featured gallery for April 2017

outsider blackness

Outsider Blackness is something I’ve really only been able to ground in a sense of dissonance, a shorthand for the complexity of black queer subjectivity I still struggle to articulate. It’s a nod to the difficulty of wrestling with this topic, an acknowledgment of the discomfort I feel—however vague—even as I write this. It grapples with Du Bois’s double-consciousness and adds an additional layer: it describes an awareness of both the damaging influence of whiteness and a separation from notions of blackness that are meant to be liberatory. In this regard, blackness is queer -- as in, blackness exists outside of normative social structures. It’s an aesthetic characterized by this doubled-doubleness, a repetition that becomes inversion: the othered other, marginalized at the margins.An awareness of the ways whiteness shapes, limits, and oppresses, but also finding oneself outside the limits of a blackness constructed solely in opposition to white fabrication/misrepresentation.

In Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era, Francesca Royster speaks to this sense of outsider-ness:

“What happens after the basic needs of family and community are met? What if the clothing of unity is too tight? … where might blackness not only uplift us or feed our souls, but sometimes fail us, erasing our desires or constraining the ways we move in the world as sexual and sensual beings? If black is beautiful, do we squelch the fact that we feel awkward in these bodies, even among each other? Black as it is not necessarily beautiful is another truth of our lives that we need to tell, how it feels to dwell in the spaces outside of the known, beautiful, and loved, where the air gets thinner, giddier, stranger. This is a space of evolution, shifting, becoming … this body not just beautiful but beat, ashy, stinky, too big, too femme or butch, otherwise found wanting.“

Blackness and queerness are identities rooted in debasement—as a result, narratives of uplift and empowerment are often foregrounded in their respective movements for liberation. I understand the necessity of those messages, but as a queer black person I’m also aware of the ways subjectivities that exist outside of them can be overlooked. My undergraduate research has been an exploration of these undesirable subjectivities: I want to open up our understanding of what it means to be black and queer to create space for expressions that seem inappropriate or inadequate. How does one negotiate a non-normative inhabiting of identities that are already deemed abnormal? What would it mean to abandon a rhetoric of pride when thinking through black and queer identities? How do black queer subjects embrace unbelonging?

Outsider Blackness is an aesthetic that describes what I’ve observed in looking through a variety of texts—poetry, first-person essays, images, film, compositions—rather than a theory to read them through. I’ve identified desire, debasement, and disidentification as three central principles of this aesthetic, umbrella terms that encompass more specific ideas I’m interested in: ambivalence, alienation, shame, objectification, the vulgar, the abject, the feminine, and so on.

This gallery is an exploration of these ideas within the Visual AIDS archive, and an attempt to consider presentation over interrogation. When selecting these images, the only criteria were that they be of or by a queer black body, taking into account the myriad ways that queerness can be interpreted. I’m working with concepts that aren’t legible—black and queer vulnerabilities, bodies that are ill, deceased, and or otherwise marginalized. This project values visibility over any attempt to make an argument or find wholeness in something that is fundamentally fractured.