This essay examines the game played in the first act of Barry Jenkins’s 2016 film Moonlight. “Smear the queer” is a game most resembling tackle football. The author examines how the “rules” of the game manifest as a type of power, one whose function is to set the terms of relation. Smear the queer engenders a calculus of violence, as the game represents a mode of policing, and the film highlights the ways race, gender, and sexuality are marshaled to regulate queer Black people’s embodied expression. Focusing on those who touch protagonist Chiron’s life, the author considers smear the queer as it comes into play off the field, arguing that the smear—a framework for relation and a politic of touch—seeks to exploit queer vulnerability in order to make violence intimate and permanent in day-to-day interactions so that it no longer figures as spectacular. Such a tactic seeks to foreclose the otherwise world-making possibilities of being and becoming, living and creating “with.”

Childhood games are in and of the flesh.1 As enfleshed performances of imagination and thought, inventive modes of being in relation, play exemplifies knowledge production in ways that we might call genius if they weren’t already deemed childish.2 To consider play in such manner is not to overlook its arresting potential. Indeed, play “inherently teach[es children] discourse about appropriate and transgressive gender and racial roles (for both girls and boys),” as Kyra Gaunt argues (2). This is to say that play is a space where the body is made known to be occupied by race, gender, and sexuality.3 Play, as much as it is a site of freedom, is equally about enacting and maintaining oppressive power structures.

Play, and sports games more specifically, become excellent—if also gendered, raced, and classed—examples for conceiving of relation as becoming with regard to the relation of the individual to the collective (see Gaunt). Brian Massumi’s use of the soccer ball to “realign with a logic of relation” is instructive for thinking games not only as social technologies but also as constitutive to the formation of the subject and the social more broadly (70). For Massumi, the soccer ball, and the formal game of soccer more broadly, allows for a conceptual move “toward a notion of collective individuation around a catalyzing point” (71). Massumi’s devotion to analyzing the game as “play in itself,” and thus demonstrative of the in-betweenness of relation, however, leads him to a rather interesting conclusion: “It is the event-dimension of potential—not the system of language and the operations of reflection it enables—that is the effective dimension of the interrelating elements, of their belonging together” (76).

It’s uncertain whether the potential for relation on the field is ever actually extractable from its discursive framing—or social reality—especially if we consider games that are not only heavily raced and gendered but also constitutive of the processes by which race and gender set conditions for the Subject. Thus, while potential may be “the immanence of a thing to its still indeterminate variation, under way,” it is always already entangled with, and thereby copresenced by, the “system of language and operations of reflection” that has emerged as social reality.4 That is, the idea of a “pure sociality” or “pure system of relations” unaffected by the discursive field is a myth, as the material and the discursive are co-constitutive. To consider “play in itself” as if it were a space beyond the reach of power relations is to neglect to account for how “playful activities belong to our everyday spaces of ordinary life” and how these games “modify power relationships between players” (De Souza e Silva and Sukto 448). Games cannot be separated and set aside as just a “constructed space and a closed system” (448), especially when they are “one of the most important arenas for the production and expression of gender,” sexuality, class, and race (Theberge 69). These constructions are not happening in a vacuum and, therefore, as games are crucial to a sense of conceptualizing, constructing, and performing the self, games cannot be considered a form of any kind of pure play in itself. I am suggesting that games are technologies for worlding and are, therefore, arenas for the production and expression of gender, race, and sexuality, emerging as fields in which power—as material and discursive effect, if such a distinction is possible—is mediated through these very means. In other words, if it is true that no aspect of modern life is untouched by race, gender, or sexuality, then it must also be true that no aspect of life is untouched and unformed by power, games and other “childhood” spaces included.

A chance conversation on Moonlight’s set provides an apt opportunity for considering childhood games as a field where power is enacted and transferred, especially regarding gender performance. When discussing the game played in the film’s opening scene with Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed Moonlight, and Tarell McCraney, the author of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the play upon which the film was based, the Chicago Tribune’s Lauren Chval writes, “Chiron and Kevin are playing a game with other boys in an open field. They throw up a piece of paper, and whoever catches it gets tackled by the rest of the group. Though Black kids called the game ‘Throw Up, Tackle’ where Jenkins grew up, he discovered its universality while they were filming.” Jenkins tells Chval, “One of the guys in the crew—a white guy—was like ‘Oh, we called that game ‘Smear the Queer.’” Jenkins continues, “In my community, we have this Blackness is opposed to queerness, and yet we never called this game, ‘Smear the Queer.’ But in this guy’s neighborhood, where he doesn’t have this aspersio[n] with whiteness being in direct opposition to homosexuality [ . . . ] he’s playing a game where if he gets tackled, he is the queer.” To which McCraney finishes, “To be smeared” (Chval). Jenkins’s commentary attempts to contest social narratives that diagnose Black communities with an inherent homophobia, yet it also reproduces this very social narrative by totalizing the opposition between Black and queer in African American communities. Even though Jenkins may not have known the game in his own childhood by that name, he chooses to film the game scene with an emphasis on how queer smearing is central to the game’s logic. As a result, my analysis will prioritize that label.5

Smear the queer is an interesting game. Its rules are quite simple: a ball, or an object closely resembling a ball, is thrown into the air, and as we see in Moonlight, whoever catches the ball or picks it up off the ground is “it,” or “the queer.” As anthropologist Alan Dundes describes it, “The person with the ball might try to run evasively so as to avoid the host of would-be tacklers. When the ball carrier is eventually tackled, he had to release the ball by ‘fumbling’ or he might throw it up again into the air which would initiate a new free-for-all” (120). As the conversation makes clear, however, the game has a variety of names, including “Kill the guy (man) with the ball[,] Kill the carrier, Kill the quarterback, Kill the ham, Kill the dill, Spill the pill, Trip the dip.” And more explicitly, “Cream the queen, Bag the Fag, Tag the Fag, and Smear butt” (120). No matter the name, the objective—the ideological structuring—is clear, and it persists. My interest in smear the queer lies in examining how the rules of the game manifest as a type of power, one whose function is to set the terms of relation. In considering the social life and social death of games through an analysis of smear the queer, I seek to clarify how the attitudes and bodily performances enacted in and through the game are entangled with, and often influence, not just our modes of relation outside of the game but also our understandings of ourselves as raced, gendered, and sexualized subjects.

This article analyzes the smear the queer game played in Moonlight’s first act. I argue that smear the queer engenders a calculus of violence, as the game represents a mode of policing, highlighting the ways in which race, gender, and sexuality regulate Black queer people’s embodied expression. I consider smear the queer as it comes into play off the field, arguing that the “smear”—a politic of touch—seeks to make violence intimate and permanent in our day-to-day interactions so that it no longer figures as spectacular, while foreclosing the possibilities of being and becoming, living and creating with.

