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TO TRANSCENDER TRANSGENDER
Ase! Welcome to Brooklyn, New York, on the Saturday night of October 9, 2010. Adia Whitaker, artistic director of Afro-Haitian dance company Ase, is hosting a dance class and release party for her video "Ezili," a fund-raiser toward Ase's next evening-length concert. Set to Whitaker's vocal styling of "Lay Down Body," the video opens like many visits from Metres Manbo Ezili Freda Daome do — with an artistic, fantastic, glitter- and pink-infused toilette. In Divine Horsemen, Maya Deren describes Freda's toilette as a "process of creative transformation" that begins with washing her hands and face in a perfect enamel bowl, combing her hair at the mirror, arranging a rose-colored scarf around her hair, anointing herself with perfume, and bejeweling her neck with gold and pearl necklaces. Whitaker's video cuts between two contemporary, African/Haitian American versions of this toilette. One centers Whitaker at the mirror transforming herself into a very recognizable, but very twenty-first-century Freda: wrapping a long pink scarf around her neck, cinching her waist in a corset, ringing her eyes with sparkling pink shadow, layering strands of light- and hot-pink plastic beads and a large costume gold heart around her neck. The second features the company preparing for the video shoot: warming up, putting on pink T-shirts, lining up to braid hair and spray it pink, cinching rose-colored belts over their shirts. Both — the folkloric toilette, the urban fashion warm-up — represent what it means to Whitaker to embody Ezili Freda. As she says at the end of the video: "Folklore and fishnets, everybody, that's what it's about — because we can't just be walking around with all these skirts and headwraps on all the time! Because it falls off: wrap attacks, and bra straps, and all the things. Come on, now, we can do better. It does not always have to be ... and sometimes you have to wear the frock, like, respect to tradition. But folklore and fishnets, dog, folklore and fishnets; like, that's really what it is, folklore and fishnets. Yes!"
Sparkling through transparent pinks, Ezili's twin stylings make you see Freda for who she never wants you to forget she is, ladies: a spectacular force of gender creativity. As she works grown blackwoman magic through the glint of gold necklaces, Metres showcases herself as the only lwa with power to "transform the female into the feminine" (in Deren's words) — to activate gender as a creative process as elaborately, artistically played out as her exacting toilette, yes, or Whitaker's choreography. Always perfecting her magic, Freda's gender creativity (in stories I've heard) inevitably centers prismatic expressions of fem(me)ininity. Lasirenn morphs between dick and pussy; Danto comes as bull dagger as well as fierce femme: so why does Freda only arrive in pink and perfume? Deren describes Freda as "the divinity of the dream," and Mambo Vye Zo Komande LaMenfo explains her demands for the elaborate and pristine — particularly in Haiti, where neither is in the grasp of most servitors — as exemplifying the divine power of demanding the impossible. "Her energy," she writes, "is the solo pursuit of that which is unattainable." And maybe this is her connection to black fem(me)ininity: for hasn't flawless femininity been imperially imagined as impossible for people of African descent?
In her beautiful The Witch's Flight: The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense, Kara Keeling puts forth: "The sedimentation of notions of femininity into common sense over time ... has tended toward the exclusion of its accrual to black female bodies. It cannot be assumed that 'black woman' appears within the dictates of 'femininity.'" Black queer women's exclusion from femininity is doubled, as black lesbians are always already assumed butch by virtue of their race and sexuality. Defying this violent common sense of black (queer) women's inexorable unfemininity, Keeling spotlights the black femme function: a concept that positions the black femme's cinematic appearance not just as a representation of particular lived experiences but as "a portal through which present (im)possibilities might appear." Black queer fem(me)ininity demands viewers unmake and remake constricted constructions of racialized gender in creative ways. "The black femme is 'black' ... AND 'woman' ... AND 'lesbian,'" Keeling rhythmically emphasizes. "And she is each of these in such a way that each category's claim to be an expression of her identity is exploded by the effort required to maintain the validity of that claim. In each case, the black femme urges the project expressed by the category to recognize an alternative potential within it." Creating fem(me)ininity where it didn't exist before her arrival and projecting it onto her mirror, Metres Manbo Ezili Freda is, she is the lwa of the black femme function. Lover of butches, artist of gender, and undoer of any common sense that refuses her expressions of full fabulousness, she theorizes the difference a black femme in fishnets can make.
