Omise’eke Tinsley’s “The Color Pynk” Celebrates Black Femme Art for Survival

Before our conversation in mid-February, I find myself scrolling through Dr. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s Instagram account. Her most recent post is a selfie: In the photo, Tinsley smiles as she looks directly at the camera, sporting a bold red lip and wearing two silver necklaces, one engraved with the name of her daughter. She’s wearing a black crop top with a rainbow on it and white text that reads, “Bad Bitches Have Bad Days Too!” A tattoo peaks out of her shirt: It looks like a semi circle of red (or maybe pink?) roses. Her caption tells us, “Department co-chair Monday lewks.” Reflecting on the various faculty meetings I’ve been to — generally filled with professors wearing drab button-down shirts and slacks — I think, “This is a department meeting I would actually want to be at!”

After noticing that Tinsley tagged bicon Megan Thee Stallion in the post, I realize the shirt is merch from Stallion’s digital campaign Bad Bitches Have Bad Days Too. Launched in the fall, the website offers mental health resources to Black and LGBTQ+ folks, communities typically underserved by medical and psychological professionals. Tinsley’s Instagram post encapsulates her professional and personal commitments: to her Black queer family and communities and to Black femme fashion as a political statement.

A Professor and Co-Chair of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Tinsley’s expansive academic and public-facing writing explores and honors Black performance, literature, and popular culture. Tinsley’s new book The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival is a love letter to Black queer and trans femme cultural production in the Trump years. The Color Pynk places the contemporary artwork of Black femmes such as Janelle Monáe, Kelsy Lu, Janet Mock, Indya Moore, Tourmaline, and Juliana Huxtable in joyful conversation with Black feminist literature and academic theory. In a world (both inside of academia and out) that often judges and critiques Black femme gender performance for its adherence to normativity or respectability politics or lack thereof, The Color Pynk invests wholly in what Tinsley calls Black femme poetics, a set of aesthetics that embraces the freedom-making practices of Black cultural production.

When we talked via Google Meet, I asked Tinsley about the origins of this project. Where did her inspiration for this book come from?

“The Trump presidency was kind of a watershed in my writing. I had just finished Ezili’s Mirrors [her second book]. I sent it off to press November 1st, 2016 or something like that and then the world changed. About that time, I’d been asked to write a book about Beyoncé and I made a decision at that time. I was like, okay, I have been used to writing for academics and I love that kind of writing, but I want to be able to write something that is for my sisters, my cousins, but also in this moment, for a wider community of Black queer folk in particular who are trying to survive and thrive, so that I can have these conversations. 

So I wrote the Beyoncé book really quickly because I was trying to stay sane in that first year of the presidency. Then I was teaching at Harvard for a year and the first day of my ‘Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Woman’ class that I taught there, I was playing a clip of Rihanna at the Grammys, I think, wearing pink, and I made an offhand comment, ‘I feel like I could write a whole project about the meaning of black women wearing pink.’ And they [the students] were like ‘yeah, yeah!’ And I was like okay anyway, on to the next thing. But then I kept thinking about that. I was thinking a lot about Janelle Monáe, watching Pose, and also just really amazed because I had assumed that folks on the left were going to get more conservative about how we responded to the Trump Presidency. And that there was going to be a lot of mainstream feminist response, and that came out in the original, like, pussy hat march. But in fact, I was amazed to see when Janelle Monáe came out with the ‘Pynk’ video and then Pose debuted. For the first time, I was seeing people identify themselves as Black femmes, either through that language, or how they were presenting themselves as Black queer folk who are feminine of center. It was that there was something about that moment that Black femme became politicized and visible in a different way…This kind of collective freedom-dreaming that we were doing from separate spaces around how Black queer femininity mattered and was generative, was really, really exciting and important to me.”

For Tinsley, the color pink — or rather, pynk — became a central lens through which to examine Black femme cultural production. The focus on pynk was in part inspired by the now-iconic Janelle Monáe song and music video, but Tinsley is broadly interested in what she calls “femme-inism.” Frustrated with how white femme studies has “ignored a long and rich history of Black and brown communities that continuously have done butch/femme,” Tinsley wanted to write a book about femme art that centered Blackness. She asks, “what difference does the Black make in femme-inism?” In answering this question, she explores how “gender is racialized” as well as how examining “queer gender from a Black perspective does something different.”

