Queering racialized bodies

Disidentity in the works of Akilah Oliver and Ronaldo Wilson

Isaac Julien. Photo by Sammlung Goetz.

I find myself going back into the past. In absence.

 What haven’t I looked at thus far? What remains

 (mostly) unquestioned in examining what queer

 representations are? Race. Ethnicity. My white skin.

 I must dig deeper.

---

When was the first moment I realized “race”?
When did I see my body as white?
How did seeing this body change how I understood the world?

---

It hit me before Gloria Anzaldúa, of course, but I can’t
remember when. What I know is how reading her
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
changed me.
I was never able to see the world the same way.

---

Through the process of disidentification present in her text.

---

“Which scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of
a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded
message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and
recircuits its working to account for, include, and empower
minority identities and identifications.”[1]

---

But, but, but … what does it all mean in my narrative?

----

Resist the seductiveness of false universals.[2]


Realizing whiteness and queering privilege

It appears I must first look at the moment of emergence where I set Anzaldúa’s book open on my desk and was led to disidentification, to knowing Muñoz. Even before that moment, however, even before I knew him (or knew the word), I created a poem exploring these very topics:

I have set the book down:

 Borderlands/La Frontera

 how I weep at the mirror

      blotchy skin / bloodshot eyes,

      tasting tears                    running down cheeks

 child of the
borderlands,

borderlands being

 the space at                        the juncture of cultures,[3]       

 a vague and undetermined place

 created by the emotional residue

     of an unnatural border,[4]

 the space where

 my body seems

 s           t           r           e            t           c           h           e           d

 (between identifications)

yet how is any of this

 possible at all?

Glancing at my body:

 neatly trimmed hair, hip-less build / awareness of maleness.

 Desire for stubble against chin.

No hablo español.

I am no Gloria Anzaldúa:

 mestiza, feminist, woman, lesbian

holding the words in my hands

 they slip through fleshy cracks

 and puddle at my feet.

But                                      oh!

                                             oh!

                                             oh! 

 how these words resonate

Words to sensation

 sensation to flesh

 flesh to identification

 hacked away with a machete

in the mirror.

       bone and organs,

   naked and exposed,

                                                             grotesque body oozing

     unrecognizable self,

                                                                                                        who am I?

              lingering,

   as I wish nothing more

 than to fade into air.

 

I found here, for the first time, a disconnect from my previous identity. The year prior, in 2005, I came out as gay. And now I was suddenly confronted by a cultural text speaking to me beyond this identification. At first, on a level of sexuality, then along lines of age, and finally with race in mind. How was it that I was connecting to a lesbian, mestiza feminist? In this initial reading, I was only seventeen years old. I had been born in the Midwest in a fairly diverse community, but my experiences with other places around the world had been limited, at best, or had created certain assumed truths I discovered were blatantly incorrect in the short time I had been in college reading this academic work.

One particularly affecting instance occurred while reading the chapter, “How to Tame Wild Tongues,” in which Anzaldúa describes moments where her mother told her not to speak Spanish and where, at Pan American University, she was required to take two language classes to help strip her of her accent when speaking English. Mirroring other chapters, Anzaldúa’s words effortlessly slink between Spanish and English as she rejects the central warnings of her mother, and the policies of her former university. She says, “attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancó la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut.”[5]

I’ll admit I didn’t know what to do with the text after these moments left me feeling her pain and anger but not fully understanding it. I struggled with this process of disidentification because there is, after all, no manual for it. (Nor should there be because the questing of disidentification leads to more open-minded, queer-positive narratives.) So for quite some time, I would prop the text open, staring out of my expansive dorm window, watching the emergence of fall, as brilliant red and orange leaves twisted to the ground at the mercy of the wind.

After some time browsing through pages, staring out the window, and drifting over question after question, the idea of the borderlands became something I latched on to despite these unfamiliar cultural experiences and references. It occurred as I repeated the phrase: a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural border.[6] But what was my unnatural border? Where did this odd sense of displacement arise from?

I was not situated in a physically unnatural border like Anzaldúa was. But why does a borderland need to be a physical space? I think people often imagine the borderland as the edge, and there is nothing wrong with this description, but it’s more appropriate to say that the borderlands are charged spaces in-between cultures and identification where bodies, languages, sexual practices, and other identities collide. As I began thinking more about the borderlands, and developing a stronger understanding of patriarchy as it related to Anzaldúa’s description of how Spanish colonization destroyed female agency, it became clear I belonged at the edge of white male culture, in the middle of the clash between heteronormativity and bent identification. While my European ancestors were among these early colonizers, given my desire for other men, I belonged in the sexual borderlands. An outsider in or an insider out (I don’t know which) of a mostly imagined, but no less real, borderland.

I never identified as gay after that moment of realizing I was in the borderland. It was here I began disidentifying, discovering myself as queer in the active disavowal of this herteronormative, patriarchal privilege I was born into. In choosing the word queer, I saw the lines and limits of my body as being more contested, always searching around and discovering unexpected fissures on my skin. I heard hegemonic phrases uttered and saw glances that I now understood were objectification; in recognizing this hegemony, I realized how past moments of colonization had been guided by these same principles. More importantly, I knew I could become complicit in colonizing consciousness unless I took steps to avoid this privilege. Through Anzaldúa’s voice, I began learning how I could do precisely what Muñoz describes disidentification doing: I could, finally, recircuit existing cultural assumptions to fashion my queer body.

While I didn’t have specific tools at the time to structure a political ideology against racism, I found myself focused on understanding the moments where other voices of color influenced my consciousness, changing how I viewed the world. Reflecting back, I realize how invaluable Audre Lorde, Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, and others have been in providing tools to understand the world in a more nuanced way.


