Black Macho Revisited
Reflections of a SNAP! Queen
Marlon T. Riggs
NEGRO FAGGOTRY IS in fashion.
Turn on your television and camp queens greet you in living color.
Turn to cable and watch America’s most bankable modern minstrel expound on getting "fucked in the ass" or his fear of faggots.
Turn off the TV, turn on the radio: Rotund rapper Heavy D, the self-styled "overweight lover MC," expounds on how his rap will make you "happy like a faggot in jail." Perhaps to preempt questions about how he would know—you might wonder what kind of "lover" he truly is—Heavy D reassures us that he’s just "extremely intellectual, not bisexual."
Negro faggotry is in vogue. Madonna commodified it into a commercial hit. Mapplethorpe photographed it, and art galleries drew fire and record crowds in displaying it. Black macho movie characters dis’—or should we say dish?—their antagonists with unkind references to it. Indeed, references to, and representations of, Negro fag – gotry seem a rite of passage among contemporary black male rappers and filmmakers.
Snap-swish-and-dish divas have truly arrived, giving Beauty Shop drama at center stage, performing the read-and-snap two-step as they sashay across the movie screen, entertaining us in the castles of our homes—like court jesters, like eunuchs—with their double entendres and dead-end lusts, and, above all, their relentless hilarity in the face of relentless despair. Negro faggotry is the rage! Black gay men are not. For in the cinematic and television images of and from black America, as well as the lyrics and dialogue that now abound and seem to address my life as a black gay man, I am struck repeatedly by the determined, unreasoning, often irrational desire to discredit my claim to blackness and hence to black manhood.
Consequently, the terrain black gay men navigate in the quest for self and social identity is, to say the least, hostile. What disturbs, no, enrages me is not so much the obstacles set before me by whites, which history conditions me to expect, but the traps and pitfalls planted by my so-called brothers, who, because of the same history, should know better.
I am a Negro faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say of me. My life is game for play. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be black. A strong, proud, "Afrocentric" black man is resolutely heterosexual, not even bisexual. Hence, I remain a Negro. My sexual difference is considered of no value; indeed, it’s a testament to weakness, passivity, the absence of real guts—balls. Hence, I remain a sissy, punk, faggot. I cannot be a black gay man because, by the tenets of black macho, black gay man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro faggot. And, as such, I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped, and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night but by black American culture’s best and brightest.
In a community where the dozens, signifying, dis’ing, and dishing are revered as art form, I ask myself: What does this obsession with Negro faggotry signify? What is its significance?
What lies at the heart, I believe, of black America’s pervasive cultural homophobia is the desperate need for a convenient Other within the community, yet not truly of the community; an Other to which blame for the chronic identity crises afflicting the black male psyche can be readily displaced; an indispensable Other that functions as the lowest common denominator of the abject, the base line of transgression beyond which a Black Man is no longer a man, no longer black; an essential Other against which black men and boys maturing, struggling with self-doubt, anxiety, feelings of political, economic, social, and sexual inadequacy—even impotence—can always measure themselves and by comparison seem strong, adept, empowered, superior.
Indeed, the representation of Negro faggotry disturbingly parallels and reinforces America’s most entrenched racist constructions around African American identity. White icons of the past signifying "Blackness" share with contemporary icons of Negro faggotry a manifest dread of the deviant Other. Behind the Sambo and the SNAP! Queen lies a social psyche in torment, a fragile psyche threatened by deviation from its egocentric-ethnocentric construct of self and society. Such a psyche systematically defines the Other’s "deviance" by the essential characteristics that make the Other distinct, then invests those differences with intrinsic defect. Hence, blacks are inferior because they are not white. Black gays are unnatural because they are not straight. Majority representations of both affirm the view that blackness and gayness constitute a fundamental rupture in the order of things, that our very existence is an affront to nature and humanity.
For black gay men, this burden of (mis)representation is compounded. We are saddled by historic caricatures of the black male, now fused with newer notions of the Negro faggot. The resultant de – humanizaton is multilayered and profound.
What strikes me as most insidious and paradoxical is the degree to which popular African American depictions of us as black gay men so keenly resonate with American majority depictions of us as black people. Within the black gay community, for example, the SNAP! contains a multiplicity of coded meanings: as in—SNAP!— "Got your point" Or—SNAP!—"Don’t even try it." Or—SNAP! "You fierce!" Or—SNAP!—"Get out my face." Or—SNAP!—Girlfriend, pleeease." The snap can be as emotionally and politically charged as a clenched fist, can punctuate debate and dialogue like an exclamation point, a comma, an ellipse, or altogether negate the need for words among those who are adept at decoding its nuanced meanings.
But the particular appropriation of the snap by Hollywood’s Black Pack deflates the gesture into rank caricature. Instead of a symbol of communal expression and, at times, cultural defiance, the snap becomes part of a simplistically reductive Negro faggot identity; it functions as a mere signpost of effeminate, cute, comic homosexuality. Thus robbed of its full political and cultural dimension, the snap, in this appropriation, descends to stereotype.
Is this any different from the motives and consequences associated with the legendary white dramatist T. D. Rice, who more than 150 years ago appropriated the tattered clothes and dance style of an old crippled black man, then went on stage and imitated him, thus shaping in the popular American mind an indelible image of blacks as simplistic and poor, yet given, without exception, to "natural" rhythm and happy feet?
