Boundaries of queerness

The elaborate nexus of oppressions, both internalized and structural, that figure concurrently in Otis Tilson’s life capture the dynamic nature of intersectionality. Iceberg Slim establishes early in the preface that “The dialogue is in the gut idiom of the queer—the black ghetto—the Deep South—the underworld” (13). It becomes clear that homosexual behavior was never the sole characteristic that demarcated Tilly as “queer” but the interplay of poverty and brutality that fenced even his heterosexual family members outside the boundaries of normativity. The backdrop of the 1960s Chicago race riots further frames the narrative not as an individual story of personal tragedy but a chronicle of continual engagement with exclusive social conventions in every realm that possess significant limitations.

Racism does not merely function to entrench the hierarchy of white over black with the former privileged as normative. It additionally engenders internal inferiority complexes and divisions amongst those outside these barriers. The intense mistrust of middle-class blacks on the part of working-class African Americans can only be matched by the outright hostility more financially and socially established blacks display towards the recent migrants from the South. Mama, for instance, feels the need to remind Tilly repeatedly about Dorcas and her family: “A slum fellow like you don’t have a chance with a girl like that. Her father will see to it. If anyone despises poor niggers more than the dirty white folks, it’s so called high class niggers like him” (188). This animosity is reciprocated. Dorcas’s father indeed holds poor African American migrants in deep distrust, ordering Tilly to “Stay away from my daughter…I don’t want her associating with low life cotton picking niggers from Mississippi” (198). These borders within non-normative spaces define Tilly’s experiences. His position, truly at the intersection of various systems of subordination, attests to the full complexity of “queer” struggle and community.

The reality of power and normativity are similarly blurred in Tilly’s encounter and sexual assault at Lovell’s hands. While Lovell also falls outside conventional categories as a physically deformed and violent rapist, it is arguably his cisgendered and heterosexual identity that empowers his atrocious crime. As he terrorizes and rapes Tilly, Lovell roars: “Git them clothes off, freak, and git in that bed before I stomp you into a puddle of yellow shit” (39). The naming of Tilly as “freak” in this context gives incredible insight into the psychological underpinnings that leads Lovell to believe he has such unrestrained access to a homosexual drag queen’s body. Upon reading and re-reading this haunting exchange, I also immediately recall Hortense Spiller’s writing about misnaming, ungendering, and the potentially dehumanizing impact of terminology and discourse. The various ways in which naming is deployed to justify aggression even within extra-normative spaces and communities in Mama Black Widow thus serves as a timely reminder that the boundary between “queer” and “normativity” has never been, nor will ever be, a straight one-stroke line.