There is a Power whose care / Teaches thy way along that pathless coast,— / The desert and illimitable air,—/Lone wandering, but not lost.”
- from “To A Waterfowl”
by WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT
(First Amerikkkan Romantic Poet)
It costs so much to be in this economy. To be Black & Queer & more is a phantasm of navigation & wonder.
For the creatives among us,how do we create blueprints for things yet to be seen. The Romantic is kind of prophecy work. The distance is the belief that you’ll be able to see the possible you are imagining, its own kind of faith.
To investigate the Romantic as a Black Queer cultural product, we must begin with Abandon. If our current popular political climate has offered us anything, hopelessness appears to be most succulent temptation, but let’s leave that. Abandon is a bit more eager than ignoring, or disregarding. This is an exercise, you will be able to return to other anxieties later hopefully lighter or more full of yourself. Abandon some needs. Like certain kinds of reason (consider their determinism). Consider how the “not normal” is as mythical as the fantastic. Lean in to the disarray. When presented with crumbling global political facades & modernization of systemic dehumanization, the ephemeral seems like escapist folly. Trust me, you cannot abandon this world but you can only hold so much of it. It can only tell us so much. Again, hopelessness could arise. A desert of possibility may present itself — that too is a mirage. Among the things we need to get by, a popular maxim is Love. Love wins. Love conquers all. Love is Love. Love is the prettiest weapon we carry & wield; but can you really describe the weight of it in your hand? When it fires, how do we attend to the wounds? Yes, these are metaphors for so many things. Love is a commodity I have fashioned here into a gun. Love is a commodity one could fashion into deadly legislation, or panic defense, or national commercial holiday. Abandon love as a singular thing. Abandon the obligations for its wonder & desire.
Here, we can turn our gaze upon Romance. After reserving it’s reductive saccharine trademark, we can begin to un-tool it from its historical context. Named for cultural era of indulgent literature, visual art, music & more, Romanticism, even in its European/Colonial contexts has desires of radical & resistive modernity. The Romantic aesthetic was born out of a rejection of the Industrial revolution & cultural rationalizations through then-modern technologies. Characterized as products created in some capacity exclusively for the artist, or with disregard for purely presentational renderings of the world, Romantic work wallows & writhes in awe. Romance attempts to locate & pressure the sublime or all-encompassing of this world, revealing a desire for a more fantastic present. Akin to the German art predecessor, Sturm & Drang — roughly translating to storm & urge — Romanticism is a swelling of delicate & undervalued needs; projecting them to, intentionally, unspeakable heights. Maybe there is an arrogance in the Romantics sense of themselves; the predilection to believe magnanimous of so much. But at the core of the Romantic is an unending impetus to elevate the noble. There is a fever for improvement, expanse, mystery.
This is the last white boy I’m gonna mention but he does give us a good conceit from which we can depart: John Keats. One of the most notable Romantic poets offered the canon significant literary substance & scandalous fodder. The allegedly pre-gay poet writes a letter to his brother describing the “excellence of art,” where he coins the phrase negative capability. Keats describes the phenomenon as the capacity of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” & with a “sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” This concept is that the immaterial power of art shifts how we process this world. It is an art that exceeds the needs of the viewer or the creator but exists to imagine the world greater. It however is predicated on extending imaginings beyond reason. Reason, returning here to reveal its mutable, relative nature. Not a binary of to be or not, but to be able to even ask the question without needing any one answer.
The timing of the Romantic period however was fortified to locate European thinkers as the only of the era’s kind, but the Amerikkkan project was already in full swing & the TransAtlantic Slave trade had already displaced whole generations of Africans to new lands where they arrived Black & Modern. The Black Romantic, however is simply an appropriation of the colonial fetish for beauty. As Paul Youngquist & Frances Botkin note in their introduction to Black Romanticism:
Where nation sets the terms for agency—whether of resistance or criticism—territory, literature, and whiteness determine the means and ends of cultural production. Black Romanticism subverts those imperatives by conjuring spirits they ignore, specters of the Atlantic vortex that haunt the nation and its presumed unities.
