(Re)Writing Black Lesbian History through The Watermelon Woman

watermelon womanOften referred to as the “lesbian version” of Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), and winner of Best Feature at the Berlin International Film Festival, Cheryl Dunye’s 1996 film The Watermelon Woman is an unusual and revolutionary mock-documentary. Created on a relatively low budget of $300,000, the film is acclaimed as being the first ever feature film by a black lesbian filmmaker. Frequently narrated by Cheryl, who acts as the main character, the film presents her personal life as she embarks on a journey to learn everything she can about a black woman called Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards, who starred in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 1940’s. At the beginning of film, Cheryl talks directly to the camera, and outlines the basis for her documentary project:

“Hi, I’m Cheryl, and I’m a filmmaker. I’m not really a filmmaker, but I have a videotaping business with my friend Tamara, and I work at a video store… so I’m working on being a filmmaker. The problem is, I don’t know what I want to make a film on.  I know it has to be about black women, because our stories have never been told…”

While the film brings forth several overlapping themes, including interracial relationships, racial subjectivity, and identity politics, I would argue that Dunye’s main purpose in creating her film was to both deconstruct and reconstruct images of a historically invisible figure—the black lesbian. Black Feminists in “The Combahee River Collective Statement” declare, “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.” I would claim that these overlapping oppressions are also what led to the invisibility of the black lesbian figure, both historically and in the present.

Cheryl first brings visibility to the black lesbian simply by acting as the main character in the film. She provides further visibility through the inclusion of her best friend, Tamara, as well as Tamara’s girlfriend. Cheryl’s friendship with Tamara displays varying lesbian identity politics as Tamara often chastises Cheryl for dating a white lesbian, claiming Cheryl is not an “Authentic Black Lesbian” or “True Sister”. In addition to these representations in the film, Cheryl works to create more historic images of the black lesbian through her search to uncover as much as she can about Fae “The Watermelon Woman” Richards. At the conclusion of the film, Cheryl reflects upon what remembering this actress means to her in a monologue:

“It means hope, it means inspiration, it means possibility. It means history. And most important, what I understand, is it means that I am gonna be the one who says, ‘I am a black lesbian filmmaker,’ who’s just beginning, but I’m gonna say a lot more and have a lot more work to do. Anyway… what you’ve all been waiting for—the biography of Fae Richards, Faith Richardson.”

The film ends with Fae’s biography, a compilation of images and short film scenes overlapped with Cheryl’s voice-over. At the end of the biography and during the credits, Dunye explicitly declares the fictional status of the film stating, “Sometimes you have to create your own history. The Watermelon Woman is a fiction.”

Dunye’s creation of a fictional black lesbian from the 1930’s further emphasizes the invisibility of the black lesbian. More discomforting, viewers realize that what she said in her previous monologue was somewhat of an illusion. As Laura Sullivan states in “CHASING FAE: The Watermelon Woman and Black Lesbian Possibility”,  “Dunye had to make up a history of a black lesbian actress; in other words, she had to create her own hope, inspiration and possibility through the creation of a history that was not, but could have been, in some ways should have been, there.”

Through her film, Dunye attempts to (re)write a black lesbian history that was previously non-existent. With the help of New York City based photographer, Zoe Leonard, numerous images of this fictional black lesbian character were created. Made up of 78 images, the collection was later exhibited in galleries, and a book of the images was created as well.Fae Richardson

AIDS ART and ACTIVISM

From the black panther to Banksy street art to the power fist, art has consistently been used as a political tool within social activism. The queer community has an extensive history of using artwork during public demonstrations while fighting against issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1980’s, art pieces surrounding the HIV epidemic began to arise. AIDS activist Cleve Jones created the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. Soon after, one of the possibly most iconic art pieces to emerge from this period, the SILENCE = DEATH poster, was created.

silence = death

Created by Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras in New York as part of the Silence = Death Project, the poster sought to draw parallels between the gays in Nazi Germany and the AIDS crisis. In the Silence = Death Project manifesto, it was declared that ‘silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people, then and now, must be broken as a matter of our survival.’ The poster also read in small print, “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS? What is really going on at the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Vatican? Gays and lesbians are not expendable…Use your power…Vote…Boycott…Defend yourselves…Turn anger, fear, grief into action.”

Shortly later, an organization that would closely identify with the Silence = Death poster formed in New York City. ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) NY, founded by Larry Kramer in March of 1987, became iconic for their vocal demonstrations and non-violent direct action methods, which drew attention to central issues of the AIDS crisis.

Although the specific HIV/AIDS issues have changed with time, artwork surrounding HIV/AIDS activism has remained present. For example the AIDS memorial quilt is still growing with over 48,000 3 by 6 foot memorial panels. More interestingly, symbols and the spirit from early AIDS activism, particularly radical civil disobedience and the upright pink triangle, remain existent in many forms of current activism. Queerocracy, a relatively new NY activist organization that seeks to challenge and fight against structural inequalities that punish people living with HIV/AIDS, relies heavily upon political art in their direct action. Shown below are various art pieces that appeared during some of their events.

queerocracy

 

Ranging from “HIV IS NOT A CRIME, CRIMINALIZING IT IS” to “MY + PUSSY IS NOT POISON” and “MY + PENIS IS NOT A PISTOL” to “KISS ME I AM HIV +,” each art piece has a frank statement. It’s notable that while some of these pieces focus upon government funding and education, many are geared towards destigmatizing and decriminalizing PLWH/A (people living with HIV/AIDs). These new forms of art and activism fight to reduce the criminlization of HIV+ people. HIV criminalization laws exist in 34 states and 2 U.S. territories. These laws punish HIV exposure through sex, shared needles, and in some cases bodily fluids including saliva. Many people are prosecuted regardless of whether transmission occurred or the sexual act posed a transmission threat. In some cases, a person can even be proscecuted if they disclosed their status and the sex was consensual. The Center for HIV Law Policy reported that 180 such prosecutions have occurred from 2008 to 2013 alone.

