Negotiations of Self

Jonathan Gonzalez in An Evening with Ni’Ja Whitson, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Jonathan Gonzalez, and Jasmine Hearn, Danspace Project. Photo: Ian Douglas

Jonathan Gonzalez in An Evening with Ni’Ja Whitson, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Jonathan Gonzalez, and Jasmine Hearn, Danspace Project. Photo: Ian Douglas

How does one perform blackness and queerness in a world where, as Audre Lorde says, “we were never meant to survive”?

In a world where whiteness and its allied heteronormativity is as pervasive as the white sands of a vast desert (to borrow Lorde’s imagery), a world that either sees blackness and queerness in the most essentialized tropes or seeks to erase the “other” altogether, a world where being black means being straight and male, and being queer means being white and male, how does one negotiate being black and queer?

More than mere entertainment, the performances at Dancespace Project on the evening of October 21, were moments of pure survival, of being black and queer in this world, of being black and queer in ways that disrupt and distort the static images and feelings surrounding blackness and queerness in the minds of hegemonic society.

Each artist performed a kind of affective state that moved both within and against dominant white feeling, and in doing so, worked to both acknowledge dominant feelings surrounding blackness but also grapple with them. Through this affective dissensus, the performers negotiated an identity that not only survives but thrives in its liveness and practice.

Jaamil Kosoko dons a long platinum blonde wig, turns his back to us, and begins reciting Audre Lorde’s Power:

The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill


instead of your children.

You can see his body trembling in what seems like rage. But the trembling continues as molecules in his body visibly shift, and his vibrating hands run frenetically through the strands of what has now perhaps become his own hair. A sustained reverberation, moving the air around him.

As Kosoko and Lorde wandered through a “desert of raw gunshot wounds,” their words jabbed, caustic and staccato, through the space that settled in our ears. Breaking and violence occurs as the words “shattered black” and “punctured cheeks” spark on the airwaves. The atmosphere was changed/charged by their words which violated the atmosphere of ignorance and neglect that chooses to ignore a systematic violence perpetrated against black people both then (1978) and now.

Rage has its place in this performance, and rightfully so, but I would argue that there is also a wider atmosphere of feeling throughout the work that has a complex relationship with its object: disgust. Sianne Ngai writes about disgust as one of the lesser regarded feelings in her book Ugly Feelings. Like rage, disgust is never ambivalent about its object. One is never unsure about what one is enraged or disgusted with. However, “disgust and desire are dialectically conjoined” and in fact, the very aspect of the object which is disgusting is also often that which is desirable (332-333). Like Julia Kristeva’s theory regarding abjection, disgust grapples with the moment in which the border between self and non-self is blurred. Here Lorde/Kosoko is disgusted with the kind of power that discriminates and refuses black life. But she/he/they also grapple with a desire for this power.

Kosoko channels Lorde, his voice lingering over phases, words echoing in his throat and in the halls of St. Mark’s Church.

only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

only the sun will bleach his bones quicker.

The “dead child” in the beginning of the second stanza becomes Lorde’s or Kosoko’s or someone else’s “dying son” as blood, “the only liquid for miles,” make Lorde’s stomach “churn.” There is certainly disgust in Lorde’s voice and Kosoko’s, in the churning of their stomachs, in the harried breathing of their voices, in the trembling of their backs, and in the obsessive smoothing and feeling of the blonde woman’s hair. But, while Lorde/Kosoko is disgusted with the thought of drinking this boy’s blood, she is simultaneously “thirsting for the wetness of his blood,” wanting to reclaim it as her own before whiteness can.

Here Kosoko’s disgust refuses what Herbert Marcuse calls compulsory “repressive tolerance,” which works to “[maintain] the existing class structure of capitalist democracy” and silence minorities (340-41). Within this capitalist democracy, minorities often inhabit a position of Hobbesian contempt, whereby they are “‘neither [desired], nor [hated]’” because they are made to seem “too weak or insignificant to pose any sort of danger” (336). I would exclude Lorde from this assessment in this particular instance because I do not believe she lived within the same kind of “post-racial” myth we do today. For Kosoko, embodying Lorde’s disgust toward racism refuses consensus with capitalist desires that would like us to imagine race as a non-issue.

they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame

over the hot coals

of four centuries of white male approval

until she let go

the first real power she ever had

and lined her own womb with cement

to make a graveyard for our children.

they had dragged her 4’10” black Woman’s frame

over the hot coals

of four centuries of white male approval

until she let go

the first real power she ever had

and lined her own womb with cement

to make a graveyard for our children.

