Trans*forming A Mule

I

This is an essay about gender.

II

If we are to truly understand gender as socially constructed, we must first recognize that gender programming and performance (i.e., socialization) begins at birth and informs how we engage each other in our daily lives. Gender is more than the clothes we wear, the pitch of our voices, and much much more than our body morphology. Gender is informed by and intersected with race, sexuality, social class, and disability.

[Before I go any further, I should pause to acknowledge that the ideas of many others inform my thinking in this post. Some of those sources I will name as they come up, but most of which I won’t be able to, because they are so ingrained and entangled in my mind that I no longer can pull them apart to tell what came from who. Here is a list of those influences, in no particular order: bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, the compilation This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Sarah Smith Rainey, Michele Wallace, discussions with Z Nicolazzo, Allan G. Johnson…]

III

Foreground yourself.

In the word processing program that I use, I can insert a picture and choose among various options for how that image should appear relative to the text or other images around it. If I set it as “foreground” then I am putting it in front of other text/images such that if they overlap, then what is foregrounded appears on top of the rest.

I have been told lately, “foreground yourself.” Essentially, among the overlapping roles I hold, pulls on my time, and needs for self-care, I have been strongly advised to put myself in front of all the rest. To see my needs first and foremost, on top of everything else. I heard that advice and was mystified about how to enact it.

This is gender in action, gender as performative (thank you, Judith Butler).

IV

I need…

Need, needs, needy, needing, and neediness are gendered. To be seen as “needy” is definitely gendered (as feminine which equals bad in case you were wondering). Neediness is a state of lack, of want for something that you do not have. It is weakness as it’s portrayed in pop culture. Those “in need” are usually portrayed as women and children. It’s central to why our society refuses to accept a man as being in need of public assistance. Men are defined as “not in need” but also as the ones whose “needs” must be met (by women and children).

To assert that *I* need and have needs and am in need is being subversive.  I am violating the gender norms assigned to me because I do not fit within the category “man.”

V

“All you/I need to do is stay Black and die.” I’ve heard this my whole life.

All I need to do is stay Black and die.

[I’ll leave for another blog post, perhaps, a critical race-poststructural analysis of the directive to “stay Black” grounded partially in the ways in which one can become not-Black, perhaps similar to Monique Wittig’s concept of lesbians as not-women.]

This was a proclamation of resistance when an I was the subject – denying anyone else’s right to force me to take any action I did not want to take: No, I don’t *need* to keep my hair long and straight to be sexually attractive. No, I don’t *need* to focus more on getting married than I do on my education and career. No, I don’t *need* to accept somebody denying my worth and value and authenticity just because “everybody has issues.” I rebuffed many an external constraint on my self-determination by flinging back that response with all the certitude and attitude my grown-ass womanish Black self could muster, as in “Excuse me?? No, all I neeeeeed to do is stay Black and die!” Yes, cue the neck roll, eye roll, and teeth sucking along with the implied dare to keep on talking.

VI

All you need to do is stay Black and die.

[And here, I could do a different blog post about how Blackness is surveilled and policed such that people who are deemed Black, stay Black, and die as Black in ways appropriate for Blackness. And in that post, I would give a shout-out to Michel Foucault.]

This was an indictment of my selfishness when a you was the subject. The speaker denied my assertion of my desire to do something other than what was being demanded of me in that moment so that I could perform to satisfy someone else’s needs that were more important than my own.

What was being communicated was some version of the following: No, you don’t need time for yourself really. No, all you need to do is stay within the respectable bubble of Black-womanness (i.e., don’t be queer or trans* or womanist or too educated or not educated enough) that has been erected to make your Black-womanness palatable to White folks and stay small enough to be subservient to others’ interests and wear your mask and die with it on. Oh and while you’re at it, you can also disappear and be of no consequence and leave no mark so that no one ever knows your pain, your need, your want, your desire so that you don’t infringe on those who are really important. And the I that is the dominating Other is watching you to make sure that if you step out of line and forget your programming that you will be brought back in line (thank you, Michel Foucault).