Discovering double consciousness in DuBois

Two semesters later that voice would be W.E.B. DuBois, one of the assigned authors at Bard College at Simon’s Rock because he was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where the college is located. In 2007, it was The Souls of Black Folk,[7] which was first published in 1903. To this day, it remains one of DuBois’s most well-cited texts and one of the earliest examples of African-American sociology. Covering significant sociohistorical ground, it includes DuBois’s own stories to define the directions he felt the black community should head, at the same time exploring the ways in which racism has greatly influenced black consciousness.

In my immediate readings of The Souls of Black Folk, I latched on to the concept of double consciousness that DuBois develops in his first chapter, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” This concept is initially described through the veil, which is a metaphorical device used to show how black consciousness is separated from the consciousness of white individuals. The veil, rather than simply being a negative imposition on behalf of white culture, is a way for black individuals to expose and advocate for a more unified antiracist movement. Double consciousness factors into this process of advocacy as the result of living through the veil. That is to say, because black individuals are born with a veil, their consciousness enters them into a “world which yields [them] no true consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world.”[8]

The black individual who sees himself through the other world, the white world, is then “always looking at [himself] through the eyes of the others,” which forces him to always feel his “two-ness.”[9] This process, DuBois goes on to describe, is often destructive, leaving an individual torn between wanting to be part of the United States at the same time he doesn’t want to risk sacrificing his cultural roots or identity.[10] While much of DuBois’s focus revolves around sociological study of the effects of racism on black culture, he begins to envision the power of this consciousness, exploring how the “strivings” of these black individuals will help engender a more just and free United States of America.[11]

During this semester, I wrote a short essay exploring how I felt my own sense of double consciousness. While it was not entirely analogous to DuBois’s description, I connected to the struggles of these black individuals on the most basic premise that I defined my life through others’ assumptions I was gay due to my feminized physical appearance and mannerisms. I recognize how this consciousness is less immediate because sexuality, unlike skin color, can be hidden. That is to say, I could have consciously worn baggy clothes or avoided participating in other activities associated with gayness. Through this particular realization, I found myself drawn to the notion that I was seeing the world differently, and that this consciousness could serve to further connect queer bodies rather divide them. Reflecting back, it seems this double consciousness was the central link in uniting those in the borderlands.

I will admit I cannot understand all moments in The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois, as an example, dedicates a chapter to discussing the role of the Church in organizing black lives. As an avowed atheist, these discussions do not further my understanding of how to structure political movements for queerstory. As importantly, they often strike up a divisive tone because some of the leading advocates against LGBT rights are affiliated with churches, including the people of color that DuBois talks about. The charge is not that DuBois is homophobic, or that he’s advocating for homophobic ideals; instead, this lengthy exploration of the Church failed to resonate, in any sense, with my own experiences and philosophy.

Nevertheless, I used DuBois as a bridge to breach present gaps between queer, white persons like myself and people of color, even if they do not identify as LGBTQ. After reading Souls of Black Folk, I immediately became involved with the Owl’s Nest Coalition on campus. This group offers a space for the various minority organizations on campus to meet, discuss specific localized concerns, and support other organizations in their activist work. My experiences with this group, while challenging, forced me into developing a more fully realized understanding of what queer meant, which would increasingly depend on Jose Muñoz’s Disidentifications.


Afterhours in Langston Hughes: A metaphor for disidentification

The concept of disidentification, I soon realized, was linked to DuBois in two interesting ways. First, disidentification is a natural extension of the concept of double consciousness because it supposes looking at a fragmented sense of self to disidentify from normative self-formation that is the basis of that fragmentation. Disidentification differs from double consciousness because it is a more overt attempt to use the conditions of this identity formation to revise existing histories as a means of creating new political conditions. This more overtly historical and political stance of disidentification is woven into the second way that DuBois and Muñoz are connected: through the queer poetics of Langston Hughes.

While DuBois and Hughes are situated temporally, meaning they lived as notable voices of black empowerment in the 1920s, they offer different methodologies to achieve this empowerment. Though both we united by an interest in song — Christian spirituals for DuBois and jazz for Hughes — DuBois operates as an academic, providing one of the earliest sociopolitical records of black cultural accomplishment from a decidedly heteronormative framework, whereas Hughes was the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, gaining prominence for his depictions of the nightlife and vagrants of Harlem during this time period. Muñoz, though he works within academia like DuBois, aligns himself more closely to Hughes in his theoretical ideals because of Hughes’s focus on the queer black nightlife, which is later retold in Issac Julien’s film Looking for Langston.[12]

The play between DuBois’s more assimilationist stance and Hughes’s radical, revisionist stance has become a theoretical object of inquiry for Muñoz. In his introduction to Disidentifications, he describes disidentification as “prying open memory,” effectively reformatting memory to disrupt notions of temporality and, to use his particular academic framework, perform history.[13] DuBois, in his work on double consciousness, suggests a modernist, progress-driven narrative for black individuals; while his ambitions for their “strivings” are rooted in a desire to give a voice to black culture, they do not operate to pry open memory like Muñoz’s model.

