Denver University Communications Questions

Black Feminist Comedic Performance and Queer Temporalities in the Standup of
Wanda Sykes
ABSTRACT This essay theorizes how black feminist comedic performance queers white
supremacist and heteronormative notions of time by centering Wanda Sykes’s performance
in her comedy special I’ma Be Me and her performance at the White House Correspondents’
Dinner—both in 2009. Sykes’s jokes articulate how queer bodies of color experience temporalities that are in constant tension with dominant narrations of “coming out,” national heritage,
and white nostalgia. I argue that Sykes uses comedic performance to: (1) reveal the limits of
“progressive” coming out narratives for black queer women, (2) reinstate black subjectivity into
US collective memory, (3) debunk myths of the United States as “post-” identity politics, and
(4) challenge broader publics to think beyond linear and binary constructions of identity/ies,
space, and time. KEYWORDS Black feminism; Queer; Comedy; Wanda Sykes
Black feminist comedic performances provide unique platforms to reshape, dislocate, and reclaim temporalities that marginalize and silence black queer
women. Therefore, black feminist comedic performance (BFCP) operates “as
a provocation to move past the boundaries of alienation,” and toward oppositional
knowledge, resistance, and empowerment. Centering Wanda Sykes’s comedic
material, I theorize how black feminist comedy functions as critical historiography,
the resistant act of interrogating dominant historical narratives as truth, thus “cracking up” chrononormativity. Chrononormativity, as defined by Elizabeth Freeman
in Time Binds, conceptualizes how time is used to organize individual bodies in
abidance with the institutional rhythms of capitalism, white supremacy,
heteropatriarchy, and cisgender normativity. More specifically, I argue that
Sykes uses BFCP to: () reveal the limits of “progressive” coming out narratives for black queer women, () reinstate black subjectivity into US collective
memory, () debunk myths of the United States as “post-” identity politics,
and () challenge broader publics to think beyond linear and binary constructions of identity/ies, space, and time.
Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, Vol. , Number , pp. –. ISSN -, electronic ISSN
-. ©  by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Request permission
to photocopy or reproduce article content at the University of California Press’s Reprints and
Permissions web page, DOI: ./dcqr.....
The moment of laughter as a performative explosion or literal burst can stop,
speed up, and even transport us to other times and spaces. As a white, anti-racist,
queer, feminist scholar–artist, I am deeply invested in archiving and celebrating
the work of performers who both articulate and confront the complexities of
identity politics and history, and use the stage as a site of social transformation.
Sykes’s black feminist comedic performances confront audiences with a markedly
queer sense of time to articulate inclusive conceptions of time and place, and
underscore black feminist sentiments of belonging and community. Freeman
defines queer time as the kind of time that “overtakes both secular and millennial
time. And within the lost moments of official history, queer time generates a
discontinuous history of its own.” If chrononormativity, as Freeman describes,
serves myriad hegemonic structures through linearity, then a sense of time attuned to critical frameworks such as queer theory and black feminist thought is
asymmetrical, polyrhythmic, circular, and most importantly, suspicious of narratives that silence the past and/or label the future as inherently progressive.
Through joke-telling and subsequent laughter, BFCP interrupts hegemonic fictions of black womanhood and “threatens to unearth the amnesic defenses created through repression.” Accordingly, BFCP refuses the chrononormative
silencing of black feminist and queer voices in general and black queer women’s
voices especially. Via BFCP, embodied in her comedy special I’ma Be Me and her
appearance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—both in —Sykes
accesses queer time through black feminist assertions of empowerment and pleasure. Both of these performances crack up chrononormativity, demonstrating
how BFCP challenges audiences to acknowledge marginalized histories, engage
with black feminist modes of resistance, and imagine a more just future.
The violence of forced performances for slave owners, minstrelsy, and statesponsored marginalization well into the twenty-first century has meant that
black performance is often employed to operate as “an oppositional move
within a matrix of disciplining powers reigning over the black body.” Histories
that address black performance in the United States consistently cite comedy as
both a subversive and interventionist method of dissent. Studying black comedy in the s and s post-soul era United States, Bambi Haggins asserts
that comedy has been key in the expression and formation of black identities
alongside coping with systemized oppressions and celebrating black culture.
The roots of standup comedy in minstrelsy do not detract from the empowerment and pleasure black performers and their audiences have derived from
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comedic performances that reflect the actuality of the black diaspora rather
than fictional stereotypes produced and consumed by white performers and
Haggins states that resistance has always been foundational to black comedy:
“Historically, the black comic has retained the ability to get the audience laughing while slipping in sociocultural truths.” Aligning with Haggins, Glenda R.
Carpio writes that black humor draws upon a distinct “diasporic sensibility” to
mark the body as a site of power. In Laughing Fit to Kill, Carpio theorizes the
black comedic artist as a conjurer who symbolically redresses slavery through
joke-telling, performances of the grotesque, satire, and re-formation of black
stereotypes. That is, the black comedic artist reveals tropes of minstrelsy and
racial archetypes as constructions of white supremacist history through the
“arsenal” of black US American humor: the insult, tall tale, trickster tale, and
“blues-infused” joke have created a foundation on which black humor bonds
performer and audience through a shared sense of time and legacy. Refusing
to comply with the confines of chrononormativity, black performance interrogates and animates the dynamics of “African dislocation, imperialist trade, capital
accumulation, human violence, and black abjection.” Typically, these collective memories of trauma are ignored, disregarded, and/or silenced in service to
chrononormative interests in US American culture. In direct contrast, BFCP
employs jokes and their resulting laughter to “talk back” to the cultural, political, and historical narratives that caricaturize and confine black culture to the
dominant imagination.
As a form of black performance, I situate black feminist comedy as a means
to employ joke-telling and laughter to express how systemic racism, sexism, and
heterosexism are imposed on the everyday lives of black women and black queer
women. Black queer women comics occupy the stage as not only a place for enjoyment, but also a platform from which to speak bold truths. It was in black
vaudeville troupes of the early s, the Chitlin’ Circuit, that black women
comedians honed jocular aesthetics rooted in African American cultural traditions of folklore and dance, and also in queer theatrical tropes such as camp and
drag. In the working class, “no holds barred,” and often sexually explicit comedy
of the Chitlin’ Circuit, black women performers used humor for backlash and
bonding. The work of Moms Mabley set standards for black women to tell
jokes in “response to systematic oppression based on their racialized gendered
identity and minority sexual orientation as asexual and hypersexual representational others.” A more recent example of this kind of work comes from black
butch lesbian comedian Sam Jay, whose comedy centers her race, gender, and
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sexuality as intersectional sources of empowerment. For example, in her performance on the podcast  Dope Queens, Jay celebrates her blackness and queer
gender performativity when she states:
Boston is a little closed-minded town, so people act like they’re afraid of me,
you know? Like it’s obvious my underwear has dickholes and they shouldn’t,
you know what I mean? They look at me funny. I’m a black dyke and old
white ladies cross the street when I’m walking down [it], but I like that. I like
that power.
BFCP, then, “stands up” in the face of and against historical legacies of racial
violence, stereotyping, misogyny, and homophobia while also pushing against
cultural norms that center mostly cis black heterosexual women in conversations about black womanhood.
Anchored by black feminist thought, BFCP utilizes the stage to convey
knowledges gained via “outsider–within” positionalities and embody selfdefinition and self-determination, which Patricia Hill Collins defines as the
power to name one’s own reality and destiny. Since black performance has historically been linked to white supremacy and the “spectacle of black contentment
and abjection,” the presence of black women center-stage on their own terms is
inherently subversive. Artist Pearl Cleage calls this the creation of a “hollering
place,” or artistic work committed to creating a conduit for black women’s
voices. BFCP provides a hollering place for black women to both bond over
shared experiences, and understand the complexities of their differences, echoing
bell hooks’s explanation that it is harmful to “assume that strength in unity can
only exist if difference is suppressed and shared experience is highlighted.” Thus,
the hollering place is a space in which black women can narrate and hear the various stories that constitute the specificities of blackness, womanhood, and queer
life in public and private spheres. When interpreted amidst the rich history of
black performance, Sykes’s standup situates black women as radical agents within
history, their subjecthood, and their communities—despite the imposition of
dehumanizing hyper(in)visibility at various intersections of systemic marginalization. Audre Lorde states that black women asserting their “sources of strength
and support,” and pursuing power and political interests is a “vital component in
the war for black liberation.”
