Black transness has been marked and made broken by necropolitical systems of power. Theories and politics of and for black trans women have often prioritized a rejection of or confrontation with this “state of brokenness,” as poet Nat Raha terms it. Visual artist Tourmaline offers a different relationship with brokenness in her call to “come undone,” whereby those who are “broken” can gather their broken pieces together not to heal but to give and share one's pieces with another. This essay engages Tourmaline's Salacia (2019), a film about the life of Mary Jones, a black trans sex worker who became infamous in 1836 following her arrest in New York City, as producing a black trans aesthetic of brokenness. Using a collage style of placing distinct frames upon frames, Tourmaline mixes speculative retellings of Jones's life alongside archival footage of Latina trans activist Sylvia Rivera to create an image built from the pieces and fragments of the trans archive. This aesthetic of brokenness offers an aestheticization of Saidiya Hartman's “critical fabulation” that holds and cares for black transness, a practice of gathering and being‐with and being‐for.
Aesthetics of Brokenness
The dominant aesthetic form of visual artist Tourmaline's 2019 video installation Salacia is of fragmentation, or what I am calling an aesthetic of brokenness. Salacia produces a fictionalized imagining of Mary Jones (fig. 1)—a black trans sex worker living in New York City who became infamous when she was arrested in 1836 for stealing the wallets of her white, male clients. Salacia imagines Jones living in a black queer and trans commune in (a not named) Seneca Village, a settlement of landowning African Americans that was seized by the government and turned into Central Park, before her arrest and imprisonment in Sing Sing, represented in the film by using a former prison on Governor's Island.
The film mixes fictionalized 16mm film and digital images of Jones—some are totally imagined, while others are speculative re-creations of known events in Jones's life—along with archival video images of trans activist Sylvia Rivera. In the sequence directly following the title card, the film shows a fictionalized scene of Mary Jones's queer and trans communal family as they live and play in Seneca Village (fig. 2).1 The form of this sequence is built through three distinct images. In the background is a muddy and well-used dirt road that appears frozen. At the top and bottom of this background image, however, the film strip is made visible, marking where this present frame once was and where it is going next. Sitting on top of this background are two smaller frames. In the left frame, there are two black women talking and laughing as laundry dries on a line flapping in the wind. On the right, we see a brick home with two people sitting on the front steps as a child moves toward the foreground where two other children are laughing and dancing around a firepit. The only sound we hear over these images is the joyful laughter of the children, though despite the closeness we feel with the image, the laughter sounds as if it is blocks away—a faint trace, the echoing remainder of their playing.
This sequence, like so many in the film, is an accumulation of distinct and contrasting and yet intimately tied images and sounds. This aesthetic form creates a juxtaposition between contexts—in and out of the film—that expands what can be known but more often leaves the viewer knowing that they have missed something, forcing them to realize that there is an excess of material, an excess of being, that will always escape their gaze and comprehension. I term this an aesthetic of brokenness to narrate how Salacia continually reminds the viewer that there are purposeful but also inevitable gaps in this or any attempt at telling the story of a person and their community, and thus by extension forcing the viewer to acknowledge that, if something is missing, something may have also been erased. From the outset, Tourmaline is not covering over the artifice of narrative—both in film and in the historical and archival. She declares the fact of history's narrative-making, and acknowledges that there is a hand piecing things together into an overwhelming flow of images, desires, and possibilities.2 As I will return to later in this essay, this diverse collage functions as a kind of aestheticization of Saidiya Hartman's critical fabulation, an archival and historiographic methodology of creative imagining of the past that gives speculative richness to those rendered flat by the archival and puts pressure on the processes by which people are made narratively and humanly one-dimensional by history.3
The critical fabulation of this scene arrives in the “insurgent ground of these lives”—the lives hidden and forgotten in the archive and the lives of those here now desiring after the past and future.4 This queer and trans black family, an image that Tourmaline presents to us not as a fantasy but as a dreamed-of and believed past truth, may not be held in the archive, or at least its fragments may not have been found yet, but that does not diminish the affectively and intimately known truth of it for Tourmaline and for black transness. This fabulative aesthetic sees filmic brokenness as building an image and a history from what is available and from what broken pieces remain to be used, held, and seen, and from those felt and known through the shared experience of brokenness. Brokenness, then, is a pathway to connection and relation because, as Tourmaline tells us, to come undone is to come and be together in a shared brokenness.5 The story and life of Jones is given an archival and historiographic abundance not through the archival record but by the speculative archival labor of Tourmaline visualized in the gathering of frames upon frames that gives a rich complexity to Jones and the world she lives in without denying the necessary constructedness of the image that the archive's gaps produce. Through this aesthetic of brokenness and the openness and care of its fabulation, Salacia produces a site of radical gathering for black transness to speak and see itself across time and space. Tourmaline is offering an expansive encounter of, and for, trans care.6
