Appropriating blackness Performance and the politics of authenticity
By E. Patrick Johnson
Duke University Press ISBN: 0-8223-3191-8
THE POT IS BREWING
Marlon Riggs's Black Is ... Black Ain't
There has been a history of excluding other black folk from community to the detriment of our overall empowerment.-Marlon Riggs
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, black gay poet and filmmaker Marlon Riggs committed his life to chronicling black American life. His early works, Ethnic Notions (1986) and Color Adjustment (1991), for example, documented the history of the images of blacks in art, artifacts, television, theater, and film. His most controversial work, Tongues Untied, however, debuted on the PBS Point of View series in 1990, and it chronicles Riggs's personal struggles with coming to terms with his racial and sexual identities, and with homophobia in black communities and racism in white communities. In one of the more poignant moments of Tongues Untied, a collage of obituaries of black gay men who have died of AIDS flashes on the screen while the sound of a heartbeat thumps in the background. This series of pictures is preceded by Essex Hemphill performing his poem "Now We Think," which emblematizes the paranoia of contracting HIV/AIDS experienced by gay men: "Now we think / as we fuck / this nut / might kill us. / There might be / a pin-sized hole / in the condom. / A lethalleak." Echoing the poem's angst-ridden tone, Riggs announces that "a time bomb is ticking in my blood." The newspaper clippings of those who have fallen victim to aids appear in succession, appearing more rapidly as they proceed, over which Riggs narrates: "I listen for my own quiet implosion, but while I wait, older, stronger rhythms resonate within me, sustain my spirit, silencing the clock." The last image of this series of pictures is that of Riggs himself, as if foreshadowing his own death that would come four years later. The "older, stronger rhythms" that "resonate" within him and "sustain his spirit" are represented in the collage of images following the series of obituaries, the first picture being one of Harriet Tubman who, for Riggs, is an emblem of the struggle for black freedom and equality, and who Riggs invokes even more prominently in his film Black Is ... Black Ain't.
In some ways Black Is ... Black Ain't is the sequel to Tongues Untied in that although it broadens its scope to examine black identity in all of its contradictions and contingencies, the focus of the film is Riggs's battle with aids, which he apparently knew he had contracted when he filmed Tongues Untied. Riggs thus stages the fight for his life against AIDS within the broader context of black identity politics. For Riggs, the processes by which we fight deadly diseases such as aids and those by which we fight over the embattled status of blackness circumscribe the process by which we come into our humanity. In other words, when we "fix" and confine our identity asmonolithic, we inhibit our road both to recovery from the diseases that plague our communities and to discovering our humanity. Taking the "fact" of the diseased and "black" body as givens, Riggs, according to Martin Favor, "refuses to delineate the boundaries of blackness even as [the film's title] invokes the category as truly experienced and, indeed, necessary." Resonating the queer theory critique of identity as ontological, the film also allows for the subject's agency and authority by visually privileging Riggs's AIDS experience narrative. Indeed, the film's documentation of Riggs's declining health, highlighted by the reiteration of his declining T-cell count coupled with his own narration, suggests an identity and a body in the process of "being" and "becoming," of identity as performance and performativity.
Insofar as identity is performed and experienced as real, it constitutes a legitimate way through which subjects maintain control over their lives and their image. But performance does not foreclose the discursive signifiers that undergird the terms of its production. Through my reading of the film, then, I will focus on the dialectic created between performance and performativity, demonstrating why one critical trope necessarily depends on the other in the process of identity formation. Black Is ... Black Ain't demonstrates just how over-determined black identity and authenticity are by elaborating on the ways in which skin color alone is simultaneously an inadequate yet sometimes a socially, culturally, and politically necessary signifier of blackness.
