Water is another country.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return
At first, the sound of water.
A face plunges into ice.
my mouth be a reminder,
how saltwater suppose to stop the tongue from swelling.
how teeth be bones too
how my voice sounds of a needed haunting
—Jayy Dodd, “Eloquent,” in Mannish Tongues
Disquiet: What is it about Moonlight’s depiction of black boy vulnerability—black boy pain, black boy suffering, and the very rare moments of black boy joy—that has made it so amenable to some viewers?
Before I saw the film, I saw all the acclaim that Mahershala Ali was receiving for his work in the film. He is tender. He is loving. He is accepting, especially when he tries, clumsily, to explain the difference between “faggot” and “gay.” Learning from Christina Sharpe and John Keene and Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill and Gloria Naylor and Randall Keenan and Marvin White and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, I am unsurprised by this care between a man and a boy. I am unsettled by the acclaim this “ordinary note of care” has received.
And then, there are Little’s silences.
Because so many have insisted on teaching us, we are now learning how to see and celebrate and think with #blackboyjoy. What are we to do with #blackboysilence?
The words “moving” and “lyrical” have been used many times to describe Moonlight’s silences. The sound of the world as it moves—the surf that always returns. Residence time. I think of Audre Lorde, asking, “What are the words you do not yet have?” Yet, I think, that is a misreading. It is unnecessary to populate Little’s silences. They are unsettling.
What does his gaze want? What do his silences want?
If this body is a boy & all boys know death
& death bodies Black:
Then this body knows how boys die.
—Jayy Dodd, “Black Philosophy # 3,” Mannish Tongues
Ashon Crawley wrote a wonderful piece about what it means to be young—to be a teenager—and to desire touch.2 Sharon Holland writes, “Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but.”3 Some young queers want sex, as Samuel Delany’s Hogg teaches. Others want touch that acknowledges their erotic desires: “you do, in fact, have these desires—you can exist in the world with these desires.” As I read Ashon, I thought that it is easier to discuss Chiron’s desire than it is to think about Little as desiring.
Perhaps what’s difficult about discussing Little as gay—discussing why the label faggot is applied to him—is that we see little of the gender transgression we associate with young children being called gay/faggot/queer/funny/strange. Unlike in Empire, there is no scene of Little dressing in his mother’s clothing. He does not play with dolls. His wrist is distinctly not limp. He reads as quiet. Too quiet. Shy. Too shy. Though I’m not sure if shy is the word. I want to resist diagnosing silence. Even as I’m convinced silence wants something.
Because Moonlight is so elliptical, it’s difficult to tell what makes Chiron’s classmates—and bullies—mark him as gay. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage masculinity. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage desire. Perhaps it’s something about his gazes and his silences. Perhaps—and this is terrifying to contemplate—it’s his loneliness. Darius Bost teaches me to think about black gay loneliness, about what often subtends and escapes declarations about community and kinship.
Perhaps it’s vulnerability. That softness that bullies seem to scent. That softness that gender policing notices. That softness that so many of us hide behind things we call wit or reading or shade or meanness. (How easily we bruise and callus.)
By the time we meet Chiron, in the second act, he is already wary. The quiet Little is now wary. His downward glances—he’s always looking down—designed to ward off attention. Kevin sees him. Kevin names him Black. Kevin explains why he names Chiron Black—a nickname, a move to recognize him, to touch him.
I need Sharon Holland:
Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but. Both physical and psychic, touch is an act that can embody multiple, conflicting agendas. . . . In fact, the touch can alter the very idea as well as the actuality of relationships, morphing friends into enemies and strangers into intimates. For touch can encompass empathy as well as violation, passivity as well as active aggression. It can be safely dangerous, or dangerously safe.4
I needed Holland—I needed the break—because it’s difficult to think about what happens to the touch between Chiron and Kevin, as they move from the beach, to the car, to the school.
Each movement depicts Chiron’s body opening itself more to Kevin’s: from sitting down hunched over at the beach, during the jerk-off, to Chiron’s more open posture as he sits in the car and as he leaves the car, smiling, to Chiron standing, fully open to Kevin’s punches.
In the final shot, before the final punch, when Chiron is fully erect—I don’t have the stomach to use a screenshot—Chiron is fully closed off. I wonder about the work of surviving that encounter—the work of experiencing the hand that grants recognition and generates pleasure turn into the hand that causes pain. Does Chiron know—can he know?—that Kevin is also fighting for his own survival? Is that a too-generous interpretation of Kevin’s actions? Of the care—the ordinary care—that says, “Stay down, Chiron”? Is it that care—the promise of that care—that allows Chiron to drive from Atlanta to Miami in the third section of the film?
Black is stasis and return, a name offered as a promise of care, reclaimed by the film as Chiron, now grown, but arrested, returns to the promise of that care. Black, John Murillo III, writes, is untime. Untimely. By arrest, I gesture to the school-to-prison pipeline dramatized by the film, and to the psychic-physical arrest the adult Chiron confesses: “no one else has touched me.”
We know enough—too much, perhaps—about sexual violence in prisons to question Chiron’s confession. Touch—physical and psychic, what makes and unmakes us. We would like—I would like—to believe that he was safe from sexual violence while locked up. If we want that fantasy—if I want it, and I do—Moonlight offers it. It is an ellipses that allows us to fantasize about something that might be called “the one” or “monogamy” or “true love” or “soul mate.” If I fail to punctuate that ellipses, I will not leave it unmarked. We might ask what it means to touch and to be touched—but not by ignoring the quotidian violence that accompanies vulnerable boy-men who are locked up.
Kevin is the only one who calls Chiron Black, as far as I remember. If others use it, it is not with the, at first, benign friendship and, later, tender care. (I don’t have the stomach to see what Kevin calls Chiron while punching him—I think it is Chiron, not Black. If so, Black remains locked away, an intimate term. A term that touches.)
I like that Little grows into Black, the idea of Black as what can be grown into, claimed with tenderness, with and by an ordinary note of care.
Are Black’s silences Chiron’s silences? Are they Little’s silences?
Because Darius Bost has taught me how to think about loneliness and because Samuel Delany has taught me to think about black gay sociality and because Marlon Riggs taught me to think about finding black gay community and because James Earl Hardy wrote a series of books on black gay friendship and because there are now multiple YouTube videos of drag balls and because Noah’s Arc exists, I wonder about the couple form at the end of the film. I offer this not as a point of critique—though how can it not be?—but as something that is sitting in me, on me, with me, about the impossibility of black gay sociality in homonormative times.
I wonder if black gay loneliness and the private black gay couple are objects of desire. I think of how James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin circulate, not as gay men who loved and desired—it matters who you love, Essex Hemphill says—but as deracinated, free from anything that might be called gay sociality, so that we need never think about them inhabiting and creating gay worlds and enjoying gay worlds.
What kind of object is black gay loneliness? Who desires it? Why?
We are returned to the water. Residence time.
We are returned to the water and, through it, to a man named Juan from Cuba. We are returned to the water and, through it, to black boys looking out over the water, seeking something that might be called freedom.
1. “What happened to the bodies? . . . They were eaten, organisms processed them, and those organisms were in turn eaten and processed, and the cycle continues. . . .The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter and the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty and sodium . . . has a residence time of 55 million years.” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake) ↩
2. “Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks)↩
3. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism. ↩
4. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism. ↩