Travelling with Joseph in the Wake
Black Gay Genius, an anthology edited by Steven Fullwood and Charles Stevens, opens with a meditation, a series of haunting questions that linger and will, perhaps, never be answered. In the Introduction, the editors ask us to tarry alongside them; they invite us to wrestle with how to negotiate the legacy of Joseph Beam’s In the Life and envisage its continued influence.
“How do we honor [Joseph Beam] and that generation of black gay men? How to handle his legacy, so heavy with ambiguity?”[...]
“How do we excavate the site that Joe occupied and conquered so brilliantly, we who inherit his courage and his loneliness? How do we create a project in conversation in an incompleteness?”
And it is the struggle to create a communion within and against an incompleteness—which can never be completely resolved—that drives this beautiful anthology. Each essay included in Black Gay Genius grapples with the implications of “un-burying our dead, our memories and our futures.” Each contributor “invite[s] us to look back, look ahead and, most critically, reveal where we might be now.” It is an invitation to engage in what Christina Sharpe would call “wake work.” Sharpe writes,
“Wakes allow those among the living to mourn the passing of the dead through ritual; they are the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the deceased from death to burial and the accompanying drinking, feasting, and other observances; a watching practiced as a religious observance. But wakes are also ‘the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming, or one that is moved, in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow; in the line of sight of (an observed object); and (something) in the line of recoil of (a gun)’; finally, wake also means being awake and, most importantly, consciousness.”
The contributors to Black Gay Genius have taken up the commitment to perform “wake work”—to situate themselves in the wake of the In the Life, the ground breaking anthology of literary works by Black gay men—with a passion. Joseph Beam’s life was stolen. He was working on Brother to Brother, a second anthology of Black gay men’s writings, when he died unexpectedly of AIDS-related complications on December 27, 1988—just three days before his 34th birthday.
Black Gay Genius is a hymn to Joseph Beam, and his work. However, it is not a hagiography, the editors assure us. Instead, the book traces how Joseph Beam’s legacy speaks to our present reality. In the process, “Joe isn’t elevated to sainthood, he is humanized and unpacked. Memory stripped of sentimentality and faced head-on without blinking.”
Such an unflinching endeavour to ‘‘wake the dead with discursive interventions’’ is not easy. The wake work of recovering “those black gay men whose lives were ripped from us, violently” leaves us “suspended in place [...], our fingers deep in the grime of the rubble.” The rituals of raising the dead, our memories, and futures suggest, “we might need to perpetually bury our dead over and over again so that we can truly appreciate those individuals who came before us.”
Joseph Beam, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, his “spirit family,” emerge through and within the revelatory essays, stories, interviews, and poems. Beam’s presence saturates the book, but the ‘real’ Joseph Beam never materializes. “The ‘real’ Joseph Beam is,” as Robert F. Reid-Pharr remarks, “available to us only as metaphor.” The image of Joseph Beam that surfaces in Black Gay Genius “represents nothing more than an attempt to frame and delimit what Beam was good at.” Reid-Pharr urges us to “resist the impetus to read Hemphill, Beam, or any of the other black lesbian and gay creative intellectuals whom we take them to represent, as simply forebears of an ever-nascent black gay/lesbian/queer cultural enterprise.”
Instead, Robert F. Reid-Pharr suggests a continued engagement with “the discursive artifacts that Hemphill and Beam left behind,” and invites us to approach their works “as living and engaged documents.” While admitting that we “cannot predict with any certainty the uses to which these works will be put in the future.” I read Reid-Pharr’s words as an adjuration to curate the dead, the voices that speak and dream in terrifying spaces of silence. To attend to the dead is a queer act.
The meditations in Black Gay Genius call for a critical wakefulness to the cuts, ruptures, silences, and wounds that shape how we connect ourselves to not only a Black gay past, but also our Black gay present, and future. However, Black folk’s relation to ‘contemporary’ time and its dissipation—or, perhaps, accumulation would be more fitting—is a sticky matter. The historical conditions of Black life have deeply affected how Black folk experience the ‘passage’ of time. The afterlife of slavery “has so welded past and present that it is virtually impossible and certainly meaningless to speak of it as occurring, as it were, in time.”
Black (gay) folk live “in expectation of something that has not yet been realized, is delaying being realized, is constantly unaccomplished and elusive.” In his essay In The Life and Death, Kenyon Farrow presents a queered/blackened way of “measuring time,” that illuminates the temporal strictures and structures of an anti-black world. Farrow opens his essay by noting that he “mark[s] the passage of time by death.” He learned to ‘keep time’, he tells us, by “the casket-count that marches to the beat of time passing.” A rhythm that has become an indelible feature of Black life: approximately every 28 hours a black person is killed by police officers.
Thinking In the Life—and death—alongside the ongoing, steady assault on Black life is to inhabit “a place where life and death are so entangled that it is no longer possible to distinguish them.” ‘Black time’ emerges as “the ‘moment’ of no time at all on the map of no place at all.” Farrow’s question of “how to best make Black gay premature death legible to Black people as a part of the structural violence that we’re all dealing with,” when Black gay men exist not only outside of ‘White time’, but ‘straight time’ as well makes it the more pressing. Black gay lives often disappear under the banner of ‘Black community’—a proxy for ‘Black family’.
