By M. Shelly Conner
My mother once asked me why everything I wrote had to be black and queer. A Great Migration southern transplant, she reared me on a steadfast diet of Eyes on the Prize, Harlem Renaissance Writers, and personal stories from pre-Civil Rights Era Memphis and Black Power-era Chicago (#allblackeverything). Queerness was overshadowed by race, such that Bayard Rustin stepped into shadows of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Because black queers chose to tow the line in the race struggle with their skinfolks, we now face the misconception that our sexuality is a choice that is separate from, and subordinate to, our race.
My experiences are that of a #blackqueerwoman and, as the hashtag denotes, it is a singular identity composed of inseparable parts. The recent film, Dear White People demonstrates this with the character Lionel (Tyler James Williams) who had difficulty being a black face in a white space AND being a queer face in black space AND a black queer face in a white queer space. Often, for queers of color, the most painfully homophobic situations occur in our cultural spaces…the spaces in which we want to feel most at home.
I took my five-year old nephew to the UniverSoul Circus. Even before one considers the immense talent and death-defying acts present in most circus acts, the UniverSoul Circus distinguishes itself by predominantly showcasing and marketing to people of color (#allblackeverything). The acts include Chinese trapeze artists, Trinidadian dancers, Ethiopian contortionists, South American motorcycle stunt riders, and Cuban pole artists.
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For twenty years, the UniverSoul Circus has been bringing the big top experience to an audience with a painful history of being displayed as freaks in sideshows (Saartje Baartman) rather than as top-billed acts of talent and ingenuity. For this reason, it disturbs me to see the caged tigers and well-trained majestic elephants, knowing not long ago my ancestors were showcased in this way. Still, the “colored” circus was on the south side of Chicago and I wanted my nephew to see it.
The show blends the typical awe-inspiring circus acts with (as their website bills it) “top 40 urban hits” and audience participation geared to soul folk–dancing and a soul train line. I ain’t mad. I clapped and stomped along and prepared to get my life when they announced an old school versus new school challenge. Ringmaster Lucky asked for two couple volunteers and I immediately wished that my girlfriend could have made the event. We love to dance together. We even won the Chicago Dancing with the Queer Stars event.
Just as I was projecting our crowning moment onto the circus ring, the ringmaster adds, “And by couple, I mean a man and a woman. We don’t want no…”
I didn’t catch the last of it. Maybe it was “trouble” or “problems.” It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that in an event that bills itself for “family,” when Ringmaster Lucky directs the two hetero-couples to compete in pantomiming love songs and to “keep it clean,” he is reinforcing that family, for people of color, is heterosexual. He is suggesting that same-sex couples pantomiming love songs are as dirty as inappropriately open displays of sexual desire.
He is undoing the foundations that I am hoping to build in my nephew’s understanding that there is nothing contradictory or wrong or inappropriate about his cool, black, queer aunt.
The UniverSoul Cirus ignited a light in me. I saw people of color flying through the air like the Sankofa bird–defying stereotypes that our athleticism be confined to basketball and other running sports. Then I felt that light extinguished by the same thing that had caused it to spark. The UniverSoul Circus giveth…and it taketh away. This is intersectionality at its core. This is how one can be oppressed by the very cause they seek to support.
Intersectional oppression is being targeted for your sexuality and then being disregarded for your race. It is why there are no national protest movements for murdered queers of color. When many of the perpetrators share the same race, and race trumps sexuality, the assault against queer people of color is rendered invisible. This is why, to answer my mother’s question, I cannot simply write something that is just black but not queer.
But this is just the circus. No one was gay-bashed and hey, #allblackeverything. This is logic that mirrors the excuses for racist micro-aggressions. Making a point irrelevant to circustry (word or nah?) in a public black family space reinforces heterosexism in black communities and exposes that destructive ideology to my nephew.
And yet the old school versus new school competition presented an act of queer resistance that gave me life. I saw a very slender black man with locs accompany a beautiful, confident voluptuously rotund woman. He carried her purse for her and was unperturbed when Ringmaster Lucky joked, “You look real comfortable carrying that purse.”
Old School Bruh “werked” it. He sashayed. He shimmied. He ended in a Chinese split. Not to be undone, Old School Sis lip synced to Jennifer Holiday’s “I’m Not Going.” She snatched she wig off she own head! Stocking cap still firmly in place, Sis lifted picked her partner up and wrapped his arms and legs around her torso. They brought lived meaning to the concept of gender-queer performance.
As much as I appreciate this genderqueer, but still heteropresenting partnership, I am ready for the day when my queer partner and I can bust a move on that stage. I’m looking for the day when I can immerse myself in #allblackeverything and not be assaulted with homo- or trans phobia as well. I’m looking for the day when queerness is so recognized as a beautiful part of Black Resilience; that Bayard Rustin is just as recognized for who he is and what he did as Dr. Martin Luther King is; that my mother throws a revolutionary fist of solidarity in the air when she reads my next piece of Queer, Black scholarship; and that the idea of family in communities of color remains an adaptable one, as our history dictates (fictive kinships and shifting familial constructs during slavery) and as our present illustrates (even in this humorous Key & Peele clip).
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M. Shelly Conner is an Instructor in the English Department at Loyola University Chicago. She is Founder and Executive Director of Quare Square Collective, Inc., a non-profit for Midwest queer artists of color. Shelly is currently exploring publishing options for her debut novel everyman.