Do I Have Any Right to Say I’m Black?

At the beginning of the semester, Professor Kersh received a very convoluted and emotional email from me all because of this line in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: “the quadroon girl is sold at the auction-stand” (Whitman stanza 15, line 16). I had never heard or read the word “quadroon” before, but from the context of the quote, I figured it was some sort of label for one’s right to blackness – a label I’ve been searching for my whole life.

According to Google, the definition of “quadroon” is, “a person who is one-quarter black by descent,” and right next to its classification as a noun, it says, “offensive / dated.” In the moments before it hit me that this was just another way for white people in the era of slavery to reduce a human being’s worth by literally reducing their status as a person to only a percentage, I was ecstatic because I finally thought I had found a word that described me – a girl whose father is fully white, whose mother is half black, half white, and whose skin tone and hair texture provide no clues to curious strangers as to what race I actually am. My entire extended family is white because my mom didn’t know her dad too well, my education is white, taught to me by white, Catholic women in the context of white-washed American textbooks, my speech is white, my name is white, and even my little brother (who has the same parents as me) came out with blonde hair, blue eyes, and nearly translucent white skin. And yet my skin is just brown enough not to be white; it’s more of a beige color, like that of certain cardboards or toothpicks. Ultimately, what this means is that everything in my life is white… except my skin color, my mom’s skin color, and my mom’s kinky black hair that she still despises. My mother never taught me how to be black, she taught me how to explain to people, when I am asked because I’m always asked, that I’m not fully so.

“When I was a child I lived wrapped in secret words, words that no one spoke in ordinary conversation. These words terrified and thrilled me; I pulled them close to imagination… Whenever I found clues that others used these words I hid the clues under my bed, between my books. Those words must not escape, no one should know I even knew them, much less that I felt them, held them in my hands, cupped my hands over my ears until the forbidden words were all I could hear, pressed the words to my eyes until the images the words made were the only ones I could see” (Dykewomon, “Introduction to Belly Songs”).

If I were born only a few centuries before, I would not have had the privilege to explain away my blackness. I would’ve been labeled a quadroon, placed on that auction stand while Walt Whitman, who considers himself beyond human, observes from afar and makes me part of himself as if it’s an honor, to be sold away to some white man who is considered wholly human, while I am literally and metaphorically deemed less than. In a way, the word “quadroon” is what “fat” and “lesbian” are to Elana Dykewomon in the passage above.  But I’m not sure I want to reclaim this word just yet; I’m not convinced I have any real right to. For now, I am simply adding this forbidden word to the expanding mirage of images I have to understand my identity in the confines of my imagination.

Further Exploring Disability and Sexuality in Netflix’s Crip Camp

I recently watched the Netflix documentary, Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, which shows Camp Jened, an ability-inclusive summer camp held during the 1960s-70s. As one former camper, Jimmy LeBrecht, explains, Jened was the first home many kids with disabilities we able to find because “at camp, everybody had something going on with their body. It just wasn’t a big deal” (13:23). This feeling of unity and hope that a world could exist where different bodies “just aren’t a big deal” carried over into the campers’ adult lives and fueled the later Disability Rights Movement of the 1970s.  Crip Camp shared the raw testaments of people’s journeys through life in their unique bodies – some of which we’ve talked about. For instance, they showed how drag performance allowed cripples to be loud and proud of who they were (59:10) and how blues music, begun by the African American community, served as a means of pride, expression, and reflection for the disabled community just as it had for the LGBTQ+ community during the 20th  century (31:12).  The primary connection, however, was in the discussion of how people with disabilities are often mistakenly viewed as asexual.

In Eli Clare’s novel, Exile and Pride, he explains the complicated relationship he and other people with disabilities have developed in terms of their own sexuality because of how society has forced this false, undesirable narrative onto their bodies. He states: “It is no exaggeration to say we are genderless, asexual undesirables. We hear and see and feel this at every turn. It digs into our bodies. From this vantage point, sexual objectification appears to be a positive recognition of sexuality” (Clare 131). One woman with cerebral palsy in Crip Camp, Denise Jacobson, shares that this was her experience, too. She playfully tells her story of having sex with a bus driver and shortly thereafter having terrible abdominal pains. When she was rushed to the hospital, they deemed it appendicitis and performed a surgery to remove, what turned out to be, a perfectly functioning appendix. In reality, she had contradicted gonorrhea. When she was told this, she said, “For one brief moment, I was so proud of myself” (52:15), but quickly realized, “The surgeon decided, how could I be sexually active? I mean look at me. Who would wanna f*ck with me?” (52:34). This alone shows the long-prejudiced history of disabled people being seen as either nonsexual or undesirable and how the medical profession has a habit of perpetuating this belief in a very dangerous way. Simultaneously, her gut-reaction of being proud of contracting an STD shows this need for recognition of her sexuality that Clare mentioned. Gonorrhea meant that no one could deny her sexual desirability now.

