transmission

We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?

– Audre Lorde

I was reminded of how vulnerable we are as gay men, as black gay men, to the disposal or erasure of our lives.

– Melvin Dixon

Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies is out of print. As is Assotto Saint’s Stations. Until recently, James Earl Hardy’s B-Boys Blues was out of print. As was In the Life, edited by Joseph Beam, and Brother to Brother, started by Beam and completed by Hemphill. Much thanks to Lisa Moore and Redbone Press for making In the Life and Brother to Brother newly available. Milking Black Bull is out of print. Melvin Dixon’s Change of Territories and Vanishing Acts are out of print. I name, here, a small cluster of black gay works that I bought in the 1990s. They were my window into what it meant to be black and gay, an immigrant (Assotto Saint), a scholar (Melvin Dixon), an activist (Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill), a visionary (James Earl Hardy), and a writer.

These works provided maps: I was new to the U.S., unfamiliar with many bodily and social vernaculars, new to being gay in the U.S., unsure of how to navigate spaces full of anxiety and desire. My homosexual vocabularies were sin and disease, and I had much to unlearn. Although the geo-histories explored in these works were distant – I was not in Philadelphia or New York or San Francisco or Atlanta, and my blood and feelings were made and trained in Nairobi – looking at them taught me something about map-making, how to recognize the monstrous, how to inhabit the libidinal, how to navigate in strange waters, how to survive while learning how to swim.

We are missing words and insights from those who died because of cancer and AIDS and prolonged psychic assault and shame and silence. We are missing the words discovered and destroyed by friends and family members and the state. We are missing maps of how we can be, what we can aspire to.

We pick up fragments – Baldwin, Lorde, Moraga, Hemphill – aware that each one represents many thousands who were damaged, erased. And in this gap-fracture-loss, we emerge as those who can learn from ourselves, from our time, from our experiences. This becomes a habit: a way of unhearing and unlearning, a way of asserting being, of trying to be, of trying to survive.

What does this constant map-making of speaking truth and performing experience do?

A few years ago, a young man asked me how he could find himself in the archives he was examining. And I said, you can’t. I was not trying to be cruel. I was saying something about queer living as constant invention: to be here:now is not to be there:then.

We are always (in) this lag.

Patriarchy and heteronormativity wield active scissors, cutting the threads that vibrate across then and now, the map-making threads that show us others have navigated in treacherous waters. Threads are cut in institutional and normative ways: what will not be taught in classes, what will not be taught in activist spaces, what will not be studied, what will not be known, what we do not know how to hear, how we do not know how to listen.

We work through snags and snarls, trying to repair multi-temporalities so that we might be possible, the we of the repairing and the repair and the irreparable.

*

Transmission lingers as a faint memory: my dissertation advisor gave it to me, though I do not recall the context. “Perhaps,” she said, “you are thinking about transmission.”

*

What does transmission offer that “memory” and “history” do not?

Faint shimmers of tone and timbre, of eyes shut and downcast, of brows knotted and creased, of pauses and gaps, of hands restless and still, of scaly and silky skin.

Geo-histories differ too much for tracks to be followed. Instead, the sense that something called a life can be shaped, perhaps even celebrated.

*

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life?
– Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate”

I allow myself to dream of roses
though I know
the bloody war continues.
– Essex Hemphill, “Heavy Breathing”

*

The Club in Pittsburgh used to end the night with Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” As the lights flickered, moving from dance-dim to going-home-bright, Donna Summer’s voice moved across time, from the late 70s when newly liberated gays danced their freedom, to the mid-80s when newly frightened gays grabbed ecstasy during the plague, to the mid-90s when still-mourning survivors encountered the un-mourning young whose bodies provided a way to forget.

“Last Dance” remains in my bones, a sound across generations, still playing, somewhere.

*

(every place has a Club)

*

What moves across us, between us, for us, as us, beyond us –

What moves us –

*

what I have shaped into
a kind of life?
– Lucille Clifton

*

A simple claim: the queer studies I am most drawn to insists that it is possible to shape “a kind of life.” And, with Lucille Clifton, invites us to celebrate that possibility.

How is the possibility of shaping “a kind of life” transmitted?

What kinds of lives can be shaped? How does shaping happen?

*

Primary and high school taught geography-as-administration: the names of administrative units administered by government administrators. The names of tourist sites. The names of cash crops. The names of administered populations. Histories of colonial administration adapted for post-independence tyranny.

We learned the histories that transformed Lake Rudolph into Lake Turkana without learning the histories that kept Lake Victoria as a shared name across borders. The brutal suture of empire and commonwealth.

Katherine McKittrick teaches me to ask how black people generate geographies and ungeographies, how we become geographic and ungeographic, incorporated and erased, present and unseen. She asks me how black women become geography and ungeography, marked in and as landscapes and waterways and highways and byways and noways, still making ways.

The maps I could not memorize taught me how to recognize place as administered negation.

