The Best Black Queer Books, Plays And Films
As we celebrate Black History Month, I asked queer artists, writers and thinkers one simple question: What film, play, or book best represents queer black culture to you and why? Add your recommendations in the comments!
A year ago I would have said Audre Lorde's Zami, which is a great representational text for LGBT communities, I have to go with Ronaldo Wilson's Poems of the Black Object, which is remarkably queer, from early definitions of queer to suggest an odd strangeness, an otherness, to the more current definition of queer as occupied sexual spaces. The "Black Object" is both ambiguous and clearly depicted, both sub and dom, both internally conflicted and internally sure of the self. We, as readers, realize pretty early that the man on top is only there briefly and often has his most potential power when he's yielding, sharing, and hoarding it.
There are many fascinating characters featured in Jennie Livington's documentary about the 80s New York City ball culture Paris Is Burning, but there is only one star. The Queen mum. The font of infinite wisdom. The drag sage on the mountain top.The de facto cultural anthropologist of a very particular black homosexual tranche de vie. The All Mother: Dorian Corey.
In the film, Corey is a layman's guide to the byways of ball culture, but more importantly she is a witty and uncannily astute social critic on the race, sex, and class implications that lead to the creation of the ball culture in the first place.Corey astutely maps the joys and sorrows to be had in the ball scene while also illuminating the dominant culture's problematic relationship to poor gay black folks. Corey serves up all this knowledge with a grand world weary camp wink. She masterfully serves us knowledge about black "faggotry" in the voice of black "faggotry." She is Quentin Crisp Harlem style.
….And it should be noted that Corey also one ups transgressive queer rebel Jean Genet by ACTUALLY murdering someone.
My favorite film to bring into the conversation of films that represent queer black culture is "Paris is Burning". This is a film that shows the real struggles, and joys of how we recreate ourselves only to get back to this self we imagine God created us to be, not just as gays, but also as minorities. It's filmed in Harlem, New York, yet it tells this universal story of what it is to be black, to be "different", to be gay, and to have fun in this alternate space that we as gays and blacks have so humbly accepted and decorated as home. Whether is be subtly or lucid "Paris is Burning" touches almost every part of queer black culture. In this film you have death, you have love, you have friendships, you have losing: You have this raw uncut portrait of these characters, who are not characters at all, but men, and women, some murderers, some dying, some left behind, but mostly all picked up by these second families that eventually becomes their only. The quote from the movie I love the most is "When you are gay, you monitor everything that you do, you monitor how you look, how you dress, how you act, how you talk; do they see me? What do they think of me?" add black to that quote and you have what it is like to be me, what it's like to be black and to be queer.
It would be the difficult love story of David and Johnnie in James Baldwin's short story, "The Outing"—prototype, arguably, to the complicated relationship seen between John and Elisha in Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain (you remember when Elisha pushed John against that wall!), and certainly the spirits at work between David and Giovanni in Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room (and, oh, the stories that room could tell).
But "The Outing" is so great, so powerful, for the way it never asks its readers to engage in the arbitrary and, importantly, false divisions that so many are eager to put on our queer black lives: the sacred and profane sit together, sinner with saint, shouting is both spiritual and sexual, traditional and modern, love is total. And get into this ending: "David put his arms around [Johnnie]. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened."
What two sentences better capture the conflict of our collective histories, caught, as it were, between pain and pleasure and promise? Devastating, uplifting: thank you, James Baldwin!
When I first read B-Boy Blues by James Earl Hardy, it changed my life. I loved how Hardy was able to paint a picture of people I could see because I knew him. Mitchell and Raheim struggled to be opened to love and to each other and it worked! This is the book that made me believe--wait, I am lying--know without doubt that I could write stories about Black gay men and not compromise their truth for universal readership. I discovered that when you write well, you can have both.
It's difficult to identify one cultural product that exemplifies black queer culture. I really want to cheat and list several, but what comes to mind at the moment is Dee Rees's film Pariah which is a beautifully-crafted film that offers a nuanced look into various aspects of black queerness.
Black queerness is ever expanding and is difficult to contain in any one film, book, or play. But Rees challenges viewers to expand our understandings of sexuality, gender expression, family, blackness, and class by centering the story on the lives of black teenage females who are coming of age in urban Brooklyn, NY. The story doesn't end with tragedy, but triumph! Pariah is a contemporary film that takes us beyond the myopic scripts of pathologized black sexuality and illuminates the possibility of something different: black sexuality queered.
