m totally fucked up

In a way that especially you could see.

I’m calling up thunder

for you, for us

for the punk rock commons

whose unauthorized entry

into the Ivory Tower

tooks its stolen wealth

And sold it in the streets for love.

 

José, you know me:

Most days I go for something pretty

Something pretty and well-spoken

And tomorrow,

I’ll say something pretty

but today,

for you José

I’m calling up thunder

to say something true.

 

12.7.2013

 

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Bully on Forever

5 Dec

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