the history of camp is black and queer

May 9, 2019
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Camp: Notes of Fashion”, the Met Gala’s theme for 2019 drew from Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on Camp, published in 1964; a literary production that described the allure of camp within 58 bullet points, that refused to acknowledge its Black queer identity. Sontag described camp as “a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques”; reflective of house familial style in the ballroom scene, to embody camp is not only a reflection of your true self, but of the community around you. Lena Waithe, Met Gala co-chair, donned a Pyer Moss suit that broadly stated, “Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp”, and reminded the wealthy predominantly white elite who curated high fashion spaces which hinder Black queer creatives from leaving behind a fashion legacy; our moment to be seen in front of the world’s cameras. As cultural productions of Black queerness are commodified into mainstream pop culture, we have to be protective of our community’s history, before its assimilation into a white heterosexual culture.

Evidenced by the boring roster of straight men in Black suits, there was an evident distinction among celebrities who embodied the night’s theme, their education was reflected in their attire, which is understandable if you’ve never had work twice as hard to enjoy the luxuries of high culture. An ideology rooted in the indulgent nature of capitalist opulence; garb adorned in the finest of crystals, furs, feathers, and symbols of the emergent new wealth society; where designer labels were equated with realness. Because what’s realer than navigating through the world without fear of discrimination? The ability to partake in the gluttonous practices of the wealthy inspired is an embodiment of Sontag’s foundational concepts of camp; to be exaggerated, artificial, and over the top. No wonder white celebrities were unable to fully understand the night’s theme, because if your natural born privileges have afforded you luxuries from birth, the concept of camp seems unnatural to you.

Camp in the United States was spearheaded by our Black queer ancestors; Pepper LaBeija, Harlem’s queen of the balls, Benny Ninja, House of Ninja’s father after the death of Willi Ninja, and RuPaul, Black LGBTQ’s biggest cultural export to the straights; pioneers who created safe space for young Black queer folks who knew every word to Diana Ross iconic classic, “I’m Coming Out”. Actor Billie Porter paid tribute to Ross’ Mahogany in his “Sun God” adornment for this year’s Met Gala; engulfed in metallic golds, his ensembles reflective the garb of Black pop culture pioneers, such as Bootsy Collins, Patti LaBelle, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Shelby Ivey Christie, host of “Girl with the Bamboo Earring” podcast and Candidate for MA Costume Studies at New York University, explained about camp’s intersection to Pimp culture, “Pimp/Player style is very Camp! The Player’s Ball as a whole is such a display of Camp. When we think about Pimp films like SuperFly – Those exaggerated displays of masculinity/peacocking are indeed camp” on Twitter.  As Constance White, former Essence editor-in-chief said in a Refinery29 interview, throughout the ages camp has interwoven itself into Black culture, and become reflective of our people.

One that applauds actress and comedian Tiffany Haddish’ accessory of fried chicken to her “Pimperella” outfit at the Met Gala; number one, because we knew sis was gonna get angry and the food is hella under-seasoned, and number two, Camp’s exaggeration is to mock cultural assumptions of proper etiquette, rooted in whiteness. Her rejection of respectability politics, created by Dr. Evelyn Brooks, as a term to describe Black women’s behaviors and attitudes in the 20th century to rebuke racial gendered stereotypes in efforts to be seen as polite and pure, created controversy. Ironic, since camp’s origins are rooted in minstrelsy, an embellishment in which Black queer folks can transform into the people they imagine themselves to be, or the Manhattan elite who discriminate against them due to the intersection of their identities, only to capitalize on their decades of cultural influence and fashion. Our cultural productions, such as camp, are rooted in historical traditions of resistance against the dominant forces, who seek our inherent erasure from society. Despite this historic night of events, a disproportionate amount of Black queer youth are experiencing homelessness nationwide, seeking a safe space to call home.

Camp is homecoming; the return back to a community who loved and invested in you, out of generosity and love. A developed framework that questions gatekeepers, and the existence of sociocultural norms, because we found life outside of boundaries. The fluidity present within the Black queer experience is found in our blood, and it’s a generational marker from our pioneers, who died in efforts to ensure their continuation of their houses. Their spirits interwoven onto Lena Waithe’s suit jacket, encapsulated into vignettes from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, are an evident reminder that camp will never die, and neither will we.