blackness, mathematics, fabulation: speculation

A recent issue of The Black Scholar, edited by Alexander Weheliye, explores the relationship between black studies & black life. As many of the contributors argue, this relationship is about the knowledge structures and practices central to the ongoing problem of how to frame, understand, and engage the world we’ve inherited as modern, the world “modernity made.” We might describe this as the world that made blackness by unmaking black life, the world that created blackness as a speculative form: to be speculated upon and to speculate on its own life-making possibilities. Different kinds of imaginative leaps meet in speculation, and while “speculation” is not one of the key terms of the issue, it assembles and orients many of the articles, especially those by Tavia Nyong’o, Katherine McKittrick, C. Riley Snorton, and Denise Ferreira da Silva. I’m especially interested in articles by Nyong’o and McKittrick, because they press on one of my ongoing questions about what McKittrick terms, “origin stories”: simply, what are the genealogies of blackness? Where do we start? How do we start? And, once we’ve started, how do we proceed?

To answer these questions, McKittrick turns to the black archival presence found in “documents and ledgers”: “the list, the breathless numbers, the absolutely economic, the mathematics of the unliving.” It is a formula-generating mathematics that creates “historic blackness” for the New World—the world modernity made—a history that is, simultaneously, an unhistory (the Negro has no history), an unmaking served by economic attachment: “belongs to, bequeathed to, to be sold to.” As McKittrick writes, “New world blackness arrives through the ordinary, proved, former, certified, nearly worn worn-out archives of ledgers, accounts, price tags, and descriptors of economic worth and financial probability.” The commodity that speaks—this commodity that Marx made unspeakable.

What kind of origin story is this?

The brutalities of transatlantic slavery, summed up in archival histories that give us a bit of (asterisked-violated) blackness, put meaningful demands on our scholarly and activist questions. While the tenets and the lingering histories of slavery and colonialism produced modernity as and with and through blackness, this sense of time- space is interrupted by a more weighty, and seemingly truthful (truthful and truth-telling because iterated as scientific, proven, certified, objective), underside—where black is naturally malignant and therefore worthy of violation; where black is violated because black is naturally violent; where black is naturally unbelievable and is therefore naturally empty and violated; where black is naturally less-than-human and starving to death and violated; where black is naturally dysselected, unsurviving, swallowed up; where black is same and always and dead and dying; where black is complex and difficult and too much to bear and violated. The tolls of death and violence, housed in the archive, affirm black death. The tolls cast black as impossibly human and provide the conditions through which black history is currently told and studied. The death toll becomes the source.

How, given this unmaking work of the numbers archive, can black life, black survival, black being be narrated or imagined from such sources? Or, as McKittrick asks, “How do we ethically engage with mathematical and numerical certainties that compile, affirm, and honor bits and pieces of black death?”

At a historical moment when, to cite Simone Browne, humans are being turned into data, a moment when the logics and practices of the ledger and fungibility have found new opportunities in the bio-cataloguing of human life known as “biometrics”—recall, here, that Nigeria has partnered with Mastercard to issue “new” biometric identification documents—the “bits and pieces” of “black death” return garbed in bio-technological management. The logics and practices that unmade/unmake black life—the “mathematics” of modernity—return to “secure” what can only be the persistent unmaking of black life. As McKittrick puts it more elegantly, “it is challenging to think outside the interlocking data of black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence,” especially as so many claims for justice today depend on assembling data on “black erasure, un-freedom, and anti-black violence.” How might black studies think with the mathematics of black life without reproducing the violent production of blackness as and through mathematics?

What if we trust the lies—she says she was born free—and begin to count it all differently?
—K. McKittrick

McKittrick meets Nyong’o at “the lie,” at the moment when the speculative logic of slavery meets the speculative leap into black life forms. In “Unburdening Representation,” Nyong’o reclaims the “gap” between the two meanings of representation—to depict and to stand for—as a space of “fabulation,” and, more specifically, “Afro-fabulation.” “A fabulist,” argues Nyong’o, “is a teller of tales, but he or she also discloses the powers of the false to create new possibilities.” A “teller of tales,” a storyteller and a liar, one who disrupts “the hostile and constraining conditions” of “emergence into representation.” “Possibility,” for Nyong’o is found at the “seam” or “joint,” the place Brent Edwards terms décalage, between the two forms of representation:

This misalignment of political and artistic representation is exploited by Afro-fabulation, which is thus not properly speaking solely an aesthetic strategy, or a political one, but a tactic for taking up the time and space between them.