The choice to attach brokenness to black transness is not ignorant of the ways black transness, particularly black trans womanhood, is continually marked and defined as being broken under the metrics of white supremacy. Black trans people exist in “states of brokenness,” writes poet Nat Raha, where bodies are constrained and limited to the point of being unable to speak of the reality of those states.7 The act of being and surviving as a black trans person is treated as an attack on those who live “proper” and “good” lives. Further still, as C. Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn have demonstrated, the generational suffering and violation of black trans life functions as a necropolitics whereby the “death, in both quotidian and spectacular forms,” of black trans people provides the energy and force for the development and sustaining of contemporary social life.8 For Raha and theorist Marquis Bey, the use of brokenness in relation to black transness should be understood not as ontological but, instead, merely as a description of the conditions of black trans life that need to be rebelled against so that practices of healing, community, and militancy may be formed and mobilized.9
In proposing a black trans aesthetic of brokenness, I wish to offer a different conceptualization and use for brokenness. This is not a rejection of the conditions described, nor is it a theory of negativity in the lineage of queer negativity or Afropessimism. I am after a theory and practice of brokenness that is generative for black transness, to move beyond a description of the state of the world and one that desires more than another battleground in the struggle against normativity. This essay asks: What happens when black transness orients itself toward itself—not as a turning away from power but as a turning toward black transness?10 What would it mean for brokenness to provide a methodology for black transness to be-with and be-for black transness; a practice that cultivates sites for an active and purposeful community of love and care for black transness?
This proposed aesthetic archival practice is an outgrowth of Tourmaline's preface to the 2019 reprinting of Larry Mitchell's gay manifesto fable The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions, where she sees collapse and undoing not as negative conditions but as practices of being-with and being-as the other. She writes,
I am still here because I have also been held, in these moments of despair. . . . I have been held by my friends, my very own faggots, who after all this time still let me cry and stare and slobber and scream and stay silent. I have come undone, and this has kept me alive. The faggots have helped me believe that if we are to ever make it to the next revolution it will be through becoming undone, an undoing that touches ourselves and touches each other and all the brokenness we are. The faggots remind us that to become undone is our greatest gift to ourselves.11
In this quote, Tourmaline embraces the supposed wrongness of otherness, but not as an antagonism or counter-identification with the normative. The broken are turned elsewhere. To be broken is to understand that one is not whole within the orderings of the normative and that the broken do not desire that wholeness. For the broken, being in pieces means one can move through and with and as others. Another's pieces can be used to support your pieces, and your pieces can support another's. To be broken is to become undone so that one can become mingled and intertwined. Coming undone is a path to being held, and a path to community and survival. In this way, to come undone, to break, is not to turn away from the normative but to turn toward those who hold you and whom you hold. A shift in orientation and desire, it prioritizes the communal and the other over an antagonism with power.
Black transness, when positioned via Tourmaline's “being broken,” engages a unique praxis of being that may use the same symbols and linguistics of the normative but with fundamentally different semantics, rhetorics, and orientations, and thus, a different flow of material life—a readable but also fungible being. To become broken, Tourmaline writes, “is our greatest gift to ourselves. It is truly our greatest path to being response-able—to feel our feelings authentically makes us able to respond to the conditions around us with an open heart.”12 To be broken, then, offers a different theory of relation to the normative for black transness, a conceptual space where negativity produces the ability to hold and care for another. Thus, an aesthetic of brokenness, I will argue, is fundamentally and defiantly oriented to and for black trans life in the “fugitive hope,” as Bey proposes, of sustaining trans life and cultivating “all ways in which we do and can connect meaningfully with one another. [For] those connections matter a great deal; those connections are the world in which we (can) live.”13 This essay seeks to find and build and protect those sites of gathering and being-with that allow black transness to be and to love and to hold.