Smear the Queer: Transparency and the Occupation of the Flesh

A beat.6 And then the game: Mozart’s “Verperae Solonnes de Confessore” is counterpoint to the open field displayed by the camera’s medium shot. The music pairs with the panning camera to create a sense of anticipation as the boys, positioned in a three-point stance, confront viewers by staring directly into the camera’s lens. The camera is set in the middle of the boys’ huddle, and as it circles, we notice that Chiron is in the lineup, suggestive of his place within the group. The game is set in motion by the horn of a passing freight train. While the boys smile and laugh and chase and tackle one another, the camera shifts between long shot and extreme long shot in a manner that mirrors the constant motion of the scene, Chiron always standing at the edge of the frame (see fig. 1). There’s a tenderness in Chiron’s standing at the edge, a framing suggestive of his simultaneous being in and out of place within the group, a reminder of the necessity of his presence even though the boys are constructing their sense of selves by renouncing exactly what they believe him to be. The game grows tense when the boys decide that it’s time for Chiron to move from the edges to center stage. It’s his turn to be it, to be “the queer.” The fun stops, somewhat ironically. This irony, however, certainly isn’t comedic, as smiles are replaced with glares. The camera switches from Chiron’s point of view to an extreme close-up shot as the lost laughter is swapped with soundbites of “scary” and “get his ass,” assaults against “Little,” as Chiron is nicknamed, made nearly inaudible as the soundtrack heightens the sounds of the train to reduce the dialogue to an afterthought, one, however, never fully able to disappear the violence taking place. Little, anxiously staring at the ball as the boys continue to kick it toward him, demanding that he pick it up, refuses to touch the object; instead, he backs away despite the hand on his shoulder attempting to keep him in place. “You’re scary”; “you’re gay”; “get his ass.”7 Then, a miracle, a sigh of relief. Another boy, Kevin, comes, grabs the ball, and runs off. The boys chase after him. Seeming to forget about Chiron, laughter—fun—resumes.

Fig. 1

Chiron standing at center of frame but at edge of play. Moonlight (2016).

Fig. 1

Chiron standing at center of frame but at edge of play. Moonlight (2016).

Close modal

There’s a contradiction within smear the queer. For gameplay to commence, someone must adopt the position—or status—of the queer, and it is only through a player’s taking on the position of the queer and subsequently facing, and hopefully besting, the “would-be tacklers” that the player’s masculine strength is demonstrated: “The curious part of the game is that the longer one held on to the ball, the more manly one was. So it was only by assuming the role or slot of the ‘queer’ that one could demonstrate one’s masculinity” (Dundes 120). A certain level of violence appears fundamental to taking on the position of the queer.

Despite Chiron’s place among the boys at the start of the scene, his in-game performance hints at his difference, his status of not belonging, his queerness. Just as the panning camera evokes community among the boys, it also hints toward a sense of enclosure and suffocation, a parochialism from which Chiron is attempting to break free. Chiron standing off to the side while the boys play is a subtle suggestion of his queerness. Chiron is at once playing and not playing; he is close enough to the game to be considered a participant but just far away to not be at any real risk. Thus, the point of contradiction: the “play” in the game requires a queer in name but not in act. When Chiron is “the queer,” play recedes and threat of physical violence commences. The undecipherability of what is said also suggests that what is felt is no less important than the words. Feeling is accentuated where sound nearly fails. Armed with stares and menacing smiles, the names Chiron is called become palpable, acquiring a vibrational quality, the ability to injure. It doesn’t so much matter whether the other boys call him scary, gay, or faggot. The injury lies in the aim behind this act of naming; the desire to finally get their hands on his “scary”—or, perhaps, deviant—flesh is what matters, is what is felt. “Get his ass,” then, becomes more than just trash talk. A double gesture, this verbal cue enacts its effect: a performative, this naming hails Chiron into a queered subjectivity that extends beyond the ball and acts as a call to action to disappear the queer’s presence that extends beyond the field. The boys’ call to “get [Chiron’s] ass” performs an importantly queer gesture in addition to the two listed above. As José Esteban Muñoz teaches us, such acts of queer antagonism, especially when worded in this manner, are also evocative of an eroticism. “Get his ass,” then, indicates the desire for homophobic violence and homo-attraction,8 a desire for the flesh in dual registers.

As previously mentioned, games are childhood technologies of worlding and, therefore, fields in which identity is constructed and power is mediated. The move to consider smear the queer off the field is influenced by Foucault’s methodological aim of “grasp[ing] the implicit systems [ . . . ] which determine our most familiar behavior without knowing it.” He continues, “I am trying to find their origins, to show their formation, the constraint they impose upon us; I am therefore trying to place myself at a distance from them and to show how one could escape” (201). Considering “the smear” as a system and program of modern power, I aim to show that it is not only fundamental to our normative modes of organizing and relating, but it also structures our strategies for imagining and thereby determines our understanding of what is possible.

Indeed, the smear is a technology deployed by Man, that “genre of the human, Man,” which Sylvia Wynter argues “overrepresents itself as if it were the human itself” in order to emphasize a sense of individual and collective vulnerability (“Unsettling” 260). It is an epistemological technology of heightened feeling, although it restricts feeling’s possibilities. As such, the smear emerges as a disciplinary structure within dominant governing orders, rendering, as we see in Moonlight, Black queer boyhood as a premiere site of and for violence. “Disciplinarity,” Jack Halberstam writes, “is a technique of modern power: it depends upon and deploys normalization, routines, convention, tradition, and regularity, and it produces experts and administrative forms of governance” (9). As Halberstam importantly states, “Disciplines qualify and disqualify, legitimate and delegitimate, reward and punish: most important, they statically reproduce themselves and inhibit dissent” (10; my emphasis). Disciplines emerge as autopoietic systems committed to the smooth reproduction of normativity. Violence is a method that is liberally used to inhibit dissent.

The smear seeks to make violence intimate, proximate, as Édouard Glissant notes, to make permanent the “violence in daily interactions,” to “make attack or defense its primary objective” (Glissant and Diawara 17). The permanence of violence is the smear’s objective: to make violence mundane so that it no longer figures as spectacular. The game aims to sever ties and foreclose the possibilities of being and becoming, living and creating “with.” Violence, although it attempts stabilization, “reigns as the constant signifier of (in)security. To evoke a discourse of security, the threat of violence must persist” (Manning 52). Erin Manning’s thoughts on violence are further instructive: “[V]iolence is not simply framed as the exclusive character of the other, but is even more powerfully conceived of as a means through which the self is constituted and maintained” (52). It wouldn’t be too much to say, then, borrowing from Denise Ferreira da Silva’s description of “decisive power” as “the divine mandate for self-preservation, inhabit[ing] the moment of violence,” that the smear exercises a similar “formal power, [an] artificial authority, instituted in obedience [ . . . ]. [I]t is a regulating, constraining, and punishing force” (215). A structure of nor-mativity, an antisocial sociality, a mode of compulsory transparency, the smear is fundamentally against relations not forged out of violence. The smear makes violence a potential and an effect.