VII

This is still an essay about gender.

VIII

So, I engage in lengthy episodes of anxiety-ridden angst about whether it is permissible for me this time to put my needs, my neediness, and my need up front. This is about gender and my gender socialization and how I have been socialized NOT to EVER foreground myself. As Zora Neale Hurston’s character Nannie asserted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the Black woman is the mule of the world, made to bear others’ burdens and fulfill others’ needs, not to have any of her own.

[Nanny]: “Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” (2.44) [Retrieved from http://www.shmoop.com/eyes-were-watching-god/race-quotes-2.html]

How many have gained their freedom, had their autonomy recognized, had their needs met by crossing over on the work of women of color (thank you Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa)? Like, everybody except women of color. Hello somebody…

IX

But I am not a Black woman, though I was raised to be one.

And so if I’m really going to show up as an AFAB (assigned female at birth), genderqueer, non-binary trans* and MOC (masculine of center), then doing so must mean doing more than wearing a badass suit and bow tie, unlearning the practiced (and unnatural) feminine pitch of my voice, and slinging a prosthetic phallis between my thighs in order to trans*form myself from the mule I was trained to be to become the person that I am. My gender identity and expression is not kink.

But it cannot mean picking up another’s load and then passing it off to a Black ciswoman to carry because I have deemed myself, as not a woman, to be higher than she.

This is the gender knot that must be unraveled (nod to Allan G. Johnson).

No, it must mean refusing to pick up someone else’s burden (to NOT be Simon the Cyrene for someone else’s crucifix), but to foreground myself, my needs, and my neediness as legitimate, valuable, necessary and NOT as a weakness to be squashed so that I can remain some kind of superhero (nod to Michele Wallace there, thank you). It must mean wresting the right to make my life matter for me and to me, to put myself first, to say that I need to do more than stay Black and die to be alive in this world.

This is about self-preservation being subversive and countercultural and militant and necessary (thank you, Audre Lorde).

X

This is an essay about gender. This is an essay about race. This is an essay about social class. This is an essay about trans*gression.

This is an essay about freedom.

Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

[Written April 15, 2015]

A few days (or maybe several days) ago, my Twitter timeline included a post (deep apologies for no longer remembering who it was by) that referenced a quote from Dr. Cornel West: “…tenderness is what love feels like in private…” It moved me that day and must have inched its way down into my soul because it rose back up into my consciousness earlier this afternoon.

I meditated on that word, tenderness, until snatches of a song rose up in my soul as well…

It was the right time for me to listen to Otis Redding today. I played the song twice, let the chorus loop on repeat in my mind for quite some time. “Try a little tenderness…!”  The urgency of his voice makes it clear that this is a command, a demand even, not a wistful suggestion. I had been thinking about community and kinship when West’s quote rose up in my spirit today. In fact, community and kinship have been recurring themes that Z Nicolazzo and I have been exploring together of late. I wanted to dig deeper into this notion of how tenderness and kinship might be related, so I found the context for Cornel West’s quote in this essay, “A Love Supreme.” In talking about how we might fully engage the promise and possibilities of the Occupy Movement in 2011, Dr. West wrote the following:

We must recast old notions of empire, class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nature into new ways of thinking and being. Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation. Again like jazz, we must embody and enact a loving embrace of the art of our collaborative creations. We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family, and sentient beings, and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private, deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice. (para. 3, emphasis added)

I have seen the first third of that last sentence a great deal, the second third only a couple of times, and I have never seen that last phrase quoted by others at all. I think it’s easy for those of us invested in social justice to focus on that first phrase. We are eager, thirsty, for justice. We want self-identified allies to show their love in tangible ways. Justice makes love tangible. Justice enacts human dignity. Justice brings transformation.

However, it’s that second phrase that has been rooting itself deep in my loins (as in the seat of physical strength and generative power) since I saw that tweet several days ago. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

As a member of multiple marginalized communities, I notice that I expend a lot of energy external to those communities. Energy that is swallowed up in protesting, in education, in ranting, in recovery and healing. It is far easier I have noticed to use our community gathering time to vent and strategize and waste away in our exhaustion with struggle. After all, it is often other marginalized people who actually understand why we are so worn out and exhausted, angry and hurt. We can share without undue explanation, receive validation and support.

