“Black Drag Queens [Inventend] Camp”: Lena Waithe Reminds Us of an Ignored History

“Black Drag Queens [Inventend] Camp”: Lena Waithe Reminds Us of an Ignored History

Photo Credit: Theo Wargo Getty Images

People are still raving about the annual Met Gala held on May 6, 2019, centered on the theme “camp.” The Costume Institute Gala (aka the Met Gala) is one of the biggest fundraising nights in New York, raising millions for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute and marking the opening of the Institute’s annual fashion exhibit. The evening’s title was “Camp: Notes on Fashion,” taken from Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” The Institute’s “camp” collection was meant to be the focus, but it seems to me as though the parade of celebrities were the real exhibit—notable examples include Jared Leto, who arrived carrying a mannequin head of his spitting image; Celine Dion, with a gold headpiece splayed like peacock feathers; and Lady Gaga, who co-hosted the event with Harry Styles and changed outfits three times, appearing first in a pink train held by multiple men carrying black umbrellas. Instead of buzzing about the so-called camp display of faceless white mannequins, people from social media to Buzzfeed have been buzzing about bodies, living and moving, and what those bodies have to say—bodies like Lena Waithe’s.

Lena Waithe made history in 2017 by being the first Black-American woman to win a Primetime Emmy Award for her work on Netflix’s Master of None. She is also the creator and producer of The Chi. In addition, Waithe has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, her most praised appearance on Master of None is an episode revolving around her character coming out to her family. As an actor, producer, and public figure, Waithe has certainly earned her spot among the celebrities at the Met. However, that evening she caught the media’s attention amid the spectacle of the red carpet by creating a spectacle of her own—a largely silent one. Waithe walked the carpet in a suit, its pinstripes made of song lyrics, including those to “I’m Coming Out” and “I’m Every Woman.” To start, these songs are representative of Waithe’s own intersectionality as a gay black woman—in weaving songs together, Waithe doesn’t have to raise her voice to say I am a black woman and I am gay. She wears her identity proudly for those who look closely enough, while drawing on a history of iconic black female vocalists like Chaka Khan and pop-soul diva Diana Ross, who contributed to bringing a Black-American voices to the mainstream music industry in the 1970s and 80s.

Photo credit: Theo Wargo & Taylor Hill Getty Images

Photo credit: Theo Wargo & Taylor Hill Getty Images

The biggest attention-grabber on Waithe’s outfit were the thick black words scrawled on her back: “Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp.” No, that’s not a typo—it really says “Inventend.” Ben Henry for Buzzfeed News called Waithe out for the apparent spelling error, saying “The outfit? Incredible. The spelling? Not so much.” What Henry overlooks, and what many of us overlook on first glance, is that the spelling “error” is actually intentional and goes back to the very roots of camp as originated by black drag queens (as the words on Waithe’s back so boldly declare). How could it be an accident, with the stroke of the “n” stretching boldly up into the word “queen”? At last year’s Met Gala, Waithe represented her LGBTQ+ identity by wearing a rainbow flag cape. This year, there’s a different type of rainbow flag on her body, one that shimmers with a misunderstood communal history of America’s black queer community—all centered around a word: “inventend.”  

So what, exactly, does “inventend” signify? Popdust writer Eden Arielle Gordon suggests that with this new word, Waithe was “reinterpreting a word to support her own community, Waithe was operating in the old traditions of secret queer languages…used to express solidarity between marginalized groups.” In addition to building solidarity, expressing solidarity through linguistic codes is also a mode of queer survival in a heteronormative world that marginalizes LGBTQ+ people and forces them into underground spaces. These codes can say, “You are safe with me. We are down here together.”

