(Previously published at New Black Man in Exile )
“To be androgynous, Webster’s informs us, is to have both male and female characteristics. This means that there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man.”
–James Baldwin, “Here Be Dragons” (1985)
“The case of James Baldwin aside for a moment, it seems that many Negro homosexuals, acquiescing in this racial death-wish, are outraged and frustrated because in their sickness they are unable to have a baby by a white man.”
–Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice
In my youth I was unaware that I am covered in political flesh. I was, however, painfully aware that having a specific kind of flesh transformed me into a very public textual body, subject to uninvited readings and interpretations that in various ways “mattered.” I grew accustomed to being “read” in ways that I didn’t care for or find useful. The first (and possibly most meaningful) reading came just minutes out of my mother’s womb: “Too light-skinned. Can’t be my child.” Without a doubt, that was the beginning of many years of body frustration. While it occurred at the end of one body-making process, it initiated another; it established the necessity of knowing myself as a body and apart from one.
In its many dimensions my body has at times been as much a mystery to me as it has been (and continues to be) to others. Not in its physical dimensions, though they “matter”—that is, they are a part of an important ongoing process of layering, invention, and formation, the end of which produces the porous bodies that we are. But that process is also informed by many other dimensions that contribute to one’s overall condition and the extent to which we may say that we “know” ourselves. I speak of a knowability beyond what can be seen or dissected; a gray area beyond the material truth of flesh and many invisible layers of ideological skin lain on top of that truth to make it visually and ontologically real. I am speaking of something deeper than could ever be actualized by the people, institutions, and systems tasked with “telling” us who we are and marking us with metaphors. Because of them, I know my body as dispossessed, disowned, over-determined, violated, undesired, desired, threatened, inferior, exalted, sinful, too smart, not smart enough, too much, too little, threatening, criminalized, pathologized, feminized—generally over-read in troubling ways that I have struggled for many years to emancipate myself from. But I also know that these readings are epistemologically unreliable, if for no other reason than the fact that they are the anxious projections others.
I think of my body as a needle in an enormous haystack of reductive identities and categories thought to be necessary components of social organization. Physically and metaphysically, I am small and lost among the vast layers of socio-political assignments and readings that work to (re)produce legible categories of identification for each of us— the hay. The end result of that process of layering is a person, a man, who in his failed resistance is the product of other men’s imaginations. Both my body and life naturally resist this process of reproduction, so I have had many questions. I have looked at myself and dared to attempt a burning down of the haystack, a leveling, that would allow me to clearly see the degree to which so many of the metaphors of the flesh are really just impotent rhetorics of power. The task of the troubled body is finding the needle—the self—among all of the anxiety induced projections and imaginative ideals that burden his/her body. Reflection on that process, for me, is crowded by far too many incidents of over-determination, many of which I had no clue what to do with.
I have vivid memories of discovering my blackness in the 5th grade upon being uninvited from my white best friend’s birthday party because his mother said she didn’t “know” me—despite the fact that I played at their home regularly. I realized very quickly that my blackness was the single factor that distinguished me from the others she felt she “knew.” Not because anyone told me the real issue was my blackness, I realized that fact in in the silence that filled the room when I told my parents I was an “unknown.” They didn’t say a thing; they simply sent me away to play then took me for ice cream. In retrospect, she wasn’t wrong … she didn’t know me; she couldn’t. So it was in the fifth grade that I learned my body as threatening, unknowable, and alien. And due to the threat it seemed/seems to suggest to others, I learned very early that spaces are regulated and maintained, guarded by people who are invested in maintaining the boundaries of what they consider to be theirs to steward. And those considerations extend themselves well beyond the private spaces those people call “home.” In fact the expansiveness of their homes is often an attempt to interdict any establishment of one for me. I am a thing—to be regulated and carefully policed and bound by reason of the bloated myths that seem to matter in readings of my blackness.
When I was younger I wondered about the stakes of “difference” in relation to my budding queer sexuality. How did others seem to see it in me? Why didn’t I know anyone else who had this same “problem”? I cannot point you to an exact moment when I became aware of it, but I can easily point you to the moments and spaces where I learned that I was different and what that difference meant for me in terms of my public body.
Before church, I used to remind myself regularly to wear a jacket. Though it was no crime to be a slim black man, I knew that my less than imposing body was read as “dainty” rather than manly. As such, I fit the stereotype of the “Church Queen”— the small gifted choir director given to shameless praise without consideration for how my spirituality (re)positioned my public body just as much as it did my soul. I understood that blazers and jackets hid my build and gave the appearance of being bulky. Only women were to be appreciated for their absence of excess; men are/were required to be excessive to the point of intimidation. I came to understand the stakes of black queer bodiliness on holy ground. I was taught that among things deemed sacred in this world, my body was/is profane—not one of the spiritual bodies presented each week to God as “holy and acceptable living sacrifices.” I learned myself as unacceptable, an unholy thing.
On many occasions I stood in the mirror scrutinizing my body. I practiced walking “like a man,” straightening my posture, walking with a slight dip to appear manly. It did not work. I went to school only to have Henry Meyers, a straight country boy of good Christian stock, pull me aside to say, “Don’t hold your head up like that when you walk. It makes you look funny… .” I understood what he did not say. I understood funny to mean that my body and the way I held my head, were read as gay/queer. I also understood it to mean that my performance of manhood was … laughable. Henry wanted to spare me from more aggressive readings that would lead to bullying. I understood then that everywhere I went, my body was read differently in terms of its capacity to house things considered transgressive and “freakish” by those who needed me to be their definition of “man.” Similarly, I am read as anti-black by black people who need me to be their version of blackness. In my black and masculine insufficiency, which are equally read as excessive/beyond, is the real issue simply that my body itself resists the constraints of the neat categories that hold this fragile system of public identities together?
As an adult I have listened to praise for men like Prince, Andre 3000, Jaden Smith, Lil’ Uzi Vert, Young Thug and others—men perceived as free in their personal expressions of selfhood for their willingness to toe the line of Baldwinian androgyny. They publicly access a greater degree of their erotic resources than the average man, and their reading publics approve. Their embrace of things traditionally labeled feminine/anti-masculine, are merely labeled “metrosexual”—a term that has not been worried enough for its suggestion of what it means to be a man/masculine in the city versus the country. They are praised for the liberatory politics of their public bodies and performances. But when I hear others praise these performances as forms of freedom I am always moved to wonder why then my black queer body—and queerness itself—cannot be appreciated as free as well. If that is what freedom looks like … then why should I be bound?