MusicSex & Gender

my aunt (jay-z’s mother) inspired me to embrace my queerness

July 7, 2017
By Arisa White*, AFROPUNK Contributor

Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 is being praised for its deeply personal nature, for the ways he takes accountability for his failings and lack of tools, and for the effect his physical and emotional absences has had on those he love. There’s a poem by Rumi where he writes “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” 4:44 is the wound’s light, the personal confrontation with the ego, masks, and defenses we erect in hope to make ourselves appear solid and hard, but we forget our fluidity. We forget life is water.

More than ever, we need hip-hop artists to recognize the need for personal critical reflectivity, because striving for white supremacist patriarchal heteronormative capitalistic designs are leaving us all feeling empty, disposable, and worthless. And although 4:44 does not entirely give up its investment in the colonial enterprise, it does insist on a consciousness for personal and collective responsibility.

In many ways, when we take account of our pain, we need to take notice of our relationship to the black woman, and to the feminine—all that men (and women) learn to repudiate in themselves in order to construct who they are in our culture. In a recent essay on her blog, Joshunda Sanders insightfully writes that it is black women who own black pain. Therefore, our reconciliation with our pain is reconciliation and healing of the black woman.

Jay-Z is doing such work in the titular song “4:44,” and what I’ve come to recognize is that this album’s title speaks to an ecology of being. Where the essential question isn’t who I am, but where am I? So 4:44 becomes For: For For, a prepositional understanding of one’s self as an interconnected site of biopolitical relations.

The beauty of growing and getting older is that when you take the time to reflect on where you are in relationship to others and how you’ve conducted yourself as a result, a broader and more refined picture is painted. We can better integrate all that we’ve been through in part because we’ve developed competency with more than just the master tools, we’ve allowed ourselves to revision the stories we tell ourselves, and we begin to experience love not as an act of possession but as a power that holds all our selves together, as a force that brings us to greater clarity. Without that love, we are all just thespians.

The track “Smile” was a long time coming, and I say this because as the lesbian niece of Gloria Carter, I’ve waited a long time for my aunt to be publicly visible (at this level) as a lesbian. This song, especially the outro where she’s reciting a poem, may convey a sense of having lived in a shadow, but really woman is situated as a deformation of the perfect male and her body is controlled and flesh monetized, so she is the shadow. She is in the black. However, the shadow has fecund potentiality; it’s where the seed is planted. So my aunt’s lesbianism disrupted our expectations of the female body, and provoked us beyond dualism. In time, what you come to realize is that the performance of gender and blackness will eventually lead us all to do our necessary shadow work.

What I value about my relationship with my aunt, who defined herself as an aggressive one afternoon when I met her for lunch when I was in high school, and the presence of her gender non-conforming group of friends is that despite her own internal struggles with her sexuality, she stayed present within the family dynamic. My aunt came out in the late 1970s. Up until that time, she performed the roles outlined by the “classical black female script,” which meant embracing “domestic values, motherhood, respectability, Victorian sexual propriety, and Christian moral virtue” to counter negative images representative of black womanhood (Trimiko Melancon, Unbought and Unbossed: Trangressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, 47). My aunt married, kept house with a man and a 9-to-5, had four kids, and celebrated all the major Christian holidays.

No longer conscripted to a white supremacist or black nationalist, patriarchal agenda, these auntie provocateurs, having abandoned this code of conduct, were dangerously female and dangerously black—a position that offered little to no social and political protections. However, in their “female-masculinity,” alternate communal structures of power were created to fulcrum the masculine and feminine, to house a generative self-conception of being and becoming human.

As a young woman discovering my own sexual identity, afraid to name or call who I am anything to invite shame or exclusion, blooming inside me the desire to join my aunt and her friends, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, and be witness to how we’ve been habituated to a gender logic that says what’s right and what’s wrong. Without moralistic attachments, they taught me to re-see the world and to re-see myself when it came to desire and sexual orientation—as a way to position yourself in your own truth and that truth be your way of relating.

