Black Is, Black Ain’t: “Unnatural by Whose Standard?”

Women in the Black Panther Party (Wikimedia Commons)

Representations of Blackness in film and other visual mediums have often presented Black identity in ways that are limiting and exclusionary. To counter ideologies that push a fixed idea of “Blackness,” Marlon Riggs’ award-winning documentary Black Is . . . Black Ain’t explores the fluidity of Black identity by raising the questions, “What’s [Black] enough? And who’s to judge?” In the 1995 film, the filmmaker, poet, and activist captures various elements of Black identity and challenges the viewer to embrace all people who identify or live as “Black.” Riggs’ ability to compellingly conceptualize the fluidity of Black identity is moving and interposed with stories, images, skits, poems, and songs. He uses these elements to highlight the repercussions of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, homophobia in Black communities, and society’s anti-Black racism. Although it premiered nearly three decades ago, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t is still a powerful medium of resistance to challenge fixed perceptions of Blackness that mainstream media promotes. It is equally helpful for others who may still struggle with personal notions of what it means to be Black.

Riggs’ documentary emerged amongst a backdrop where Black leaders, the Black church, and white institutions habitually promote cis-heteronormative and patriarchal ideas about Black experiences, Black families, sexuality, and more. Such ideas manifest into some Black people’s use of homophobic and transphobic terms to dehumanize Black gay and trans people and negate their claim to Blackness. Even further negative stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS and people’s belief that a positive diagnosis equates to immorality did not help to create a unified Black community in the late 1990s. When I wrote about Spelman College’s transgender admissions policy in 2018, Black feminist educator and activist Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall explained in an interview why homophobia and transphobia still run rampant in Black communities. Guy-Sheftall said that, although students learn about intersectionality in the curriculum, “they also have learned in their churches or at home that people who are queer are ill, or people who are queer are predatory . . . It’s not easy to unlearn those deeply held beliefs that you’ve been taught.” Moreover, Guy-Sheftall noted Black communities often focus primarily on racial issues rather than queer issues, signaling what she called a “lack of comfort around dealing with intra-community issues.” This hesitancy to even acknowledge intra-community issues continues to serve as a barrier for Black communities to become a unified front in the face of a wider white society.

Riggs’ film was—and continues to be—a meaningful attempt to address the intra-community issues created by queerphobic, transphobic, racist, colorist, misogynist, ableist ideologies. The centering of Black Is . . . Black Ain’t around Black gay and lesbian people and their experiences in America was an intentional choice by Riggs, an HIV-positive gay man, to reorient Black LGBT+ and HIV/AIDS-positive people as rightful bearers of Blackness. Especially moving was the scene where Riggs and choreographer Bill T. Jones discussed the wholeness of being human by describing how masculinity and femininity fuse within the body. Jones says the woman within him is Black; the woman “swaggers and sways . . . she is strong . . . spiritual . . . she loves the man in me.” Likewise, the man in him “dances, he leaps, he’s wild when he moves,” and the man and woman inside “walk together, and they run together . . . and they roll around together” until they become one. Beautifully illustrating the fluidity of the human experience allows the men and others to consider that what one thinks is inherently masculine or feminine is really just a narrow sliver of what both terms truly mean. Creating space for both feminine and masculine energy to coexist in one Black body—and in different capacities—relieves the pressure for the men to uphold hypermasculine notions of Black manhood. Riggs and Jones reclaim their human experience and express themselves unapologetically, sensually, and artistically to assert their right to both masculinity and femininity as Black beings.

Furthermore, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t aptly features the late feminist, activist, and scholar bell hooks, who explained that Black people must “replace the notion of unity with the notion of communion.” Riggs’s film tackles this controversial work by presenting modes of Blackness, Black queerness, and Black sexuality through scenes of the “Snap!” queen, or poetry from fellow gay activist Essex Hemphill. In one of Hemphill’s poems, for instance, he notes that for Black gay people, “Silence is our deadliest weapon. We both use it. Precisely. Often.” The line discloses the invisibility Black LGBT+ people have had to endure to be accepted in their community, sometimes to their own detriment. Riggs continues to chip away at a set Black identity in the documentary by adding sociopolitical commentary from Black gay scholars, feminists, artists, and others to make clear the realities each Black subject lives with. In another scene, feminist Barbara Smith recalls how people would tell her she was not a member of the Black community because she is a lesbian. Knowing all she has contributed to the community, she rebuts the claim saying, “I know I’m a part of the Black community in every single way that is important.” The power in her words reveal that one individual cannot strip away anyone else’s Blackness solely because that person’s Blackness deviates from an enclosed definition of the “Black experience.”

In Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, Riggs incorporates the history and emergence of the slogans “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful” to counteract the psychological harm tied to generations of anti-Black racism, colorism, and internalized self-hate. The unlearning Black people in the 1960s had to do to even accept a phrase that shamelessly values Blackness further accentuated Angela Davis’ point that “Black is Beautiful” was “a slogan that indicated a politics of struggle.” Even today, there are still ideological forces that attack or punish subjects like Black Texas teenager Darryl George, who was expelled for the length of his dreadlocks; the late Sandra Bland, an outspoken activist who was killed in 2015 by police; or track and field star Sha’Carri Richardson for loving their Blackness. After seeing Riggs’ film, I wish that all young Black adolescents could see the documentary, especially during the years that individuals form their foundational sense of self and being. I wish the metaphorical Black “gumbo” story referenced in Black is . . . Black Ain’t was one my mother or grandmother told me while I was growing up.

Near the end of the documentary, Riggs’s recollection of a dream with Harriet Tubman was a call to action to the viewer to embrace the possibilities of all Black identities. In the dream, Riggs walks with Tubman across a river in a dark, forested place. The interviewer asks Riggs what the dream means, to which he replies: “Overcoming the present crisis . . . If I have work, then I’m not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me—that which wants to connect with other people and pass on something, something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from.” If Tubman’s presence in Riggs’ dream is an indicator of the perpetual spirit of her work to liberate hundreds of enslaved people, so too is the late Riggs’ ongoing presence and work to liberate the minds of people who “delimit the possibilities of what Blackness can be,” in the words of E. Patrick Johnson. Riggs even leaves room for viewers to consider alternative representations of Blackness from the identities he has presented in his film. He accomplishes this through his strategic choice to talk courageously about his impending death from HIV/AIDS. Images of Riggs’ body wandering through a seemingly unending forest also becomes a symbolic navigation of all the possibilities of Blackness; his naked Black, gay, HIV/AIDS-positive body becomes natural in the context of its earthly and imagined surroundings. In the forest, Riggs can say that his naked truth is “unnatural by whose standard?”

Riggs’ radical faith that the Black community will maintain an inclusive “sense of communal self” is still a goal awaiting manifestation. When individuals see that our subject identities are created not only in opposition to other identities, but in affirmation of the signifiers and experiences we claim for ourselves, every Black person will be able to appreciate and enjoy the Black gumbo in all of its varieties and with all of its savory ingredients.

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Tiffany Pennamon

Tiffany Pennamon, M.S., is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English at the University of Florida. She is also a freelance writer and artist. Follow them on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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