Kara knows. When The Witch's Flight came out, I thanked her for what remains (a decade later) the only book-length text centering black cisfemmes, the only one celebrating the transgressive spectacularity of our queer genders. And while Freda's patronage of transfemmes and femme gay men is legendary, this chapter follows Keeling's lead by focusing on black cisfemmes and our complex relationship to fem(me)ininity. This focus is less about starting this book where and how I live than about taking seriously Julia Serano's contention that acknowledging the different social situations of cis- and transfemmes is crucial to enunciating an expansive femme-inism. Commonsense expectations of butchness for black queer ciswomen are not the same as commonsense expectations of heteromasculinity for black folk assigned male at birth, and black cisfemme-ininity and transfemininity resist gender conformity in different, complementary ways. In a dialogue with Janet Mock, bell hooks suggests that given black ciswomen's persistent masculinization, all black women should be understood as queer or trans — and "rather than seeing ourselves as ... outside the dialogue of queerness and trans I think that we need to place ourselves as black females at the core of the dialogue." I don't agree black cisfemmes need to place ourselves at the core of black transfeminist conversations — no, Metres. But we do need to talk about ourselves: practicing "black trans-cis-terhood" — to use black transfeminist theorist Dora Santana's felicitous phrase — means understanding black queer cisfemininity on its own terms. Just as watching Ezili's different toilettes expands our vision of what divine black femme power looks like, carefully considering the different challenges leveled against black cis- and transfemmes' genders opens possibilities for more nuanced critiques of white supremacist heteropatriarchy.
Like Whitaker's toilettes, Ezili as black femme function doesn't look like commonsense versions of "high" fem(me)ininity. Folklore and fishnets, she models an expression of black cisfemme like Atlanta performer Vagina Jenkins: "I'm femme like my mother and my grandmother are — hardworking, handywomen who repair a leaky faucet or change the spark plug in a car, who curse like sailors, who get dressed up for church, who can cook like gourmets when moved to do so and order pizza when they aren't." Wi maman, Ezili Freda's gender expressions are specific to African diaspora histories, where womanness doesn't always desire to match ideals of normative (white) femininity or go by the same names. Like any twirling, skirt-spreading Freda, black cisfemmeness is a dancer: a mistress (Metres) of invented gestures, steps, and repetitions with a difference, an archive of embodied knowledge whose beauty is in its self-conscious artifice, neither natural nor fragile nor durable. Black cisfemme-inity refuses to play black swan to white femme-ininity or dying swan to black masculinity, dances in an ensemble where she touches, pushes away, circles, leaps over a gamut of genders as she pleases. So let the show begin, black femme cisters, unleash your pinks and let the show begin!
Welcome, welcome back: this is the East Village, New York, 1999. A longtime crowd favorite, super-smooth, superfly, super-tailored drag king Dréd glides onstage at Club Casanova amidst hollers and cheers, peering at the audience from behind her silver-rimmed shades. Mil-Dred "Dréd" Gerestant is a "multi-spirited, Haitian-American, gender-illusioning, black, shaved, different, God/dess, anti-oppression, open, non-traditional, self-expressed, blessed, gender bending, drag-kinging, fluid, ancestor supported and after all that — non-labelling woMan" whose drag star shot heavenward when she was crowned 1996 Drag King of Manhattan at the fabulously chocolate, largely black and Latina HerShe Bar. She quickly went on to become one the few black performers to cross over into largely white drag king counterculture blossoming in the city in the mid-1990s, parading her smooth mackdaddy, 1970s-inspired act five or six nights a week. Tonight — working it black funk-style — she emerges with her back to the audience, then confidently turns to slick back the hood of her old-school black track jacket and pump her ringed, braceleted hands to the beat of the Sugarhill Gang. As the rap progresses, she strips off her black suit to reveal another suit of silky black men's pyjamas ... then — deftly as the ladies' man Dréd is — unbuttons her Hugh Hefner pyjamas to unleash a red bikini, black patent miniskirt, and bulging, well-packed red jock, revelations punctuated by a jutting chin nod. The audience coos and shouts in appreciation of the attitude, the package, the king.
"I like all kinds of music; I'm versatile in a lot of things," Dréd tells interviewers Sarah Chinn and Kris Kranklin. "But one thing definitely is that I like the traditional old funky disco. I've always liked classics like 'Disco Inferno,' 'Shaft,' 'Superfly.' ... I saw some of those movies when I was a kid, and when I was older, I was like 'Gee, I wish I lived in that era.' In a way now, when I dress up, I'm living, you know, in my own way, in that era." In her lucid analysis of Dréd's soul/funk drag king act, Jana Evans Braziel argues that the artist's performance of hit songs and singers she loved as a child at once offers audiences an homage and a parody: an homage to black men she admires, and a parody of the overwhelmingly white audience's stereotypes of mackdaddy and superfly. "It is, I argue, the cultural gaze of the audience that Dréd parodies, and not the black male performers that the performance artist appropriates," she writes. "Dréd's king performances parody racist and racialized sociocultural constructions of black masculinity and the circulation of stereotypes in the American cultural imaginary ..." But even while executing this complex dance around mackdaddyness, the gender possibilities of Dréd's performance stumble when she tries to entice her audience into taking in her bra and her jock, her skirt and her beard at the same time. The final striptease reveals the softness of breasts without necessarily softening her act into femininity in her audience's eyes. The confident nod of her chin, the set of her eyebrows, the squaring of her shoulders all continue to register more Shaft than Foxy Brown ... and the crowd cheers more loudly at her crotch-grab than her cleavage-reveal.
