THE NEW NEGRO SPIRITUALS: “YOU MAKE ME FEEL (MIGHTY REAL)”
June 12, 2019
There are two ways one can feel seen: through a mirror and I’m talking about the literal beholding of a person that is standing or sitting in front of you with your eyes — and thanks to technology, often in the palm of our hands. The other way one can be seen is through being fully present; it’s not as much about the physical as it is about feeling. Seeing can also be about the very real practice of being a witness to someone, not just their physical self, but their emotions, their histories, and the thing that makes one feel connected despite physical distance and being individuals, there’s a togetherness and compassion that can be achieved if you witness me.
Queerness has always been hidden in American culture. There has been a constant refusal to look queerness fully in the eyes and accept it; accept that people are queer, queerness is not a moral debate, and that queer people, too, are a healthy society’s responsibility. Sylvester’s 1978 disco hit, “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real,” had a compelling offering that still moves me today. That it was once Sylvester was witnessed — even in an intimate and erotic space — that he was made real. Mighty real.
To understand the sentiment entirely is to understand being both Black and queer at once is a societal disappearing trick that transcends articulation. How Black queer people are disappeared from public life and the “master” narrative makes one not only doubt their importance or belonging in the world, but their validity in the world. Am I beautiful enough? I couldn’t be because I’m not desired by people or invited to their spaces. Am I smart enough? I couldn’t be, because I am not being heard. Am I real? I couldn’t be, because I have never been witnessed.
I once wrote for Bitch Media, “‘Is being Black or queer worse?’ someone asks. Questions like these erase the specific daily trauma that is birthed when queerness intersects with Blackness. Blackness and queerness do not exist in the body separately like oil and water. Blackness and queerness come together like hydrogen and oxygen to make a newer, stronger, and more relentless element.”
It’s my belief that Sylvester’s song has become such a long-lasting anthem — one of the new negro spirituals if you will without sounding too on the nose — because it celebrates that broken lie, that reveals the truth: we are real. The disco song is placed in the context of erotic and romantic pleasure, but it is poetry about the Black queer experience and what we were and are striving for: to be witnessed, to be allowed to be real.
Sylvester had no idea that generations — nations — of queer and gay Black men, including himself, would meet the ultimate political disappearing trick of the disenfranchised: death via neglect. Sylvester was taken from us in 1988 due to complications from AIDS. President Reagan notoriously facilitated the disappearing, the unseeing of Black queer people through not funding the research of or spreading proper education about the HIV virus. The denial and refusal to witness the Black queer life cost us brilliant minds and work that we’ll spend lifetimes mourning.
What could not die is the music, and in Sylvester’s “Mighty Real,” we are still gifted with the declaration that there are moments, regardless if they are mainstream or not, that we get to experience being seen. Not being abominations or spectacle, but human beings with immense potential for greatness — or stillness. Because witnessing is about not needing something to entertain you, but being enthralled by what already exists.
And Sylvester offered an anthem of what it feels like to be witnessed, “And I feel like I need some more. And I feel your body close to mine. And I move on love, it’s about that time. Make me feel mighty real.” The idea of moving on and from love, and having the capacity to make someone feel real in a world often hell-bent on making you feel unreal — unseen — has given me the deepest spiritual joy. It makes me believe Heaven can be achieved when you see me, know I am real and know that despite our physical separation, I am a part of you. It’s not a figment of your imagination or empty yet beautiful social jargon. It’s real. Mighty real.