I am interested in how Saeed Jones would understand and respond to the film Moonlight, based on his writing about being a Black, gay man in the south. Jones writes about the violence he sees every day inflicted on bodies that look like his, and identities that he has. While reading Jones’ collection of poetry Prelude to Bruise I was reminded of scenes and themes from Moonlight. The film is based on a semi-autobiographical play that follows Chiron growing up the projects of Miami from a young boy to an adult. One scene in particular reminded me of Jones’ poem “History, According to Boy”. The opening line of the poem is “Boy is not one of the boys, but Boy is observant” (85). In Moonlight, Chiron’s name is a central issue to the plot; the film is divided into three distinct sections, the first called ‘Little’, because that is the nickname given to him by his peers. The film works like a play: we are shown, not told, that Chiron is excluded from the boys at his school and singled out for being different. His mother cites this difference as “the way he walks”, which is strikingly similar to Jones’ father monitoring his actions: “Boy was so excited he did a little hop. Boy noted that his father’s smile dimmed then, but only for a second” (88). Both characters learn through their interactions with the world, first from their parents, that they are different and wrong in some way. Also, in both of these works intimacy is received often through violence, which is a result of toxic masculinity. One crucial scene in Moonlight involves Chiron getting beat up by his friend and crush Kevin, who the night before they had a sexual encounter. Kevin must prove to the other boys he isn’t allied with Chiron, who has a ‘spoiled identity’ according to stigma theory. Jones makes the same observation about the boys in his class, that when “The teacher talks about male friendship. . . “Fags,” hiss the rest of the Boys in agreement.” (90). It is implied here that boys are teaching each other not to show any intimacy, for fear of being perceived as gay.
I believe it is important to consume these art forms because they depict the harms done by continuing to stigmatize male friendship and queerness. Both these artists challenge stereotypes that depict Black men as violent, hyper sexualized beings and speak from an autobiographical place. The delicacy with which both Jones and Barry Jenkins, the director of Moonlight, show the pain of struggling to be accepted as gay Black men in America incites empathy from every audience member.
Kushner uses Harper’s character to illustrate how repressing sexual identity and conforming to a societal or religious expectation of identity is harmful not only to oneself, but to ones partners and family as well. Additionally, this plays into the larger theme of the play which is to acknowledge and attend to ones own pain to empathize with others diverse experiences of pain; each character is uniquely lonely, but they share in common the consequences of a society which stigmatizes gayness and ignores the AIDS crisis.
Kushner introduces the relationship between Harper and Joe from an objective perspective, which depicts Harper’s abuse of Valium and suggests her mental health is harming their marriage. Joe infantilizes his wife and denies her requests for affection and love, as seen in the language he uses to address her: “hey buddy”, along with deciding when they will share an (extremely unerotic) moment of affection: “buddy kiss”. Joe uses shaming tactics to essentially gaslight Harper into believing her problems are separate from their relationship, or that her “emotional problems” impede any potential attraction to her. This causes Harper to be stuck in a cycle of self-loathing in which she turns again to Valium to escape. However, there are moments which Harper interrupts this cycle to defend herself and express her autonomy; “if I do have emotional problems it’s from living with you” (Act I Scene 5). Here it is made clear that Harper does not assume responsibility entirely for her mental health or addiction, nor does she blame it on her upbringing, a tactic Joe uses later on.
It is made clear that Joe is projecting the pain and shame he carries around onto his wife, who is no longer accepting of this dynamic. During her confrontation with Joe addressing his sexuality, Harper says, “Yes I’m the enemy. That’s easy” (Act I Scene 8), showing that she is recipient of Joe’s frustration, but she knows that she doesn’t deserve it either.
There are multiple forces acting on Joe which cause him to repress his sexuality, the main being his following of Mormonism. Kushner makes clear the complex dynamic of religion and how it is not as simple as denouncing it (which we might want Harper to do) or ignoring its teachings to free oneself from their harm. After inadvertently confessing to be homosexual, Joe gives a final attempt at blaming Harper for his own shame: “You want to destroy me, but I am not going to let you do that” (Act I Scene 8). Joe now represents Harper directly as the guilt and shame he feels about his sexuality; both due to his lack of attraction to her and her knowledge of this shared “secret”. He believes that accepting gayness will destroy him, but repressing it further will only harm his marriage and Harper’s potential for happiness.
“But I didn’t know about thousands of acres of big old trees. Nor did I know about animals, like the northern spotted owl, that live in old growth forests. No one told us, and the logging industry had quite a stake in the silence.” (23, exile & pride)
The first thing that struck me about the language here was the use of repetition throughout the passage, the phrase “I didn’t know” is used multiple times and the paragraph opens and ends with “no one told us”. I believe this is intentional to retell the evolution of emotion Clare feels, from curiosity to anger about his miseducation, which he learns is due to lobbying from the logging industry. The paragraph ends with the powerful word “silence”, which is then followed by a line break (or a dinkus, which I just learned is the technical term), where I paused and had a few seconds of silence in my head before continuing to read. This linguistic effect creates emphasis on the last sentence and gives it an ominous tone.
I believe the implications of this passage extend beyond the literal example of the owl and the forrest which are under threat. Clare writes from an intersectional perspective, and he is able to empathize with vulnerable species such as the owl because his own body has been threatened as a genderqueer and disabled person. The intimate relationship he describes with nature exemplifies his sensitivity, which is a great strength to his writing and allows for him to be careful and deliberate with words and description.
We need more authors like Clare who are able to speak about queerness from an intersectional perspective, who can identify the common oppressor. Clare can empathize with trans folks, disabled folks, and queer folks separately and together, who occupy different spaces and protest in different ways. He can see the weakness in the splintering off of marginalized identities and even the ways that each movement works against others. Clare focuses on how normative culture is harmful and creates different expectations through the paradox of cure, assumption of straightness, and even the harm of metronormativity for the queer community. These cultural norms he suggests are not separate, and work together under common oppressors – capitalism, white supremacy, and a society focused solely on production.
“What kind of father does he make me, this boy
I find tangled in the hair of willows, curled fetal
in the grove?
Once, I found him in a far field, the mountain’s peak
like a blade above us both” (4)
I believe the poem “Isaac, After Mount Moriah” is Jones’ reflection on his relationship with his father, and his attempt to understand his fathers abuse. The title of the poem is a reference to the Biblical tale of Abraham following God’s orders to sacrifice his son Isaac, which was interrupted by God who commended Abraham for his loyalty. I believe this is applicable to Jones’ life because I will assume his father is Christian, just based on his being Southern, and assume that his Christianity motivated homophobic beliefs and disdain for his son. In this way Jones’ father was being more loyal to God than to his own son when he inflicted abuse and violence onto him. The tone of the lines above feel guilty, as if the father is ashamed of himself both for sacrificing his son in the first place and for the behavior his son reflects on his own character. Isaac is depicted as deviant, sleeping in places he shouldn’t, which is a childlike metaphor for deviant desires/sexuality. There is deep vulnerability exposed, when the father is watching his son sleep, and a real intimacy too – even if he judges these places as wrong or dirty. The “curled fetal” description especially reminded me of how children are not far from being babies, or fetuses, and that they deserve protection, or so the Church believes.
The final line of the poem is ominous, especially when contrasted with the previous descriptions. The scene is alluding to the title, beneath Mount Moriah where Isaac was sacrificed, which where the distrust between father and son originated. The “blade” is not only a threat to the son, but is “above us both” because the pain of that moment effected them both. Additionally, the blade could be a reference to the severing of the relationship or bond between the father and son.