Spirit of the Crossroads: Jamal Gerald’s Idol
Toni Morrison asks a question of Ellison’s Invisible Man that informs Jamal Gerald’s theatre piece, Idol (Oberon, UK 2020), Invisible to whom? For Morrison, Invisible Man, the novel, by Ellison, depends on the white gaze for its narrative of always behaving as if in the company of whites and as though never free of that gaze even in the absence of whites.
There are repeated scenes in Jamal Gerald’s theatre piece, Idol (Oberon Books, UK 2020) of an African reenactment of worship, cleansing and belonging. Jamal Gerald overcomes a white laden Catholic upbringing and young adult life for his real self as a queer black man who loves certain pop icons (think Beyoncé, Kanye, Prince, Lil’ Kim).
A note about pop culture. Jamal swings and grooves like a haymaker in the realm of pop’s many beats. Guided by pop, he is enriched by its metrics and rhythms. Thanks to pop’s enactment and performance of trauma integrated with mantras and moves to dismantle those hurts, Jamal is able to lose his inhibitions and he finds himself as a gay man. He dips, sways, drops and hops to the groove. This makes pop his university of the body and the spirit, a place to be at ease in his body and to find meaning in those lyrical inventions.
The fight with his Catholic faith (“religious people who would try to save me” p.31) and investment of that faith in emblems of white supremacy results in a set of awful internalized negative beliefs for the young Jamal. His mother features large in this picture of worship that Jamal has to overcome while preserving his relationship with his mother.
School is not much better. He finds that his friends venerate light skinned blacks and denigrate dark skin. As a young adult his black lovers bide their time with him, all the while looking to whites for longer term and deeper relations.
Paul Laurence Dunbar argued about this turn from blackness that white society demands, in his 1896 poem, We Wear the Mask.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes.”
Dunbar’s poem protests the falseness imposed by the mask that blacks wear to be acceptable to whites. Under the Dunbar mask is a tortured soul. Morrison’s answer to self-oppression is for black artists to turn away from the white gaze and write or perform in ways true to whatever black writers and artists find meaningful to themselves.
Towards the end of his theatrical piece Jamal declares,
“Whenever I see myself, I know where I’m going. And when I don’t, I’m trying to figure out where to go.” (p.54)
By turns earnest and hurt, spiritual and secular and raw, as in raucous as in dancehall bodacious Vybz Kartel and his ‘backshot’ manifesto, Jamal’s Idol is iconoclastic, anarchic, convention turned upside down, and with so much joy in his work, so much energy and zest for the sensuous as a mode of finding his place as artist and human remade on his term.
Oh, and his playlist of featured tracks at the end of this beautifully produced book of the event that he and his talented collaborators assemble, well, listen to it and swing with Jamal’s being and meaning. He means to signal that the beat goes on and we should lookout for a lot more from him that we cannot afford to ignore.