If the smear is a method of maintaining normativity, then it is also a logic of what Glissant theorizes as “transparency.” Glissant suggests that this operates as a subsumption of difference:

If we examine the process of “understanding” people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought, we discover that its basis is the requirement for transparency. In order to understand and thus accept you, I have to measure your solidity with the ideal scale providing me with grounds to make comparisons and, perhaps, judgments. I have to reduce. Accepting difference does, of course, upset the hierarchy of this scale. I understand your difference, or in other words, without creating a hierarchy, I relate it to my norm. I admit you to existence, within my system. I create you afresh. (190)

The reduction of difference in order to “create afresh,” to “accept” the other is a method the smear deploys. There’s no space for “opacity,” let alone the “right for opacity,” the capacity to “feel in solidarity with [the other] or to build with him or to like what he does” that would make it “not necessary for me to grasp him” (193). The smear thus attempts to detain opacity by demanding transparency, a violent flattening of the other based on the smear’s inability to completely know, to completely understand this other. It operates on the logics of acceptance and therefore fails to comprehend the whole of understanding (of) the other, of the other’s importance in the creation of world, in being and becoming. For the smear to be effective, someone—anyone—has to lose. If Chiron were not there, another boy would have to be singled out to fail, no matter who. It is unclear, however, if any boy who loses is queered beyond the game. Even though there is risk for any boy to be smeared, some boys would be able to shrug off the queer smear even if tackled. Perhaps the game is not measuring a hold on masculinity based on who gets tackled; perhaps it is a hold on masculinity’s lack based on who avoids play in the first place. By participating in the game, one avoids being queered even when tackled and thus smeared. The only way to be fully queered is to refuse play. Perhaps we might consider the smear—as onto-epistemological, as well as a call to reflect on the ways relation occurs—as inherently antisocial even while it presents itself as an option for relating.9 And in a society founded on possession, mastery, and control, being smeared is often rendered the option.10 The smear is immediately affective in its recourse to violence, specifically in the way violence (un)makes queer Black life by using the queer and the Black’s abjection as its own condition of possibility. The smear is thus not only a structure of power but a structure of desire. As a desiring structure of power, the smear desires the undoing not only of the queer Black body but of Black and queer being more generally.11

Thus, Chiron’s presence as a legibly queer body transforms the objective of smearing from play to violence. That Chiron is not smeared in the way that the others are thereby signifies an excess as to who avoids play, as “smear the queer” is but one encounter in this whole episteme. The very impulse to smear a queer is produced out of a knowing. This is to say that the violence to which Chiron is subject as the queer in the game is and is not contingent on his decision to play, but most certainly hinges on the queerness of his presentation, of which his hesitance to play is an indication.

Smear the queer mistakes the body for the flesh; bodily assaults attempt to capture that which resists arrest, exists beyond arrest’s reach. Such existence confounds definitions and deployments of Man, rendering the flesh in such a way that its force, its poetry, is necessarily in and of and yet always beyond Man, beyond his logics and grammars.12 The flesh constitutes the limits of Man, that overrepresented genre of the human who apprehends the body as his territory for occupation.13 Occupying a body is no easy feat. Occupy (v): “To employ, make use of.” Occupy (v): “To be in, to take possession of” (oed). The smear does away with the flesh by making occupation the rule of the game; bodies entangled in each other’s means of meaning fail to mean what they think they mean.

Chiron knows occupation. Returning to the game, the transference of the ball is nothing other than a means of occupation, of possessing and making serviceable the body, the possessive employment of Black queerness. This comes through in the relationship between the subjectivity of queerness and how it is related to on the ground, made evident in the use of the ball. The ball makes visible the difference between symbolic position and assumed knowledge. While the ball functions as a kind of metonym, “queering” whoever possesses it—or whomever it possesses—the symbolic tool fails as it approaches Chiron. The boys’ assumed knowledge of his queerness is what leads them to kick the ball in his direction. And yet, even though Chiron is the only boy that we see not touch the ball and consequently adopt the position of the queer, according to the rules of the game, he is the only child who remains touched by queerness, the only child branded “scary” and “soft.” If smear the queer states that whoever has the ball is the queer to be smeared, then how do we account for the way Chiron is related to in this scene? More than just a stabilization of Chiron’s queerness, might his not picking up the ball also be a literal refusal of the position of the queer? A refusal that is not so much a refusal of the queer per se, but rather a fugitive refusal of the queer in these terms—which, indeed, is a refusal of occupation, a refusal of the smear?

All of the boys in this scene have refused something. It appears that as long as they have not refused to play, to risk being smeared, they have a hold, however tenuous, on masculine performance. The adoption of the position of the queer is nothing other than an occasion for the demonstration of one’s masculine bravado; it is an adoption of the subjective position hinged on its refusal, on its being fumbled, given up, eventually. Queerness again is figured as a problem from which the boys must prove their distance, such that game play is not so much about a relational or radical undertaking of the queer, but about how queerness—and especially the queer(ed) body—can be adopted in service of the production of masculinity as a normative ideal.14 Put differently, the adoption of the queer in smear the queer signifies a type of instruction, or mode of knowing, that takes the smear as concept to make active smearers. Thus, would-be smearers occupying the position of the smeared set their sights on that which refuses to touch. Desire, power, and domination are tricky that way. As Spillers argues, the “powers of domination” are successful “only to the extent that their permeation remains silent and concealed.” That is, “the fictions and realities of domination are not only opaque (not everywhere and at once visible) to the subject (and narrated) community, but also remain evasive, in their authentic character as raw and violent assertion, to the dominant (and narrating) community” (“Notes” 310). A vicious cycle, the struggle for power is never quite attained, a ceaseless exchange of (would-be) smearers smearing the (would-be) smeared. Smear the queer takes place on an occupied field, bodies in service to the smear’s will, not as inactive but as excess. That is, a field where bodies desire the power that the smear brings close but cannot pass, an extended nonextension that makes clear the way that bodies are put to service in the name of power, of obtaining power, without getting to the root of the issue or even thinking about how power functions.

