For Colored Boys who have Considered Hypermasculinity when the Crack Wars got too Ruff


Halfway through the first act of Moonlight, the second feature film from director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), a hounded-looking boy turns to a man he thinks might be a father figure and asks him, “what’s a faggot?”

Sitting around the table, the man who has plucked the quivering child out of the mean streets several times already by this point inthe film, shoots a quick look at his girlfriend, who expertly guides him, with no more than a facial expression or two, through the right words to say. A faggot is a word people use to make gay people feel bad about themselves, he tells the shamefaced child, but it’s also a word that some gay people … here the woman, named Teresa, (played by afro-cyborgian rock star Janelle Monáe effortlessly transformed into a ’round the way girl for the film) quickly shuts down his attempt at queer theory 101. Instead, she nudges him let their primary message reverberate through the boy’s traumatized body: words are weapons, and in this place we all live in, they can certainly break your bones. But if you choose to go the way your blood beats, there will be people like us there to meet you.

There is no dad at this table. By the end of the scene, the boy has fled Teresa’s home, after wringing a humiliating confession from her boyfriend Juan (played by the steely Mahershala Ali, currently thrilling fans as the villainous Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in Marvel’s Luke Cage television series). Juan, the boy knows, is the drug dealer who is selling the crack to his addicted mom (played in all three stages of his coming-of-age by Naomie Harris). This is a plot twist that, in lesser hands, would reek of melodrama or blaxploitation. But Jenkins’ fearless and patient direction never lets the aching home truths of the screenplay that Tarell McCraney has adapted from his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue turn into a morality tale. Instead, we have in Moonlight (the film) a masterful three-acter that I left the theatre calling, in conscious nod to Ntozake Shange, For Colored Boys who have Considered Hypermasculinity when the Crack Wars got too Ruff.

A little glib, I know, but my alternate title does roughly approximate the story arc of the protagonist, played in each of the three acts of his life by a new actor: the prepubescent Little (Alex R. Hibbert); the teenage Chiron (an unforgettable Ashton Sanders); and, finally, as the adult man Black, at whose first screen entrance the audience may confuse for the reappearance of Juan, so exactly does actor Trevante Rhodes slip into the skin and corporeal schema of the man who, it turns out, maybe was Little’s father figure after all.

This is not a story about the “cool pose” young black men adopt in order to survive, however, nor a parable of how the “code of the streets” produce a wild violence that can only be tamed by the narrative arrival of white knight or white savior figure. It is a love story about two boys who found a way of touching each other once, in an impossibly brief beach idyll, and then careened through life as best they could wearing each others bruises under their skin.

Readers of Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, or the DC poetry of Essex Hemphill, may recognize the world of dangers confronting Little/Chiron/Black in Messrs. Jenkins and McCraney’s Florida, a brown and black world achingly reconstructed from their own childhoods in that state. The chopped and screwed soundtrack is liquorice-thick with love for the bounce and drawl of a black Floridian life that is springing up from what we might think of, with the work of Alexandra Vazquez in mind, as the mudsill of the Caribbean. This mudsill sociality cannot be prettified, but it cannot be talked down to either. Moonlight grants no Scarface-like glamor to the drug-dealing, gang-banging life, choosing to spend its time lingering in the folds and fissures of the human clay out of which such soldiers are kilned.

As the gangly boy-turned-muscle mary (a feat so reminiscent for me of “Rocky” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, an movie classic which has been on my mind because of  this week’s TV remake starring Laverne Cox), Trevante Rhodes looks so brittle he could break. His performance serves us the necessary reminder that as much as black boys and men are dying from police bullets, they are also dying to be touched. To be held, fed, sexed, and loved.