“taking up the time and space between them.” One recalls that the archives that produce blackness in the New World deny that those termed black can represent—Phyllis (misspelled last name) cannot be a poet, declares Jefferson, and black figures cannot stand for those who can be citizens: I’m time-sliding to write this—themselves and others. Within the field of representation—within the oscillating meaning of that term—blackness will always have been a negation, an impossibility, what cannot stand “as” and “for” us. (Here, one might think about the African rejection of blackness as “not us.” The impossible chasm of blackness.)

Mining the gap (note the labor metaphor), Afro-fabulation “is always seeking to cobble something together, to produce connections and relations, however much the resultant seams show.” I want to think with Nyong’os metaphors here—I really should call him Tavia, but since I used McKittrick, protocol applies—of “cobbling,” and “connections and relations,” and “seams.” Of the various economies of motion and mobility (cobblers, shoes, the obsession with shoes in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy); and food, the cobbler as an assemblage of excess fruit, a sweetener, a palate cleanser, an act of love; “connections and relations,” the languages of invented kinship, fabulated genealogy, geographical assemblage (Glissant, Brand); and seams, which always lead me to clothing, the gorgeousness of Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings, the labor of the clothed and the unclothed slave body, the joins and joints of black labor, the uneven, the sutured, the knitted, the broken, that which enables “motion.” The seam that shows—the labor that refuses invisibility. The “lie” that refuses the truth-owning of data-production.

Speculation returns again, as that which joins McKittrick’s “mathematics” to Nyong’o’s “fabulation,” as part of the “demonic ground” where narrative does not supplant or unmake mathematics. Instead, the “speculative” becomes part of the asymptotic narration, the gap in representation—the gap in the archive, the gap in the lie, the gap that is the lie—through which and into which black life finds an “origin story” within life-unmaking blackness. Speculation, or the speculative, might be a method that reads into and past the data-affirming archive to see what black life forms might emerge, what acts of making and unmaking, what ways the human might emerge and undo the regime of Man.

Speculation is also a mode of being-present where one is impossible. It is the acts of appearance and disappearance, the haunting and the spook, the resistant object to cite Fred Moten, that inhabits what Christina Sharpe terms being “in the wake.” #staywoke, we say on twitter: remain conscious, aware, inhabit the insomnia that might (this is always speculative) save a black life, give a black life new form.

Learning from McKittrick and Nyong’o, I want to imagine “speculation” as a term central to black life and black studies, foundational to blackness as negation and possibility, a leap across and into the asymptote.


Date: Thursday September 25

Contact: Ann Njogu, Chair, CREAW, Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women
Mobile: 0722 768 381

On Saturday September 20th, Standard Group columnist Mr. Tony Mochama committed an indecent act upon the person of poet and activist Shailja Patel, at a gathering in the home of Professor Wambui Mwangi in Spring Valley, Nairobi.

Today at 12 noon, Ms. Patel filed a police report at Spring Valley Police Station. She was accompanied by her lawyer Ann Njogu, Chair of CREAW (Centre for Rights, Education and Awareness for Women), high Court Advocate Betty Kaari Murungi, Executive Director of COVAW Joan Nyanyuki, representatives from FIDA, and friends and supporters.

Ms. Patel had previously stated that she would seek restorative community justice rather than engaging the judicial system. Following consultation with civil society colleagues and consideration of all parties involved, she decided to file a police report for the following reasons.

1) To facilitate the need for corroboration, substantiation, triangulation.

2) To support the decades of work of Kenya’s women’s movement has spent to improve reporting procedures for SGBV survivors.

3) To move forward policy and practice on on sexual violence in public life on the basis of evidence.