I will have to go with Pariah. Although it focused on the story of a 17yr old lesbian, there were still similarities, based on my coming out experience. To have parents who knew about my sexuality but were in denial until I came out was scary and had me feeling unsupported. It was not until I begin to meet other individuals around my age where I begin to find the courage to come out and share who I really am to my parents. As a result, I do not have the best relationship with my dad and my mom (stepmom, but she pretty much raised me as if I was her own) was supportive but she created boundaries herself.
It is interested that my fear of coming out was that I did not want to jeopardize losing the love of my family and no matter how hard I work or how much I succeed in life, I will still be seen as the "gay son." On top of that, my mom has a Baptist upbringing, while my dad has more of an Islamic upbringing, they both forced religion in my face to where I still question myself at times.
But this movie definitely provided some insight as to what my "coming out" was like and I even saw the similarities with some of the young people I mentor or used to provide services to.
For me, Patrik-Ian Polk's work was a pivotal moment in my learning on how 'queer' fit into my definition of 'black man' & self. His work on the TV show Noah's Arc & movie Noah's Arc: Jumping the Broom were necessary representations of a diverse types of queer black men. I have to praise anything that doesn't dwell too much in that banjee DL closet (real as it may be), but our stories are so much more than our coming out from heteronormative prisons. We fall in love. We have families and jobs. We sometimes don't have sex!
That being said, at times the acting is a hot mess on its own, the cheesiness is enough to flood Wisconsin, the storylines can be predictable, and the drama they start and resolve in 'Jumping The Broom' is enough to untuck the best queen, but the artistic mastery is not what draws me to the Arc. It is the fact that not all the men on the show/movie look like they spend every minute not spent breathing in the gym (real men have curves too!) and not all of them are hyper-feminine or hyper-masculine as we tend to be portrayed. There is middle ground here, there is balance, there is opportunity for our many songs to be sung. And damn all the 'Sex In The City' comparison this brand gets. If I wanted to be a White woman, there is a surgery for that I'm sure. These stories are for us (you know who us is).
The film that I think represents Black queer culture is Tongues Untied. While it's true that the film was released in 1989, the themes raised are many of the same issues Black LGBT people are struggling with today. It's gotten better in some ways to be sure, but Black queer folk continue to navigate a largely white and white identified gay culture that fetishizes us and a hetero identified Black culture that minimizes us.
In this potentially combustible mix of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, Black LGBT people are declaring our personhood in ways bot creative and political. Tongues Untied exemplifies this struggles and public declaration of who and why we are.
5. Completed through community, for community, its creation mirrors the reality of its time in which women, especially queer women, often stood side-beside—family—with our brothers and supported and assisted them through the ravages of illness, through the emotional realities and difficult bureaucracies of untimely death. Riggs passed away due to complications from HIV/AIDS in 1994 during the making of Black Is…Black Ain't and the film was completed by his production company, Signifyin' Works, under the leadership of Nicole Atkinson and Christiane Badgley, to honor his work, his vision, and his understanding of the reality that Black LGBT communities are specific. Precise. Part and parcel with Black communities in toto. Dedicated to and devoted to those communities. Contain and represent the multitudes of those communities. "I'm wasting my time," said Riggs, "if I'm not devoting every moment to thinking about how can I communicate to Black people so that we start to look at each other…see each other."
4. Excellence shelved into silence. Even more than his celebrated Tongues Untied, which deals directly with Black gay issues, Black Is…Black Ain't best represents Black LGBT culture because it has been nearly disappeared. Shushed. Closeted by outside forces despite it's fierce, out, self-determination. Winner of Sundance's 1995 Filmmaker's Trophy for Best Documentary, I could not find a single library or store in the city in which I live—public, private, higher education, nada—that carried it. Color Adjustment? Check. Ethnic Notions? Check. Tongues Untied? Check. Black Is…Black Ain't, which refuses to reduce, which specifically argues against reduction? Absent. Invisible. Unavailable.
3. Mirrors. Caretakers. Sayers of what folks want—need—said but don't want to say. Creators of lives and work that folks want—need—but don't want to, are afraid to, live and make. Black LGBT communities are not reductive, though we are often the targets of a reductionist impulse. "Through most of our history we've been named by somebody else," says Angela Davis in Black Is…Black Ain't.
2. Brilliance and courage in the face of danger, of adversity, of erasure. Riggs carried through with his life's work despite the brutal beast of imminent mortality that chomped at his heels, chronicling even his own passing in its viscera, in its horror, in its beauty, in the spirit of that beautiful Jamaican queen Claude McKay:
1. "Pressed against the wall, dying, but fighting back."
