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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Remembering Teddy Pendergrass

Yet another singer whose life was destroyed by black homophobia. Luther Vandross, Sylvester and Donnie Hathaway might have been waiting to receive him with their hands outstretched at the pearly gates. Without the vicious community watching, he might have reached out.

Pendergrass was also of a generation of black male performers, who were the first, who could publically express a distinct sexual identity, with examples ranging from the aforementioned Richard Roundtree, to Marvin Gaye and even Sylvester. With the sexual revolution in full swing, sex became one of Pendergrass’s calling cards. As such Pendergrass’s rise coincides with communal anxieties produced in response to Al Green’s rejection of the very secular sexuality that helped establish the popularity of the male soul singer, dating back to Sam Cooke’s emergence in the 1950s. If Al Green was no longer invested in the hyper-sexualized black masculinity that he and an aging Marvin Gaye (who later saw Pendergrass as a rival) helped cultivate in the 1970s, Pendergrass was a suitable and unequivocally masculine (by the standards of the era) replacement. Indeed, Pendergrass was clearly cognizant of the stakes, rebuffing Amsterdam News reporter Marie Moore in a 1977 interview when she insinuated that Pendergrass had “something against women” in response to his suggestion that he didn’t want women to “get next to him”. (“Now you are implying I’m a faggot because I said that. I said that because I’m selective.”). [...]

According to Teddy Pendergrass, it was on his birthday, March 26th 1982, that he first began to grasp the gravity of what had happened, more than a week earlier: “the eight days between the accident and my birthday passed a dark, painful blur… I had no idea where I was, who was in the room with me, what time of day it was, or sometimes even who I was.” (215). Officially, Pendergrass was driving his 1981 Rolls Royce, late in the evening of March 18, 1982 with a companion Tenika Watson, when he lost control of his car. Pendergrass and Watson were trapped in the car for more than 45 minutes, with Pendergrass sustaining spinal chord injuries that would leave him paralyzed from below the waist and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. As Pendergrass reflects in Truly Blessed, “In one single stroke, my body had been changed forever in ways that I could not even imagine, much less bear to think about. In my mind, though, I was still the same man I was when I started the drive back to Philadelphia that spring night.” (218)

If Pendergrass could assert that he had faith that he was the same man, as he looked beyond his accident, the same could not necessarily be said about communal faith in the meanings behind that body. If Pendergrass’s hyper-masculine and sexually potent body previously served as a salve for the anxieties produced in the midst of Disco’s decidedly queering of popular music, Pendergrass’s broken body became the site for a new set of anxieties about black masculinity. The source of that angst was the revelation that Pendergrass’s companion that night, Tenika Watson, was transsexual. Well before there was remotely a politically-correct way to address transsexual and transgendered people in the public realm (as if that’s the case even now), Watson was immediately positioned as some sort of freak. As Watson told The Philadelphia Tribune two months after the accident—which she escaped with minor injuries—“I can’t get over how people treat you, how they turn everything around… what really made me upset was the fact that the papers made me seem as though I was some kind of animal or demon and that I was not a God fearing person.”

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