Ongoing Civilian R&D: A Cultural Quest: Part Two

There is often a glacial process of erosion before something finally goes out. Linguistically, from ancient conquests to modern conquests, the native languages ​​of the whole world finally passed to this unfortunate mass extinction: the poetic Mozarabic of Al-Andalus was replaced by the Iberian languages ​​of Spanish and Portuguese. The Nubian languages, long without a country to speak of, continue their steep slope, slowly supplanted by Arabic. Unfortunately, most native languages ​​on what became American soil were decimated by English expansion.

Socially speaking, however, in our landscape today, the process of extermination seems unprecedentedly accelerated. We are being cascaded by fanatics and their stans, using their hate languages, to legally erase marginalized identities. Educational books are prohibited. The story that exposes the raw, continuing truth of America’s history is being weeded out and beyond it, recent legislation seeks to pass from state to state, punishing people for even saying the word gay.

As someone who navigates the nuances of being both black and gay, the very fabric of my being is attacked by the harsh hypocrisy of these actions. As an artist, I watch daily as these social typhoons threaten to knock me past the margins and off the page entirely.

Baby Phillip staring at social typhoons trying to stress him out back when all he wanted was his bottle and Secret Bear.

Well, I deny their careless stories and embody an alternative. My platform on and off the stage aims to combat this sacred heteronormative stratification that permeates our tired world by creating a universe that amplifies and embraces queer spectrum-wide narratives told through the prism of the African diaspora.

In the first part of my article written last week, I recounted how the absence of cultural identity resulting from historical and paternal erasure catapulted me into a permanent cultural quest to be in communion with the community. I also experienced an equal intersectional absence of the two identities central to my being.

In my youth (well, calm as it is, my doctor says I’m still in my youth and healthy so there’s that!), as a black kid, hungry for queer representation to the point of starvation, I eagerly ate the queer-coded crumbs offered in media such as the all-too-brief filmography of James Dean, Aquarius and Scorpio moon, especially in “Rebel Without a Cause. I would salivate at any clues, gems fallen deep in the oceans, where I, a non-Olympic diver, had to dive deep for those recognizable moments of oddity.

Baby Phillip in his youth. He remembers climbing on it!

But my hunger wanted food and asked for more.

In college and graduate school, I discovered a plethora of plays by queer playwrights writing about queer characters, often free from the suffocating stigma of the queer coding of yesteryear. Luckily hoping my hunger was finally satisfied, I thought I could relate to a lot of the work as a member of the Queer community.

But I often found myself struggling with their lack of nuance and intersectionality. I was pained to see how black and non-white characters, whether on the Queer spectrum or not in many of these advertised works, were portrayed. On the page or on stage, they tended to function as marginalized props without meaningful background or agency. They have often been eradicated and written in a way that straight people describe us. The focus of these queer classics was always told through an exclusive racial lens and not the inclusive gaze of our shared queer spectrum that I was led to believe would be more welcoming, would be.

The theatrical queer canon often has a disconnect by race, class, and gender. It’s hard to feel in tune with the community when the community can find subtle and blatant ways to excommunicate you and not represent you. These -isms ultimately reveal a larger social problem: oppressed groups too can propagate the oppression of others while experiencing a similar form of oppression themselves. When the oppressed oppress others, the common denominator that connects them to the original oppressor is their desired adjacent seat next to heteronormativity.

It reminds me of how legendary civil rights activist Ida B. Wells would similarly point out the flaws of feminism from her white feminist counterparts who would always despise the contributions of black women to the movement because they chose the solidarity with their race rather than their failure to see the intersectionality of the two. Susan B Anthony said, “I’ll cut off my right arm before I work or demand the nigger vote and not the woman vote,” after all. Ummm…where exactly did that leave black women, Suzie? Nor was his counterpart, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, any better in her long-documented racist, ableist and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Thinking about how I could broaden the horizons of the queer canon and intersectionally populate it with more soulful colors of the rainbow, I envisioned a world in which Afro-queer characters would live unapologetically and free from the colonial and imperial gaze that the dominant culture insists on.

This innovation led me to the creation of The sun catchers of the Sahel: an ancestral tale told to the present days Griot, part I & II, which I developed during my residency as a 2021-2022 member of the civilian R&D group. Part II will be presented at the end of June during their “Finding Series”. (More information coming soon!)

