The Nate Parker Problem

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Nate Parker is having a hard time. Although for the actor and filmmaker 2016 started off roaringly–in January, Fox Searchlight acquired his Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation, for an astounding $17.5 million after it screened at Sundance–by summer that roar, no less garrulous, revealed a marked tonal shift when we were reminded that as college a student back in 1999, Mr. Parker had been accused, though ultimately acquitted, of raping a classmate. (His friend and co-defendant, Jean McGianni Celestin, was convicted and sentenced to prison, but this conviction was later overturned. Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin have, apparently, remained close over the intervening sixteen years: Mr. Celestin has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation.) The discovery that their accuser committed suicide in 2012, coupled with Parker’s disastrous apology, in which he repeatedly evoked himself and presented that “painful moment” in his life as something that had happened mostly to him, only bolstered public calls for a boycott against Mr. Parker’s film, with popular writers like Roxane Gay vowing in The New York Times that she would not see it. Touted since Sundance as a definite front-runner for all manner of accolades this coming awards season, this praise was quickly replaced with speculation: would Mr. Parker’s troubled past hinder his chances for, particularly, Oscar glory? Would audiences be satisfied with the word of the court, which found Mr. Parker innocent of any wrongdoing? Would audiences, critics, and Academy voters be able to differentiate between Mr. Parker’s past and his present, his work and his art? Or would the bad press prove to be the proverbial nails in the coffin of Mr. Parker’s once-promising career?

Whether or not The Birth of a Nation will be embraced when it is formally released in October remains to be seen. In the meantime, things keep getting worse for Mr. Parker. This month, an interview the director gave with BET surfaced, in which Mr. Parker, among other things, laments the sorts of roles available for black male actors in Hollywood, noting that such performers are often required to perform in drag or play “men with questionable sexuality.” “To preserve the black man,” Mr. Parker is quoted as saying, “…you will never see me take a gay role.” The internet is still grappling with this: Ms. Gay notes that Mr. Parker’s comments “read as homophobia,” and Goldie Taylor, writing for The Daily Beastthough she plans to see the movie anyway, as well finds Mr. Parker’s comments distasteful. Ebony.com’s Michael Arceneaux was less forgiving, declaring, “He’s never getting a dollar of mine again.”

All press is good press, perhaps, and while Mr. Parker’s repeated public bunglings might not speak to the merit of his work, they do speak, I think, to the content of his character, and what seems very clear is that Mr. Parker is a misogynist. Because he was acquitted of those rape charges in 2001 it’s not fair to call him rapist, but his public attitude regarding that “painful moment” — as Gay notes, “The solipsism is staggering” — and his blatantly homo- and femme-phobic comments reveal the internalized chauvinism he mistakes for masculinity and the propagation of harmful systems of oppression he mistakes for a “legacy.”

Mr. Parker’s observation that black actors, especially black male comedians, are routinely given roles in which they have to perform as women is not inaccurate. The list of black actors and comedians who have performed in drag is long and includes, to name but a few, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Ving Rhames, Arsenio Hall, the Wayans Brothers, and Tracy Morgan. Keenan Thompson routinely portrays women on SNL, just as Flip Wilson, in the 1970s, regularly donned a dress on his own television show, and Tyler Perry has built an entire career (and amassed a considerable fortune) upon pretending to be a woman

Mr. Parker is certainly not the first to comment on the phenomena. In 2006, Dave Chappelle famously discussed the issue with Oprah Winfrey, recounting a story in which he “took a stand” against producers who wanted to put him in a dress for a Martin Lawrence picture. The following year, director John Singleton griped to Black Star News, “I’m tired of all these black men in dresses,” and wondered why no one was organizing protests against the tradition. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to bear discussion, and the emasculation of black men as a tool of continued oppression is not without its theoretical merits: the condition of the black American male as he navigates a society bent on his destruction, and the tactics, both subtle and overt, upon which that society might rely, always bear consideration. Nevertheless, the argument that images of black men in drag or portrayals of black men who are not necessarily heterosexual are somehow detrimental to, as Mr. Parker would have it, the preservation of the black man is both disparaging and reprehensible, and that too bears discussion. Aside from suggesting that there’s something shameful or grotesque about femininity (his self-pitying recollection of those rape allegations drip with this same, thinly veiled misogyny), it’s a deplorable act of erasure and exclusion, attempting the removal of gay black men from the equation–as if their homosexuality somehow cancels out their blackness.

