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Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 384-393

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Bill T. Jones, Tupac Shakur and the (Queer) Art of Death

Sharon P. Holland

Part 2: Plum Nelly: New Essays in Black Queer Studies

I will never grow old. My hands will never be discolored with the spots of age. I will never have varicose veins. . . . My shoulders never stooped, rounded, like my mother's shoulders are. I will never need a son to massage my arms, as my father did . . . I am not protected, remember? Old is for people who are protected. The unprotected have to die young.

--Bill T. Jones, Last Night on Earth

The quick and the dead

To examine the causes of life, we must first have recourse to death.

--Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

In Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, the primary definition of the word "body" is "corpse." The secondary definition is "person." The implication of this definition is startling, as the body marks space equally in death and in life; it becomes the bridge between the way others (science/pathology) see us and the way we see ourselves. The dictionary definition of bodies occupying space is queer, if not backward. 1 In any event, what others think of us certainly proceeds how we wish to "be" in the world. Black subjects have often complained of the same enigma--constantly being seen, rather than being heard. The will to stereotype is so powerful, so difficult to circumvent, that it has literally changed the way that "black" culture is produced. The hard edge of hip-hop culture is a prime example of a new kind of black identification; giving up on the idea of being a "person" first and then a "corpse," some black performers have embraced the culture of death as a way to move their bodies out of space and into time. 2 Both Tupac Shakur and Bill T. Jones have challenged death, often miming its culture, sometimes playing the role of the dead. In the spectrum of popular images of black(male)ness--we are constantly suspended between Shakur and Jones. We cannot (or at least we should not) embrace either--one black body "ailing" with dis-ease, fighting the grave with a weapon called [End Page 384] dance, another black body too hard to break, coming at you with the rage of absolutely phallic rhyme and reason.

Cultural anxiety about black subjects like Jones and Shakur manifests itself in the countless journal articles and media attention that both vilifies and embraces such performers. When black artists flirt with the culture of death, or the "space of death" to borrow from anthropologist Michael Taussig, they claim relationship to or kinship with the dead. While Jones and Shakur represent different ways of dying, they nevertheless speak from the same stage--each performing the event of his own death and packaging it as art. Rather than concentrating on their performance of death via their dance or music, respectively, I want to read across their bodies, to begin with the corpse, if you will, before we get to the person. Unleashing the potential of black subjectivity to speak from the dead exposes the end-point of governmental policies and programs which materially and psychically "kill" the nation's black subjects. When black artists flirt with the culture of death, it puts us all at risk, for to critique such a performance would require an admission that blackness has a special relationship with the dead--that the distance between speaking subject and (in)tangible place is not so vast at all. Moreover, if both Jones and Shakur speak from the same stage--each performing the event of his own death and packaging it as art--then there might be room to begin reading, or create a bridge, between two seemingly disparate performances of black(male)ness. In order to do this, I engage (black) community discourse(s) on fatherhood or what I call "fatherlack" and critical discourses on passing. Placing these disparate discussions in dialogue with one another offers a decidedly queer vision of performing bodies.

Death's black mask...


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