Waithe herself explained the spelling in a tweet saying, ‘First there was “Periodt’... and Kerby and I wanted to give y’all another one ‘Inventend’.” Just like the black drag queens they invoke, Waithe and her designer, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, have made a linguistic invention that does camp; it takes up the camp tradition of bold modes of expression meant to make people stop and look. Waithe reminds the onlookers at the Met—including Anna Wintour (Editor and Chief of Vogue since 1988 and the co-chair of the Gala)—where camp really came from and re-claims what Gordon calls the “subversive potential” of the camp style. Moreover, Waithe re-claims camp as a way of being and performing, “a way of using exaggerated performances to both celebrate one’s identity and to critique and reclaim the mainstream.”

When looking at Waithe’s stunning expression of identity and protest, I found myself wondering what camp actually is. Is it simply being “extra”? Calling something “campy” is a derogatory way of saying it’s over-done. But I’ve come to find that the word “camp” comes from Polari, a secret language encoded with queer slang that’s been used by gay people for decades. Camp itself is a linguistic relic of a forgotten queer past that Waithe resurrects through fashion—from the lips to the body, from the underground to out under bright lights and curious gazes. Just as camp has made its way into the mainstream, Waithe sought to bring the act of questioning camp’s origins into the mainstream. Seeing Waithe, people want to ask: What is camp? Where did it come from? What does it mean that it’s coming back into the mainstream, and how is it being used?

The answer is that camp embodies a creative excess, a triumphant and bold expression of difference that refuses constructions of gender and race. In doing so, it both imitates and refutes the kind of power and wealth that fund the Met Gala itself. As Billy Porter, a Grammy and Tony Award winner who currently stars on the hit show Pose and who also attended the Met, explains, “Camp means as hugely over-the-top and grand and what some may feel is ridiculous and silly, and embracing all of those creative impulses inside us that very often are squelched.” In the terms suggested by Porter, Camp is not a term to be thrown around, and the Met Gala is by definition not camp, in the word’s original sense. Camp itself is ever-changing, a bloom that came from the seed of the black queer community, always flowering with the possibilities of expression and modern excess—only when it is grasped and appropriated for the consumer does it become a tool for capital. A single table at the Gala, buyable by corporations, ranges from $75,000 to $250,000, based on the scope of the brand and its relationship to Vogue. Initially, black drag queens performed camp as a way to both access and refute the kind of glamour and opulence represented by the Gala. Somewhere along the way, the fantasy suggested by camp was appropriated by the same systems it was meant to provide an alternative to.

The creators behind this year’s Met Gala theme aren’t totally blind to the implications of camp. Andrew Bolton, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Met, tells the New York Times: “We are going through an extreme camp moment, and it felt very relevant to the cultural conversation to look at what is often dismissed as empty frivolity but can be actually a very sophisticated and powerful political tool, especially for marginalized cultures.” Bolton goes on to say that camp manifests itself as a “riposte”—a return thrust—to the growing vocalization of conservatism following the election of Donald J. Trump in 2016. It seems that Lena Waithe fulfilled Bolton’s vision of camp as a political tool—one that’s undoubtedly a reaction to not only the wealth and frenzy of the Met Gala, but also the current political situation in the U.S. Camp is a performative political tool—emphasis on performative. Whether you’re Billy Porter or RuPaul, camp is also personal. One of the reasons to love camp is for the love of performing, for the love of being in a fantasy and living it out, for being able to speak in ways you never thought possible through the art of performance.

Thus, amid all of the political turmoil, Susan Sontag’s voice still rings true: camp is a performance, a joyful one that is done in life. Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” (1964) states that to “perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” Yet intersectional queer identity isn’t something simply put on, but lived, as Waithe so powerfully represents. A performance can be living, not simply put on for a moment. What Waithe’s living performance indicates is that camp is a political tool that can resurrect a marginalized language with a new creative vigor that makes everyone stop and look as the cameras flash and the shimmer of black queer history ripples like satin—only for those who look close enough to see it.

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About the author: Hannah Hinsch is a junior at Seattle Pacific University. Hannah studies English literature and creative writing. She is the editorial intern for Image journal. When she isn't studying, you can find her at Seattle Meowtropolitan, Seattle's first cat café, or huddled in the corner of a bookstore with a cup of coffee.

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