by Guest Writer Amrit Justin Trewn
One Saturday night a few winters ago, when I was an impressionable undergraduate student at Northwestern University, a black pre-professional student group hosted a function at an off-campus house. Aside from being a fundraiser, the party was for those of us who were unable to craft a good enough argument as to why we should torture ourselves by participating in the university's Dance Marathon (DM). The party was titled “DJuke Marathon” and in the description it read, “The D is silent,” which tickled me because that line was one of only a few from Django Unchained which made me genuinely laugh and not chuckle out of extreme discomfort from watching an otherwise bankrupt film.
I hung out with one of my closest buddies in his room for the majority of the event, sipped on some Jameson Irish Whiskey and coke, all the while enjoying musical reinterpretations like Kaytranada’s remix of Beyonce’s “Party” featuring Andre 3000. When we finally ventured downstairs into the party, we had a pleasurable time: the crowd was energizing without producing claustrophobia, and I was surrounded by good people— many of whom I then considered my comrades in the struggle of being black at a PWI— djuking to contemporary booty house music (the d is silent).
Getting loose on the dance floor was a cathartic experience, helping me escape momentarily the confinements of depression, until I heard a familiar voice around me shout with the sharpness of a carving knife, “N****, you GAY!”
I recall, at that moment, feeling the walls close in on me as I looked for another facial expression of nauseating disorientation to verify my experience. The generality of the declaration triggered a forceful sense of paranoia that visits me like a nicotine addiction. My friend and I caught each other's desperate and vulnerable eyes after trying to apprehend our surroundings. Disillusioned and suddenly out-of-place, we looked around in unison without sharing words to see if anyone else was taken back. It seemed like we were the only ones, as this young man and his crew carried on merrily: all I could see were smiles, all I could hear was laughter, all I could smell was the collective odor of our gyrating and footworking bodies. Yet, we stood frozen. We had just heard an epithet which socially polices how bodies should act, an epithet which marks out the queer as uncool, unacceptable, and unwelcomed. And the party kept bumping as if we had not just witnessed violence.
Blackness and Queerness: Familiar Histories of Surveillance
As a person who tends to identify as a queer black man, I've spent much time trying to understand how my nominally different identities are threaded together to produce a field of entanglement like the curly, kinky, puffy hair I wake up to each morning. In my limited field of experience as a 23-year-old, particular familial and personal experiences incessantly resurface as painful revelations. When my father “fresh off the boat” from India arrived in the US, he did the "unimaginable": he married a black woman. It was only when I was a young adult that I learned that my father’s parents were appalled when they first met their son’s fiancée and child out of wedlock, and desperately urged him to leave her because of "cultural difference," because she was black.
Being the light skinned child among three sons, I was often the object of racial projections. When I was in Kindergarten, one brother was disgusted when a cashier commented on how "cute" my mother's "twins" were at the market. Outraged by the assumption, my brother quickly corrected her, "Lady, are you blind? He's nearly white!" This teasing continued into first grade when I attended an all-Black Catholic school in the city of Detroit and was teased for looking white and wearing a long ponytail, which the school eventually forced me to cut off for "religious reasons." By middle school, I was a nationally ranked gymnast, but that did not excuse me from personal attacks. I was a "faggot" "A-Rab" "terrorist" at school in an affluent, white Detroit suburb, and the "bronze child" at a predominantly white training center.
Blackness and queerness, though, are no strangers. Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton, as early as 1970, publically declared activists struggling for women's liberation and gay liberation potential allies to the Black Power Movement. However, the historical connection stretches back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade when the African was displaced as captive into the "New World." Positioned as chattel slaves and racially differentiated not-quite-humans, blacks did not fit into the normative gender/sex configuration. We are periodically reminded of this each time a report surfaces on the "crisis of the black family," such as the 1965 Moynihan Report, which often blame structural racial inequalities on the inability of black men and women to be respectable fathers and mothers. The heart of the "gender/race" matter lies in a series of provocative questions posed by early abolitionists. Josiah Wedgwood, a prominent late-eighteenth century abolitionist, popularized the "Am I Not a Man And a Brother?" medallion. By 1851, the free anti-slavery speaker Sojourner Truth, born into slavery, would read her speech "Ain't I a Woman?" at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio. As Sylvia Wynter, my theorist of choice on the subject of humanism, explains: to be someone is to know what it is like to be that someone. Being black may be, at the very least, like being queer in American society.