Few years back, at my grandmother’s 90th birthday celebration, there was my Aunt Gloria, her friends Y and P, and seeing them after a long time of not seeing, I felt them as my template for all my queer relating. There would be P, who was an ally, with two kids of her own, fixing a plate for granny at a cookout, making sure she got the right portion of potato salad. A corrections officer, she once offered to slice a person’s tires if they broke my heart and there were times I considered her offer, especially for two specific bitches.

They were like scar-faced Black Madonna/Erzulie Dantor, a rugged flawed beauty, handsome and soft, sensitive and strong, these balances that black women are taught to master. The Black Madonna/Erzulie Dantor embody the shadow side of the divine feminine, is said to be a protector of women and children, said to be a defender of lesbians, and after not seeing them for over a decade, there was the feeling to touch the hem of their robes, their feet, light a candle, and thank them for guiding the way. They showed up even when others didn’t want them there.

Their presence had liberatory consequences for us all. My aunt and her friends presented us with new designs, “genres of humanity,” even too, how we saw and defined blackness. How could we say, being gay was a white thing, when there before us was auntie, who raised us and was raised by us? I was given a spectrum. I was reading the rainbow. I developed my gaydar at an early age and I could recognize my queerness quite easily. I had a lens for engagement, a way for me to encounter what I saw on holidays and cook-outs, when the family had little and big reasons to get together, in others. Actual bodies to imagine, not just straight boys and girls. When I first kissed a woman, she looked like that crew, a proud tulip.

Often when we talk about LGBT members of our families, and society at large, we associate their being with silence, with the margin, with shadow. Within our puritanical culture, which has narrowed our ability to see gradations, relate to difference, this languaging of our existence has a negative weight to it and that negativity has life-and-death ramifications.

Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be

No harm for them, no harm for me

But life is short, and it’s time to be free

My aunt, with the support of her friends, used her difference as a force for change, because as Audre Lorde states, “without community there is a no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistices between an individual and her oppression” (Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider, 112). Their consistent visibility was resisting and transforming the silence imposed upon them. What these auntie provocateurs taught me is that there is a difference between silence and quiet.

I’ve grown to realize is that each generation must bring their own volume, their own voice, their own enunciative acts to create change within their own historical time and place. We will always appear silent to the generations after us. What I now understand is that undergirding her “shadow living” was a radical love ethic, where we were invited to engage each other at the nexus of love and responsibility.

At this nexus is a dynamic quiet. Not silence we choose when truth is knocking on the back of our teeth and pounding our hearts, and we shut that truth down in fear because we believe this silence will be protective. Instead, it is a quiet “that exceeds syntax, yet has its own verbosity,” (Trimiko Melancon, Unbought and Unbossed: Trangressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, 62) that re-sounds in the body.

It’s a quiet that cultivates and hones our ability for greater responsiveness. It stirs and wakens, locates and points to the dynamic quiet within, which houses a knowing so deep, where all things are imagined, born, recovered, and reconfigured. This quiet is an act of reconnection. By living her truth, my aunt plugged into that intergenerational trangressive energy that allows us to remember and devise “potential exit strategies from the world of Man” (E. Patrick Johnson, “‘Quare’ Studies, Or (Almost) Everything I Know About Queer Studies I Learned From My Grandmother.” Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, 145).

In this quiet, she was embodying and doing the work of reimagining language, living the word in combinations and phrases that gave us a way of being that goes beyond separation. Through the consistent presence of my aunt and her friends, we were disciplined to “expose who we are so we could clearly see each other and ourselves and learn to communicate effectively across our differences”.

So, this is why I smile, because, again, my aunt has pumped up the volume.

Banner photo via Jamie McCarthy / WireImage

*Cave Canem graduate fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. Hurrah’s Nest won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. She teaches in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College and is a member of the board of directors for Nomadic Press. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened, published by Augury Books, was a nominee for the 29th Lambda Literary Award. Arisa is the creator of the Beautiful Things Project, which is a series of poetic collaborations with QPOC artists, community organizations, and businesses that spotlight the narratives and experiences of queer people of color.
Follow Arisa White: Website