4) The women’s movement has fought hard and long for sexual violence to be treated like the crime that it is. We must uphold that struggle by being as rigorous as possible when we make our claims and the demands thereof.

Ms. Patel said:

“Each time a man sexually harasses or assaults a woman with no consequences, he is emboldened to repeat and escalate that behaviour. It becomes a pattern. Sexual predators are not born; they are the product of patriarchies and rape cultures that teach men they are entitled to the bodies of all women.

“When a man invades a woman’s body space without her invitation, touches, grabs and gropes her without her consent, he violates her sovereignty of person. He evicts her from her own body. Our bodies are our first homes. If we are not safe in our bodies, we are always homeless.

“Let us stand with all victims and survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Let us create a society where sexual violence is unknown.”

Whither Justice?

On Saturday, September 20, Mr. Tony Mochama, a columnist with Kenya’s Standard Group, Secretary of PEN Kenya, and holder of a Morland Writing Scholarship, sexually assaulted a woman during a gathering of Kenyan and international poets. Mr. Mochama is a well-known figure in Kenya’s literary circles: he has hosted open mics, promotes literary culture in his work for PEN Kenya, and travels abroad regularly as an ambassador for Kenyan literature. Beyond his own accomplishments and labor, Mr. Mochama represents us. An us that encompasses all Kenyan literary workers, cultural producers, and cultural administrators. Quite simply: he is one of Kenya’s faces.

What are we to do when one of our collective faces commits sexual assault? How do we face that aspect of ourselves?

Kenyan philosopher John Mbiti argued that the African sense of self could be found in the formulation, “I am because we are.” Extrapolating from Mbiti, we can say that the self, the individual, exists within multiple networks and embeddings, all of which provide legibility, livability, and, most importantly, produce and demand ethical orientations. More simply: what injures one of us, injures us all.

If the damage is not only to the poet Mr. Mochama assaulted—who must not be forgotten—but also to our collective sense of self, how are we to address this assault? How can we take collective responsibility and imagine forms of accountability that produce a more ethical “we”?

If, in his role as PEN Kenya’s secretary, Mr. Mochama travels to Kenya’s schools, who are we sending to those schools? If, in his role as a Morland Writing Scholar, Mr. Mochama represents African writing, who are we saying represents African writing? If, in his role as a columnist for the Standard Group, Mr. Mochama publishes articles, who are we saying writes us and circulates among us?

Quite simply, if Mr. Mochama is the mirror we look into to see our faces, what faces are we seeing? And are those the faces we want to see?

I have used a collective we to emphasize the role of community accountability. As “advanced and theorized by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence,”

Community accountability is a community-based strategy, rather than a police/prison-based strategy, to address violence within our communities. Community accountability is a process which a community – a group of friends, a family, a church, a workplace, an apartment complex, a neighborhood, etc – work together to do the following things :

Create and affirm VALUES AND PRACTICES that resist abuse and oppression and encourage safety, support, and accountability

Provide SAFETY AND SUPPORT to community members who are violently targeted that RESPECTS THEIR SELF-DETERMINATION

Develop sustainable strategies to ADDRESS COMMUNITY MEMBERS’ ABUSIVE BEHAVIOR, creating a process for them to account for their actions and transform their behavior.

Commit to ongoing development of all members of the community, and the community itself, to TRANSFORM THE POLITICAL CONDITIONS that reinforce oppression and violence.

Community Accountability refuses to privatize relations of damage—a privatization that happens when damage is framed as a relationship between assaulter, assault victim, and police-state mechanisms. Community Accountability acknowledges that damage is never private, that it is embedded within historical, cultural, and ideological frameworks. And it seeks to unmake those frameworks that make damage not only ordinary, but also inevitable.

And, so, this is a call: if you are reading this, will you help unmake the frameworks that make sexual assault not only ordinary, but also inevitable in Kenya and elsewhere?