Here, paranoia is real. Ngai describes paranoia “not as mental illness but as a species of fear based on the dysphoric apprehension of a holistic and all encompassing system” (299). They really are out to get the black Woman. State power and the individuals who uphold such power are the pervasive whiteness of Power’s desert. That corrupt state power is everywhere; in the policeman, the white male jury, even able to invade the 4’10’’ black Woman and Lorde. Lorde/Kosoko’s prolonged and sustained affective state of paranoia is physicalized in their obsessive smoothing of the blonde hair which is not luxurious or loving; it is nearly pathological, a coping mechanism. But for the very fact that it is real, I, like Ngai, would like to recuperate paranoia as a truth, and perhaps a reality particular to the black experience.  

In the last stanza, Kosoko who is Lorde has remotely embodied a teenaged boy via a metonymic plug and raped an 85 year old white woman. The desire for corrupt state power, for white power, is within Lorde, even as she inhabits it while rejecting it.

Kosoko, like Lorde, wants some of this white power. He reveals that he has not only donned a blonde wig, but also an attached white ski mask, crudely askew and painted with a white woman’s features. The face is a facsimile of ideal of beauty and status: the white woman, the whitest woman (blonde). But in reality, it is garish and vulgar, not virginal, not pretty (It almost resembles a kind of S & M mask). And when he slowly pulls it off, to haunting music from the film Halloween, it stretches and the face becomes even more distorted. It is not just a mask, but an identity that is at once Kosoko and not Kosoko. Here Kosko is confronted with a casting off of the white female skin and hair he inhabited for so many minutes. It had seemingly become a part of him, particularly while he stroked it, and yet, in this de-masking, the white woman becomes decreasingly less human and is rejected by Kosoko.

Dressed as a kind of Afrofuturist George Clinton, Kosko inflates a white, blonde, female sex doll while dancing to “White Man’s Blues” by Melanie Safka. Standing behind the doll, Kosko, who had earlier been a white woman, now seems to be having sex with her, or perhaps even raping her. Its long and difficult for Kosoko to do this. He is dealing with her, grappling with her, being with her. The air from inside of his lungs and the spit from inside of his mouth fill the doll and in their closeness, they are an assemblage of two parts. He is out out of breath from inflating her and she becomes animated through him. There is an implied violence taking place here, and yet, a closeness, a togetherness. At the very end of the performance, M. Lamar asks Kosoko if he was killing the white woman. Kosoko laughs and says he was killing the white woman within himself. Kosko seems to be both disgusted with and yet simultaneously desiring this white ideal, a part of him wanting to be her. But in order to survive as a black man, he must expel her. In the end, he is able to kill her, but it’s a process, and perhaps a continuing one.

Kosko inhabits other maks, specifically one of Donald Trump. Its one of those really creepy realistic ones you see of other presidents and political figures. First donning an orange jumpsuit, you see Kosko both as a black male prisoner in shackles, and as a very orange, and perhaps prosecuted Trump. The identities of Trump and the black male prisoner collide. We know Trump has criminalized minorities, and at the very least belittled them, perhaps disgust disguised as pitty (Ngai 345). Here Kosko again disrupts the economy of pity and contempt through his continued mean of disgust as well as his blurring the distinction between prisoner, Trump, and self. Kosko is both always already incarcerated and also refusing that identity. He wears the jumpsuit, but only momentarily, and so does Trump. He wear shackles, but they are rubber, cartoonish, a caricature, false.

As George Clinton, Kosoko channels Ruby Sales, lip syncing to an excerpt from her interview, “Where does it hurt?”, continuing to violate national feelings of pity and contempt toward black America:

What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, whether it’s heroin addiction….that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling.

Sales sees Trump appealing to white America precisely because they believe opposition to blackness is the birthright of all white people. Trump’s successful campaign has thrown back the veil of perceived tolerance and contempt, revealing the true racism of white America. A racism that is so ingrained as to be the very essence of white ontology, so ingrained that failure to live up to the white ideal has left some white people desperately clinging to the edge of life. Kosoko continues…

And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology.

On the one hand Sales/Kosoko preaches a traditionally Christian kind of agape love toward all people.The kind of love that tells you to love your enemies and turn the other cheek. But there is also great dignity and power in her voice and assertiveness. This power violates a false “post raciality” and points a finger toward the dichotomy of white and black.

