On Unruly Bodies and Otherness: The inspiration for ‘Hairsbreadth.’

I hate myself.

Let me be more specific. I hate my physical body. 

I’m too short. Standing at 5’1.5 I’ve been called Gary Coleman and Webster, shrimp, Napoleon, shorty, and midget. I’ve been ignored, not taken seriously, and even had people cancel dates upon learning my height.

I’m too fat. On my frame, 150 lbs makes me look like the mayor of Munchkinland. My tummy has stretch-marks and I have gynecomastia—more commonly known as “man boobs.” I avoid looking at my body in a mirror and my silhouette embarrasses me. My odd shape makes clothes shopping a herculean effort.

The skin around my eyes is dark and burned looking. I look like a raccoon, my dark brown eyes set deep within a charred ring.

I think of myself as a troll, a hobbit, an imp.

Then there’s my voice. It’s deep, but femme. I’m always mistaken for a woman on the phone, and many people, upon meeting me, assume I’m gay. Which, of course, is true and yet another thing I struggle with. (In the ever-changing gay male classification system, I am uncategorizable. Not Wolf, Otter, Twink. Not Daddy, or Bear).

There are days when I wish that were like Doro, the mindforce character in Octavia E Butler’s Patternmaster series. Like Doro, I would surf from body to body, trying on new physicalities like new clothes.

The black body is heavily policed. We are the wrong color. The wrong shape. Our lips are too big. Our buttocks too voluptuous. Our blackness is fetishized, criminalized, and pathologized.  

Sarah Baartman, exploited as the Hottentot Venus

Black hair, in particular, is demonized. The adjectives used to describe it—coarse, nappy, wooly, kinky, wiry—are in stark contrast to the way white hair is described. White women have silky tresses, fountains and plumes and cascades of follicles in a spectrum of color. Natural black hairstyles are treated as punchlines. A thousand Halloween costumes feature non-black people in dreadlock or Afro wigs. Black hair has to be tamed, chemically altered, woven with extensions, hidden by wigs. Students are suspended from school for wearing unprocessed hair. Boys are ‘Sideshow Bob,’ and girls and women are deemed unprofessional or unfeminine, and unkempt. My relationship with my hair goes through phases. Sometimes, I hate it. And sometimes, I love it. 

Unfortunately, some of the policing of black physicality comes from within the black community. Some of the most vicious takedowns of black presentation comes from other black people. Colorism, and passing are very much alive and active.

Hairsbreadth, the novel-in-progress that will be serialized by Broken Eye Books (and eventually turned in a printed book), asks the question: What if the very thing we’re castigated for—our blackness—was instead the source of great power? The character Zelda came to me with her deep dark skin and ‘unruly’ hair that could heal and destroy, create wonder and horror, and begged me to tell her story. The story is borne out of the chthonic crucible of self hatred and a colonized mind. It’s a way to cast off toxic ideas, and honor the beauty of idiosyncrasy and otherness. 

The first chapter, “Girl, Uprooted” is available if you subscribe to the Patreon

Golliwogs, Black Pete and screaming cakes: Linde and the African grotesque

Blackface, the act and art of caricaturing African skins and features, is a practice that won’t die. It lives on in the fashion industry and advertising, where outrageous imagery and shock are important selling points. The figure of Black Pete in the Netherlands—Santa Claus’ slave—persists in their Christmas traditions, though many people say that Pete is “black” because of soot. In Britian, Golliwogs are beloved toys and many people are unaware that ‘gollys’ are slightly altered minstrel figures. Blackface, dolls, mammy figures—all serve to send the message of the undesirability and the alieness of the black body.  Are we even human?

blackface-netherlandsblackface1

There are now several artists who have attempted to reclaim these racially charged images. The most controversial of these is the Swedish artist Makode Linde. His most (in)famous work was performative. A red velvet cake was formed into the shape of the Hottentot Venus and decorated with black fondant icing. The artist served as the grotesque cake’s head, and every time someone took a piece of the blood-red cake, he screamed.

Linde art
The purpose of this performance was to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. It was lurid, and many critics thought it trivialized the plight of these young women, something I agree with. The piece was disturbing and problematic, but it was also confrontational. The cake was set up in an art gallery, and there are many pictures of well appointed white folk laughing at the horrific spectacle. I go back and forth about whether this work is the ultimate trollery or a multilayered thought-provoking piece.
I have checked out Linde’s other work, and it uses grotesque images of black faces and juxtaposes them in European settings. In one, Queen Elizabeth (the current one) stands next to a man defaced with Golliwog-like features. The same face appears on the head of a classical Greek statue. What draws me in also chases me away. Here, Linde’s work is more slightly nuanced. It is still very unsettling and has the subtlety of a Julie Traymor production.
I play with black grotesques and archetypes in my own work; I think what I do with them is less ambiguous than Linde’s work. For instance, my story “Catch Him By The Toe” riffs on the Sambo story. These horrible images, archetypes, tropes and stories are a part of our heritage. If the fashion industry can use them, we have a right to use them as well.