Sunday Reflections

We hope that we can give you something, something, whatever it is that you need tonight.
—Nina Simone

They are shooting us down one by one. Don’t forget that.
–Nina Simone

I’m not gonna be suicidal, if I can help it.
–Bernice Johnson Reagon

My favorite Nina Simone moment features her beginning and then refusing to continue a song. The song opens, “ My father always promised me / we would live in France (‘you know you don’t believe that’) / We’d go boating on the Seine / and I would learn to dance.” After a few more bars, she stops singing, and says, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not me. My father always promised me that we would be free, but he did not promise me that we would live in France.” She continues, “He promised me that we would live in peace. And that, maybe I can still get.” No matter how many times I encounter this little moment, I am arrested by its by its truthtelling, by the force of its demand. Put crudely, it might be something like “freedom, not fantasy.” But that’s not quite right.

Perhaps I glom onto this moment because my father’s word was mobility, never freedom. His advice: “make yourself as mobile as possible; make it possible to move anywhere in the world, to build a life anywhere.” It was advice rooted in the career-destroying repression of Moi’s Kenya. I wonder, in retrospect, if this was his dream: to live anywhere but here. And if the obligations of marriage and children made a certain trajectory of the world impossible. In memory, he did not like to travel. At least, it seems, not as much as my mother. Though I think he was restless, unsettled. There’s a restlessness about being in place that does not stem from a desire to travel elsewhere. It might be a longing for a different kind of world, a different set of affective possibilities.

Freedom has always been my mother’s word: wiathi. Self rule. It is anchored in Kenya’s political history. It suggests the cessation of death-making horror. The ability to make choices—no matter how circumscribed. And the freedom to fight and keep fighting. “Keguro,” she told me recently, “I am a fighter. I have always been a fighter.” At other times, she describes herself as a “survivor.” These are not rhetorical flourishes. But this is her story to tell, not mine. We do not envision freedom in the same way—but this is the word she gave me. A vernacular. As with my father, it was a word that mattered under Moi’s regime. For her, wiathi was incarnated at the moment of independence. It has always been freedom from colonial rule, a singular moment, frozen in time, a rupture. A particular energy from that moment.

In her lexicon, wiathi is not yet here.

In 1985, she attended the UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. I first heard the words to “We Shall Overcome” then. By heard, I mean this is when the words first stuck—words she sang as she picked me up from primary school. Recently, we have been talking about women’s history. She dug up a diary from the conference. A young, radiantly beautiful, solemn Winnie Mandela adorns the diary’s front, background to a title: Women of Southern African: Struggles and Achievements. The diary runs from July 1985 to July 1986. Individual calendar pages alternate with pictures and profiles of women from Southern Africa: Ida Jimmy from Namibia, Julia Zvobgo from Zimbabwe, Ruth Chinamano from Zimbabwe, Abigail Somanje from Zambia, Victoria Chitepo from Zimbabwe, Sally Mugabe from Zimbabwe, Charlotte Maxeke from South Africa, Naomi Nhiwatiwa from Zimbabwe, Jane Ngwenya from Zimbabwe, Mbuya Nehanda from the Shona resistance to colonialism, Lydia Chikwavaire from Zimbabwe, Sarah Kachingwe from Zimbabwe, Elizabeth Sibeko from South Africa, Freda Williams from Namibia, Lilian Ngoyi from South Africa, Chita Honwana from Mozambique, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele from South Africa, Tendai Bare from Zimbabwe, Ellen Nomsa Musialele from Namibia, Winnie Mandela from South Africa, and, on the final page, the women who conceived of and produced the diary: Joyze Chenzire Mutasa from Zimbabwe, Fran Willard from the U.K., and Stephanie Leland from the U.K.

A particularly poignant entry on Angola reads:

Angolan women cannot work in peace. Continued attacks from the racist South African regime make the mobilization of women in defense of their lives and of national territory an ever-present necessity.

FAPLA (People’s Armed Force for the Liberation of Angola) and ODP (People’s Defence Organization) have both men and women in service. Protection of fields, crops, homes, schools and hospitals is a vital part of the work.

Angola has a rich history of events in which women in arms took part, like Queen Ginga, Deolinda Rodrigues and Helena de Almeida who, through their example, serve as an incentive to the present generation engaged in the struggle to defend Angola’s territorial integrity.

