Tongues Untied by Marlon T. Riggs

Marlon T. Riggs, was a gay African-American filmmaker, educator, poet, and gay rights activist. He produced, wrote, and directed several television documentaries, including Ethnic Notions,Tongues Untied, Color Adjustment, and Black is… Black Ain’t. 

Below is the performance of Riggs’ poem “Tongues Untied”. In this poem, Riggs recounts his experiences of racism and homophobia, and his struggle to reconcile his sometimes conflicting gay and black identities. The poem concludes with an acceptance of the integration of his race and sexuality, liberating him from the silencing and invisibility that comes with treating his intersecting identities as separate.

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Slam Poets Address Intersectionality and “Oppression Olympics”

Despite having the best intentions in pursuing goals of social justice– sometimes in an effort to advocate on behalf of a “cause” (especially when it’s something tied to your identity/personhood), we are susceptible to falling victim to the “Oppression Olympics” (where groups or individuals compete to prove that they are more oppressed than the other

In the 2012 Youth Speaks’ annual slam poetry competition, “Brave New Voices,” two young poets– Shanita Jackson and Dakota Odur–addressed the issue of intersectionality in a piece titled “Gay Is The New Black.”  (Original Article posting Transcript and Video)

Transcript of the poem:

(B- represents both women speaking, L- woman on the left, R-woman on the right) 

B: I am a prime example of American unacceptablility.

R: I’ve always been too

L: Gay

R: Black

L: Liberated

R: Uppity

B: And America has a time-honored tradition of keeping us in our place

L: Like November 27, 1978 when Harvey Milk was assassinated

R: More like April 4th, 1968 when MLK was shot down

B: Hold the Hell up

R: I hope you don’t think some dead gay guy is equivalent to Dr. King. Milk was a martyr, but King is an icon and that is not the same thing

L: I think you forgot the definition of Civil Rights; you’re not the only one struggling around here.

R: How could I forget anything when I look outside my window everyday and see the statistically correct neighborhood I was predicted to live in

L: At least they can see you. All they have to do is look at you to see where you come from, what you’ve been through. I am still fighting for the right to exist. They’re telling my children we should be kept in pens so we can die out like you quarantine disease.

B: How many times do I have to hear people say you f***in fa**ot/ni**er

R: At least you know your last name. Our skin gives away our homeland but not our home. You aren’t owned or traded based on how hot you are as a commodity. We stood stark unclothed on a platform with the sun heating the skin beneath our shackles, watching our life value drain with every increasing bid. Bent backs, broken Bones and tear stained cotton is not something you could just forget.

B: My bones are genetically thickened due to the brutality my ancestors bore

L: My legacy has been swept under rugs. No one has ever sung me a closet spiritual to lead me to the promised land or made me rainbow cake to remind me of where I come from. We are history’s middle children who have to wear glitter to get attention. We are your siblings. We’re not looking to replace you on our family tree, we just want a hug at Christmas time.

B: They’re hanging us by our own ropes.

L: And for us, it’s déjà vu and I know for you it’s more PTSD, so

B: Why are you letting this happen to us?

R: Changing subjects is the same thing as giving up, which is basically saying black oppression is no longer an issue. But would the  K1an still run rampant internationally, waving their rebel flags and cowering beneath their white hoodies if this sh!t were no longer an issue. We were plagued with the elements of prejudice, doused by the stream of insults that drown our dignity. When was the last time someone spat on you and called you a flea bitten savage, a worthless monkey, told your ni**er a$$ to go back to Africa when we were dragged here by force.

L: Do you know why they call us faggots? The only history I have to cling to is that once I was a fire starter that wasn’t even worth the price of a match. Witches were burned on my ashes like I was never good enough to be anything but kindling anyways. You think your roots run deeper, but just because you couldn’t hear me screaming doesn’t mean they weren’t

B: Raping and beating me, starving, and shocking, and anything to fix me.

R: I know you are not talking to me about burning. Those crosses in Carolina blazed, those bombs in Birmingham incinerated, compare a sprinkle of holy water to skin shredding fire hoses.

L: I was at  Woolworth’s  and Stonewall while you were too busy turning the other cheek to ask me if I’d walk with you. If it was possible that we could share roots. Didn’t want to see me at your rallies because it would complicate things. They tell me it was a different time, but you made sure times were changing, you just never looked back for your aunt Rosie and her roommate of 50 years.

R: Our voices were only heard because we screamed.

L: You didn’t give us a chance to open our mouths.

B: Can’t you see they’re trying to kill me. Trying to kill us.

R: So why are we waging a war between ourselves when

L: It’s them who put us on their hit list,

B: We’ve been burned mercilessly, lynched ceremoniously, ostracized inhumanely, beaten brutally,  lacerated, mutilated, segregated, bluntly hated

R: By many

L: By all

B: By you

Being Intersectional: You Can’t Sit with Us

Anonymous Blog Submission:

Black, Queer, Boi, Gender Non-Conforming, Female Bodied. My most defining identities. The very core of my being, and yet—I’m not allowed to be all of these things at once.

