At the age of twelve or thirteen, I’d lie at my mother’s feet and listen to her talk about her experiences growing up. She was born in 1960. My favorite story that she would tell me would be the one of her coming home to her now late brother’s excitement and howling one day after school. She remembers him yelling, “Black people! Black people are on television! Black people are dancing on television!” Soul Train had aired for the first time in my mother’s household and it delivered a new dimension of possibility to my mother’s living room. My grandmother entered the room to see what the excitement was about and said, “I’ll be damned. “
These stories birthed my passion for representation. These stories also inform my delight in creating representation like a children’s book I authored called Large Fears that centers a queer Black child. It has also informed my latest literary project Fairytales for Giovanni that centers all Black queer characters. My group of peers like Jamal Lewis (No Fat, No Femmes documentary) and Shikeith Nieree (Black Men Dream, visual project) have also done amazing work creating art, thought, and scholarship around the ways to deconstruct gender in the Black experience that forces me to expand my language and ideas about Black queerness. I have been requested by feminist platforms like Bitch Media to talk about the intersection of Blackness and queerness. I’ve been requested by institutions like The New School to explore these Black queerness. I have been enlisted by a charter school to create creative writing courses to help build creative habits that live outside of racist and patriarchal norms. This should not be located in braggadocio; this is to say that Black queerness is my work. Black queerness is something I have both lived and made work around. Essentially, I have the range. This is why when I saw Young Thug’s album cover as an artist I wasn’t necessarily impressed, but most importantly, as a radical Black queer thinker in both praxis and theory, I was left even less impressed, and a bit curious.
I wrote a Twitter thread highlighting the things I was most curious about, and that thread garnered a significant amount of popularity. The reactions varied. Some reactions were useful, some positive, and some negative. I was and remain most interested in the useful reactions. I wanted to highlight the fact that a certain type of person is able to exploit things that are native to queer Black people for as long as they engage in certain practices. Meaning, Young Thug must reassert his toxic masculinity (strength as violence, “he’ll still shoot you haha”) and his investment in hetero-patriarchy normative practices (“His girlfriend doesn’t care he wears dresses lol”) to successfully transgress and profit off of said transgressions. My friends, my community, and I do not have (and do not desire) the same privilege. I found this noteworthy, so I decided to explore this publicly on the mean Twitter streets.
The other nuance of Young Thug’s ability to transgress gender norms is his intimate collusion with queer antagonism. Even on the very record that has Young Thug in a dress on the cover, he uses the same language that many transgender women and visibly queer people hear before being brutalized, and often, killed. NewNowNext.com reported the same day as my twitter thread gained popularity, how Young Thug raps queerantagonistic lyrics on his song “Serious”. He raps, “Green and red motherfuckin’ flag/ I dress like a prince, not a fag.” This collusion with exploiting queerness and being invested in queerantagonism should not be seen as harmless. It is harmful. To locate Young Thug as someone ‘just doing him’ or liberating other cis-passing heterosexual Black men becomes intellectually dishonest when he must arrive there through white supremacist-capitalist exploitation of aesthetics created by queer Black people and perpetuating the violent patriarchal culture that kills queer people in varying different ways. Young Thug’s freedom is not free, he is simply not paying. In short, Young Thug does not have the range. What is useful is to imagine what does a Middle-age Thug or Elderly Thug with less investment in violence look like? These are the ideas and questions I desired to ask and produce, not to resolve the Black gender and queer conversation, but to further expand it.
In standard white supremacist and patriarchal practice, my ideas were often met with distractions. The mention of Andre 3000, Prince, and George Clinton came along like clockwork to somehow be set up as a solid argument against what I explored. Instead, it reminded me that Young Thug wasn’t an original; he was the latest product of what I was exploring. If I were alive during any of those talented men’s heyday, I would explore these men’s capacity to transgress hetero-patriarchy while still benefiting from the exploitation of queerness as well. As a huge Prince fan, I would have explored how Prince’s characterization around being a ‘lady’s man’ and his public commitment to religious practices, made it possible for him to exist as we knew him. I would explore how Andre 3000, one of my favorite rappers, was protected by toxic masculinity he passively perpetuated and his public heterosexual relationships with women. There is space to appreciate and love certain aspects about artists while still being critical and exploring how this artist is able to exist. This is having the range.
This glorious morning in Georgia, I awoke to news that there was a podcast on MTV about my Twitter thread. I was initially afraid that I would not be mentioned and my intellectual property would have been taken from me without any reference to who started this idea. Gratefully, this did not happen. I was credited for the idea and conversation I started. Something interestingly violent did happen, however. I was not asked to participate in the conversation I started. I was used and Michael Arceneaux, a Black cis-passing gay man, was instead asked to engage the ideas I had initiated. Most of the arguments he raised during his time in the podcast, I have already addressed earlier. However, an idea just as interesting as the ones in my Young Thug critique is the fact that Michael Arceneaux was requested and accepted to speak on this subject at all without having the range I had displayed in 140 characters or less.
Arceneaux displayed a lack of range like the superstar rapper he desired to defend, which was not surprising because often the people who want to defend these practices usually benefit from them or are so unaware that they can’t grasp the idea of the harm in its entirety. However, this speaks to a point I was arriving at with Young Thug. Young Thug does not transgress in a vacuum and what he produces effects a larger group of people, often referred to as queer people. Young Thug in a dress, me walking down the street, a cis-gender heterosexual black man that loves pink, a transgender woman who is clocked as not having a cis-gender experience, a cis heterosexual-passing gay man that is exposed for his queer sexual/romantic practices are connected in dominating systems; we all get called ‘faggot’ or harmed because to the hetero-patriarchy, we transgress it in similar ways. So, the ability to exploit the culture we created for our safety while perpetuating the culture that makes it so we need a safe haven, indeed, needs to be critiqued and engaged. This is exploitation, not appropriation. The fact that all of the participants in the MTV podcast did not engage with this subject proved not a soul knew what is was that I am talking about in my Twitter thread. In standard capitalist fashion, they saw something profitable that has low cost to produce, so they figured out a way to profit from it quickly and cheaply with no interest in understanding it entirely. Also, the monolithic existence that Black queer people often falsely get pushed to exist in together is what makes it possible for Arceneaux to be requested as a kind of Black queer expert to talk about something he obviously has no experience or scholarship around. He does not have the range through experience or through study to qualify or disqualify my Twitter thread or any other Black queer and gender deviant person’s experience.
These nuances are not interesting to Michael Arceneaux or MTV because often these people and companies are more interested in capitalism and how to perpetuate it. If you are not engaging with these interlocked domination systems critically, you can become more concerned about how to resolve a thing in thirteen minutes for clicks that took thousands of years to exist how we know it today. Our concern, as participants in culture, artists, and thinkers alike should be how to expand and complicate these conversations so no one feels silenced or erased. It is only then in these radical practices that we might arrive at a space where no one must be harmed or erased for one person to wear a dress.