Today, the world is mourning the passing of a legend.
And as is the case with all cultural icons, the grief is being felt in all corners, by people of all races, ethnicities, economic classes, gender expressions, etc. There is no doubt that his Purple Majesty touched people all over this world.
For me, Prince was confirmation of the heights one could reach when they weren’t afraid…to be different. Non-conforming. Confusing. Questionable. Nuanced. Hard to understand. Hard to explain. Though I was deeply appreciative of his musical genius, Prince was more of a psychopomp for me; one who was less of a personal guide and more of a shining example of how to navigate through the difficult and confusing terrain of identity. Sure, I loved Prince as performer but even more so, as possibility of the liberation that comes when one decides to be exactly who they are.
But as the world collectively grieves and we all revel in the memes, songs, and videos that flood our timelines, it does not escape me that there are some people currently praising Prince and his progressiveness while harboring some really questionable and regressive views about gender expression and sexuality.
As I wrestled with that one of my FB friends, Matt Potter, brilliantly posted:
And there it was.
A perfect summation of what I felt when I saw the same people who ridiculed young Jaden Smith -for wearing a skirt and flowers in his hair – applauding Prince today for being so “groundbreaking” and “brave.”
As if androgynous and ambiguous Prince isn’t Jaden.
As if Prince isn’t the type of man they point/laugh/curse at and when they condemn the “effeminization” of men “these days.” As if everything about Prince’s public performance of gender wasn’t queer and non-conforming as all get out. As if Prince wasn’t every kid who has committed suicide because people can’t accept queer…unless it’s rich queer. Famous queer. Celebrity queer. The “not actually in our face where we are forced to walk our talk” queer.
If you can’t fully embrace the humanity of the Princes walking around your community – the ones being bullied, disrespected, dehumanized, assaulted, and killed on a daily basis – I’m going to have a difficult time believing the sincerity of your outpouring of love and respect for the Purple One today. Prince had the inner fortitude, and perhaps external supports, to be his damn self and reach his potential….despite you. And though his ascension into super stardom -and the money, fame, and celebrity deification that come with – may have afforded him some protection from perspectives like yours, the truth remains many of you would have hated him if you actually knew him.
Want a litmus test? Please ask yourself how you’d feel about this picture if it were anyone other than Prince. If it were your neighbor? Classmate? Friend? Son?
Since I first published this piece, many people have pointed out that, at various times throughout his career, Prince expressed sentiments that have been interpreted as homophobic and anti-gay. They have also been quick to point out his Christian ties, which he expressed in interviews and songs. I have no idea what Prince’s private thoughts were and I found his statements being touted as anti-gay, cryptic at best. I also don’t think being Christian and being homophobic have to be synonymous, though they often are. The truth is, I don’t know who Prince was in his heart, mind, or home. My hope is that he was as loving and inclusive as I’d like to imagine, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t. Basically, I don’t think of Prince as anything other than human.
So, even if his perspective wasn’t as progressive as it seemed, that’s not an area I’m interested in posthumously speculating on. It’s his legacy, his public expression, that challenged and continues to challenge us as a society. It was the Prince who wore dresses and made sex-positive songs, who linked the intimacy between humans and the divine, that helped us to re-examine our limited notions of what it meant to be woman, man, neither, or both. It was the Prince who regularly wore eyeliner, nail polish, and heels and then married women who also wore eyeliner, nail polish, and heels that forced so many of us to grapple with the non-binaries and nuance of life, love, and sex.
More Radical Reads: Our Evolving Sexuality: “When Do I Become Queer Enough to Claim Queerness?”
How many Princes living in our communities will never bloom into the full beauty and expression of who they are due to the fear of judgment, condemnation, and ostracization? How many are afraid of being killed for simply being who they are? How many have killed themselves, throughly convinced by the people and messages surrounding them that they are unworthy of love and acceptance? How much genius have we lost? How many young, bright, and talented young Princes of this world are now gone?
If our collective mourning, compassion, and love doesn’t extend to those who share Prince’s unapologetic and authentic self-expression – sans his fame, money, and iconic legacy – how authentic is it? Within this moment of grief and celebration there is a great opportunity to mine for those answers that can help us navigate and dismantle the hypocrisies that reinforce exclusion and oppression. An examination of our responses to Prince’s life, art, and legacy can lead us to a bigger and higher version of our individual and collective selves, and as a Prince fan, but more importantly, as a lover of all of humanity, I am hoping that more of us are willing to take that chance.
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Natasha Thomas-Jackson is an award-winning activist, writer, feminist, performance artist, consultant and co-founder and executive director of RAISE IT UP! Youth Arts & Awareness, an organization that promotes youth engagement, expression, and empowerment through performance, literary art, and social activism. Her work has been featured on National Public Radio (NPR) and published by AlterNet, John Hopkins University, and the Black Congressional Caucus. She was featured in the Michigan Emmy Award-winning short documentary, Making Genes Dance, on several independent albums and has shared the stage with the likes of KRS-1, Slum Village, the late Grace Lee Boggs, Jessica Care Moore, and the Last Poets.[Feature Image: Prince is photographed nude with his legs covering his private area and hand across his chest. He is sitting amongst oversized flowers. Photo Credit: ScreenShot,Youtube.com/Replikon]