In the first half of this chapter I will elaborate the process by which the film engages performativity to underscore the problematic pursuit of authentic identity claims. Although theories of performativity focus primarily on the performativity of gender, I engage a discussion about the performativity of race. One of the ways in which the film engages this critique is by pointing out how, at the very least, gender, class, sexuality, and region all impact the construction of blackness. Indeed, the title of the film-Black Is ... Black Ain't-itself embodies how race defines, as well as confines, black Americans. The running trope used by Riggs to illuminate the multiplicity of blackness is gumbo, a dish whose ingredients consist of whatever the cook wishes. It has, Riggs remarks, "everything you can imagine in it." This trope also underscores the multiplicity of blackness insofar as gumbo is a dish associated with New Orleans, a city confounded by its mixed raced progeny and the identity politics that mixing creates. The gumbo trope is apropos because, like "blackness," gumbo is a site of possibilities. The film argues that when black Americans attempt to define what it means to be black, they delimit the possibilities of what blackness can be. At times, this process of demarcating blackness may be counterproductive to the flavor of the roux that acts as the base of the gumbo that is "blackness."
But Riggs's film does more than just stir things up. In many ways it reduces the heat of the pot to a simmer, allowing everything in the gumbo to mix and mesh yet maintain a distinct flavor; for after all, chicken is distinct from andouille sausage, rice from peas, bay leaf from thyme, cayenne from paprika. Thus, Riggs's film suggests that black Americans cannot begin to ask the dominant culture to accept their difference as Others nor accept their humanity until black Americans accept the differences that exist among themselves. Riggs's film does the work that Dwight McBride calls for: "[To] create new and more inclusive ways of speaking about race that do not cause even good, thorough thinkers ... to compromise their/our own critical veracity by participating in the form of race discourse that has been hegemonic for so long." Indeed, as I demonstrate below, Riggs's "critical veracity" is relenting in his critique of race-privileging antiracist discourse such that gender, sexuality, and class constitute subject positions from which one may "speak" about race oppression.
The second half of this chapter focuses on the black body as a site of performance. Here I provide a rejoinder to racial performativity in order to intervene in what I see as some scholars' eclipsing of corporeality and materiality. Specifically, I construe Marlon Riggs's black body in the film as a site of discursivity and corporeality that calls attention to the social consequences of "having" aids and also "being" black. Rather than succumb to the essentialist/antiessentialist binary, I suggest that the "presence" of Riggs's black diseased body forces viewers of the film to confront not only the social impact of aids on the black community but also the impact of inhabiting a black identity in a racist society.
Before moving on to the analysis of Black Is ... Black Ain't, I would like to offer a caveat about the terms of the film's production and how those terms could undermine the reading I am about to perform. As a documentary commissioned and funded by PBS, Black Is becomes implicated in the ideological trappings of that venue. In other words, although PBS has aired controversial programs, its reliance on public and federal funding has crippled its ability to make completely autonomous decisions about its programming. Indeed, conservatives such as Jesse Helms were instrumental in cutting funding for the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as PBS because these institutions were funding what the conservatives considered "indecent" art. Riggs's own Tongues Untied was caught in the backlash of this conservative wave during the late 1980s and early 1990s, which led some local PBS affiliates to keep the film from being aired. Thus, the fact that PBS partially funded and broadcast Black Is seems at odds with the fiscal blackmail under which the station now operates.
One way of reading pbs's support for the documentary, then, might be the fact that it chronicles a black gay man dying of AIDS. Viewed from this angle the film becomes an elegy for Riggs's death. The fact that the film is framed by the beginning scene of the announcement that Riggs dies before its completion and at the end by the "in memoriam" along with Riggs's narration of his desire that the film's portrayal of his battle with AIDS helps us all see our humanity, makes the documentary complicitous in constructing a "universal" death narrative as opposed to pointing to the specificity of dying from AIDS. Given the lack of support from conservatives in Congress for aids research, especially during the Reagan and Bush (both father and son) administrations, such a representation would necessarily diminish the specificity and devastating effects of aids on the black community, which-in light of the recent surge in the number of black Americans infected with HIV/AIDS, especially blackwomen-cripples further the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS activism and advocacy within and outside black communities.