In Jonathan Gonzalez’s Lyric baby, performer Chazz Giovanni Bruce inhabits a kind of youthful and exaggerated animatedness which plays both on and within black racial stereotypes. The performance begins within a nightclub-like atmosphere of strobe lights and electronic pulsations. Low frequency oscillations, waves of sound. The effect is somewhat disrupting and discomforting as the bright lights shine in our eyes and create the illusion of disjointed, jagged space; the music vibrates the space between our ears. This sonic and visual assault moves us out of the proscenium theater and into a different world. The space is alive with movement before Giovanni Bruce’s movement even begins. In the midst of an atmosphere of hate and the tragedy of the Orlando shootings, the performance of the nightclub space seems fundamentally necessary to the survival of a queer world, and particularly a queers-of-color world. A historically safe space for racial minorities and queer people, the nightclub is also an atmosphere of excess and exuberance, imbued with a feeling which works to disrupt the National affect of white heteronormativity that Jose Esteban Munoz discusses in “Feeling Brown: Ethnicity and Affect in Ricardo Bracho’s The Sweetest Hangover (and Other STDs).” The excesses (sonic, visual, affectual) of the nightclub space opposes the decorum of western theatricality, and in doing so punctures “a mode of being in the world primarily associated with white middle-class subjectivity, [which] reads most ethnic affect as inappropriate” (69). Being lively, alive, and decidedly inappropriate by white or western standards, the space sets the stage for a dissensus of feeling, of feeling brown, of being brown, resisting “cultural mandates to ‘feel white’” (68).

When Giovanni Bruce enters the club, his meanderings are slow and methodical, shifting from pose to pose, seeing and feeling, but doing very little. In fact, his shoes seem to be doing more than him, as the twinkling lights along the sole change color from red to blue to green with each subtle step. In the dim lighting, the shoes seem to be moving on their own, disembodied and alive. And yet, when Giovanni Bruce begins to jump, showing the shoes off, this reminds me of the L.A. Gear shoes we wore as kids, proud that we were able to make them do things. The jumping and living feet also made me think of basketball, all the attention paid to super-human footwork and virtuosically fast feet. Not to mention the beginnings of the frenzied fetishization of athlete endorsed sneakers (In fact, several NBA stars endorsed L.A. Gear shoes in the early 1990’s.).

The room is empty save for a podium and microphone in the middle of the stage, Giovanni Bruce is barely moving, the shoes are twinkling, and we get the sense that the performer is merely, to quote Fanon, “an object in the midst of other objects” (Black Skins, White Masks, 77). In the first few minutes of the work, I keep wondering when something is going to happen.

There is also the sense of animatedness in the shoes/feet having a life of their own. Ngai discusses how animatedness, the “seemingly neutral state of ‘being moved’” becomes the “overemotional racialized subject” who is “unusually receptive to external control” (Ugly Feelings, 91). Like “feeling brown,” the animated subject is a specifically racialized brown or black subject because their excess of feeling and being marks them as other than. Giovanni Bruce plays within and around this stereotype of animatedness; with the shoes we continually shift focus between Giovanni Bruce moving the shoes and the shoes moving him.

There are moments where the performer is overtly playful and lively, and then there are moments where he toys with this feeling; often these moments happen simultaneously, challenging our perception of what it might mean to feel brown or black. In one early scene, Giovanni Bruce mimes running in slow motion white being shot. He catches a “bullet” and goes down. There is a certain silliness in the exaggerated movement captured in expanded time, an overt playfulness (perhaps even childishness) in his overacting. And yet, there is also an implied violence in this action being done to him, in the great unknown of who or what is making him run.

Another site of confusion between silliness and seriousness, between animatedness and animating, is when Giovanni Bruce sits propped up against a pillar and begins emptying the crotch of his pants of at least half a dozen random objects. The endless flow of objects mimics the ridiculous impossibility of Mary Poppins’ bottomless carpetbag. But also, this silliness is underscored by the real possibility of the performer toying with the concept of masculinity. In emptying his pants, Giovanni Bruce is diminishing the size of his “bulge,” and in doing so, suggesting a casting off of hegemonic masculinity. Finally, Giovanni Bruce pulls out a balloon and begins to inflate it. Like Kosoko, Giovanni Bruce gives the object life through this process, animating it. And then just as easily, he lets go, and the balloon deflates, shrivelling up to die. Again, the performer treads the line between being animated and having the power to animate.