All in all, Crip Camp was an amazingly well-done and insightful documentary that provides an even more diverse view of the realities and histories of those living with a disability in the United States than we have been able to explore in class. It is a stark reminder that all bodies come in varying levels of ability and sex drive and deserve to exist in a world where this is universally recognized and understood.

A Separate Peace on Brokeback Mountain

I always had the inkling that Gene and Finny’s relationship in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace stretched beyond friendship, but it wasn’t until I read Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, which is explicitly a story of two gay men, that I was able to see how many implications of homoeroticism there are in A Separate Peace. Despite living in different eras, classes, and age categories, the doomed love story of Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain mirrors, and consequently exposes, that of Gene and Finny in many ways.

It is never outwardly stated that Gene and Finny are attracted to one another sexually or romantically, instead it is cleverly hinted at. Finny, while on a beach away from the socially constructed confines of their strict boarding school, admits to Gene: “’You can’t come to the shore with just anybody and you can’t come by yourself, and at this teen-age period in life the proper person is your best pal.’ He hesitated and then added, ‘which is what you are,’ and there was silence on the dune” (Knowles 48). Here, Finny is struggling to explain his want for an exclusive relationship between himself and Gene. Gene admits that he wants to express these feelings back but is unable to. Following this, there is the incident on the tree, which has been a place for reckless abandonment and fun within the confines of their school’s campus for Finny and Gene as there is the branch they can jump off of into the river below. One night, Finny suggests him and Gene jump together, which could be read as a metaphorical suggestion of sex, but once up there, Gene “jounces the limb” (60), and Finny hits the ground, shattering his leg and leaving him crippled for the rest of his life. This shows that when Finny tried to breach society’s unspoken laws that forbid homosexuality, he was punished for it. Gene wasn’t because he didn’t respond that day on the beach and wasn’t the one to suggest they jump together.

This brought to mind Ennis’s fear that Jack having sex with men outside of their rendezvouses could be a threat to his life. Ennis warns him in no uncertain terms that he could get himself into some serious trouble doing this (Proulx 41). Finny’s warning to not push societies’ boundaries was represented in his fall from the tree, but Ennis explicitly tells Jack that he is on a dangerous path. Ennis and Gene, while also partaking in homoerotic behavior/thoughts aren’t punished because they maintain a sense of “normality.” Ennis is married and has a family (at least for a little while) and never has sex with a man other than Jack, and after Finny falls, Gene jumps into the river, like he was supposed to (Knowles 60).

As they were doomed from the start, Finny dies in surgery after rebreaking his leg on a marble staircase (Knowles 177, 193), and Jack dies after a tire explodes in his face while he’s pumping gas (Proulx 45). Finny falls down the marble staircase because he learns the “truth” that Gene purposefully jounced the limb from some school bullies, a metaphor for society taking Finny and Gene’s sexual moment and using it against him (Knowles 176-177) and Jack, Ennis knows, is just as likely to have been hit by a tire as it is that he was murdered in an act of homophobic violence (Proulx 45). They may have been wounded by their lovers’ panic at their own feelings, suffered broken limbs and bloody noses, but they were killed by their situations in life and society’s inability to accept them for who they are. This is never stated outwardly in A Separate Peace and is presented through metaphors and symbolism, but Brokeback Mountain never tries to hide the fact that it would be a tragic story of two gay lovers. Consequently, one exposed the other.

Common Women Have Nothing in Common

Given Judy Grahn’s poem, “Edward the Dyke,” which satirizes the treatment of women by medical professionals, I don’t think it’s inconceivable to assume that her collection of poems depicting “The Common Woman” might have been inspired by real case studies written about queer women. Whether or not this is accurate, by putting “The Common Woman” poems in conversation with Robert Latou Dickinson’s observatory notes and case studies of lesbians (presented by Martin Duberman in his novel About Time), there is an obvious pattern of grouping women together in order to prove a point. However, it is in the points they are trying to make and their motives for writing these pieces that Dickinson and Grahn differ.

