by Margaret Bowland
The first thing I did after weathering Irene’s apparent disappointment was go to a diner with a friend for breakfast. While eating, I noticed a old Jewish woman wearing a FUBU do-rag. It might take some reminding to recall that FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us,” the moniker of the 90s black urban fashion brand that seemed to be a direct answer to Tommy Hilfiger’s rumored irritation that his clothing brand had become so popular among black urban youth. While I loved the idea of clothing as a direct response, an argument, FUBU just wasn’t my style. Nor would I have guessed — back in the 90s or now — that it would fit the style of the Jewish woman in the booth across from me. What on earth does this sartorial meditation have to do with the title of this post? Well, seeing that woman brought to mind a question I’ve been asking myself more and more often as of late: Who is us exactly?
When, in middle school, I sheepishly confessed to my mother that kids at school had been teasing me for “acting white,” she laughed. Actually, laughed. “Oh, baby. Kids used to call me an Oreo when I was in school.” She went on to explain that nobody — white or black folks — is ready for smart young black boys; they don’t have a name for us so the best they can come up with is white. She turned up the radio and started singing along with Luther Vandross.
Later, when discussing the black community’s thorny engagement with gay activism, a friend — a black friend — said “The truth is that many African-Americans still think of homosexuality as a form of whiteness. It doesn’t help that the dominant gay images in the media are of white gay men.” Perhaps we don’t have a name for ourselves after all.
“The black experience is any experience that a black person has.” – Gwendolyn Brooks
“Only a really shattered, scotch- or martini-guzzling, upward-mobility-struck house nigger could possibly deny the relentless tension of the black condition.” – James Baldwin
There is no specific inciting incident for this meditation — I prefer meditation, than essay as essay purports a kind of coherence that I’m simply not in the mood for — aside from perhaps the “relentless tension” Baldwin speaks of. Rather, the question of whether I’m a gay poet who happens to be black or a black poet who happens to be gay, or a poet who argues that such things as “blackness” and “gayness” need no proceed my nouns is just once that I — almost literally — enjoy dancing with. It troubles my waters; it keeps me questioning my self/selves; these days all I have are my questions.
Or maybe it’s just easier to debate gay/black and black/gay poems rather than to write the poems themselves. Or maybe I want to crack all of the “names” open.