Black Romanticism exists in a para-colonial context. The paracolonial framework encapsulates the realities of colonized people living on the land dominated by the colonizer & the ways their livelihoods can be read; including decolonizing community, neoliberal capital-building, & many worlds in-between.
The Black Romantic works against colonial projects through abandonment. A divestment from stereotype or preconception. A self-determined capacity for anything. It takes the displacement as its own departure, the diaspora as launch pad. We must then abandon any myth of post-colonization. Here, we can begin to locate the Romantic to our bodies as Black, thus making it queer.
Though not consistently drawn out, normative mores around the Black body usually dehumanize or reduce nuance of gender, age, ability. We are never just—always too much or incomplete. The attack on Black humanity amplifies the failure we accept as gender. So let’s consider the intentional Black Queer subject. Though not exclusive to explicitly queer creative, the contemporary for the Black Romantic is deft with beyond normative aches toward more.
Consider the conceit of Aromanticism, both the rhetoric & album by Black queer troubadour Moses Sumney.An intentional & self-care-driven rejection of the capitalist construction of monogamous intimacy, Aromanticism forces you to reimagine love & connection & the peace that comes in that. How much more one is capable of feeling when one divests from the commodity of romance. A question Sumney asks: How intimate can you get with something and still feel some distance from it? The question both unanswered & indifferent is the conceit of surviving as a Black Queer Romantic.
I am often nervous to speak. Audibly, my voice has a life of its own, making an impossible project of my body. As a trans-feminine person located in a Black-Male-read body, my voice is a tell-tale sign of my transcendence of gender. I carry the power & anxieties in my voice, most often manifested during phone calls. Yet since transitioning, I have begun a new consistent practice of talking to my trans sisters & siblings on the phone. Taking our conversations & check-ins beyond the digital & fortifying them in other natural worlds. I have begun to abandon my own hang-ups regarding my voice & can share that navigation with my kin. I exposit this to contextualize how this conversation with Michell'e comes at the perfect apex of my capacity & the cultural need for this documentation. The urgency spurned by the Editorial team at The Tenth, saw us, two Black Trans creatives, navigating the terrains so desperate for Black Queer mapping.
The Lady speaks: “This new year has been f-ing amazing.” Just under a week into 2018, Michell'e & I are able to connect for a genuine kiki. Because of technological constraints, but to my secret delight, we were only able to manage an audio call. I saw this because Michell'e Michaels is inarguably one of the most beautiful people on the planet. This beauty is intentional as it renders any surveyor speechless. Trust me, you can hear it in her voice. The light in her voice is neon & unwavering, it flickers only to remind you of the currents that flow beneath. Or her voice is a collective blossoming of every spring flower demanding nourishment from our fatalistic sun.
I am curious about the relentless softness of Michell'e’s aesthetic; its cultivation of humanity around rituals of remaking oneself. As a performance artist, model, critically-acclaimed Beyoncé illusionist, & Overall Mother of Saint Laurent, Michell'e Michaels is the coagulation of romantic migration & an unapologetic commitment to self.
Michell'e Michaels’ persistence began “way back to the back-back” as a young Black queer in a very normative East Oakland hood family. Called “creative” as a code for different, Michell'e leaned into artistic expression & resisted obstacles even in childhood. At the age of eight, refusing to be denied the chance to tap, Michell'e forged her parents signature & began her formal training. Find support from her mother, in covert operation of her father, young Michell'e would show & perform & compete with her dance. Between training & the prevalence of music videos, dance remained a constant medium for her artistic practice. As home life shifted, her performance experience grew as she became a professional dancer at a local studio, giving way to more creative arts in high school. Despite unquestionable physical skill, she failed high school PE & was permitted to take a dance class at the local community college, which opened up her artistic practices to other genres e.g., fashion, interior decorating, costumes, sewing, & one of her best known skills: hair design. While the labor of art had already become a distinct passion, young Michell'e found it increasingly unrealistic to live at home with her stepfather & his wife. Having already acquired a job at 14, Michell'e persuaded her family to emancipate her at 15, giving her the chance to take the world for which she felt long ready. “I was pretty rebellious but very disciplined,” she reflects.