Hollering places for black women and their allies exemplify the generative,
formidable work of what M. Jacqui Alexander calls “knowing who walks with
you,” signaling the power in solidarity created through performance. Black
feminist comedians use the mic as a means to foster belonging and to exchange
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important ideas about identity/ies, history, and culture. Mirroring the rich tradition of fostering empowerment via black feminist ideology in cultural spaces
ranging from kitchens to classrooms to churches, on stage Sykes performatively
models how intersectional identities and history need not be dictated solely by
white, patriarchal, and heteronormative domination.
Omi Osun Joni L. Jones insists that blackness and queerness are linked
insofar as they operate “transtemporally” and refuse crystallization, instead
generating sites of possibility whereby performance “enacts roads to movement.” Both exclusively and jointly, blackness and queerness intricately
disrupt and intercept linear time, historical narratives attendant only to
those in power, and value judgments of who and what is worthy of the time
and space for public discourse. Black feminist comedic performances challenge time and resonate with Alexander’s defense of embodiment of the
sacred as key to the liberation of black people, queer people, and women.
The sacred “dislocates clock time, meaning linearity, which is different than
living in the past or being bound by tradition.” Shifting temporality from
linear to non-linear can generate “counter-memories,” defined as “the disparities
between history as it is discursively transmitted and memory as it is publicly
enacted by bodies that bear its consequences.” Counter-memories conjure and
articulate the multi-dimensionality of time and the ways marginalized bodies
experience aspects of life such as culture, history, sexuality, violence, and joy.
Sykes’s comedic performances are generative survival strategies, deeply imbued
with black feminist and queer assertions of self-definition, communal empowerment, and transtemporalities as vital tools of resistance.
Throughout this essay, I read Wanda Sykes’s comedic performances closely
for important moments of black feminist and queer critical historiography, or
a cracking up of time. I analyze her words, narratives, vocal inflections, and
movements for cultural commentary that critiques white supremacist, misogynist, and heteronormative structures in service to black feminist and queer
empowerment. I make explicit how her rich, skilled, and intricate performances
reveal the shortcomings of chrononormativity and deconstruct temporalities
that silence the multiplicities of black queer womanhood in the United States.
Akin to how black feminists dismantle dominant narratives that invalidate black
women’s standpoints and insist that black cisgender, transgender, and genderqueer people matter, BFCP operates as an exemplar of embodied black feminist theorizing. Sykes, speaking up and out, mirrors Kimberlé Crenshaw’s call to
take “Black women’s intersectionality seriously,” as well as Rachel Alicia Griffin’s
and Hortense J. Spillers’s assertions that black feminist performance works to
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expose whiteness and extend possibilities for empowerment, and generate black
feminist praxis innovatively.
Sykes’s black feminist and queer articulations are woven into the ethos of her
comedic persona in her  full-length comedy special, I’ma Be Me. In and
of itself, the title of this performance bespeaks a black feminist sensibility by
employing vernacular grammar and self-declaration. “I’ma be me” suggests that
authenticity is something to be declared, self-defined, and embodied determinedly. By comparison, although Sykes’s previous standup addressed issues of
race, gender, and sexuality, she took on a passive role in her joke-telling. Prior
structuring of her jokes often included hypothetical, third person narratives. For
example, a joke about racial profiling and fears of black masculinity in her 
comedy special, Sick and Tired, proclaimed: “When we see a white man running
down the street, we think, ‘He must be late!’” While still highly political and
vocal about racism, sexism, and gay rights, Sykes distanced herself from the
scenario, acting as the observer or commentator who critiques and laughs at
raced, gendered, and sexual oppression, but rarely made herself (e.g., her identities and experiences) a main character in her performances.
I’ma Be Me was the first comedy special in which Sykes announced herself as
lesbian, marking an important turn in her comedy as a mode of black feminist
and queer self-expression. Her audience, seemingly in the know based on their
applause and vocal excitement, cheers loudly when she states, “Had a lot of
changes in my personal life.” She elaborates:
I got married. Happily married, got married in California. Then I had to
publicly come out. Had to do that. I had to do it. After Prop , after that, you
know that Prop  fiasco in California, I had to come out. I had to say
something. ’Cause I was so hurt and so fucking pissed.
Sykes conveys that she had not planned to come out publicly, but was emotionally
compelled to do so. She acknowledges this when repeating, “I had to come out
[emphasis added],” and uses “had” repetitively to communicate the high stakes of
self-definition. The camera closes in on Sykes as she says this line with a furrowed
brow. Sykes’s “newly” announced presence on stage as a black lesbian woman
becomes defiant in this act of chosen self-naming coupled with a frank, even serious,
delivery. After the passing of Proposition —which rendered the legality of Sykes’s
marriage void—deciding to come out due to hurt and anger privileges the emotional
and spiritual nature of naming and valuing oneself despite oppositional forces.
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The camera pans out as Sykes continues in a conversational, yet serious, tone.
She cites the election of President Barack Obama and the passing of Proposition  as simultaneous victory and regression. “I was up here,” she says raising
her hand high above her head, followed by “Now I’m back down here,” gesturing towards the floor. The swiftness with which Sykes and so many other
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people felt degradation
that election evening reflects the constant (re)orientation of time and place at
the intersections of race and sexuality in the United States. This “objective
vertigo” is described by Frank B. Wilderson III as a “life constituted by disorientation rather than a life interrupted by disorientation.” This state is inherent to
blackness and, I would add, queer subjectivities because, as Wilderson explains,
“one’s environment is perpetually unhinged.” At the intersection between
structural (e.g., imposed by the State and social institutions) and personal (e.g.,
a feeling of uneasiness or being unsafe), disorientation is the state wherein marginalized bodies experience daily and unavoidable dis-ease. Sykes’s feeling of
simultaneous elation, joy, anger, and disappointment demonstrates how black
queer subjectivities operate under continuous temporal discontinuity, or vertigo.
That is, time is experienced as a forward/backward, multiplicative, and confusing
entity rather than linear—and thus, heteronormative—progression for black
queer women.
Sykes’s paradoxical feelings of being “up here” were linked to her race, while
being “back down here” was linked to her sexuality. Her elation as a member of
the black community linked to Obama’s election followed by her disappointment in the passing of Proposition  as a member of the queer community created a temporal whiplash, revealing the commonplace impossibility of linear
progress for people who are multiplicatively marginalized and privileged via
their respective positionalities. For example, while Sykes is certainly privileged
as a cisgender US American who is presumably able-bodied and upper class; she
remains targeted both personally and politically as a black lesbian woman.
Focused on comically resisting marginalization, Sykes essentializes queerness
and blackness, declaring: “It’s harder being gay than it is black.” The set-up for
this purposefully anti-intersectional joke demonstrates the confusing, conflicting feelings of homophobic regression paired with racial progression. Without
pause, she continues:
It is harder. It’s harder being gay than it is being black. ’Cause there’s some
things I had to do as gay that I didn’t have to do as black. I didn’t have to
come out black. I didn’t have to sit my parents down and tell them about my
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blackness. I didn’t have to sit them down [and say], “Mom, Dad I gotta tell
y’all something. Hope y’all still love me. I’m just gonna say it. Mom, Dad: I’m
Although stating that her gay identity is more difficult than her black identity
could potentially alienate her audience, her pacing is quick, and she explains
herself before she loses her audience to hostility. They applaud and laugh when
they realize she has replaced the word “gay” with “black.” She does not deny the
oppressive experiences that characterize being black or the racism black people
endure; rather, she satirizes the often anti-intersectional language of “coming
out” to demonstrate how both her queer and black identities are bound by
chrononormativity and subject to a queer and racialized vertigo that impacts
her life as a queer black woman.
Sykes utilizes the structure of “coming out” narratives to critique normative
assumptions of coming out as inherently progressive. Next, she performs a narrative in which she plays both herself and her mother in a hypothetical conversation wherein she “comes out as black.” In a miniature one-woman show,
Sykes quickly switches between her voice and her mother’s voice. She sets the
scene by gently sitting her parents down and slowly looking out towards the
audience (standing in for her parents), and says, “Mom, Dad. . . ” Pausing for
dramatic effect, she says, “I’m black.” Sykes immediately pops to her mother,
who is clearly upset. Her imagined “Mom” holds out her hand as if she cannot/
will not hear what her daughter Wanda has disclosed. Playing her mother,
Sykes exclaims, “OH NO LORD JESUS NOT BLACK!” while wailing gutturally. Sykes turns her back to the audience and outstretches her arms yelling to
God, “Anything but black, Jesus! Give her cancer, Lord, give her cancer! Anything but black, Lord!” As Sykes turns her back to the audience, they become
the people “Mom” is rejecting. Playing multiple characters in this narrative,
Sykes replaces herself with the audience as she switches to the persona of her
mother. Thus, the audience has the opportunity to embody empathetic simultaneity while watching the experience of Wanda “coming out,” and also becoming the character of Wanda being rejected by her mother.