But Langston Hughes doesn’t subscribe to these traditional notions of identity. Shane Vogel, in his essay “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,”[14] locates the transformative narrative laced in Hughes’s poetics. Taking the poetic image of the afterhours club, Vogel remarks how Hughes “resisted naming and fixing his desire, not out of internalized shame or the logic of the closet, but out of what bell hooks proposes we think of as his ‘perverse regard’ for desire itself, its mysteries and uncertainties.”[15] Hughes’s poems, in embracing the social marginality of the afterhours clubs, disrupt the “textual and material logic of the institutional archive” in a way that instead creates “a queer time consciousness” that becomes archived in “the line of poem.”[16]

Muñoz explores this new archive, which encountered an unsurprising reemergence given the most virulently antiqueer rhetorics were directed against people of color during AIDS’s violent emergence as a global pandemic. The film Looking for Langston becomes so instructive because it was released in 1988, the same time Arnold Rampersad’s historical account of Hughes’s life was published. Where Rampersad proposed that Hughes was not gay because of what Vogel describes as a lack of “eye witness accounts and documentary evidence” of his sexual practices[17], Looking for Langston suggests Hughes was queer precisely because his identity “elude[s] historical inscription.”[18]

This act of eluding being written is achieved in Hughes’s work by careful depictions, in both content and form, of “a temporality that unfolds in defiance of city and moral law to create fugitive spaces like the afterhours club.”[19] Looking for Langston achieves this same counterpublic space because it “holds on to [a] lost object,” meaning it doesn’t intend to affirm the notion that a queer and black history has been hidden from history; instead, the film shows this history did, at one point, serve as a site of resistance and is, once again, even if it is many decades later, still relevant to understanding the ways in which queer black subjectivity is constructed publicly.[20] Muñoz proposes that disidentification does, like Looking for Langston, “work on and against dominant ideology” to “transform a cultural logical from within.”[21] Isaac Julien is engaging in a type of historical production through the film that, on the basis of being named history, must adopt some mainstream cultural definitions.

Yet the film limits these definitions because it, in using some traditionally accepted modalities of writing self-narratives, suddenly and unexpectedly rips them apart through the process Muñoz refers to as “desire with a difference.”[22] This means queer and black bodies strive for culturally accepted ideals at the same time they seek to create new desires through an analysis of these ideals. This creates what he calls a type of history not invested, as in Hughes’s case, of his “known” object choice, but instead in a “contested field of self-production” that cannot separate fiction and reality.[23] This doesn’t make such change apolitical, however. As Muñoz is careful to articulate, Looking for Langston is “a redeployment of the past that is meant to offer a critique of the present.”[24]

This critique of the present consequently fashions connections between individuals in ways not only invested in “characters but also with verbs or ‘acts,’” meaning traditional or historical gaps can be traversed to generate hybrid, migrant subjects existing in relation to each other despite dominant paradigms stressing the impossibility of these relationships.[25] While Hughes was particularly concerned with creating life in the afterhours clubs through a jazz poetics, he did so in a manner that spills into the present — or just-distant past of Julien’s reimagining — not to merely allow us to admire him from a distance, but instead to speak directly to these ghosts to forge radical alliances.

These alliances “require an active kernel of impossibility” in the sense that talking to ghosts means we must ask our questions as we simultaneously imagine their responses to these questions, knowing they are lost on our own physical and temporal plane.[26] But this act of creation generates a “call-and-response” to history that develops into the procedural structure of storytelling in the present.[27] As my own earlier narrative illustrates, I wanted to understand how I disidentified from a gay identity through W.E.B. DuBois’s and Gloria Anzaldúa’s narratives. But this process did not just involve me analyzing their works as an outsider; I’ve needed to speak to DuBois and Anzaldúa to find my own borderlands identity as it continues to be discovered through an endless series of calls and responses.

Hughes’s history is, then, valuable in a number of ways. His call to document a truly queer movement through space, one Vogel describes as a “moment in a night that will continue” without a discernible end, is one of the first such movements in the United States.[28] This valuable movement through space reemerged in the height of the AIDS crisis as a response to the rapid expanse of antiqueer rhetorics especially vitriolic to queers of color with AIDS. Thus, in Looking for Langston, Muñoz finds explicit disidentification at work because it focuses on “recycling and rethinking encoded meaning” in respect to AIDS-related oppression.[29] With this movement across traditional temporality, I can establish cultural history of a struggle at the same time I suggest a queer future.

This latter point structures an analysis of more contemporary works by Akilah Oliver and Ronaldo Wilson. They suggest how Hughes’s call to disidentify from traditional productions has more political and social relevance than ever before. Despite tremendous political progress, queer and black are not as synonymous with one another as they should be; mainstream LGBTQ politics actively exclude black, Latino, and Southeast Asian “performances” of identity. Even within self-professed queer movements and queer academics, Muñoz recognizes how these queer and black voices are understood in disembodied contexts, analyzed only as creative works distinct from politics, or wholly apolitical. I’ve begun with my own story, more than a decade after Disidentifications was written, to show how disidentification has been a survival practice for me; without this process of disidentification, I might not continue to live with such an uncertain disidentity, or what Muñoz calls a “reconstructed identity politics.”[30] However, it is precisely through disidentity that the creative impulse of queer storytelling emerged to search beyond the structures suppressing queer counterpublics.

I know I am forever indebted to Anzaldúa, DuBois, Hughes, Julien, Muñoz, Oliver, and Wilson for challenging my sense of privilege and forcing me into a fearful political and social uncertainty. This recognition is more than mere admiration or valorization of courage. It is also at the heart of what Muñoz describes as prosopopeia, or “She who mourns a friend summons her up through elaborate ventriloquism.”[31] This reanimation of the past accounts for Hughes’s reimagination, the queer black insurgency of the AIDS crisis, Muñoz’s analysis of this insurgency, and the belief that, without continued reimagination, queer storytelling will only become cultural reappropriation of heteronormativity in an age where virulent antiqueer and black rhetorics flourish because of this reappropriation and assimilation.


Introducing voices of disidentification in the present

I have selected works by Ronaldo Wilson and Akilah Oliver because I was immediately drawn to these two texts. I initially selected more well-known works by authors including Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, but Wilson and Oliver have stuck in my mind because careful readings of these works have been revelatory in many ways. Oliver and Wilson restructured my consciousness as I realized my own privileges, confused me in descriptions of spirituality, myth, and religion, and also forced me into lateral contact with their bodies. In this process, I have found ways we are connected through difference. These two works have also enabled me to bring discussions of disidentification into the present, allowing me to provide an outline for a process I call queerstory, a process through which identities can achieve productive sociopolitical effects. From this point forward, I use both authors to show how queerstory can effectively create fluid, transhistorical, and atemporal stories that embrace queer bodies and desires as sites of history making.