*

(to make a kind of life in administered negation – there is more, but this is here:now, now:here

*

there is more

*

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.
– Essex Hemphill

*

won’t you celebrate with me
– Lucille Clifton

*

If one of these thick-lipped,
wet, black nights
while I’m out walking,
I find freedom in this village.
If I can take it with my tribe
I’ll bring you here.
– Essex Hemphill

*

“I’ll bring you here.”
– Essex Hemphill

“I’ll take you there”
– Mavis Staples

*

there is more

*

appetite speaks

the endless appetite of the child in Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard, so endless it must be destroyed

perhaps the word for desire is appetite, perhaps the word for imagination is appetite, perhaps we should not be afraid to eat our feelings

*

“This kind of war frightens me.”
– Essex Hemphill

*

)

*

“I want impractical relationships.”
– Essex Hemphill

*

Repressive power disrupts transmission: it scrambles signals, cuts threads, disperses smoke signals, distorts drum talk, defaces art, blackouts and whiteouts letters, brutalizes history and memory, shouts over murmurs and whispers, dismisses fantasy, erases the something and somewhere, insists nothing is there, unmakes invention, destroys shaping, captures dreams, disciplines imaginations, polices celebration.

snags and snarls and knots and unknotting and weaving and unweaving

threads:filaments

The Moirai or Fates were three sister deities, incarnations of destiny and life. Their names were Clotho, the one who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, she who draws the lots and determines how long one lives, by measuring the thread of life; and Atropos, the inevitable, she who chose how someone dies by cutting the thread of life with her shears.

(what can be recovered when the tools are tainted?

is taint what distinguishes recovery from transmission?)

*

survival stories

The speculative fiction I read – whether it terms itself history, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, history of science, or *.* studies – tells me that administrators generate records. Consider, if you will, the Bene Gesserit and their endless genealogical records. Consider the multiple religious orders across countless worlds that administer and record. Consider our own surveillance world and the endless data that is collected about how we live and work and play and love and suffer and celebrate and survive and die.

(records are not the enemy, but we cannot trust they hold what we need, we who are needy)

We – we who are needy – have not yet absorbed Audre Lorde’s lesson about the master’s tools.

A friend studying women’s poetry tells me that we do not know how to read this work: the methods developed by a patriarchal academy do not simply devalue women’s poetry; they make it unreadable. To read this poetry requires rediscovering the methods women developed, their maps and dreams

(what convinced us that such guides could not exist, that dreamwork could not survive devastation)

Audre Lorde warns against “distortion.” I think of the clarity of what resonates and the distortion that demands “more complexity,” “more nuance,” “more sophistication,” “more legibility,” all the while devaluing the clarity of what resonates. Not simply minor frequencies. Altogether different frequencies.

(we breathe differently, hear differently)

you are reading something and your breath catches or is caught
what is it that catches and is caught
what is catching
who is catching

how does release happen and where does it begin and where does it pause and where does it continue and where does it end and does it end

a myth: a universe that is one long inhale
a myth: a universe that is one long exhale

you are wondering how thread-making and thread-measuring and thread-cutting myths dissolve into breath-making and breath-catching and breath-caught myths

*

Mouth wide. Drink this.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

No air. Breathe in.
Breathe in. No air.
– Melvin Dixon

*

Here, now, dreams have no limit.

– N.K. Jemisin

*

“the work”: to imagine beyond war and survival amidst devastation, as the devastated

to be a dream catcher

*

Says she was born free.
– Katherine McKittrick

Trust the lies.
– Katherine McKittrick

*

from something – the erotic as the promise of plenitude
find the edge, find the corner, dwell on the blindspot
read “between the lines”
read “subversively”
make the marginal central
nuance

some lies should not be trusted

*

(how were we convinced that the cleverness to follow crumbtrails should satisfy us?

Audre Lorde had told us differently)

*

Audre Lorde teaches:

use what is useful
invent what you need

something passes : between us

notes

transmission starts as a response: my Foucault-trained aversion to confession meets the “speaking my truth” insistence of a post-Foucault moment; the “speaking my truth” momentum refuses and craves transmission; “we-formations” fracture, but perhaps this is simply exhaustion

transmission takes shape as I am reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy

a friend asks how “taint” and “distortion” relate, and points out that distortion conjures sound; I reply that “taint” gets me body-erotics and contamination, while “distortion” gives me text; distortion is also one of Audre Lorde’s keywords, though I have yet to sit with it in her work

transmission: I have been reading Fred Moten and Robin James and Katherine McKittrick and Alex Weheliye and Ashon Crawley on sound(waves)

transmission: little of what we distill from the lives we have shaped may be useful to others

transmission: I try to shape a sentence that differentiates between the crumbs repressive power teaches us to crave – if we are clever enough to master patriarchy’s idioms – and the plenitude Audre Lorde calls the erotic – I fail