- Happy Jackie Washington DayBlack Queer Studies in Retrospect
Visions of black liberation which exclude lesbians and gay men bore and repel me.—Cheryle Clarke, “The Failure to Transform Homophobia in the Black Community”
We wanted to quare queer, throw shade on its meanings.—E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, “Introduction” to Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology
The “black queer” is entrapped in this methodological quagmire. This is the dreaded condition of the black queer . . .—Calvin Warren, Onticide: Afropessimism, Queer Theory, & Ethics
Let me tell you how Hollywood works. They let one black woman slide through per decade.—Jackie Washington
Like much of the significant work produced in Black queer studies, if you have read Black feminist theory, Black writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians, you will appreciate and get why the above epigraphs might be significant to a Black queer studies retrospective. However, if like some classes and books [End Page 10] on white queer studies and Black Studies, you do not engage what is Black, feminist, lesbian, and queer, even when it is not marginal (see white appropriation studies), then you won’t understand. When the field of Black queer studies has been impactful, radical, and innovative, it has been because it incorporates the tired-of-bullshit tone and radical political stance of Black lesbian feminism expressed by poet Cheryl Clarke alongside the artistic performative balance between self-love and egomania as devised by Robert Townsend and Jenifer Lewis in their fictional cinematic collaboration—Jackie’s Back! (1999). The movie, a mockumentary made for Lifetime Television, has become a cult classic. Long before the “serious” and low-budget biopics the Lifetime network has become known for making, and far better in many respects, Jackie’s Back! combined Townsend’s directorial flair for camp dragedy, as seen in his other films Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, B.A.P.S., and Holiday Heart. The film encompasses the high physical comedy and stellar presence of the self-proclaimed Mother of Hollywood, Jenifer Lewis. Lewis cerebrally portrays the story of Jackie Washington, a washed-up R&B diva attempting a career comeback being documented by a white British filmmaker. Along with hilarious celebrity cameos, the film contains short musical gems mocking the best of Black performances in music genres: “Yield, Yield, Yield” (Motown pop); “Love Goddess” (Disco); “Cocoa’s Theme” (Blaxploitation soundtrack); “Take Your Jerri Curl and Go” and “Tore Up From the Floor Up” (Blues/juke); and “Look at Me” (over-the-top ballad). Many of the songs serve what scholar E. Patrick Johnson might note as quare critical commentary on Black popular culture and economic politics: exploitative relationships between child stars and mentors, Black hair issues, Black women’s sexuality, cultural appropriation, and white consumerism. I begin my contribution to this retrospective through an appraisal of Jackie’s Back! to signal the importance of refusal, underestimation, and ego in Black queer studies and Black queer culture. The film symbolically embodies the past, present, and future of Black queer studies, and I use its narrative as inspiration for my commentary.
A Fiction of Our Own Making
For some time now, fans of Jackie’s Back! have bombarded the internet with “Happy Jackie Washington Day” tweets, memes, and videos on July 15 to commemorate and celebrate the significance of the fictional holiday created in 1984 in Kinloch, Missouri, to celebrate the music and influence of Jackie Washington. In deeming the fictional holiday worth such effort, Black queer culture insists upon its own value systems and beliefs. So, too, does Black queer studies. Black queer studies may not have made it possible for all the blacks, anonymous and famous, rumored to be LGBTQ to come out, but it has certainly allowed a freedom to be black and queer in ways that do not [End Page 11] conform to closeted white LGBT identity politics or colonial regimes of gender. It has highlighted bridges between the intellectual, spiritual, political, cultural, and sexual. It has evolved as a mode of knowledge production committed to the creative, imaginative, speculative, and aesthete in building transformative coalitional politics. In short, it has made and unmade...