Thursday, July 5, 2012

Black Pride: On Serena, Frank Ocean and Dichotomous Belonging

Days ago, I finished teaching my summer course. To celebrate, my dad came into town, Joan and I are going on a road trip, and I've been catching glimpses of the Women's quarter- and semi-finals at Wimbeldon. Every time I see Serena Williams on the court in hot pink shorts and pony-tailed extensions, I feel glorious, a part of something, proud, and vengeful. Yeah, vengeful, like "take it." "Take it all!"And that's what she looked like yesterday morning--literally she had on hot pink shorts <3--as I watched her beat Victoria Azarenka in two sets, taking her into the finals for the 7th time.

Like others, I've been watching Venus and Serena Williams play tennis since the late nineties and have felt included in a space where Blackness rarely is. I grew up watching tennis, during the Navratilova era, who my cousin, who is white, was obsessed with. She also played tennis and offered to teach me how to play when I was in junior high. I passed. Partly because I thought tennis was "gay," literally, but also because it wasn't Black. There were no Black women playing on the courts. No working class folks. No one who learned outside of a country club. The only Black player, Arthur Ashe, a man, had just revealed his HIV status, and later died of AIDS. That seemed to close the door on Blackness and tennis for the foreseeable future.

Until Venus came along. Tearing up the courts, carving out a space in a place where she: Black, woman, working class, Compton didn't belong. And even though she and Serena have not only been playing but winning/grand slamming, even, they are still treated as if they are in a space where they don't belong.  Their every move on and off the court scrutinized and duly noted. Serena is often cast as the "nice," more humble one who offers up praise for her opponents. Venus is aloof, quiet, adamant that "she" only beats herself, no one else. And though Serena is being praised today for making it to her 7th Wimbledon final, many are watching, waiting for her to "unleash her wrath" (as the ABC News headline read about her argument with a U.S. Open official last year) on linesmen, officials, spectators, whoever.

Somewhere she doesn't belong. Similar to gays in hip-hop, it appears.

I don't listen to Frank Ocean and don't really know his music, but reading about his first love with a man, which he revealed, fittingly, on Independence Day, didn't fill me with "pride" in the same way that watching Serena hit ace after ace after ace does. Don't get me wrong, I was touched by his story. It was poignant, to the point, and very sweet. I think. Because I don't always "trust" gay + celebrity (Hello, Nicki Minaj), I was kind of expecting him to turn around and say it was joke. Like Kanye's t-shirt.

But he hasn't and, given his status in the R&B and hip-hop communities, that takes a lot of courage. I will give him that, for reals. Courage. Thank you. But I don't know that it's "revolutionary," a "game changer,"or "leading the way" for Black queers in and outside of hip-hop. A beautiful testament to first loves? Indeed. Yes! And yay for first loves, even (and maybe especially) when you're rejected. But, is that all it takes these days is for Black people to come out and somehow liberation is achieved? Does that, as Russell Simmons tweeted, reach the lost souls in the Midwest and Brooklyn who "need his leadership?" I don't think that's going to change the lives of that Black boy in Kansas City who swishes just a little too much to pass or his female best friend who is a little 'too hard.'Not that this isn't a good thing or that folks don't struggle. But, visibility = leadership = revolution doesn't compute for me. Let's not forget that just last month, Queen Latifah, days after she performed at Long Beach pride, "denied" that her presence there meant she was gay. Declaring that she will never disclose her personal life in public. And that's fine, I don't think she has to, but where does that fit into the spectrum of celebration? It takes guts, I guess, to come out in hip-hop. But, placing so much emphasis on this one act from one person reinforces the either/or dichotomy of Blackness and queerness. Or, hip-hop and queerness, which has not always been separate, as Davey D reminds us. Maybe we should ask Juba Kalamka, Tim'm West, DJ Invincible, Hanifah Walidah, Katastrophe, Staceyann Chin, and the countless others who came to hip-hop as out, queer artists. For whom it was never separate. Not to mention that equating coming out with social change reinforces (a la J. Butler) that in order for that story to work there has to be someone who stays in the closet, always. That's the only way it works.

So, I applaud Frank Ocean, a man I never listen to, for relaying such a sweet story about first love to the world. It just so happens that this story is not where my pride lies this week.



Pablo Vicente Lara said...

Another great essay! I am loving your blog and share it widely. Seems like you will have a book in the making! xoxoxo

Orville said...

I agree that Frank Ocean decision to declare his first love was a man is not going to change the world. However, I think Ocean is brave and let's face it is nice to see a black person come out. Frank coming out can help other black people to have a dialogue in our community about queerness. I do see the other side of the coin though that people might be expecting too much from one person. In black music queer artists tend to be marginalized. I hope the hip hop industry supports Frank. As for Queen Latifah she has her reasons for staying in the closet. I think Queen Latifah feels she would encounter a backlash by coming out.

queeeblackfeminist said...

Thank you so much, Pablo Lara! I appreciate your words.