If it seems like I am here conflating homosexuality with cross-dressing or drag, it’s only because Mr. Parker’s comments conflate the two. While he expresses, explicitly, an unwillingness to play gay, the roles he offers as examples–Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma in Big Momma’s House and Mr. Perry’s multiple Madea movies–are hardly gay roles. These characters aren’t even of dubious sexuality: Mr. Lawrence’s Malcolm Turner is a straight cop who only puts on a dress because he needs to go undercover, while Madea, matriarch to an ever-revolving band of relatives, is an ostensibly heterosexual (and apparently progenitive) woman. (Indeed, Mr. Parker’s attribution of homosexual subscript to the Madea films is laughable, when one considers Mr. Perry’s consistently flawed perception of black homosexuality, wherein same-sex desire necessarily leads to disease and the destruction of family.) Mr. Parker, lacking the depth to see things like sexuality and gender as textured issues requiring textured terminology, uses these terms interchangeably, a collusion as offensive as his insistence that queer roles would be contrary to “material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch.” This view upholds a rhetoric that frames homosexuality as somehow crude, distasteful, or otherwise inappropriate for the family. (And let’s not even talk about the hypocrisy this point of view betrays, considering Mr. Parker’s drunken college three-way–as if there’s nothing even a little gay about running a train on a girl with your bestie.)

It’s evident that Mr. Parker’s version of black masculinity, with its obvious macho underpinnings, is one that considers homosexuality as not only deviant but obscene, and likely fails to recognize the boundaries of sexual consent. That he cops to these notions under the guise of faux black empowerment and concern for the black community only is equally discouraging, as his positions, far from advancing any cause of liberation, in fact encourage further animosity within the larger black community and strengthen divisions between marginalized groups, which only benefits the status quo. In a time when Hollywood has been confronted with its own diversity issues and has vowed to work to address those issues, it’s disheartening — and perhaps a bit terrifying — that someone with Mr. Parker’s insidious message might become the beneficiary of that change.

 

The Black, Queer Poetics of “Make My Bussy Jump!”

It opens, this slim volume of poetry, in my opinion one of the most important American collections so far this century, with a poem called Nudity: 

“He saw my scars and/kissed them until/I saw them/anew/Fingerprinting all over me.”

At first, one balks at the familiarity, at the cliché, even, of the metaphor evoked by the poem’s central image: those lover-kissed scars made “anew.” Yet when one considers the historical relevance of scars to the black, queer, American body, with which these poems are unfailingly, and self-purportedly, concerned (the book is subtitled “Black Gay Erotic Poetry” and is formally dedicated to “Black men who enjoy sex with Black men”), the metaphor opens up. One thinks of actual scars. One thinks of Anthony Gooden, Jr., and Marquez Tolbert, two gay black lovers who, in Georgia, in March of this year, had boiling water poured on them while they slept side by side. One thinks of Jimmy Garza and Ramiro Serrata, who lured a gay black man to their home and then beat him nearly to death with all manner of household implements — frying pans and broomsticks, a coffee mug and a sock filled with batteries — before sodomizing him with a mop handle. One thinks, too, of course, of metaphorical scars, those left on the gay psyche by a culture that consistently denigrates and punishes and misrepresents, inscribing upon it a diminished self-vision. At the poem’s turn—”He…kissed them until/I saw them/anew”—this vision is altered, revitalized. That a kiss, at least commonly an expression of love, facilitates this revitalization clarifies the poem’s larger conceit: physical intimacy between gay men, the very act of gay sex/love, has reparative potential. Further: If this new vision is a response to the lover’s gaze, isn’t it true to say that it is the nudity, the simple act of disrobing suggested by the title, which makes the lover’s gaze possible in the first place? Before they can be kissed the scars must be revealed. It’s but a small leap, then, to conclude that the body itself — in this case, explicitly the black, queer body — is progenitor of all these things.   When that body is routinely the target of violent, bias-motivated crime—when the act of gay love is so punishable—the poem teems with vitality. That is the power and the wonder of this and all of these poems.