The Square of Heroines inaugurated on March 2, Angola Women’s Day, honours the memory of five founder members of OMA—Deolina Rodrigues, Lucretia Paim, Irene Cohen, Egracia dos Santo and Teresa Alfonso who was killed on March 12 1967 while on an important military mission of the MPLA in the Northern Region of Angola.

Along with profiles of individual women and brief histories of ongoing struggles, the diary also features pictures of women’s cooperatives from across Southern Africa: women pounding maize in Mozambique, women participating in a peace march in Angola, the Asakhani Women’s Co-op in Zimbabwe cooking meals for the elderly, women working in a peanut factory in Zimbabwe, women sewing in Angola, and women making bricks in Swaziland (among many other images).

Wiathi is my mother’s word.

As I look at these images and profiles almost 30 years later, I wonder, abstractly, about the women depicted in them. The many I do not know (that’s most of them). Bernice Johnson Reagon is in my head:

There are some grey haired women I see running around occasionally, and we have to talk to those folks about how come they didn’t commit suicide forty years ago. Don’t take everything they say because some of the stuff they gave up to stay around ain’t worth considering. But be sure to get on your agenda some old people and try to figure out what it will be like if you are a raging radical fifty years from today.

The diary is empty. My mother kept it, but never wrote in it. We might read this as “conference swag,” those peculiar items we collect to say, “I was there,” but never use. I think, here, of the many tote bags from academic conferences that I was glad to leave behind.


I envision the diary as a kind of dream journal: a place for women who attended the conference to write down their freedom dreams. To imagine the world they were making as a possibility. The blank pages disturb me.

Perhaps freedom dreams are always cessation dreams. We celebrate when the worst of the present ends. And we struggle to imagine the after of overcoming—that “someday.” And, perhaps, we dare not write down how we imagine that “someday,” a task we leave to those who dare imagine a “beyond.”

Perhaps we leave blank pages to invite futures—somedays—that we do not yet know how to imagine.

African Queer Studies

The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.
—Saidiya Hartman

Like many other book-reading people, my path into queerness was as much intellectual as it was libidinal. In my Christian “youth,” I devoured articles in evangelical publications about the “scourge” of homosexuality. My body had yet to catch up with my brain, so I understood this as a purely intellectual exercise. After all, the anti-Christ was a “homosexual,” and so one had to learn as much as possible about this condition to combat it—the conflation is deliberate. The only other sources of information were my mother’s 1970s psychology textbooks, which had nothing good to say about “the vice.”

My exit from Kenya and entry into a U.S. university allowed for questions I did not know I had to find expression. The B&N in downtown Pittsburgh had a small, but exciting, Lesbian and Gay section, where I acquired my first copies of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, Patrick Merla’s Boys Like Us, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Warrior, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Tobias’s The Best Little Boy in the World, and Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind. I don’t recall now whether it was in downtown Pittsburgh or in Squirrel Hill where I also picked up E. Lynn Harris, Thom Gunn, James Earl Hardy, and the life-saving Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin. Other anthologies followed. And a RuPaul autobiography!

Once I’d finally found the courage, I started to haunt the surprisingly useful LGBT section at the Catholic university I attended. One had to tread warily, to make sure no one was looking, to look away as books were being checked out. If B&N provided narrative and poetic foundations, the library began to fill these out across time and space. A partial list of names: Eve Sedgwick, John Bosworth, David Greenberg, Karla Jay, Diana Fuss, Kaja Silverman, Jonathan Dollimore, Judith Butler, Alan Bray, Alan Sinfield, Stephen Murray, Judy Grahn, George Chauncey, Jr. And all of this created—or coincided with—other hungers for more familiar geographies, for the black and postcolonial, if not for the African.

It was the black and postcolonial that started making trouble.

Two brief articles on African “homosexualities” stand out in memory: a survey of African homosexualities by Wayne Dynes, with the subtitle “An Unnecessary Controversy,” and an essay by Deborah Amory arguing for the importance of same-sex research in African studies. Dynes provided a bibliography of (mostly) colonial-era ethnographic sources that, he claimed, demonstrated the presence of same-sex relations in Africa. Whereas I could discuss the Molly houses in Alan Bray’s England with great facility, the contested meanings of same-sex acts in the Medieval period with some confidence thanks to Bosworth, and even the legislative shifts, class contests, and English-Irish disputes that led to Wilde’s imprisonment, Dyne’s cursory method left me with little-to-nothing. I do not contest the usefulness of bibliographies; I do object to the tone of “An Unnecessary Controversy,” which presumes the undisputed truth value of the bibliographic sources.

