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Queer Pollen discusses three notable black queer twentieth century artists--painter and writer Richard Bruce Nugent, author James Baldwin, and filmmaker Marlon Riggs--and the unique ways they turned to various media to work through their experiences living as queer black men. David A. Gerstner elucidates the complexities in expressing queer black desire through traditional art forms such as painting, poetry, and literary prose, or in the industrial medium of cinema. This challenge is made particularly sharp when the terms "black" and "homosexuality" come freighted with white ideological conceptualizations.
Gerstner adroitly demonstrates how Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs interrogated the seductive power and saturation of white queer cultures, grasping the deceit of an entrenched cultural logic that defined their identity and their desire in terms of whiteness. Their work confounds the notion of foundational origins that prescribe the limits of homosexual and racial desire, perversely refusing the cordoned-off classifications assigned to the "homosexual" and the "raced" body. Queer Pollen articulates a cinematic aesthetic that unfolds through painting, poetry, dance, novels, film, and video that marks the queer black body in relation to matters of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and death.
About the Author
David A. Gerstner is a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island. His other books include Manly Arts: Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema.
Read an Excerpt
Queer PollenWhite Seduction, Black Male Homosexuality, and the Cinematic
By David A. Gerstner
University of Illinois PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
IntroductionThis, then, is writers' work— to concern themselves with the letter, the concrete, the visibility of language, that is, its material form. —Monique Wittig, "The Point of View"
Performing Black and Queer
At the conclusion of Wallace Thurman's 1932 novel Infants of the Spring, Paul Arbian (that is, RBN—a pseudonym Thurman assigned to his Harlem Renaissance gay compatriot, Richard Bruce Nugent) commits an aestheticized suicide. Performed as a nineteenth-century decadent ritual (he is wearing "a crimson mandarin robe ... [and] a batik scarf of his own designing"), Arbian "slashe[s] his wrists with a highly ornamented Chinese dirk." Appropriately, his Orientalist dramatic exit is further theatricalized with the dedication he inscribes—a suicide note of sorts—for his final book (appositely titled Wu Sing: The Geisha Man). In his dedication, Arbian pays homage to queer-decadent, fin-de-siècle white aesthetics: "To Huysmans' Des Esseintes and Oscar Wilde's Oscar Wilde / Ecstatic Spirits with whom I Cohabit / And whose golden spores of decadent pollen / I shall broadcast and fertilize / It is written" (284).
Thurman's portrayal of Nugent, the first black queer considered in Queer Pollen, is most apt. The queer and very "out" Harlem Renaissance artist, Nugent, was indeed taken, if not emboldened, by white nineteenth-century queer aesthetics. Not unlike the white historical decadents to whom he paid homage, he delighted in expressing his homosexuality through art forms that traversed a wide range of artistic practice. From poetry to prose, from painting to drawing, from dance to theater, he intermingled media to elicit the eroticized pleasures of homosexual desire. But Nugent takes things further than his white queer predecessors; his homoerotic intermingling occurs interracially. This is forthrightly announced by Nugent in his novel Gentleman Jigger, where he recounts not only the 1920s heyday of "Niggeratti Manor"
(as Thurman had) but follows through on the transitions and departures from that scene into the early 1930s. Nugent's movements from Washington, D.C., to Harlem to Greenwich Village to Chicago find him both seducing and being seduced by Italian American gangsters who are strikingly reminiscent of the Hollywood gangsters who populated the screen at this time.
Significantly, Nugent concludes Jigger with his alter ego (Stuartt) performing in a Hollywood musical, an imagined experience where he describes himself as "the perfect medium" for Hollywood's pleasure-production machine because he is "amenable to their very every sensational suggestion." To be sure, Nugent's friendship with Langston Hughes, his working relationship with the filmmaker and theater director Rouben Mamoulian, and his socializing with the influential filmmaker Dudley Murphy brought him into close proximity with a range of cinematic production and spectatorship. Through these encounters, his homoerotically and, de facto, interracially charged aesthetic experiences—echoing at once Joris Karl Huysmans, James Cagney, and Busby Berkeley—slid from nineteenth-century high aestheticism to Warner Bros. spectacles.
The second black queer discussed in Queer Pollen is James Baldwin. In If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), Baldwin corporeally channels—as he does on many occasions in his novels—the different races, genders, and sexual desires that compose his characters. In Beale Street he embodies a young black woman named Tish. When a racist cop mockingly offers to carry her parcels, a revelation of historical anger and frustration surfaces: "I looked into his eyes again. This may have been the very first time I ever really looked into a white man's eyes. It stopped me, I stood still. It was not like looking into a man's eyes. It was like nothing I knew, and—therefore—it was very powerful. It was seduction which contained the promise of rape. It was rape which promised debasement and revenge: on both sides. I wanted to get close to him, to enter him, to open up that face and change it and destroy it, descend into the slime with him. Then, we would both be free: I could almost hear the singing."
