Audre Lorde and a Celebration Through Labels

Audre Lorde, born Audrey Geraldine Lorde, was born on February 18, 1934 in New York City to Caribbean immigrant parents. Her parents came to the United States from the West Indies. As the youngest of three children she was raised in Harlem and was born so tounge tied and nearsighted that she was considered to be legally blind. Growing up Lorde developed a love of poetry early on from her mother teaching her to read and talk around the age of four, and being influenced by her mother’s “special and secret relationship with words’ writing her first poem in the eighth grade. Lorde stated “words had an energy and power and I came to respect that power early. Pronouns, nouns, and verbs were citizens of different countries, who really got together to make a new world”. While in high school she became the literary editor of her schools art magazine and her first poem was published to Seventeen magazine before she graduated high school.

After high school Lorde attended Hunter College from 1954 to 1959 and graduated with a BA studying library science and a spent a year at the National University of Mexico, which Lorde described as a time of affirmation and renewal. She supported herself by working numerous odd jobs as a factory worker, ghost writer, social worker, x-ray technician, medical clerk, and arts and crafts supervisor. After graduating from Hunter College, Lorde went on to get her master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961. In 1962 lord met Edwin Rollins, to which she had two kids, Elizabeth and Johnathan, and the two would later divorce in 1970. Before divorcing her husband, in 1968 she became a writer-in-residence at Tougaloo University. There she met Frances Clayton, who would that became her long term partner.

Lorde self describes herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”. Lorde embraces these labels and uses them as a form of expression and almost liberation. She writes in the Cancer Journals “imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness”. Lorde used these labels as inspiration and a platform in her poetry for writing to tell of the injustices against woman, African-Americans, individuals of sexual oppression and many others. She looked at these identities, though seemingly different and incompatible, as working together to form one unique identity that encompasses all of her complexities and fully embraces them. In her poem Martha, she eloquently came out as a lesbian through storytelling:

I need you need me

Je suis Martha I do not speak French kissing

oh Wow. Black and…Black and…beautiful?

Black and becoming

somebody else maybe Erica maybe who sat

in the fourth row behind us in high school

but I never took French with you Martha

and who is this Madame Erudite

who is not me?

And in her poem Coal she openly accepts and embraces her race and say it in a way that can be interpreted as uplifting

“I

Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth’s inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, coloured

By who pays what for speaking….

I am black because I come from the earth’s inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light”

Lorde’s perspectives on labels is quite the opposite to some people’s views of labels today. Over the course of the semester, especially during the history unit when looking at Walt Whitman labels were seen as something that is no longer important or of use. It seems that one of the main consensuses was that people are starting to move away from these labels and push them aside in order to define themselves. There is very much a “you do you” attitude amongst the younger generations. The common belief may be that labels put the individual into a box and restricts them from being the complex being that they are. This rejection or unwillingness to accept a label has been around for years, and a prime example of this lack of labeling is Walt Whitman. Within Whitman’s poetry he commonly alludes to relationships between individuals sometimes without giving them a gender and has described these intimate relationships between men but refers to them as “friend” or “comrade”.  In the Calamus Cluster several of Whitman’s poems describe these intimate relationships between two men. In the poems A Glimpse and This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful, Whitman develops and describes relationships between men that could be interpreted as much more than a simple friendship

“A GLIMPSE through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the 

         stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a
corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching
and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking
and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, 

 perhaps not a word. “

 

“THIS moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,

It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
thoughtful,
 

It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,

Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
dialects,

And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,

O I know we should be brethren and lovers,

I know I should be happy with them.”

Even when questioned about his sexuality and his poems, Whitman denies and runs from full disclosure, while Lorde seemingly does the opposite. Lorde can be cited as saying “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. While possibly in today’s standard these labels may be seen as confining and restricting, and that labels do nothing more than divide us and don’t explain how complex we are, Lorde would challenge otherwise. She wouldn’t look at the labels and think that she is being pushed into a box, she would look at these label and see a celebration and argue that we don’t have to pick just one aspect of ourselves to focus on or pick just one label to define ourselves. We are in control of how we define ourselves and these labels allow us to show our difference while also learning to live in harmony with the complexities within ourselves and other. Labels don’t have to be a source of confinement or a box; they can be whatever we want them to be.

