Early in Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, the narrator—an unidentified black man—describes a brutal encounter on a street. The narrator bumps into a stranger, and the stranger, who is white, and tall, with blue eyes and blond hair, curses him. The narrator then seizes the "tall blond man," head-butts him, kicks him, and demands an apology. But the white man refuses to apologize. And just before the narrator slits the man's throat with a knife, he stops and realizes that the beaten and bleeding man can't apologize because he can't see him. Recognition was not mutual. It only went one way: from black man to white man. The white man cannot see the black man because he is socially invisible. He is a nobody.
Though Invisible Man was written more than 60 years ago, the politics of recognition are still with us today, as a new play, Queer, Mama. Crossroads (written by local poet and performer Anastacia-Reneé, and codirected by her and Aviona Rodriguez Brown) makes abundantly clear. Though the subjects of the play—which is short, direct, poetic, and charged with powerful emotions—are black, they are also queer women. That second identification makes them even more invisible than the invisible man. They simply and painfully live in a society that cannot and refuses to see them either in life, or death.
The three main characters in Queer, Mama. Crossroads are the ghosts of women whose lives ended violently. One is named Forgotten (Simone Dawson); another, No Hashtag (Kamari Bright); the third, Invisible 1 (Ebo Barton). They speak to us from the crossroads, the place where the numerous souls of dead black people, black women, black queers, journey to demand recognition. They want to be known, named, counted.
Though they have different stories, they have one message: They did not live what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben described as a "bare life." What this means is that bare existence, life as simply a biological process, is not really a life at all. Life can only be full: socially, culturally, politically. And what politics comes down to is not just representation, but recognition. You see me, and I see you, no matter who we are: black, queer, white, straight, homeless.
The last year of the second decade of the 21st century is experiencing a strong push against what's called identity politics, but is really civil rights—the politics of recognition, the right to a full life. If we hope to counter and diminish the force of this conservative reaction, which is deeply anti- democratic, we need to amplify the messages, stories, and pain expressed in works like Queer, Mama. Crossroads.