Underscoring a black feminist sensibility to advocate for herself as a black
gay woman, Sykes also uses exaggerated gestures and vocal affect to satirize her
mother’s reactions. Sykes, as Wanda, is quiet and calm—the rational one. She
plainly explains, “No, Mom. I’m black that’s just what it is.” Her “Mom’s”
voice immediately becomes serious and suspicious. Sykes hunches over and
points her finger out at the audience in an accusatory manner, her “Mom’s”
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voice lowers, coupled with narrowed eyes and says, “No. No. You know what
it is? You been hanging around black people [. . . ] they twisted your mind!”
The pace quickens as Wanda switches between herself and mother, heightening
the emotional tension between the two women.
No, Mom. I’m black. That’s just how it is.
MOM: What did I do? I know I shouldn’t have let you watch
Soul Train!
No, Mom. It wasn’t Soul Train. I was born black.
MOM: You weren’t born black, I don’t want to hear that.
The Bible says, “Adam and Eve,” not “Adam and Mary J. Blige!”
Through this performative exchange, Sykes satirizes coming out of the closet to
reveal its social and political constructedness—a processual norm based on white
male European narratives, and one that looks ridiculous when universalized onto
a black lesbian body. While the closet metaphor asserts time as progressive (i.e.,
coming out = liberated), its narrow temporal path leaves little room for the varied histories of diverse queer bodies and desires in existence beyond the parameters of the more commonly heard and understood coming out narratives of
white, upper-middle-class, gay, cisgender men.
This is not to imply that such narratives are not met with painful impositions of heteronormativity and homophobia, indeed they are. Rather, Sykes
uses BFCP to convey that allowing the parameters and expectations of coming
out to be naturalized in accordance with raced, classed, and gendered privilege
counter-productively excludes her as a black queer woman. Echoing Sykes in the
context of race, Marlon Ross declares “this narrative of progress carries the residue, and occasionally the outright intention, born within evolutionary notions
of the uneven development of the races from primitive darkness to civilized
enlightenment.” Thus the closet, a paradigm racialized to the benefit of white
queer people, preserves white supremacy and forecloses queer modes of selfnaming for queer people of color.
Sykes substitutes the language of sexuality with the language of race not to
separate her black and queer self, but to ridicule the raceless closet paradigm.
The role-play between mother and daughter reanimates and reconfigures raceless
cultural scripts of coming out—we see the ridiculousness of sexuality having
to be declared through the closet paradigm and the racial vertigo of white
supremacy. When Sykes’s mother accuses her of “catching” blackness by telling
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her she has been “hanging around black people,” and exclaiming, “they twisted
[her] mind,” we see not only the disorienting, warping nature of coming out,
but also of attempting to split and separate Sykes’s intersectional identities as a
black/lesbian/woman. Cindy L. Griffin and Karma R. Chávez explain that when
an anti-intersectional politic reigns “within oppressed communities, it tries to
purify the oppressed group and erase or negate those who would pollute the
purity.” However, because time moves quickly in the structure of the joke traveling between antiquated and unfair prejudice from her mother and Sykes’s present-day acceptance of herself and identity, the “twisted” mind in Sykes’s
exaggerated performance is not her own, but rather her mother’s—and implicitly
the audience’s. Thus, Sykes’s black feminist comedy demands recognition of both
her blackness and her lesbian identity beyond the narrow structures of the closet.
By replacing the word “gay” with “black,” Sykes creates a world in which the
language of sexuality and race collide and thus transform normalized narratives of
coming out from progressive and necessary to laughable and exclusionary.
Through I’ma Be Me, Sykes also temporally cracks up the parent–child
dichotomy by reversing the affective roles of mother and daughter. Sykes-asmother reacts harshly, while Sykes-as-daughter remains calm. Sykes performs
the stoic role that LGBTQ children who come out to their parents often have
to play, even as they put themselves at risk for rejection, abandonment, and
violence. Commonly, they also become the receptacle for familial anxieties
about sexuality and compliance with state, religious, and social authorities.
However, even without using “black” as a stand-in for “gay,” Sykes could easily
fall into the historical trope of the tragic queer, which would function to render
her infantile, mad, deviant, or disturbed. Rather, Sykes’s time-traveling BFCP
re-tells the story to re-imagine Wanda, a representative stand-in for all black
queer women, as empowered to “talk back” to her mother’s dehumanizing
reaction and to control her own narrative. The stakes of such strong declarations of black and queer existence emanating from a black queer woman are
high because, as Matt Richardson writes, to disremember black queer people
from historical narrative purposefully means that “black queers become unrecognizable as part of blackness and disqualified from collective grieving. To be
unrecognizable as black opens up a process of disrecognition, the transformation of black queers into not being black after all.”
Starkly divergent, I’ma Be Me demands black feminist recognition through
self-expression. Serving as the ending to several of her jokes, personifying her
mother in a mimicked and hushed voice, Sykes scolds: “White people are
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lookin’ at you!” This repeated punch line reveals the complexities of racial visibility and the white gaze. The implication of the comment for audience members is to stop doing whatever they are doing. The first time Sykes uses this
punch line, she recalls a time when, as a child, she is dancing in the car and her
mother yells at her. Sykes’s mother, attempting to protect her from an objectifying white audience by “acting dignified,” scolds her daughter’s unruly behavior as “too black” and “improperly” feminine. Within the construction of this
through line, Sykes explores the quotidian as well as the political ways in which
white heteropatriarchy functions, and even more importantly, how her childself located modes of black feminist resistance through movement (dance) and
enjoyment (of music).
Throughout I’ma Be Me, Sykes takes her time transitioning between jokes
and often stops to laugh at her own material, a performative move that refuses
the strict linearity of set-up–punch line and trespasses the performer–audience
divide. The last third of her performance as a black feminist comedian becomes
even more confrontational and personal. After speaking to the audience about
coming out as a lesbian, she explains, “It’s great being out. I love being publicly
out. Everything is on the table. I am what I am. That’s it. I’m happy about it.”
Putting “everything on the table” regardless of the gaze of “white people” signals
Sykes’s awareness of how normalizing societal forces target her as a black lesbian
woman. Each layered joke becomes more explicitly self-expressive and dissects
the imposition of whiteness, misogyny, and homophobia into the lives of queer
women of color. Centering the intertwined racism and sexism Sonia Sotamayor
experienced during her Supreme Court nomination hearings, Sykes asks:
Isn’t it funny that the only time your race or gender is not questioned is
when you’re a white man? I think, I think white men get upset. They get
nervous if like a minority or another race gets a little power, it makes them
nervous. Cause they scared that that race is gonna do to them what they did
to that race. So they start screaming, “Reverse racism reverse racism!” I’m like
wait a minute. Isn’t reverse racism, isn’t that when a racist is nice to
somebody else? That’s reverse racism. What you’re afraid of is called karma.
This inquisitive joke-telling reveals oppressive structures and discourses that
dilute racism and antiquate white supremacy while directly confronting hegemonic fears that people of color can and will engage in racial discrimination if
they gain access to power and status in the twenty-first century.
Furthermore, beginning the joke with “Isn’t it funny that. . . ” asks the audience not only to laugh at, but also to examine critically the material and psychic
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harm of dominant structures embedded in US culture. Sykes’s use of this phrase
beckons the audience to occupy two opposing affective responses simultaneously: amusement and outrage. She then not only points out the systemic
impossibility of reverse racism, but also offers up Hindu and Buddhist notions
of cyclical time by mentioning karma as a manifestation of “revenge.” Sykes
shows the inadequacy of chorononormativity for black and queer communities
as well as heterosexual people. That is, regardless of economic status, gender performativity, or race, “straight” (i.e., heteronormative) time is a constricting entity that (re)produces fear of progress and change beyond white supremacy
and heteropatriarchy. In essence, Sykes asks the audience to imagine society beyond the “matrix of domination” that keeps our nation in a firm temporal
deadlock—unwilling and/or unable to articulate the intersectional complexities
and consequences of power dynamics against the backdrop of public policy and
daily life.