“it is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”

Queering Racist Symbols

While watching the movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”, I was so wrapped up in the plot that I did not notice the big details. One of the larger details that I missed that was brought up in class is the moment in the film when RuPaul dressed in the confederate flag at a drag ball. The ball occurs in the beginning of the film; the three main characters are in a competition to take the ball’s title. RuPaul is introduced as last year’s winner and makes her début donning the glamorous confederate flag gown. RuPaul is one of the most widely known drag queens. She is an actor, recording artist, television show host, and has been the face of drag queens for quite some time.

Not only is RuPaul’s dress made from the confederate flag, but also the dress is made to be very extravagant and glittered. RuPaul has taken the very negative symbol that goes against even aspect of her character – black male, queer, drag queen – and turned it into a freaking dress. If that is not a huge   to the confederate flag and its meaning, I do not know what is.

RuConfed

There has been a controversial debate around what the confederate flag represents. Some people believe it is a symbol of southern pride – while most recognize the confederate flag as a symbol of racism and a reference to the horrible acts perpetuated against black people during that time. The flag also represents white supremacy and the push that happened against the civil rights movement. In my opinion, if the confederate flag is considered a symbol of southern pride, we have to take into consideration the period in which this represents. The south openly embraced slavery and the lynching of black peoples during the time the confederate flag was embraced. It is also important to note that this era has not ended, these acts have just changed form and are still perpetrated in a different manner. Southern pride must include that history so if you are claiming to embrace racist ideals. During the time of the confederate flag, this was also southern pride:

The only difference between these two images is that this image cannot be put on a flag and be mainstream.

Why is RuPaul wearing this symbol of racism and white supremacy?

Elizabeth Freeman would describe this phenomenon in terms of “temporal drag”. According to Freeman’s piece “Time Binds”, “temporal drag is a productive obstacle to progress, a usefully distorting pull backward, and a necessary pressure on the present tense”. Temporal drag is when a specific object representing a certain culture is revamped. This remaking is meant to conjure memories of the past, but not continuing or mocking it; it is remodeled for a different reason.

I agree with partially with Freeman’s concept of temporal drag. I agree with the notion of an object of the past being created into a new entity, however, I do feel like RuPaul was mocking it. I believe she was showing that the flag meant absolutely nothing and was just another piece of fabric. Drag queens are known for two actions: performing and “reading”. Reading, in drag queen terms, is a form of publicly making fun of someone. I believe RuPaul was definitely reading those individuals who embrace that flag by making it into a dress and performing for those at the ball. She was demonstrating how much she did not care about the meaning of the confederate flag and showing the lack of respect for it. The flag means the world to some people and she was showing them that the flag and it meaning actually meant nothing.

In carrying out this performative reading, I believe RuPaul is concurrently reaching for something else, something deeper. As Jose Munoz said in his novel “Cruising Utopia”, “Turning to the aesthetic in the case of queerness is nothing like an escape from the social realm, insofar as queer aesthetics map future social relations. Queerness is also a performative because it is not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future. Queerness is essentially about the rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” In a way, I believe RuPaul was performing the acceptance of all people. By making that flag into an extravagant gown, she is rejecting white supremacy and the systems that are created by that supremacy which oppress groups of people.

I believe there are many reasons why RuPaul decided to wear that dress instead of verbalizing her opinion. However, the main reason could be that she did not want to spend time explaining how she felt to those who would questioned her.

Audre Lorde said it best, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” Why should those that are oppressed explain their plights and their feelings to the oppressors? In order to avoid that explanation, RuPaul decided to wear that gown instead of speaking her feelings. If the oppressors want to understand the oppressed, they need to do research of their own instead expecting the oppressed to explain everything.

Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men

stillblackfilm

Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men is an American documentary produced in 2008 by filmmaker, artist, activist, producer, writer, entrepreneur, and trans man Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler. Much of Ziegler’s works focus on race, sexuality, and transgenderism. Ziegler was born December 15, 1980 in Compton, California, and currently resides in Oakland, California. He was the not only the first graduate, but the first African-American to receive a PhD from Northwestern University in African-American Studies. He also has received a master’s in African-American studies, and ethnic studies, as well as a B.A in film and digital media. Ziegler has received numerous recognitions and awards. He was nominated in 2012 for a transguy community award for best blog, was nominated in 2013 for a GLAAD Media Award for outstanding blog, and was honored in 2013 for the Authentic Life award by the Transgender Law Center. He is a strong advocate of social justice, and empowerment of the transgender community, specifically with black trans men.