Since she provided the language, let me use Kath Weston’s words:

In the international arena, the “salvage anthropology” of indigenous homosexualities remains largely insulated from important new theoretical work on postcolonial relations. The story is a familiar one in the annals of the discipline: well-meaning ethnographers rush out to record “traditional” practices and rituals before the latter change or disappear. At their worst, these efforts repackage colonial discourse (e.g. “primitive” societies) for consumption by Anglo-European audiences. At their best, they resurrect the vision of the Noble Savage living in a Noble Society that provides an honored place for at least some forms of transgendering or same-sex sexual activity.[1]

Weston’s 1993 critique is still urgently needed as Dynes’s “method” of uncritically citing colonial-era records has been widely adopted across academic and activist spaces. The routine citations of “x ethnic group embraced sexual/gender dissidence” continue to reproduce ethno-national, a-contextual versions of Africa and African knowledge. Often lacking from such discussions is an awareness, or even interest, in the Africanist scholarship describing the making of ethno-nationalist groups during colonial modernity (in Kenya, the work of Bethwell Ogot, Gideon Were, Tabitha Kanogo); the geo-historical shifts in the meanings of gender and sexuality under colonial modernity (discussed by Oyewumi, Amadiume, Nzweku among others); and the limitations of colonial-era ethnography (discussed by many people, including Talal Asad, Maxwell Owusu, and Johannes Fabian). Of even less interest to various advocates of this method is the notion that African diversities exist: while some populations may have embraced forms of sexual and gender dissidence, others might not. How might such distinctions be analytically useful?

In contrast to Dynes’s polemic, Amory’s brief survey of a still-emergent field imagined Queer Africa (still known as “homosexual Africa”) as a problem to be considered, one whose consideration would draw on the “importance of situated knowledges,” emphasizing “the emergence of specific discourses and representations (including academic theories) within their historical and political contexts of production.”[2] It detailed the exigencies and contexts of the research—the growth and spread of “political homophobia” in Africa, the quotidian violence directed against gays and lesbians in Africa, and the “emergence of post-colonial gay and lesbian identities and liberation movements around the world.” In a characterization of African Queer studies that still holds true, Amory writes, “What we are witnessing, then, are two related but distinct developments in African Studies (and around the world): one branch of research documents and theorizes diverse African histories of sexuality and gender, while another articulates emerging postcolonial liberation movements organized around lesbian and gay identities and rights.” Today, we might ask about the relationship between liberation-minded and neoliberal models of queer organizing in Africa.

The one, troubling note on which Dynes and Amory agreed was that “homophobia,” not “homosexuality,” had been “brought” to Africa by colonialism or, put more aptly, institutionalized through colonial bureaucratic procedures. This claim runs through much activist and academic literature by key figures including Sylvia Tamale, Marc Epprecht, and Neville Hoad. This claim is true to the extent that the archives of colonial bureaucracy are much more accessible than, say, what is now considered “customary law” or “tradition” across a range of African groups.[3] And, certainly, if we are to speak across the nation-wide and state-wide prohibitions against homosexuality, we must turn, first, to the colonial documents that imagined and forged the bounded territories we now describe as countries. And, even when we turn to “customary law,” or even “African philosophy,” we must contend with the processes of (often missionary) education, whether explicit in the sense that writers attended missionary schools or implicit in the sense that missionaries were instrumental in translating and transcribing many African languages and concepts. While I understand (and value) the polemical work of this claim—that “homophobia, not homosexuality” is a western import—its repetition, to the point where it’s dogma now, is, frankly, irritating. It is ahistorical and untheorized.

