Reflections / Refractions in BlaQ, 2017
Reflections / Refractions in BlaQ is a forthcoming multimedia project that celebrates the struggles, lives, and loves of Black queer people. Inspired by Marlon Riggs' experimental film on Black gay life, Tongues Untied (1989), Reflections combines autoethnography, oral history, video, performance, and material from Marlon Rigg's archive to present poetic and intimate meditations on Black queer life in the Bay Area.
Reflections is made in loving memory of Justin Ross Brown.
Notes documenting process /
: Jesse Harris
I am in the archives watching unedited and unreleased footage from Tongues Untied. I encounter an interview Marlon conducted with Jesse Harris, a poet, artist, and the only femme presenting person in Tongues Untied. In the interview Jesse unravels a sheet of white paper and reads poetic accounts of familial abandonment, of spending over a decade displaced in homeless shelters and on streets, and dreams of performing on stages across the country as a pianist and poet. Jesse's reading is interrupted by a passerby who spews transphobic slurs. Jesse confronts the assaulter, curses them out, stands gloriously in their power as a Black gendernonforming person.
In Tongues Untied Jessie's interview is edited and Jesse's voice is silenced. The scene of Jessie being harassed is omitted. Instead we see edited footage of Jessie sitting on the bench with a Bessie Smith song about unrequited love plays. Why was Jessie's words, stories omitted? Why was the moment when Jessie defended themselves, when Jessie resisted, edited out? So often Black femme presenting bodies are erased, silenced, ignored. Or our bodies are used to reinforce narratives of victimization.
"Brother to Brother, Brother to Brother" is the opening chant of Tongues Untied. The film centers the experiences of Black cisgender gay men. In revisiting this project I have the urge to excavate and uplift the voices of folks like Jessie, genderqueer and femme folks. To locate transgender and gender nonconforming ancestors in the Black and queer archive, to locate myself in the archive. To give voice to Jessie and simultaneously give voice to myself.
And yet I confront questions of illegibility: what does it mean to not be visible in the archive? What does it mean to be illegible to normative ways of knowing, to embody an illegible gender and racial subjectivity? We know that visibility does not equate to safety or progress or access for marginalized folks, particularly racial and gender deviants. To be Black and queer within a system of domination and surveillance increases the risk of being killed or caged by the state, it means to be seen and recognized and consequently subject to violence perpetuated by white supremacist capitalist hetropatriarchy.
I'm thinking of illegibility as a strategy of survival and resistance, as an undoing, as a refusal with very real material consequences. I'm thinking about how I perform illegibility in my daily life, how I simply don't exist within normative gender constructs, my refusal to be commodified and consumed as a token Black gender nonconforming celebrity / social media personality. I find refuge in the dark, in the interstices, beyond the sightline of a normative gaze.
There are days like today when gravity gets the best of me. Ties me to my bed. Days when - for no reason and without warning - I find myself in a cycle of depression. Lethargic. Heavy. Hallow. My eyes trace light and shadow shifting on my skin as the Sun passes over me.
I think of Marlon whose work breathe life into me. I remember ritual. I watch porn and fold my flesh into itself to remember that this body of mine secretes and oozes and expands and generates heat. I boil water for coffee, play Jamila Wood's "Holy," and shower. I go to the library and scour Marlon's archives: personal mail, manuscripts, library cards, in search of...
in search of myself, possibility, a lover, a father, a mother, validation, fire.
When I was 18 and found out I was accepted to Stanford my initial thought was, "I'm finally gonna find a lover!" Someone who also read Octavia Bulter and watched deep HBO movies and believed in social justice and didn't believe in the gender binary.
Nope. Didn't happen. I quickly learned that at Stanford, and in the academic and social justice spaces I frequented in the Bay Area, Black gay men didn't date or fuck other Black gay men (which Marlon painfully observed in about the Castro in the 80s.) And no one dates genderqueer people.
When I read Joseph Beam's assertion that "Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act" in Tongues Untied I was cautiously excited but mostly confused. I'm not a man, so loving me ain't revolutionary I guess(?). Also, Marlon's long-time lover, Peter Jack Vincent, was a white man. While I champion Black on Black love I'm not about to read people about their desire and choices in partner because desire is messy and we embody and perpetuate fucked up systems and I affirm folks self-determination and agency (do we have agency?) and this love shit is brazy so get it where you get it. Also, I don't believe that love is limited to the sexual or romantic. Or that sexual or romantic love is more significant than other kinds of love. In fact, this thing here, between me and Marlon, is a kind of love. A love beyond the corporeal. Some metaphysical shit. I know and love Marlon through memory and mythology. I experience his flesh through ephemera.
Still I wonder if Marlon would find flesh like mine desirable. And find the way that I move in my flesh desirable. Would Marlon be my zaddy? Would Marlon tie tongues with me?
