Our Shared Epistemology
From The New Inquiry:
Like a lot of black girls coming of age in the final years of the 20th century, I had an adolescent fascination with Prince. As an adult I recognize that this fascination was rooted in a certain kind of queerness that Prince embodied. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Prince’s sexuality—other than the fact that it was purple, and he wore it well—but I see now that my younger self recognized Prince wasn’t following the rules about gender that I was in the process of learning. I listened to the seven-plus minutes of “Erotic City” and marveled at what kind of place this might be, even if I didn’t really understand what erotic meant. I watched the sophistication of this petite, light-skinned man in his music videos strutting and spinning in block heels, bouncing pressed and curled black hair that boasted length and body, wearing lace and leather and silk and always, always purple. I didn’t identify with the svelte women in these videos who surrounded Prince, vying for his attention and receiving it coolly, but I did envy them. I don’t understand everything about Prince’s public reception or his gender and sexual identities. The special significance of Prince, for me, lay in recognizing that if he could take the trappings of femininity that seemed so familiar and wear them in a brand new way, then it was also possible for me to wear gender in more than one way. In other words, being femme could be an invention, not just a duty.
When Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol in 1993, he did it knowing that its unpronounceability would present a problem for labels, distributors, and news media. The demand for legibility is about not just access but also control, and changing his moniker from a proper name to a new and unspeakable symbol allowed Prince (or The Artist) to create a way of being that exceeded the limitations he experienced as a black gender-creative figure in the U.S. music industry. Our language, even the technical language of queer studies and queer theory, doesn’t always fit the realities of queer lives in the African diaspora as they are lived and portrayed. But like the symbol used by Prince to reflect something else about himself as a performer and a person, there are other possible languages and other modes of address. By showing how available language doesn’t necessarily fit the realities of black queer lives, Prince was also making a statement about our shared epistemology—the ways that we are able to know and make sense of the world.
Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s book Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders (Duke University Press, 2018) is also interested in the way that black queer folks, particularly femmes, enact gender creatively through musical and theatrical performance, hair salons, and choreography. In the West, race is gendered and gender is raced, as black-feminist scholars across multiple disciplines—history, sociology, gender studies, literary study, and others—have emphasized. This has meant that the social and cultural roles allowed or imposed on black women have differed from those allowed for white women. Tinsley gives an example of this thought and practice by noting that in the 18th century, many Caribbean colonies had laws that prohibited black women from wearing shoes. This served to reinforce and reflect economic inequalities, of course, but also to crystallize the distinction between white “ladies” and black women. With recognition of this history of blackness occupying the abject and/or undesirable position in western gender systems, Ezili’s Mirrors works to trouble common-sense understandings of how race, gender, and personhood are linked.
In this vein, femme is developed in Ezili’s Mirrors as an expansive, queer gender identity that can both encompass and exceed what we typically understand as femininity. Femme allows space for the gender presentations and performances that might resonate with traditional femininity yet are articulated from queer positions.