His movie Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men is one of his most cherished and credited  works. The documentary features the stories of six black transmen from diverse backgrounds in different parts of the United States at different stages in their lives. Ziegler interviews activists, teachers, students, and more to tell their story of transition, the relationships they have with family as well as the outside world, and how being a black trans man has negative stereotypes and stigmas not only from being trans, but also from being a black man. It aims to empower black trans men while also making their struggle known to heteronormative society as well as the LGBTQ community. It shows how the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality all come into play in the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Queer culture is evident throughout the entire documentary. It shows the lives of men living outside of the rules of a very heteronormative society. It shows them bending and pushing the boundaries of a rigid gender binary simply by having each man tell their story. Each man, though in different stages of life carried a sense of pride about being a trans man and openly own that identity. Kylar Broadus, an interviewee in the film, mentions this about being transsexual when asked if he ever regretted transitioning:

I never look back a day. Never regretted one day my decision because it was life or death for me at that point, and it wouldn’t be worth living if I wasn’t living who I am.

This blatant acclimation of self-pride and recognition that to conform to societies norms would be his downfall, automatically puts him and every other trans man outside the box. I believe making this an interesting addition to the archive.

A common theme within the documentary was the issue of what being a man is and learning how to become the man you want to be, as well as the discrepancy they felt pre transition. Leslie Feinberg states “Our lives prove that sex and gender are much more complex than a delivery room doctor’s glance at genitals can determine, more variegated than pink or blue birth caps.” The documentary and the stories of these men prove Feinberg’s point that gender is complex and cannot always be simply divided into male and female based off of a person’s biological genitalia. How a person self identifies and feels is just as important as biological sex enforcing the theme of how discrepancy and dissonance pretransition can arise within transmen. Louis Mitchell simply put it “Being an man and having a period sucks”.  Most men mention feeling the need to conform to societies views of gender by initially portraying themselves as lesbians, all the while feeling like that wasn’t who they truly were until they’ve had enough

I’m beginning a relationship with my body after so many years of pretending it wasn’t there

– Louis Mitchell

 Judith Butler states “Gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today. Performativity is a matter of reiterating or repeating the norms by which one is constituted”. Performativity has been a part of everyday life since birth, which was evident in these trans men’s stories. Each one in some way stated how figuring out what type of man to be or how to change their mannerism’s was a struggle and learning process.  This performativity had lasting effects on these individuals, as one man mentioned that as a female he was taught to not look people in the eyes, but as a man it is the opposite, but he still has trouble looking both men and woman in the eyes. Then as the documentary began to intersect race it became more complex. Ethan Young mentions that the only depictions people see of black men are either criminals or gangsters but he was neither of those, leading him to question where that leaves him. Each man had to learn to shake off the performativity aspect and learn to be a man of their own.

I’m already the man I want to be I just have to live it. I’m not doing this to make my life easy or hard. It’s not a choice that I have it something I have to do to be comfortable and live.

– Ethan Young

blackademic

For all of us in this crowd who fuck with ideas of masculinity, femininity, maleness, femaleness, boy, girl, man, woman, sir, madam, Mr., Mrs., and Ms.–and look incredibly sexy while doing it.

  • Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Trans March 2013

Mia McKenzie – The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis

“To be a black girl in the world is to be nothing. To be a black girl in the world is to be dismissed and dehumanized at every corner of the globe, every single day. To be brilliant and a black girl is, in many people’s minds, an oxymoron. An impossibility.”

Mia McKenzie, a black feminist who identifies as queer, uses her experiences through the intersection of her identities to write inspirational novels. She also created a blog titled “Black Girl Dangerous” which is an open forum for Queer and Trans* people of color (QTPOC). This blog is the only online forum of its kind. This blog tackles issues dealing with race, resistance, transgender, queer, current events, gender, feminism, wellness, community, solidarity, education, family, and even some humor. It features 200 writers who fall under QTPOC from 3 different countries who constantly share their life experiences and thoughts, which averages about 500 readers from every continent.