For Reflections / Refractions in BlaQ I am critically and creatively engaging personal correspondences, unreleased footage, and writings in Marlon Riggs' archive. Marlon was a prolific Black gay filmmaker, performance artist, scholar and activist who worked in the U.S. in the1980's during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, culture wars and the rise of neoliberalism. His seminal film Tongues Untied (1989), an experimental documentary that gives voice to Black gay men, blended performance and film creating an innovative aesthetic of contemporary art and giving rise to a new genre of Black queer cinema. Tongues is also groundbreaking because it was the first film about Black gay men broadcasted on public television stations across the U.S. during a era of conservative backlash when organizations and institutions censored cultural productions by Black, LGBTQ and women creators. How serendipitous that Marlon and I would both find ourselves at Stanford at this moment. Reflections / Refractions in BlaQ will include writings and unreleased footage from Marlon Riggs' archives: celebrating and exploring Black queer experience, history, and cultural production that spans of over 30 years.
I am walking to the J Train Flushing Ave station leaving my studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. It is late August. A few hours ago I decided to return to Stanford as a full-time student, which means that in three weeks I’m moving back to the Bay Area, specifically the epicenter of white liberal and capitalism The Silicon Valley. I cannot live around white people. Newark and Oakland and Bed-Stuy Brooklyn have been home for the past three years because they are predominately Black cities, although Black people are being rapidly displaced in each city. I already miss waking up seeing Black people everyday and going days without interacting with white people. I’m moving primarily because I need stable housing and money, which Stanford’s financial aid (read: reparations) will provide. Also, I’m moving because I miss Oakland and it feels like an energetic environment to live and create and commune. New York City is feels suffocating.
The excitement of my return to the Bay, this Newport, and caffeine got me feeling creative. I’m day dreaming of reunions with friends and reminiscing about the folks who made Stanford possible, made it home for this poor Black femme faggot. I’m thinking about Cory and Justin and Tay and Jakeya and A-lan and Black and Queer at Stanford and I want to document and celebrate all of these relationships. It’s been seven years since we all met and that stretch of time feels important. I want to document how Black Queer folks help each other survive. And how we create lives and cultivate joy in perpetually hostile environments. And how we sometime struggle to exist in these perpetually hostile environments.
I’m dreaming of interviewing Cory and Justin and Kevin and we’re drinking red wine eating fried chick at Munger like back in the day. I’m thinking about Saturday mornings freshman year walking past Justin’s apartment on my way to dance practice, Justin and Josh on his third floor balcony screaming “Werk Ms. Mamma.” After dance practice I go to Justin’s apartment and am met at the door with a hot plate of food. Justin was definitely the auntie of the group, whose house you went to when your mother kicked you out or you needed a break from home, always had food and drinks on deck and would listen to your woes.
I’m trying to scribe my thoughts before they escape me but I don’t want to leave this sweet nostalgia. The architecture of my performance comes to me. I’ll interview my friends - Black and Queer Stanford students and alumni - about desire, dating, depression, identity and community building. I’ll produce large-scale emulsion on glass prints for the installation. Many of us are dancer, poets, writers, creatives - I’ll document our creative practices too. How we transform pain into power. Reimagine our worlds. I’ll include my own story and use all of this as material for a performance - a prism of lived experiences that refract and reflect each other, intersect and diverge, speak to struggle and resilience. I’ll create something beautiful and intimate to document that we were here, that we lived, we fumbled, we fought like hell, we hurt, we made something marvelous for ourselves. Blueprints.
The next day I am in Starbucks drafting project proposals and figuring out how to get money to move across the country in three weeks. My Facebook has been deactivated for the past few weeks so that I can focus on finishing up some big grants that are due soon. I accidentally reactivate Facebook. The first post on my feed is a picture of Justin smiling while standing in the main quad of campus. I think to myself this could be a good place to interview him. I read the post, which is vague and hints that something has happened to Justin. I click the hyperlink to Justin’s page and read the words “Memorial Page for Justin Brown.” My head hurts. I begin to whimper. I leave and call friends for answers. Justin is dead. Committed suicide. In West Virgina. Where he was a professor at some west bubble fuck university. Where he was probably the only Black gay man on his campus. Maestra Moraga comes to mind, “the university is a battle ground.” I’m too fucking young to have so many friends who have died. A year ago this time I was suicidal and almost died. This shit hits too close to home.
Justin’s death makes this project urgent like a mother fucker. I have to make this project for Justin, before we forget him, before the circumstances of his life and subsequent death are hidden and erased and misrepresented because people fear suicide. I need people to know that Justin chose to commit suicide as an act of agency because we live in a fucked up world. I need to document that we were here, that we lived, we fumbled, we fought like hell, we hurt, we were marvelously messy and brilliantly black. To create a blueprint for somebody in search of something.