We might say that Kevin, too, knows occupation, is intimate with its capacity to trespass and transform at the bat of an eye. “You remember in middle school, that game we used to play, Knock Down/ Stay Down?” Terrel asks Kevin at a school lunch table. “Yeah, yo,” Kevin responds, his excitement growing, “my crazy ass used to be the king of that shit.” The two banter for a brief second before Terrel whispers, “Yo, but uh . . . niggas don’t do that shit no more. I mean . . . You know. . . .” “What you saying?” Kevin asks, his eyes revealing that he already knows the answer. “I’m saying is, if I point a nigga out, is you gonna knock his ass down?” Kevin looks at Terrel, chews his food, looks down, stirs his food, all before responding, “That’s the name of the game, ain’t it? You dare me to swing on him, and if I do, it’s on you.” Terrel smiles and gets up from the table exclaiming, “Let’s see whose ass is getting dropped today.”

“Don’t you get up, bruh. Stay down,” Kevin urges Chiron after punching and effectively “knocking him down” twice. “Chiron, stay down,” Kevin repeats, an urging that is a cry for himself as much as it is for Chiron. Echoes of “why you pretending?” and “show these niggas you ain’t soft” bleed into each other. This time, without the transferential quality of the ball, its ability to queer whomever it possesses, the game is more explicit in its violence. Queerness becomes a battle zone fought on the body. Chiron and Kevin both fall prey to the smear; occupied, the boys become victims of normative modes of relation, figures in a cycle of forced separation, of impossible relation. Kevin is essential in the smearing of Chiron, no matter how painful, how impossible, it is for him, for them.

The smear thrives on occupation. The constitution of the subject is just the occupation of bodies on a different field: “you remember that game?”; “get his faggot ass”; “stay down, Chiron.” Race, gender, and sexuality all set the stage for occupation’s devastating feel. Without occupation, the flesh only has space for inhabitation—in and with exchanged for of. Always in danger of occupation, the flesh retreats into its vestibularity, verging as comfort, coming forth within the exhaustion of its arrival. (Opacity). There are no bodies here. Inhabitations in and with the flesh are always belated, queerly horizonal, manifesting in the in-between, in between the here and there, the “vibration of [the flesh’s] vibration, virtuality of the tremble” (Goodman 82). The flesh trembles. Do you feel it?

Vibrational Flesh: Black Queer Becoming and the Asymptotics of Touch

I wonder what is felt and heard, what the flesh experiences, that exceeds the ability to capture.

—Crawley

What could such flesh do?

—Harney and Moten

As Katherine McKittrick and Alexander Weheliye write, “Spillers gave us the flesh newly” (29). The flesh: “that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography” that is prior to—being ante and anti, and yet the condition of possibility for—the body, as Spillers brilliantly writes (“Mama’s” 67). The flesh is what the body must refuse in order to announce itself as such, in order to be. Weheliye advances Spillers’s theorization to give us “the flesh, the living, speaking, thinking, feeling, and imagining flesh: the ether that holds together the world of Man while at the same time forming the conditions of possibility for this world’s demise” (40). As we shall see, the flesh is also affective and vibrational, taking vibration as fact to consider the possibilities of being in-between oscillations, of being otherwise.15

In “Resonance: Neutrinos and Black Life,” Ashon Crawley turns to quantum physics for a theorization of Blackness and Black life as fundamentally relational. Focusing specifically on the neutrino—subatomic “particles unaffected by light, uninhibited by gravity”—he considers matter, mattering, and relations on the quantum scale to emphasize “the fact that there are things happening in the world, in the universe, that are not easily perceptible to [the] human.” And while these subatomic particles might be invisible to the human eye, they’re felt nonetheless, constituting our sense and experience of the world, as “we simply feel the effects of such material, how these tiny particles come together to form the building blocks of, while moving through, matter” (48). Thinking the building blocks of matter in terms of their subatomic particles pushes beyond the ocularcentrism prevalent in much of Western thought, allowing Crawley to make the case for what he terms “epistemologies of feeling” (48). Instead of focusing only on what can be discerned by the eye, Crawley asks, “[W]hat if instead of a particular sense, feeling itself—in all its messiness, in its radical abundance, in its refusal of containment—was the preferred way of detecting worlds?” (48).

Vibrations help get us toward “feeling itself.” At once heard and felt, vibrations are sensuous phenomena. Even when they elude being sensed, vibrations bring forth a terrifying reality: that everything moves and, more nearly, we are moved by everything. And insofar as we note that everything moves, is in constant vibration at the quantum scale, it becomes easier to think vibration as, in some sense, the base of our reality, the grounds for our relations. Vibration as fact. Everything moves, physics teaches us. But this is not just a matter of fact. We might think of vibration as a mode of being, a way of inhabiting the flesh, a commitment to staying with the flesh that speaks to the possibility fundamental to indeterminacy, that state of being in-between, those oscillations with the capacity to bespeak affect, intimacy, relation, to bring forth forms of being and becoming. That is, vibration not just as scientific fact but also as fact of feeling, the capacity for being, for being-with. As Steve Goodman writes, “It is vibration, after all, that connects separate entities in the cosmos” (xiv).

Thinking the flesh as vibrational gets us closer to considerations of the ways that enfleshment recurs in the practices of mattering. Insofar as the flesh has been raced, gendered, and sexed, and insofar as no aspect of modern life in the West is untouched by race, gender, and sexuality, then no aspect of life is able to escape the flesh, as fact or possibility. Considering the flesh as vibrational not only brings our attention to physiobiological understandings of affectivity, the physics (matter) of touch and being touched, but helps us comprehend how our sense of the physiological is always already imbricated in other modes of sensing—the social, the affective, the psychological—and vice-versa. To make a claim for the flesh as vibrational, as mattering, is to claim, alongside Spillers, Weheliye, and Crawley, for theorizing the flesh as setting the conditions of possibility for life. The vibration, in this consideration, is a double movement, an oscillation denoting both the enfleshened fact and affect of existence. The flesh speaks a poetics of relation. And insofar as the flesh speaks a poetics of relation, it is a becoming, a felt-yet-ever-emergent vibrational force, a vibrational force that breathes new—dare I say queer—life into what we mean when we say Blackness, gender, sexuality, when we say the human. Perhaps the flesh speaks a poetics because it is queerly and racially relational, relatedly queer and raced in its vibrations. Vibrational flesh: inhabiting the flesh in full awareness, a fullness that must fail itself due to its awareness of running up against the incompleteness of the possibility of affect(ive) force as becoming theory, as ever-emergent praxis. “What can we be if,” Crawley asks, “we privilege feeling as the grounds for thinking relation to one another?” (“Resonance” 49)

