Derrick Austin on “Blaxploitation”
Another night of "I'm not usually into black
guys but…" and I'm alone with Johnny Walker black
and too many movies. I'm not offended. No black
moods at all. I'll watch The Seventh Seal. Black
chess pieces slaying white, live or die, Bergman's black-
est phase. See I'm not mad. But if I were Black
Death right now, I'd slaughter Love. Fade to black.
Brides-to-be would roll around in ash, black-
en their dresses and veils in rivers black
as tar: Gather your roses, dye them red to black.
Then they'd hear the gallop. Metal no black-
smith could forge, flaming, sparking the black
hooves of four horses—red, green, black,
and white. Who's that? Hallelu! A miracle! Black
skies part and resurrected Love blacks
my eyes and rubs me out beneath his black
sole. No more pain. I'm better. Fade to black.
Bergman's done. I need magic. I call a trick. It's black
and white—he's red all over. I love my black
boys sore. He can't grip my hair, black
brillo pad. My body? Let's get physical. Black-
body principle, I'm light and afterglow. Black-
out. Give me that nigger dick. His bootblack,
I gave all of him a shining. Shocked a black
man took that? I've heard his shit before: black
's an absence, no stimulation for the eye's black
pupil, but I'm right here, still whole (Black
don't crack), and he (Once you go black…)
got off just fine. Sleepless, we debate watching a black
comedy or a foreign flick. How about Black
Orpheus? On the news, another case of black
on black. Where's the white on black?
The tone on tone? No nuance here? The screen black-
ens, then stutters over an ad for Black
Narcissus (Coming soon to Blu-ray…). Blue-black
night hems into dawn. I'm feeling Blax-
ploitation. How about Coffy? I am black
but beautiful, razor blades all up in my hair. Black
power. He touches me by not knowing how.
"Blaxploitation" begins with an episode of Taxicab Confessions. Visiting home from college, I caught this particular episode one sleepless night: two black gay men talking about fraught and humiliating sexual encounters they'd had with white men. When they weren't rejected outright (even by men they weren't cruising), they were reduced to a big black cock by the dehumanizing power fantasies of those men. The moment I remember most clearly is from one of the passenger's tales: he was having sex with a white man who out of nowhere said, "Give me that nigger dick." After that happened, he gathered his clothes quickly, left the room and that man behind.
I must have been newly out or about to come out. I listened to these men's stories with a kind of sadness, taking their experiences as portents for what my sexual life would be. One particularly insidious thing about being black in a white supremacist culture is how it can poison our erotic lives. The degree to which mainstream gay male culture is awash in whiteness and a particularly toxic kind of masculinity did a number on me. Without any gay male mentors or close friendships at the time, I was stuck with much fear, anxiety, and self-loathing. I was possessed.
Summer 2012. I moved to Ann Arbor, MI anxious to leave my miserable call center job behind and start my MFA program at the University of Michigan. I was broke and didn't know anyone, so I spent a lot of time at the library. I reread Erica Dawson's Big-Eyed Afraid one afternoon, obsessing over her wild sestina (whose form I later took) "In Consonance with the Order of Things," and suddenly the opening the lines of "Blaxploitation" rushed out of me. I jotted down phrases and images. But—and I'll never forget this—I felt embarrassed about even thinking that these lines might eventually become a poem. This is silly and ridiculous, I thought. It's just one of those silly imitations you like to do. It's not really a poem. There was a moment when I didn't want to write this poem—not because of the sex but because of the comedy.
The other day, I cackled my way through Google Docs, reading poems I wrote in undergrad that I thought were long gone. I wasn't laughing because they were bad (they were) but because of how emotionally morbid they all were. (So much Woe is me, I'm alone—good God get a grip girl!) A lot of that had to do with my being in my late teens and early twenties. It also had to do with my lack of formal rigor. I dabbled in formal verse. Lacking facility with meter, I stuck to forms like sestinas, villanelles, and terza rima. Those poems were all bad too because I kept forcing my earnestly ambitious lyrical melodramas into them. I kept failing to understand the forms, only seeing them as puzzles in which to cram my own words.
It didn't help not having found many contemporary models of formal poetry, particularly by poets of color. Thankfully, my last semester of undergrad, I took a workshop with Erica Dawson and reread her work. It was a revelation. Erica's poems showed me that I can go in and let have within form's constraints. Gradually, I started going to drag shows in sonnets and praising cowboys with great butts in odes. Formal poetry loosened me up. The constrictions of form in a poem like "Blaxploitation" gave me the freedom to use multiple tones and ranges of reference in a single poem. It releases a dynamism and verve that my free verse poems can lack. I become wily and devil-may-care. In a lot of ways, "Blaxploitation" was an exorcism of anxieties I had around not only my personal life but my artistic life. Comedy is good for the soul and the page. As are the harnesses and pink-fur handcuffs of form, darlings.