Invoking Alice Walker’s definition of womanism, Tinsley tells me, “pink is to pynk as purple is to lavender.” She explains, “it’s a relationship, but it’s also a relationship of difference, right? And specificity.” Tinsley tells me that the book is an homage to Walker. In the Prologue to The Color Pynk, Tinsley writes Walker a letter, expressing her gratitude for how Walker’s work “broke ground like revolutionary petunias,” in particular by embracing beauty, poetry, and everyday forms of Black feminist resistance. In deep conversation with other Black feminist writers in the Prologue and throughout the book, Tinsley honors the Black femme lineage that makes her own work possible. Tinsley then closes the book with a letter to her daughter, imagining the Black femme-inist future to come.

On the spelling of pynk, Tinsley comments, “I like the ‘Y’ in pynk. ‘I’ is, of course, one line. And there’s a kind of non-binaryness to the ‘Y’ in pynk that to me is opening it to new possibilities.” Tinsley recognizes that the ‘Y’ in words like “womyn” has historically been associated with trans-exclusionary forms of 1970s feminist and lesbian separatism. Against these harmful legacies, The Color Pynk examines and celebrates both cis and trans femme art.

“I wanted femme to not be cis or trans, and I also wanted those things not to be collapsed,” Tinsley affirms. “Part of what makes femme cohere in the book, or in my mind, is that we have a shared understanding that bodies are malleable and genders are malleable, and that femininity is not necessarily a choice, but an embodiment that is open to anyone.” The Color Pynk is particularly invested in the cultural production of non-binary and trans femmes. “When I was teaching at Harvard, I taught a class that was femme studies, and I would regularly come in with Indya Moore’s Instagram, because Black trans folks, Black trans women in particular, use social media and different platforms to do this theorizing. The academy is, we’re years behind, right? They get this out in lightning speed and, I’m like, they’re teaching us. All we have to do is listen.”

The Color Pynk is divided into three sections, and Part One explores Janelle Monáe and Indya Moore’s artwork. In her section introducing Monáe and Moore, aptly titled “Pussy Power and Nonbinary Vagina Dresses” (“nonbinary vagina” is a phrase taken from Moore’s Instagram caption), Tinsley writes,

“I’m interested in how their literal and figurative color palettes visualize ‘clusters of connections’—between pink, pynk, and brown; vagina, pussy, and penis; feminine, femme, and nonbinary—that offer conceptual models for the kind of feminist solidarity we need now. I engage the femme-inist figurations of Monáe and Moore not as models of what to think but of how to think across difference: with radical openness, playful world traveling, self-valued emotional labor, and commitment to ongoing transformation.” Building upon Black trans feminist activist Elle Moxley’s concept of “collaborative solidarity,” Tinsley is invested in “organizing between Black cis- and transfeminists that stresses respect for differences as a means of establishing peer relationships.” This respect — and reverence — is clear in every sentence of her book.

Janelle Monaé and her background dancers in the Pynk music video wearing the iconic "vagina pants"

“I’m not gonna write anything that’s a critique of a Black woman. I’m just not gonna do it,” Tinsley tells me. “You know, other people can do it, but there are enough people tearing Black women down. There’s certainly enough people tearing Black trans women down. It’s not exactly like, ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.’ But if I choose to write about someone, I feel like ethically, I need to do it in a supportive way…It’s like that idea, ‘Give us our flowers while we’re still here,’ like Black femmes can never get too much love, right? And can never give too much love to each other. And so, in a difficult political moment, that is definitely where I wanted to build energy.”

Throughout the book, Tinsley celebrates Black femme creativity, detailing how these artists offer radical alternatives to mainstream feminist politics and art in “overlooked, daily acts of Black femme defiance.” In Part Two: Hymns for Crazy Black Femmes, Tinsley explores how performance artist Kelsey Lu and filmmaker Tourmaline both blur and cross “socially constructed lines between myth and reality, magic and science, history and fantasy to create spaces for disabled self-definition.” In Part Three: Black Femme Environmentalism for the Futa, Tinsley examines how Miami artist collective (F)empower and artist Juliana Huxtable both imagine a “Black eco-femme-inist future” in their respective projects.