A family tree displaying dominant types in the cultural iconography of black men would show, I believe, an unmistakable line of descent from Sambo to the SNAP! Queen and, in parallel lineage, from the brute Negro to the AIDS-infected Black Homo-Con-Rapist.
What the members of this pantheon share in common is an extreme displacement and distortion of sexuality. In Sambo and the SNAP! Queen, sexuality is repressed, arrested. Laughter, levity, and a certain childlike disposition cement their mutual status as comic eunuchs. Their alter egos, the Brute Black and the Homo Con, are but psychosocial projections of an otherwise tamed sexuality run amuck—bestial, promiscuous, pathological.
Contemporary proponents of black macho thus converge with white supremacist D. W. Griffith in their cultural practice, deploying similar devices toward similarly dehumanizing ends. In its constructions of "unnatural" sexual aggression, Griffith’s infamous chase scene in Birth of a Nation, in which a lusting "Brute Negro" (a white actor in black face) chases a white Southern virgin to her death, displays a striking aesthetic kinship to the homophobic jail rape—or, should I say, attempted rape?—in Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s House Party.
The resonances go deeper. Pseudoscientific discourse fused with popular icons of race in late-nineteenth-century America to project a social fantasy of black men, not simply as sexual demons but, significantly, as intrinsically corrupt. Diseased, promiscuous, destructive— of self and others—our fundamental nature, it was widely assumed, would lead us to extinction.
Against this historical backdrop, consider the highly popular comedy routines of Eddie Murphy, which unite Negro faggotry, "Herpes Simplex 10"—and AIDS—into an indivisible modern icon of
sexual terrorism. Rap artists and music videos resonate with this perception, fomenting a social psychology that blames the victim for his degradation and death.
The sum total of prime-time fag pantomimes, camp queens as culture critics, and the proliferating bit-part swish-and-dish divas who, like the ubiquitous black maids and butlers in fifties Hollywood films, move along the edges of the frame, seldom at the center, manifests the persistent psychosocial impulse toward control, displacement, and marginalization of the black gay Other. This impulse, in many respects, is no different from the phobic, distorted projections that motivated blackface minstrelsy.
This is the irony: there are more black male filmmakers and rap artists than ever, yet their works display a persistently narrow, even monolithic, construction of black male identity.
"You have to understand something," explained Professor Griff of the controversial and highly popular rap group Public Enemy, in an interview. "In knowing and understanding black history, African history, there’s not a word in any African language which describes homosexual, y’understand what I’m saying? You would like to make them part of the community, but that’s something brand-new to black people."
And so black macho appropriates African history, or, rather, a deeply reductive, mythologized view of African history, to rationalize homophobia. Pseudoacademic claims of "Afrocentricity" have now become a popular invocation when black macho is pressed to defend its essentialist vision of the race. An inheritance from Black Cultural Nationalism of the late sixties, and Negritude before that, today’s Afrocentrism, as popularly theorized, premises an historical narrative that runs thus: before the white man came, African men were strong, noble, protectors, providers, and warriors for their families and tribes. In precolonial Africa, men were truly men, and women were women. Nobody was lesbian. Nobody was feminist. Nobody was gay.
This distortion of history, though severe, has its seductions. Given the increasingly besieged state of black men in America, and the nation’s historic subversion of an affirming black identity, it is no wonder that a community would turn to pre-Diasporan history for metaphors of empowerment. But the embrace of the African warrior ideal—strong, protective, impassive, patriarchal—has cost us. It has sent us down a perilous road of cultural and spiritual redemption and distorted or altogether deleted from the historical record the multiplicity of identities around color, gender, sexuality, and class that inform the African and the African American experience.
It is to me supremely revealing that in black macho’s popular appropriation of Malcolm X (in movies, music, rap videos), it is consistently Malcolm before Mecca—militant, macho, "by any means necessary" Malcolm—who is quoted and idolized, not Malcolm after Mecca, when he became more critical of himself and of exclusivist Nation of Islam tenets and embraced a broader, multicultural perspective on nationalist identity.
By the tenets of black macho, true masculinity admits little or no space for self-interrogation or multiple subjectivities around race. Black macho prescribes an inflexible ideal: strong black men—"Afro – centric" black men—don’t flinch, don’t weaken, don’t take blame or shit, take charge, step-to when challenged, and defend themselves without pause for self-doubt. Black macho counterpoises this warrior model of masculinity with the emasculated Other: the Other as punk, sissy, Negro faggot, a status with which any man, not just those who in fact are gay, can be and are branded should one deviate from rigidly prescribed codes of hypermasculine conduct.
"When I say Gamma, you say Fag. Gamma. Fag. Gamma. Fag." In the conflict between the frat boys and the "fellas" in Spike Lee’s School Daze, verbal fag bashing becomes the weapon of choice in the fellas’ contest for male domination. In this regard, Lee’s movie not only resonates with a poisonous dynamic in contemporary black male relations but, worse, it glorifies black male homophobia.
Spike Lee and others like him count on the complicit silence of those who know better, who know the truth of their own lives as well as the diverse truths that inform the total black experience.
Notice is served. Our silence has ended. SNAP!