The first record of Mary Jones as Mary Jones in the archive is following her arrest in 1836, when she was brought to her hearing still in the dress, makeup, and accessories she was wearing when she was apprehended. The seeming disconnect and absurdity of Jones, understood and described by the public as a man in a dress, turned her into newspaper and society fodder; the press dubbed her the “Man-Monster” (fig. 3). Her infamy only increased after further arrests in the 1840s, when she gained another name, “Beefsteak Pete,” which comes from the newspaper's scandalizing description of how Jones “deceived” the men.14 Quoting from Snorton's Black on Both Sides: “The Sun told its readership, in Latin, how Jones engaged in sex acts with her clients by wearing a ‘piece of cow [leather?] pierced and opened like a woman's womb . . . held up by a girdle.‘”15 As Tavia Nyong'o notes, in the court and newspaper records, Jones is referred to using both male and female pronouns and with both her chosen name, Mary Jones, and her legal name, Peter Sewally, which only “highlight[s] their [Jones's] sense of transgression” for whiteness—further proof of blackness's otherness.16 Jones's gendered blackness reaffirms what Hortense Spillers has termed the ungendering of racialization, and thus, the unhumaning of blackness.17 The process of Jones's racialization by the court and press and its dependent gendering and hyper- and desexualization sees ungendering yield that which Calvin Warren describes as a “(non)place” where the ungendered “is not recognizable . . . within ontology.”18 Jones's transgression of gender, as Nyong'o argues, “produced evidence against the claims of abolitionists, as indexing the social chaos that would accompany the overthrow of slavery and racial domination.”19
The concern of this essay is, in part, how one can ethically and meaningful tell the story of Mary Jones rather than the story of her violation. So little of the record regarding Jones is from her voice. And the histories we have of Jones, most notably from Nyong'o and Snorton, while rich and invaluable texts on the intimacies of blackness and gender, remain attached to what is given by the archive. However, as Hartman has taught us, the archive is shaped by what is deemed worthy of being saved, but also what was deemed necessary to record in the first place. The histories that are then built from those records are shaped by the inevitable and deliberate gaps in what is and is not recorded.20 Mary Jones, and the complex nuances of her life, are not captured by the archive. All the archive holds is the violations inflicted upon her. But how do we take those violations and produce a story that performs Hartman's critical fabulation and gives an image, if broken or undone, of Jones while also holding the reality of the archive as a record and as an institution? To begin answering this, I will turn to Tourmaline and her history with Jones and the archive.
The story of Mary Jones, as told by Tourmaline, arrives because Tourmaline and her sibling, Che Gossett, entered the New York Public Library (NYPL) and dug through its archival content. The archive, as institution and concept, is built on gaps—gaps of incompleteness, gaps of ignorance, and gaps of access. Tourmaline's own experience with the NYPL was one of navigating and surviving anti-trans, anti-black, and anti-poor assumptions, rules, and protocols before even being able to see the holdings.21 As Hartman tells us, “Every historian of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor.”22 This experience and reality is what led to Tourmaline's radical act of laboring through the archive and its violence, to recording and capturing the texts and images of trans women, and releasing them to the public through her Tumblr blog, The Spirit Was . . . , and her Vimeo page. This is a conscious and purposeful confrontation with the reality that who has access, and what that access looks like, shapes history as much as what the actual archive holds.23
In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida extends the effects of the archive's form on its present access to its past realities: “The technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event.”24 This shaping of the “archivable content” is what propels Hartman's histories of black women during slavery and in its afterlife. The enslaved's social and economic position as commodity dictated what kinds of records were kept, and thus it structures what histories can be built from them.25 Hartman's work is a response to those histories narrativized through those archival records that then only recommodify blackness as evidence of slavery's trauma. The inhumanity of the records becomes the inhumanity of the history whereby the enslaved are visible only in their deaths. Only court records and newspaper reporting of Mary Jones are left in the archive. In both, the media mark her as at the bounds of the proper and thus as evidence of black transness's inferiority—as the abject. There is little of Jones by Jones, except in the passing moments she could speak in court. These records never show her naming herself as trans, for such language did not exist at the time, and any contemporary equivalent might have been incriminating or might have validated in the eyes of the state a further violation of her. This lack of “evidence,” as defined by the norms of disciplines, has made many who have written on Jones hesitant to name her and many others in the archive as trans.
