By: Emma Shealy ‘22 (she/her)
On Friday, October 23rd, Davidson (virtually) hosted three members of an Atlanta “bucking” team as a part of a screening and panel discussion of When the Beat Drops, a documentary on the dance style and its origins in Black queer dance clubs. “Bucking” first appeared as a dance technique that dancers of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were known for, specifically Jackson State University. This is why “bucking,” so called because it involves quick rhythmic jolts of the body that mimic the bucking of a horse, is also referred to as “j-setting” after the J Settes dancers of JSU. Inspired by the J Settes and other “bucking” dancers, Black queer Southern men adopted the style of dance, and “bucking” dance competitions were born inside the gay night clubs of the South, with Black queer men competing in teams, sporting coordinating costumes and following choreography that highlighted a team’s “bucking” skills.
The panel discussion on Friday featured three members of the team Phi-Phi, or J-Phi, out of Atlanta, the group that held the central focus of the When the Beat Drops. Of the three members present, Michael Jackson was the team’s captain and overall backbone for nearly two decades. Lynell Godwin and Deakendrick Bonney were both core members of the J-Phi team and were also featured in the documentary.
As someone who was relatively invested in the documentary, I found the panel discussion with the three men to be eye-opening to say the least. Each had problems with the way the documentary portrayed their team and explained that the documentary’s airing posed a great risk to their personal lives and careers. According to the former Phi-Phi members, the documentary glorified the role of Big Tony, who the documentary portrayed as the sole leader of the Phi-Phi team, despite the fact that Tony was often absent and relied heavily on Mike Jackson to keep the team going and maintain overall team morale. Furthermore, while the documentary spent some time covering the risk that members of bucking teams faced constantly through their connection to bucking and the gay club scene, it failed to point out how the documentary’s existence would exponentially increase the team members’ chances of losing jobs or relationships due to their appearance in the film.
The documentary screening and panel discussion were both hosted by my BlackQueerSouth class (GSS 322), which has been exploring the role Black queer Southerners have played in queer progress and history. In the classes I have taken as part of my Gender & Sexuality Studies major, Southern Black queer people have not made up a significant part of GSS theory or historical artifacts, as the American South is so often dismissed as “backwards.” Coming into the BlackQueerSouth class, I certainly had a frame of reference for Black queer scholars and Black queer contributions to queer progess, but I don’t think I could have named a Black queer Southern scholar besides E. Patrick Johnson, who I was only introduced to earlier this year. Black queer Southerners are not given the recognition they deserve by greater American society and were not given a spotlight by the Davidson GSS Department until the beginning of this school year.
What I was most surprised by when listening to the guest speakers was my own realization that these men were people with careers and aspirations that a film was never going to be able to capture accurately. As much as I wanted to relate my own experience as a queer Southern person to theirs, I couldn’t. A rich, white gay kid from Columbia, S.C. does not have much in common with Black queer men who spent a large part of their young adult lives competing in dance competitions and risking their professions and reputations pursuing an art form that the rest of the world was not ready for.
We have learned in class that the South is not a monolith, and my constant attempt to relate my own experiences to those of Black queer Southerners seems to be a testimate to that statement. As much as my white Southern background has taught me to find a connection with everyone I meet, it did not prepare me to hold my tongue, make space for, and uplift the voices of those who have made it possible for me to feel comfortable being myself. I’ve gotten to learn that skill by listening to and reading the stories of the Black queer Southerners who spoke at Friday’s panel and who we’ve gotten a chance to read as a part of the BlackQueerSouth class.
Emma Shealy (she/her) ‘22 is a Gender and Sexuality Studies and English double major from Columbia, SC. She can be reached for comment at email@example.com.