Throughout his career, Baldwin tangled with and anticipated the seductive lie within the "[white] man's eyes" and its "promise of rape"—"on both sides." He introduced a style—a lived-writerliness—that is both elegant and caustic. His often horrifyingly beautiful language explores while it tests the aesthetic ground under which the complexities and intertwining of race, gender, sexuality, and nation collide. Hence, his aesthetic embodiment of white and black, male and female, homosexual and heterosexual characters provides a richly textured rendering that plays across bodies and desire. Baldwin melds the elusive identities shaped and reinforced by white heteromasculinist ideology; he is unrivaled for the way he simultaneously eroticizes while excoriating the seductive powers of whiteness. Whereas Nugent's queer black body moved through an array of artistic practices for his creative enterprises, Baldwin's journey through his queer world turned on the properties of multiple media—most pronouncedly, the cinema and theater—through which he filtered a singular art form: the novel. Queer Pollen demonstrates the cinema in Baldwin's novels as an industrial art form and a conceptual device for the development of his narratives.
Marlon Riggs is the third black queer discussed in Queer Pollen. In Tongues Untied (1989), Riggs evokes the dramatic effect of white seduction where, in a controversial passage, he fondly recalls the "immaculate seduction" of a white boy's kindness. His encounter with the white boy has left an "imprint" permanently etched in his memory, ultimately permeating his adult sexual desire. The scene of seduction, a penetrative and sentient kindness, is cinematically presented in Tongues Untied through an overlap dissolve of the boy's gray/green eyes with Riggs's own deep brown eyes. In the video, the image of the blond, gray/green-eyed white boy who seduced him is superimposed onto the image of a black man, a victim of what appears to be a black-on-black gay-bashing. Through the uneasy juxtaposition of these sequences—sequences that are viewed through a dissolve, heightened by the voices of Roberta Flack singing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and Riggs recounting the touch of the white boy—Riggs cinematically positions himself and his experience of being a gay black man between two overlapping, yet paradoxical, images: the threat of black-on-black violence against his queer body, and the affectionate warmth evoked by the look of the gray/ green-eyed white boy. Riggs, seduced by the white boy, is caught between: the white boy's seduction, he tells us, is a "blessing" and a "curse."
What is this "powerful" white "seduction" that, as Baldwin describes it, is at once so alluring and perfidious that the only way to "change it and destroy it" and to set each other "free" is through a mutual "rape," where black and white together "descend into the slime"? Is it possible to submerge oneself into the "slime" of this deceitful pleasure, this white seduction, and rewrite the corporeal inscription that Paul Arbian determinedly confirms with the blood from his slashed wrists? "It is," his dedication unabashedly tells us, "written." Queer Pollen argues that Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs embrace, yet rewrite, the experience of white seduction as it filters through their work and personal lives (pace their intimate and often controversial relationships with white men: Riggs's white lover, Jack Vincent, who is acknowledged for his "loving support" in Tongues Untied; Baldwin's white lover, Lucien Happersberger, to whom Giovanni's Room is dedicated; and Nugent's affair with the white French poet Edouard Roditi, as well as his lifelong sexual encounters with Italian and Italian American men who appear in his paintings, poetry, and novel).
Engaging white seduction as a "decadent pollen" to be "fertilized" through the black men's bodies demands some tricky footwork—footwork choreographed, I suggest, through cinematic means. The cross-fertilization of black and white culture—the "rape ... on both sides" about which Baldwin speaks—is most prescient and troubling, however, when queer black men confront homophobia from within black culture. White homophobia, for these queer artists, was practically a given, since it was already a composite of the racist agenda. "A black gay person," Baldwin tells Richard Goldstein, "who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he's black or she's black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it's simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live." What is most disturbing for many black queers, therefore, is when black masculinist culture turns against them.
If white America's "negrophobia" was considered less a concern than hetero- and homo-black relations, it is not to suggest that white America did not react violently to black queers. Indeed, history tells us otherwise. Nontheless, political and cultural difficulties arise—especially for the black male queer artists—when white male queer aesthetics are imitated and perceived as the creative imperative for black queers. Hence, the potency of queer whiteness weighs heavily on the ways black male queer identity is envisaged for themselves or by black culture in general. Thus, while the aesthetics of white queer culture (Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Joris Karl Huysmans, Walt Whitman, Henry James, George Platt Lynes, Hollywood) played a critical role as a creative tool for Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs, they also marked these black artists as quintessentially queer. Or worse, they were considered queer Uncle Toms.
Queer Pollen considers what is at stake, what are the material outcomes, when black queers turn to a tradition of homoerotic whiteness that invites and therefore seduces them to "cohabit" with these "ecstatic spirits." The risks of such cohabitation are many. And though the promises of a sensual bodiliness and aesthetic pleasure appear through queer white aesthetics, the cohabitation nonetheless presses the question: is it possible—is it necessary—to make available a queer black identity through the filters of white culture? Is it possible, in other words, to articulate queer blackness by sidestepping the charge that this identity is nothing more than a perverse manufactured body of whiteness?