This hesitancy is made apparent in how historians and theorists come to name Jones, even those invested in the transness of Jones. For example, Nyong'o refers to Jones as Peter Sewally, the name she was given at birth, and addresses her using he/him/his pronouns. Nyong'o does this for two reasons. The first acknowledges that we do not know how Jones identified. The little knowledge we have of Jones comes almost exclusively from court records and the press, and she is gendered according to her state-recorded gender. Nyong'o's choice of naming follows, though with more generosity to Jones as a trans subject, the standard practice of historical narrative that avoids editorializing beyond the archival record. More crucially, Nyong'o retains the archival record's gendering to emphasize how the press and court used Jones's performance of gender to ensure the racialization and ungendering of blackness. Working within a similar political and theoretical framework, Snorton refers to Jones as Mary Jones and uses she/her/hers pronouns. Snorton also focuses on the intimacy between racialization and gendering in the story of Jones, but to articulate the ways transness becomes formulated in both. Snorton is pointed in not wanting to easily construct Jones as a transgender historical figure—not because she is not, since we cannot truly know, but because despite not knowing how Jones would have identified, she functions as vital trans performance at the intersections of racialization and gendering. That is, Snorton understands Jones as an enactment of the fungibility and fugitivity of gender for blackness. In part, Snorton and Nyong'o's turning to Jones is to better enunciate a central thesis of black feminist thought and black trans theory: “Blackness is gender trouble.”26
While Nyong'o and Snorton offer rich and vital readings and histories of Jones, Tourmaline produces a far different relationship and goal in her naming and relation to Jones. She finds the small moments Jones's voice arrives in the court records, and in the historical violence whiteness inflicted upon her, as evidence of Jones as a black trans woman, as an ancestor that may be a guide for Tourmaline and others. Tourmaline is consistent and explicit in her introduction to Salacia at the online screening for the video's acquisition by the Museum of Modern Art and in the numerous interviews she has done for the film in naming Mary Jones as Mary Jones and as a black trans woman. Tourmaline sees kinship and intimacy in Mary Jones; she finds a narration of her own trans being in Jones's testimony, and even calls what happened to Jones as an “outing.”27 Tourmaline's naming of Jones is an attempt to validate the historical truth of black trans lives prior to the contemporary—a rejection of the myth that transness is a modern invention—as well as the vitalizing energy such a naming can produce for the present. What is distinct about Tourmaline's decision, compared to Nyong'o and Snorton, is not just its forcefulness but also the why of it, or, rather, the who of it. Tourmaline is orienting her film toward black transness. The film is uninvested in the strictures of historical narrative and normative archival practices. Because it is about and for black transness, Salacia can sidestep the tension over what the archive does and does not tell us because the archival record is so rarely concerned with the affective and material abundance of abject life. Transness is found and even enacted by trans people in the archive through their use of and movement in the archive.
Tourmaline's archival practice prioritizes the empathetic and personal, enacting her own version of Snorton's description of “trans”: “ ‘Trans,’ is more about a movement with no clear origin and no point of arrival.”28 That is, Tourmaline offers us an archival practice of, for, and by black transness. This is a centering and orienting toward and with black transness, whether it is to tell the stories of violence, the stories of joy, or the stories of the mundane. Or it is, as Bey argues, a bearing witness to how “centering black trans women alters what qualifies as knowledge, or what is deemed ‘the world.’ ”29 The story (the labor) of Salacia is as much a representation of Jones as it is a space for black trans people in the present to perform acts of trans visioning and dreaming on and with the past—a making of another world, a filmic version of Hartman's critical fabulation. We can see this practice enacted in the opening of the film.