Another art piece coming from this movement of decriminalization is a beautiful new take on the original SILENCE = DEATH poster recreated by Aids Action Now.

silence=sex

The new poster reads SILENCE = SEX, under which is written “The criminlization of HIV + people perpetuates stigma and prevents prevention. HIV+ people are often caught in a ‘Catch 22,’ wherin disclosure is required by law, but often leads to immediate rejection. Inform yourself: overcome stigma and get laid!” Accompanied with the poster is a brilliant poem by Jordan Arseneault titled, “The New Equation.” Included below is a short excerpt from his poem.

“It’s that awkward moment where you look up at the
SILENCE = DEATH poster
On his cluttered bedroom wall
And say the words
I AM HIV POSITIVE
Only to see him freeze, lose his boner, sigh,
And explain trippingly that he has an anxiety disorder
And “just can’t take it right now.”

It’s that awkward moment when you want to rip a hypocritical poster
off someone’s wall
Or at least half of it:
SILENCE = riiippppppp crumple crumple
SILENCE =
SILENCE = SEX
All those posters say THAT to me now:
Silence equals sex.”

Jordan highlights a story that is all too common, in which disclosure leads to immediate sexual dismissal. This altered recreation of an iconic poster accompanied by Arseneault’s poem produces disheartening, uncomfortable imagery. The feelings triggered by this imagery are what make it so powerful. I think that’s one major reason why art and activism are so heavily connected. Art evokes feelings, and feelings make people uncomfortable. Activism is not comfortable.

KAZAKY

Kazaky is a synthetic-pop, dance heavy, Ukrainian-based boyband that came together in Kiev, Ukraine back in 2010. Current band members consist of Kirill Fedorenko, Artur Gaspar, Artemy Lazarev, and Oleg Zhezhel. Famous for their 5.5-inch custom stilettos, the band first gained momentum towards the end of 2010 with the release of their first single, “In the Middle.” The song transfixed audiences across the world as members started out in more masculine clothing and then transitioned to a more androgynous appearance with their infamous heels. Their second single, “Love,” further expanded their popularity, with the music video reaching nearly 5 million views. The band has now produced two studio albums (The Hills Chronicles and I Like It (Part 1 + 2)) and numerous music videos. Unsurprisingly, the band members even appeared in one of Madonna’s music videos, “Girl Gone Wild” – Madonna obviously has a pattern of including backup performers that can dance significantly better than her. In addition to their studio albums and music videos, Kazaky has been featured in numerous high profile publications due to their bold and intrepid taste in fashion.

With backgrounds as trained dancers, group members are famous for their intricate and synchronized dance moves that draw upon many different styles and cultures. Kazaky’s choreography consists primarily of acrobatic dance, voguing, and waacking. Members of the band contrast gender with their high stilettos, hyper masculine physique, dark sensual androgynous fashion, and runway style dance choreography. More interestingly, band members intentionally keep their sexual identities hidden, only pointing out that some members are gay while others are not. In a response comment on one of their Youtube videos, member Oleg Zhezhel states, “the reason we never answer this question is because we try to keep a kind of mysterious charm.” Member Kirill Fedorenko adds, “We are unbiased in terms of being pro-straight or pro-gay. There is no gender-related implication. It’s all about the dance and the movement.” In addition to adding a level of curiosity, the band’s decision to withhold their sexual identities can be seen as a form of protective secrecy against their anti-queer, fascist political state.

On March 4, 2013 the band released a new track and video, “Crazy Law”.

Although not confirmed, it’s been speculated that the song and video are responding to the anti-gay propaganda legislation coming out of Russia. While synchronously dancing in intense leather and kink-spired clothing, band members promote ideals of self-love, desire, peace, and gender-nonconformity.

“Why am I feeling? This is a crazy law
You can have many looks, even how you’re born
Why am I feeling, this is a crazy law
I’m not trying to show you something wrong”

In the opening lines, band members question the validity of Russia’s homophobic legislation. Emphasizing a dynamic, non-singular attitude towards outward appearance, more arguably gender, the band rejects typical static, singular, and dichotomous stereotypes of gender. The band members argue that their performance and appearance is not unnatural, but instead a valid and real identity. Towards the end of the song members sing:

“Keep your dreams, keep your plans
All of this things you have is nice

The crazy best it’s now with us
Your body disappears don’t come up
Look around a lot of noise
Never gonna lose your voice”

Band members again reiterate a sense of anarchic validation towards individuality and separatism. They encourage listeners to maintain eccentricity and self-advocacy despite living within a controlling and repressive environment. Though Audre Lorde argues for a new modern understanding of the erotic from an empowering female perspective, one could connect ideas from her writing to members of Kazaky. Kazaky’s performances can be seen as a source of erotic power, and a sharing of that power with their viewers. With their androgynous, gender-bending looks and outward projection of multi-faceted sexual identities, members refuse submittal to traditional gender and sexual expectations. Instead, members foster power from within themselves and from within their differences and similarities. They search for new understandings of the erotic and attempt to bring that power to those stripped of it by oppressive political structures.