Tinsley sees a growing interest in theorizing Black and brown femme-ininity. She mentions that she and a former colleague frequently talked about organizing a conference on femme studies. “I’ve been saying this for a while — femmes can’t seem to manage to get together!” she jokes. “We’re all pulled in different directions….I don’t know if it is part of how femininity operates. Because I love being a femme and I’m also always recognizing my own internalized femmephobia. Like, ‘Oh that’s not important.’ But it is. And so I do think that more people are consciously talking about femme-ness and I would love to see us create spaces to have these conversations together.”

“I want to go to this femme conference!” I tell her. “Yeah, whenever a femme has time to plan it!” she responds, laughing.

While celebrating Black femme beauty and survival art is at the center of The Color Pynk, Tinsley ends the book by urging theorists and artists to talk more about colorism. She writes, “some scholarship has explored colorism and (cis-het) gender; almost none considers colorism and Black queer gender and sexuality.” She wants The Color Pynk to “go against the tendency to treat colorism as an undercurrent and bring it to the surface.” In particular, she wants to address how, for lighter-skinned femmes, “proximity to whiteness has been critical to making our bodies legible as feminine,” whereas darker-skinned femmes are persistently masculinized. Setting an example, Tinsley reflects on her own experiences with colorism. She writes, “Ironically, my book on Black femme-ininity was made easier to pitch, write, and publish because I do so with light-skin privilege…whatever femmephobia I fought to get my PhD, my light skin and loosely curled hair rendered my intelligence more plausible to my teachers from predominantly Black elementary schools through very white graduate programs. My PhD makes me credible as a writer; but my light skin itself makes me credible as a femme.”

Tinsley’s self-reflexive writing emphasizes how “colorism operates in Black queer communities as insidiously as in other spaces.” Toward the end of our call, Tinsley adds, “I’ve waited a long time to bring it into the conversation…We Black femmes are a group of people who understand that the givens of the body are not our destiny right? How we see bodies can be creative and expansive. And so what better group of people to think about pushing back against colorism and all of its meanings?” Tinsley ends the book with a mandate and a call to action: “The endgame of the color pynk is always empowering the color Black. Black femme freedom, now.”

The verbs I have used to describe Tinsley’s writing — “explores”, “examines,” “emphasizes,” “details” — do not do it justice. Her writing is beautiful, playful, lyrical, and rich with metaphor and multiple meanings. In an extended meditation on her use of the word “pynk”, Tinsley writes, “Black femmes wear our brains on our sleeve when we pynk up; walking into rooms aggressively womanish, perversely pleasure tinted, or unapologetically crazy, we perform intelligence in a frequency that masculine-of-center, straight, and neurotypical folk don’t always see—because its shades aren’t what white ableist heteropatriarchy expects.” She writes in a genre that Black feminist theorist Jennifer Nash calls “black feminist beautiful writing,” which Nash describes as an “aesthetic and political investment in a different kind of writing, in a writing that embraces beauty as a tactic, a strategy, and as a practice of care.”

On her own writing, Tinsley comments, “Because I chose Black femmes to celebrate, I wrote in the language I use when we talk to each other…I’m asking readers who want to be in solidarity with Black femmes to do the work of becoming fluent in Black queer language.” A beautiful commitment to and demonstration of Black femme poetics, The Color Pynk offers a radical alternative to the genre of the academic book, one that celebrates Black queer language as its own tactic of freedom-dreaming. Conjuring a Black femme future with each sentence, Tinsley writes in collaborative solidarity and with love for Black femmes of all shades and genders. With her lyrical prose — in her words a “joy-tinted freedom song for the twenty-first century” — The Color Pynk manifests Black femme freedom, now and forever.

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Lauren Herold

Lauren is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College, where she teaches Women's and Gender Studies and researches LGBTQ television, media history, and media activism. She also loves baking banana chocolate chip muffins, fostering cats, and video chatting with her sisters. Check out her website, her twitter @renherold, or her instagram @queers_on_cable.

Lauren has written 14 articles for us.

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