If, as Crawley argues, Blackness “accepts vulnerability, openness, refusal to enclosure” as “fact of the flesh,” and if, as Goodman suggests, “vibration [ . . . ] connects separate entities in the cosmos,” then what of intimacy? Of touch? Vibrational flesh confers an alternative valence not just to race, gender, and sexuality but to the subject more broadly. That is, by turning our attention to the physics of vibration, as process, as what Crawley terms an “epistemology of feeling,” we see that touch is, perhaps, never really what we think. The idea of touching, be it the self or the other, is always, necessarily, asymptotic. The asymptote is one of calculus’s impossible figures. Asymptotes are emergent, ontologically horizonal. An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches but can never touch; the curve can only get increasingly closer to the asymptote. Asymptotes are lines toward which a curve strives but is unable to reach. Touch, then, as ever emergent, as the ad infinitum of the touch touching itself, is as queer as it as asymptotic.16

Yet following Spillers, if the making of peoples into flesh depended on making them susceptible to a certain kind of touch, then intimacy might need reconsideration, as the flesh is both less susceptible to hegemonic cat-egorizations and more susceptible to intimate physical violation. Consider Moonlight’s opening scene. Viewers first catch a glimpse of Chiron’s running body, as school-aged boys chase him. This scene could appear playful, a scene indicative of boyhood innocence, but the film’s dialogue makes such an interpretation nearly impossible. As the boys’ voices become more audible, audiences realize that Chiron is being hounded. “Get him”; “Get his bitch ass”; “He’s scary”; “Get his ass”; “Get his gay ass,” the boys yell out, chasing Chiron into an abandoned drug den. Might it be appropriate to consider pursuit as nothing other than desire manifested as movement? Perhaps, under this light, smear the queer undergoes a queering itself. Pursuit and desire depend on a cruel intimacy, a closeness made palpable on the flesh through touch—or even the desire to command touch.

Must forms of relation be constituted through violence? Moonlight reveals that perhaps what is sought is intimacy, the desire to hug and be hugged, to hold and be held. Perhaps what is sought is touch even though the longing of touch has long been beaten out of us. Might the “politics of touch,” then, be a corridor through which we struggle toward a form of liberative sociality without violence, a type of relation nurtured in the poetics of the everyday such that what emerges are rearticulations of the very things the smear swore could not be said, could not be done, could not be: queer being, Black becoming.17 The corridor toward the queer and the Black is tight but need not be violent; relation does not need to be forged out of the ideal of heteronormative masculinity. Perceived enclosure doesn’t disappear the fact that there’s space for us.18 What if we took an asymptotic conception of intimacy—a desire for the recognition of the other not seeking to appropriate, master, or control, but instead seeking a tending toward—as the starting point for relation. What modes of being and methods of relating might appear then? Perhaps, under a different stroke, this is what is meant by vibrational flesh: exceeding the flesh’s ability to affect and be affected, the desire for the asymptote, for the limit, is destined to fail and yet in its unachievable destiny discovers the space between here and there, the impossibility of arriving or even of location, but for the fact of motion. To think relation in this manner is to acknowledge the violence of touch but to note that only partial credit can be given to the act. Touch is violent, transgressive, but the act itself is not completely at fault. Imagination has failed us. Relation has fallen victim to grammar. The asymptotic strives to get us away from the violence of grammar, from its material effects, by tending instead of seeking an effect, an effective, constant gravitational pull that stops short, missing its effect. If we think relation in this way, what then might the flesh speak? Intimacy. “What you got to be sorry for?” Touch. “I ain’t say it don’t make sense.” Vulnerability. “What you cry about?”

Queer the Smear: Chiasmus and the Queerness of Possibility

We are engaged in intimacy that [ . . . ] Black boys were never supposed to find with one another, but constructs blur when touch supersedes the need for air.

—Lynch

“Hey, Little!” Kevin calls out, running to catch up with Chiron as he walks off the field. “Why’d you leave?” Kevin asks. “I don’t know,” Chi-ron half responds. “Yeah,” Kevin says, “it get boring after a while.” Chiron looks—no, stares—at Kevin’s face. “What? It’s bleeding?” Kevin asks, tilting his head so Chiron can get a clearer look (see fig. 2). Chiron grabs Kevin’s chin and brings himself closer to inspect the gash and says nothing. Kevin chuckles. “What?” Chiron asks. “You’re funny, man,” Kevin tells him. “Why you say that?” Chiron wonders. “Just is, that’s all,” Kevin replies.

Fig. 2

Chiron and Kevin sit together at the beach. Moonlight (2016).

Fig. 2

Chiron and Kevin sit together at the beach. Moonlight (2016).

Close modal
Fig. 3

Chiron inspects Kevin’s bruise from playing “smear the queer.” Moonlight (2016).

Fig. 3

Chiron inspects Kevin’s bruise from playing “smear the queer.” Moonlight (2016).

Close modal

“You’re funny, man,” Kevin tells Chiron. Here, funny invokes the long history of queer coding, standing in for strange, queer, gay, especially when referring to Black boys. The tone is different here than it was on the field, however. Warm, open, inviting, Kevin affectionately calls Chiron funny, suggesting that he, too, is in on the joke, that he is also “funny” in that way. We might say that Kevin’s calling Chiron funny is a moment of queer recognition. Kevin affectionately calls Chiron funny and so opens an entire world of Black queer possibility: a world in which Black queer being might be intimate, full of smiles, not only thought but made possible—a world in which Black queer being need not be smeared for normativity’s sake. “Why you say that?” Chiron retorts, and the boys’ dialogue is especially instructive:

Kevin: “You just is. That’s all . . . Why you always letting people pick on you?”

Chiron: “What you mean?”

K: “You always letting them pick on you.”

C: “So? What I got to do?”

K: “All you got to do. Show these niggas you ain’t soft.”

C: “But I ain’t soft.”

K: “I know, I know. But it don’t mean nothing if they don’t know.

Come on. You want these fools to pick on you every day?”

The boys begin to roughhouse.

Kevin’s acknowledgment that Chiron is not soft attempts to align the boy’s sense of self with how he is perceived by others, as soft is another word negatively coded for funny, effeminate, homosexual. Whereas “funny” could be used indiscriminately for male or female, “soft” raises the stakes as a gender-directed term. Here, Moonlight presents Kevin’s attempt to theorize both the social stigmas associated with queers and his own—and Chiron’s—internal feelings related to such identification. Kevin’s “I know, I know,” then, might be a gesture to assure Chiron that there is nothing wrong with being funny, soft, quiet, vulnerable. Might “I know, I know” thus signal a call for re-imagining and de-forming, a passageway for becoming, a production of worlds where otherwise (im)possible energies can be felt askew?