Towards the end of the work, Giovanni Bruce begins shadow boxing and dancing, feet moving constantly. And then the room gets very dark and all we can see are the lights on his shoes moving, seemingly entirely on their own. We know Giovanni Bruce is moving furiously because we can hear his breath (and see the shoes of course), but we can’t see him. He is at once exuberantly animated and entirely invisible. There is a power involved in looking, particularly at a black body, and Giovanni Bruce thwarts that power, claiming it for himself. When he’s finished, he steps up to the podium, takes the microphone in hand, and smiles at his adoring fans, breathing heavily. Only, no one is cheering. In a sense he is “taking a bow” for having done nothing because we didn’t see it. In fact, after having not been able to look at him, Giovanni Bruce is now looking at us, his “fans,” as he huffs and puffs, eyes wide and smiling. He looks to the right, and to the left, down to the “orchestra” seats, and up to the “balcony” (where no one is sitting). Here Giovanni Bruce evades the seeable, and then he evades the sayable.

For the grand finale, Giovanni Bruce begins emitting sounds, which are a hilarious cacophony at first, random and directionless. But then they gradually coalesce into a rhythm, and he begins to dance. Here Giovanni Bruce’s beatboxing is highly animated and yet, not entirely legible as language. His beatboxing is what Fred Moten might call “elevating disruptions of the verbal that take the rich content of the object’s/commodity’s aurality outside the confines of meaning precisely by the way of this material trace” (In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, 6). As a language of pure sound and the language of a black subculture, beatboxing disrupts the “foreclosed universality” of proper English language (13). In this negotiation, and all of his negotiations within tropes of black animatedness, Giovanni Bruce resists an ontology of enslavement, and in so doing, escapes Fanon’s objecthood.  

In Jasmine Hearn’s maythesebodiesbareknownothingofthisvacancy, Hearn and fellow performer Stanley Gambucci perform a kind of mourning and audio-visual freedom-within-confinement which are necessary tools for a way of being in the world as a queer person of color. The work begins with Hearn standing near the rafters of St. Mark’s Church in an ethereal white dress. She begins singing the blues as she slowly walks the perimeter of the balcony. And we get the sense that she is haunting us as she moves in and out of the shadows, in and out of visibility. As Hearn moves slowly, like a phantasm, we see Gambucci saunter on stage below clad in a flowing black dress. He slinks slowly, sensually, eliciting desire. Hearn has disappeared, but we hear the material traces of her singing as she wafts down the stairs backstage and out of view. She is present in her absence.

When Hearn re-emerges, she allows Gambucci to undress her in the dark and help her into a brown dress in a cut identical to his while her voice echos “Come down, come down.” Gambucci then applies Hearn’s lipstick. And we might wonder: Is he in drag or is she? Are they both? Their dress defies the heteronormative coupling of traditional theatrical dance. But also the deliberate dressing and making-up of Hearn suggest a kind of costuming or change of identity associated with the act of wearing. Furthermore, her resemblance to Gambucci, and his resemblance to her, suggest a twinning that further disrupts a clear delineation between male and female, masculine and feminine. Here I would suggest that Hearn is identifying with femininity, but with a difference. She is disidentifying, as Munoz would say, “working on and against dominant ideology” as a means of survival (Disidentifications, 11).

Additionally, Hearn’s shape shiftings suggests a kind of slipperiness between the spiritual world and ours. Her white dress is also a kind of drag, bringing her body closer to mourning and death. The wearing changes things. Embodying the dead, or being in the spirit world, Hearn performs a closeness to those who have passed. Like the ugly feelings Ngai contemplates and argues in favor of, Munoz’s recuperates mourning as a necessary and prolonged melancholia that is essential to “(re)constructing identity” in a world where black and/or queer lives are under attack (Disidentifications, 74). Hearn’s performance in and out of mourning works to reconstruct that identity as part of her being.