To preview a later argument: if African studies is to learn anything from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, it surely must be that a deeply genealogical method is needed to understand how certain figures become imbued with, and represent, the intimate anxieties of their geo-histories. Focusing on the acceptability of homosexual acts and identities leaves unexplored other histories of intimate dissidence and policing. African queer histories are impoverished by this inattention to specific histories of unlivability and disposability.

By no means am I claiming that Dynes and Amory were the first to write on queer Africa. Simply, they are the names that stuck in my mind. Also, I read them because they spoke about a somewhat familiar geography. I was interested in Queer studies, but I had charted a different path that went through Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and ended with Reginald Shepherd and Carl Philips.

When I finally turned to African Queer studies in grad school—in part because an earlier trajectory had proved impossible—it was with a different sense of the labor. By that point, the schism between LGBTI studies and Queer studies had widened considerably, so much so that they might have been speaking different languages—often, they were. My interest in psychoanalysis had deepened. Under the influence of my advisors, and because I had access to an amazing library, I had become newly interested in the problem of the archive. With a mass of new key terms—intimacy, public, colonial modernity, subjectification, allochrony—and with new (to me) scholarship to build on by Neville Hoad, Rudi Bleys, Megan Vaughan, Gaurav Desai, Siobhan Somerville (at the time, I was also in a year-long postcolonial reading group led by Ania Loomba that incarnated true interdisciplinarity), I turned to sexology’s archives. The shape of the previous sentence, with all its awkward embedding and squashing tries to convey the immense rush (excitement and headache) of this moment. Fabian and Hoad and Loomba had taught me how to ask about the developmental logics and scales that defined “the human.” The African appeared in sexology’s archives as hypo- and hyper-developed: too uncivilized to be homosexual, a condition that afflicted the “over-civilized” races, and too excessively bodily not to be queer (the too-large penises, too-large clitorises, too much appetite). Broadly, Africa appeared in the sexological archives Foucault had used, the archives on which much Queer studies depended. To his four categories—the homosexual, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, and the Malthusian couple—one could very easily have added “the primitive.”

How had this “fifth” figure escaped Queer theory’s gaze? How had the foundational works that built on Foucault simply ignored this figure? And, if it was to be used, how was it to be used?

One might argue that the figure of the “primitive” or “savage,” to the extent that it was enfleshed in captured, enslaved, and destroyed bodies, made unhuman through the logics of accumulation, fungibility, and dispossession, could not allow many of the fictions of Queer studies to exist. What, after all, is an identitarian/anti-identitarian or anti-social/communitarian claim when applied to the unhuman?

Again, I get ahead of myself.

Those entering Queer African studies now encounter a richly conceived field shaped by multiple collaborations among artists, activists, and academics. The recently published Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, models a continent-wide and diasporic example of this work. It follows similar anthologies from South Africa, including Sex and Politics in South Africa, edited by Graeme Reid, Neville Hoad, and Karen Martin. As it travels through popular culture, legal cultures, life narratives, organizational politics, and the politics of representation, it models the ethics of dissensus, as contributors debate the pasts, presents, and futures of queer (the term is also debated) lives, politics, and aesthetics. We might say that in this volume, peer review emerges not as a silent (invisible) background, but as vigorous, visible conversation. Amending myself, I’d now say that “theory” is enacted as practice—the academic in me would still have liked/would like to see some of these theoretical stakes outlined more clearly, but this is a deeply theorized volume.

In what might be considered the “homosexual-focused” branch of African Queer studies, Neville Hoad has offered what I consider the defining statement of this scholarship:

“homosexuality” is one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations (sometimes in the negative, sometimes not) that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representations by Africans and others[4]

As I wrote in a review of the book, “This claim re-visions V. Y. Mudimbe’s classic argument on the ‘invention’ of Africa by emphasizing the foundational role of embodied, intimate practices.” Hoad’s argument has gained in strength since African Intimacies was published, as Nigeria, Uganda, and now Kenya have proposed or passed legislation defining national and African identity against “homosexuality.” Even as “homosexuality” floats as a contested term in much of this legislation. One notes, for instance, that the law has invented a punishable category known as “the intention to commit homosexuality,” where, ostensibly, desire, or what it “read as desire,” is punishable.[5]