The book, completely astonishing, is Make My Bussy Jump! by Edwin Brown III, who writes and performs under the moniker edwinsblackmagic. Magic, indeed: these poems, frank and confessional, at turns romantic and crude, are remarkable both for the winky formality of their structure and their searing, unique point of view. These poems tear at the scrim that obscures the queer black body from the status quo, offering a literature of queer desire that’s candid, unapologetically raw, and unwaveringly committed to carving out a poetics for—as much as a poetics of—black (male) queer sexuality.

Appropriate to their politicized subject matter, these often gritty poems are unsparingly graphic in their portrayal of the body—though never exactly gratuitous. Take, for instance, the poem Gush, which discusses the sonic experience of anal sex: “But fr/It’s the sound it make/That I love the most/That boy fart and squirt/And moan and shake.” Uninterested in tidying up for guests, these poems continually bare themselves for the reader, exposing some of the finer aspects of gay sex, no matter how potentially alienating. “I stick him again,” the poem continues, “and again that butt quake/He just so gushy.” These images are presented with such apparent sincerity its hard to imagine the author possessing anything as pedestrian as the will to shock. Indeed: shock seems terribly beyond the point. Rather, intimacy and familiarization seem to be the goal. Gushy achieves that intimacy through its conversant quality of address, like a story between friends.

This technique is employed to similar effect elsewhere in book, such as in the poem When You Got The Juice, which opens with this query: “Am I the only bitch/that like to look at her hole/after the nigga handled it?” Although there’s a sense in which the question feels rhetorical, familiarity is nevertheless suggested by the narrator’s identification as “bitch” and “her,” a common colloquial tactic among some groups of otherwise cis gendered gay men. When deployed in real life, this apparent misdistribution of pronouns, far from denigrating, actually suggests familiarity, even affection, as it does in this poem—a familiarity likewise indicated, for instance, by the use of “handled” as a euphemism for sex. The abundance of vernacular and other non-institutionally sanctioned language both squares the poetic aim proposed in the book’s dedication and, combined with its blatancy, furthers the book’s frank, not quite anthropological tone. In an era obsessed with full-disclosure, the many divulgences of Make My Bussy Jump!, which may veer quickly into T.M.I. territory for some readers, are both timely and original.

It is not, however, only their rampant revelations that make these poems remarkable. Its evocations of queer black sexuality and discussions of the queer black body reveal the book’s concurrent obsession with queer black identity, marginally represented in literature but here educed again and again. According to Make My Bussy Jump!, a defining feature of this identity is its almost elastic fluidity, its resistance toward categorization, evidenced by its habit of wavering, undecidedly, between supposed binaries such as top and bottom, active and passive—even male and female, as we see in When You Got The Juice. In the title, “bussy,” a portmanteau of “pussy” (as slang for vagina) and “butt” (or “boi,” depending on your source), has an assumptive relationship to “bottoming,” or taking the passive role in homosexual penetrative sex. The word crops up a number of times in the book, in poems like Size-Queen and Good Bussy, and other poems, like “Where You Want Me To Cum?” and Sucking Dick & Eating Cheetos, make explicit the delectation the narrator finds in assuming that position. Finally, in Pornstar Status, the narrator somewhat edaciously claims the sexual inclination as part of his own identity, proclaiming himself “a real bottom/ten times over.” And yet, the poems aren’t always extolling the pleasures of bottoming. Gush, for instance, revels in taking the active role, and in Jamaican Alter-Ego the narrator promises, “Inna yuh belly mi gwan.” Versatility—an ambulation between these distinctions (often taken as markers of identity amongst gay men) rather than a strict and unfaltering inclination either way—seems to be the order of the house.

Importantly, this ambulation is never strictly sexual. Gender performance as well becomes a site of dual identification: Some poems suggest an identification with images of black female empowerment embodied on television by Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in the series Scandal, and in real life by Beyoncé; conversely, in the series of Catcalling poems that come late in the collection, a performance of black queerness becomes practically indistinguishable from typical notions of a certain brand of straight masculinity identified by the title. This ambulation between the masculine and the feminine proves itself a destabilizing force in Catcalling 2, in which the male body (implicitly the straight male body), under a queer male gaze, and contrary to the typical literary arrangement, becomes itself an object of scrutiny and sexualization. The poem’s concluding assurance, “Thug life over here too my nigga/shiiiit,” distances the relevance of sexuality from expected gender performance—or even extracts it all together. One can be both queer and a thug, according to the poem. That the narrator delivers this line while showily grabbing his crotch—a gesture of assertive masculinity made iconic in the 1990s, when hip hop moved to the foreground of popular music—only furthers the message here.