The first of these works, Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man,[32] explores the life of a brown boy — who is never named — as he explores how he understands this body through his relationship to his boyfriend, who is only ever referred to as the white man. In the introduction of the work, which takes the form of short prose-poem chapters, we get an immediate sense of the narrative’s themes when Wilson writes, “the brown boy never dreams of being his own body. He only longs after big white men.”[33]

In exploring the life of the brown boy through his fantasies, desires, and dreams of almost always being somebody else, Wilson interrogates the ways in which queer desire is constituted against a more dominant paradigm of gay male sexual culture that prizes whiteness. At the same time, through a narrative structure so heavily reliant on dreamscapes and imagination, the materiality of sexuality — meaning sexuality constituted through physical acts — is stripped away, forcing the practice of queerstory to demand a look at how sexuality is constituted through imagined and immaterial spaces.

I would specifically like to extend Wilson’s description of treading water in one of these prose-poem “chapters” to serve as a larger metaphor for disidentification as a process that treads identity. By this, I mean that disidentification itself is a process, much like Muñoz describes, of surviving disjunctive or fragmented senses of identity. I will explore how this is manifest in the structure of Wilson’s Narrative, how this relates to the prose poem genre he is writing in, and how this can be applied to queerstory as a whole.

The next work, Akilah Oliver’s A Toast in the House of Friends,[34] is the more visionary in terms of its form, employing a wide range of poetic styles to interrogate the relationship her body has to violence, and the ways in which speaking can constitute a challenge to these violent realities of the present. She sums this up in the poem “murdering” when she says, “if I am engage antiviolence work then by necessity I enter into contract / with violence, / no shy slipperies here.”[35] In this contract with violence, Oliver develops a book that bleeds history. Violence trickles like blood from the pages, moving us to interrogate the ways in which racialized violence cannot be ignored, and how this type of violence is placed in the context of understanding desire.

Oliver, it seems, is never able to break from violence; however, this is not the aim. She wants us to remember. She wants herself to remember the past, to mourn, letting those moments of self-reflection linger as she binds us to representative strategies deeply invested in traditional cultural practices such as chanting. But these chants also bring the narrative into the present, as she explores the ways in which new forms of art — most notably her discussion on graffiti — constitute a unique public space of memorial. At the same time, she creates a reimagination of these earlier cultural practices, driven by individuals she describes as the visible unseen. I intend to show how these individuals are relevant to the representational strategies informing queerstory.

Both Wilson and Oliver are connected because they create counterpublic spaces that, like Hughes’s jazz poetry of afterhours clubs, allow for queer voices of color to flourish in imagining the possibility of creation. They also challenge a cultural logic that sees queer and black as separate, positing how queer desire and pleasure, in the process of these new spaces of possibility, must be informed by the disidentificatory practices of queers of color. Let me be clear here: this radical openness is made possible precisely because disidentification shows us how identity is unfixed, mobile, and relational — roaming through fantasy, memory, and felt experience — to generate social critique.

A failure to recognize this identity means queerstory as a practice will be drawn into the legacy of colonial and imperial violence, unable to break out of the repetitious and violent cycle that drives it. Without these theorists, without the moment where I found my body in Anzaldúa’s, I’d probably be chugging along on a marriage equality campaign, neglecting people of color in the process. But I am not. I’ve come into queerness realizing I am always coming into identity because disidentity is ongoing polyvocal conversation. This is not to say there is a “model” approach to interrogate white privilege; instead, disidentification is less a model than it is a loose blueprint of ways to approach privilege.

It’s also important to note what differences exist between Wilson and Oliver in both form and content that generate, through moments of disconnect, the same disidentificatory practices leading to their creation. This is because counterpublic spaces, like the afterhours clubs, are not ones of agreement; rather, they are spaces where disagreement is expected precisely to generate a collective response to challenge the legacies of violence. In recognition of this fact, I will focus on how Wilson and Oliver’s connectedness dissolves. However, I’m also not suggesting that disagreement overwhelms agreement; instead, I want to show that in moving forward with queerstory, it is vitally important to examine how disidentification is a simultaneous investment in agreement and disagreement.


From treading identity to the visible unseen

“The brown boy think the word white when he looks up at the white man meditating, but hears something else like c’mon or a grunt and slides between his legs and falls asleep there, thinking only about his black father’s erasure”[36]

The first thing that strikes me in reading Wilson’s Narrative is the simplicity of his language. It is so simplistic, in fact, that the first time I read it, I’m put off by how childish it feels as I attempt to read it out loud. There only seem to be short, choppy sentences that lack natural rhythm, particularly as I encounter descriptions of eating and shitting. I ask myself, squarely, “How is this poetry? Or even art at all? What could this possibly have to say of disidentification and queerness?” I set Narrative down for a moment, deciding to give it a second chance like I do every text. In a subsequent reading, my pace slows dramatically. As a slim volume of only seventy-seven pages, it is easy for Wilson to just breeze by and fall out of consciousness.

This second reading revealed what I had glossed over before: Wilson’s simplistic language shows that, for queer people of color, disidentification occurs in both dramatic, exceptional circumstances and everyday life. Wilson uses language precisely in what Muñoz calls a “strategy that works on and against dominant ideology.”[37] This strategy reconfigures what these acts of repetition mean through the constant shift between dreamscapes and imagination the brown boy employs in the narrative. In reaching this realization, I begin exploring the form Wilson uses and, more specifically, how the images he uses suggest counterpublic spaces.