Salacia opens on a small bowl with a hand lightly touching its edge. As the camera moves up the body, it shows the viewer the face of Mary Jones (Rowin Amone). Throughout this camera movement, Jones, in a voice-over narration, quotes a refrain from Virginia Hamilton's children's book The People Could Fly (1985): “They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. They would walk on the air like climbing up on a gate. They flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black shiny wings flapping against the blue up there.” Jones's narration, and Hamilton's book, recounts the myth of the Flying Africans, a group of Africans who, on arriving in the Americas and witnessing the horrors of slavery, took flight and returned home.30 “Flight,” writes Michelle D. Commander of the tale, “is transcendence over one's reality—an escape predicated on imagination and the incessant longing to be free.”31 The Flying Africans offer a balm and an orientation meant to find the transcendence of blackness and to solidify the possibility and faith in freedom. Put differently, the Flying Africans function as a kind of “freedom dreaming” for Mary Jones.32 The material and magical story of the past becomes a reminder as well as a guide for imagining and laboring toward freedom in Jones's present and future.
Aesthetically, however, the film's opening also calls attention to the fact of the film having been made. While Salacia was shot, edited, and screened on video, Tourmaline includes traces of analog filmstrip sprockets at the edge of the film's frame, along with the bottom edge of another frame of the film (fig. 2). This aesthetic choice appears to undermine the diegetic closedness of the film and the ability to suspend disbelief and fall into the world of the film, thus acknowledging the artifice of historical narratives. I see this decision—one that orients the political and aesthetic desires of the entire film—as an aesthetic practice of critical fabulation toward a fuller and richer envisioning of the possibility and contextuality of their world. In Hartman's description of the archive's violating record is a description of fragmentation. The record of enslaved women that provides the impetus for Hartman's theorizing of critical fabulation exists in pieces that are found here and there. In rendering this archival methodology in aesthetic form, I see in Salacia a radical and generative aesthetic archival practice of black transness that not only holds the fact of archival gaps but also makes those gaps useful and usable. In making visible the film, its sprockets, and its other frames, Tourmaline aestheticizes her film as a piece of analog, tactile media—a piece and fragment of material evidence of historical black transness.
Salacia's aesthetic practice of critical fabulation gives generously to those the archive and history have violated, and it does so through being present for and with those subjects of the past. This opening sequence enacts what Hartman calls “a mode of close narration, a style which places the voice of the narrator and character in inseparable relation, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text.”33 It rejects the objective distance of the historian and embraces the generative tension, connections, relations, and futurity that can be found in standing with those whose story you wish to tell.34 In making explicit the artifice of the image while also attaching that image to the generational folktales of black Americans, Tourmaline keeps her own voice, the voice of Jones, and the voice of black life in intimate, conscious, and purposeful relation. It does so by being present for and with those subjects of the past, rejecting the objective distance of the historian and embracing the generative tension, connections, relations, and futurity of standing with those whose story you wish to tell.
Gathering in Brokenness
The work of brokenness I have described thus far fills out the image through the piecing together of what the archive deems deserving of being recorded and what the broken and the othered know to be held in the gaps. This produces not an image of wholeness or completeness, as that is only possible for those allowed access to the proper status of the human and the subject; nevertheless, it expands the image into an overflowing abundance that bursts the limits of the frame and history with the intimacy and entanglement of desires of the past, the livedness in the present, and labors for the future. The making of an image of abundance is not just to rehistoricize the past or demonstrate the richness of Mary Jones's life, though both are vital to the work of Salacia; rather, it is to begin cultivating a site whereby the broken, those who have come undone, can gather and be together for each other. This aesthetic of brokenness and the site of gathering it opens for black transness, as Bey calls for, creates a space where the broken can imagine and cultivate another world together—to enact their dreams of the future.
