- Coloring Outside The Lines: An Essay At Definition
For Chris Cutrone, who has helped me work through these conundrums both intellectually and emotionally
This is a story I tell myself about who I am, a story that, in the nature of all telling, conceals as much as it reveals. Like the Muses in Hesiod, it can make lies seem true, but it can also tell the truth. That story has constituted who I am, exactly by means of the reductions, simplifications, and exclusions that make it a narrative. As Oscar Wilde wrote many years ago, the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.
While split subjectivity and alienation—social, psychic, somatic—are not the most pressingly material problems facing black people in late 20th-century America (they might be the substance of racism—as Frantz Fanon will confirm—but they’re not the sum of the experience of black people, even “as” black people), they have been central to my not-as-unique-as-I’d-like-to-imagine life. I’m told that, in our perennially if not terminally postmodem condition, psychic displacement is neither unusual nor lamentable, but I’ve never found much comfort in the vertiginous consolations of theory. Having always lacked and longed for a stabilized identity, I’m not ready to celebrate its always already having been decentered. Lacan, of course, has pointed out that identity is itself a lack, or the compensation for a lack. The longing to “be someone” needs to be questioned. Who would that be, exactly, and why? And who’s asking?
This is a story about constructing an identity outside the identity, constituting an identity in isolation. Rimbaud wrote this story over a hundred years ago, with the most exquisite concision: “Je est un autre.” Consider this essay a gloss on that line.
Mine is a deracinated existence both psychically and socially, in which the “blackness” with which I grapple is largely abstract. My identity has largely formed itself (sometimes through “my” own initiative, sometimes despite me) through negations and refusals: most especially of myself, insofar as that self is defined as “black.” For me, to be black and to be gay have been two radically discrete subject positions, which to a large extent have contradicted one another, except to increase my sense of the lack of any position called mine, much less me. There has, of course, been no lack of positions, or should I write places, into which several varieties of others have wished to put me, but none have fit. Or should I say, I have never fit. [End Page 134]
When I was growing up in the Bronx, poor, isolated, and, as far as everyone except my mother was concerned (and even she sometimes had her doubts), too smart for my own good, “black” was something I didn’t particularly want to be. My desire not to be black was coterminous with, though not identical to, my desire not to be oppressed. Everyone around me in the projects was black; everyone was poor. It seemed there must be some essential connection between blackness and deprivation. (I didn’t realize until much later that “blackness” itself is the product of privation.) Being smart in school, an “egghead,” a “teacher’s pet,” wasn’t appreciated at all, certainly not by the kids who used to sit on my stomach at recess and bang my head into the playground pavement for their amusement and my edification. But being smart was my way of getting a scholarship to private school, my ticket to another world. In private school there were very few black students, none of them poor; there was, however, a separate black PTA. Being smart was my way out of the Bronx, and it worked. Being smart was also my way out of being black, which “worked” much more ambiguously.
In private school I wasn’t particularly well liked, partly because I was neither docile nor well behaved, and partly because there was something inherently unlikable about a nappy-headed black boy from the ghetto who got better grades than all those white children whose parents were paying a lot of money...