I begin by asking, “What does a prose poem do?” because it seems clear the simplicity of his language is counteracted by complexly layered form. The prose-poem, Juan Manuel Sanchez reminds us in his essay, “The Prose Poem: An Apology,” is undefinable because of its “mutable genius.”[38] The prose-poem is mutable because the combination of prose and poetry creates an oxymoronic space where conventions of constructing narrative seem oppositional. But Narrative fully embodies the peculiar power of the prose-poem as a hybrid form. Wilson is able to use poetic repetition and slink into memory quite easily through these devices, but the paragraph form allows him to use these poetic devices to construct a lengthier narrative. This embrace of hybridity is an essential component of disidentification and the creation of counterpublic space. This occurs because disidentity is a form of identity that simply operates differently than expected by latching on to more traditional modes of expression at the same time it tries to interrogate these modes of expression.

The hybridity of Wilson’s identity is illuminated, as I described in the previous section, through the idea of treading. In his chapter “Irrational Desire,” Wilson recounts the scene of being at a pool where he notices an older white man “with gray hair and a hard clayish face … wading near the ladder and struggling to keep his head above water.”[39] He is engaged “in his exercise for the afternoon: treading.”[40] This activity is easily dismissed as a simple physical action, as a struggle to keep one’s head above water. Yet treading is not merely an exercise poor swimmers use to stay afloat. Instead, it is something seasoned swimmers and military service-members use to stabilize themselves in the water. This means treading is a form of carefully constructed movement that ultimately moves these individuals nowhere. In bobbing up, they fall back down into their initial position, continually repeating this process for any specified duration.

When we consider Sanchez’s description of a prose-poem as “circling back” on images and meaning, it becomes clear the concept of treading can be applied to Wilson’s work as a whole, and disidentification more generally. This is because one of the central “plot” points of Narrative is the brown boy’s circling back on the body he always wants: the one that isn’t his own. Forget specific poetic images; the brown boy in Narrative treads identity because, through the constant process of disidentification, he always bobs up and down to return back to the brown skin that sparked this analysis.

Treading identity extends to disidentification because disidentification creates counterpublic spaces. These spaces are not fixed or permanent in the same sense that institutional structures are. They are dynamic and unfixed because, in quoting Muñoz, they are “suggested, rehearsed, and articulated.”[41] The notion of identity as rehearsal and articulation can be expanded to what I consider a more socially and politically productive term: practice. This means that to practice one’s disidentity for others, to willingly rehearse it and refashion it, requires the process of treading.

As my own narrative indicates, I’ve been able to practice this sense of my conflicted identity only as I moved up and down through identity (but not beyond it); if I move beyond disidentity, and stroke forward, I then latch on to some essential or permanent subject position, which threatens the idea that subjectivity is a collective process. This is not to say one will always be treading, but instead that disidentification enables queerstory to operate as collective identity. Treading is not like the gray white man’s flailing in Narrative. The struggle of a queer body is a purposeful struggle to be and to become.

Wilson’s Narrative, through this process of treading identity, offers us one of the most powerful disidentifactory processes structuring queerstory: mourning. As he bobs up and down through imagined pleasures, he locates these pleasures through the process of prosopopeia I described earlier. In his day-to-day life, he falls into memory and recounts dreams not to simply recollect his relationship to other white men or to his family members. As Muñoz describes, “the lost and dead are not altogether absent. Not only do they exist in the drama of African-American life, but they help formulate it.”[42]

This means these lost and dead voices are not simply present as memory; instead, Wilson uses them to drive the brown boy’s understanding of his body. He remembers, for instance, his father in a dream, taking his experiences in real life and refashioning a new version of his father. In the dream, this angry father, who has no control of his body, becomes realized in the brown boy’s own lack of control during a real life incident. The drama ensuing from this scene is a true manifestation of the drama of disidentity; though the language Wilson uses is simplistic, it only helps to advance just how potent these figures are in his life, and how their presence extends into the brown boy’s felt experiences:

Out of the dream, the brown boy sat on the pot. Piss
shoots between the lid’s gap, cascading outside, down the
bowl’s neck. Of course, he caught himself, well before he
realized how much he was like his black father as he gobbed
the piss at the base with the toilet paper, absorbing all of it.[43]

However, I do want to be careful in ensuring these dreams do not become interpreted in a psychoanalytic context. Though Narrative is certainly ripe with this type of analysis, I am not searching for some essential origin of the brown boy’s subjectivity; I am instead reminded that as queer individuals we mourn our origins precisely because our identities challenge the myth of origination. What mourning these figures offers is a chance of explanation when this treading identity is the defining aspect of disidentity. My own narrative illuminates a similar concern. In feeling rootless, I try to speak to individuals like Anzaldúa or Lorde as a means of discovering what my disdentifications have been tied to.

Finally, I believe Wilson’s Narrative is so important because it forces any reader to examine his or her own sexual desires in very specific ways. Wilson’s brown boy struggles, as I have described throughout, to understand why he loves men and always wishes he was in another body. But Wilson’s treading through the hybridity of the prose-poem is, as Sanchez describes, “sometimes ambiguous and so left to the reader to interpret.”[44] This ambiguity is both a function of disidentification — that it is an open-ended process where the subject practicing her identity does not quite know her desire — and a function of the counterpublic — that it is a dynamic space where, if ambiguous meaning cannot be generated, there can be no collective push toward meaning.