Laughing through and at injustice positions Sykes and those who identify
with her as no longer silent or silenced. In agreement with hooks’s emphasis on
how performance is a vital tool for generating change, Sykes’s work garners
movement toward freedom. As hooks elaborates, “Whenever we choose performance as a site to build communities of resistance we must be able to shift paradigms and styles of performance in a manner that centralises the colonisation of
black minds and imaginations.” BFCP refuses to be trapped in temporalities
dictated by logics of mutually exclusive identities, linearity, and false claims of
a “post-” identity politics United States. As such, Sykes’s BFCP functions to
humanize, educate, and liberate.
Just as BFCP moves beyond dominant ideologies, hegemonic discourses, and
linear time, it also jolts audiences out of oppressive understandings of history and
citizenship. More specifically, Sykes cracks up dominant narratives by speaking,
laughing, and generating audience laughter at historical landmarks such as the
White House. In so doing, she centralizes black queer women as important cultural figures, and contextually her audience—as seated ticket holders gazing
upward at a black lesbian comedian heightened by the stage and illuminated by
a spotlight—must do the same. Paul Gilroy claims, “subversive or disruptive
communicative opportunities can co-exist with the painful demands made upon
black subjects by the everyday politics of white supremacy.” Mirroring Gilroy’s
assertion, I am particularly interested in examining moments when BFCP moves
us towards a time and place in which the everydayness of domination and its
Wood | Cracking Up Time
historical roots are disrupted, or cracked up. Sykes did precisely this during her
 performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as she simultaneously celebrated victories of black feminist achievement and implicated systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy in US history and politics.
On  April , congressional leaders, dignitaries, and First Lady
Michelle Obama gathered in Emancipation Hall at the United States Capitol
to, after ten years of legislative labor, reveal the bust of Sojourner Truth.
Truth became the first African American woman to be memorialized in
Emancipation Hall, which was built in  to “recognize the contributions
of the enslaved laborers who helped build the US Capitol.” Before revealing the statue, First Lady Obama stood proudly at the podium and warmly
said, “All the visitors in the US Capitol will hear the story of the brave
woman who endured the greatest of humanity’s indignities.” Truth’s
bronze statue stands  inches tall and depicts her gazing forward with a soft
smile and a bonnet on her head. Among busts dedicated to honoring those
who are largely erased from US American collective memory, I am particularly interested in what went unsaid at this ceremony. The “indignities” First
Lady Obama mentioned allude to racism, sexism, impoverishment, and myriad inhumane violations of black women’s bodies before and after Truth’s
time. But what does it mean that they remained explicitly unstated during
the ceremony? Amid the formalities of the Capitol and the White House,
what would it require to “destabilize existing practices of knowing” and dissolve “the fictive boundaries of exclusion and marginalization” that keep
black US women on the margins of cultural memory?
Two weeks after the ceremony revealing Truth’s bust, Sykes was the first
out black lesbian to be the keynote performer at the annual White House
Correspondents’ Dinner. With the backing of the President and First Lady,
both of whom laughed gallantly in response to her standup, she embodied the
destabilizing force of Alexander’s aforementioned inquest via BFCP. Dressed in
a conservative, tailored black pantsuit, chandelier earrings, and high heels, Sykes
confidently walks on stage from the end of the head table to the podium that
faces a ballroom filled to bursting with reporters, celebrities, and politicians. She
begins by thanking the audience and making jokes about President Obama and
Vice President Joe Biden. Moving on to the First Lady, Sykes is flattering and
points out how beautiful Michelle Obama looks in a sleeveless bright pink dress
and an ornate necklace. She does not break eye contact with Sykes, she laughs
and even mouths a reply to her. Sykes cyclically directs her attention back and
forth between the First Lady and the larger audience, but in a moment of
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seriousness, Sykes lowers her tone and gestures palm-up towards the First Lady:
“I have to say, to the First Lady, kudos to you for unveiling the bust of Sojourner Truth in the White House.” In response, Obama closes her eyes and
nods with tight lips in a humored expression of the pride in Truth’s presence in
Emancipation Hall. The audience applauds and Sykes does as well with an
affirming “Yes.”
Then, suggesting the following request is just between the two of them,
Sykes looks directly at Mrs. Obama and asks, “But can you do me a favor and
please make sure it’s nailed down real well?” She drops her tone again, pursing
her lips, “Cause, uh, cause you know when the next white guy comes in, they
gonna move it to the kitchen.” In this moment, under the guise of “joking,”
Sykes exposes white patriarchal privilege—past and present—and provides stark
cultural commentary on how white men have typically done whatever they
deem appropriate to black women. By mentioning the recent ceremony, the
audience is directed to acknowledge the considerable exclusion of black women
from US cultural memory. Also, by suggesting the “appropriate” place for Truth
to be placed by the next, presumably white, president is the kitchen, the audience is directed to recognize that black women are in constant danger of being
confined by white, patriarchal ideals. In a single punch line, Sykes confronts the
history of black US women’s servitude to white power structures from enslavement to the help in white households to present-day entrapment in underemployment and unemployment. More importantly, Sykes’s BFCP conveys
what was tangibly unspoken by First Lady Obama at the unveiling ceremony.
Here, black feminist comedy dismisses politically correct decorum in favor of
more inclusive, revisionist histories that transparently address the horrors and
the grave, ever-present remnants of slavery. Sykes, as a black lesbian invited to
perform at the White House, becomes the figure most able to “unveil Truth.”
To nail down the legacy of both Truth and the Obamas dislocates US
national heritage from being synonymous with whiteness to acknowledging
black women’s contributions to our global culture. As Alexander contends:
If hegemony works as spectacle, but more importantly as a set of practices
that come to assume meaning in people’s everyday lives (that is the ways in
which ordinary people do the work of the state and the work of war), then all
spaces carry the potential for corruptibility.
However, the joke-teller manipulates the everyday operations of hegemony
not only to divulge its potential for corruptibility, but also to actually corrupt.
Sykes places the White House center-stage, a space rife with historicized and
Wood | Cracking Up Time
institutionalized hegemonic practices, to highlight racism and sexism as endemic to US public policy.
The aftershock of the joke becomes an intimate moment between Sykes and
the First Lady as black women cracking up the White House as a symbol of
domination. In C-Span’s broadcast of the dinner, the camera stays on Obama
for the duration of this particular joke. Watching their interaction unfold
moment to moment, as Sykes thanks her for revealing the bust, we hear the
audience’s applause, and see Obama’s prideful nod. When Sykes asks her to nail
down the bust “real well,” the audience laughs lightly while Obama looks down,
her shoulders rhythmically shaking as she mouths, “Oh my god.” She gazes up
with her head still low, one eye towards Sykes and smiles widely. Sykes responds
with a chuckle as well. The audience is relatively quiet at this point, and bears
witness to the women’s intimately joint understanding of black women’s marginalization in the United States. Through witnessing—either by laughing or
experiencing Obama’s and Sykes’s shared, knowing laughter—we see an acknowledgment of and resistance against state-sponsored repression of black
women’s bodies and voices.
Sykes also manipulates an important interplay between past/present and
public/private. While the “success” of a joke is wrapped up in a bond between
audience and performer through the vocal response of laughter, Sykes aims the
punch line of the joke specifically at Obama. This is a moment of knowing
laughter and intimacy between two black women among a crowd who, for the
most part, have presumably little understanding of their standpoints. Sykes’s
joke, delivered directly to the First Lady despite the presence of the larger audience, creates an intimate moment of temporal consciousness. They share in the
historicized experience of being dis-remembered from US cultural memory, but
simultaneously delight in calling out present day structures that have oppressed
black women and black queer people. Through Sykes’s reaction to Truth’s bust,
comedy operates as a liberatory act. Laughter becomes that which frees “the
physical reality of teeth clenched, unable to or unwilling to speak, biding your
time, holding your tongue, not saying the things that you yearn to say.” While
the unveiling of the bust indeed signifies a liberatory act in Emancipation Hall,
Sykes’s embodiment of BFCP as a black lesbian woman provides layered emancipation from the physical reality of past and present domination. The spontaneity of sometimes robust, sometimes reserved, laughter explodes past silence, in
spite of social expectations to “behave.”
