A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
A floor isn’t just a floor for Lil Nas X. The floor has been a stabilizing, catalyzing, and contentious object in his life, particularly his sister’s floor.
Lil Nas X was sleeping on his sister’s floor a year before he became an international pop star.1 His tweet from July 2019 represents how much his life changed for the better in just a year’s time while also cleverly addressing the then new public attention to his sexuality. Amidst an admittedly difficult childhood and through a meteoric rise to fame, Montero Lamar Hill got much of his support, his grounding, through the literal reinforcement his sister’s floor provided.
In countless interviews, X cites his sister’s waning hospitality over several months as an additional impetus for his hit “Old Town Road.” I imagine a teen X seeing his sister going to and from work, maybe a little frustrated to see her younger brother still camped out on her living room floor while he scours the Internet for the beat that will launch him beyond it. The small, shared space of the floor became a springboard for so much more; X now owns multiple homes with their own multiple floors where his folks can live.
In a world where Black gay men are ridiculed, unloved, and looked over, it mattered that his sister loved him enough to keep him safe. When his parents’ homophobic households coupled with bullying by his fellow high school classmates became too much to bear and suicide seemed an option, his older sister made a literal space for him on her living room floor. A living room floor is a welcome respite for Black queer and trans kids who find themselves suicidal and/or on the street when rejected by family and friends.
Flexed from his sister’s living room floor, X’s social media savvy ensured that “Old Town Road” went viral on multiple streaming platforms before sneaking onto Billboard’s country music charts. After being unceremoniously removed from the country chart, X connected with Billy Ray Cyrus for the remix that took the song into the stratosphere. The song shattered the record for the number of weeks it was top song on the Hot 100 charts. It became the fastest song to reach diamond status by selling ten million copies in ten months. X went from the floor to the galaxy in less than a year.
Students at Lander Elementary School in Mayfield Heights, Ohio were so taken with “Old Town Road” that a viral video of them rocking out to it on their school’s gymnasium floor caught X’s attention. A video of X surprising these same kids on the same gym floor went even more viral with a visibly humbled X overwhelmed by their joy. Can you imagine, what it means to see a young Black gay man with the #1 song in the country in your school gym? Can you imagine the delight of a nascent queer or trans youth in that audience once X or they themselves were even more public about who they really are? X’s sister’s floor created the conditions for the too-often overlooked Black youth of the queer community to see themselves reflected and imagine “otherwise.”2
The song’s popularity among the Lunchable set became the foundation for trumped up concern about how X’s sexuality might have a negative impact kids. In what can only be understood as the most incredible trolling that social media has yet to see, X took what people would try to use against him and made it his own. As Audre Lorde said, “Nothing I accept about myself can be used against me to diminish me,” and no one has accepted their queerness quite like Lil Nas X.3 In the video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),”the title track of his debut album, he spoke directly to those who said his queerness would send him straight to hell by sliding down to the fiery depths on a stripper pole to twerk on the Devil before killing him and taking his horned crown. How’s that for accepting what would be used to diminish him?4 He then set the stage floor of the 2021 BET Awards aflame when he performed the song and closed it with a deep tongue kiss of a fellow male dancer. Critics spewed “What about the children?” rhetoric in blatant disregard for X’s own childhood, one bereft of images of Black queer desire or acceptance. But for his sister’s floor, where would Lil Nas X be?
And lest I paint these sisters as always already magnanimous and interested in queer sibling solidarities, straight Black sisters are not wholly good and the misogynoir they endure does not necessarily make them any less tolerant of homophobia.5 But, I am reminded of Cathy Cohen’s suggestion that there are radical potentials to be activated across the space (the floor) of difference for those of us pushed to the margins by structural oppression.6 Sibling substratum support is a possible freedom footing for fecund and fierce queer futures.
Fame and fortune do not change the material conditions for the rest of the Black gay boys who have considered suicide, find themselves on their sister’s floors, or on the street, when their parents refuse them because the rainbow is not enuf. This extended familial furnishing is important as a fleeting flight from hate, or at least some lessening of the intensity of it. This ground grants the possibility that we can build more collectively. And honestly, that’s the floor.
This is one of four essays from the twenty-first transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
21.1/Blur 18/Jordana Moore Saggese
21.3/The Creation of God/Chelsea Mikael Frazier
21.4/The Underground Railroad/Stephen Michael Best
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- I love the way ostensibly straight sisters show up for their queer siblings and vice versa. You remember Antoine Dodson? He was sleeping on his sister’s living room floor when she was accosted by a would-be rapist who climbed into the window of her 2nd story apartment. Dodson went to bat for her in a raw unfiltered viral local news clip that prompted the Gregory Brothers to put the audio to music which resulted in its own viral fame, some of which Dodson was able to cash in on but I digress…
- Ashon Crawley, “Otherwise Movements,” The New Inquiry 19 (2015).
- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 2012).
- Lil Nas X decided why stop there when I can go further and released his video for “Industry Baby” that brought to screen both homolatent prison culture with an explicit queer plot, including an extended pixelated genitals shower floor dance routine. See Moya Bailey, “Homolatent Masculinity & Hip Hop Culture,” Palimpsest A Journal of Women, Gender, and the Black International, Volume 2, Issue 2 (2013): 187-199.
- I coined misogynoir in 2008 to describe the unique anti-Black racist misogyny that people read as Black women negotiate in popular culture. See Moya Bailey, Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance (New York: NYU Press, 2021).
- Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3, no. 4 (May 1, 1997): 437–65, https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-3-4-437.