And yet Chiron’s proclamation that he is not soft is a repudiation of the weakness associated with effeminate masculinity.19 To be soft, in this context, is to be limp, to be impotent, drawing explicitly libidinal undertones, as the soft penis that is the antithesis to male sexual virility. After the boys roughhouse, a public performance scripted to prove that Chiron isn’t soft, the camera cuts to Chiron on his back in an extravagant pose: hands behind his head, looking directly into the sky. Kevin gets up, holds his hand out to help Chiron, and states, “See, Little. I knew you wasn’t soft.” The physical intimacy signified not just by Chiron and Kevin’s intertwined bodies, but within the football scene more generally, suggests that Black boyhood is itself a queer concept and mode of relation and that Black boys are a queer construction. There is a certain level of queer intimacy, however unrecognized, that is fundamental to this mode of being, something everyone did and does. These boyish acts—football field roughhousing and bathroom penis comparisons—call for the Black queer boy to exploit the social (mis)readings of Black masculine performance, for it is under the guise of friendship and fraternity, the practice of being together, that he is fully able to harness the queerness of boyhood.20 Friendship allows for Chiron’s glance at Kevin that lasts just a second too long to go unnoticed, and these instances afford the Black queer boy space not only to forge his queer subjectivity within the overlooked interstices of his society but to experience the forms of relation and modes of sociality that queerness allows. What I want to suggest is a potential correlation between touch and the glance—which is softer than the gaze—such that the glance seems to take on the capacity to touch like touch. Thus, the glance between the boys, the glance that lasts too long, emerges as an asymptotic movement. If smear the queer depends on a violent sighting to materialize a violent touch, then the glance between Chiron and Kevin stands in for a “funny” kind of touch. Might the glance—as touch and movement, as production through contact and relation—make the funniness real? Perhaps the glance interrupts the idea that “funniness”—or queerness—is a problem we must prove our distance from by troubling the production of masculinity as a normative ideal through which we understand sexuality.

It’s not a coincidence that this scene takes place on the same field where queer the smear is being played. It appears that the boys’ sense of masculine heterosexuality is dependent on Chiron’s queerness, such that heterosexuality and homosexuality emerge as each other’s condition of possibility, an entanglement, a dependency on the other for the construction of the self. If the name of the game posits an anti-Black, antiqueer violence against the subject, like Chiron, whose “softness” or other performance of proto-masculinity is illegible to normative constructions of an emergent or unfolding masculine performance—because the queer smears or blurs classification—then queering the smear is the work of exposing queerness, like Blackness, as a condition of possibility for the heteronormative. More than anything, what I am considering here is the possibility of what follows from creating out of “smear the queer” a chiasmus compelling us to think, rather, of the project of “queering the smear”—the blur, the Blackness, the dark underside, the anti- and ante-formative—of normative conditions of being. Thus the question—or imperative, rather—is to think of strategies that move away from defining and outlining our imposed intimacy with vulnerability and to head toward thinking of vulnerability’s importance and productive capacities to our being. That is, queering the smear is not intended to solely emphasize the ways in which Blackness and queerness are closely predisposed to material and discursive vulnerability, but instead uses the “legacy of racial [and sexual] injury” to think the dimensions of vulnerability that are constitutive of our capacity to feel, to relate, to know, and to become—to touch and be touched without coercive violence (Quashie 84). “Queering the smear,” then, is a refusal of the normative conditions of being, the terms of order, for the practice of stealing away and exposing the violences of normativity while cultivating practices that allow Black queer being to live, that make Black queer boyhood tenable even while facing white supremacist heteropatriarchal queerphobia. Here, I’m reminded of a recent interview Judith Butler gave in the New Yorker. When asked about “reality,” specifically a “reality we should be willing to accept,” Butler stated:

I am talking about how the term “reality” functions in social-political discourse. Sometimes “reality” is used to debunk as childish or unknowledgeable points of view that actually are holding out a more radical possibility of equality or freedom or democracy or justice, which means stepping out of a settled understanding. We see how socialist ideals, for instance, are dismissed as “fanciful” in the current election. I find that the dismissive form of realism is guarding those borders and shutting down those horizons of possibility. It reminds me of parents who say, “Oh, you’re gay . . .” or “Oh, you’re trans—well, of course I accept you, but it’s going to be a very hard life.” Instead of saying, “This is a new world, and we are going to build it together, and you’re going to have my full support.” (“Judith”; my emphasis)

Queering the smear, then, refuses individuation, the logic of Western liberal humanisms, and thereby helps to unmake Man and world with aims of reconstruction: “This is a new world, and we are going to build it together.” More than that, it is also about rigorously thinking queer possibility in Black children, which is not a sexualization per se, but is a kind of reading into Black queer sexual formation. Queering the smear is thus a practice of the social, advocating not for a queerness that is “horizonal,” but instead “insisting on a queerness that has always been” (Macharia). And lastly, queering the smear locates an intimacy that we “were never supposed to find,” that we were told was not possible—a liberatory being and becoming, living and creating “with”—an intimacy that blurs constructs and in so doing moves to create worlds. Queering the smear is a call for the smear’s end, for Black queer life beyond. This section analyzes relationships that queer the smear and thus foster the space for Chiron to be. Not connected in narrative, these scenes work together to produce im/possible feeling and relation in the face of the smear. Consider the following.

Fig. 4

Juan carrying Chi-ron after teaching him to swim. Moonlight (2016).

Fig. 4

Juan carrying Chi-ron after teaching him to swim. Moonlight (2016).

Close modal

A(nother) beat.

We find the boy, this time in Viviane Sassen’s d.n.a., 2007, stretched across the head of a man, his body in the shape of an upturned parabola.21 Is it possible to consider that the flesh speaks, feels, exchanges a language, perhaps even a feeling or a relation, of love, of care? Who are these characters? This boy and man. And what could have been shared between them during the boy’s travels atop. Did he pause on the shoulders, or maybe he was carried in the man’s arms? Did the man think to say “Let your head rest here. Relax. I got you, I promise,” as the boy wobbled while being placed? It’s no easy task, this being placed, being vulnerable to the act of placing.22

Chiron was told, “I got you, I promise.” “I’m not gon’ let you go. Hey, man, I got you,” Juan assures Chiron while teaching him how to swim. Sophie Gilbert reads the scene “like nothing so much as a baptism: a moment of communion and spiritual connection between the two. Juan shows Little how to move through the water, and then compels him to lay back and float while he supports him, cradling his head like a priest would a baby” (Gilbert). More than a baptism, however, this scene is suggestive of the possibilities of being that emerge when relation is not forged out of violence, possibilities that appear if we take “don’t worry, I got you” as our stance in the world.