Writing about the queer experience in a period setting, the angle of oppression is a lens through which it is often told. This is certainly understandable, as white supremacist ideals have contributed to the denial, isolation, and repression of our authentic selves in literature and life.

But with sun catcher, from what little information I then knew to be true from MOTHERland, I wanted to write about those ancestors who were on the queer spectrum but the fact that they were on the spectrum didn’t matter to them, like for heteronormative Europe outside the world. It was part of their daily life. Just like breathing.

In fact, in most pre-European contact societies, the queerness experience was much the same. Bright Alozie, Assistant Professor of Black Studies at Portland State, in his essay, “Did Europe Bring Homophobia to Africa,” illustrates how queerness has long been indigenous to Africa since the jump. Not as a “perversion”, but as a natural part of life. He also answers the question in his title, with a simple yes:

“The Portuguese, among the first Europeans to explore the African continent (in 1445), noted in their ethnographic reports a range of male-to-male sexual relations among the Congolese which they described as ‘unnatural damnation’….they were intolerant towards same-sex relationships and have established monitoring and regulatory systems to express it.

“Unnatural damnation”… The rhetoric of the past turned out to be the prologue to the rhetoric we hear today. He is a direct sectarian descendant. Full. Stop.

Professor Alozie further provides historical evidence of how there was an “interconnected universe [that] allows males to turn into females and females to turn into males. Gender fluidity was expressed through Queen Njinga Mbanda, who fought the Portuguese throughout her reign, in modern Angola who “often dressed as men, married ‘wives’ and had a harem of men who ‘she had dressed as women’. She called herself a “husband wife” and a “king, during battles.” Pass, Woman King!

It should also be noted that “in ancient Buganda (now Uganda), King Mwanga II, who strongly opposed colonialism and Christianity, was an openly gay monarch. The practice of same-sex relationships was widespread among the Siwa people of Egypt, the Beninese people of Nigeria, the Nzima people of Ghana, the San people of Zimbabwe, and the Pangwe people of present-day Gabon and Cameroon.

PHEW!
never learned any this side!

As I consumed this delicious four-course deli informational meal, I felt comforted that my work of historical fiction inspired by historical facts, honored the vast hidden Afro-Queer history ultimately untold.

But it simultaneously made me cry.

I wish I had grown up in a social climate where the environment embraced the fairness of my dualities. I want those of generations below me in more restrictive regions to also feel the freedom. I want the past to be welcomed into our present instead of a whitewashed future.

But what comforts me and gives me hope as I mourn the tumultuous weather of these times is realizing how far I have come further along the Yellow Brick Road in my cultural quest for community, while acknowledging the many more miles to be covered on the sidewalk.

I’m starting to see a more equitable experience of homosexuality in the media. Moonlight, for example, seemed so familiar to me, to the point that I felt exposed! Listen, between you and me, I may or may not have had the same exact same conversation adult Chiron and adult Kevin had in the movie’s third act long before it was even a movie! I can’t confirm or deny it, so, I mean, your guess is as good as mine 😊 (Okay, OK!!! I was the adult Chiron in the situation if you must to know)

That’s what Phillip is bound to do whenever “Moonlight” is mentioned.

I am engulfed with members of my tribe and beautiful allies. Family allies like my sister Duanna, the greatest living Libra, who called me one day last year and said she wanted to come to Pride that year with me to support me as a ally. Allies like my brother Duane, the greatest living Aries, who when I walked out to him, said “You’re my brother, Phillip, I love you” and started hugging me! And allies like my youngest brother Cutter, who kept saying, “You know I love you, my dear brother!”

Duanna and Phillip serving a look with pride at NYC 2021 Pride.
Phillip and Duanna serving as a second look during NYC 2021 Pride.

PHEW!!!
Abundance of love will be still feed my soul!

Cutter, Duanna, Phillip and Duane on December 24, 2019 in a pre-pandemic world!

I am the curator of a corner of paradise on earth with a work that I am extremely proud to present where I have the honor of reaffirming the resilience of the brilliance of my ancestor and of unearthing them as hidden figures, hidden more .

They existed then. We existed then. As we exist now. As we will continue to exist in the future.

Combat all schisms within -isms.

Ase!

Philip Gregory Burke is an Aquarius, artist, actor, and writer living in New York City. You can follow him @PhillipGBurke on the gram and tweets.

Photo by Darnell Bennett.


Extended Play is a project of The Civilians. To learn more about The Civilians and access exclusive discounts on shows, visit us and join our mailing list at TheCivilians.org.



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