Sifting through the archives of Mia McKenzie’s Black Girl Dangerous blog, I searched for something that spoke to me but still related to gender. I came across an article on a young Black girl by the name of Quvenzhané Wallis that spoke to my heart titled, “The Thing About Being A Little Black Girl In the World: For Quvenzhané Wallis”. Mia McKenzie wrote it on February 25, 2013. For those who do not know, Ms. Wallis is an actress who played roles in 12 Years a Slave, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the newest rendition of Annie. In addition, she is the youngest person EVER to be nominated for an Oscar Award.

I am lucky. Because I know what I am.

And knowing makes me dangerous.

I see this article as queer culture and as queering normative culture. I deem the article queer culture because an individual who identifies as a queer person of color wrote it. In addition, I view it as queering normative culture because it describes Quvenzhané and the plight she experienced for playing Annie. The writers of the revised Annie took “normal” little orphan Annie (a little freckled, White, redhead) and completely changed her to be a Black, brown-haired girl. The norm was taken and flipped into something different – something queer. Lastly, I view this piece as queering normative culture because McKenzie is doing something mainstream media refuses to do: she is telling Black women they matter and she is expressing just how inspirational and important they are. While normal culture is trying to change Black women, McKenzie is telling them they are amazing just as they are.

 image

“The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that even when you are the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, many people will use the occasion not to hold you up for all of the amazing things you obviously are, but to tear you down for the ways you don’t look like them, the ways your name isn’t their kind of right, the ways you don’t remind them of themselves, the ways you are not blonde or blue-eyed, as if those things could possibly matter when set against the otherwordly talent and beauty and brilliance you possess.”

McKenzie’s article describes just how hard it is to be a Black girl (or even woman) in America. She begins her piece by describing how despite the level of greatness a woman holds, in particular Black women, because they don’t look like the perceived norm, people will find reasons to discredit these women and make them seem worthless. This relates to a class discussion on the ideal woman and what we believe a woman is. Since Wallis doesn’t fit into that category of white, skinny, housewifeness, she tends to be seen as less than a woman. (In her case, less than a girl). The fact that Quvenzhané is the youngest PERSON, man or woman, to be nominated for an Academy award is an astounding fact in and of itself, so why isn’t she treated as greatness? Instead, she was faced with this ignorance. Quvenzhané has made large strides for someone of her age and that fact should be recognized.

“The thing about being a little black girl in the world who is already, at nine years old, confident enough to demand that lazy, disrespectful reporters call you by your name, is that most people will not understand the amount of comfort in one’s own skin it takes to do that, will not be able to grasp the sheer fierceness of it, the boldness, the certainty, the love for yourself, and will not be blown away at seeing you do it, though they should be.”

Mia McKenzie continues her piece by describing the confidence and courage Quvenzhané had to correct an Associated Press reporter who said she would just call her “Annie” instead of attempting to pronounce her name. This reminded me of a quote I heard once from Uzo Abuda, “Without missing a beat, [my mother] said, ‘If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.'” Why didn’t the reporter attempt to say Quvenzhané’s name? Is it because she is Black? Is it because she is a female? Successful white men haven’t had an issue with individuals giving them nicknames because their names were too hard to pronounce, so why must women be subjected to such disrespect?

“The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that your right to be a child, to be small and innocent and protected, will be ignored and you will be seen as a tiny adult, a tiny black adult, and as such will be susceptible to all the offenses that people two and three and four times your age are expected to endure.”

Quvenzhané has been attacked from many sides, but mainly in regards to her race and to her gender. At the time when most of these attacks occurred, she was 9 years of age. McKenzie describes the harsh reality for women and men of color: they have no innocence; they are just seen as little adults. Wallis is expected to defend herself and deal with all of this ignorance at such a young age and she handles herself extremely maturely.

The issues of this article mainly pertain to women, women of color. Men don’t have to deal with these issues because they hold power in society. But why? What is so special about gender that allow men to be able to live life without having to worry about such issues?

Kirsten Savali says it best,Shirley Chisholm once said that ‘the emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.” For Black women, go ahead and add racial objectification to the list.’ And if the case of a 9-year-old Black girl has taught us anything, it’s that when it comes to combating intersecting cases of racism and sexism, don’t be surprised if we’re all we got.”