Black Radical Drag
It was in hot and sweaty venues with music and strobe lights that I discovered identity was negotiable. Before I turned the legal age of 18 in my hometown of Atlanta, I saw identity as something fixed. In gay clubs, I quickly learned that identity was liquid, able to flow and transform based off of the container and environmental circumstance.
This was no more obvious than when it came to drag queens. Every weekend I would experience cis men, cis women, trans women, and non-binary folks all having access to this exaggerated, high-femme performance that was as ravishing as it was comical. I’d laugh, dance, and drink with these vixens because they were my friends and gave me an implicit type of permission that I could also play with femininity despite my cis boy status. The most interesting moment for me during those disco nights was when the drag was retired. Wigs fell on the floor. Heels came off. Lipstick was removed. And everyone returned back to who they truly were instead of a campy caricature of a woman. It was fascinating to realize some people lived inside of totally different, more privileged identities than what they performed on stage. And some people lived identities that were close parallels to who they were in drag, albeit less campy and dramatic, but still women or visibly femme.
These observations forever transformed how I would see identity versus performance. There was a usefulness in drag: it freed the room to find joy, transgress gender, to embrace queerness. However, drag was not reality. Some people lived what others simply performed.
Football player Colin Kaepernick covered a recent issue of GQ magazine styled in a leather jacket, black turtleneck, and a perfectly round afro. The look on his face was serious. He was styled after black radical leftist and leader of the Black Panther Party, Huey P. Newton. In the same editorial, he recreates the famous image of Muhammad Ali visiting Africa during his famous The Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman. Kaepernick traded Ali’s Africa setting for Harlem, NY.
The equivalences made through these images reminded me of drag once again, but this time the drag of black radicalism. These images beg for a comparison between Kaepernick’s radicalism with that of Ali and Newton’s, but with further inspection into the politics of the two men and Kaepernick, the politics simply don’t line up.
Huey P. Newton’s politics were anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary. He was interested in the radical idea of totally dismantling oppressive systems in order to create new, more fair ones. The ideas he shared with the rest of the members of the Black Panther Party created programs like The Free Lunch Program that fed hungry children and other programs that subverted established systems and centered disenfranchised people. They replaced healthcare and policing institutions with their own. Muhammad Ali suffered immensely for his strong pro-black and anti-war politics. He was stripped of his boxing license and even sentenced to five years in prison. Ali strategically and purposefully aligned himself with black leftists such as radical black activist Malcolm X and polarizing communist revolutionary Fidel Castro. This is all during the echo of McCarthyism, an era in our nation’s history where any affiliation with anything aligned with communism or socialism could have resulted in your career being disavowed and you being tracked and investigated by the FBI.
Colin Kaepernick is at best an altruistic reformist. He optimistically places his money in organizations that help people find relief from oppressive systems, which is admirable, but he does little revolutionary work that goes toward creating new systems like the men he was compared to through those editorial images. For example, Colin Kaepernick donated $25,000 to Communities United for Police Reform, an organization that fights for the reform of the prison and police systems. Huey P. Newton, who he was mirroring on the cover, founded the Black Panther Party which called for the abolishment of the prison system and police. Conflating these two men’s images also conflates their politics in ways that are dishonest.
This haphazard editorializing perpetuates a myth that all black labor and effort towards justice are identical and don’t deserve nuance. The idea is that black people are monolithic within our practices and desire. In reality, Black people disagree about how we will best arrive at freedom and equity: some think reform, some think revolution, and some think it is an impossibility. Creating images that conflate us all together erases the nuance and complicated nature of what it is to be black and in America today while interested in freedom and justice.
This is such a visual era in American history where the media you see can be just as powerful and influential as any debate, protest or book. I think it is good to create images that make people feel in community and affirmed. Kaepernick’s images did do that. In a similar way in which Beyonce’s wardrobing herself after The Black Panther Party for her Super Bowl 2016 performance of “Formation” brought great pride and joy to countless black people observing it, including myself. However, I think media can blur the lines between performance and aesthetic versus politics and actions. Beyonce has not expressed an anti-capitalist politic like The Black Panthers advocated, alas even on “Formation” (a song I adore) she compared herself to the hyper-wealthy, capitalist Bill Gates. The imagery, the drag of her dolling herself up in black radical drag for this immensely commercial, mainstream event was powerful as media but does translate into politics. It was a drag performance, not her actual identity. The obscuring of this pro-black, communist imagery does counter revolutionary work. It rewrites history for the worst by making The Black Panthers about aesthetic and an easily digestible belief in black equality underneath the American project, instead about the abolishment of the American project all together and equity amongst all people.
This line of thought also holds true with Colin Kaepernick. He does have parallels with both men he was imaged after. I am sure he, like Ali and Newton, desire the liberation and empowerment of black people. However, these men have vastly different ways of thinking about how one can achieve said liberation and empowerment. Defining those differences and not conflating them is imperative.
When I think of black resistance’s representation in mainstream media, I return to those hot and sweaty rooms with the flashing lights and bumping music. I see people wear things that look black and radical. I hear people say catchy things that sound black and radical. But, just like my drag queen friends who did not perform womanhood in their daily life, it is important to note who does not perform black radicalism in their actual labor and politics. This isn’t to take away their legitimacy in their actual labor, but to ensure an important and present politic and work isn’t being erased for the sake of some people wanting to play dress up.
Myles E. Johnson is a black, queer writer and editor existing at the nexus of race, sexual identity, gender, feminism, and justice through content creation and cultural critique.