Following her arrest, Mary Jones is sent to prison at Sing Sing. When she arrives in her cell, the frame is composed of a full moon in the background and Jones filling the one and only frame (fig. 4). Being in a frame within a frame within a frame, she appears small and distant from us. On the right edge of this smaller frame, we can also see a pulsing red-orange light that looks almost like a flame stretching across, trying to burn the image or even the film itself. As Jones collapses on her thin blanket and damp mound of hay, she begins to cry, exhausted from her day and terrified of her future. As she cries, a voice is heard calling her name. The video follows the voice and cuts from the night sky to a river shoreline, the sound of lapping waves and seagulls echoes along with the voice, before the video dissolves into a rising sun. The voice calls out to Mary once more as the background changes to a barnacle-covered dock post and, in the center of the video, sits a new frame within a frame of documentary footage of Sylvia Rivera, the Latina trans activist, who, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson, was a central figure of the queer and trans rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s with radical organizations such as Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR).
Unlike the crisply constructed 16mm film and digital images of Mary Jones, this is archival footage filmed by Randy Wicker in 1992 on the West Village Pier. Rivera was houseless and living on the pier, like many queer and trans people before and after her. Following the murder of Marsha P. Johnson that same year, Rivera returned to New York City for the first time since the late 1970s—when she left the city and stopped her organizing work, exhausted from the endless acts of transphobic violence of the state and after an attempted suicide following the 1973 Gay Pride Rally in New York City where gays and lesbians harassed and booed her as she fought to give her speech.35 In the footage and in the voice that Jones hears, Rivera reassures her trans sister: “You got to keep fighting, girly” (fig. 5). Tourmaline cuts between the filmic Jones in her cell and the video Rivera on the pier—a linking of the material past reality of Jones and the diegetic future reality of Rivera alongside the present performance of Jones by the actress Rowin Amone and the past archival speaking of Rivera.
In this way, Tourmaline is producing an image that moves across a multitude of aesthetic and historical and conceptual borders, borders that are meant to be distinct and yet become fluid under her transarchival filmic gaze. More importantly, through her aesthetic of brokenness and the openness and care of the transarchival fabulation, she produces a site of radical gathering for transness to speak and see itself across time and space. Tourmaline is offering an expansive encounter of trans care, one that allows Rivera to once more guide and propel trans possibilities; to give Jones, even in its fiction, an image of what is one day possible for transness; and to provide the contemporary life of transness the affective and material fact of trans freedom dreaming. This is the dream of the aesthetic of brokenness: this free and safe and loving realm of being-with black transness.
Further still, this transarchival gathering in Salacia exists across Tourmaline's filmic and archival work and thus needs to be understood as a black trans aesthetic archival practice. With her film Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones (2017), Tourmaline produces an experimental meditation on the interference of waves that forms the rippling particularities of black trans womanhood. Commissioned by Visual AIDS for their twenty-eighth annual Day With(out) Art exhibition focused on the ongoing AIDS epidemic, Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones aestheticizes the “energetics and violences that shape a person's life and social space, from the transatlantic slave trade to HIV criminalization.”36 The film opens on Egyptt Lebeija, filmed using a vertical iPhone, looking down on the former West Village Piers from an office building across the street. Lebeija lived on that pier, “in a hut,” when she was unsheltered in the early 1990s. As she looks down on where she used to live, she chokes up and reflects: “The times of the Village, from Fourteenth Street to Christopher Street. The memories. People should never forget where they came from.” This footage, like Rivera's, is a documented record of a material and actual life lived. However, it also holds the sense of immediacy assumed of phone-captured video that has become an everyday practice of contemporary life—as a record of the mundanity of one's day or as a record of protest and state violence.
This pier, too, becomes a critical site of trans gathering across time. As the films show, it is part of Labeija's life, it is where Sylvia Rivera was unsheltered in her interview seen in Salacia, and it is where the body of Marsha P. Johnson was found after the 1992 Pride Parade.37 Further still, just four miles south of the West Village pier at the mouth of the Hudson River is where much of Salacia was filmed: Governors Island, where Dutch colonizers arrived in 1624, and where two years later the Dutch West India Company brought eleven enslaved Africans to New Amsterdam. The Hudson River, in black trans affective and archival history, becomes a transtemporal and transspatial site for black trans life—a churning flow of roiling violence and community, death and survival, pain and joy.