His love interest-turned-nemesis Kevin, also played by three actors, is the sort of freewheeling lothario we all knew at one point, the charming cad who hopes to wink through life on promises he never intends to keep. It is fully believable when he turns Chiron out one night, and then punches him in the face in school the next day. “Stay down!” Kevin whispers to Chiron after he decks him, in a tone that makes you desperately want to believe that his are fistfuls of love. It is a scene of abjection that Darieck Scott would call “extravagant”. If mudsill black masculinity entails a constant shadowboxing with the “big black buck” image that might save your life (when it doesn’t get you killed), then “staying down” might be more than a survival strategy. It might be an erotic pose of its own, a sexual compact with those bruising and battering fists.

Moonlight is a noticeably chaste film for an era of ubiquitous sex tapes and raunchy pop. But the poetry of its repression is never in the service of some figment of respectability. It instead works to slow down the “implicit bias” of the anti-black gaze, to stroke its itchy trigger finger, and force it to absorb the subtle changes the blueblack and redbone boy lovers must go through, if they would find their way to an adult reckoning.

That both (openly straight) Jenkins and (openly gay) McCraney can now publicly discuss their own personal trauma of being raised by crack-addicted mothers lends the film’s arrival in cinemas this weekend a deserved gravitas. Autobiography certainly raises the stakes around the performance of  Harris as the protagonist’s mom Paula, a role who could easily turn into a tragic spectacle or another exercise in blaming the victim. By no means is this Paula’s story; but the audience I sat with never turned against her as she struggled, with what limited means were available to her, to make a way out of no way for herself and her only child. That Theresa is able to step in as a surrogate with such understated and non-rivalrous capacity (the two women never share a scene) just speaks that much more eloquently to the enduring wonders of “love’s austere and lonely offices.”

There may be those who feel such stories of dereliction, abuse, and fugitivity are simply too dangerous to tell in public; to tell stories from the mudsill may be too pathologizing of black life in this moment of danger (but when is black life not in danger? When is storytelling not a risky act?). Notwithstanding, it is clear that Jenkins and McCraney stand with those who are ready to bring the pain that never hurts (those who believe, in Sufi terms, that one must feed the demon or, in self-help jargon, that one must “feel it to heal it”). This is a film that knows in its bones that only way out is through. And the honesty, measure, and  even the joy and beauty with which it takes us there, lends a vibrant new myth for bluegum boys of all colors, and those of us who want and need them in our world.

Twinks and Trolls

Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trumptroll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.

Continue reading at Bully Bloggers …

Fall 2015 Talks and Conference Presentations

Fall 2015

On Friday, September 25th, I’ll be delivering a lecture tentatively entitled “The Fugitive Present: From Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being to Melvin van Peebles’ Sweetback” at the University of California, Berkeley, at the invitation of the Black Room collective.

Wednesday, October 7th, I’ll participate in a symposium on the Black Humanity: Diasporic Conversations in Radical Times, to be held at the University of Toronto. I’ll be speaking on the topic of “The Fugitive Present.”

Saturday, October 10th, I’ll participate in a panel on Black and Indigenous Responses to Anarchism at the Annual Meeting of the American Studies Association, also to be held in Toronto.

Saturday, October 17th, I will participate in a Keynote roundtable at Affect Theory: Worldings, Tensions, Futures at Millersville University, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Anyone who’s ever had a feeling will be there!

Thursday, November 12th, I will deliver a lecture at Goldsmith College, University of London.

The Discomfort of Culture

I was both aggravated and relieved upon walking into the “marathon reading” of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, published 1930) this afternoon at the Judson Church. Where I expected a single podium and speaker, I instead found a cacophony of voices, in both English and German, sometimes reading different sections simultaneously. While this dramatization interrupted the linear flow of the essay, and hence made it impossible to become immersed in its unfolding, it made the whole event much quicker. In fact, there was time to read the entire text twice through and still be out in time for dinner. How civilized!

