Tracing (In)Visible Histories & Traditions

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.

“Many Occupants Are Never Found in the Basement of The Brass Rail”

Setting the Scene

In a moment from Isaac Julian’s “Looking for Langston”, an angry mob walks down a dark and silent alleyway. The interior of a club is shown briefly, its occupants—mostly Black gay men—completely still. Royal House’s “Can You Party” begins playing. The mob reaches the door of the club and begins banging on the door with nightsticks, bats, and fists. Their shouts are the next in a sequence of almost overwhelming sonic events that accompany the scene. The next images shown are of the occupants dancing and drinking with such energy and aliveness that glasses fall from hands and shatter violently. The cinematography in this scene adds to the quality of instability/chaos. Essex Hemphill’s “The Brass Rail” is another component of this scene. Other images from the rest of the film appear throughout this moment. As occupants dance and drink and play, ‘angels’ observe literally from above—a balcony overlooks the bar and dancefloor. The BPM of “Can You Party” rises as the scene progresses. This could be an intentional sonic move to increase the audience’s heart rate as concern grows for what will happen to the occupants of this space once the mob of men and police reach them. This may be obvious, but they do not seem intent on joining the party. What violence might befall the occupants? It is never revealed. Once the mob reaches the dance floor, the occupants are gone. There is no trace of them. The record player fades from the Royal House track to a poem by Langston Hughes. The mob searches the club for occupants, seemingly confused to find none. A lone angel watches them, laughing at their failed attempt to find the occupants. The scene fades out to a shot of Hughes in front of a band, performing the rest of his poem.

This scene is striking—to say the same for the film as a whole would be a tragic understatement—and it particularly resembles the concept of El Monte that Professor Dixa Ramírez writes about in “Against Type: Reading Desire in the Visual Archives of Dominican Subjects”. The presence of Hemphill’s poem indicates that one might call this club space the Brass Rail. It exists in Harlem. With attention to this detail, Ramírez does not specify that a location must be in the Dominican Republic in order to be read as El Monte or for subjects to practice the Monte Refusal she proposes as a method of resisting or evading imperial or colonial powers, gazes, and violence. As a concept, Monte Refusal has the potential to serve as a global framework for considering how members of the African Diaspora create spaces for themselves that defy the rules of time and the rules of Western white supremacist structures (e.g. modernity). This is an exploration of how Ramírez’s concept can open up room in the field of Africana Studies to imagine what these sites and practices of refusal can provide to a collective of subjects seeking to go against type, against time, and to do so outside of the gaze of those who would stop at nothing to prevent this level of freedom.

El Monte/Monte Refusal in Harlem

The Brass Rail fits several of the descriptors Ramírez provides for El Monte. Though perhaps not exactly the space Ramírez poses, there are certainly parallels between El Monte and the Brass Rail. Most strikingly, this space exists out of time, beyond temporality. When the mob of police and men rush into the club, the audience might assume that the occupants will become subject to their violence. However, as previously described, no one is there. Nothing in the scene suggests that the occupants had run away, aware of the coming violence. Indeed, then, they must have been present at another time entirely. Or, as Ramírez writes, they existed within an “alternative present” (Ramírez, 154). This aspect of alternative temporality gives occupants of this space the power to render themselves useless, invisible, free. This is illustrative of the concept of “dark sousveillance” that Ramírez attributes to Simone Browne.

An additional parallel between El Monte and the Brass Rail lies in the presence of spirits. Angels appear in the club in this last scene and in several others throughout the film. Ramírez describes El Monte as a site of refuge for those who seek to evade “so-called modernity, the surveillance of various authorities, enforced labor laws, and other forms of white supremacist violence…” and that it is “…full not only of these people but of vengeful spirits and other entities that wreak havoc on liberal projects.” (Ramírez, 154). These angels do not quite seem vengeful, save for the two laughing at the confused mob at the very end of the scene. The liberal projects Ramírez’s spirits/entities wreak havoc on appear unclear, but one might cite the establishment of the photographic archive to implement the violent racial and gendered typologies she focuses on in “Against Type” as an example. If this is the case, then perhaps the angels are Julian’s answer to Ramírez’s spirits. As guides or guardians of this space and its occupants, the angels act in direct opposition to the mob, and thus against the state—since the police are present—and the violence it seeks to enact upon Black (and in this case, queer) subjects.

The Implications

So, what implications does this pair—El Monte and Monte Refusal—bring to the field of Africana Studies beyond the discussion within Ramírez’s article? If scholars continue to investigate sites and practices aligned with these, a broader base of knowledge surrounding communal forms of resistance and gathering would result. Scholars also have a responsibility to ensure that these sites and the subjects that occupy them retain the possibility to exist beyond purely resistant capacities. This aligns with the concept of Quiet proposed by Kevin Quashie in the Introduction and Chapter 1 of The Sovereignty of Quiet (but that’s for another blog post…). Presenting them as purely resistant limits the possibility of their deeper, more complete humanity—a critical component of Quashie’s argument for Quiet. It is also important that these investigations are conducted with care to subjects. Scholars should also avoid perpetuating the imperial violence that tends to follow academic study particularly when that study has foundations in academic institutions or practices based on Western Values. The intent of this deeper study of El Monte and Monte Refusal across different mediums, locations, and subjectivities should not be to probe them specifically for their interior functions or contents. This would negate the very purpose of these spaces and practices to allow subjects to render themselves invisible or illegible to those seeking to threaten their sites of refuge.

