She resembles a recurrent
Scene from my childhood.
A scene called Mother Has Fainted.
Was larger, now it no longer moved;
Breathed, somehow, as if it no longer breathed.
Her face no longer smiled at us
Or frowned at us. Did anything to us.
Her face was queerly flushed
Or else queerly pale; I am no longer certain.
That it was queer I am certain.
— Randall Jarrell, “Hope”
The most dramatic thing that happened to me in the summer of 1991 was when I passed out for television. The TV cameras from the local news shows were there because we were having a demonstration, organized by an Ad Hoc Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, with participation from ACT UP-Triangle, against the University of North Carolina’s local PBS station, which was refusing to air Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, the first film on the almost genocidally underrepresented topic of black gay men in the United States. It was a muggy southern summer afternoon by the side of a highway in Research Triangle Park. I had thought I was feeling strong enough for what looked to be a sedate demonstration (no civil disobedience), in spite of several months of chemotherapy that had pretty much decimated my blood cells.
But I guess I’d forgotten or repressed how arduous a thing it is any time a group of people try to project voices and bodies into a space of public protest that has continually to be reinvented from scratch, even though (or because) the protest function is so routinized and banalized by the state and media institutions that enable it. You know what local news shows look like, how natural it seems that there should be, now and then, those shots of grim, dispirited people waving signs and moving their mouths, I mean moving our mouths, I mean yelling.
… this was a fight about blackness, queerness, and (implicitly) AIDS: properties of bodies, some of them our bodies, of bodies that it seemed important to say most people are very willing, and some people murderously eager, to see not exist. I got there late, hugged and kissed the friends and students I hadn’t seen in a few weeks, and Brian gave me his sign to carry. I can’t remember — I hardly noticed — what was on it, even though when I was a kid I remember that most of the symbolic power of the picket lines I saw used to seem to inhere to the voluntary self-violation, the then almost inconceivable willed assumption of stigma, that seemed to me to be involved in anyone’s consenting to go public as a written-upon body, an ambulatory placard — a figure I, as a child, could associate only with the disciplining of children. I wonder now how I related that voluntary stigma to the nondiscretionary stigma of skin color — that is, of skin color other than white — considering how fully, when I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, “protest” itself implied black civil rights protest. It was at some distance from that childhood terror of the written-upon body, though not at an infinite distance, that, already wearing the black “Silence = Death” T-shirt chosen because I thought it would read more graphically from a distance than my white ACT UP-Triangle T-shirt, I gratefully took Brian’s placard and commenced wagging it around with energy and satisfaction, as if to animate it with the animation of my own body and make it speak: to the TV cameras, to people in the cars that were passing, to the little line of demonstrators across the road. The heat, the highway, the outdoors seemed to blot up voices and gestures and the chants that we hurled out of our lungs, trying exhaustingly to create a seamless curtain of rage and demand …
… The space of the demonstration was riddled, not only with acoustical sinkholes, but with vast unbridgeable gaps of meaning. It was in these gaps, or from out of them, that the force of any public protest might materialize, but into which, as well, it constantly risked dissolving. I think of the way our space was created and de-created, continually, by the raking attentions and sullen withdrawals of, on the one hand, the state troopers — the pathetically young and overdressed white state troopers, who at the same time looked totally out of it in their sweltering uniforms and yet effortlessly, through the same uniforms and because they had guns and radios, commanded all the physical presence and symbolic density that we were struggling to accrue, who made a space of their own ostentatiously apart from the demonstrators, ostentatiously “neutral,” untouchable by the force of anything we could shout; but who had also the function of radiating jags of menace in our direction, shards of volatile possibility that boomeranged around in the ether of our expression — and on the other hand, from another direction, the TV cameras, actually a complex of trucks, tripods, portable and stationary machines, and white people to occupy both ends of them: camera people, insolent with implicit dare and promise, to take them for walks along the line of our faces and bodies, and pretty girl and boy reporters to make a foreground to which our angry bodies could serve as background, generating the depth of field, the assurance of perspective and ten-foot-pole distance, for which television news serves as guardian and guarantee.
The uses we had for this news apparatus, as opposed to the uses it had for us, I condensed in my mind under the double formulation “shaming and smuggling.” With the force of our words — referentially, that is — our object was to discredit the pretense at representing the public maintained by our local “public” broadcasting station, to shame them into compliance or negotiation on the issue of airing this film. With the force of our bodies, however, and in that sense performatively, our object was not merely to demand representation, representation elsewhere, but ourselves to give, to be representation: somehow to smuggle onto the prohibitive airwaves some version of the apparently unrepresentably dangerous and endangered conjunction, queer and black.
… The assertion that black queer absence gave the lie to the claims of representative use of the airwaves could take its point only from the patent availability, indeed the assertive presence of such bodies. The protest function also, however, offered pretext and legitimacy to the presence of such bodies: it seems likely that our protest was the first occasion on which local TV in central North Carolina was constrained to offer images of people explicitly self-classified under the rubrics of black, queer identity.
… And yet I can’t claim for the twinned ambitions behind this demonstration the supposedly clean distinctions between constative and performative, or between reference and embodiment. … [O]ur “smuggling” activity of embodiment, however self-referential, could boast of no autonomy from the oblique circuits of representation. At least because a majority of our smuggling-intent bodies were not themselves black, many of us who had so much need to make a new space for black queer representation were haplessly embroiled in the processes of reference: reference to other bodies standing beside our own, to the words on our placards, to what we could only hope would be the sufficiently substantial sense — if, indeed, even we understood it rightly — of our own intent.
After a while I could tell I was feeling tired and dizzy; sensibly, I sat down. There was something so absorbing and so radically heterogeneous about this space of protest that when, next thing I knew, the urgent sound of my name and a slowly dawning sense of disorientation suggested that I seemed very oddly to be stretched out in the dirt — coming to — surfacing violently from the deep pit of another world — with a state trooper taking my pulse and an ambulance already on the way — the gaping, unbridgeable hole left in my own consciousness felt like a mise-en-abîme image of the whole afternoon; not least because the image, a compelling one on which both TV cameras were converging, hindered by protestors who struggled to block their sightlines (“Now that’s censorship,” the TV people rumbled, with some justice) — that image, of a mountainous figure, supine, black-clad, paper-white, weirdly bald (my nice African hat had pitched to a distance), Silence = Death emblazoned, motionless, apparently female, uncannily gravid with meaning (but with what possible meaning? what usable meaning?) was available to everybody there except herself.
… if that sprawling body offered testimony, it was less to a triumphal purposefulness than to a certain magnetic queerness (by magnetic I mean productive of deviance) in the process called demonstration. What felt to me like an almost telescopic condensation of the protest event embodied, as the most radical condensations will, less the power of condensation than the displacements of meaning that interline it. (Displacements: the white skin of someone to whom black queer invisibility had come to feel — partly through representational work like Tongues Untied, partly in the brutalities of every day’s paper, partly through transferentially charged interactions with students — like an aching gap in the real; the legible bodily stigmata not of AIDS but of a “female” cancer whose lessons for living powerfully with I found myself, at that time, learning largely from men with AIDS; the defamiliarization and indeed the gaps of de-recognition toward my “own” “female” “white” body, experienced under the pressure of amputation and prosthesis, of drugs, of the gender-imploding experience of female baldness; the way in which, whatever one’s privilege, a person living with a grave disease in this particular culture is inducted ever more consciously, ever more needily, yet with ever more profound and transformative revulsion into the manglingly differential world of health care under American capitalism.)