Once leaving her adolescent home, though still in high school, Michell'e connected with the local House/Ballroom scene through workers at local youth centers. After attending a party, Michell'e recalls the experience fondly: “I seen these girls that were performing & they were beat outta their mind & I was like what the fuck?” The rundown of the scene was only confirmation of a secret dream Michell'e had been living for years. “I was secretly dressing in drag & doing my makeup & stealing my sister & cousins’ clothes… but now I actually had a title for what this could be, or what I could possibly do. It just all made sense at this point, where has the world been all my life, this is what I’d been looking for…” The acceptance that came from this community was critical to how Michell'e fortified her creative ethic. She took on the challenge of innovation the Balls create with stride. “You give someone like me a category, asking ‘we wanna see what your vision of this is’ —that’s what really motivated me.” Michell'e created a home there for several years until her graduation from high school, where she promptly moved to Los Angeles. Like 3 days after receiving the diploma. “From everything that I learned … I just took it and just ran with it”.
Eager but still focused, Michell'e quickly obtains her cosmetology license & begins to nail down salon jobs & hair design gigs. This was the first instance, Michell’e stepped into her resilience. Facing the responsibilities of school, work & living as an active 18,19-year-old in sunny Los Angeles, Michell’e learned how to balance her ambition & her joy. As her beauty career flourished she fell in love & decided to pick up her entire life & try domesticity with her first partner halfway across the country in Texas. As her then partner began establishing himself, she faced new considerations of family & home, putting her craft on indefinite hiatus.
Yet, something, many things, with her remained unfulfilled & Michell'e knew she had to begin her physical transition—having always truly known. She recalls unsolicited dissent from those close to her, “People were always: ‘you’re going to ruin your life,’ ‘trannies don’t get love.' It’s just negative, negative, negative, & these are my best friends… telling me [I’m] not gonna be shit if I decide to make this decision.” However in this new place, her first love was an early affirmer of her need to transition & she began with his full support. Surrendering to love was another turning point. Michell’e recalls “Wanting the ideal. The ideal perception of what you think it is when you are younger… in losing myself (in him) & I was also pushed to find myself.” Her partner’s faith motivated her to dig deeper into her own trappings of purpose & possibility. So she began to seek out self-help books & reading & “coming into the new age of things... Everything I had before, I was able to let go, so I was like a sponge & I took that on like a fucking religion.” She was looking for what could define her as a Trans woman, as a Black woman.
After returning to Northern California with her first love, she was navigating her process discreetly & studying to be a registered nurse. She kept everybody out & avoided her art in an attempt to commit to this personal work. A real TS Susie Homemaker, she remembers: “Whenever we moved to an apartment, I would paint it, make furniture, decorate it, just the whole interior design aspect would be done by me even down to changing the light bulbs. I was painting all the artwork in the house so I did have my little creative outlets around the house & it made me feel good to make a home more than just a house.” Still, like things do, that love came to an end. As the relationship began to fracture, a former love from Michell'e’s past was there to reconcile. The lure of a familiar intimacy took Michell'e back across the country to Atlanta, abandoning her schooling & California life behind for a second time. She was promised a support system for her art, even if not in the city she originally dreamed. Yet, the cycle returned & new old love did not have her creative future at heart & she found his disloyalty extended beyond the emotional. Not received by the Atlanta performance scene & now without the love that brought her there, she immediately realized she needed to calibrate herself back to her goals & aspirations. She headed back to Los Angeles with all she had left without any interest in failure. “Then I really started to thrive,” she affirms.
Restarting her performance practice, she began performing “on boxes in small ass clubs,” but still continued to perfect her craft. As she beautifully describes, it “allowed [her] to get into [herself].” Then one particular night, she had honed her Beyoncé impersonation & her reputation spread like wildfire. She got two other club gigs from that one performance (though she lost one for not knowing she was only allowed to do ONE pop-star & pulling a Rihanna number) & the Beyoncé calls kept rolling in. This brings us to one of most pivotal moments in Michell’e’s career.