Juan shows Chiron such possibilities. When Chiron bangs on Juan and Theresa’s door in the final scene of Moonlight’s first act, Juan cautiously approaches the door with a gun in hand. The New Yorker’s Hilton Als contends that Juan’s demeanor in this scene speaks to the character’s feeling of his material and social vulnerability: “That’s how Juan [ . . . ] carries himself—defensively, warily. He’s a dope dealer, so he’s intelligent enough to know that he’s expendable, that real power doesn’t belong to men like him.” After discovering that it’s Chiron on the other side of the door, Juan’s tension eases and he calls out: “Hey, Teresa. Your boyfriend’s here.” The film cuts to Chiron sitting with his head hung at the couple’s dining table, a pose resembling what Eve Sedgwick calls the “proto-form” of shame (36). Teresa brings Chiron a glass of orange juice and asks him if he’s talking to her today. She sits down and the three characters strike up a conversation; Little, not coincidentally, offers little to the discussion. Juan lets Little know that he saw his mother last night, but audiences will recall that he caught her abusing drugs. “I hate her,” Chiron replies, raising his head in order to briefly gaze into Juan’s eyes before returning his focus to the dining table. “Yeah, I bet you do,” Juan retorts. “I hated my mom, too. I miss her like hell now.” The trio sits in unnerving silence. The camera pans to Juan and Teresa looking down at Chiron, then focuses on Chiron, who is still averting eye contact.

“What’s a faggot?” Chiron timidly asks, looking up so as to break the silence but not the tension. The camera cuts to Juan, who stares Chi-ron directly in the face; Chiron, surprisingly, stares right back. As the two characters glance at each other, the resemblance between man and child is uncanny. Juan glances at Teresa, down at the table, and away from the camera before answering: “A faggot is,” he pauses, using this moment to glance over at Teresa just one more time, “a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Receiving an answer, Chiron returns his glance back to the table. His next question is more breathtaking than the first: “Am I a faggot?” Juan almost interrupts, “No. No, you can be gay, but you don’t got to let nobody call you no faggot. I mean unless . . .” he looks over at Teresa who shakes her head. Juan stops talking.

This scene suggests that the film’s earlier depiction of Chiron being interpellated as a Black homosexual has affected his self-perception. Butler underscores that in Althusser’s theory it is “the police who initiates the call or address” (Bodies 121). Interpellation, an entry into the symbolic, is an act of policing in the Althusserian sense and, I would suggest, an act of limiting, a process that constitutes subjects through subjection in order to govern not just a material order but also a symbolic—or ideological—order. Chiron being called a faggot thus speaks to the ways other children, and even his mother, have constrained his performance of Black boyhood as a way to maintain a heteronormative order, placing Chiron face-to-face with his queerness before he has a grammar to express it.

Yet, this scene also suggests Juan’s attempt to queer the smear. Als observes just how careful Juan is to “take [ . . . ] the word apart” while not taking “Chiron apart with it. He knows that Chiron is marked for misery, and how will Juan’s heart bear it, let alone Chiron’s?” Juan’s answer does more than let viewers know how aware he is that the boy “is marked for misery.” Echoes of Juan telling Chiron “[A]t some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you” haunt this scene. Juan is in a more adult manner trying to teach Chiron what Kevin tried to teach him in telling him not to let the other boys see him as soft. It is very difficult to disentangle vulnerability as being made the target for masculine violence from vulnerability as a capacity for becoming open to one’s own strength. But both Kevin and Juan are trying to communicate this and in so doing make real the possibility of being and becoming together in, through, and as relation. Even more, Juan attempts to let Chiron know he is loved, no matter who he is. “No, you can be gay,” then, might best be bracketed to focus on “you can be gay,” an attempt to redress previous offenses, to make clear the normative conditions of being against which Chiron feels trapped.

“Love,” Lewis Gordon tells us, “is a revolutionary force [ . . . ] an act of commitment that sets out to elevate the subject to an agent of history” (“Black”). This is about emergence: what queer Blackness is and what it can be. Juan telling Chiron that he “can be gay” opens up the possibility for nonnormative alignments that up to that point were not accessible to the boy, allowing him to see that Black queerness does not have to be a problem one needs to prove distance from. The scene itself is thus a stance. Ethical, affective, the intimacy onscreen is demonstrative of what Crawley terms “otherwise possibilities.”23 The focus is not on arrival but instead on the act: the holding, the having, the having someone that is not about possession or mastery but about the noncoercive production of something together in space-time. Might this moment be considered the production of Black queerness? A relation formed between the two that has nowhere to exist other than beyond the logics and procedures of the normative? What does it mean that Juan tells Chiron he could be gay, does not foreclose queerness as a possibility but cracks it wide open for the boy to discover himself? The asymptotic relation and the capacity to queer the smear figure these moments not done but ever emergent in their doing, a care that is continuous and sets the stage for the possibility of self-determination. The world works endlessly to delimit the possibilities for being and becoming, yet communal strategies persist in glimpses of queer Black being and becoming nestled between “I got you, I promise” and “I’m not gon’ let you go,” between “what’s a faggot?” and “am I a faggot?”

I would like to thank my dissertation committee—Marlon Ross, Maurice Wallace, Ashon Crawley, Mrinalini Chakravorty, and Alexander Weheliye—for their invaluable feedback on this essay. I am also especially indebted to Alison Martin, Henry Washington, Joseph Wei, Tracey Wang, Austyn James, and Rahma Haji for their patience, dedication, and remarkable insights that helped shape this essay. This essay would not have been possible without the rigor and care demonstrated by each and every person listed, and for them I am eternally grateful.

Notes

1

My discussion of the flesh builds off the inimitable work of Hortense Spillers, particularly “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” and Alexander G. Weheliye’s Habeas Visus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Spillers’s theorization of the flesh provides a powerful analytic and grammar for the violence essential to the unmaking—or unhumanizing—of African peoples in the West. She writes, “Before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography” (67). In Spillers, the flesh is previous to the body; the body is thus erected through violence and rhetoric and the violence of rhetoric. That is, the body—as a figuration for the Western social subject, especially the ostensibly unmarked racialized gendered subject—is dependent on the continuous making of peoples into flesh. The flesh, then, is not an antithesis to the body but is its constitutive ground. Weheliye extends Spillers’s ideas in this way: “If the body represents legal personhood qua self-possession, then the flesh designates those dimensions of human life cleaved by the working together of depravation and deprivation.” The flesh is thus “the ether that holds together the world of Man while at the same time forming the condition of possibility for this world’s demise” (39–40). Important to my discussion, moreover, is Weheliye’s challenge to consider the flesh as “a site of freedom beyond the world of Man” (125). To consider childhood games as “in and of the flesh” is to mark childhood as a site that holds the potential for both subjection under current organizing structures and existence that disrupts and confounds them.

2

I’m attempting here to think about how childhood modes of being in the world are akin to what Foucault terms “subjugated knowledges.”