For our survival, we need to “be politically and emotionally engaged around the totality of Black suffering (violence, unemployment, the inability for Black men to love each other, etc.).” When we say Black Lives Matter, we need to go “beyond the narrow nationalism that can be prevalent within Black communities, which merely call on Black people to love Black, live Black and buy Black, keeping straight Black men in the front of the movement while our sisters, queer and trans and disabled folk take up roles in the background or not at all.”
Black gay men and women in the Netherlands are dealing, perhaps unsurprisingly, with similar issues of erasure of our particular kind of suffering, “due to the “heterosexist erotics of family,” that often shape popular Black political attitudes. Where do Black gay men and women, who destabilize a politics of respectability and civility, fit in the (sanitized) archives of Black memory? It seems that irrespective of our geographical location and temporal frame Black gay lives are engulfed by silence, and subject to erasure.
The gestures that Joseph Beam’s writings have made “to end the deafening silence about our lives” are themselves precarious, passing. To speak our truth is not enough in a world where most ears are not attuned to the distinctive features of Black suffering, which is often heard as what Saidiya Hartman and Stephen Best call “black noise.” Black political aspirations and demands are “inaudible or illegible within the prevailing formulas of political rationality.” And yet, Black gay women and men must continue to write, sing, dance, dream, and organize—despite the fact that much of what we have to say is ignored within and without Black communities; it goes literally unheard—even when it is screamed into ears, and onto pages.
David Green suggests in his essay Erotic and the Crisis of Black Love: At Home with Joseph Beam, Melvin Dixon, and In The Life a queering of Black home in order to make Black gay lives legible. Green writes that “we must all live ‘in the life’, if we truly wish to survive this and future life.” While musing on Green’s entreaty, I drifted back to Kenyon Farrow’s words and Christina Sharpe’s theorization of wake work: in the life and in the wake. To live ‘in the life’ in the wake is to inhabit an antinomy between life and death. How, then, do we in this space of impossibility, of incommensurability—where “the time of slavery” appears to lag, lengthen out, stand still—begin to imagine a “future life” in the afterlife of slavery?
The question of “future life” cannot be divorced from the urgency of attending to the centrality of death, and “doing time,” in Black (gay) life—so much of the “future life” work we do is centred on attending to the dead, the “prison slave,” and the “prison slave-in-waiting.” In a certain way, I imagine, heterosexual, cisgender Black folk are already living ‘in the life’. Black life is already queered. It is lived against the odds. Jared Sexton uncovers the queerness of Black life when he notes, “that black life is not social, or rather that black life is lived in social death.” [emphasis in original] Being Black/queer is “a fatal way of being alive.” When our future is already precarious, and constrained by an anti-black time frame (every 28 hours) our persistence is an act of resistance. We need to say over and over and over again that it is possible to imagine different futures. We need to “believe in and create the world that we actually deserve.”
In Queer Relative: Joseph Beam, Audre Lorde, and the Diasporic Poetics of Survival in the 1980s, Alexis Pauline Gumbs breathes more life into this queerness that “disrupts the reproduction of a social narrative that says that Black life is worthless.” We must conjure alternative visions of freedom and survival from the violence and terror that haunts Black (gay) life across the Diasporas. In the wake, daring to dream and surviving is a queer thing to do. And yet, we must avoid the temptation of over-romanticizing the power of dreams, “as if having a dream were all we needed to transform ourselves and our futures.”
“Black dreams,” Joseph Beam warns us, “are dashed as assuredly as Black dreamers are killed.” And yet, Joseph Beam dared not only himself, but also us as well to dream “dreams borne of personal conviction and desire.” In the foreword to On Black Men David Marriott takes on Joseph Beams’ plea to dream the unthinkable in order to “contest the dream work of racist culture in its verisimilitude, address and imagine another kind of experience, another kind of living present and future.” [emphasis in original]
In the Life called a tradition of Black gay writing into existence, and left in its wake seeds of new possibilities; “the [ethical] commitment to dream ourselves differently,” to find and nurture “healthy (meaning non-patriarchal, non-objectifying) holistic love between Black women and Black men.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs shows us that Audre Lorde and Joseph Beam have provided a cognitive map. We must respond to the call of those who came before us, those who are no longer with us.
In Making Ourselves from Scratch Joseph Beam asks us, “what is it that we leave them beyond this shadow-play?” The most valuable thing we can leave behind is evidence that you do not have to make yourself from scratch. Black Gay Genius shows the evolving influence of Joseph Beam’s dictum. It not only offers, but also inspires a sustained engagement with Joseph and his work. To use a turn of phrase like “a timely contribution” to describe Black Gay Genius seems jarring when “Black life is filled with untimely deaths.” This deeply moving anthology reminds us that our journey doesn’t end with death—one way or the other we remain in the life.
- In Black vernacular, the expression “in the life” often means gay.
All #BlackLivesMatter. This is Not a Moment, but a Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2014, from http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/
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