Conclusion

The example of the club in “Looking for Langston” exists in an imagined fictive environment, yet it remains a suitable site to begin an exploration of what El Monte and Monte Refusal may look like for subjects beyond the Dominican Republic and the photographic archive. This pair of concepts is already generating advances in the field of Africana Studies and is poised to make more. If scholars approach this work as discussed above, much can be learned about how and when El Monte and Monte Refusal might serve subjects seeking refuge from imperial structures.

MilDred Gerestant & The Expansive Potential of Black Performance

Introduction

For a moment, put yourself back into the lecture Professor Biggs gave and the exercise she guided the class through. We observed our breathing, then we observed our classmates and their motion. She then asked us to perform our own analysis of their motion. Following all of this, she informed us that we had just practiced performance studies. This simple exercise introduced us to the basic practices that scholars in this field use to conduct their studies. The aim of this post is to utilize this framework to consider the work of performance artist Mildred Gerestant. This analysis will provide the foundation for a consideration of questions posed by E. Patrick Johnson about Black Performance Studies and how the field may move forward, as well as what significance Gerestant and their working has on Black Performance Studies and Africana Studies.

Meet Mildred

Who is Mildred Gerestant? Gerestant provides the following self-description in Blending the female and male through MilDred, a short film by Kristy MacDonald: “My name is Mildred, and my name is Dred. And we are 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-labeling WoMan.” In so many ways, Gerestant’s ways of being and of performing described are especially non-normative. This makes their work all the more intriguing to witness and study. In a series of clips in the documentary film Venus Boyz, one of Gerestant’s early drag king performances is featured. In this performance, drag king Dred takes the stage in a very 90s-esque tracksuit accentuated by amber shades, and a tightly groomed beard. Lip Syncing to Secret Weapon’s Must Be The Music, Dred vivaciously embodies the tenants of black masculine performativity. Dred commands the audience to see and to lust for the being on stage. As the performance continues, Dred strips off the tracksuit into a more revealing silky pajama top and a black velvet skirt. Here is where Gerestant begins to most artfully blur the lines between male and female, not necessarily separating the two nor performing one or the other. This is one of the most striking aspects of Gerestant’s performance; this moment in which the male and the female appear simultaneously in one character. Next, Dred sheds the silky top seductively, now exposing a red bikini top and a belly ring. The play on gender in this particular performance is still present, as Dred reaches into the bikini bottom beneath the skirt and pulls out an apple—which had been simulating a bulge—and playfully, perhaps even seductively, takes a bite out of it before replacing it and taking a bow.

This performance began with what might have been identified as a man—a testament to the veracity of Gerestant’s performance—and transitioned into someone who forces the audience to question what the stereotypes of gender are, as well as how they function. For some this may illicit a discomfort or uncertainty around being unable to determine Dred’s gender. This discomfort is the site at which Gerestant’s performance has significant potential to influence the audience that witnesses it to expand their perceptions of what gender can be, particularly when that gender is racialized.

Gerestant, Africana & Black Performance Studies

Describing the foundations and intent of the work they do, in Blending, Gerestant says “In my performances I use theater, dance, cultural history, and humor. I play with gender roles and social/racial stereotypes to hopefully inspire my audience to think about the complexities of race, gender, and identity. This gender bending path has given me the courage to express myself freely in whatever way I feel I need to do. Hopefully, I inspire others to do the same, respect one another’s lives, and be open to the beauty in our differences. It is natural to be different.” This centralizing statement of Gerestant’s mission, intention, and hope for their work establishes their deserved presence in the canon of Black Performance Studies, and concordantly within Africana Studies. E. Patrick Johnson writes that, in order for Black Performance Studies to continue being generative, it must “continue to ask, rather than attempt to answer, the question “what is this “black” in black performance studies?” The questions Gerestant’s performance asks audiences—questions about the complexities of race, of gender, of identity—fit within this theoretical scheme. As long as we continue to think about and study these complexities, the infinite potential of Black Performance, in particular, can continue to be a source of liberating practices and, as Johnson states, “a politics of social change and transformation that moves us forward in the liberation of black peoples”. If, instead, we sought to definitively answer and rigidly define what the “black” is, would we not be attempting to prescribe certain restrictions on what the performance could be? And if we were to do so, would the implication not be that blackness itself must still be defined in certain distinct ways, and thus be perpetually exclusive of those marginalized identities that will ultimately end up existing outside of those definitions? If scholars in either field were to go about studying in this way, the scope of their work would be limited. So many instances of people doing meaningful work in performance would be overlooked, delegitimized, and rendered illegible. This explains why the imperative to continually question is so necessary and central to both fields of study.