In the future imperfect, which is to say, in that commingling of temporalities wherein the past is brought forth to the future to give rise to the present, Black (Trans) Lives Matter provides a conceptual framework to understand the ongoing struggle in the present by way of a future (aspiration) in which black lives will have mattered to everyone.
—C. Riley Snorton
I’ve had two songs stuck in my head since May 26, when mourners and demonstrators began gathering around the site of George Floyd’s last breath. When this is all over, I’m not certain I’ll be able to think of one without the other, those songs and the feeling of a gathering force. Or, more nearly, I don’t think this—the struggle for black life—will ever be over, but something will take its place in the immediacy. The virus will wax, the governors will make tepid conciliations, attention will turn back to the presidential election, a new song will become the only song I know. But for now, these two songs, written on either side of social and historical divisions, have become for me a single, oscillating anthem.
The first is somewhat unlikely, more a memory than a song. I hadn’t heard Evan Greer’s “I Want Something” in nearly a decade, but watching the old brutality unfold anew in video after video online, there it was, still playing in a younger corner of my mind. In the story I tell myself, I first encountered Greer’s music as a teenager in the Philadelphia suburbs. I have a vivid memory of biking around that town, feeling the wind in my face, playing “I Want Something” over and over. It’s possible that this is an invented scene, given that I can’t find the version of the song I remember anywhere. Nonetheless, I loved that song in the way that disaffected suburban kids love things. Bush had been elected for a second term. The Patriot Act, which expanded the state’s ability to surveil its citizens under the auspices of war, had been renewed. War was endless. I wanted out.
At the time, in the early 2000s, Greer was a founding member of the Riot-Folk Collective, whose album Rise Like Lions I associate with a specifically Bush-era sound, a kind of mostly white anarchist heartfeltness. In truth, I periodize this style of folk-punk as “Bush-era” not because the bands stopped playing afterward but because I stopped listening. In the long interval since then, Greer became the deputy director of an internet freedom nonprofit, released a new album, and came out as trans, a fact that, though a decade belated, came to me as a surprise. Or, well, surprise is not exactly the right word because, although I didn’t yet know it, my attachment to “I Want Something” as a teenager had to do with what feels to me now like its markedly trans sensibility.
“I Want Something” is profoundly, almost painfully earnest. Each verse of the song sketches a portrait of young people who are isolated, burned out, worn down. Each verse, that is, paints an incredibly bleak, dysphoric picture of the here and now. But despite (or because of) all of that bleakness, Greer sings through it with exuberance. Each chorus interrupts these scenes of depression, dissociation, with what can only be called a utopian demand—“I want something / better than this.” And while Greer insists, over and over, that she “doesn’t know exactly what” this something better might be, as Kathi Weeks observes in The Problem with Work, “the utopian demand can be seen as something more than a demand for a specific goal or set of goals. Rather … it is a process of constituting a new subject with the desires for and the power to make further demands.”
When I say that this is a trans sentiment, this exuberant oscillation between insisting on the bleakness of the present and making inchoate demands for “something better,” I don’t mean that it is only trans, or that trans politics should be organized around this style of hopefulness. I ordinarily don’t have much tolerance for it. At the same time, transness, at minimum, is the insistence on the human capacity for once unimaginable change. Certainly, and despite my lucky suburban life, as a black, dysphoric teenager in 2005, I had to cultivate—actively cultivate—a kind of wide-eyed optimism about what the future, and the future of my own body, could entail. I had to believe that feeling, intense feeling, was not only important but also potentially life- and world-changing. That with care and time and resources, my desire for “something better” could materialize. Although we tend to think of earnestness as a kind of naïveté, naïveté is nowhere among its definitions. Instead, earnest is defined as, at once, a form of potency and a portent, as “showing sincere and intense conviction” and “a thing intended or regarded as a sign or promise of what is to come.”