That validation and support is critical. However, moving beyond validation and support to building each other up through love’s tender embrace is also fundamental to healing and wholeness.  I appreciate that West’s essay here is inward-facing. He is addressing those within the movement, not those who are the objects of the movement’s resistance. We must carefully consider how we will be with and for each other in order to truly realize the radical vision of a “deep democratic revolution in practice.”

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

Within communities of marginalized and oppressed people, we are well-acquainted with all the ways in which we are unlovable, ugly, and generally considered to be less than. Our mis-education, as Carter G. Woodson opined in 1935, has been thorough. As Reina Gossett shared in her interview with Rheem Brooks for Bluestockings Magazine, living out an abolitionist movement is not necessarily an action, but rather the persistent engagement in a “deep process of unlearning or learning again.” I strongly believe that this is why we need to consciously and doggedly practice tenderness among ourselves, in our private affinity spaces and community gatherings. Within the spaces we create with and for each other as marginalized and oppressed peoples, tenderness should be, must be the primary agenda.

When I think of tenderness, I am reminded of the careful, gentle touch of lovers, of a parent toward a child, of a child toward their aging parent. Tenderness is the soft touch, the sweet kiss that stirs the soul before it is felt upon the skin. Tenderness is the tone of voice that calls the name of its beloved and instantly brings calm. Tenderness is the hand held without a word needing to be spoken. Tenderness is holding close in the dark with just breath between bodies warm from shared energy. Tenderness. The gentle panting of a heaving chest that finally feels at home, loved, at peace. Tenderness has emotive power and is fierce in its quietness. It is no mistake that West chose the verb “feels” instead of “looks” when he talked about tenderness. Tenderness provokes an emotional response.

Tenderness is not for public consumption.

Contrary to what you might be envisioning now, I am not talking about sexual romance. I am talking about love as action, as imparted. How do we act out such a tenderness for and among ourselves within the private spaces of our marginalized communities?

I just said I wasn’t talking about sexual romance, but maybe I am talking about a different type of sexuality. Maybe it’s a sexuality that is not restricted to and which subsumes sexual romance. Perhaps, this is a communal sexuality focused on deep emotional intimacy and mutual valuing and investment. And despite our society’s religiously-informed body- and sex-shaming (condemnations of the flesh as inherently sinful), touch is also a part of showing tenderness to other people. I think touch is one of the first things that is withdrawn from bodies deemed undesirable. They are marked as untouchables. The experience of tenderness ought to be multisensory: seen, heard, felt – visual, aural, and tactile – and even smelled and tasted (I am remembering now the tenderness given and received in a loaf of home-baked bread). For crying out loud, touch each other with tenderness – because ours may be the only arms left to hold our socially unmentionable, publicly undesirable bodies.

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

In as much as sexuality is multifaceted (emotional, romantic, and sexual), the communal sexuality that I am proposing is also multifaceted — it is epistemic, affective, and behavioral.

[My sexually conservative religious upbringing is screaming in my head, but I am going to press on.]

Thinking, feeling, and acting toward each other with tenderness within and across our multiple marginalities is fundamental to the unlearning and new learning that Gossett recommends. As Nicolazzo has written in an earlier blog post, we must practice a collective love (citing Lani Guinier). We cannot always simply love ourselves without being shown that love within and from our communities. In fact, I would argue that an intersectional ethic requires a commitment to a political (as opposed to a romantic/relational) polyamory*, in which marginalized people are able to practice this communal sexuality within and across multiple marginalities for the purposes of deep democratic revolution beginning from within.

So, listen to Otis. Let’s try a little tenderness.

*I am grateful to my doctoral student, Liane Ortis, whose dissertation study of polyamory in college environments is teaching me a great deal about polyamory and has reshaped my thinking.