* * *
“Whatever a person wants to get out of art, life has more of it, and art’s duty is to take on a managerial relationship to the sensory by existing in a state of uidity, even precarity—and in this ephemeral state it haunts life, it folds all life into it.”—Manuel Arturo Abreu, “Against the Supremacy of Thought”
After practice one day, the other girls on my high school varsity tennis team walked o the courts and sat in a circle on the grass to stretch their legs and pack up their stuff. Josephine, the team captain, announced to everyone else how badly she needed to shave her legs. Laughing, the other girls chimed in about the unkempt states of their own leg hair situations. Standing, as it was in my nature to do, awkwardly off to the side, I realized I’d never thought to shave any part of my body. Not even once. That night, I ducked into the supermarket on my walk home and bought myself a razor and some shaving cream.
The next day, in physics class, I asked a tall, shaggy-haired lacrosse player named Tyler if I could borrow his jacket, taking my voice up about a half-octave and pretending I was cold by wrapping my arms across my chest. He gave me the jacket. I tried my best to hide my surprise. Tyler had never been particularly nice to me before, or even really noticed me, but there he was, smiling a sweet boyish smile in my direction. Somewhere in my mind, I made a note: if you want boys to pay attention to you, shave your legs and act like you need help.
To my lesbian mother’s delight, I came out during my senior year of high school. But my relationship with my girlfriend at the time didn’t last very long. Though I couldn’t have articulated this to myself then, I couldn’t make love to Maggie the way I wanted to. I was missing the body parts I thought I needed, and my feelings of dysphoria plagued our relationship. After we broke up, I un-came out to my mother. I dated men almost exclusively for years, despite the fact that I wanted to be the men I dated more than I wanted to date them.
Since beginning hormone therapy, sex with men doesn’t plague me — but for a long time, I hid my dysphoria from myself by convincing myself that if I could get the right man to love me, my feelings of emptiness and incompleteness would go away. Not only did that stop working (it’s hard to say whether it ever really worked in the first place), but it also turns out that most male attention felt more or less predatory to me while I continued to ignore the excessive amounts of toxic shame I was walking around with.
Like being a child forever, being a woman in our society tends to mean having weakness and vulnerability projected onto you. Before I was sure I was trans*, I hesitated to transition because I didn’t want to feel like I was giving up my body just because I resent the way women are read and treated in this society. But being trans* is different from suffering from toxic, internalized shame — though those two things can overlap, especially if you’ve gone through various forms of trauma in early development like I have. Feeling more comfortable in my body as it changes on testosterone is different from cultivating a sense of myself as being innately invaluable as a human being, but both those things can and have overlapped.
Growing up, I rationalized my father’s absence with ideas about gender norms. I thought that men, since they are more powerful, didn’t have to have any obligations to other people. I thought that I, too, wanted to not have obligations to other people. I internalized a concept of feminine love as that which either perfectly complements or perfectly emulates the love-object. Both versions are traps.
In certain ways, having power projected onto you is as asphyxiating as having powerlessness projected onto you. The primary difference is that having powerlessness projected onto you puts you into danger that having power projected onto you doesn’t. Having obligations to other people is part of the beauty of being human, but our connections have to be chosen, not imposed. For a long time, I thought the only way to freely choose anything was as a man.
The truth is, freedom is the most mundane thing imaginable but it’s also hard to locate and it’s rarely “pure.” All marginalized people inhabit two worlds at the same time: those of freedom and nonfreedom. Being unfree is different than being in bondage. In bondage, as in the case of enslavement, one’s body is owned by someone else. Being unfree, on the other hand, is what happens after the end of enslavement: one becomes an “emancipated” citizen in the society that used to enslave her and that is still built to do so — without a literal title on one’s body, but still with the power to destroy that body, threaten it, circumscribe it, categorize it, and imprison it.
Should we, “post-bondage,” focus on the ways in which we’re free (free to move, free to buy, free to breathe) or the ways we’re not free (free to move but displaced and shuffled around, free to buy but within a capitalist system in which one used to exist as commodity, free to breathe but in especial danger at all times)? Neither. In order to locate liberation, one has to locate a third space. This alter-space is not “outside of,” “away from” or “other than” our present world. Instead, it is an intensification, or deepening, of mundane reality.