It thus becomes clear that the brown boy’s exploration of his relationship to the white man is also an effort to force the white man to understand his own relationship to his desires. There are no names for any characters precisely because this lack-of-naming generates sites where disidentification can occur for the reader. I am the white man; thus Wilson’s Narrative has forced me to analyze why I like brown bodies, and what that desire for brown bodies means. I thus stumble across the following questions: Am I unwittingly objectifying these bodies by fetishizing some sort of otherness? How do my relationships to queer men of color manifest differently compared to queer white men? What implications do these questions have in structuring a collective understanding?

While I do not have any answers to these questions now, nor do I expect to arrive at some fully formed truth, without considering these questions, I am not considering my desires or pleasures as being constituted against and through other forms of violence or oppression. A failure to do this means, even if I am silent, denying the complex intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Queerstory, then, cannot be as open, dynamic, and accessible to those I want it to be accessible to. I will have failed the lost and/or dead voices I entered into conversation with earlier.

**

“Graffiti posits history as always in the process of becoming undone”[45]

Akilah Oliver’s poetic syntax, unlike Wilson’s simplistic prose, trips me up. I can read Wilson aloud the first time, but immersed in Oliver I stumble over pronunciations of some words, question their organization on the page, and finally doubt the rhythm, moving through unfamiliar chanting and an academic essay on graffiti in the middle. Maybe her poetry isn’t for me. Maybe disidentity has ruptured any chance of identification. Maybe there are some gaps queerstory cannot bridge.

Yet I latch on to phrases suggesting otherwise. First the idea of “blushing moments.”[46] Then “i conjugate occasions.”[47] Then phrases given new meaning: “once upon a time” gets placed next to “aesthetic of references” which enters into contact with “and on his farm.”[48] Fairytale blends with critical theory then rewrites child’s song. In this instance, I realize I do not lack an understanding; instead, I must further explore the new language of disidentity Oliver is chanting. It is a language I realize lies in what Oliver calls the “visible unseen.”[49]

Like Wilson, Oliver takes a second read before I can understand who the visible unseen are. Their identity is revealed only in the last titled poem of the collection, “dear matthew shepard.” This one I read aloud, catching the rhythm immediately. I know Matthew, and like Oliver, I too have spoken to him, weeping in memory when I recognized I could have been (or still could be) killed by homophobia. But one particular passage moves me, throwing me back to the moment where Oliver first mentions the visible unseen:

what did you fathom, matthew,
what resistance kept you alive,
through the hard night.
it was so fucking cold,
the sick act that hung you upon a sacrificial fence,
the normal boy american faces of the brutes
who played out their homicidal homophobia
on your beautiful
true form.[50]

Here Oliver speaks to Matthew in a way that has not been seen before. Yes, he is one of the most recognizable gay figures in the history of the United States, but his recognition has granted him precisely the status of a visible unseen. Here I am thrown back into Oliver’s essay on graffiti, where she describes the visible unseen as those “whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history.”[51]

In the case of Matthew, while his place as figurehead of homicidal homophobia’s destruction is justified, his own beauty and resilience are often ignored through totalizing historical narratives. This is unsurprising due to the ability of violence to negate existence during and prior to its occurrence, but Oliver nevertheless engages what Laura Trantham Smith describes, in “From Rupture to Remembering,”[52] as “the gaps and erasures of historical black bodies and experiences, but privileges presence over erasure or rupture.”[53] While Matthew Shepard is a white man, his experience with violent murder becomes linked to Oliver’s own experiences and voice, revealing both the way violence operates across temporal boundaries, and how this crossing leads to the creation of new identity. In this way, Oliver creates a relationship that is unseen in dominant paradigms, but once again flourishes in counterpublic spaces.

Oliver works along similar lines as Wilson, who eloquently uses memories and dreams of his family members to co-opt dominant historical narratives. I would, however, argue that Oliver, through her instance on the visible unseen, and her direct linkage to Shepard and others, creates a disidentity whose scope is much broader as it attempts to do more historical construction and reconstitution of identity. This is not to say Wilson does not offer counterpublic spaces, or that his work is more “self-indulgent”; instead, given his focus is so explicitly on the psyche of the brown boy, larger references to configuring history are much more indirect (as in the case of the generalized “brown boy” and “white man”).

This narrative strategy is what Smith calls Oliver’s belief that “bodies contain a vast history of knowledge that exceeds the bounds of one’s literal experience.”[54] By literal experience, it is clear that Oliver does not mean “true” experience. Oliver does not privilege the corporeal experiences over the space of imagination; instead, she tries to argue that what we feel with our body is imbricated in a collective history of struggle far beyond what the individual body does. This is what Oliver called, in an earlier work, flesh memory, and what Smith so beautifully describes, quoting Oliver, as representing “‘a twist of an appropriation’ — a taking back, a reclaiming of the black female body and its representation.”[55]

However, after arriving at this understanding, I realized the black female body Oliver describes is her own creation. Oliver implicates her own bodily experiences in the commonly understood and documented legacy of slavery, detailing the role of spirituality as a means of attempting a rupture from this legacy through its reliance on a particular form of rhythmic chanting that remains a largely black form of spiritual expression. But Oliver’s sheer multiplicity of writing forms suggests a black female disidentity, rather than an identity, because of her attempts to make the body both ahistorical and atemporal. This formulation might seem oxymoronic on first glance. Yet calling it oxymoronic would ignore Oliver’s belief that using identificatory categories does not equal fixed identity. Instead, a black female disidentity offers sites of identification that become integrated into the process of using what Muñoz describes as “connotative images that invoke communal structures of feelings.”[56]

These sites of simultaneous identification and reconfiguration are immediately evident in the first pages of A Toast. In the poem “In Aporia,” Oliver explains the action that is occurring as being “I his.”[57] For example, “I his body is disintegrating” suggests both a site of personal identification — though not explicitly spelled out, we can infer from the back cover that I is the black female body Oliver speaks from — and an undefined other he that challenges the very nature of this I by forcing us to imagine their relationship. A similar use of undefined pronouns that follows, shifting between “I,” “i,” “we,” “he,” “you,” offers immediate sites of identification that are reconfigured in the moment of their articulation, creating a multiplicity of visible unseens.

