So I have been in a small city, Trois-Rivières, Quebéc Canada for the last four weeks with two more to go. I have been here for an immersion program in French. To say that this program has been a learning experience would be a gross understatement. This program has (re)introduced me to both hyper- and in-visibility, how they are two sides of the same coin. I had two experiences in similar locations that will elucidate my concerns, I suppose.
But first. A word about Trois-Rivières. It is a small city in Quebec where most everyone speaks French. This is great for the immersion aspect of the program, though I do not think the organizers of the program take to heart or to mind that cultural capital needed for someone to survive in a place like this. The people of the city are lovely...if they actually see you.
That to say this city is overwhelmingly white, Catholic and Francophone. What others in the same program have experienced as the kindness and gentleness of the people of Trois-Rivières, I have experienced as rudeness and brashness. I am often the direction towards which stares are pointed. Of course, there are warm smiles...sometimes. Of course, there are warm "bonjours"...sometimes. Overwhelmingly, there are curious gazes in my direction. bell hooks ain't never lied.
I thought I was being hella bitchy by sending text messages and emails to friends back home telling them that I hated it here, that I was ready to board the plane and return as soon as possible. For a while, I had no one experience to point to that could illuminate my concerns in any tangible ways. I just had my feeling...a gut feeling that made me feel hella outsider. So the experiences in the classroom were colored by my experiences in the Trois-Rivières world. No amount of classroom exercises could correct what I felt was (and still feel is) a psychic dysphoria, an existential otherness.
So, of course, I went to the club to dance one random Thursday evening with friends that I met here. The night was going very well. We went to a bar and the waiter - hella cute, I might add - was genuinely cordial to us all, brought us all drinks, gave us a tour of the microbrewery and wanted to hang out with us after he got off work. Cool. Great guy. But at the club to which we traveled, things fell apart...sharply, quickly. I was subject to being hypervisible to the crowd. It seems that my entering the club was the first time many of these young, white, Francophone, Trifluvien people met someone from the states who was black. A circle gathered round about me to pick my brain, ask me about Brooklyn and Harlem...Queens and the Bronx. Because, you know, I'm a resource for all things urban, so it seems. There seemed to be a long line of folks that one (very young, very drunk) guy kept introducing me to...as his American friend...who was trying to speak French. Lest we forget my locs. I was a cultural show and they all wanted to have a look and a conversation.
Though I was annoyed with the many introductions and the picking of my brain - I was not able to enjoy the time with the people with whom I traveled because I tried to be nice - I did not dissuade them from having conversation. I was fascinated by their fascination and their inability to know how disinterested I was. But then, the guy introduced me to this one woman. And she said something to the effect of - in French, mind you - "you must have a lot of girlfriends" to which I smiled, and responded "no, I don't." She continued to prod me about why I wouldn't have girlfriends - many, beaucoup, girlfriends - and I kept saying that I just don't have one. She continued to press and so I replied, "Je suis homosexual."
She stopped, at that moment, speaking French to me and went on a "you can't possibly be gay" tirade. I was, again, annoyed. I reassured her that I was and she kept saying I couldn't possibly be. Then, dissatisfied that I was indeed gay, she turned to her male friends and said, "he wants to fuck you all in the ass because he's gay" with laughter. Pause? Indeed. But not on that homophobichiphopshit. Pause...because the chick just don't know me like that. To say I was offended? A huge understatement. So then I had to enter into a discourse (a not so nice one) about why she should never speak to me again, about how she's offensive as hell and how I don't want to fuck any of her friends...
Hypervisibility, in that instance, led to a dismissal of my personhood. A black man certainly can't be gay...right?
A couple of weeks later, I twice journeyed to a gay-friendly club in the city. But these two times, invisibility seemed to engulf me rather than hypervisibility. I was invisible to the men at the club...they stared with wonderment but dared not speak, smile, nod or acknowledge me, save, the bartender. On my second (and what would be my last) trip to that club, I went outside for a smoke. Hyper and invisibility conflated at one moment:
"Hey!" someone said...I turned around. He spoke French but I wasn't sure what he said. "You speak the English?" Me, "yes." "Let me ask you something." Me, "ok." I guess I should've been ready. His friends were rolling their eyes at me but I had no idea what he was going to ask. "Tell me is it true. All black men have big dicks, right?"
I walked away. I refused to respond.
So yeah...two examples of what I was feeling materialized within days of each other. What I expressed to a friend is this: there is a particular narrative about blackness and black folks that pervades and exists without the physical bodies ever having to enter into spaces. But when our bodies literally invade and litter (I typed "litterally" mistakenly at first...but litter seems appropriate in this context) the narrative that precedes our existences, folks are confronted with realities and must contend: how shall I engage this material existence? In both clubs, I was hyper and invisible concurrently. In both spaces, my physical presence allowed the others to feel they had the ability to test out their hypotheses about blackness and black folks and black sexuality coterminously. Needless to say, I was over it...
But what does this have to do with Affreux and Afro? Well, one curious day as I perused the French-English dictionary, I saw the word "Affreux" pronounced "Afro" as in Afro-American, Afro (hairstyle), Afro-Caribbean. The word "Affreux" translates as "hideous" and "dreadful." Curiously, my Afro is in the form of the dread(loc). Though etymology is important and shouldn't be discounted, my research is primarily in sound culture, so homophones are very important to my theorization. The words sound alike. I wonder, then, if the presence of the dread(loc) Afro(American) confronted the lovely Trifluvien with the materiality of that which is detestable, that which is dreadful, that which is both hyper and in-visible, invisible because it is so apparent, hypervisible because it is so easily dismissed. I'm not sure...but I know this isn't the place for me.