pleasure & joy

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Sydney Smith '24

Sydney is a sophomore at Middlebury College from the South Side of Chicago. She's an English Major and loves to study in the Abernathy Room in Axinn. She's a self-described "background character"and is adamant that she doesn't "do anything fun," but she does enjoy spending time in the Boom Boom Room with Jocular William. She also enjoys getting dumplings from the boba shop in town, and she loves receiving pictures of her "son," Simba. Below are audio recordings from an interview with Sydney on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Axinn, a collection of images and videos that bring Sydney joy, and a paper she recently wrote about love. 

On finding pleasure and joy
00:00 / 00:32
On challenges to finding pleasure and joy
00:00 / 00:34
On feeling uncomfortable
00:00 / 01:08
On feeling safe, valued, and appreciated
00:00 / 01:08
On the impossibility of a more pleasurable experience for Black women at Middlebury
00:00 / 01:58
On performative activism
00:00 / 02:06

Sydney Smith '24

BLST Black Queer Studies Paper
Spring 2022

love

Starved for its vermillion glow to encapsulate us in a cloak of protection, we beg for it. Lips quivering, we raise our voices and cry for it. With trembling arms, we reach for it. With our eyes blinded by the burning of tears, we search for it. It seems to be understood best when we engage in discourse about what it is not. It leaves a bitter taste in our mouths when the tongue reaches the front teeth as we, pleadingly, blurt its name. We choke on its density as if it is tangible. This density gives way to a heart-shaped hole, tearing those of us who operate outside of normativity asunder. The oppressive, institutionalized structures that are transnationally imposed upon Black bodies constitute a world in which love is not a place of comfort, a feeling that we have the privilege of familiarizing ourselves with or a force with which we can align ourselves. The hollow darkness that ensues after we conceptualize that love is not in our cards, the way we piece ourselves back together after this realization, and how we lift our chins to the sky despite the pain of this blow is what love is to and for us.  

Love is a multi-faceted concept that is composed of a variety of substructures. The arbitrariness of its nature makes it exceedingly difficult to define, and as an abstraction, it is nuanced. In Diane Ackerman’s words, derived from her book, A Natural History of Love, “Love 

is the great intangible.” It is this intangibility that makes it even harder to understand its mechanisms, forcing all to define love in their own terms; however, each attempt displays love from a singular lens, only allowing us to gain insight into one of its many dimensions. Love is collectively agreed upon as an intense feeling of connectedness, and almost oneness, that is experienced as a result of some deep kinship or bond that has been fostered. Demarcated from the previous notion, and perhaps more just in its assessment, love is a verb; there is an absence of meaning if there is no action that is followed by and bound to its utterance and, more broadly, its existence. In permeating the spheres of reciprocity, love is, ideally, an exchange and, interestingly, a reaction. 

 

In the context of requiting, a binding between love and capitalism as a system through which love is formed is rendered visible. At the basis of capitalism are the heteronormative relationship and the construction of the nuclear family. Being loved and loving in return becomes something that is perceived as purely transactional, mirroring the essence of capitalism. Built upon a foundation of racial hierarchy, capitalism, as we know it today, is incited by injustice. At the root of capitalism, there is, undoubtedly, racism that has swelled from the mere recognition of phenotypical, linguistic, and cultural difference to a broader sense of entitlement that supports a particular kind of dynamic, allowing the superior to materially benefit from the labor of this, ostensibly, subordinate group of individuals. The commodification and exploitation of Black people create a circumstance under which heteronormative love, and possibly love generally speaking, for Black individuals is a submission to the harrowing constraints of slavery. Black people feel threatened by the concept of love, untrusting of its promises yet intrigued by its prospect. We are derided by our desire for love, which just like capitalism, wasn’t intended for our benefit anyway. 

 

The contextual apparatus of African diasporic histories provides a lens through which we can examine the implications of slavery, migration, and displacement on Black love, and more specifically the queerness of Black love. Chattel slavery has laid the foundation for a societal framework that upholds the idea that love, in the context of Blackness, is a fight, a revolt against the White man. Queer love was, from the outset of the transatlantic slave trade, a means through which Black individuals could rebel against not only the people who captured them but also the systemic constraints that, already being rooted before the forced transport and bondage of Black bodies, have been exacerbated as years have passed. Omise’ke Natasha Tinsley brings light to this defiance in her piece, titled Black Atlantic Queer Atlantic; Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passages, saying, “African women created erotic bonds with other women in the sex-segregated holds, and captive African men created bonds with other men. In so doing, they resisted the commodification of their bought and sold bodies by feeling and feeling for their co-occupants on these ships.” (Tinsley 192).  From an analytical standpoint, this quote, and this piece as a whole, are brilliant, bringing light to the ways that the homosexual encounters on the ship aided in the forging of a unity that can only be established through an immense amount of intimacy, which in itself is an insurgent act.  

 

Building upon this notion of rebellious love that Tinsley proposes, I’d like to suggest that not only are we fighting the commodification of our bodies through unity, but also, more directly, through the practice of nonheteronormative living. The consequence of reproduction within a heterosexual relationship is one of the reasons why slavery catapulted, proving fruitful for the economy, yet detrimental to the Black psyche. Black love, at its core, is a fight against theft and commodification. By abstaining from acts that allow the continuation of this cycle, Black people are practicing agency. The Black conception of love has been tainted by the ruinous apprehension that love is, in itself, a combative tactic to battle the rampant White supremacy constantly observed in this nation and this world.


Drawing from the words of Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake, “Living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence; living the historically and geographically dis/continuous but always present and endlessly reinvigorated brutality in, and on, our bodies while even as that terror is visited on our bodies the realities of that terror are erased.  Put another way, living in the wake means living in and with terror in that in much of what passes for public discourse about terror we, Black people, become the carriers of terror, terror’s embodiment, and not the primary objects of terror’s multiple enactments; the ground of terror’s possibility globally.” (Sharpe 15). In many ways, we, as a people, are still in the wake of the horrors that have plagued us since we were removed from our homeland, displaced from all we were accustomed to.

Our perception of love is another manifestation and wave of this trauma, exhibiting itself in the ways that we are unsure of love and, rightfully, weary of it. We confuse it with aggression and anger, as we, from the beginning of our diasporic regeneration, have never known a love that is without opposition. In essence, love is a tunnel through which we run from oppression, yet we are still bound by it and to it. Love is inescapable and has, seemingly, morphed into one of our biggest oppressors. It is expressed and unexpressed, mystifying and baffling us. Its absence is more profound than its presence, and its reverberations on Black queer life are still felt. Sharpe’s declarations allow us to understand that the wake is not over. The trauma of both lovelessness and love born of struggle are replicated and reproduced. Black love, and Black queer love specifically, are still heavily impacted by the histories of bondage. The semiotics of the slave ship is revealed through the racial capitalism and violence that, though they have taken on a new name in modern times, still have the same vicious, revolving effects. Whether or not a restoration of the principles of love is a possibility in a Black and Black queer context is dependent upon our ability to separate ourselves from the abrasive history of our past, a feat that is virtually impossible.