It’s All We Ever Had: Hilton Als’ Keynote Address

by Alejandra Padin-Dujon

Sprague Hall is comfortably full—occupied, not packed. The pretty, cream-colored woodwork glows in the light of soft yellow lamps. All goes quiet as the lights dim, all sound replaced by the false calm of an audience pretending to be ready.

The opening remarks are trivial. They end.

Keynote speaker Hilton Als is a decorated theater critic, and he looks like a great titan of a man when he lumbers onstage, back bent and footsteps dramatically wide. “Call me your nigger Proust.”

Fuck! That’s his opening line.

His words are exquisite and brutal.

First he talks about bodies. There are the female ones he grew up with—featureless. Moving on. There’s the sad Black one he tried to shed, and the queer one “electric with its own presence” that he was so hopeful and so eager to inhabit. In his younger days, he once constructed a mythical monolithic Gay Body by superimposing pain on archetypes of dreams of wearing a New York City rainbow, but it broke.

Als begins to talk about AIDS and never stops.

His poetic descriptions populate gay bars in the East Village with a gay White aristocracy. These people are meticulously careless, and self-consciously masculine, and they embrace Foucault and Jungle Fever in equal, complementary measures.

Fuck!

Hilton Als is hard to hear because he is too easy to feel. He is hard to feel because the ringing timbre of all he says he doesn’t want to remember bludgeons me senseless. The hardest thing to process that he shares is called the “ecstasy of degradation,” because it is the sound of gay blackness selling itself into slavery on the pages of a Fuck Buddy Wanted ad.

At least Als tells us about the lovers.

Carlos is a Botero-esque figure with curly hair and a ready tongue. He’s such a charmer that he scores even with skinny white boys from the bars—you know, the type that gets off on fucking a secret. Als’ hollow voice ricochets off the walls as he narrates this, and I can almost hear Carlos laugh.

And then there’s Alvin the Bouncer. He has a cock like an erect fairytale. It’s nice, because he finds love with Carlos before he finds AIDS.

A few incantations later, and Als is finished. He ends with, “Sing, bitch! because it’s all we ever had, in all those moments of remembering and not remembering alike.”

Then a ghost-white Peter Salovey steps onstage to present the Windham Campbell prizes, and the Earth shifts back to a brighter, more cynical axis. I want to laugh. When I get my bearings, I’m startled by so many white faces. In a fit of rueful absurdity I think, If Mattel made college presidents…