This important query served as a crucial point of entry for these black queers' artistic goals. They recognized that the aesthetic encounter between (queer) black and (queer) white was unavoidable; it was, however, an encounter not foreclosed as white. From Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs's perspective, whiteness is neither dismissed as the pervasive force that it is understood to be nor viewed as the final word on queer black desire. Whiteness is, as Baldwin puts it, a "seduction which contained the promise of [sodomitic] rape." But, and instead, the decadent spores that this rape disseminates drag both black and white "into the slime." It is at these moments when we "almost hear the singing."
What, then, is "written?" What is inscribed, "slashed," with a "highly ornamented Chinese dirk," into the skin of black queers? Why is it desirable for, even incumbent upon, black queers to return to an aesthetic of whiteness, albeit queer, to assert their identity? In what way might the slashed skin of the black queer, written by the "golden spores of decadent pollen," conjure a history of scarring and slashing that black bodies underwent time and time again? It appears that Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs saw no choice but to take on this powerful seduction, this forceful penetration that paradoxically evokes a hypercharged sense of the erotic that simultaneously collides with the violent. The results of their labor in contending with this troubled history that tears into their black skin invariably made manifest an ambiguously realized identity.
In this book I discuss what I identify as a decadent cross-pollination between black and white—queer black male artists who manufacture a method of cultural production that rewrites, cinematically, that which is "written." For black queers, not only is the spirit of queer whiteness rewritten; the experience of white seduction, which "contained the promise of rape," is sodomitically fertilized "on both sides." That is, the white aesthetics that purportedly infuse the terms for black-queer cultural identity are saliently explored in the hands of Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs as sentient experiments around forbidden sexual and erotic experiences. What is notable about this erotic commingling is that the cinematic—as a concept and an industrial apparatus—leads these artists down the road toward sexual and racial desire that has little do to with the ontology of race and sexuality. Queer-pollination of artificial boundaries assigned to "black" and "white," "heterosexual" and "homosexual," are thus dispelled and dispersed by resisting a fixation on concrete identities and desires.
Queer Pollen does not eke out a "queer black aesthetic" by "gay"-identified "black" artists; instead, it looks specifically at artists who, through various historical and cultural purviews, queried reductive characterizations of themselves and their work as "gay" and "black." Hence, testing and challenging the aesthetic terrain of the twentieth century, one anointed by white culture (queer and otherwise), proved for black queers to be a key occupation in the exploration of their identity. What we come across in the sodomitic cross-pollination between black and white is an aesthetic process, the work that gives fresh life to the relations between black men. Baldwin, for one, encourages these relations between black brothers as the necessary "sensual ... force of life." Riggs, following Baldwin and the author Joseph Beam, later develops "brother-to-brother" relations as a revolutionary act through a revelatory aesthetic where white and black relations are directly confronted.
Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs's movements across the arts take on this complex act of entangling—and not disentangling—the cultural-political matrices that stimulate the force of life between black brothers. With exacting and disarming erotic precision, these artists delve into and bathe in the messiness, "the slime," that white hetero-normative culture historically delivers and claims for itself as superior, natural, and obvious. In this way, these artists restage the very logic that determines whiteness as such. To be sure, Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs do not treat their seduction by whiteness as a matter to be simply adopted, assimilated, or reasoned as an ontological phenomenon. Yet they are quick to acknowledge that they do not seek to secure, by negating whiteness, a "black" or "black-homosexual" identity. Additionally, these artists—especially Baldwin and Riggs—were highly attuned to urgent political matters affecting black culture. During the twentieth century, the demands for political action were often immediate and elicited a direct response. The aesthetic and the personal were thus inseparable from the political formations that shaped black queers' raced lived-world. But to assert a claim for identity as such during a political crisis (the civil rights movement, AIDS) does not preclude the malleability of identity production that, for black queers, consistently involved navigating wide swaths of black and white cultures. The work of art reviewed in these pages—its labor, its material presence—is dynamic; it is an active agent (and an act of agency) instrumental to a queer black sensual world.
Queer Pollen is a perverse triptych that tells the tales about cultural agency and the work of art. I place three black queers side by side to enlist the historical repetitions, interaesthetic relationships, and political variations they come to represent and through which they are conjoined. Nugent, Baldwin, and Riggs deliver a fascinating story about living queer and black. The attention they give to envisaging queer black culture, and the multiple threads on which black culture hinges, makes for an ideal triptych in the art-historical sense. The resonance of the altarpiece as a religious artifact with three distinct but interconnected panels should not go unnoticed, especially since the drama and theatrics of religion played a role in these artists' rendering of queer blackness.
Excerpted from Queer Pollen by David A. Gerstner Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Richard Bruce Nugent (1906–87)....................19
2. James Baldwin (1924–87)....................73
3. Marlon Riggs (1957–94)....................138