An even more sinister agenda for allowing the film to air on PBS would rely on the racist logic that those viewing the film would automatically associate AIDS with blackness. The emphasis on Riggs's illness and the focus on blackness make the film vulnerable to such a reading. Although these conjectures about the terms of the film's production may appear paranoid and conspiratorial, because film lives in the realm of the representational and therefore the ideological its meaning and interpretation are contingent on its historical and cultural reception.
The possibility of such readings notwithstanding, I offer a counter-reading of Black Is through what David Roman refers to as "critical generosity." "Critical generosity," Roman argues, "is a practice that sets out to intervene in the limited perspectives we currently employ to understand and discuss aids theatre and performance by looking beyond conventional forms of analysis." Indeed, my analysis of Black Is seeks to push past canonical and conventional forms of analysis in order to locate the manner in which this aids filmic performance signifies in ways that disrupt any singular reading of AIDS, death, and blackness. In fact, the power of Riggs's film might be in its ability to reveal the various modes of racist/antiracist discourse that circulate within and outside black culture. My reading of the film is similar to that of Teresa de Lauretis's reading of the film Born in Flames: "The originality of this film's project is its representation of woman as social subject and a site of differences; differences which are not purely sexual or merely racial, economic, or (sub)cultural, but all of these together and often in conflict with one another. What one takes away after seeing this film is the image of the heterogeneity in the female social subject." As opposed to the female social subject, Riggs specifically represents the heterogeneity of the black gay subject and of blackness in general.
My interest in Black Is also stems from its particularity as a filmic performance, as a genre that provides for a historiography of AIDS performance not always possible with other genres of performance. Unlike the difficulty theater historians have in documenting aids artistic productions because, in Roman's words, "many of the artistic collaborators, producers, theatre staff, and spectators who participated in these productions and performances are also dead and therefore may leave no record of the events," the celluloid medium provides material documentation of such performances to which performance critics and historians may return. As another kind of "intervention," then, my analysis of Black Is is an attempt to keep alive and ever in the forefront the political advocacy of and discourse on HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
An Oreo Is Not Just a Cookie: Blackness and the Middle Class
Class represents a significant axis and divisiveness within black communities. Despite Stuart Hall's assertion that " 'black' is not the exclusive property of any particular social or any single discourse" and that "it has no necessary class belonging," there are those who trudge forward carrying the class card they believe guarantees their membership in authentic blackness. As Martin Favor persuasively argues, "authentic" blackness is most often associated with the "folk" or the working-class black. Moreover, art forms such as folklore and the blues that are associated with the black working class are also viewed as more genuinely black. This association of the folk with black authenticity necessarily renders the black middle class as inauthentic and apolitical. Indeed, over the years various black scholars, writers, and activists have located authentic blackness within poor and working-class black communities, suggesting, according to Valerie Smith, that the black working class "is an autonomous space, free of negotiations with hegemony, that contains the pure source of musical and spiritual culture and inspiration. The black middle class, in contrast, is a space of pure compromise and capitulation, from which all autonomy disappears once it encounters hegemonic power."
Much of this sentiment stems from the belief that black economic mobility necessarily breeds assimilationists and race traitors because of interracial mixing. Moreover, there is an assumption that educated blacks are much more likely to disavow their racial "roots" than might their poor and illiterate brothers and sisters. Although this rhetoric is problematic on many counts, one of its more disturbing aspects is that it confounds class and race such that it links racial authenticity with a certain kind of primitivism and anti-intellectualism. Langston Hughes, in his famous treatise "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," for example, portrays the black working class in a Cartesian manner by reifying the body/mind split-body as linked to nature, and mind to the abstract world-and romanticizing black folk culture as the impetus for all black aesthetic and cultural production. In contrast, he images the black middle class and intellectuals as "afraid" of black cultural production:
[The] low-down folks, the so-called common element ... live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let's dance! these common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their individuality in the face of American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.
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