Category Archives: Teaching

“Go the Way Your Blood Beats”

I knew as I turned down the road toward the familiar view of golden wetlands in a spring evening that the immediacy of the sensation would fade. I ought to have written right then, I thought. I ought to take this out of my chest but I won’t.

(The tenses are all fucked up, I realize.)

Now I am in a coffee shop where pop songs from the eighties are playing just a little too loud. My friend in the midst of her stream across from me cracks me open in new ways. It is cliché to write so often about the heart, the muscle, the fist in me, the fist raised for her. (I will have to cut that corniness, I realize. I have to love the champion I am, I have to love myself, to love my capacity.)

I try not to use the word heart. I try to live according to my heart’s intelligence. Can the science of neurocardiology authorize this? The giant vagus nerve that I see as strong as my spine, flexes it’s will, overcomes me, the hundred sensations of my “heart” are sent along nerves, out to the tiniest endings.

In class on Thursday, a class on the history of emotions as a methodology for making sense of the AIDS crisis and social movement, I had broken out in goose bumps, my eyes burned and flooded, I swelled with (affect, the “nonconscious” physiological, yet also normative, socially trained response, the theory teaches us)—”with what?” I wondered in the moment. Was I proud of my students? I was surprised at their goodness at their ability to risk and the way that the language of readings-I-had-wept-over, moved, had moved them. Was I moved by these students too? Would a person who had not spent fifteen weeks learning this history with them see their brilliance? Is it me I am proud of?

A young white man, ambiguous in his orientation, but gentle-hearted, raised rich, (a bit of a hustler, I thought, until I had let him know he was not getting away with it and he rose to the occasion) played a bit of his podcast on African American men facing AIDS and at the end he quoted James Baldwin, “Go the Way Your Blood Beats,” as a benediction:

“Go forth, be of good cheer, never returning evil with evil, but always returning good” my minister parent had sent us away every Sunday, with his palm raised gently, as if to our foreheads. The sleeve of his robe falling down his hairy wrist. (It was him. It was his life. It was his desire to please me, where did it come from? We are so complicated in our million, brilliant childhood strategies, our laundry list of fourteen traits. Hell is sometimes where it comes from, the impoverishment of the secret dysfunction, don’t trust, don’t talk, don’t tell. So many in this class have broken down before me, in anxiety, with allergies, full of hopelessness. In history classes, we inventory the public dysfunction, systems of power and privilege. The gendered, sexualized, raced, classed intersection of white supremacy. Ignorance and power. Silence = Death. There is relief in such admissions.)

Wyatt’s podcast ends.

As a teacher, I choose to take off my glasses then, and wipe my eyes my voice trembling give them my parting words. Baldwin and Wyatt have done it for us though.

“Best advice I ever got was an old friend of mine, a black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation” (James Baldwin, Interview with Goldstein, 1984).

I think some may think it is “weird” to see me cry, I hope one day it gives them permission. I hope my pride goes into their blood and takes hold in their hearts, that they follow the intelligence of the vagus nerve, evolved to empathy.

The road turned along the golden field. The music beats now. My eyes, this enormous nerve. My friend. Who cares if no one likes my writing?

Despair and Teaching About Act UP

What was lost.

Many of the readings for my course, Pride in the Time of HIV/AIDS map this out in some way. A whole, very recent history has been forgotten and misrepresented.

What was lost. Eleven students and I find–in Andrew Holleran’s essays in The Christopher Street Reader and Deborah Gould’s Moving Politics and Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind

What it meant to be queer. What disco was. That there was a successful direct action movement that changed the world. Safe sex, camp, rage. They were not all white, nor were they all male, nor elite. They said, Bury Me Furiously. They threw their lovers’ ashes on the White House lawn. They stopped traffic with funerals, real bodies in boxes. They held a Die-In, laid down in the central aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to protest the Cardinal’s decree against wearing condoms, while a man shouted repeatedly:

“Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us. Stop Killing Us.”

They awoke one day in the late 80s (after Bowers V. Hardwick declared sodomy to be a worse crime than rape?) to the realization that there was no love for them, no matter how good a boy and girl you were: no appeals to hearts, no display of heroic virtue, no public grief, no candlelight vigil would make the government recognize their humanity.

They had nothing to lose. And in that despair, like the night of Stonewall, rage rose and righteousness.

Fury. Fury. Fury. And Despair Changed the World.

They had nothing to lose. And so they went forth with brave skin and brilliance, everyday people who deserved to live. As I read these books by the Plague’s witnesses and watch documentaries, I feel the historical continuities, evolution: my queer bones, gay as fuck heart, vagus nerve, mirror neurons play and wince, this instrument I am, made of the same stuff. This is why I teach: to show my students who their people really were. They do not know what “queer” means. Isn’t that sad? And I had forgotten that queer never hopes for the government to save them. It does not ask for approval.

My students seem stunned as I perform this derisive, arrogant, beauty, the pathos of my fury.

They had never heard of Act UP!

As for me, I am Googling the old disco that Holleran remembers dancing to, long after the hip crowd went home. The endless slow beats not made for roller skates–and I am brought on his words into the late night, into the realness, sweating (I shake the sweat from my short hair), in a trance, the magic of my body, my aspirations, my handsome, heroic despair.

I Google a Super 8 clip of two queens moaning out the lines like Bronx cats, lounging in lipstick, muscled and lithe and dark in tough wigs (in Mark Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” by Tennessee Williams, once a long lost yearned for gem, then found. Lost and found).

I Google a short film by Jim Hubbard, “Elegy in the Streets” silent. These young mourners release white balloons. A queen on roller skates lifts her skirts to show hairy legs. A vine grows up the tenement building, black balloons and red, and despair building, an angel in negative print, on her knees and the film stays and stays staring.

Lost and found. It’s a mess. It’s hopeless. My perfectionism wakes me anxious…something is wrong. There is no one here. I read this with a spiritual book that tells me to awaken! Remember separation is a lie. We are all electromagnetic energy my friend tells me and, there in his office, my mind’s eye clicks into this fantasy, to holographic memory, the whole on the shattered fragment, how a room lights up when a certain person enters. What does it all mean?

I do not know. I stare. Nothing.

What does despair give you? If it gives you nothing to lose, no sanction, no friendship, no love to lose, it is just your life left and then hardly even that, not for long. I know it is nothing I have ever felt, not on the scale of my Act UP elders.

I know the cowardice of having too much to lose. But less and less.

I have worn brave skin. I was madly in love when I felt it. It was the first morning.

After the first night.