Imagining Black Queer Genders
- ISBN: 9780822370383
- Published By: Duke University Press
- Published: February 2018
“Read this book like a song,” Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley directs. “This song for Ezili is written in many voices …. Every chapter has three voices.” From its first sentences, this monograph invites its readers into a melodic sensorium. After I became familiar with the three voices in Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s Ezili’s Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders, I began to anticipate their varied timbres: distinct scholarly, spiritual, and ancestral utterances, signified through different fonts. Ezili’s Mirrors is a collage of atemporal, black, and queer lives interpreted through a Haitian Vodou pantheon within a much wider, Vodou-adjacent diaspora. There is a fourth voice, too: Tinsley’s own italicized chapter “bridge[s],” which push forward Ezili’s narratives as a song’s bridge might. They are contrasting, autoethnographic segues that prepare the reader for Ezili’s next, often-surprising manifestation. Page after page, the work comes together as jazz might.
This original method signals the novel content of Ezili’s Mirrors. Expanding upon the themes of her first book, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature (Duke University Press, 2010), Tinsley admittedly began this second project in search of what “unexpected things [previously examined texts] might have to say about Caribbean lesbian, gay, transgender, and queer experience.” What Tinsley found, however, was “nothing [but] … the recurrence of one figure, who multiplied herself in these texts as if in a hall of mirrors: the beautiful femme queen, bull dyke, weeping willow, dagger mistress Ezili. Ezili,” she explains, “is the name given to a pantheon of lwa who represent divine forces of love, sexuality, prosperity, pleasure, maternity, creativity, and fertility.” For Tinsley, it is the Ezilis that function as “the prism through which so many contemporary Caribbean authors were projecting their visions of genders and sexualities” (4). Expanding this place-based, literature-centered insight into multiple genres and African diaspora locales, Tinsley pens a comprehensive meditation on the ways that non-heterosexual, genderqueer, and polyamorous black people have historically and contemporarily forged an artistic resilience through persistent spiritual meaning-making and power.
Creative black gendering, Tinsley surmises, is the metaphysical work that everyday African diaspora religious cultures make possible—particularly, she notes, among people who do not identify as Vodou practitioners. Through a survey of such unorthodox devotees—New York performer MilDred Gerestant, New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia, and Bajan popstar/fashion icon Rihanna among the most delightful examples—Tinsley evinces the multiple ways that Ezili Danto, Ezili Freda, Ezili Je Wouj, Ezili Lasirenn, and even Anaisa Pye (narrativized as Ezili Freda’s spoiled youngest daughter in Dominican Vudú) are reflected in the historical and contemporary lives of African diasporic people. For example, in her penultimate chapter “It’s a Party,” Tinsley laments the recurrence of drug and alcohol addiction amongst black cis- and transfemmes through the mermaid divinity, Ezili Lasirenn. Tinsley juxtaposes the stories of performer Sharon Bridgforth’s Dat Black Mermaid Man Lady, performance pop star Azealia Banks’ series of Mermaid Balls (and concurrent social media rants extolling African diaspora religious practice), and “prom queen of soul,” water-loving Whitney Houston’s underreported long-term relationship with Robyn Henderson. Ezili Lasiren manifests across the three stories in dyads: water submersion/emersion, substance addiction/recovery, and the rejection/acceptance of queer love and sex. Much more than an ode to dyadic land-and-sea mermaids, Tinsley’s paradoxical Lasirenn interpolates folk stories alongside modern-day tragedies and triumphs. Chapter after chapter, Tinsley’s ability to convincingly weave disparate portraits of black life together is remarkable.
Within “It’s a Party” and other chapters, however, I wondered if a figurative Ezili can always be found in places where black genders and sexualities are imagined (or need to be imagined) creatively. It seems that Tinsley would argue that everywhere black people are making queer worlds, Ezili’s energies can be found. Within this Ezili repertoire, however, I question the prescience of the Haitian Vodou and Lousiana Voodoo archives. At times, Tinsley calibrates the very specific initiations that the religions require within historical and contemporary Ezili sightings. At other times, I am left to wonder about the socio-political implications of Tinsley arguing that queer black freedom channels divinities created out of specific religious locales in the African diaspora: Haiti and Louisiana.
Nonetheless, through the Ezilis’ holy shapeshifting—from Port-Au-Prince marketplaces and hair salons to a Montreal BDSM dungeon—every gender performance that Tinsley reports holds devotional power and is, therefore, empowering. Anchoring this method, Tinsley concedes, is a deeply personal, spiritual, and womanist intention. Her monograph is an intergenerational tribute to her great-grandmother, Arties Phillips; her daughter, Baía Tinsley; and her doctoral students who “imagine futures where black girls can live (super)naturally, flirt with lingerie-clad Rihanna in public talks, slip poems into dissertation chapters, claim Amber Rose and Cardi B as feminist warrior-sisters, and break open language where black trans women can live” (187). An initiated Ifa priest herself, Tinsley models a methodological elasticity that is found throughout African diaspora religious praxis: what “medicine” works to abet the genders and sexualities at hand? Finding a balm in multiple iterations of Ezili, Tinsley proffers what religionists Tracey Hucks and Dianne Stewart name the necessity of “transdisciplinarity” within Africana religious studies. Said another way, Tinsley coins her writing practice as a “theoretical polyamory … [a] philosophy as well as a practice” which “encourages movement between different modes of theorizing: music videos, popular songs, dance, film, erotica, speculative fiction, and fashion, all ‘married’ into one theorizing enterprise—all accorded as much explanatory power as academic prose to make sense of black queer lives” (172).
Ezili’s Mirrors relies on and complements the now classic, multi-disciplinary monographs, films, and anthologies that scholars of religion use to teach Vodou: Patrick Bellegarde-Smith and Claudine Michel’s Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth, and Reality (Indiana University Press, 2006); Daniel Cosentino’s Sacred Arts of Haitian Vodou (University of California Museum of Cultural History, 1995); Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (Thames & Hudson, 1953); Karen McCarthy Brown’s Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 1992); Elizabeth McAlister’s Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and the Diaspora (University of California Press, 2002); and Karen Richman’s Migration and Vodou (University Press of Florida, 2008), among others. It provides an up-to-date examination of Vodou religiosity and boasts an impressive bibliography of heretofore untapped sources for the “civil religion” of Vodou in African diaspora practice. Further, it acknowledges how these sources continue to be in conversation with contemporary Louisiana Voodoo. Inasmuch as many religionists acknowledge the historical interface between Haitian and North American Vodoun religious practitioners, discussing their present-day shared cosmos constitutes a significant contribution.
Ezili’s Mirrors is also much needed within queer studies of black religion. While Randy P. Conner and David Hatfield Sparks join other practitioners in asserting that African diaspora religions house many “safe spaces” for persons with diverse gender and sexual identities in Queering Creole Spiritual Traditions: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Participation in African-Inspired Traditions in the Americas (Routledge, 2004), Tinsley goes further in demonstrating the “who, what, where, why, and how?” that has been missing from claims of said “safe space.” For Tinsley, the lwa themselves function as the arbiters and co-curators of African diasporic queerness. Much like Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (University of Minnesota Press, 1997), Tinsley’s analysis looks to the religious culture itself for cues on its emic gendered and sexualized conceptualizations and builds out creatively. In many ways, I have longed for a book as daring as Ezili’s Mirrors. Tinsley maintains that the spirits and their servants embody and model queer flexibility and thriving.
Meredith Coleman-Tobias is Assistant Professor of Religion at Mount Holyoke College.Meredith Coleman-TobiasDate Of Review:September 10, 2018