Also visible from the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, is Sykes’s demonstration of how BFCP serves as a unique medium to historiographically crack
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up narratives around race, nation, patriarchy, and power. Sykes’s humor is a
modality that not only critiques history, but also moves black women and black
queer bodies from passive subjects in US history to active (re)creators of
national heritage. Stuart Hall describes national heritage as a discursive practice
that is bound by power to enable nations to create a collective memory that perpetuates colonial myths deeply steeped in oppressive rationales. He writes:
The Heritage inevitably reflects the governing assumptions of its time and
context. It is always inflected by the power and authority of those who have
colonized the past, and whose versions of history matter. These assumptions
and co-ordinates of power are inhabited as natural—given, timeless, true and
Implicit in the construction of US heritage—or what it means to be a US
citizen—is the cultural scenario of the systemically privileged control, commodification, and exclusion of people of color. “It follows that those who
cannot see themselves reflected in its mirror, cannot properly ‘belong.’”
However, Sykes’s BFCP at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner dislocates the various cultural practices that bind national heritage to dominant
groups. Cultural memory and heritage are powerful tools employed to create
and sustain a seamless narrative that celebrates some and silences Others.
Sykes’s comedy as cultural commentary illustrates how whiteness, maleness,
and heterosexuality have become synonymous with “proper” citizenship.
Fiercely deploying the image of nailing down the bust of Truth real well, Sykes
cracks up the assumed power and credibility of conservative white male political
figures, and the absence of black feminist histories. The joke emerges as a performative device that not only imagines a future of shifting hierarchies, but also
confronts white supremacist and misogynist anxieties about black feminist liberation. Sykes stages herself within a scenario that points out historically prevalent white anxieties about black women’s vocality and “Truth”-telling. Obama’s
nod to Truth, and black feminist truths, leaves little room for suspicion of white
supremacy. Sykes, however, demands that her audience see those who hold
political power (specifically, wealthy white males) as the possible enemy who
have, can, and continue to harm black women.
Diana Taylor contends that performance generates opportunities for deconstructing scenarios that position bodies of color as threats to the nation. By reenacting such scenarios in an artistic medium, performance challenges “the way
history and culture are packaged, sold, and consumed within hegemonic structures.” Both Sykes’s physical presence as a black, openly lesbian woman on a
Wood | Cracking Up Time
White House stage and her evocation of Truth, dislocate the inherent credibility and authority of those systemically assumed worthy of power, privilege, and
agency. Sykes’s keynote revises history not only by directing attention toward
dehumanizing practices, but also by ridiculing dominant cultural scripts that
insist on the embodiment of nationhood as inherently white, male, and heterosexual. In doing so, she dismantles historical narratives that disallow individual
and cultural agency of marginalized peoples—particularly US black queer
women. From the stage Sykes is at the center, rather than in the margins, overtly
asking Obama to nail down the bust of Truth. Covertly, she is asking Obama
and the audience to nail down the “Truth” of oppression throughout US
Amid Sykes’s cracking up the assumed authority and credibility espoused via
the White House setting, the positive response of laughter from the audience is
an engagement with Sykes, and an awakening. The physical, vocal, and emotional act of laughter expresses communal agreement, or at least communal recognition. Sykes’s BFCP works both to name boundaries that keep certain
people in the United States silent, and to break those boundaries and mark
emergent times and spaces for transformative action. By cracking up history,
Sykes takes us to the present moment to celebrate black women of the past and
present, articulating a wariness of narratives that position US society as beyond
offensive and oppressive policies and practices.
At the crux of this essay, I theorize how BFCP cracks up chrononormativity in
the service of articulating the complexities and joys of being black, woman, and
queer. My commitment to doing so is driven by hooks’s assertion that
Theorizing black experience in the [United States] is a difficult task.
Socialized within white supremacist educational systems and by a racist mass
media, many black people are convinced that our lives are not complex, and
therefore unworthy of sophisticated critical analysis and reflection.
However, performance allows for a proclamation of the self in relation to and/or
against dominant culture. Moreover, BFCP operates as an important vernacular
rhetoric wherein the multiplicities of black realities in the United States are placed
center stage. Sykes’s humor has developed throughout her career to vocalize an
ever-expanding commitment to black feminist praxis. She has moved steadily toward self-definition and self-determination, alongside blatantly refusing to accept
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what dominant historical narratives say and imply about women who identify
with her.
Sykes’s insistence on taking up physical and affective space, despite chrononormativity, peaks during I’ma Be Me when she addresses her experiences of
getting older. In , she was forty-five years old. Without shame or selfdeprecation, she marks her body as changing—or as she calls it “relaxing”—
once she passed the “ mark.” With one hand on her belly, Sykes strokes
her midsection and says to the audience, “Like this area right here? I just
named it, this is Esther. . . . Esther Roll. . . . Esther is a beast! Loves bread
and alcohol.” While seemingly compartmentalizing herself into discrete
body parts, Sykes uses her stomach as a somatic symbol of rebellion. Esther possesses Sykes’s whole self—unapologetically taking up space as a middle-aged,
black, out lesbian. Despite attempts at containment, Esther is unruly, especially
in public. For example, Sykes recalls appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay
Leno in  and putting on control-top underwear. “I was like, Esther I gotta
put you in the Spanx,” to which Esther replies, “I hate Spanx! Don’t put me in
the Spanx! I wanna be on TV!” Sykes makes her voice gruff, grumbly, and insistent in spite of Esther’s protests. As Esther, she is loud and mean—with no
understanding of “proper” behavior politically linked to white feminine propriety and the heterosexual male gaze. Esther shakes her head and hunches her
shoulders. Esther, like laughter, bursts through and forth despite attempts at stifling or minimizing her.
As Sykes builds her story about The Tonight Show, she recalls how difficult it
was to manipulate her body into a thinner state and still feel comfortable:
I put Esther in the Spanx and she’s just fightin’ me. She’s like, “Ooooo, eeeee,
ooohh you’re killin’ me! Oh this hurts! Oh I want some cheesecake!” So I got
Esther in the Spanx, right. And I’m sittin’, you know, on The Tonight Show.
Now things are going great. But all of a sudden in the middle of the
interview, I feel something rolling down. And I could just hear, “Ooohhh.
Ahhhh.” Esther is climbing out of the Spanx! I looked down, and there’s
Esther! [Esther says,] “Hey Jay!”
Sykes covers her forehead with her hand in embarrassment and looks down at her
belly, shaking her head to convey a desperate “no.” Then she quietly mumbles,
“Fuck you Esther,” followed by dramatically stretching out her arms and whispering loudly, “White people are looking at you!” Her dark purple jacket is unbuttoned, underneath she wears a tight, also dark purple vest, and she slowly paces
from left to right. As the joke dies down, Sykes laughs with the audience.
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Suddenly there is no separation between her psyche and her stomach; Esther is
easygoing, content. Allowing all of who she is to age and move forward in time,
Sykes does not resist it; rather, she rests in it displaying how black feminist comedic performances, at their core, acknowledge, affirm, and privilege black women
as historical, political, and social agents. Such performances not only recollect,
revise, and resist, but also offer up models for social change and justice long
after the laughter has faded.
K ATELYN H ALE W OOD is Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama at the University of
Virginia. Her scholarship centers on black feminist comedic performance and queer memory. She
is also a dramaturge and performer. This essay is a revised version of a chapter in the author’s
doctoral dissertation, “Modalities of Freedom toward a Politic of Joy in Black Feminist Comedic
Performance in 20th and 21st Century USA.” The author would like to thank the reviewers for
their time and thoughtful notes. The author would also like to thank Nicole Gurgel and Nicole
Martin for their support and insights during the development of this article. Correspondence to:
Katelyn Hale Wood, Department of Drama, University of Virginia, PO Box 40128, Charlottesville,
VA 22904, USA. Email:
. M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual
Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, ), .
. Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, ).
. Ibid., x.
. Matt Richardson, The Queer Limit of Black Memory: Black Lesbian Literature and
Irresolution (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, ), .
. D. Soyini Madison, “Foreword,” in Black Performance Theory, ed. Thomas F.
DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, ), vii.
. See Annemarie Bean, “Black Minstrelsy and Double Inversion, Circa ,” in
African American Performance and Theatre History: A Critical Reader, ed. Harry J.
Elam Jr. and David Krasner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ); – Henry
Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, ); David Krasner, Resistance, Parody, and Double
Consciousness in African American Theatre, – (New York: St. Martin’s Press,
. Bambi Haggins, Laughing Mad: The Black Comic Persona in Post-Soul America
(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, ).
. Ibid., .
. Ibid., –.
. Glenda R. Carpio, Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).
. Madison, “Foreword,” ix.
. Ibid., vii.
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. bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (Boston: South End
Press, ), .
. See Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey,
Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday (New York: Random House, ); Whoopi Goldberg
Presents: Moms Mabley, documentary, directed by Whoopi Goldberg, aired  November
 (Los Angeles: HBO Studios, ), DVD.