Although not considered Freud’s best text, this work made an indelible impact on me when I first encountered it at age 18. Together with Joel Kovel’s psychohistory of white racism (which I read in graduate school), it consolidated in me a pessimism of the intellect that has proved difficult to fully dislodge. Hearing it read aloud by so many psychoanalysts, who gave to their enunciation of the text (one even interrupted reading for a brief impromptu commentary) a sense of systematic logic, was memorable. Having never myself put the necessary time into Freud’s system to make it work for me, I had read the text more less as cultural criticism. It’s uneveness lends itself to such a reading, as Freud admits at one point, worrying that he has said nothing in the book except the painfully obvious. But I’m glad I got the “results” of Freud’s cultural diagnosis first, before being presented with his method. And this was confirmed by my ultimate appreciation for hearing the text read in snatches, in German in one ear and English another, as a polyphonic sound installation rather than an orderly argument. This made Freud’s text into a conversation, and if such a maneuver might miss the point of a more rigorously structured text, it was well suited to this one.


The Hegel Variations

Spent the last days of 2014 reading Fredric Jameson’s The Hegel Variations, his brief, lucid commentary on The Phenomenology of Spirit. I confess I picked up the book as an example of theoretical style. A writing boot camp I am hoping to take soon asks writers to select their readings for form as much as content, and when I began to do so, I realized that almost all the theorists I admire wrote in languages other than English. I even suspect that what sounds like theory to my ear might be nothing other than the sound of translation into English from German, French, Italian, etc. Hence my idea that I should begin with writers in the theoretical tradition who compose in English.

The most noticeable aspect of the Hegel variations is Jameson’s use of musical analogy to defend a non-systematic, non-teleological reading of Hegel. The idea that Hegel isn’t so much unfolding a system of history as developing variations on a theme. I thought a lot about John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and then listened to the album again in light of this idea that a writer or musician can take a familiar, even overly familiar tune, and then expand and experiment upon it repeatedly until the relationship between the performance and it’s theme is strictly undecidable.

Of course stating something is different from demonstrating it. I don’t know I would go so far as to say that Jameson performs a set of variations on Hegel in his reading. Or that The Hegel Variations is itself musical or jazz-like in form. Fortunately, Jameson makes no effort to mimic Hegel’s prose, although he does provide enough block quotes from it to confirm its reputation for impenetrability. He both whets my interest for tackling the Phenomenology someday and supplies a masterful enough overview of its concepts (except the “beautiful soul” which I am very curious about) to do in the meantime.

SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

Sounding Out!

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.

We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.

Big House/Disclosure


The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned

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Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014)

I only met Stuart Hall once, as a star-struck graduate student autograph-seeker. But he changed my life freshman year, when reading his analysis of Thatcherism derailed me from an intended major in political science, and, indeed, from any lasting version of academic disciplinarity. From my own displaced point of origin in Britain’s former empire, I ‘got’ his drive to use scholarship as a ticket out of Jamaica, make it to the center of power and privilege, and piss in the soup. “Marxism without guarantees” for me translated, and still translates, into Marxism without masculinism, Marxism without subordinating race to class, an open-ended and restlessly questioning “criticism of everything existing,” include Marxism itself.
I was a second-generation Hall student; taught his work by Henry Abelove, Michael Denning, David Parker, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy. Between graduating college and starting my doctorate I spent a master’s year roaming the halls of Birmingham, soaking up the multicultural ambiance of the Center he had built and then left, always in search of the next conjuncture. Birmingham Cultural Studies circa 1995 was totally punk: cigs in that treacherous stairwell; late night bull sessions on overdue Skunk Anansie term papers, magic trips to the Gay Village, wondering what a mobile phone was and who could afford one. I didn’t take a degree, but I left with something better: meeting Melikka Mehdid, David Parker, Gargi Battacharya, Tom Everett, Rajinder Dudrah.
I’ve loved reading about Hall’s early days in the 1950s: jazz fiend, dapper hipster, literary critic and New Left lion. A fierce polemicist who apparently never made lasting enemies, and avoided left factionalism and left melancholia to the end. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called him Britain’s Du Bois, but I say let Hall be measured by the tape of his own life, and in relation to the contemporary moment that was the animating force of his love and struggle. Which means we are the revolutionaries, and this is the moment we have been waiting for.

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry

“Hermes, the blacker art…”

Sounding Out!


This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.

I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).

My high school confusion has not…

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