3

To be made aware of race, gender, and sexuality is to experience social hierarchies. Here, I draw from Anthony Farley’s observation:

Childhood is where we begin, and, under the conditions of hierarchy, the childhood is already marked. [ . . . ] There is a pleasure in hierarchy. We begin with an education in our hierarchies. We begin with childhood and childhood begins with education. To be exact, education begins our childhood. We are called by race, by gender, by class, and so on. Our education cultivates our desire in the direction of our hierarchies. If we are successful, we acquire an orientation that enables us to locate ourselves and our bodies vis-à-vis all the other bodies that inhabit our institutional spaces. We follow the call and move in the generally expected way. White-over-black is an orientation, a pleasure, a desire that enables us to find our place, and therefore our way. (223)

4

My use of Black queer follows that of Darius Bost: “I also use queer to situate black gay writing within contemporary queer theory, and to describe affects, political feelings, socialities, and geographic sites that produce alternative ways of being in the world, modes of being, and ways of knowing that disrupt normative identifications” (145).

5

Here, I want to consider R. A. Judy’s note that “names do more than designate things; they indicate an orientation in life not in some abstract nominalist sense but in the sense of a grammar that emerges out of a set of human practices in life that work in the creation of the world” (9). To consider “smear the queer,” then, is to consider more than just the name of the game. Rather, I want to consider the practices revealed in the film that demonstrate the game’s objective. See Judy for a fuller discussion.

6

All quotes from the film are transcribed from the dvd version of Moonlight.

7

This is another important moment of naming that showcases my earlier use of Judy’s work: gay, scary, fag, all these names suggest a grammar that speaks to the world the characters create and inhabit related to “smear the queer.”

8

Muñoz offers a compelling reading of Amiri Baraka’s one-act play The Toilet. Analyzing the protagonist’s homophobic assault on a boy he is later revealed to be sexually intimate with, Muñoz points toward the repressed libidinal tension between homophobic violence and actual (homo)eroticism, such that the violent maneuver is often a tactic that strives to repress queerness in order to maintain normative masculinity as an ideal. This is a trope that repeats in queer cultural production, and there is a case to be made for reading Chiron’s bully, Terrel, this way. My focus, however, is not so much on teasing out this tension as it is understanding the impact that such violence has on Chiron’s ability to understand and come to terms with his sexuality. See Muñoz for an in-depth discussion.

9

My use of ontoepistemological borrows from Karen Barad’s in Meeting the Universe Halfway. Barad asserts that “practices of knowing and being are not isolable; they are mutually implicated. We don’t obtain knowledge by standing outside the world; we know because we are of the world. [ . . . ] Onto-epistemology—the study of practices of knowing in being—is probably a better way to think about the kind of understandings that we need to come to terms with how specific intra-actions matter” (185). By considering the smear an ontoepistemology, I mean to call attention to the ways violence presents itself as a practice of and/ or constitutive to being as well as the medium through which subjects know themselves.

10

I want to stress Lewis Gordon’s important note about transformative human relations. To consider the smear as a structural framework is to suggest its ostensibly total or complete infallibility. However, as Gordon writes, what gets elided in such a reading “is the understanding of the human capacity to produce social worlds or systems, communicate them and transform them.” The smear, I would venture, borrowing from Gordon’s ideas about change, “offers the illusion of its ontological completeness and the futility in attempting its transformation. [But the smear] requires human agency for its creation and maintenance. What human beings bring into being we can also take out of being” (Freedom 58–59). While our dominant structures allow the smear to appear as the option, it does not have to be. See Gordon.

11

This argument builds on Robert Reid-Pharr’s in “Tearing the Goat’s Flesh: Homosexuality, Abjection, and the Production of a Late Twentieth-Century Black Masculinity.” Reid-Pharr discusses how the Black homosexual is scapegoated (often through acts of queerphobic violence) for the production and maintenance of Black “normalcy.” If the smear is a method through which structural normalcy is maintained, then “smearing the queer” forefronts how any hint of genders and sexualities beyond the scope of the “normal” must be suppressed through structural and material antagonisms.

12

I follow the understanding offered by Robin D. G. Kelley: “[T]he conditions and the very existence of social movements enable participants to imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way. It is that imagination, that effort to see the future in the present, that I shall call ‘poetry’ or ‘poetic knowledge’” (9).

14

Here, I reiterate how expressions of nonnormative gender and sexuality are suppressed for the maintenance of “normalcy.” Similar to Reid-Pharr’s analysis of “scapegoating,” Treva Ellison terms this dynamic “the progress of Black gender”: “The promise of Black gender is the promise that Black people can repair the effects of racism by submitting to techno-scientific techniques for governance and regulation,” operating “as an abstracted racial covenant that promised interiority and territory to Black people in exchange [for] inhabiting gender and sexual norms” (10–13). The boys distancing themselves from queerness in the service of a normative masculinity is another “promise” of Black gender.

15

I am following Steve Goodman’s understanding of vibrational: “If affect describes the ability of one entity to change another from a distance, then here the mode of affection will be understood as vibrational” (83).

17

Erin Manning defines the politics of touch as involving “a return, a return not to the self-same but to the body as it has shifted through the process of making time and space with an other. This is a politics of modification, a politics carried out through an other as much as with an other” (24).

18

A note about disappearance: I want to name how visibility (akin to representation) functions as a primary mode of concealment of the possibilities in the flesh.

19

At issue here, however, is how this renunciation is still a renunciation. It is a disavowal of femininity in order to articulate a masculinity that will not be smeared.

20

A scene in Moonlight’s first act deserves more attention. Chiron walks into the boy’s bathroom and witnesses multiple boys, including Kevin, comparing how their penises look. When Chiron walks in, a boy exclaims, “Who let his ass in?” Kevin quietly asks if “somebody [is] with” Chiron, then loudly says, “Man, I swear it was locked.” The camera panning to show all the boys’ faces is similar to the start of the “smear the queer” game. Chiron participates in this game, and, again, he and Kevin exchange knowing glances.

21

Artist Viviane Sassen has been cited as one of Jenkins’s inspirations when filming Moonlight. Here, I am directly referencing the similarities between Sassen’s d.n.a., 2007 and Jenkins’s swimming lesson scene. See Strecker for an interview with cinematographer James Laxton in Lensculture.

22

I am thinking about placing similarly to how legal scholar Anthony P. Farley theorizes “the mark”: “The mark organizes, orients, and differentiates our otherwise common flesh. The mark is race, the mark is gender, the mark is class, the mark is. The mark is all there is to the reality of those excesses—race, gender, class, and so on—that are said to precede existence. The mark is a system [ . . . ]. And so it goes” (223). The “placing” that I am talking about is the positioning of the mark: to have our being “placed” in a hierarchy because we are all marked. See Farley.

23

For a full discussion of “otherwise possibilities,” see Crawley, Black-pentecostal Breath.

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