See a message from Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston about the Northfield to Selma trip.

Monday, March 20: Day Five

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

by Joshua Reason

The Erasure of Queer & Trans Black History

Walking through the National Museum of African American History and Culture was a transcendent experience. Each exhibit was curated with intention, revealing many of the intimacies and intricacies of Black life in the United States. In many ways, this is the museum that African Americans deserve; it gives us life amidst death, shows the resilience of our ancestors and imagines a future filled with Black creativity, solidarity and love. This said, I was disheartened by the all-too-familiar lack of Black queer and trans histories from the narrative being portrayed. As a space that is dedicated to understanding Blackness in all its forms, it was vexing to see that Black queer and trans folk were not given a seat at the table.

This is not to say that the Black LGBT+ community was completely absent from the museum. There was one photograph, towards the end of the basement exhibit, of a man holding a sign that read, “I am a Black gay man/I am a Black man/I am a man”. Furthermore, the museum featured several prominent members of the Black LGBT+ community, such as Bayard Rustin and Alice Walker, who are widely recognized for their contributions to Black activism and culture. But are the incorporation of these figures sufficient if we fail to acknowledge their existence as both Black and queer bodies? Simplifying the importance of their contributions to race prevents us from interrogating how their queerness simultaneously contests and expands our vision of what it means to be Black in the United States.

Aside from these well-known figures, Black queer and trans people were largely absent from the museum. There was no mention of Marsha P. Johnson, a transwoman who helped lead the Stonewall riots. Nor was there any trace of contemporary Black queer and trans cultural icons, such as Laverne Cox and RuPaul. Even more disheartening was the absence of Black queer and trans creative work, dismissing quintessential films such as Paris is Burning and Pariah. Despite their many achievements and contributions to Blackness and queerness, Black queer and trans people continue to be removed from our conceptualization of Black history.

Sadly, the lack of Black queer and trans history in this museum is representative of an ongoing problem in how we envision the Black community. How is it that we rally around the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, but refuse to show up for Chyna Gibson or any of the other Black transwomen killed just this year? While a museum cannot necessarily answer that question for us, it is within these spaces of knowledge production that we begin to deconstruct preconceived notions of identity. If we ever hope to reach Black liberation, we can no longer fail to incorporate queer and trans members of the Black community. Hopefully future iterations of the National Museum of African American History and Culture will provide a platform for this segment of the Black community to come to life.

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