. LaMonda Horton-Stallings, Mutha is Half a Word: Intersections of Folklore,
Vernacular, Myth, and Queerness in Black Female Culture (Columbus: Ohio State
University Press, ), –.
. “Billy Joel Has the Softest Hands,” narrated by Phoebe Robinson and Jessica
Williams,  Dope Queens, podcast audio, WNYC,  April ,
com/us/podcast/-dope-queens/id?mt=&i=, accessed  July .
. I use the examples of Moms Mabley, whose career spanned more than fifty years
and saw incredible success, to Sam Jay, a relatively new comic whose work is still on the
“fringes” of popular culture to articulate the variety and long tradition of BFCP in and
out of mainstream entertainment. These artists, who use comedy to articulate and
complicate black feminist thought, are certainly within a genealogy and community of
performers that include, but are not limited to, Pearl Bailey, Bessie Smith, Mo’Nique,
Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata, Jessica Williams, and Phoebe Robinson.
. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the
Politics of Empowerment, nd ed. (New York: Routledge, ); “Learning from the
Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” in Social
Problems , no.  (): –; Fighting Words: Black Women and the Search for
Justice (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, ), .
. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in
Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ), .
. Pearl Cleage, “A Hollering Place,” The Dramatists Guild Quarterly (): –.
. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press,
), .
. Audre Lorde, “Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and
Loving,” in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde (Freedom, CA: The
Crossing Press, ), .
. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, .
. See Evelyn Brooks Higginbothom, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement
in the Black Baptist Church, – (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, );
Koritha Mitchell, Living with Lynching: African American Lynching Plays, Performance,
and Citizenship, – (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, ); Aimee
Meredith Cox, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, ).
. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Theatrical Jazz: Performance, Às. ẹ, and the Power of the
Present Moment (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, ).
. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, .
. Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York:
Columbia University Press, ), .
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. Sykes, herself, does not refer to herself as queer. To my knowledge, she identifies
(interchangeably) as gay or lesbian, and therefore I use those terms when directly
referring to her. However, I use the term queer when analyzing her work, as I see Sykes
making distinct intersectional connections among gender, blackness, and sexuality and
how those intersections dramatize, or actualize, “alternatives to linear temporality.”
This is in line with Darieck Scott’s definition of black queerness in Extravagant
Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in African American Literary Imagination
(New York: New York University Press, ), .
. See Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement,” in Words of Fire:
An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall (New
York: The New Press, ), –; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African
Americans, Gender, and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, ).
. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black
Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist
Politics,” in The Black Feminist Reader, ed. Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting
(Malden, MA: Blackwell, ), ; Rachel Alicia Griffin, “Pushing into Precious: Black
Women, Media Representation, and the Glare of the White Gaze,” Critical Studies in
Media Communication , no.  (): ; Hortense J. Spillers, Black, White, and In Color:
Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ), .
. Wanda Sykes, I’ma Be Me, directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller (New York: Sykes
Entertainment, ), DVD.
. Wanda Sykes, Sick and Tired, directed by Michael Drumm (Los Angeles: Image
Entertainment, ), DVD.
. Sykes, I’ma Be Me.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Sarah Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC:
Duke University Press, ), –.
. Frank B. Wilderson III, “The Vengeance of Vertigo: Aphasia and Abjection in the
Political Trials of Black Insurgents,” InTensions  ():
issue/articles/frankbwildersoniii.php, accessed  July  emphases added.
. Ibid.
. Sykes, I’ma Be Me.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” in Tendencies (New York:
Routledge, ).
. Marlon Ross, “Beyond the Closet as Raceless Paradigm,” in Black Queer Studies: A
Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson (Durham, NC: Duke
University Press, ), .
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. Sykes, I’ma Be Me.
. Cindy L. Griffin and Karma R. Chávez, “Introduction: Standing at the
Intersections of Feminisms, Intersectionality, and Communication Studies,” in Standing
in the Intersection: Feminist Voices, Feminist Practices in Communication Studies, ed.
Karma R. Chávez and Cindy L. Griffin (Albany: State University of New York Press,
), .
. See Jill Dolan, Theatre and Sexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, ), –.
. hooks, Talking Back.
. Richardson, Queer Limit of Black Memory, .
. Sykes, I’ma Be Me.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid. emphasis added.
. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, –.
. bell hooks, “Performance Practice as a Site of Opposition,” in Let’s Get It On: The
Politics of Black Performance, ed. Catherine Ugwu (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, ), .
. Paul Gilroy, “. . . To Be Real: The Dissident Forms of Black Expressive Culture,” in
Let’s Get It On: Politics of Black Performance, ed. Catherine Ugwu (Seattle, WA: Bay Press,
), .
. “Emancipation Hall,” US Capitol, March .
sites/default/files/documents/content/brochure//emancipation-hall-en.pdf, accessed
 June .
. Michelle Obama (public address, Emancipation Hall, Washington, DC,  April
. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing.
. Wanda Sykes (speech, White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Washington, DC,
April, ).
. Ibid.
. “nd Annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner,” C-Span ( April ).
. See Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, );
Sharon Harley, Sister Circle: Black Women and Work (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers
University Press, ).
. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing, .
. “nd Annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner.”
. Ibid.
. Haggins, Laughing Mad, .
. Stuart Hall, “Whose Heritage? Un-Settling ‘The Heritage,’ Re-Imagining the PostNation,” in The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of “Race”, ed. Jo Littler and Koshi
Naidoo (New York: Routledge, ), .
. Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, ), .
. Ibid.
. bell hooks, Black Looks, .
Wood | Cracking Up Time
. Sykes, I’ma Be Me.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
. Ibid.
FALL 2016
The “One Percent”
De“naturalizing” Tech Worker Discourses of Unfairness
ABSTRACT Through an analysis of the indie movie For Here or To Go? this essay argues that
the rhetoric of “unfairness” articulated by Indian tech workers not only elides privileges, but
also increasingly relies on the figure of the illegal immigrant to perform injury and to shore
up claims of desirability and inclusion. Although constructed using juridical-legal logics of
legality/illegality, the illegal immigrant mirrors racial, gender, and other anxieties that are
mobilized to constitute migrant illegality. By examining how economically-privileged immigrants produce the dehumanization of less-privileged groups, this essay hopes to demystify
the unequal position of groups within contemporary migration. KEYWORDS Migration;
South Asian diaspora; Caste; Race; Migrant illegality
“Trump Loves Hindus,” “Indians love Trump,” and “Trump brings Rama
Rajya” read some of the placards held by about  IT workers of Indian origin
who rallied outside the White House on  February .1 The demonstrators,
who came together under the banner of the Republican Hindu Coalition
(RHC), demanded that the green card backlog be cleared forthwith and country-based limits on issuing permanent residency be ended. Krishna Bansal,
National Policy and Political Director of the RHC, alleged that migrants
who did not have legal status were being issued green cards whereas those who
had contributed “the most”—i.e., those who had entered the country legally,
held gainful employment, paid their taxes, and were otherwise productive
subjects—had been kept waiting for decades. He also conveyed the RHC’s support to US President Donald J. Trump’s contentious plan to build a border wall
along the US–Mexico border, ostensibly in the hope that it would free up space
for legal migrants.2
On Christmas Eve , Felipe Gómez Alonzo, an eight-year-old from
Guatemala, died in a New Mexico hospital while he was under Customs and
Border Protection custody. He was apprehended along with his father,
Departures in Critical Qualitative Research, Vol. , Number , pp. –. ISSN -, electronic ISSN
-. ©  by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Request permission
to photocopy or reproduce article content at the University of California Press’s Reprints and
Permissions web page, DOI:
Agustín Gómez Peréz, as they crossed into the United States and was being held
at Alamogordo when a border agent noticed him coughing, with “glossy eyes.”3
Felipe was taken to a hospital, where he passed away hours later. Before their
departure, Peréz had bought a new pair of shoes for Felipe as they set out on
a ,-mile journey to the United States.4 The shoes represented not only the
hopes of a new life, but also the hard journey that awaited them. Felipe joined
Jakelin Caal Maquin, a Guatemalan girl, who also died under similar circumstances weeks earlier after she was apprehended along with her father as they
crossed into the United States.5 She had celebrated her seventh birthday on the
journey and had also received her first pair of shoes.6
The experiences of tech workers and the violence faced by Guatemalan immigrants have little in common. The former’s demand emerged from a sense of
perceived unfair treatment as they called on the administration to establish a
merit-based system to issue green cards.7 The case of the Guatemalan children,
on the other hand, highlights the deadly impact of migration on Central
American migrants deemed “illegal” who are often fleeing extreme levels of
violence and poverty in their home countries. Yet, these two disparate cases
are entangled, as referenced in Bansal’s claim of deserving subjects set against
those who are not legal.
