WORDS: BANI AMOR
“Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” – Toni Morrison
I lay in a fetal-ish position on the floor of my little sister’s room, reaching beyond the tethers of immobilization for a pillow to slowly slide between my thighs. It feels like I’m stuffed in some invisible box or bound by powers only I can’t see and all I can really do is cradle my phone in my hands, so I open Twitter and see that the Senate has taken its first step in gutting the Affordable Care Act.
I exhale – carefully, to avoid triggering the piercing pain radiating from the root of my spine – and think to myself, “That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm,” a line from one of my all-time favorite plays, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, before dropping my phone, the rough coils of the hideous pink carpet the only sight staring back at me now.
Seeing as surreal was the most-searched word of 2016, it’s clear that the collective experience of chaos demands a deeper inquiry into the nature of reality, one that lies at the center of one of the best scenes from Mike Nichols’ 2003 TV adaptation of Tony Kushner’s 1993 play about a group of people struggling with faith during the AIDS epidemic in Reagan-era New York, and it takes place in our protagonist’s dream. In it, Prior Walter applies stolen makeup to his face before a vanity to distract himself from the Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions forming on his flesh. But the reality of his condition tears into his dreamscape (“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even drag is a drag,”) and with it, enters Harper, a Valium-addicted housewife in the middle of a hallucination, and together they discuss the insight that comes with being pushed to the margins of reality, but only after lamenting the limits of the imagination. See, a scene like this shouldn’t even exist. Aren’t killjoys cardinally opposed to the acts of dreaming and dissociation? (Asking for a friend.)
I binge the entire six-hour HBO special whenever the flare-ups of chronic illness keep me floor-ridden and there’s nothing to do but just cry and feel sorry for myself over the sad state of my corporeality and the hurdles to healing our ableist society props up, one after another, until they blur in the distance. Each time, I wonder why the blunt force of the horrors that Angels portrays comforts me, like the moment Prior semi-consoles a crying Harper, saying “I usually say ‘fuck the truth,’ but usually, the truth fucks you.” Maybe I’ve lost the ability to dream, because, as Harper says, “Imagination can’t create anything new.” There is no world in which I don’t feel the tingly choke of nerve damage in my hand and arm, the dull, non-stop ache in the entirety of my upper-right body, the constant stab in my lower back, cold and clear like a depressing winter sky; no world in which I’m not bipolar and dependent upon Medicaid for treatment. None in which HIV/AIDS doesn’t exist. Even in the dream realm. “The world – finite. Terribly, terribly,” Harper concludes.
Yet then again, the scene itself is a testament that reality and unreality aren’t binary domains. Prior apologizes to Harper for hosting such a depressing hallucination, to which she responds, “I can’t expect someone who’s really sick to entertain me.” He’s taken aback, wondering how she saw through his facade. “Oh, that happens. This is the very threshold of revelation sometimes; you can see things.” It reminded me of Junot Díaz’s essay on apocalypse just after Haiti was hit with that devastating earthquake in 2010, in which he quotes Roethke: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” before concluding on his own that “apocalypse is a darkness that gives us light.” It also reminded me of Toni Morrison’s essay on chaos published in The Nation just after George W. Bush won a second term as president, called No Place For Self-Pity, No Room For Fear, in which she writes, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” This has been re-circulating in light of Donald Trump’s election win, and it’s no wonder why. I don’t know what it’s like to be white and completely flabbergasted right now. I don’t know what it’s like to be my moms and feel continually betrayed by the country she immigrated to, don’t know what it’s like to be Black or Native American with Trump or without Trump. I just know that I went to work.
The racialization of light vs. darkness as metaphor is being subverted right at this political moment, when white people have gotten themselves into such deep shit that they turn to Black saviors to fix it all, when they’re terrified of being plunged into a darkness so total that they can’t conceive of living through it, because they are ill-equipped to live lives without the concept of Hope™. It takes from ten minutes to several hours for a human’s eyes to adjust to the dark but for some, it’s been centuries. This couldn’t be more evident in Angels in America, whose only non-white and most femme character, Belize, seems to hold all the answers to the problems of the fledgling white gay men orbiting him. At the funeral for a Black drag legend, Prior is morose as hell, dressed in all-black, while Belize is outfitted in sparkly, colorful fabrics, singing along with the choir. Throughout the mini-series, the white characters are scattering to contend with the apocalypse while Belize just lives his life, his back turned to Central Park’s Angel of Bethesda water fountain while rain pours over him in a pivotal scene, declaring with a dead stare, “I hate America.”
In another central scene, Prior’s ex Louis is whitesplaining American racial politics in a breakneck rant to Belize as he shifts uncomfortably across from him in the corner booth of a Manhattan diner. A depressing winter sky hangs above them. The actors portraying these characters are straight men – a junior Ben Shenkman facing off against the seasoned prowess of Jeffrey Knight. “Ultimately, race here is a political question. Racists just try to use race here as a tool in a political struggle – it’s not really about race,” Louis says. “There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Belize then calls Louis’s little speech “racist bullshit” and his response is immediate: “I. Am. Not. A. Racist. So maybe I am a racist.” He barely breathes between the two statements. He is white liberal guilt personified and performed. I wonder what has changed and the answer comes to me once Angels ends.
In the play, the TV adaptation and in the United States at large, the face of HIV/AIDS is a white middle-class gay man. Watching it, I – a low-income disabled queer gender-nonconforming person of color – have so many questions, like how Prior can afford his endless stream of meds, how he can afford not to work and live alone in the West Village; how he avoids being discriminated against within the medical complex. While we collectively watch the dismembering of the Affordable Care Act, a piece of legislation that was insufficient in a healthcare system that’s world-renowned for its lack of humanity, in 2017, the face of disability is white. The face of “the LGBT community” is white. But how can the face of HIV/AIDS possibly remain white, over three decades after its outbreak in the US, despite all evidence to the contrary? To quote Shernell “Toni” Sells of the South Carolina HIV/AIDS Council, “You know back in the day, they used to say this is a white gay disease?” she asked a Black female patient in the 2015 documentary Wilhemina’s War, shaking her head. “Guess who the face of HIV is now? Me and you.” I wonder if the white disabled and “LGBT” communities see Black southerners, women and queer people in particular, as the face, or even a part, of their movements; of their work to save ACA.
It did not take a Trump presidency for me to realize that my enemy sees me more than my purported ally ever will. I was just a tween when my moms begged a white man in a Florida Medicaid office for coverage for her three children. The eldest in a wheelchair, having grown up in hood hospitals, the middle one institutionalized for a suicide attempt, the baby suffering epileptic seizures that would leave her with irreversible brain damage. He robotically denied her as she openly cried.
That’s America. It’s just no country for the infirm.