A graduate of Howard University, edwinsblackmagic is not ignorant of his poetic ancestors. Though he makes something new, he is nevertheless working within a poetic tradition, and consciously so: Many of these poems share the cadence and music of the work of celebrated black American poets like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, especially when they are more concerned with affirming blackness, such as the poem # notes, with its refrain of “Black man you are beautiful/Hey/Black man you are beautiful.” Additionally, in much the same way that Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance poets were influenced by jazz, Make My Bussy Jump! is influenced by hip hop: The meter and rhyme scheme of some of these poems, the bombast and braggadocio of others, simply beg to be rapped. Like Nicki Minaj with her vivid pro-sex rhymes and Beyoncé with her swag-portending hot sauce always on deck, edwinsblackmagic poeticizes freshly about gay sex while smoking weed and munching on Flaming Hot Cheetos.

The influence of the Black Arts Movement and poets like Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni ripple in the collection’s use of slang and vernacular and its concern with social issues facing all black lives. Queer, perhaps, but black and male nevertheless, and as such, imprisonment is a very real threat in some of these poems, such as Good Bussy, in which the poet jokingly imagines himself on Death Row, “framed/for homicide,” contemplating his last meal.

Not all of these poems come off. The series of numbered “conversations” are too sentimental and too many, and a few poems seem to retread ground the book has already covered. Nevertheless, the book never falters in its exactness of its vision. Its messages never lose their immediacy. Make My Bussy Jump! proves itself a living, vital document, gloriously ostentatious, taking for granted that the world is large enough to receive its black, flaming contribution to literature. One only hopes the world is ready.

 

 

 

home movies

somewhere on a shelf in my mother’s basement, amongst the dozens and dozens of books, stuffed in with the dvds and vhs tapes my family amassed throughout my childhood, there is a home video my father recorded when i was very young. i’m not sure of my exact age, but i couldn’t have been more than three or four, as by the time i was five my parents had divorced and my father had moved out, and it is very distinctly his voice invisibly booming out directives from somewhere just out of frame.

who knows why or what he was filming. growing up my parents (first, my father, and later, my step-father) recorded birthday parties and easter egg hunts, christmas mornings and baseball games and piano recitals, but this video, shot in the basement of the house we lived in until the spring of the year i was in second grade, contains none of the festive attributes i would associate with the special occasions of my childhood—a birthday cake for instance, or balloons and brightly colored decorations—and if i was three or four, then the year would’ve been 1988 or 1989, and we had probably very recently acquired the video recorder, which i still remember, large and black and boxy, hulking on my father’s shoulder, his eye pressed to the soft rubber of the viewfinder. this video feels like a test video, as if my father has just gotten the thing home and out of the box, is taking it for an anxious first spin, a fresh tape snug in the deck, waiting to contain. essentially, he’s filming nothing, filming us, our family, in our at-home, mundane day-to-day. my siblings and I can be seen and heard chasing after my father as he pans around the basement, with its wood-paneled walls and the half-tiled floor upon which we used to roller-skate, begging for our chance to perform for his camera. over here! record me! we are shouting. my mother can be see trying to evade the camera’s view.

when it is my turn, the video shows my three or four-year-old self wearing a t-shirt sized for an adult male (it is my father’s; I remember wearing his t-shirts often, to bed mostly), which hangs over my tiny frame, falls down past my bony knees. and, I’ve belted one of my own belts around my waist, which lends the entire ensemble an overt dress-like effect. and, i’m twirling. when my father turns the camera on me i’m twirling and twirling so that the portion of the t-shirt below the belt flares up and out, rippling on the waves of my motion, billowing out like a woman’s gown. and i just keep twirling like that—proudly, smiling, pausing every few rotations to strike a pose of theatricality—until my father jerkily focuses his camera on something else, on my older brother executing some martial arts maneuver he’s been practicing: unable to bear the disequilibrium, the camera (gaze) (male) (specifically, the father’s) averts to something stabilizing (specifically, my older, appropriately inscribed brother, performing an appropriately inscribed act).

