Visibility can pose complicated advantages and hefty challenges for black subjects. It illuminates histories and the identities held by our foreparents and can thus help us locate, honor, value, and understand them. This blog post will explore visibility and the obstacles it presents as well as benefits it affords subjects who find it. A discussion on black trans visibility between Juliana Huxtable, a black trans woman and artist, and Che Gosset, a black trans femme archivist, and scholar will serve as one site of this exploration of visibility. The blog will then advance to a discussion of mythic/historic (mis)representations of black subjectivity from a white, European perspective via a reading of Audre Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly”. Finally, this blog will consider moments of refused visibility and how subjects practice them often out of necessity. Darlene Clark Hine’s theory of the Culture of Dissemblance is one example of this concealment, and Dixa Ramirez’s concept of Monte Refusal is another. In bringing these instances together, this blog seeks to develop a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for moments of (in)visibility within the histories of black subjects.
To begin this exploration, this blog will sit in on a conversation between Juliana Huxtable and Che Gosset. This conversation appears in Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. Gosset and Huxtable discuss several matters ranging from queer performance/performativity to conceptualizations of desirability/beauty, but the central theme is the issue of visibility that Huxtable encounters in the (art) world as a black trans woman. One of the first questions Gosset asks Huxtable is about whether she feels there is a black trans radical tradition. Huxtable responds, describing from her point of view the implied definition of tradition as “…a handing down, or rituals, hand-me-downs, and traced languages, and documentation of all that.” (Gosset & Huxtable, 40, emphasis added). Here, Huxtable calls her audience into her thinking about traditions—how having a visible history or documentation of rituals, languages, etc. is central to any tradition. This holds significance because, for many black trans and queer people, locating these histories and finding any documentation of tradition proves difficult if possible. Through Africana methods, and in addition to the work being done in and through social media Huxtable discusses later (G&H, 40), perhaps these histories and traditions can be re/un-covered. Gosset and Huxtable also discuss visibility and its limits specifically in relation to Huxtable and her work. Huxtable talks about how her work appears visible in some museums, but that this “…visibility is being used to sabotage actual engagement with real questions of structural negligence and discrimination and violence.” (G&H, 44). Huxtable also describes how her work is often more popularized/in demand when it depicts her in highly sexualized ways. (G&H, 45). This consumption of work by a black trans woman and artist by the predominantly white art world perpetuates disheartening violence in its refusal to acknowledge the discrimination and violence she, and other black trans and queer artists encounter. A reevaluation of or challenge to these institutions and communities with a foundation in Africana to be more intentional about providing a more genuine and protected visibility to Huxtable and artists like her could help counter the sabotage that threatens them.
This exploration continues through a reading of Audre Lorde’s masterfully written and scathing Open Letter to Mary Daly, which helps display the importance of intentionally and thoughtfully making visible the being, work, and voices of Africana subjects. In this letter, Lorde critiques Daly’s sparse inclusion of images, voices, and writings of black women. When referring to Daly’s discussion of Goddess figures and how they have been obscured, Lorde notes the fact that all the goddesses portrayed are white. She then refers to this as “a conscious decision to narrow [Daly’s] scope and to deal with only the ecology of western European women.” (Lorde, 67). This kind of conscious decision may not have been viewed by Daly as harmful, but it does perpetuate an erasure initiated by white patriarchal structures. Lorde also describes how Daly is “dealing with non-European women, but only as victims and preyers-upon each other.” (Lorde, 67). This uninformed and irresponsible method produces a violent misrepresentation of Lorde’s “mythic background” for Daly’s audience. While making only some of the history/ecology of black women visible, Daly fails to include any images or representations of black women in positions of power, thus distorting the historic possibilities visible to black women and other audiences. Scholars must avoid distortions like this when attempting to piece together these histories in order to make traditions or ancestors more visible to audiences.
Briefly, in revisiting a few sites of refused visibility, this blog seeks to allow for a reconsideration of the value visibility may hold for subjects attempting to exist freely and out of harm’s way. If one considers both Huxtable’s and Lorde’s desires to seek out and reify their elders/ancestors and the traditions they practiced, one should not argue that this search lacks productivity. Abundant value rests in this practice of seeking, and the rewards for those that discover something fruitful can provide a kind of hope, proof of possibility for subjects. However, one must also consider how actively refusing visibility could be valuable or even necessary to those being sought out. Dixa Ramirez’s concept of Monte Refusal for subjects in (and beyond) the Dominican Republic provides one example. These subjects subvert imperial/colonial and capitalist gazes and violence and in doing so, conceal their true actions, location, and temporality. They become undiscoverable to those who hope to impose violence upon them. Darlene Clark Hine’s theory of the Culture of Dissemblance practiced by black women during—and beyond—the 20th century presents another example. Under the constant threat of rape and other forms of violence, black women “created the appearance of openness and disclosure, but actually shielded the truth of their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.” (Hine, 380). Both instances of refused or incomplete visibility may make locating the histories of some subjects more difficult for those looking back in attempts to concretize their contemporary experiences with moments in the past. However, for the subjects at the time (or in a place) refusing visibility is often done out of necessity. Perhaps something people who study or seek out the past must come to comfort with is that some of the records just aren’t there to be found. This should not be interpreted as a devaluing of the searching, as previously stated. One should remain conscious of the limits of archives, especially with respect to subjects who had to evade archives for protection.
In attempting to weave together various moments of seeking and concealing, this blog hoped to encourage a rethinking of ways current scholars encounter moments of (in)visibility. Visibility remains a complex thing for subjects to navigate, as it can do a lot of good for subjects who can exist within it and free from innate threats upon their being. Perhaps the refusal of visibility provides subjects with a more possible continued existence, even if at the expense of the explicit documentation that they were here, working, living, and being.