- Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity
In Appropriating Blackness, E. Patrick Johnson clearly articulates the diverging opinions faced when dealing with most issues surrounding blackness by acknowledging the contrasting politics and opinions that encircle theories of blackness. Johnson does an admirable job of dissecting various points of view in order to show their strengths and weaknesses. He then pieces them all back together for the reader, providing an extremely synthesized interpretation of the appropriation of blackness. Each chapter could stand alone, but Johnson has managed to provide a through-line that connects all the chapters despite the diverse array of theories they cover.
From the title of his introduction, "'Blackness' and Authenticity: What's Performance Got to Do With It," an obvious homage to Tina Turner, one could surmise that Johnson is about to engage in a meaningful and secular discussion. And that he does. Johnson acknowledges how "slippery" any discourse on blackness may become when he states it is "ever beyond the reach of one's grasp" (2). Johnson goes on to suggest "that the mutual constructing/deconstructing, avowing/disavowing, and expanding/delimiting dynamic that occurs in the production of blackness is the very thing that constitutes 'black' culture" (2). Later, he presents questions that serve as the source of his inspiration. The following questions are just a few examples from the many that Johnson posits, but they are the foundation upon which his book is written: "How does one theorize these various citations and cultural significations and the politics they engender?" "What happens when 'blackness' is embodied?" "What are the cultural, social, and political consequences of that embodiment in a racist society?" "What is at stake when race or blackness is theorized discursively, and the material reality of the 'black' subject is occluded?" "What happens in those moments when blackness takes on corporeality?" "Or, alternatively, how are the stakes changed when a 'white' body performs blackness?" (2).
In chapter one, "The Pot Is Brewing . . . ," Johnson's muse is Marlon Riggs, a black gay filmmaker and poet who dedicated his life to recording black American life for the better part of the 1980s and early '90s. Specifically, the chapter delves into Riggs's film Black Is . . . Black Ain't and the implications the film has for theorizing about blackness as [End Page 762] it relates to the performativity of gender and race. The multiplicity of blackness that permeates not only the film Black Is . . . , but also Johnson's writings, demands that "black Americans cannot begin to ask the dominant culture to accept their difference as Others nor accept their humanity until black Americans accept the differences that exist among themselves" (19).
"Blackness . . . is fragile when subsumed by rules of inclusion; yet, like gender and sexual performativity, its mobility is never forestalled once it is set into motion in/through performance, no matter who is in the driver's seat" (75). This is the final statement in chapter two, which is titled "Manifest Faggotry: Queering Masculinity in African American Culture." The title serves as an indicator of the author's aims in this chapter, which he identifies as addressing the ambivalence of sexual desire and its connectedness to black masculinity, black authenticity, and performance. Johnson does meet his established criteria while connecting and cross-referencing various disciplines as sources of information and inspiration. This is further illustrated in chapter three, "Mother Knows Best: Blackness and Transgressive Domestic Space." In this section, through interviews with his associates and analyses of popular culture the author analyzes the vernacular of black gay culture and the instances in which it communicates black domesticity, authenticity, and heteronormativity. Johnson's analysis and discussion of black gays' use of vernacular and culture to create a space in place/in spite/despite of the hetero norm is insightful. His discussion of pop-culture icons and their portrayals of gayness, often based on negative stereotypes, beg us to question the paradox surrounding the cultural politics of black gay representation that is reduced to "Negro faggotry."
Chapter four, "'Nevah...