This essay dwells on this interconnectedness. Specifically, I focus on tech
workers of Indian origin to tease out the ways in which their rhetoric of
“unfairness” not only is constituted through strategic elisions of privileges
rooted in casteist and religious affiliations, but also increasingly relies on the
figure of the “undeserving, illegal immigrant” to perform injury and to shore
up claims of desirability and inclusion. I understand the “undeserving, illegal
immigrant” not just as the disavowed other of the “deserving legal migrant” but
also as the central rhetorical strategy deployed by the latter to press its own
claim as a deserving subject. Although constructed using juridical-legal logics of
legality/illegality, the figure of the illegal immigrant at its core mirrors racial,
gender, and other anxieties that are often mobilized to constitute migrant illegality.8 The extension of permanent residency to Indian IT workers might seem
to be a case in its own right, having very little to do with Central American migrants or Indian migrants who enter the United States “illegally.”9 Yet, as I demonstrate, claims of desirability become intelligible only when articulated against
undeserving others. The disastrous consequences of such a framing need to be
unpacked if the graded violence of migration is to be understood.
The rest of this essay focuses on the indie movie For Here or To Go?
(FHOTG?) (), which is part of a growing corpus of mediatized discourses
that seeks to highlight the “unjust” circumstances facing Indian tech workers.
What drew me to this movie is not just its depiction of the affective economy
of migration, but also its focus on the figure of the illegal immigrant. FHOTG?
is written by Rishi Bhilawadikar and directed by Rucha Humnabadkar, both
tech workers based in California who have been vocal about their frustration
with the US immigration system.10 As such, it represents Indian tech workers’
understanding of the dilemmas facing them. Because of space constraints, a bulk
of my analysis revolves around how the illegal immigrant is narrativized in the
movie. Nevertheless, I also mark the casteist, gendered, sexual, class, and religious configurations that are elided in the discourses of unfairness of Indian
tech workers.
Set against the backdrop of the – economic recession, FHOTG? is
centered on Vivek Pandit, an Indian tech worker with entrepreneurial aspirations whose time in the United States is running out as his H-B visa is about
to expire within a year. This impacts not only his career opportunities but his
romantic prospects as well. Throughout the movie, Pandit is split between trying
to navigate an impossible immigration system and moving back to India. In the
latter, he is inspired by Vishwanath Prabhu, a tech entrepreneur of Indian origin
(and the father of Pandit’s love interest), who is urging other Indian tech workers to move back to India, where their talents could be put to better use. To
make matters worse, Pandit’s Indian roommate invites a friend, Gurumeet, to
stay with them. It is later revealed that Gurumeet is in the United States illegally.
As a result, Pandit and his roommates are investigated by the FBI and put on a
federal watchlist. This renders Pandit’s immigration status more precarious.
Though a tech firm eventually offers him employment, it folds soon after Pandit
leaves for India to get his visa stamped, thereby rendering his employment-based
status in the United States void. Nevertheless, the movie ends on a happy note as
three years later Pandit is shown being interviewed on a popular Indian television show after being chosen the “Youth Icon of India” for establishing the first
Indian software company to have acquired an American company.
It needs mentioning here that FHOTG? takes the United States as axiomatic and not as a white-supremacist, settler-colonial formation organized
around the protection of white private property and futurity. As such, it
does not examine the impact of migration on indigenous sovereignty struggles nor on racialized groups such as Black people whose presence in North
America is coalesced through racial violence. I want to mark these exclusions
because these unstated premises provide the very foundations upon which
the claims of Indian migrants play out.
Chandrashekar | The “One Percent”
Played by Ali Fazal, the protagonist Vivek Pandit embodies hegemonic
casteist, gendered, classist, and religious characteristics of the Indian diaspora.11 Pandit is an upper-caste Hindu (i.e., Brahmin), a well-educated,
gainfully employed, heterosexual male tech worker from Mumbai who lives
in an upscale house in San Francisco and is looking to work for a startup to
gain enough experience to open his own company. As Tejas Harad notes, “A
person’s caste identity is inherent in their surnames (most times, but not
always). The corollary of this is that a person’s caste can be discerned by
looking at their surnames. This is more true for Brahmins than others.”12
Pandit, which is sometimes conferred as an honorific, is a Brahmin surname
that translates to one who is learned (usually, well-versed in Hindu scriptures). It signals the upper-caste identity of the movie’s protagonist.
As Dalit and Bahujan scholars have pointed out, caste position in the South
Asian context is critical to the acquisition of social capital.13 Although not synonymous, upward class mobility is often a direct result of one’s position in the
caste hierarchy. Indian immigrants in the United States not only are highly
educated, with  percent having a bachelor’s degree or higher, but also have the
highest median household income ($,) of any other group.14 What coalesces these privileges but remains concealed in the stories that Indian tech
workers tell about themselves is caste. This is made clear by the fact that despite
representing one-fourth of the Hindu population in India, upper castes such as
Brahmins and dominant castes such as Patels from Gujarat and Kapu and
Kamma from Andhra Pradesh make up  percent of the Indian diaspora in
the United States.15
Pandit is located at this caste–class nexus, which is naturalized throughout the movie. FHOTG? is liberally sprinkled with markers of class privilege.
Despite the message of the movie that IT workers are “bonded laborers of
the new age,” Pandit drives a BMW and lives with other Indian roommates
in a modern multi-room house in San Francisco, a city with skyrocketing
rents and a housing crisis provoked in no small measure by the tech industry.16
Put differently, it is not entirely clear how “bonded laborers” can afford to live
in a swanky house in San Francisco or drive a BMW. Although he is conflicted
about dating desi girls—and the misogyny against brown women is not lost
here—Pandit attends a Bollywood-themed date night where he meets Shweta,
an Indian American lawyer played by Melanie Chandra, who cannot resist
boogying to a Bollywood number. Although Shweta is hesitant about their
relationship, especially after learning about Pandit’s visa status, she eventually
transforms into a supportive friend: a pared-down version of the maternal
Indian woman. Pandit’s roommates include Amit, a brash lad from Haryana
who is on an L- visa, and Lakshmi, a South Indian techie who is also a closeted
gay man. A lack of space prevents me from exploring this phenomenon fully,
but FHOTG? uses the cover of comedy to revive racist stereotypes of South
Indians. For instance, when Lakshmi tells Amit that he only drinks coffee, Amit
retorts, “Don’t drink coffee, you will become dark(er),” alluding to the colorism
that depicts South Indians as darker and therefore inferior.17 This scene gestures
to how “Indians,” who are racialized as “people of color” in the United States,
practice their own forms of exclusion that betray an investment in colorism.
Pandit’s immigration woes get immensely complicated with the arrival of
Gurumeet, a childhood friend of Amit, who invites him to spend the weekends
at their house. Gurumeet’s introduction in the movie is abrupt; Pandit is on the
phone with his mother when he spots a turbaned Sikh standing in the living
room. The music reaches an eerie crescendo as he ends the call and walks up to
Gurumeet and says, “Hello, I am Vivek . . . I live here,” to which Gurumeet responds, “Me too. I am Gurumeet.”
Note here that Gurumeet does not introduce himself as a friend of Amit but
as someone who also lives in the house. This scene references the historical but
disavowed tensions that attend the relationship between Sikhs and Hindus in
India. Sikhs have had to fight for their place in an India centered around a
Hindu(tva) identity.18 Furthermore, despite being one of the earliest groups to
emigrate to North America and notwithstanding their complicated relationship
to the Indian nation-state,19 Sikhs have become eclipsed in representations of
the Indian diaspora, which has embraced a Hindu identity.20 In this context,
Gurumeet’s assertive statement, “Me too (I live here, too),” gestures to these
hidden histories of exclusion. Amit interrupts the exchange between Pandit and
Gurumeet as he introduces the latter as his college friend who is going to be
staying with them over the weekends.
Gurumeet appears only twice, his screen time not exceeding four minutes.
Yet, he haunts the narration and, I would argue, is integral to the movie’s plot.
Soon after we meet Gurumeet, Amit and Pandit are at a South Indian restaurant when Pandit asks Amit about Gurumeet. Amit, who seems to know very
little about his friend, replies that he is a student and also works as an intern.
