- Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders by Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley
Ezili, as Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley notes, is “the name given to a pantheon of Iwa [spirit forces in Haitian Vodou] who represent divine forces of love, sexuality, prosperity, pleasure, maternity, creativity, and fertility” (4). The book, Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders, is in turn a multitextured exploration of black genders. Ezili are traditionally associated with queerness as they are the multiplicity of forces who protect madivin and masisis (transmasculine and transfeminine Haitians). Tinsley overlaps three voices — scholarly, spiritual, and historical — to produce a rich tapestry of various manifestations of the multiple Ezili. These Ezili are found in literature, song, dance, film, and all manner of performance, attaching themselves to black feminist ancestors and a range of spiritual practices. Tinsley’s work illustrates how spirituality and gender can be imagined together by drawing on black feminist praxes of making possible, surviving, and theorizing.
Ezili Freda, Tinsley argues, takes up the black femme function, which is to say she shows the power and resistance in making oneself look good: “so look, making yourself into a black cisfemme — making yourself beautiful, and doing it to light another woman’s fire — isn’t just a frivolous Saturday afternoon. For a long, long time it’s been an act of resistance and rebirth” (57). Analyzing performances, parsing interviews, and searching the archive, Tinsley locates Ezili Freda in dancer and choreographer Adia Whitaker’s video Ezili (2010), the performance artist MilDred’s show I, Transcender: The Gender Expression of Haitian Gods and Goddesses (2010), and in Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina in the United States.
Ezili Danto is the manifestation that illuminates the importance of the work of social justice and the work of sisterhood. Angie Xtravaganza, founder of the House of Xtravanganza featured in Jennie Livingston’s film Paris Is Burning (1990), anchors the historical aspect of this form of mothering labor. The documentary Poto Mitan (2009) fleshes out the importance of speaking out against the exploitation of female laborers in factories as “political and spiritual work” (85), while Of Men and Gods (Des hommes et dieux, 2002), directed by Anne Lescot and Laurence Magloire, focuses on masisi forms of labor: “forging commonality not through gender, sexuality, or other identities but through walking together, through shared activity, experience, and support” (90).
Ezili Je Wouj, meanwhile, is the “cosmic tantrum [...] of some cosmic innocence that cannot understand — and will not understand — why accident would ever befall what is cherished, or why death should ever come to the beloved” (116). These Ezili frolic in the blood and golden showers that Domina Erzulie, a dominatrix from the Antilles, extracts from her clients; the filth and kink of Nalo Hopkinson’s imagined life for Jeanne Duval, Charles Baudelaire’s love; and the play of domination and comfort that Mary Ellen Pleasant, a wealthy black abolitionist, enacts in 19th-century San Francisco. These Ezili draw out pleasures from topping white men and women and playing with the relationship between blackness and filth — even if this power inversion is momentary.
Lasirenn, “Ezili of the waters,” is tied to altered consciousness, addiction, and expansive loving: “what if black women just need oceans of loving — from parents, friends, coworkers, selves, women, men — in order to unlock all of who we are, and some of that loving comes to us through sex?” (155). Whitney Houston, who swam extensively but also drowned, sings the historical note; the rapper Azealia Banks and her Mermaid Balls hold down the spiritual; and Sharon Bridgforth’s dat Black Mermaid Man Lady (2018; first workshopped in 2013) is the [End Page 177] scholarly anchor. This is about trying to survive amidst much marginality: “So this, finally, this is how you learn to breathe underwater when you’re black and queer. You let yourself fall under the sea [...] You reach for ancestors around you and ask how to make a workable present out of a painful past [...] You come...