These abundant and at times conflicting stories and thoughts revealed to me that normative society scrutinizes crucial aspects of my identity as unhealthy, repulsive, and wrong. And the abnormality of my desires and passions and fashions, so it seems, is explained by my being a diseased person: because I'm black, because I'm queer, because I'm Indian. From the eyes of contemporary American society— though it certainly neither begins nor ends 'here'— I am, in a word, pathological. To be black, to be queer, to be Indian is to be subject to varying forms of surveillance, to be suspect, and to be not-quite-human; it is to be a public health threat demanding sustained efforts towards suppression, containment, and treatment.
Dying Black and Queer: A Look at Pathology
Pathology is a major field in modern medicine and diagnosis that, contrary to physiology which is the scientific study of normal functions in living systems, centers around diseases and states of imbalance. Etymologically from the Ancient Greek roots of pathos, meaning "experience" or "suffering", and -logia or "an account of," pathology offers accounts of suffering-experiences. An "account" is similar to an explanation, reason, or cause of a problem. In popular usage, we encounter it in phrases such as "on their account" and "to call to account," where the former indicates a qualified pass of judgment and the latter gestures towards that which carries blame ("to be held accountable"). Historically, subfields of pathology have been intimately involved in practices that judge abnormal bodies and behaviors as diseased in order to authorize specialized operations, alongside broader dehumanizing projects, that target "deviant" communities. To notice the collaboration between the medico-scientific institutions and systemic marginalization, one need look no further than the pathologization of homosexuality during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the current racialized prison-industrial complex development alongside the "War on Drugs" set in motion by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
The point is this: American society was not built for us to live in. From cis-heternormative Greek community activities on college campuses to militarized police forces terrorizing and brutalizing blacks across the country, many public and private spaces are designed to determine where certain bodies can enter under what conditions, the terms of their belonging, how they can move and when, and who is forbidden entrance. Queer black poet Audre Lorde nails it in "A Litany for Survival" where she writes, "we were never meant to survive." White supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchal spaces were not made for us to thrive in; they are containers built with murderous intentions.
We— the black, the queer, the Indian, the creative— are diseased public health concerns and, as such, threats to an American society that wishes to purge itself of its lifeblood through discipline, control, operation, and extermination. How do we take care of ourselves in the midst of such dehumanizing practices? What is self-care in a place where resources are hard to find, if not withheld from us?
Sensual Acuity: Resisting Depathologization
To address such questions and unmet needs of vulnerable communities, social movements have often turned towards the state and made claims for redress, reform, and representation. When it comes to LGBTQ+ and black communities, one facet of the sociopolitical agenda tends to entail the depathologization of a group of individuals. However, we must resist such a project because when society depathologizes a subject position or identity, it tends to come at a cost of pathologizing another. Consider Roland Emmerich's recently released film Stonewall. The movie whitewashed the watershed moment in LGBT history by subduing and marginalizing transgender, black, and Latin@ participants. In a critical review published by The Daily Beast, Tim Teeman writes, "Nothing surprises you about Stonewall: oh wait, a villainous, abusive, obese transvestite in a red satin dress, with jowls that almost hit the floor, surprises you. Like a lot of people in the movie he wants to use and abuse Danny, our hero." Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that the film's depathologization of its protagonist— pretty white boy Danny— comes through a politics of respectability vis-a-vis shaming and pathologizing another vulnerable individual.
We— the Pathological— are okay as we are. I'm not suggesting that we have erred in seeking to rid society of certain stigmas. I, too, push for a society in which we can go about our lives without being harassed, abused, watched, or ignored out of disgust. We just don't need a film or media campaign or politician to tell us that we are normal, healthy, and stable. The fact remains that we live in a truly pathological society wherein humanity comes as a discriminating interrogation. Blacks and trans-women of color continue to be murdered without any recourse to justice while reports estimate up to 40% of homeless youth in the US identify as LGBTQ (though only composing 5-10% of the demographic), and the other indicators of inhumanity in our society seem uncountably infinite.
I hope others join us— the Pathological— in refusing discourses that represent bodies and identities as "healthy" only to silence the bloody exhausting facts that living in a white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchal society can in no ways ever be "healthy." We are dis-eased, and our being dis-eased is the sensual gateway to our radical imaginings of another world. Us being born is not the problem; us being born into this world is. Until then, we'll be getting funky on the down-low.