This “i his” formulation extends further into content, as in the early moments where Oliver recycles clichéd phrases, nursery rhymes, and other language etched into dominant, recognized discourses. When Oliver describes, in “Crossover,” how “i wept you,” we are confronted with specific linguistic instances that challenge our expectations about how self functions in relation to others, and how the very basis of this disidentity is a blending of many sites of identification.[58] In this instance, for example, we would expect the formulation “I wept for you” or, perhaps, “I wept for your memory.” But Oliver challenges us to imagine moments where the body, and its memory, are distinct, and that the loss of this body is not simply intellectualized but felt, running through flesh in a moment of shared grief.

Given these observations, however, A Toast is not merely a collection of poems about rupture, just as Wilson’s Narrative is not merely about the brown boy running away from his brown identity. Though the brown boy always tries to be somebody else, the repetition of connectedness to his brown family and skin shows how he returns to the moment of disavowing his skin in order to refashion new possibility in that skin. When Wilson and Oliver are linked, it is clear that Oliver, too, uses this disavowal to construct different identifications. These constructions are most clear when she repeatedly chants “we have love”[59] or makes calls of using love to transform violence. Yet we also witness this construction in an imagined space, which is most clearly illuminated by the following passage:

when i arrived in the forever dream my name / had become another and i recognized myself in the face of the children and the / dream children chanted both/both and i met all the ghosts who come and go still / and the ghosts and the dream children took my hand and we plummeted down a / long and narrow tunnel and when we landed we stood before the screaming hiero- / glyphic wall and the wall began to whisper, the wall was prayer, the wall was a sage, it sang [60]

Here Oliver places us in a space outside of time that is clearly her imagination and creation. Instead of dismissing this space, she integrates it into her own consciousness before inviting us to join her in this space. Beyond the bounds of traditional temporality, it is replete with identificatory possibility insofar as we also value how imagination can be brought into presence to understand future possibility. This particular page ends with the lines “the wall was a sage, / it sang” but does not feature a punctuation mark. By doing this, Oliver allows continuance of the poem, using the ambiguous temporality as invitation for the readers to imagine what the wall could sing and how it could be our sage.

Oliver’s language, full of undefined temporality and meaning is not, then, meant to exclude. Because of its sheer depth of borrowed phrases and reconfiguration of historical truths, it is meant to provide, like her description of graffiti, a space to “reconstruct the lies.”[61] This reconstruction of lies occurs in such a way that cuts across traditional categories of identity in an open and accommodating manner to anyone who believes in the concept of flesh memory. This opening up of memory, as Muñoz describes, “not only ‘remap[s]’ but also produce[s] minoritarian space.”[62] In its production, we must confront how disidentity does not shy away from identity; instead, it allows us to proclaim, like Oliver, “dream with me / sing with me for a while.”[63]

**

While it is clear Wilson’s concept of treading identity, which imagines a continual process of moving through identity, is similar to Oliver’s flesh memory as it attempts to reconfigure how our literal experiences are defined beyond the confines of these felt moments, these two processes do not always line up. In both approach and content, these disidentities are thus similar but not the same. Wilson’s prose is straightforward, written in tightly constructed paragraphs meant to capture stream of consciousness so expertly. Oliver’s prose, in contrast, embodies prose elements, traditional poetics, and language that is on the edge of language (as in chants) to challenge consciousness itself. In examining these discontinuities, I can reveal how to approach these disconnects.

It is easier for me to personally identify with the content of Wilson’s Narrative. The sexualized imagery, and questions over sexual object choice, are something I grapple with on daily basis. I live every moment analyzing how my desire and gaze are manifest in my experiences, and how I come to use privilege to my advantage in these sexualized spaces. Like Wilson, I also interrogate how I have desired queer people of color’s bodies as a white man, why pleasure with these bodies is significant in my daily experiences, and what it means for the future community-building and activism over sexual rights. But Oliver’s configuration of words resonates more viscerally with me. She speaks a hybrid language at the level of form that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa, who brought me into disidentity. Her words may be beguiling, but they unfurl in a manner similar to the poetic academic texts I have been inspired by and long to emulate.

This means I am faced with a challenge: do I identify more with building the content of Wilson or the form of Oliver? For a while I struggled precisely with this question. I would construct an essay focused on issues related to men who have sex with men without much consideration of form. But it always felt too incomplete, as if my writing style didn’t seem to mirror the complexities of content. At the same time, I would switch the focus to form at the expense of a rich theoretical subtext. In fact, the very earliest draft of this essay had the latter problem, and my advisor appropriately commented, “This isn’t fully developed.” But I didn’t understand how to make that development possible until I realized Wilson and Oliver were not oppositional, but could be linked in subtle way, fleshing out both form and content to create a final product embodying both methods of identification.

It is true Wilson and Oliver are divided, but there is not only rupture; concerns over Wilson’s content can be dissolved if we take time to understand and examine, more carefully, how Oliver embeds her desire through her form. Though Wilson is explicit in describing his sexual proclivities in a manner less focused on the sociopolitical forces influencing those sexual desires (as is the case of Oliver), his overall message establishes an intelligible sexual identity whose construction clashes with dominant paradigms of being that render his sexuality illegible. Though the focus is less on explicit forms of violence, Wilson seems to direct violence at himself in a manner that connects his struggle to Oliver, whose focus is precisely on this struggle between authenticity and negation. Thus the fixation on a specific sexual object, and on the very structure of traditional identification, is replaced by an analysis of collective struggles for authenticity.