But what lesbian doesn't love big black dildo, and didn't Foxy Brown (or Pam Grier) end up as the straight sister on The L Word? Or, in other words: while the mackdaddy, the stud, the aggressive have been widely eroticized in (white) lesbian communities, the lingeried, lipsticked black cisfemme has all too often been treated as a tenuous apparition, barely visible. Dréd herself, for example, appeared on an episode of the Maury Povich show dedicated to drag; rather than kinging, here she dressed as a drag queen. During the show she was one of the performers who removed her wig (a classic drag queen flourish) to reveal the self under the clothes. When confronted with her shaved head, the audience took this as proof that Dréd must be male: that is, they were quite vocally willing to accept only markers of white femininity — long hair — as evidence of womanness. Queer audiences aren't necessarily more adept at reading black cisfemmeness, either. Bajan/Canadian cisfemme TJ Bryan relates an incident when she came to a poetry slam dressed in heels, red lipstick, and skin-tight black dress, only to be written up in an article in "the city's queer community rag" accompanied by a picture of her face grafted onto the body of a black male boxer. While this picture ostensibly extolled her champion-worthy performance, Bryan offered another interpretation. "We, Black femmes, can often be masculin(ized) — automatically viewed, treated, and cruised as butches," she writes. "And even if we are seen as Femmes, we can still be devalued or just plain not perceived as Femme(inine) in any sense but the sexual — not just in the larger world, but also inside of queer/Black/'colored' communities of supposed resistance."
This persistent masculinization of black lesbians continues a long, violent history of colonial fictions that categorized black females as inherently, irretrievably mannish — a mark of primitive societies lacking the sophistication necessary to produce refined queens (in addition to virile chiefs). Writing on sexologists' dissection of black female bodies in the nineteenth century and what this means for the construction of black lesbian genders, Matt Richardson puts forth: "The Black becomes the aporia between sex and gender such that the two never meet in any fashion that would satisfy the dictates of normative heterosexuality. The supposed lack of physical distinction between the sexes was thought to indicate a low moral character and manifest in a morbid sexual appetite that included homosexual attraction. As Sharon Holland has observed: 'It appears that the words lesbian and black are forged in blood, in physiognomy, and ultimately in racist science.'" Dréd's insistence on developing creative, pliable self-descriptors that trouble masculine/feminine, butch/femme, king/queen binaries — fluid, nonlabeling, woMan, womb-man — shouldn't sound like just a matter of personal self-expression, then. No, even as her language acts in fun, it enacts the importance of expressing a black femmeness, curviness, bejeweled-ness, open-thighed-ness that never has to be erased: oh, no, girl — not even while working your daddy mack.
The question, though, following MilDred around New York at the turn of the millennium: how to get her (largely white) queer audiences to see that, to see the African diaspora gender dance that she's choreographing? Black trans performer Storme Webber, in conversation with Dréd in the film Venus Boyz, puts forth: "I feel like we're very much in the tradition, too: because in African societies ... there were always cross dressers, and there were always people who played both roles, both gender roles, a lot of times they were the people who were the spiritual people, who were the medicine people, who were the healers." So, how could Dréd make visible that she performs in the tradition — in a black tradition of finding healing in expressing multiple ways of performing gender, desire, soul, music, me?
Here you are, Miss Collins, where the Gulf of Mexico reaches up to meet you, storming and calm. On March 2, 1917, Janet Collins — who would become the United States' first black prima ballerina — was born "in a hurry" in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her birth certificate, which incorrectly moved her birthdate to March 7, noted her as the "lawful issue" of parents Ernest and Alma (nee de Lavallade) and, like them, "colored." While Miss Collins retained few memories of her first years in New Orleans, the opening page of her unfinished autobiography devotes a full paragraph to what otherwise might seem a small detail. "I remember one of the happiest moments of my childhood was when I was placed on a bed of many colors and patterns," she begins, and continues reminiscing:
I remember also being near to a lady who loved me and was there with me in that quilted garden. Her name was Mrs. Cashmere. ... She would place me on this bed with all these colors! It must have been one of those southern "crazy quilts," which was made up of all sorts of leftover scraps of colorful cloth. It was her love, colors, and comfort that soothed my baby heart. Years later as a dancer I used the crazy quilt in Juba — the skirt of the costume I designed was a crazy quilt!
Excerpted from "Ezili's Mirrors"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Bridge. Read This Book Like a Song 1
Introduction. For the Love of Laveau 3
Bridge. A Black Cisfemme Is a Beautiful Thing 29
1. To Transcender Transgender 31
Bridge. Sissy Werk 65
2. Mache Ansanm 67
Bridge. My Femdom, My Love 99
3. Riding the Red 101
Bridge. For the Party Girls 133
4. Its a Party 135
Bridge. Baía and Marigo 169
Conclusion. Arties's Song 171