- Real/TalkGlenn Ligon's Re-Membering of Queerness in (Post-)Black Discourse
And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Within the epigraph that opens this essay, Rankine makes visible the tension, anxiety, and frustration of having to endure microaggressions from an intimate friend. As the narrator mulls over a friend's assertion that "Americans battle between the 'historical self' and the 'self self,'" offering a gross misappropriation of the notion of double-consciousness, there is the recognition that eventually these two selves end up colliding, leaving the black individual left to feel, heal from, and make sense of the collision (Rankine 14). The friend's retreat to history as that which disrupts otherwise congenial present moments in which two people are mostly able to "interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities," is symptomatic of a culture of color-blindness. Defined as an ideology in which both the existence of racism in any form and the significance of race in the daily lives of individuals are denied, minimized, and distorted (Neville, et al., "Changes" 180), color-blindness becomes a way to avoid recognition of how present-day institutions, systems, and interactions often carry within them a historical legacy of racism. Not only is this behavior evidenced in the assertion that it is one's "historical self" that sullies the present with racial divisions, it also is evidenced in the counter-counter-cultural discourses of "All Lives Matter" and "Blue Lives Matter."
By appropriating and manipulating the notion that race is a socially constructed category, these discourses demonstrate a desire to avoid addressing difference and the physical, psychological, spiritual, and legal violences that are disproportionately enacted upon certain racially marked bodies because of that difference. But, as Audre Lorde observes, it is not the "differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences, and to examine the distortions [End Page 80] that result from our misnaming them and their effects upon human behavior and expectation" (115). Yet, more often than not, the work of speaking race in public spaces still falls disproportionately on racialized individuals, which, as Rankine intimates, is not without its toll.
Often, when speaking blackness in public spaces, two main narrative strands can be heard: pro-blackness narratives, taken up by those who adhere to the notions of solidarity, authenticity, and unity that were used in the struggles of previous generations of blacks; and post-blackness narratives, where those who seek to move beyond the strictures of race resist, deemphasize, and variously challenge notions of unity, solidarity, and authenticity, in attempts to realize Martin Luther King's hope that one day color will not matter in our social interactions. Although they differ in their views on and approaches to notions of authenticity, solidarity, and unity, these two narrative strands should be seen not as dichotomous to one another, but rather as two approaches to talking about and repositioning blackness in a society that often undervalues, penalizes, and/or grossly misinterprets blackness. Working from an understanding of these two approaches as united in their desire to reinvest blackness with its most productive and life-sustaining potentials, this essay argues that in both pro-blackness and post-blackness narratives, attempts to (re)conceptualize racial difference are often done in the context of heteronormative spaces and performative demands, and to the exclusion of black queer difference. Through an analysis of the work of black queer artist, Glenn Ligon, I contend that Ligon refuses to support either the heteronormativization of blackness or the privileging of sexuality over race. Instead, Ligon gestures towards a discourse that takes race and sexuality as indivisible signifiers of one another. Ultimately, I propose Ligon's work as offering (re)negotiations between race, sexuality, and gender as complex and continually ongoing processes, all the while displacing and dispersing the burden of re-membering blackness itself.
heteronormativity in black resistance
Contemporary pro-blackness narratives can be seen in movements like the Black Awakening Movement, which is a grassroots "organization and...