The Hudson River as a site of black trans gathering offers its own kind of archival accumulation distinct from the archive fever of normative desire. This accumulation produces the sense of scale and complexity at hand within this location—it does not flatten like the commodity records of enslaved African women that reduce them to a singular repeating figure or the way annihilating repetition of trans death erases the possibility of trans life.38 Rather, this accumulation is an engagement with, and acknowledgment of, the continual returns to this river across time for blackness and transness.39 Tourmaline's lens sees into the Hudson River and opens a space for a gathering—a crossing the River Jordan to a shared freedom, as Rivera names it in the video clip included in Salacia—that brings together the fictional and real, the material and the abstract, the lived and the needed. In this way, Tourmaline continues her project of building a transarchival form, borrowing from Nyong'o the “propositional mode of revised histories [that] allows for the retrieval of abandoned practices and unspoken scenarios.”40 Via Tourmaline's imaginings, we see a filmic answer to Eliza Steinbock's question about trans embodiment: “What if trans embodiment is not primarily about sex or gender, but about experimenting with the aesthetics of corporeality in terms of efficacy and political purchase?”41
Ultimately, what I see occurring in the moment Mary Jones and Sylvia Rivera connect, as well as within the accumulation on the Hudson via Tourmaline's suturing, is a transtemporal, transarchival touching—a gathering of bodies and affects. The transarchival, the aesthetic of brokenness, and the critical fabulation of black transness come together in a “conditional temporality of ‘what could have been.’ ”42 This black trans aesthetic enacts thought, “where thought,” as Bey puts it, “is a hieroglyphic and radical commitment to concerning oneself with the livability of life lived otherwise.”43 Like the breaking of time away from linearity, these transarchival aesthetics rupture thought and knowledge into practices of speculation and becoming. The material aesthetic politics of black trans life arrives via this thinking thought and archival giving.
From Rivera's call to survive, Jones dreams of an escape back to her trans, queer, black community; she dreams of being held and of holding. Although this dream does not come true in the way Tourmaline dreams it, for Jones, in this film, Rivera's mantra and the fugitive hope it makes imaginable does propel Jones and prepares her to keep fighting. As the film closes, the image is broken into pieces once more. In the background, Jones curls up and cries as she comes to terms with her imprisonment and the impossibility of escape—this is her life now, or at least, for now. On the surface of the image, however, the enclosed frame of the film has broken down once more and opened a site for another emergence. A red-yellow light, like a flame, begins flashing out from the right side of the frame as if it is beginning to burn, or as if the darkness that is needed to expose a film was being ruptured by the sudden and feared intrusion of light. Something is breaking through the frame, through the film, through history and time. The closed system of the filmic diegesis is deteriorating, allowing for something beyond its narrative to arrive. On top of this collapsing and burning frame of Mary Jones crying appears another Mary Jones, also played by Rowin Amone. She too is crying. As this Jones stares down, she begins whispering, “We can be anything we want to be” (fig. 6). She repeats this as a chant, a mantra, a vitalizing phrase of commitment and purpose. With each repetition, her eyes begin moving up from the downcast defeat she began with before eventually staring defiantly at the camera with a force and absolutism in her voice as she repeats one final time, “We can be anything we want to be.” The intrusion I referenced above is the arrival of Jones upon the image, yes, but more importantly, it is this mantra of creativity and survival, a voice of defiance in the face of annihilation that is made most radically present on the surface of the image. Like Rivera's transtemporal call to keep fighting, Jones is declaring the fact of herself in her present time but also in the continual fact of her as a black trans woman having been and continuing to be.
In this final scene of Salacia, Tourmaline explicitly includes Mary Jones as a history that black trans women have, and in having her, they also have a marker and a guide for imagining new futures from the realities of the past. The “we” Jones names is a black trans community that is denied and violated for the fact of being. The rupturing of the filmic diegesis occurs as the film explicitly turns toward black trans women and allows them to speak as they are. The speaking of the “we” is a speaking to Jones's future, so that same future, our present, can listen and even speak back to her. This gathering across time and the archive is what pierces the film with a burning light: the gathering of black transness with itself so that the future can remember a denied and covered over past, and so that the past can know that a future has already been made possible because of, and through, them.