The performance of what we might call black (male) nihilism lives in the space of the hypermundane. In a skit that aired during a 2013 episode of The Eric Andre Show, Andre is dressed as an NYPD cop, handcuffed to a lamppost with his pants down around his ankles. He begs people from the crowd forming around him to help him pull up his pants. Mocking his own masculinity, his authority, Andre makes himself vulnerable to passers-by, who look on with a mix of piteous humor and disturbed concern. A black man posing as a failed cop, handcuffed to a phallic object, assumes the identity of the oppressor and makes a mockery of that same oppressor.
The crowd of black witnesses to Andre’s prank don’t exactly enjoy a moment of catharsis at seeing the disempowered and emasculated policeman because they’re busy trying to figure out whether to fear Andre (at one point, one man warns the others not to touch him) or to help him. Viewers do enjoy the opportunity, however, to intervene in their daily lives with a kind of agency or power they don’t otherwise experience. The temporary release from the mundane represented by the opportunity to assist a cop in a humorously embarrassing predicament is also a heightening of the mundane. Andre’s vulnerability introduces softness, humanity, and tenderness (as embodied by his nudity) where before — in the masculine, authoritative ideal — there was little. We could describe this performance by Andre as a deliberate misperformance of an archetype of heteronormative masculinity that then frees us from that ideal by exposing it as farcical.
Though it’s hard to identify rappers these days who seem as straightforwardly masculine as 50 Cent seemed to me when I was growing up — which may be due to the fact that I questioned masculinity as a concept much less when I was a pre-teen and teenager in the late 90s and early 2000s and I might say the same of the culture at the time — there are plenty of contemporary examples of black male celebrities “playing the part.” Representing this black masculine ideal involves demonstrating physical strength, wealth, sexual prowess and relationships with women who rely on him for material goods and sex, engaging successfully in conflicts with others, and rising above competition, whether that call for physical violence and/or intellectual excellence. All that being said, figures like Drake and Future, while fulfilling a masculine archetype in certain ways seem, to my slightly more grown-up senses, to also harbor elements of traditional femininity in their music and self-presentation. I think of Future’s long, beautiful locs.
Notwithstanding how “straightforward” (or otherwise) their performances of masculinity are, before I go any further, I must admit that the way that the black, male-identified figures in this essay have begun to bleed into and overlap with one another, threatening to become, in a sense, interchangeable with one another or in the very least, instrumental, is part of the horror that has also kept me from writing this essay for so long. Speaking about these men abstractly feels problematic, seeing as it requires me to idealize them. And though I believe myself to have good motives and good information, I am nonetheless making use of human beings — to whom I have no real relationship — to make a point, recreating the conditions for this society’s continued dehumanization of the so-called “black body,” which has long served as a framework through which to ascribe evil to the world. But what prevents me speaking is what I must speak about.
Historically, “the white body” has sought to understand itself in relation to “the black body,” which acts as a mirror, a relief, as contrast. Systematically dehumanized people have a hard time, to say the least, telling the difference between what others project onto them and who they are. Even our language, in which the words “dark” and “black” carry negative connotations, performs this projection. How can we speak about freedom if the language we’re using isn’t free? Does the way that we talk about this problem make a difference in how we try to solve it? Does the question as I’ve phrased it fail to adequately exhaust the possibilities?
It can be easy for black people to believe, about themselves and each other, the fabrications of white culture, which has always sought to disown its basic humanity, sensuality, creatureliness, and sexuality. As a result, many of us are always and already performing in the direction of liberation, performing the mundane. By referencing performance, however, I don’t mean to suggest there’s a difference between performance and reality. Instead, I’m trying to introduce the absurdity back into a system — white culture — that has come to seem, to many, normal. Art movements such as Afrofuturism are defined by that re-queering of so-called reality. I want to suggest performance as lived reality, the site of performance being located neither “inside” nor “outside,” but at a threshold, at the stage of one’s skin.
The violence and brutality of white culture is a function of the extent to which it passes unnoticed, under the radar of our senses, making constant recourse to objectivity and the supposed lack of bodily presence, softness, tenderness, and of feeling mind. By pointing to the performances of marginalized people, I’m not implying that there is some unperforming or unparticipating audience. It is, in fact, the presence of a performing and projecting audience that creates the occasion for all other performances. It is to say, I perform my death for you because you have demanded my death. You have exploited my work and my work has become that exploit. This process will kill me and you will celebrate my death. You will celebrate what my death has done for you, without knowing you are celebrating.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.