Perhaps, I can be Queer—but downplay my blackness in order to make those around me feel more comfortable. I can be Black, but need to perform my gender in such a way that conforms to the binary system my fellow community members cling to. The list could go on and on, but the point is that very often—the identity based communities that I am a part of, simply don’t have room for my intersecting identities.

There is silencing on all fronts. This stems from the broader issue of identity based communities failing to acknowledge and respect the intersecting identities of their members, and lacking an environment in which members of the community feel as though they can be their whole selves.

Imagining different identity based communities as different tables in a high-school cafeteria, members with intersectional identities may feel as though they have no place to go—rejected from all tables, they end up having to either skip lunch or eat alone in the bathroom stall.

The LGBTQ Table: Blind to Their Bias

If you google the word “gay” or “lgbtq”, and click on “images” (yes I realize this seems risky) you will see a plethora of young, white, muscular, cisgender, men. As far as priorities for the LGBT community (in most cases) go, this is it. White Supremacy and Patriarchy doesn’t discriminate—it finds its way into all systems and communities. The LGBTQ community is not immune. It seems as though members of marginalized communities may be especially susceptible to “bias blind spots”, where they are quickly able to point out the implicit biases of others (particularly those of their oppressors)—but fail to recognize their own. Perhaps this is because they feel as though being part of a marginalized group automatically makes them immune to the dangers of implicit biases. What’s worse—a racist who knows they’re racist, or a racist who’s unaware of their biases?

What does this mean for Queer People of Color? Or Queer Women? Or Trans/Gender-Queer/Gender Non-conforming folk? Or for the really ambitious Queer people who happen to be a combination of these things? It means that we don’t feel represented. It means that our problems are not seen as the problems of the LGBTQ community. They are separate, otherized, and radicalized. Try to raise these issues, and you’re at risk of being viewed as a danger to the movement. You’re charged with taking the focus away from the community’s main goals by confusing the conversation with talk about race, gender, and a host of other issues that simply aren’t at the “core” of the Queer movement. There’s no place at the table for Queer People of Color.

The Black Table: LGBTQ Issues Cramp Their Style

So you can’t sit with the Queer folks. You don’t feel represented in the LGBTQ community, because all the people leading the discussion and driving the movement look nothing like you. You feel the need to downplay your race so that you “blend” more and avoid making a fuss. No one wants to be the angry queer person of color always complaining about particularized, race-based, issues. What do you do? Maybe you go to the Black community (or whatever community of color you identify with) seeking solace. These people look like you. They know what it’s like to have a readily identifiable identity marker that people make assumptions about. Maybe they will listen to hear your experiences, empathize with and validate your feelings of oppression.

But again, there’s no place for you at the table. You can’t sit with the Black Activists. The people in the room look like you, have a similar background as you, share the same oppressors as you, and yet you’re turned away again. Surrounded by a culture that not only doesn’t accept queer identities, but very often advocates for acts of aggression and violence against queer individuals. Even those who may tolerate or even accept you as a Queer Person of Color, turn you away. Queer issues are just too radical—they’ll detract from the efforts of fighting racial injustice in America. In the hierarchy of injustice, Black trumps Queer.

Luckily at this table—you can more easily hide your Queer identity, but passing has its costs. Suppressing a part of who you are day in and day out can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically damaging. You wonder what’s worse: wearing an identity on your sleeve, opening yourself up to potential acts of discrimination; or hiding who you are, fostering a practice of internalized homophobia, damaging your perception of self-worth.

Intersectionality is the New Black

I realize that this is a highly critical account of both the Queer and Black Community. There are a number of great things each Community does in an effort to be more inclusive, and fight a variety of injustices in our society. However, this is the reality for many members of those communities. While I can only speak directly to my own anecdotal experiences, research has shown that the combination of homophobic/transphobic bias and racial discrimination creates a unique experience of oppression which can have debilitating effects on Queer and Trans People of color’s daily lives (financial stability, ability to access quality health care, unemployment or underemployment, overall lower rates of pay, higher rates of poverty). The youth of these communities also experience lower educational attainment and higher rates of homelessness than their queer/white, or black and hetero-normative peers, often due to lack of support at home and in their communities. These intersectional members are also at higher risk of deadly anti-LGBT violence, or homicide. Of the anti-LGBT homicides in 2013 almost 90% of the victims were people of color; specifically, 78% were black and 11% were Latino (NACVP Report on Hate Violence).

Identity based communities need to embrace intersectionality, and recognize that inclusivity isn’t a liability to their social movements – it’s a strength. Very often we are facing the same oppressors, and forms of systemic injustice. These groups could benefit from creating movements that reflect the complexity of issues being faced by members of these communities. The strength in these re-conceptualized movements and coalitions would come not from a forced sense unity rooted in the falsehood of a monolithic community that seeks to erases differences, but from embracing the differences among us and identifying where there is a unity of goals and interests.