This essay has desired many things from Salacia, Tourmaline, and Mary Jones. It has hoped for a way for black transness to find and narrate itself in the archive without threat and violence—however momentary that reprieve may be—as well as a way for it to build and fill its own archive. It has narrated practices of intimate togetherness that supports and cares for black transness. It has imagined transarchival sites of gathering and creation so that black transness can love and survive. Brokenness is a theory, aesthetics, and politics of being-with and being-for so that these radical possibilities can be felt, seen, and made. This gathering, this turning toward itself and away from the view of normativity, is an antagonistic act that rejects the latter's power and centrality. The normative is dangerous and powerful, but it has no value outside the confines of itself. Instead, a turning toward has nothing really to do with normativity; rather, it has to do with whom we labor with and for; whom we are building an active and purposeful community with; and where we want our energy, love, desire, and commitment to go. As Tourmaline tells us, “The faggots remind us that to become undone is our greatest gift to ourselves. It is truly our greatest path to being response-able—to feel our feelings authentically makes us able to respond to the conditions around us with an open heart.”44 The pieces that come from being marked as broken are not hindrances but an opening, an emergence—“in moments of apparent scarcity, our best defense is to respond with abundance.”45
It is unlikely that Jones lived in Seneca Village. Tourmaline is purposefully connecting the story of Mary Jones, a black trans woman violated by the state, and the story of Seneca Village, a black community violated by the state.
My use of “trans care” is in part informed by Hil Malatino's book Trans Care, where he asks “How do we care for these ghosts that take such care of us?” Malatino's empathetic questioning pushes us to take seriously how we connect with and make use of those that are so vital to us as individual and collective trans/queer people (Trans Care, 7).
I am inspired here by the brilliant work of the liquid blackness research group and their 2020 event and research project, “Facing the Band: Elissa Blount-Moorhead and the (Ana)Architectures of Community Ties” (https://liquidblackness.com/elissa-blount-moorhead-research-project), and Michele Prettyman's interview with Moorhead in issue 6.1 of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, “Doing It, Fluid: Elissa Blount Moorhead and the Making of a Moving Image Arts Community.”
Contemporary knowledge of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson cannot be solely attributed to Tourmaline, but it is hard to overestimate her role in it. Many of the images we have of both women are easily accessible to the public because Tourmaline digitized parts of the archives of NYPL and assisted in digitizing the personal archives of people like Randy Wicker, a gay activist who was among the most visible gay people in the United States before Stonewall with his work at the Mattachine Society and other early gay rights groups and who eventually began interviewing important figures in Greenwich Village as well as filming protests and gatherings throughout the Village from the 1960s through the early 2000s. This act of making easily accessible materials that were technically already public or public-adjacent demonstrates facets of the barriers and tensions within the physical and conceptual archive for transness, as well as what a transarchival practice can look like.
The term “freedom dreaming” here arrives from two locations: first, from Robin D. G. Kelley, where freedom dreaming is a form of purposeful thought between the present and the past—an “effort to recover ideas.” Tourmaline also offers her own conception of freedom dreaming as an everyday practice of survival. “Freedom dreams,” writes Tourmaline, “are born when we face harsh conditions not with despair, but with the deep knowledge that these conditions will change—that a world filled with softness and beauty and care is not only possible, but inevitable” (Kelley, Freedom Dreams, xii; Tourmaline, “How to Freedom Dream”).
The West Village pier is also important within the history of gay life and HIV/AIDS. The pier is where Willie Ninja and other voguers perform outside balls, as seen in Marlon Riggs's Tongues Untied (1989), as well as a site of queer sexual exchange where gay men cruised and found each other. It is a point of encounter, an in-between space outside the movement of normativity and white time for the queered other to commune. Both this and the weight of the pier's history with slavery, as will be discussed in the coming paragraphs, have been memorialized and interrogated by David Hammons's public sculpture Day's End, a steel frame structure that reproduces the warehouse that used to sit on the Hudson River at the pier.
See Walcott, “Black Aquatic,” for a further discussion on the work of water and Blackness. As he writes, “The black aquatic [is] relational even when the relational in its representation remains unachieved or dissatisfying” (68). The black aquatic speaks to the ambivalence with the tides for Blackness. They mark a critical site of the movement of Black life and the enactment of Black death, and thus is “foundationally formative of blackness” (65).