American Realness

Between Rage and Love

By Danielle Jackson

Marlon Riggs’ seminal and controversial film Tongues Untied (1989) affirms life at the anxious intersection of dual marginalization experienced by black gay men from straight, black circles and queer, white counterparts. “We are of great value to our community and to ourselves,” said Riggs in an interview.[1] An experimental documentary that is assertive, yearning, declarative, earnest, and tender, Riggs’ film combines heartfelt confessions rendered through poetry, scenes of homophobia pulled from televised media, stagings of vernacular dance, and original verité footage of men in the life.  Its ultimate testimony to the immense healing powers of love and care among black gay men was a bold and necessary charge amid the spiraling AIDS crisis of the 1980s and early 90s (Riggs, as well as Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam–two of the film’s prominent poet-performers–would all die of complications from AIDS-related diseases before turning forty). A reviewer at the New Jersey Star Ledger said the film was “held together with anger and self-pity.”[2]  Others found it “obscene,” “annoying,” “grating,” and “obnoxious.” Vocal objections to its depictions of men kissing, “street language,” profanity, and use of racial and homophobic slurs placed Tongues Untied firmly within the culture wars when it aired on public television nationwide in 1991. Since Riggs received a $5,000 grant from the NEA towards its production, conservative media watchdog groups charged the federal government with misappropriation of taxpayers’ funds. Members of the public and a number of legislators mounted pressure to cancel its broadcast, and ultimately, according to scholar B.J. Bullert, only 60 percent of the nation’s viewers had an opportunity to see it.[3] In response to claims that the film breached the community standards established by local networks, Riggs replied, “there’s no one “community” in any community.”

True indeed. Despite the public outcry, the choreographer and dance artist Ni’Ja Whitson recalls that many people “came up and came out” with this film, including cisgender women. Whitson’s live interdisciplinary adaptation, A Meditation on Tongues, is a nonlinear abstraction of this source material. Whereas Tongues Untied examines how a black, gay men exist in multiple communities, Whitson’s performance goes a step further by exploring how masculinity exists in multiple genders. Are black lesbians and gender nonconforming people greeted with suspicion and fear because of their masculinity? How does the spirit of brotherhood transcend “biological” maleness? In this performance, demure gazes and aggressive grunts are loosened and unappointed to any gender. By placing lesbian and gender nonconforming performers (Whitson and collaborator Kirsten Flores-Davis) into narratives originally addressing black gay men, Meditation conjures the liminal space that births self-creation, shifting frequently between rage and love.

During an extended sequence of Mediation, Flores-Davis writhes on the floor in a clearing between audience members, their body alternating between hoarse spasms and rigor mortis, choking, gasping for air, clawing at the mouth, as though suffocating from internal and external pressures. The movements may recall the shameful demise of Eric Garner and the many specters of black death in recent years, but I am also reminded of a map on the windowpanes above the theater that marks, among other miscarriages of justice, the murders of trans people by bigots across the nation. I know trans folks who resent these injustices that go unrecognized. What does lack of recognition do to a person? Unifying tragic losses in queer communities–which have gone largely unnoticed by mainstream media–with highly-visible murders of cisgender black men, is a powerful gesture here. But the sequence may also refer to something else. Some of the scornful indignation found in Tongues Untied is born from its context amid the growing AIDS epidemic and the ensuing federal reluctance to acknowledge the disease or apportion funds to treating its victims. Untold numbers of Riggs’ generation died as full-throated protest went unheard.

Today, in parts of Harlem and upper Manhattan, a striking series of advertisements cover bus shelters and telephone booths.  A black man’s mouth opens wide to reveal a blue capsule resting on a fat, pink tongue. “Swallow this,” an ad reads, “This pill is changing HIV prevention.” Tongues untied; it is cheeky, playful, and mildly subversive in the style of the “gay vague” billboards that sold designer trash cans and expensive cars at the turn of this century. Gone is the unequivocal frankness found in the HIV-prevention campaigns of thirty years ago, perhaps because HIV and AIDS no longer constitute a public health emergency in the minds of many Americans.

Andrew Sullivan famously declared the close of the AIDS epidemic in his 1996 essay “When Plagues End,” though the reality of this pandemic is alive and well in African American communities at disproportionate levels. Swallow this: in 2015 African Americans accounted for 45% of new HIV cases and 48% of new AIDS cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control.[4] “Where is our rage?” demanded Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, of the mostly white, male, educated, middle class gay activist establishment in 2007. “Because we often travel in packs that look like ourselves, AIDS for many of us is no longer even personal.” What is impersonal can recede from memory. At a screening a few years ago, the director of United in Anger shared a remark made by an audience member at an ivy league school. I never knew AIDS was in the U.S. like that.

Nowwethinkaswefuck. Whitson and Flores-Davis are reciting the Hemphill poem, which outlines how the fear of AIDS unfairly intrudes upon sexual encounters. My favorite parts of Meditation are when they work on stage together–their trust is palpable. They are seated aside one another, hands on knees, disarmed, exhausted by their explosive choreography moments before. The energy shared between them as performers can be called nothing less than fraternity. It is sacred and easygoing. In these quiet, supportive moments as performance partners one can sense Tongues Untied’s radical closing statement, unspoken in Meditation but lingering throughout: “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.”

The notion of “love” as a proper recourse has gained purchase in progressive rhetoric after the presidential election. From “love trumps hate” to “love is love,” love is described as a discipline, a high-minded attitude, a counterpoint to anger, a suppression of grief, despair, and torment. For weeks I have been thinking of a passage I read by Mark Harris about a march he attended against California’s Prop 8 in 2009.

The demeanor of many of the young attendees felt unfamiliar to older protesters. They were smiling more than seething, and I noticed that many of their picket signs—LET ME GET MARRIED, LOVE ISN’T PREJUDICED, NYC LOVES GAY MARRIAGE—were more like let-the-sunshine-in expressions than clenched fists.[5]

At this weekend’s march against seeming authoritarianism, I found rage subsumed into flowery witticisms on neatly lettered signs designed to be shared on social media. Hopefulness, yes, even optimism. But is that love?

After seeing Meditation, I am reminded: love is neither cooing, nor affection, nor displays of politesse. As performers, Whitson and Flores-Davis demonstrate the way love is affirming, in the sense of the word that it makes one feel firm. Where love is felt it elicits an immovable certitude, a safety, a kind of groundedness. Love is reliable and unyielding; it is a moor in the face of terror, and casts its eyes at the full light of another. It emerges from a liminal self, free of illness, race and gender.

Danielle Jackson has worked with leading photographers, filmmakers, and cultural institutions to develop projects, partnerships, and initiatives for social impact.  She is at work on a collection of essays on urbanism and economic opportunity.


[1] Simmons, Ron, “Tongues Untied: An Interview with Marlon Riggs,” 193 cited in Bullert, B J. Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film. Rutgers UP, 1997.

[2]  McGlone, Peggy, “Content Takes Back Seat to Controversy in PBS Film on Plight of Black Gay Men,” Star-Ledger (New Jersey), July 16, 1991. Cited in Bullert, B J. Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film. Rutgers UP, 1997.

[3] Miller, Ron, “Local POV stations don’t give in to “POV Panic”, San Jose Mercury News, July 19, 1991.

Cited in Bullert, B J. Public Television: Politics and the Battle Over Documentary Film. Rutgers UP, 1997. p 115.

[4] “HIV Among African Americans.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 07 Feb. 2017. Web. Accessed 09 Feb. 2017.

[5] Harris, Mark, “The Gay Generation Gap”, New York Magazine, June 21, 2009.

photo by Ian Douglas