When We Grow Up: Lady Di’s Yesterday and José’s Tomorrow

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by Daphne A. Brooks, Princeton University

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I would like to share a minor tale from yesterday as a way to continue thinking about the world of the what-might-be with which José Muñoz gifted us and which our ensemble of voices are keeping alive today.

Last March, I showed up at NYU for a panel I had organized on the “musician as urban planner”—inspired by and featuring Fred Moten. It was a session that also included Alexandra Vazquez, Gayle Wald and Greg Tate, and in the audience sat our friend José. The paper that I read that day was hardly even that at the time. I called it “Midnight Fever Dreams for Diana Ross,” or something like that. But what moved me so, what ultimately spurred me on to finish the piece, was that José had said such kind things to me about it. It wasn’t until he moved on last December that I found out that we were a year apart in age—which seemed impossible to me because I had looked up to him for so long as a colleague and friend who had generously created opportunities for me and welcomed me into his vast, roving, electric network of thinkers and artists and rebels and outsiders. Age is important in the case of this short tale I’m telling about yesterday because I can better understand today why my meditation on the Lady Di of our childhood would have perhaps hailed my beloved fellow Gen-Xer José in a particular way.

If my thoughts about her were shaped so wholly and deeply by José Muñoz, the pioneering, field-altering theorist, world-making mentor, institutional-builder and undercommons cartographer, if my thoughts about her could not have taken flight without his insistence on pointing us towards a then-and-there, they were also, unbeknownst to me at the time, holding the kernel of yet another revolutionary manifesto that José was radically improvising already, one that I would hear about the last time I saw him at the American Studies Association: that of “brown theory,” an embrace of the here and now and the beauty and power of what we already are.

So humbly and very briefly, then, I share these words and sounds for José as I read them last year.

When I grow up/will I be pretty/Will you be big and strong?/Will I wear dresses that show off my knees?/Will you wear your trousers long?/Well I don’t care if I’m pretty at all/And I don’t care if you never get tall/I like what I look like, and you’re nice small/We don’t have to change at all…

Free to be you and me, sang our own groovy Miss Ross, part of the Marlo Thomas ensemble of voices who re-ordered our universe while we sat on shag carpets and swapped Evil Knievel action figures and Ezra Jack Keats urban collages. My own Gen X earliest memory of Miss Ross consists of her re-ordering my playground with those light-as-feather vocals—to me always gender-ambiguous because they, of course, resembled that other voice coming out of my sister’s stereo speakers all day long, the voice of a then-teen Jackson 5 lead singer who, confusingly and yet perfectly and fittingly (because how else could it ever be?) sang “When I Grow Up” with “quiet fire” soul earth mother Roberta Flack on the Free to Be Television special that my friends and I watched, re-played in our heads and re-enacted on the playground for most of that first grade school year.

The hyper-femme “womanly” and yet “childlike” delicacy of her voice was its own kind of powerful statement of extremes, a queer gateway and an invitation to go with her “Somewhere” else (pace José), just as she and Mary and Cindy sang to us so triumphantly on national TV in the face of unspeakable and yet oh-so-familiar horror and trauma on April 5th, 1968.

She was always, then, in my childhood, the voice insisting that we were as “normative” as we already were. So that even though, yes, Berry Gordy, my 10-year-old People-Magazine-reading self saw the crass ways in which you re-structured The Wiz, turning Dorothy into a mid-20s school teacher and ousting virtuosic teen ingénue Stephanie Mills so that your “Endless Love” could “ease on down the road,” I was willing “to go to there” with her because she already sounded out fanciful, limitless possibility, safety in playing. She was a songbird often lambasted for her aesthetic “plasticity”, accused of failing the dreaded “A” word, but that putative “IN-authenticity,” that Courtney “fake-it-so-real I’m beyond fake” ethereal register was a reminder that if we did change at all, it could and should be a glorious “act”—one that we could work “fiercely” at Studio 54 or as oddly-as-we-wanna-be as a black New Wave nerd sporting pink hightops in Shallow Alto, California.

She was the soundtrack for our childhood civic universe, “a land” as the oh-so-crunchy New Seekers sing in the Free to Be theme—where “the children are free… where the rivers run free,” in a land of the “green country… a land bright and clear/the time’s a comin’ near… take my hand and we’ll live…”

Today, let’s all hold hands and move towards the place that José saw coming….

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Visit the full José Esteban Muñoz gallery here.

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A previous version of these remarks was delivered at the MLA 2014 session entitled “Drama Divisions: Envisioning Tomorrow for Jose Munoz.” Portions of this material appear in Daphne A. Brooks, “Let’s Talk About Diana Ross,” ed. Carl Wilson, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste (NY: Bloomsbury, 2014).

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