Borderland Bodies

March 19, 2008

A few weeks ago, I mentioned a conference I attended at Sarah Lawrence on Black Power, Black Feminism. I was asked to write a creative response to my experience at the conference –but I felt compelled to pull on some of my previous experiences and writings to elucidate the conditions of a particular interaction I had with a panelist:n34605179_31196365_610.jpg

I have been thinking about performance and politics. During the “Black Power, Black Feminism” conference at Sarah Lawrence, I strongly affected by a panel titled “I Am So Hip Even My Errors Are Correct!”: Women and the Black Arts Movement. During this panel, Takiyah Nur Amin, a dancer and Nikki Skies, a poet, dialogued with a genealogy of Black women artists throughout the twentieth century. The shear depth of these historical experiences provoked to start thinking differently about bodies and politics.

Takiyah Nur Amin stressed that during the Black Arts movement, dancers were not respected as a “serious” art in terms of social politics. Dance was perceived as frivolous apolitical action—and not a true art in light of the movement. As a direct result of this marginalization of dance as a venue for social transformation, Nur Amin argued that the radical accomplishments forged by black women choreographers have lingered in the shadows of our historical consciousness. In light of this egregious circumstance, Nur Amin remained confident that dance was by far one of the most politicized art forms during the movement, and also one of the most accessible considering that the only tool required is the body.

Considering the liberatory nature of the body as a tool for social movement, how are we to address the social complex that reproduces our bodies as prisons of false meaning. Something about me has transfixed me within boxes that continuously relegate me to the margins. I have made a conscious and concerted effort to understand these margins, or more aptly put, borderlands, that structure my positions as an interlocutor in spaces that have not been made for me.

Gender presentation and performance do not necessarily match up with political consciousness.

I understand bodies as being imprisoned not only by race, but also by our gender binary. We should begin with considering the condition of binaries. Within an oppositional binary system, two items are juxtaposed with each other in a hegemonic cold war. One item aims to surmount the other…and in turn gains social value while the other is subjected to the borderlands. This process is exclusive and does not consider the conditions of other objects that live within this system. This is why I cannot identify as male. In the gender binary, male is valued over female. I cannot agree with this system. I cannot perform in this system. I cannot support these binaries producing borderlands. Bodies are a site of power.

Do we not foreclose the possibilities for change if we continue to understand bodies as they mean, but not as they are?

In reserving my “male” body as a site for innate power, the privilege that is bestowed upon my body is not challenged—it is ignored. Change cannot occur if we do not address the salience of bodies and this cannot happen through ignoring the privileges scripted upon bodies to sanction the parameters of the ways that we perform gender and race. In the context of the conference, my racial identity was not regarded with any suspicion—
I was a brown body and this was enough to be accepted within a colored space. The overwhelming concern that underlined my experiences at the conference was my gender—my “male” body.

Takiyah Nur Amin provoked me to start thinking differently about bodies and politics, but I required a paradigm to concretize my assessment. I located the paradigm in a brief interaction preceding the panel with Flor*, a panelist and representative of the National Organization for Women. As a stood waiting in a queue of women waiting to collect literature, buttons, stickers and more importantly, sign up for a volunteer contact list, I engaged in a conversation with Angelica, a friend who accompanied me to the conference. As we both reached the front the queue and the desk, I attempted to greet Flor and question her about the contact list—I wanted to know if “men” could also participate as volunteers. This question was founded by previous situations during which I was not allowed to participate in feminist spaces because of my “gender”.

What is often misunderstood is that gender and sex do not necessarily correspond. But, to Flor, they certainly did and immediately warranted for me to be ignored in favor of speaking with Angelica, who is a brown mixed-race womyn. Even after Angelica attempted to intervene and redirect the conversation to address my question, I was continued to be ignored by Flor. Why was I ignored? Why was I placed on the margins of the conversation? Did Flor address Angelica directly and rebuff my attempts to ask a question because I was a “man.” Immediately after leaving the table, I remained stirred by the awkward interaction—and lack of acknowledgement.

I live each day learning to accept the salience of my privileges and actively transform this knowledge to avoid performing privilege.

Often privilege produced from our present hegemonic gender binary causes some men to practice a belief that it is their innate right to be acknowledged by women, simply because of their sex. The dismay to my lack of acknowledgement could easily be read as me performing my privilege—but this conclusion would be completely reductionist in lacking consideration of the conditions of my consciousness that propelled me to inquire about participating in a feminist space.

I began understanding the conditions of my marginalization with Flor after allowing Takiyah Nur Amin words started to dialogue with my experience. Her words spoke to a history of bodies and the fear represented by bodies in having the power to transgress their scripted meanings. Her words moved me to begin understanding bodies as a site for resistance. In recapitulating this specific experience as paradigmatic of the need for autonomy from hegemonic structures, how are we as scholars to engage in a critical intervention into histories of transgression and resistance? I am calling for an analysis that provokes us to seriously contemplate the historical salience of bodies that perform counter to their socially scripted meanings. Nur Amin directly engaged with a history of black woman chorographers—she connected with an epistemic genealogy. I want to connect with a genealogy of resistance to think in terms of communities of consciousness: where communities of difference unite to develop liberatory knowledges, but these knowledges can no longer be transfixed by the performative meanings scripted to our bodies. We must, as Chela Sandoval proposes: envision a democratization of oppression to engender an “identity politics…mapping across classes, sexualities, religions, nationalities, ethnicities” and bodies and borderlands. The borderlands are filled with knowledge and histories…but when will we finally open our minds to open the borderlands into conversation?

*I am not trying to calling anyone out directly, because most of us have been responsible for something similar to Flor’s actions, so to protect her privacy (and any chance of being contacted by this woman) I use Flor as a pseudonym.

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