selfie #4

a very early memory, a fragment of a memory, from kindergarten: it is play time—not recess proper, but a small break between formal lessons in the afternoon, during which we are allowed to amuse ourselves with the toys and plastic kitchen set and books and board games in the little area at the back of the classroom. i am back there, on a rug with a perfectly ordered town printed on it, amongst a group of girls whose names and faces are not a part of this memory. i’m pretending to be a mermaid, writhing around on the floor with my legs twined together at the knees, imagining they are fins. we are all doing this, the girls and myself, but it’s very clear that I’m showing them how to do it properly. this is 1990, 1991: at home we’ve already added disney’s the little mermaid to our VHS collection—a particular favorite of mine, at that age. the girls follow my lead and we all sing part of your world at the top of our lungs until some boys come by to assert themselves by instructing us to shut the hell up. i learned something that day. i don’t know what.

of course, i know it is dumb to think of you when there are real things happening.

for two days i have been paralyzed in front of facebook as things get worse and worse.

i mourned the lives of my brothers quietly because i can’t do it online anymore. i’m tired of that. there’s a degree to which i appreciate the solidarity people are expressing, but there’s something i’ve always found trite about the weepy memes and the shallow infographics. and, as things keep getting worse and worse with little signs of improvement, can we conclude already that that shit isn’t actually effecting any real change? am i wrong about this? “say their names” we demand. of our politicians, of our journalists, of the NRA. yet we ourselves do not say them. we write them. we type them out. we cram them into sentiments expressed in 240 characters or less. that is not speech.

or am i here purporting a logocentric ideology?

yet i think there is a difference. for instance, the voice of the cop in the philandro castile video turned my stomach. at first i thought i was hearing fear in his voice, or even regret–but that was the idealist in me being cute. if there was fear it was fear of what was to come, and not what had transpired; if there was regret it was regret for the repercussions of his actions, and not the actions themselves. the voice of the officer in the philandro castile video does crack and break in something that sounds like anguish, but it is not for philandro.

what is fact is that the man’s first inclination when presented with the reality of a (legally) armed, apparently compliant black man was to shoot him–as philandro’s girlfriend reminds us, “not one time, not two times, not three times, not four times, but five. times.”

“i told him to keep his hands open!” the police officer can be heard to shout, never dropping aim.

in any case his first reaction after shooting an armed though compliant black man was to place entirely the blame for the events at the feet of the dying black man. his death was his own fault. i was not surprised by this but when i saw it something slid smooth and wicked into place. i told him to keep his hand open. no matter that philandro had told the officer he had a gun and the papers for it (an expert on the today show said that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do if you get pulled over and you happen to be armed: tell the cop right away that you’re legally carrying). no matter that he was, according to philandro’s girlfriend in the video, attempting to furnish his driver’s license and registration (another thing you’re supposed to do when you get pulled over).

philandro castile was behaving exactly as he should and they still shot him.

that’s the reality of black life in america.

black people get shot for doing exactly what they’re supposed to do and ya’ll still wanna talk at us about all lives matter. bitch WE know that. it’s YA’LL that keep missing the memo.

 

 

 

selfie #2

i am smoking my last bowl of weed and watching the women’s olympic trials on nbc.

simonebilessimonebilessimonebiles

i went to work but got cut after an hour because it was so dead.

i went to a art thing in an old factory downtown. i had one beer and said hello to precisely three people that i recognized and one person i didn’t know. there were some women in a dance troupe dancing and a band playing music that actually wasn’t so bad but i’d gone alone and there was no one to talk to.

do gymnasts want to live their whole lives in the moment they are catapaulting over the vault, or those few minutes during which they cavort about on a balance beam, or those moments when they are let loose on the floor, or that moment between uneven bars, when they are suspended in air? the way i want to live my whole life in the page as it comes together?

i have religious inclinations. as the christians say i live my life in the word. old habits die hard.

i never want to write another thing addressed to you because what a waste.

what a waste.