I don't think I have a single pick for any type of media that represents queer black culture. Much like any culture there is so much space to cover, so many stories, that it's difficult to say that one video or song or book or play etc is a decent enough representation to speak of the whole. I would have to say that the book Carry the Word: a bibliography of black LGBTQ books, compiled by Steven G. Fullwood, Reginald Harris and Lisa C. Moore, is a book of multitudes and can guide any reader interested in the dynamic foci of queer black life through the various pathways of gender theory, art, and politics. It's a book of books, so I'm cheating in a way.
I think the 2007 film Cover starring Aunjanue Ellis, Razaaq Adoti, Vivica A. Fox, and Leon. The movie gives a look at the downlow lifestyle of Black men which I believe is the most common type of black queer lifestyle that I encounter. It was interesting because it showed not only how black men on the downlow lived but also how it affected their wives/spouses and family. The movie also highlighted the role religion plays in condemning of homosexuals by the black church. The film was an eye opener for me. I remember watching the film my junior year of high school with my boyfriend at the time and thinking "Wow. Will this be my life if I never come out?"
There are so many works that resonantly represent black sgl/queer/lgbti culture to me, but I'd single out one of the very first in the African-American tradition, Richard Bruce Nugent's "Smokes, Lilies and Jade." Its thematic and formal innovativeness and daring; its complex, multitextured narrative and music; its skillful ability in drawing from and synthesizing a range of historical, literary, political, and cultural influences; its deep connection to the worlds around it (Nugent's own life, Harlem, African America, the cosmopolitan, multiracial Modernist 1920s, the preceding fin-de-siècle and decadent periods, etc.); its intelligence and smartness; its balancing of overt resistance to codes of respectability and social and cultural policing, its balancing of overt and depiction of profound black interiority and quiet; its queering of static notions of sexualities well before Stonewall or the debut of queer theory; and its freshness and fierceness even decades later: all these and more factors make it one of the emblematic works of black queer cultural production for me.
I'm a big Harlem Renaissance buff, so I've been intrigued by the work of Richard Bruce Nugent—a lesser-known but instrumental figure of that period—since I first learned of him in a college literature course. A contemporary of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman and other luminaries, he was provocative at the time for being the only openly gay Harlem Renaissance figure. His short story Smoke, Lilies, and Jade (published in 1926) is the first known publication by an African American openly depicting homosexuality, and his first novel, Gentleman Jigger, was published over 70 years after it was written and 20+ years after his death thanks to curator and editor Thomas H. Wirth. Gentleman Jigger is a roman à clef that gives a first-hand account of the racial and sexual identity politics of the Harlem Renaissance and demonstrates how much queer culture influenced that era. Nugent and Gentleman Jigger are both important to African American and queer history.
Question: What film, play, or book best represents queer black culture to you and why?
Answer: Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits.
Remembering now, life in rural Arkansas as a black gay boy was Groundhog Day: school, summer jobs, manicured town squares and county fairs, church picnics and revivals, all teasing the heavy hands of Father Time. Though "Will & Grace" (with its four black characters—Gregory Hines, Jo Marie Payton, Taye Diggs, and Janet Jackson) highlighted a type of gay life that was somewhat palatable for mainstream America, books made black queer culture accessible to me, buried in the back of the public library, on shelves separate from adult literary fiction. I remember sneaking upstairs to find Arkansan author E. Lynn Harris's Invisible Life. The novel held my attention with the scandal of a love triangle, lustful sex, and the complexities of black gay adulthood in the age of "the down low." But I had not left adolescence yet. I was still a teen, a gay one (Did I mention I was in Arkansas?).
Enter Horace Cross.
Author Randall Kenan's "bookish" and curious black gay sixteen-year-old Horace Cross is the protagonist in his novel A Visitation of Spirits. Horace grows up in Tim's Creek, North Carolina in the early 1980s, and struggles to find a sanctuary wherein he can be himself. Born into a family with over four generations of influence in the town, particularly the church, high expectations haunt Horace. However, nothing binds him more than his own fears, demons that lead him to take his own life.
Horace was the first black gay character that I remember committing suicide. The few that I had come across before him usually ran away, or hid themselves. Later, the black gay characters I'd find would die of AIDS. They rarely lived happily ever after. What I remember most about the book is that Horace needed to make-believe, to dream beyond the madness of Tim's Creek. How many black gay boys—boys like Horace—have mustered the strength to imagine, or reimagine, their place in this world, to fight to transcend their lot in life, and to have the gall to be transformed by such a choice?
