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the met gala turned drag into deities

May 7, 2019
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To truly understand camp as it concerns the Black queer person in America in 2019, you’d have to wrestle with history. Not necessarily knock it out, but slightly strangle it until it can’t fight the investigation of its body; leaving you to discover through excavation the source (usually racist) of the things we find pleasure in as a culture and what we perform.

Last night’s MET Gala’s theme was Camp. Camp is a rather interesting choice for a theme because it demands both a sense of humor and a type of self-aware intelligence to truly transcend. To perform campiness pitch perfect, you must know thyself and know what the world thinks you are, and create a performance — exaggerated and theatrical — that plays into who you are and who you are expected to be. Camp is a funhouse mirror, but it is still a mirror.

When I think about the Black people like Bert Williams that participated in Blackface in the 1900’s, I think of camp. I think about the amount of self-awareness one must have to accomplish camp; to grasp both who you are and how you are seen to accomplish an over-the-top performance of self and society’s. Once a Black person dressed and performed as a white person pretending to be Black: camp was born. In that moment, the Black person had to hold his personal truth, society’s projections, and the performance of self all in one body without it ever feeling as complicated as it is. It had to feel light-hearted, although the reality is that the performers were addressing — known to them or not — the cultural prisons we put people of certain identities in. This was done without the audience ever realizing that despite the sense of humor and quick wit; camp is always a tragic story about the oversimplification and flattening of personalities and narratives. In the case of Blackface minstrelsy, the subject was Black people while a white supremacist society did the oversimplifying and flattening.

Even as we queer our lens on history, Black drag queens — a performance space historically  occupied by Black gay men, non-binary people, and trans women — were the architects of this conversation between societal expectations, theatre, and comedy we refer to as camp. This is the same message that I assume Lena Waithe’s Pyer Moss blazer was supposed to express that read “Black Drag Queens Invented Camp,” despite the misspelling that unfortunately was not done in irony or in the name of camp. The exaggeration and hyper-focus on gender performance and glam culture that drag queens employed added a gender and sexuality critique on top of the inherent societal critique already found in camp.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 06: Billy Porter attends the 2019 Met Gala celebrating “Camp: Notes on Fashion” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/FilmMagic)

And surely in 2019, in a socio-political tone that feels campy and absurd, even when it strives to feel normal, there is still a place for the critique camp offers. There is surely space for the imagining and escapism through humor and performance camp offers, too. And last night, despite failures to achieve campiness by some participants, there were also some participants that offered a futurist vision of where camp is going.

Billy Porter — a Black gay theatre legend and Tony Award winner — was dripped in gold arriving at 2019’s Met Gala’s red carpet, being held up by scantily clad men that looked like Donatella Versace’s version of Egyptian servants while Porter was dressed as the African God, Horus. It makes sense that the community responsible for offering us the camp idea of the drag queen would then, in 2019 when everything feels Godless, offer American culture the Drag Deity. This is camp, but it’s also critique and a spiritual offering about what we can imagine for ourselves once we stop taking who people think we are seriously, and start performing with humor and charm what we wish to achieve — even if it is only through performance and fantasy.