When I was 6 years old, I got into the habit of holding my parents and their friends hostage. After dinner, by my sheer willpower and insistence, all of the adults I could manage to corral would find themselves in the living room, sipping wine and politely smiling while I stretched and turned on the radio.
“I’m going to dance,” I’d announce over my shoulder as I fast-forwarded to the right song on Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 cassette: sometimes “Rhythm Nation,” usually “Escapade” or “Black Cat” if I really wanted to make a statement. Once I found my song, I’d turn up the volume just shy of the point at which the speakers would screech, dramatically strike a beginning pose in the center of the room, count out “and 5, 6, 7, 8” in my head, and dance. No choreography or planning, but no shame either. I kicked, spun, dipped, stomped, and turned like that’s what every 6-year-old kid did after dinner on school nights. The adults in the room weren’t an audience so much as witnesses. I wasn’t dancing for them. I was dancing for the fierce little black boy I saw reflected in all their eyes.
On nights without dinner guests, I’d push the coffee table to the side of the living room and dance until I was too tired to stand. After a few weeks of these sessions, my mother caved in and bought a stereo for my bedroom. I would dance for hours with my door closed then. It was fun, sure, but more importantly, it just felt like something I had to do. I didn’t bother asking for dance classes because I knew we couldn’t afford it. And anyway, classmates would probably just get in my way.
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that all of this dancing had a very specific catalyst. I thought it was just something I did when I was a kid and, sadly, grew out of. A few weeks ago, Awesomely Luvvie — one of my favorite blogs — did a post on Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and everything clicked into place.
On Oct. 21, 1991, during the sitcom’s second season, Will’s Aunt Vivian, the ever-elegant literature professor (played by Janet Hubert), turned 40. Faced with a midlife crisis, Aunt Viv decides to audition for a modern dance performance in spite of the fact that she hasn’t danced for years. She overcomes sneers from snobby, younger dancers, seemingly impossible choreography, as well as the curious looks from family members who wander if the stoic professor has finally cracked. At the end of the episode, Viv walks into the studio and gives an audition performance that instantly qualified as iconic.
Watching the episode when it first aired, I stood up and started dancing along with Viv as best I could. When she walked over to the dancers who had mocked her moments before and snaps her fingers in the faces, I fell to the floor, laughing uncontrollably, snapping like my right hand had been possessed. I convinced my mother to buy a copy of a C+C Music Factory cassette the next day.
The ability to seek out and identify with heroes and heroines is an essential part of making it as a queer kid. We are products of our blood relations but also our constructed relations. When I looked at Aunt Viv dancing, I saw — and this is something I’ve only come to understand in retrospect — an aspect of the self I was in the process of trying to become. I was 6 years old, bucktoothed, and scrawny, but even then, I knew, however vaguely, that it wouldn’t always be the case.
Obviously, Aunt Viv wasn’t queer, but this was 1991. The closest I got, at the time, to seeing black queer characters on television were the “Men on Film” skits on In Living Color, and even then, I knew those queens were punch lines more so than people. Aunt Viv, however, was intelligent and compassionate as well as glamorous. Seeing her dance, freely and fiercely, unleashed a very particular kind of joy in me, that peculiar breed of joy that makes you want to be your most essential self.