Just after Lemonade (2016), Beyoncé’s visual & sonic magnum opus gathered its bevy of Emmy nominations. Michell’e along with Glass Wing Group, a trans art collective in Southern California, created a pitch-perfect alternate version featuring trans & gender-non-conforming Black women. “Lemonade Served Bittersweet,” as it was titled is an excellent example of what makes Michell’e Michaels work so captivating: she humanizes the often misread “superhuman” Beyoncé. The Queen Bey is a staple of queer performance & gender illusionists but there is something so complete about Michell’e’s Beyoncé. She states,“My motto is if you are going to do anything, or be somebody then you be the best fucking at it.” You can almost see it more when she is in her everyday glamour. You can see it on her instagram. She has studied the breath, softness, & density of Beyoncé’s performance but brings her own personal understanding of self. “There are certain things that make Beyoncé Beyoncé,” Michell’e reflects, “But I also put my own spin on it as an artist that also makes it myself, making better by making it something the masses haven’t seen. It makes it more than a copycat.”
With “close to perfection” as a personal aesthetic, Michell’e has learned to keep perfection from hindering her production & just committing to quality. “My art was what I wanted & couldn’t nobody get it the way — if you get in the way, b*tch you are going to wayside — i’ve cut off, what i thought was the love of my life, i done cut off my family & friends before, so nobody can come into my life & be safe if they are not supporting my art” The accumulation of skills both professional & emotional guided Michell’e toward her purpose, but that path was laid by decisions to stop apologizing and abandon compromise for the sake of her love, for the sake of her art. She is looking forward & upward, and ultimately creating a non-profit to better support TWOC who are creating & performing their own stories. What Michell’e seems to curate through such explicit intention is an organic humanity. She materializes the incessancy of her expression by focusing on the dynamics of beauty. She find the whole in the body that is too often demanded to be broken.
still really thinking about the fugitive as one running backwards.
like i love that idea that now i'm running backwards
and taking all the things i don't want lost into the future with me —
From here forward, we consider the archive. We are here in a future history, a past tomorrow, a present tense. Regardless of how one chooses to calibrate their time — linear, cyclical, multidimensional — we cannot refute we are living in ubiquitous trajectories. Call that unknown whatever you need: a peace, a void, a heaven, another chance, a returning. If we can name Death, plainly here for a moment.—the material end of the act—it feels impossible to consider it with any sort of justice. How it is projected on the Black, the Queer, the Femme & divine & relentless. There is no conspiracy but centuries of language being undone. Black Queer art gutted & skinned. Black women’s labor suckled barren. The fatigue of declaring yourself human against deadly familial prejudice. The Black queer subject as Ei. Jane illuminates via Fred Moten, is fugitive (under the surveillance / policing within & outside of community) & the trajectory is not necessarily away but in recovery. This positions of fugitivity as a migration archive. The question returns: so what of the future?
If the present is any indicator, the renaissance of Black Queer & Trans visibility is finding its ways into lasting canons of popular culture. The “margins,” as diversity conversations love to romanticize, seems to be an increasingly archaic language for the narratives of the formerly silenced now finally burgeoning forth with hopeless abandon. The margins have been burned down & it’s gone viral & now it's a meme. Your Margin Crush Monday could never. Visibility, however, is nothing in this economy without consumption.
Before wrapping up with Michell’e, I asked her about this shift in visibility & what it means for our culture. She summarized it perfectly: We’ve always been in the background. We have stories on stories behind us. Times are changing & the girls are finally getting their graces. Pop culture changes & I think it’s amazing that everybody gets a chance when people live out loud…that’s when the lines will change. ’Cause it’s alway been us. We just haven’t gotten our recognition. It’s going to take people in the public eye to continue to be open & honest & give credit where credit is due. Artists are not recognized till they're fucking dead & that’s a problem.
So we return to Death, not as an end of the pursuit, but another cost of such a feat. Trying to change the future as some grand social project acts like a weather pattern in a void. Consider the liminal aspect of our lives reason to pour the most magnificent into it. To create in the Romantic requires abandon of many material fears for the vitality of being. We as the Black queer find the best way to slouch toward that excellence.