Queering the Epistemology of the Quarantine

A Queer Quarantine: This is for all of us, Black/Brown queers, now they see us because they are us.

They laugh to conceal their crying,

They shuffle through their dreams

They stepped ’n fetched a country

And wrote the blues in screams.

I understand their meaning,

It could and did derive

From living on the edge of death

They kept my race alive

By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha![1]

“Ahh, I see that’s that survival apparatus!”[2] Dr. Maya Angelou exclaims as she performs her poem “The Mask.” Written in 1988 as an adaptation of Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s poem “We wear the Mask,” the poem is a mashup of Dunbar’s conceptualizations with her own poem “For Old Black Men”. Angelou describes “the mask” as a “the two-facedness that black people had to have in the country to survive. To grin and bear it, and then to bear the unbearable that this is who they were.” This mask is not only a strategy of survival, but a methodology for survival, as well. The poem was inspired by a scene Maya Angelou witnessed while riding a bus in New York City. She noticed a black woman who was working as a maid, laughing[3], (excerpted from the documentary “Still I Rise”). Whenever the bus stopped abruptly she laughed and when it stopped slowly she laughed. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed. Later Dr. Angelou explains that “Black Americans, for centuries, were obliged to laugh when they’re weren’t tickled and to scratch when they didn’t itch.”[4] Throughout centuries, black people have been forced to survive in a world that is predicated on the social and lived death of black bodies. Creating our own spaces is a necessary and fundamental tool of survival. While reflecting on Dr. Angelou’s poem, I began to think about my own practiced survival tactics that I regularly use in my everyday life, especially in this time of pandemic-induced social distancing and quarantine. As I maneuver within the complexities of seemingly private and less-so-public spaces in quarantine, I do so with some level of familiarity as I, like many black/brown queer trans folks, know what it means to survive in an isolated/foreign land. We wear the mask because we know about survivability and want to live, but what if wearing the mask doesn’t mean hide who you are, but for us to merely be seen and heard. Perhaps COVID19 is the gateway for allowing the majority to enter into a way of being in the world where death is always intimately and acutely near and bodies are restricted in how one operates and moves throughout space.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS/HIV epidemic spread across the United States, but mainly through the communities of Gay/Bisexual Men, disproportionately affecting folks of color. Similar to the xenophobic violence against Asian Americans during this particular health crisis, during this time of the AIDS/HIV epidemic there were a vast amount of discrimination and homophobia spreading and pervading throughout homes, family, school, and community settings. What does it mean to survive in a community that you often call home? In other words, as one who stands in the intersection of blackness and queerness as a black non-binary person, I have seen what it means to walk in black cultural spaces, often times being forced to hide my queerness in order to survive. Likewise, I have also walked into queer spaces where my blackness was “too black.” I have found myself “wearing the mask” no matter where what space I occupy. It is a layer of “protective covering” that my skin is all too familiar with adorning.

Within this particular crisis moment, I have noticed that white folks are afraid to die, to the point of communal paranoia. Looking at the “other” as if they are the reason Rona is roaming around. Thinking about the quarantine from the perspective of being a black queer/trans person, I have been reflecting on how self-isolation might affect the person on a holistic scale (emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and physically). Recently the Mayor of Durham, Steve Schewel, announced that from now on when going into public spaces face masks must be worn to protect each other from contracting or spreading COVID19. I have even seen signs on grocery stores, stating “you must wear a mask before you enter here”. Before COVID19, we were the mask, we as in Black/Brown Queer Folks, we were the mask to identify each other, protect each other, and to love each other. See the one who is wearing the mask is the one with the actual power, walking through spaces being seen and heard, yet holding space where only they can let the other in. Walking through this land, holding the space of a “culture of dissemblance”[5] that is forming a community wear only its members can determine the code. Masks, we wear them because it is a safe and sacred space and the idea of going home becomes a foreign land: “I must forsake ‘home’(comfort zones, both personal and cultural) every day of my life to keep burgeoning into the tree of myself. Luckily, the roots of my tree are deep enough in la cultura mexicana and strong enough to support a widespread branch system.” What Gloria Anzaldua is speaking to is the idea that forsaking home for those with queer identities is not what we want to do in order to grow but it is something that has become a necessary obligation if one is to increase chances of survivability. An obligation becomes a habit, and well as DSmoke states, habits become medicine.

As we approach one month of being in quarantine, I am realizing that there are queers still fucking, still conversing, still self-caring, all while following and practicing government-mandated rules. Queers are still creating communities that are filled care and mutuality. I was recently attack by a white woman claiming to be my friend in reminding me that I was not social distancing. The conversation went like this:

Patrolling Karen: K.K. this isn’t social distancing!!!

J: It’s just him and I and I am wearing mask.

Patrolling Karen : Ugh okay I love you so much, but this is frustrating. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a mask, we need to all be avoiding any unnecessary social contact. The CDC has clearly stated masks should be worn for necessary stuff like going to the store, but they aren’t fully protective and there’s no reason to risk it for the sake of seeing friends.

J: Blank Face

I thought about how this conversation, stemming from a white perspective, though to her derived from a place of love, but to me this emanates from a place of privilege. The number of black people dying from COVID19 is astronomical, but the media largely ignores the devastating racialized economic factors behind the overrepresentation of black folks among the country’s fatalities. As black and brown queers, we have formed a community as a means to survive because we know that traditional notions of home is not a safe place, but rather home is a space that we create to exist in. I mourn the millions of people in poverty who cannot to get their groceries delivered, so risking their health becomes a daily habit every time they walk into a grocery store. I ponder about how we are forced to go in the public spaces with these homemade masks on but we forget that black/brown folks wearing masks have been reduced to criminality status as if we weren’t already aims for death.

Queer black and brown folks continue to share space with each other because we need it: “Black magic, black excellence, Black habits, this black medicine, everything Black Chucks, black tux, everything, everything Black hug, black love, everything Praise black Jesus, play black Moses” (D.Smoke, Black Habits a Remix). I constantly think about these words and have begun to remix them as: “Queer magic, queer excellence, queer habits, this queer medicine, everything Queer Chucks, queer tux, everything, everything Queer hug, Queer love, everything Praise queer Jesus, play queer Moses.” We need the communal pleasures in these lyrics to survive these times, and sometimes virtual pleasures can’t do. Our lungs need to breathe and our bodies need to be touched, seen, heard, and behold. We understand that there is no queerness without tragedy because this is the ends and outs of what it means to survive in a world where tragedy always finds a way in. We know what it means to survive and survive we will, because we are the black queer children of Marsha.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_HLol9InMlc Dr. Maya Angelou explains and recites the poem “The Masks”

[2] Ibid

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5]Dr. Hines coins the term “culture of dissemblance” to describe a “cult of secrecy” practiced by black women during the Reconstruction era American Middle West in order “to protect the sanctity of inner aspects of their lives” Dr. Hines speaks to the behaviors of black women who survive day to day life. I am speaking in the same matter but to the voices of Black and Brown Queer/trans folks, in how these masks are symbolism as to form communities in order to survive during these times.

Black Queer Storyteller looking to heal the world through words. What is your story?