Molasses Men Dance Wildly Under Flamingo Suns

Stephen Foster Smith

My legs are jazz, but they are not democratic like jazz. In order for me to completely appreciate them, I have to sacrifice the beauty of their movement and think of them instead only as industrious—pumping endlessly when it is time to run away, working tirelessly while browsing in a clothing store before a man with diamond eyes stops me and begs them to come somewhere with him. They even carry my torso, which is funk in all its swiveling. They are a two-part harmony, my legs, one relying upon the other to do the work needed in order to cooperate in concert. I, in fact, am all jazz, an electrical current unbound and on a jaunt every time I enter and interrupt a public space. I am a walking act of resistance, a molasses man dancing wildly under a flamingo sun.

 

*

 

When molasses men before you have stood under warped and wefted caps of hair, or have collapsed upon their knees, ankles, and thighs on the fourth downbeat in a YMCA, you must realize, even before you uncurl into the blinding light of the world, that those same men and even droves before them have forced the lock on spaces in which they weren’t allowed, from which they ran with their lives clutched in their fists and their eyes fixed on far-away safety before them so that you can perform however you wish in inhospitable, intolerable spaces, too.

 

*

I know what it is to be born as an act of resistance. An OB-GYN once told my mother she would never have children, and, years after she dreamed of my face, she ended hours of labor in the passenger’s seat of a maroon Cadillac Deville—she and my father staring into the eyes of their only son, soundless and squinting in the Alabama dusk. In the same type of swirling, failing light, I am telling J., over coffee, that coming out is not a linear process, and that it is endless. He chuckles, bringing a wide-mouthed mug to his lips, and I am stuck wondering about the humor. “I mean,” he explains, “what if someone chooses to remain closeted? Then what?” It is a thought I mull silently over the coffee I will never drink, and then I offer a piece of language that is more of a revelation rather than a reply: “It is impossible for coming out to be anything less than a political act.” We both sit in silence. It is the type of silence that does not signal defeat, disagreement, or confusion; it is a silence that ushers in, brings to life something that had always been awaiting breath.

 

*

 

When you are Black and queer, you are a raw gem that defies the very tools and science used to examine your way of becoming, of existing in this world, so you are both prized and refuted. When you are Black and queer, there are people waiting to mine your raw gems so they can wear them on their bodies while others covet with canines glistening, or pass them off as their own discovery from their very own backyard. When you are Black and queer, safety is more important than glittering in a land rich with hunger.

 

*

 

I am a political, walking act of resistance, a democratic body of song undeniable in a country full of faces that do not see me or question or my romantic preference until they listen to my voice—its pitch and intonation parts of speech with which they play—or until they force their eyes to notice a sway of my hips or a crossed leg at the knee. Those moves I make are all improvisations, sudden adjustments or inventions needed for comfort in the moment, because the rhythm of the world around me is changing, transforming into some horrible allegro or vivace that is hostile and violent. When the world awaits an announcement of Black queerness, it awaits the chance to make of it what it prefers—what it already assumes of the holy eligibility of Black queerness and its fitness for salvation, or what is harbored against queer preference for the love of the same gender, or the persistent misunderstanding of the choice of lovers or sexual liberties. My body, in its Black queerness, challenges liberty; its presence unfit for national salvation, only its industriousness useful, ready for exploit. Once while stopped at a traffic light, I scribbled onto a stray receipt: “one comes out of the closet only to find that they have to go back in, at times, just to survive.” Molasses men are not born with the option of dancing wildly under a flamingo sun—they must steal such an opportunity.

 

*

 

When you are a child and lights sparkle like exploding jewels above a skating rink, and you are freely moving your hips, copying the girls you think are goddesses, and the disc jockey cuts the music and asks you “where did you learn how to dance like that?” You, of course, have to cry because embarrassment is a scorching thing with teeth, but when he apologizes for spotlighting your terror and rewards you with free food, you experience joy, but someone must also say that “you dance like a girl.”

 

*

 

In the South, “sweet,” is what other boys called me. “That’s what my daddy said you are,” is also what they said. “You know, like this,” their hands drooped over a bent wrist toward the cafeteria floor. These boys looked like me, had almost the same number of deciduous teeth as me, yet they were not like me. My body and its movement are a political act that galvanizes uptight fathers who make galvanized sons that do not cry even when I punch them in the left eye for calling me “faggot,” so I, to be safe, dance in the complete absence of light, even at home. “But you were a sweet boy,” my mother says, “you always said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and you always said ‘Mommy, let me help you,’ ” which is a parent’s ideal disposition of a child, and yet she also knows of the times in which I rose like a blood-red sun in the sky, afire and fighting to destroy those who look and shout, “you dance like a girl!” As it is, sweet boys grow into molasses men, and while their dispositions may change, molasses men still know how to maneuver throughout a jungle of oppression to realize aeriform ascension the moment we shed ourselves of sweet-boy profiles and exist only as ruby globes in the sky, burning the earth anew.

 

*

 

When you visit another city and drink too much, you dance with strangers in a club that is just for people like you, and, because it is dark, your dancing is not seen as a fan of glorious dream-colored feathers; it is not seen at all, not until a stranger with whom you are dancing disappears and leaves you in the middle of the dancefloor to dance alone. Your dancing, then, is interrupting a public space. There is no one with you to share your jazz or to respond to the improv of your hips.

 

*

 

J., who sits on the other end of the receiver waiting patiently for the rest of a tale about a man and a social faux pas, wants to know, after I have finished my story, “Why do Black men stop wanting you when they think you’re too feminine?” The answer is steeped in theory and wrapped tightly in anecdotal associations, and to avoid the long road of philosophical underpinnings of desire and the words of Hemphill and Riggs and Foucault and Butler, I simply say, “Because they are not comfortable with their own presentation of masculinity,” which does not travel near enough or deep enough to the wound, wide and necrotizing, that operates as both a site of pain and a trove of knowledge, and I know that no amount of theory can assuage the resulting hurt of the wound-making down deep. In those barren leagues, there are millions of molasses men drowning while fighting to stay afloat in waters that will sail them between the masculine and feminine if they learn to move with the sway and not fear its roughness, because it is in that sailing where the beauty lay, in the freedom to swim between the poles. “It’s so sad, though,” I tell J., “because we are unsure about what exactly is masculinity,” and I think about being called a “sweet boy,” or a “fag,” or refused intimacy because of a lack of discretion in the presentation of myself.

 

*

 

When I am sitting in the airport, awaiting a flight home, my crossed legs resist the lifelong suggestion to sit with them open as a showcase of strength or the promise of a dynasty, and my gait is a bluesy rhythm bucking the regulation of its speed and performance. To be a walking act of resistance is to dance like a girl, tread the earth as a crude sapphire tumbling forth under a quartz-bright sky, and demand the safety due in a political nervous system designed to disregard the way I have fought to dance freely under a flamingo sun.

Stephen Foster Smith is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. As a Black, gay Southerner, he explores themes of identity, spatial inhabitance, historical embodiment, and memory. He has been published in Electric Moon Magazine, Prism & Pen, and has poetry in NECTAR. Primarily, he writes creative nonfiction and autobiographical narratives.