I have remained mostly silent on #MeToo, even though my work provokes critical empathy through personal vulnerability and acts of retribution. Now I, a subaltern, am speaking about the act of naming names in the first time I’m being formally compensated for my suffering on this issue.
Regarding naming names, many reports highlight outrageous situations that elide the everyday nature of sexual harassment for women of color. It’s hard to know what consent is while attempting to position myself for the things I desire in life. I may have experienced “sexual” harassment, but it may have been intracommunity microaggressions. Frequent sufferers of microaggressions often question if they indeed happened at all,1 and women of color, especially queer and poor ones, experience gender as an intersectional violence that cannot separate race, class, or sexuality.2 My act of naming names is embroiled in a historical battle to protect my queer body, my Black labor, and my fast-beating, working heart.
To acknowledge my experiences would be to acknowledge the effect of “controlling images,” such as Jezebel and Mammy, as described by Patricia Hill Collins3. The burden of representation and, more important to me, the value of my work come into my mouth when I name potential aggressors, and neither the legal system nor public opinion has protected a Black woman from early death by overwork or career suicide.
I work too hard around the powerful people, who have held my hand, kissed me on the mouth, slapped my butt, asked me to sit on their lap, or gave me access to something just for the purpose of getting me alone. I often respectfully declined, but these might be people I would want a relationship with—if the power differential didn’t lead to a profound sense of loss and inequality. Yes, I could consent; but most of my relationships have reproduced a paradigm that already exists, and therefore I have never experienced real equality in intimacy. What makes the art world any different? For my list of names, what will I get but a broken heart and more work?
Usually, when a survivor speaks her truth, the risk is now lower because the perpetrator is dead or the woman is successful enough to protect herself financially or litigiously. Coco Fusco’s disheartening yet familiar disclosure of her experiences came many years after she’s established herself with a platform and as an appeal to reassess arts education and moments of her academic career where she was successfully silenced.4 A second type of scenario involves the survivor being in the unenviable position of “being had,” that is, her career has shown no fruit from her barren silence, and the perpetrator enjoyed a lifelong, successful ride on the bridge of her back. Naming transfers the matter out of her body and into the now-notorious man’s work. No one knows her name, though.
I experience both scenarios intensely and at once. My career, if we trust trends, is on the verge of something great. Maybe I can protect myself from maybe-harassers or definite ones. However, I remain a threat to anyone who values cis-het male supremacy in any racial form, no matter how “great” I become. I have been told directly by maybe-harassers that they have to “watch out for me” or are “terrified by me.” Other refrains are less harmful: my work doesn’t fit (i.e. conform to tokenization and identitarian politics), lacks legibility (i.e. resists “Black/queer” revisions of aesthetic formalism or White art history), and is too honest (i.e. threatening). I see the jolt of surprise when the maybe-harassers encounter me in a space they didn’t think I was valid enough to also exist. I am the ghost of assaults past, wailing not speaking, quickly ascending and hovering, working without dying. Also true is that many who have supported me the most, through action not words, have questionable reputations regarding treatment of women, despite the fact they always answer me, curate or write about my work, invite me to the table, and have not harassed me personally.
I woke up this morning up at 4 am, like I do every weekday, to work on my art “work” before I have to “go to work” and serve others. For the institutions that want to critically engage the names they’ve been given, I ask, “How can we redistribute power to those who rightfully distrust what we stand for?” or “Who has to work too hard to be heard, too?” Tarana Burke and her lifelong activism does that hard labor.5 Do that work. I can imagine for those who just want to work—without having more work to be a public intellectual figure, like me—that this essay might be incapacitating. So on behalf of both of us, I ask: when you remove the artwork, what are you going to replace it with? When will we get our shows? Or more directly, when are you going to work for us?
1 Derald Wing Sue, Microaggressions and Marginality : Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010).
2 Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color (Women of Color at the Center: Selections from the Third National Conference on Women of Color and the Law),” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6 (July 1991), 1241.
4 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought : Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990).