On the other hand, if what Oliver says seems unclear, the impulse should not be to assume what she says is beyond the scope of individual understanding. Instead, Oliver’s work must be broken down into its individual poems, where first specific poetic images are located, then structure can be discussed, and the question of content can be “answered.” In this respect, reading Oliver does not require reading or writing about each individual poem in a sequential manner; the logic of hybridity, which is directly informed by disidentification, does not require linear sequencing. As my own reading of A Toast demonstrated, I used Oliver’s middle essay on graffiti to create a definition of her concept of the visible unseen by reading individual pieces first. By creating this definition, I was then able to uncover Oliver’s own “unseen” moments of expressing her desire.

As a result disidentity that informs queerstory is about managing and negotiating how these unstable sites of, and approaches to, identification can be understood collectively. This can be achieved if we do something I have tried to do in using both authors’ works: that we can, in the present with the passage of time, ask, “why have we approached disidentification in the manner that we have?” Such a question demands respect, careful listening, and patience among all members of whatever collective might form. But disidentity has imagined the difficulty of this coming into identification collectively, still believing, despite these challenges, such a respect is possible. This belief states that creation is inherent in disidentity is precisely what moves disidentity beyond its only assumed purpose, rupture, placing the works of Oliver and Wilson in even closer contact with each other.


A continuing legacy of disidentification

As I have shown, the process of disidentification is an essential component in the works of Ronaldo Wilson and Akilah Oliver. Yet far from being confined to contemporary works, I have shown how disidentification has origins in practices predating colonialism, how disidentification as a practice of creating counterpublic spaces in this country first emerged during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance through the afterhours poetry of Langston Hughes, and how feminist and queer poets have used these moments of critical refusal to structure the creation of counterpublic spaces. Wilson and Oliver continue to show how disidentification is important in creating these counterpublics for queer people of color, and how they offer new ways to understand queer identities through complex hybrid forms that borrow from past influences.

I have also, as importantly, shown how these queer voices of color forced me (as a then gay, white male) into questioning the understanding of my body. Though disidentification originates from queer people of color, it is one of the central practices forcing someone to come into queerness. This recognition means that the navigation of identities forms the central component of queerstory to create a dynamic, mutable collective invested in a political structure beyond the traditional conceptions of identity. However, rather than suggesting queer people of color know identity better than white queers, disidentity is used to show that without considering the valuable intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, queers can neglect the potent history of disidentification in forming so many influential counterpublic spaces that continue to be remembered as we mourn a queer past.

Disidentification is clearly a representational legacy for any future queer narrative writing. There is no certain origin or identity in all of this, but this is not what queerstory desires. Instead, it wants to locate what Muñoz calls a “‘structure of feeling’ that cuts through any identification group.”[64] Though this seems, at best, improbable in our current political climate, I make every effort, after this first moment of disidentification, to use this process in the future creation of counterpublic spaces. I am a white man with significant privilege, but this does not exist in isolation to my own status in the borderlands or my relationship to queer people of color. As Akilah Oliver reminds me, speaking to Matthew Shepard as apparition:

& just as your death becomes mine,
someone else will wear my broken bones,
wake trembling from sleep,
try to get the work done.[65]

 


 

 

1. Jose Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Cultural Studies of the Americas) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 31.

2. Angela Davis, “Critical Refusals: Angela Davis with Mahina Movement,” Critical Refusals Conference from Herbert Marcuse Society, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, October 28, 2011.

3. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The Mestiza, 1987 (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007), 20.

4. Ibid., 24.

5. Ibid., 76.

6. Ibid., 24.

7. W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1997).

8. Ibid., 38.

9. Ibid., 38.

10. Ibid., 39.

11. Ibid., 44.

12. Isaac Julien, Looking for Langston (New York City: Strand Releasing, 2007), DVD.

13. Muñoz, 4.

14. Shane Vogel, “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,” Criticism 48, no. 3 (2006): 397–425.

15. Ibid., 418.

16. Ibid., 400.

17. Ibid., 398.

18. Ibid., 399.

19. Ibid., 402.

20. Muñoz, 12.

21. Ibid., 11.

22. Ibid., 15.

23. Ibid., 20.

24. Ibid., 33.

25. Ibid., 29.

26. Ibid., 25.

27. Ibid., 61.

28. Vogel, 413.

29. Muñoz, 31.

30. Ibid., 164.

31. Ibid., 65.

32. Ronaldo Wilson, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (Pittsburgh: University Of Pittsburgh Press, 2008).

33. Ibid., 4–5.

34. Akilah Oliver, A Toast in the House of Friends (New York: Coffee House Press, 2009).

35. Ibid., 29.

36. Wilson, 7.

37.Muñoz, 11.

38.  Juan Manuel Sanchez, “The Prose Poem: An Apology,” Southern Review 45, no. 1 (2009): 175–184.

39. Wilson, 8.

40. Ibid., 8.

41. Muñoz, 171.

42. Ibid., 66.

43. Wilson, 19.

44. Sanchez, 182.

45. Oliver, 59.

46. Ibid., 11.

47. Ibid., 14.

48. Ibid., 45.

49. Ibid., 57.

50. Ibid., 95.

51. Ibid., 57.

52. Laura Trantham Smith, “From Rupture to Remembering: Flesh Memory and the Embodied Experimentalism of Akilah Oliver,” MELUS 35, no. 2 (2010): 103–120.

53. Ibid., 104.

54. Ibid., 114.

55. Ibid., 117.

56. Muñoz, 176.

57. Oliver, 9.

58. Ibid., 34.

59. Ibid., 46.

60. Ibid., 51.

61. Ibid., 57.

62. Muñoz, 148.

63. Oliver, 54.

64. Muñoz, 170.

65. Oliver, 95.