A Visitation of Spirits came before the world told gay boys that it gets better. Kenan's novel instructs black boys that we "needed faith, not facts…magic, not math…salvation, not science," to not just live, but to be seen as the spirits we are.
Difficult question. My impulse is to answer this with a laundry list of texts that combined, represent black queer culture. At the moment, the book that I would say best captures it all (if that is even possible) is A Visitation of Spirits by Randall Kenan. The novel fashions black queer identity as more than same-sex love; it is also to do with what it means to be doubly marginal. In other words, it speaks to what it means to be an outsider in the larger scheme of American society and within one's own community. I love the way the novel pushes the boundaries of blackness. Horace embodies black geekdom in ways that you might imagine. He's into science, reads comic books, and hangs out with white kids. He is also coming into his identity as a gay male. Ultimately, he doesn't fit the mold of black masculinity laid out by the church and sculpted by history. To my mind, a large part of black queer culture is about resisting a singular or essentialist way of being. In A Visitation of Spirits Kenan gets at this brilliantly.
NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964)
A railroad worker-turned-mill worker-turned-worker of odd jobs and a schoolteacher try to keep love alive in the Deep South. He's fighting a cycle of paternal abandonment and a smoldering rage at being made "a boy" by whites hanging onto a Jim Crow system they know is doomed. She's fighting the grief of giving up a classroom to be her man's leaning post, though she can't rescue him from the dehumanizing experiences he must endure to make ends not-quite meet. "What about your boy?" she keeps asking him about the son he had before they met. He keeps saying, "He ain't mine." Racism and the poverty it (re)instantiates make their relationship increasingly tenuous, the air they breathe into each other stultifying. How do they get ova, Lord? Well, black men bond amid hard labor, express tenderness and solidarity throughout -- that is, until our everyman protagonist breaks rank and refuses to "play the nigger." All of this complexity unfolds against the backdrop of the progressive Motown sound, portending a change that hasn't yet come to Alabama. All of it in shot in black and white at the height of Hollywood's Technicolor era by a white director with an ear for blessed quietness & an eye for stark close-ups of the unassuming beauty of his stars, Ivan Dixon And Abbey Lincoln (yes, that singer, whose understated grace will break your heart in each succeeding frame of the couple's descent). That's the queerest view of the South I've seen on film yet: a heterosexual black love story, full of unaffected black male homosociality, that resists melodrama, pathology and judgment.
At first when I read the question, I had to comb through my collection of movies and film shorts that depicted some sort of queer black culture. When I started my film review, the first film that came to mind was The Color Purple. The film depicted Celie and Shug's relationship, not specifically lesbian but more as life-long companions enduring their years of abandonment, self-hatred, abuse but later rejoicing in creation, family and freedom. The men in their lives rendered them invisible or useless. Despite the complexity of issues of the time, Celie and Shug found comfort, love and validation in one another. I had to use my imagination to think about what happened after Shug and Celie kissed, but after that moment, I knew they were more than just friends and bonded for life. As some lesbians of color continue their relationships in silence, but nonetheless, they still endure. This film represents the resiliency of queer black culture for me.
A number of novels cross my mind when I consider the queer, black experience in America and its relationship with literature. A fear of falling for cliché, or succumbing to the convenience of instinct keeps me from mentioning Alice Walker's The Color Purple too often in conversations about my favorite novels, but the oft-underrated author's most celebrated work is too important to forgo a nod here. The Color Purple speaks of love, race and self in ways that complicate blackness or queerness beyond their quality as identifiers by asking readers to engage the richness of character behind the labels.
In blackness the book speaks of the turn-of-the-century rural South, and the racial politics one might expect from the era, as well as the intra-social negotiations of gender and domesticity between the characters of color that weren't as typically discussed in conversations about the black family during the novel's contemporary moment. But there's also the music –the ease of lyricism in Walker's prose that doesn't need a film or stage play to lift in shades of Blues and Gospel from the page. And of queerness where sex is secondary to love, so that Miss Celie's relationship with Shug Avery is not exclusively of the body, but also the transparent intimacy of friendship and a sharing of self. For me, reading The Color Purple is an always-welcomed reminder that my sexuality is not just sex, and that it, paired with my race, do not occupy the whole of my identity. That life is lived in nuance, and I should always be looking for colors I haven't noticed before.