When Pandit further presses him about where Gurumeet works, Amit looks
confused and convinces Pandit not to worry and says that Gurumeet would be
with them only over the weekends.
The next time Gurumeet is referenced is when two FBI agents are in the
house interrogating Lakshmi and Amit for “sheltering an illegal immigrant for
Chandrashekar | The “One Percent”
a few weeks now.” Pandit walks in on the interview and is also questioned by
the agents. The three are unable to offer much information except for Amit telling the agents that Gurumeet is a student. The agents tell the three roommates
that Gurumeet is enrolled in a fake university, which makes his presence in the
United States illegal. They are warned not to conceal any information from the
FBI and to call the agency immediately if they make contact with Gurumeet.
The agents note that the three guys have no criminal records and have paid
their taxes on time. In other words, it is subtly hinted that they are model
immigrants. The only odd thing, one of the agent notes, is the lack of furniture
in the living room. Nevertheless, the three are put on a federal watchlist until
the issue is resolved. Amit sets out to find Gurumeet as he is also in possession
of Amit’s passport by mistake.
Pandit and Amit eventually run into Gurumeet as they stop at an Indian
grocery store for a toilet break. The Sikh owner of the shop strikes a friendly
conversation with the two, including sharing with them his struggles as a turbaned Sikh after /. He insists that they meet his nephew who, it is revealed,
is Gurumeet, who is surprised to see the two. When confronted, Gurumeet asserts that it is the university that is at fault and that he is not illegal. He further
claims that his entire family is in the United States and that he cannot afford to
be deported.
The ensuing brief conversation among the four presciently illuminates the
central place of migrant illegality in arguments about unfairness produced by
Indian tech workers. Gurumeet’s uncle, who asks Pandit not to report his
nephew, maintains that just like “Maria,” he has also hired Gurumeet to work
in his store. Maria is an ostensible reference to an undocumented Latinx
woman employed by Gurumeet’s uncle. He alludes that just like her, it is only
a matter of time before Gurumeet becomes “purely legal.” Despite Pandit’s remonstration that not reporting Gurumeet would make his position precarious,
the avuncular figure urges the former that doing so would not only prevent
Gurumeet from being able to be with his family but also have no tangible benefits for Pandit: “It is not like the government is going to give you a reward for
reporting him.” He then appeals to their shared national bonds, insisting that
they can survive in this country only if “Indians help Indians.”
I want to unpack the above conversation. First, the reference to Maria not
only reinforces the association between Latinx people and illegality in migration
discourses21—an association also alluded to by Bansal in his address to Indian
tech workers—but also proffers the false idea that it is only a matter of time
before people like Gurumeet (and Maria) become “purely legal” even as model
migrants such as Pandit are suspended in a limbo. Nothing can be further from
the truth. As migration scholars have conclusively demonstrated, being undocumented in the United States not only produces incalculable psychological and
social costs for migrants,22 but also exposes them to extreme forms of state and
vigilante violence.23 Yet, Gurumeet’s uncle’s statement glosses over the complexities faced by undocumented immigrants and renders “legal” migrants as the real
victims of America’s immigration regime.
Even though he continues to affect Pandit’s immigration prospects, this is
the last time Gurumeet appears in the movie. I want to argue that this is a strategic choice by the filmmakers. In choosing to leave his fate unclear, FHOTG?
gives the impression that those who are in the United States illegally do not face
the same sort of scrutiny as those who abide by immigration rules. Pandit is
eventually rescued by Prabhu who, despite urging Indian tech workers to move
back to India throughout the movie, offers Pandit a job in one of his companies
so that he can continue to stay in the United States legally. But Pandit eventually loses his immigration status as the company is shut down. Nevertheless, the
movie ends on a happy note as three years later, Pandit is shown to have become
a successful tech entrepreneur in India.
In summary, my argument has been that the discourse of unfairness that emanates from Indian tech workers cannot proceed without invoking the figure of
the undeserving, illegal immigrant against which its own claims of desirability are
made intelligible. Gurumeet’s “illegal” status provides the perfect foil against
which Pandit is depicted as a hardworking, legal immigrant who is failed by the
US immigration system. Neither the historically unequal status of different South
Asian diasporic groups, nor the extreme violence that undocumented migrants
face, receives any substantial attention in the movie. On the contrary, FHOTG?
draws upon racial and other anxieties in its figuration of the illegal immigrant.
I want to close this essay by visiting the oft-heard claim that “we are all migrants.” While it is true that migration along different scales is a critical part of
human existence, our place within it is constituted by different histories of exclusion. By examining how the discourses employed by economically-privileged
immigrants produce the dehumanization of less-privileged groups, I hope we
can begin to demystify one of the unequal trajectories to which we give the
name “migration.”
S ANTHOSH C HANDRASHEKAR is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at
the University of Denver. Correspondence to: Santhosh Chandrashekar, Department of Communication Studies, University of Denver, Sturm Hall, #200, 2000 E. Asbury Avenue, Denver, CO 80208,
USA. Email:
Chandrashekar | The “One Percent”
. Varghese K. George, “Indian-American Group Marches in Support of Trump’s
Immigration Policy,” The Hindu,  February , sec. International, https://www..ece.
. “RHC Immigration Rally in Front of White House with + Delegates from All
Over the Country,” YouTube, accessed  January ,
. Doug Stanglin, “US–Mexico Border Deaths: Guatemalan Boy, Girl Deaths ‘Rare
Occurrence,’” USA Today, accessed  January ,
. Sofia Menchú, “‘I’m in Despair’: A Mother and Village Mourn Guatemalan Boy’s
Death in US,” The Observer,  December , sec. World news, https://www./dec//felipe-gomez-alonzo-guatemala-boy-death-us-custodyhome-village-mourns.
. Erin Durkin, “The Immigrants Who Have Died in US Custody in ,” The
Guardian,  December , sec. US news,
. David Taylor, “Why Did a Little Guatemalan Girl Die after Crossing the US
Border?” The Guardian,  December , sec. US news, https://www.theguardian.
. George, “Indian-American Group Marches in Support of Trump’s Immigration
. Eithne Luibhéid, Pregnant on Arrival: Making the Illegal Immigrant (Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, ).
. According to a report from the Latin American Social Sciences Institute,
Mexico, one-third of all Asian undocumented migrants detained between  and
 while attempting to cross the US–Mexico border are of Indian origin. Kallol
Bhattacherjee, “Illegal Indian Immigrants to Suffer If Trump Wins,” The Hindu,
 February , sec. International,
. Ananya Bhattacharya, “An Indian Tech Worker’s Movie Shows the Anxiety of
Being an H-B Immigrant in Silicon Valley,” Quartz India, accessed  January ,/an-indian-tech-workers-movie-shows-the-anxiety-of-beingan-h-b-immigrant-in-silicon-valley/.
. Ingrid Therwath, “‘Shining Indians’: Diaspora and Exemplarity in Bollywood,”
South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, no.  (): https://journals..
. Tejas Harad, “What’s in a Surname? Caste and Much More,” Feminism in India
(blog),  May ,///whats-in-a-surname/.
. Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, Why I Am not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva
Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy (Calcutta: Samya, ); Sharmila Rege, ed.,
Against the Madness of Manu: B. R. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy
(Delhi: Navayana Publishing, ).
. Neil G. Ruiz, “Indian Migration to the US,” Pew Research Center,  January ,//indian-migration-to-the-us.pdf.
. Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh, The Other One Percent:
Indians in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ).
. Donald McNeill, “Governing a City of Unicorns: Technology Capital and the
Urban Politics of San Francisco,” Urban Geography , no.  (): –.
. Neha Mishra, “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances,” Washington University
Global Studies Law Review , no.  (): .
. Catarina Kinnvall, “Nationalism, Religion and the Search for Chosen Traumas:
Comparing Sikh and Hindu Identity Constructions,” Ethnicities , no.  (): –.
. Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the
North American West, vol.  (Berkeley: University of California Press, ).
. Sitara Thobani, “Alt-Right with the Hindu-Right: Long-Distance Nationalism
and the Perfection of Hindutva,” Ethnic and Racial Studies , no.  (): –;
Therwath, “‘Shining Indians.’”
. Leo Chavez, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, ).
. Roberto G. Gonzales, “On the Wrong Side of the Tracks: Understanding the Effects
of School Structure and Social Capital in the Educational Pursuits of Undocumented
Immigrant Students,” Peabody Journal of Education , no.  (): –.
. Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of
the Unprotected (New York: New York University Press, ).
Chandrashekar | The “One Percent”

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