In the article “Like Signposts,” Eric Pritchard engages with Black queer literacy and the ways we build and maintain relationships with Black queer ancestors, such as Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. Pritchard argues that Black queer people combat historical erasure and non-normative lifestyles by identifying, exploring and challenging erasure. Specifically, Black queer people appropriate literacy by forming relationships with Black queer ancestors to “engender” the formation of Black queer identities and cultural traditions (32). One of the literacy practices he discusses is life-fashioning. Pritchard explains, life-fashioning “refers to the ways in which one achieves self-care, resistance, collective empowerment, and personal affirmation” (32). Throughout the documentary, the performers discuss the ways in which they achieve self-care and personal affirmation.
I build upon Pritchard’s terms “life-fashioning” and “rereading/rewriting” when I discuss fierce literacies. I use the term fierce literacies to engage with Black queer people’s literacy practice of refashioning for survival. I argue that the performers deconstruct and refashion static ideas of gender, race and class to survive in an often racist, misogynist, classist and homophobic society. I argue that they do a fierce refashioning of gender and class using their discourse, performances and spaces that force the audience to critically think through these as socially constructed. Pritchard discusses rereading/rewriting as a way to speak back to and undercut oppressive racial or sexual ideals. He refers to these ideals as misuses of literacies:
This includes picking apart the values, assumptions, ideologies that underpin the misuse itself, as well as one’s own privileges, power, and powerlessness in relation to it. It represents the act of invention and or reinvention of texts, ideologies, histories, etc. that develop in the liminal space left by confronting the misuses and the act of rereading (283).
In Paris, I read misuses as static ideas of class and binary ideas about gender that work to erase the lives, stories and knowledges of Black trans and larger queer community. Life-fashioning speaks to how Black queer people’s acquire and engage with the film in their lives. For example, I am entertained when I watch Paris and empowered to see it articulate confident Black queer people. However, my intellectual engagement with fierce literacies through the interviews of the performers speak to how literacy is performed and in turn forces us as a field to rethink how we understand literacy, who creates knowledge and knowledge is produced. The performers demonstrate the ways societal constructs, such as race, class and gender are understood by the dominant culture and the ways that they reinterpret, outmaneuver and critique static implementations of these constructs to survive.
I argue that the participants interviewed in Paris serve as Black queer ancestors and they leave survival literacies for future generations of Black queer youth. It is my belief that Paris functions as a literacy narrative in this way. Kris Rutten and Ronald Soetaert discuss the value of literacy narratives as detailing a moments of literacy acquisition and “rites of passage.” They go on to say that literacy researchers have turned to both ethnographic methods and literacy narratives in popular culture to engage with how literacy functions. They write,
… literacy researchers have increasingly turned to (popular) literacy narratives – novels, plays and films- not only to illustrate academic theories about literacy, but also for critically assessing or engaging with myths or templates about literacy that circulate in (popular) culture at large. (647)
In Paris, I argue the participants demonstrate and deconstruct Eurocentric and elitist myths or templates about gender, beauty and class. The performers appropriate Whiteness and simultaneously create a new culture at the same. Specifically, the participants demonstrate a literacy of refashioning on multiple levels, discursive, performance and space.
Borrowing from Deborah Brandt’s notion of “literacy sponsors.” It is my belief that the participants and Livingston, thanks to documentary video as a medium, serve as literacy sponsors. Brandt discusses literacy sponsors as those people we often remember and cite when we talk about how we acquired literacy. Brandt writes, “(Literacy sponsors) lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association” (646). Many of the ballroom performers were unsatisfied with their financial compensation for their participation in the film. However, the ways in which Black queer people have embraced these performers, their stories and guidance speak to their performers fierceness as housemothers and literacy sponsors. Even though many of the performers were unsatisfied with their compensation, the performers reap a larger communal benefit of helping the youth and eternal life through the hearts and imaginations of future Black queer people. In the remainder of this chapter I offer a rhetorical analysis of key scenes from the film. I argue that Black queer people embrace the film and its participants because of the ways the participants frankly critique oppression and discuss survival in day-to-day Black queer life.