Dickinson is doing physical examinations on women who have been in erotic relationships with other women to try and locate a common abnormality on their physical bodies that will explain their homosexual impulses and desires. He presents each case study with the heading of the woman’s first name and last initial. For instance, there is “SUSAN K.” “PAMELA D.” “GLADYS H.” etc., (Duberman 140). The text itself, naturally, reads like notes being taken, particularly because of the fragmented statements and where the commas are placed. In describing ALBERTA X., Dickinson writes: “Given to extensive experimentation, intently passionate with women, able to obtain orgasm in two minutes or two hours, at times almost daily for months…” (141). Grahn’s “The Common Woman” poems read in a similarly observatory way, as if the author, too, is studying individual women in order to come to a conclusion about all of them as a whole. Like Dickinson, each woman Grahn is writing about has a title with her name, but unlike Dickinson who only then includes their last initials, Grahn choses to follow their first names with settings, such as: “I. Helen at 9 am, at noon, at 5:15” (Grahn 61) and “III. Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop” (65). By adding a time and/or location in each of her headings, it gives the reader a sense that these are snapshots of who each of these women are at the time Grahn is observing them, but, in addition, that they have existed before and will continue to exist after the poem ends. Dickinson, however, reduces the women he studies to their name alone and continues to do so in his writings of them by only analyzing their sexual histories and physical bodies as a means to understand why they are the way that they are. Even though, Grahn’s texts are equally as split up by commas and written in a fragmentary style that mimics Dickinson’s notes (example: Nadine’s poem begins, “She holds things together, collects bail,/ makes the landlord patch the largest holes.” (62)), Grahn is including such a diverse range of characteristics and behaviors of each woman, and different aspects for different women, that it becomes clear her motive is not to find what makes each woman the same but to celebrate that they are all different.

Dickinson believes he can pinpoint a commonality between women who all participated in homoerotic behavior to explain why they desire such interactions, while Grahn is parodying the medical note-taking style to emphasize that the only definable commonality between any two women is that they exist and therefore have the right to change. Consequently, “the common woman” is always defined at the end of each poem as something different than the woman before and after her. Ultimately, it comes as no surprise that Dickinson’s conclusion to his summary is: “No definite findings could be classified as peculiar to homosexual practices” (Duberman 143).

A Poem of Transitions: Adrienne Rich’s “Dialogue”

Adrienne Rich’s “Dialogue” is a poem of transitions, of “almosts” that only lead to more questions, and of trying to uncover “if sex is an illusion” (ll. 10). It is a piece open to numerous interpretations, but the one I will be focusing on explores how a dialogue between two women ultimately transitions to an internal monologue of the narrator alone and her personal thoughts on sex as an illusion (sex, in this argument, as in the differentiation between male and female, not the act of intercourse). Like I mentioned briefly before, there is a common pattern of “almosts.” For instance, the first stanza describes the aftermath of two women talking “for hours” (ll. 3) followed by images that suggest they were almost able to come to a conclusion with their thoughts but were never quite able to get there fully. First, we are told, “our talk has beaten/ like rain against the screens” (ll. 3-4), which suggests an onslaught of ideas and theories but ones that are never able to reach them as they are metaphorically inside while the rain beats against the screen on the outside. Then, there is “a sense of August” (ll. 5), which is the summer month before the relief of fall in September – this relief being the cool autumn air that dispels the sticky summer heat that can make it impossible to move. Again, this adds to the idea that they have been close to an answer, but they stay stuck, nonetheless. And finally, the image of “heat-lighting” (ll. 5), or a split-second revelation that leaves them excited but is gone just as quickly.

These three images then lead to the peak “almost” of the whole poem: “then she says (and this is what I live through/ over and over)—she says: I do not know/ if sex is an illusion” (ll. 8-10). The switch from dialogue to monologue occurs with, and is emphasized by, the break between the two stanzas that follows. The statement in parenthesis, specifically the phrase “I live through,” is important because it shows that the narrator hasn’t just thought about what her friend was saying – she’s lived (or is living though) it. The repetition of “I” in the second stanza could also signify the transition from dialogue to internal monologue as could the continued italics, a traditional literary technique to signify thoughts rather than words. Transitioning from one’s birth sex to another means following a path that is typically unclear and full of questions, and, with this thought in mind, whether the break between stanzas indicates the transition from dialogue to monologue is similarly unclear and, of course, only presents further questions. However, it is undeniable that it is there and is something that needs to be considered when analyzing the poem, just like sex is when analyzing one’s own identity once they realize it could be an illusion.