Black Subjectivity as “Autocartography” in the Work of Lyle Ashton Harris

B. E. Myers

In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.

—Frantz Fanon

An artist must be free to choose what he does certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

—Langston Hughes1

How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?

—Toni Morrison2

AT A RECENT conference entitled "Finding Fanon," a nationalist – minded friend of mine asked me, "Don’t you find some conflict be­tween being black and your identity as a ‘gay’ man?" Despite the fact that his question was unoriginal, his inquiry did leave the residue of a real conceptual impasse: how does one admit to and then account for the fact that the various identities we claim are always contingent, never stable, and usually disabling if trusted too heartily? Later in the conference, a conversation ensued which helped frame my friend’s assertion that being black conflicted with being gay. Panelists and conference atten­dees discussed the moment of "the look" in Fanon—the moment in which a look from a stranger interpolates one not only as the object of a gaze but as "the other," as someone wholly different from the viewer. It is a moment of definition that Sartre, Fanon, and Althusser see as fundamental to their discourses on identity formation. But, for me, the moment of "the look" resonated as a site of intellectual con­testation and personal conflict, not as a moment of clarity and stabi­lized identity formation.

Frustrated by the proposed equation: powerful subject looks at ob­ject = powerful subject defines object as "other," I approached the micro­phone and posed a question that received only preliminary attention: "If I am a black, queer, nonsalaried graduate student/artist with a sense of humor, recently transplanted from Los Angeles to New York but originally from a matriarchal family in Memphis, how could it ever be determined that I am any of these things in particular and not all of them at once? How do I ever know whether ‘the look’ I receive from a passerby is because I am a threatening nigger, a fucking fag­got, a straight-up thug, or a bizarre artist? When I speak and evoke a slight frown from my company, is the frown I discern due to my southern accent? Was I being ‘too queeny’? Or do I sound ‘too white’?"

It is clear to me that contemporary discussions of "identity" and "identity politics" begin and end in a cauldron of confusion. This con­fusion manifests itself when those of us who are in earnest when we speak of "identity"—those of us who utilize the concept not as a way to mobilize myopic political fronts but as a way to speak about how it is bodies get inscribed with particular social meanings and hustled into certain economic positions—discuss our identities (as black, straight, queer, woman, etc.) as though they were securely rooted in something which the appellation "identity" helps elucidate. Whereas labels may be useful in mobilizing communities and advancing co­herent political positions, in the final analysis, the words themselves do not deliver us into anything beyond rigid conceptual cages. And when we find ourselves trapped in these cages is precisely when we realize we are indeed more than our label is capable of allowing us to be. We exceed our labels and leak into the messy alterity of the world we share.

This, then, raises the following intellectual challenge: how does one admit to and then account for the fact that the various identities we claim are always contingent, never stable and usually disabling if trusted too heart­ily? What I attempt to do here is to suggest an intellectual strategy by which we can account for such slippages or moments of destabilized being—those moments of indeterminacy in which no labels work be­cause the conceptual terrain upon which the labels are rooted shifts. I suggest that, given the inherent instability of meaning, generally, and identity specifically, it is necessary to create an active schematic of what motivates identities to arise and corrode, devising a way to chart how the events which manifest themselves in one’s life are re­lated to the various types of identities one may claim and jettison at any given time.

The central concern of this paper, then, is not with the moment of identity formation,3 nor with the mechanisms through which formed identities are stabilized and disseminated in culture,4 but rather with the tensions between stabilized and destabilized identity. I am con­cerned with slippages and moments of multiple identification wherein a situation, an utterance, or a look throws us out beyond our own border into an undetermined space: a luscious space laden with contingency and promise.

The question is, what is an "identity"? Identity itself is a problem in that we presume that we have "one." Even if we claim several identities, we do so one at a time because language—the very nature of adjective being—forces us to: "James Baldwin was a phenomenal black gay writer." But do we experience who we are sequentially? Are we simply made to feel black, female, or dispossessed when someone looks at us a certain way or when the rent is due? Aren’t I gay when the rent is due, too? Given that our identity is indeterminate at best, what exactly is at stake when we don’t simply speculate about it in an indeterminate way but seek instead to inscribe it in finalized forms like books or art objects? When writing or visualizing such products, what exactly coheres enough to manifest itself as insoluble, stable subject matter? If the self is a tentative entity, what falsifications are at stake when we pursue its crystallization, as opposed to charting out its manifestations and corrosions? How do language and vision corrupt, coerce, and cheat us into believing in final states? How are we ever stable enough for summation, and what do we do when our multiple summaries conflict or disturb?

I am concerned with how it is this problem of identity manifests itself in culture. Focusing on a piece of Lyle Ashton Harris’s early photographic work, I draw on the traditions of existentialist phenom­enology to suggest the esoteric nature of imagery, commenting spe­cifically on how Harris utilizes stillness, movement, ambiguity, and

Fixing the Faggot

Image courtesy of Jack Tilton Gallery, New York

urgency to evoke a collective strategy of liminality5 and freedom. Then I move into a discussion of how it is liminal play and enigmatic works generally might be understood as a practice of autocartography and how such artistic license helps elucidate the dilemma (or chal­lenge) of identity.