18 June 2010
Do You Wanna Funk? Fat, queer archives, and Sylvester
You may not know who Sylvester was, in which case look him/her up on Wikipedia, or read Joshua Gamson's biography. The extremely simplified version is that Sylvester made some of the most sublime records to dance to in the world, was Black and what we might call genderqueer today, and died way before her time of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. This is someone you should know about, a person who provided the soundtrack to a generation of queers, may of whom also died in that first devastating wave of AIDS.
I've heard Sylvester called fat, and this has often intrigued me. His body size is not always apparent in photographs, and sometimes he looks chubbier than others. People's bodies change, and hers would likely have changed dramatically too as she faced her final illness.
I looked at four boxes of clothes containing a couple of sequinned jackets; a pink sequinned trouser suit, a white, glittery dress in the style of a wedding dress; a layered peach ensemble, with silky pyjama trousers, a sequinned apron, and heavy sequinned jacket; and a gigantically pouffy black sequinned batwing jacket/dress, with hanging ties, and matching space-age style skullcap hat covered with feathers and other embellishments.
I didn't expect to be so moved by the experience of looking at someone long dead's stage outfits. I think it was something to do with the contrast between the larger-than-life colour and pizzazz of the sequins and glitter which contrasts so greatly with the awful reality of Sylvester's passing, not to mention the deaths of countless others like him. I was moved that these costumes had been preserved lovingly, and grateful for the work of the archive in remembering and making accessible the life and work of this person. There are others in the archive who were not so famous, whose lives are also commemorated, which is beautiful to me, evidence of everyday revolutions happening over and over again (and there are artefacts from more famous people too, there's a pair of Harvey Milk's jeans in a box there somewhere). It reminded me that activism is often about very small interventions which may seem like a drop in the ocean at times. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. But archives show that these small actions – the queer wearing of an insanely glittery outfit, for example – have wider significance over time, especially if they are part of a consistent body of work. I love the way that the archive creates a dialogue between the past and the future. So I felt moved by Sylvester's costumes, and the research materials I've been working on, they encourage me to continue my own work and to encourage others to do theirs.
I want to end this by saying that last night I went to the great Michelle Tea's reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. Entitled 'Old School: Writers Unearth and Re-imagine the Lives and Legacies of Queers Gone By,' writers presented work inspired by the GLBT Historical Society's holdings. Robin Coste Lewis presented a magnificent piece about many things, but also about Sylvester. She talked about people whose histories are not commemorated, including the slaves who were her ancestors, and included passages about Sylvester's archival legacy, which is shockingly patchy to say the least. But the costumes remain, and they speak. Mighty real (of course I had to say that).
GLBT Historical Society