Hearn’s choreography also performs a negotiation with blackness. There are several moments of what seems to be quiet stillness amidst phrases of sweeping, lush movement. Hearn and Gambucci’s stillness breaks the forward, linear propulsion of white national affect, and in doing so, opens up space for a possibility of difference. National affect might read this stillness as ineffectual and actionless, much in the same way it presumes prolonged melancholia as counterproductive. But, if you observe closely, there is vibratory anticipation of movement in these moments of stillness. Hearn and Gambucci reach already outstretched arms overhead, stretching mere millimeters at a time, until their sinews and ligaments are extended to their fullest potential. Gambucci lays on top of Hearn who strains to sing a high note while struggling to writhe out from beneath his weight. She/they are what Fred Moten class “moving without moving,” and therein finding the last space for freedom within restrictions of space and time (“Taste Dissonance Flavor Escape: Preface for a solo by Miles Davis,” 228). Moten calls the pose “the condition of possibility” for the subject whose narrative means a history of confinement (“Taste Dissonance Flavor Escape,” 240). Which is to say that the pose is filled with every kind of possibility in its absence of movement, and simultaneous closeness to movement. It is there in stillness and confinement that they reach their fullest possibility for movement and freedom. That for Moten is black radical performance.

Ni’Ja Whitson is also mourning as their performance transforms space through the material traces of their ritual practice. The title of the work itself references the poem Tomb of Sorrow by Essex Hemphill. Someone Will Have to Answer the Mail I Leave imbues letters with the spirit of the dead, giving both the inanimate object and the inanimate body a form of life. Hemphill’s language performs a mourning, which is also a self-mourning, a remembering-of-self before he’s even gone. In this sense, mourning has already expanded to encompass a general feeling not just of one individual but of an entire community. This feeling fills the church as Whitson solemnly traces the space between white sheets and manila envelopes with their knees. Mourning echos in the sound waves as Whitson empties the manilla envelopes and out spill bones. They empty one at a time and the silent air fills with a continual clash of bone on wood floors. We are brought closer to the dead and their presence in the material world through these sights and sounds.

And yet, the mourning is not only serious and sad. Hemphill’s poem basks in the exuberance of angels who are also “Black Drag Queens” and requires “Dancing and sweat” at his funeral. The funeral for Hemphill was meant to be joyful, extravagant, free, everything that life could not be. And mourning too doesn’t mark a finality, because it doesn’t end, but is rather an ongoing state or feeling engendering a kind of freedom and change. Whitson grapples with Prescription by Donald Woods, and through this recitation, we feel mourning in life, a staying in and on. We persist in living as Woods says, “breath through your nose/ taste fruit with your tongue/ loiter at crosswalks.” In the manila envelopes, Whitson also finds a poem by Jourdan Imani Keith. In reading it, they demand that black lives matter as much as those of other endangered species. The space for mourning in this work is also the space for activism and a call to action. The dead inspire a kind of renewed vitality for Whitson who is not immobilized by death, but rather moved. Like the Griot, this black spirituality has the power to move the past into the future self, and the future into the present, (re)creating both history and identity.

Whitson seems to be renegotiating their identity as they dance to A Milli by Lil’ Wayne. Perhaps they are identifying with the rapper’s masculinity and militancy. And yet, the many homophobic (“On some fagot bullshit call ’em Dennis Rodman”) and misogynist (“She ain’t shy no more she changed her name to my bitch”) utterances, which are common tropes in much of hip hop, suggest a kind of tenuousness of identity, which might urge Whitson to identify with a difference. And in fact, the music is credited as “Remixed and Arranged by Renegade Performance Group/Andre M. Zachary.” Remixing also suggesting a kind of disidentification practice.

And if we misread Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics, “Motherfucker I’m ill,” there is a slippage between various meanings of illness defined as both “having great skill” or being “cool” and “feeling under the weather.” Later Lil’ Wayne goes on to say, “Motherfucker I’m ill not sick,” as if to distinguish between the two meanings. But when sickness enters his vocabulary again,

And I’m OK but my watch sick

Yea my drop sick

Yea my glock sick

“Sick” shifts between being in opposition to “ill” and also “OK.” The language of contagion (see also “I’m a venereal disease”) walks the fine line between vitality and a being towards death; a negotiation between a kind of liveliness and animatedness and its opposite. The song ends:

They don’t see but they hear me

They don’t feel me but they fear me I’m illi

In this moment, illness becomes a mechanism for the kind of fear that engenders power, perhaps a power over oppression. And as we “feel” both Lil’ Wayne and Whitson, both mourning and militant, they cannot be ignored.

Kosoko, Giovanni Bruce, Hearn, Gambucci, and Whitson demonstrate that there is power in feeling, particularly a kind of feeling that is not easily pinned down, not fitting neatly into the standard white feeling which dominates society. These ugly feelings: disgust, animatedness, mourning, are radical in their fugitivity.

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