Hoad’s literary and cultural scholarship joins work by Jarrod Hayes on the Maghreb, Brenna Munro on South Africa, and, Chantal Zabus on Africa. In sociology and anthropology—more broadly ethnographic approaches—books by Zethu Matebeni, Ashley Currier, Amanda Swarr, and Rudy Gaudio detail life stories, community formations, and political organizing. Located squarely in history, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani is the finest historical study of southern African homosexualities. This, I must note, is a rather idiosyncratic sampling of an increasing body of work. In privileging book-length works, I have left out important scholarship by Lindsey Green-Simms, Unoma Azuah, Desiree Lewis, T.J. Tallie, Xavier Livermon, Serena Dankwa, Robert Lorway (who has a forthcoming book on Namibia), Sikhumbuzo Mngadi, Thabo Mbisi, Zackie Achmat, and Vasu Reddy. The South-Africa-based journals Agenda and Feminist Africa continue to support a range of queer-themed scholarship.

Let me emphasize again that this is a fairly idiosyncratic list. (Yes, I see you Cheryl Stobie and Henriette Gunkel.)

Rather schematically, the list is dominated by scholars who work on South Africa or southern Africa. So much so, that Queer Africa is too easily conflated with Queer South Africa. Or, as I suggest in work that I’m tired of trying to get published, two notions of Africa emerge: the homophilic South Africa and the homophobic elsewhere. (Brenna Munro’s book is exemplary in contesting the notion of a homophilic South Africa; but because it’s set in South Africa, it simply produces South Africa as both homophilic and homophobic.) My sense is that this focus on South Africa has taken on a disciplinary lens, or, more aptly, a framing lens: scholarship that does not follow a certain South African framing—a focus on legislation, the role of the nation, the post-apartheid racial stakes—simply becomes illegible. (For instance, I’m yet to see any work that considers the place of ethnicity and inter-ethnic negotiations around sexuality.)

My other sense is that Queer African studies has yet to grapple with its theoretical foundations. On the one hand, theoretical questions emerge from the archives we engage. And so I note that archived are still being assembled. At the same time, I worry about the ease with which certain white figures of Queer studies are taken up or discarded while Black Queer studies is rarely engaged. (Some of this, I suspect, stems from the U.S.-centric nature of Black Queer studies, but surely that limitation should also apply to foundational work in Queer studies. And, I would add, we need a conversation between Queer African studies and Queer Caribbean studies. These conversations happen informally—we certainly read each other—but we have yet to figure out where to meet in conceptual space.)
And, so, a turn. I’m going to try to learn from (mainstream) Queer studies and Black Queer studies (especially in its diasporic and Caribbean forms) to pose some theoretical questions African Queer studies might want to ask at some point. Perhaps idiosyncratically, I’m going to privilege African philosophy as a place from which to ask these questions.
Feminism and Postcolonial studies were my first encounters with the “problem” of the human. Did the “human” include “women” and the “less civilized races”? These are the questions that drew me (and keep me) in Black Diaspora studies and Queer studies, both of which, in their most radical (at the root) articulations, continue to ask how the human is envisioned and how the human can be re-envisioned. What notion of the human, for instance, is invoked in “human rights”? What version of the human circulates in mainstream ontology? What versions of the human ground disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations? What genealogies and genres of the human are in play when Africa is invoked?

The argument that colonial modernity introduced homophobia rather than homosexuality into African cultures is often based on troubling ethnographic evidence, as I have already said. Repetition is not bad. The peculiar taxonomic gaze that always already knows how to see Africa has been so dominated by particular categories of sexual and gender dissidence: difference (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex) that it has not stopped to ask how else genealogies of African sexual and gender dissidence might be read within Africanist paradigms of personhood. As philosopher Leke Adeofe asks, “What is a person in the African view?”[6]

(I shall avoid going down the Blyden/Mbiti route as I’ve been there several times. I shall note, only, that their work remains foundational to African philosophy.)

In a widely cited (and debated) statement, Ifeanyi Menkiti argues, “personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail.”[7] Complementing Menkiti, Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani argues, “the important question is not at what point in time an individual becomes a person, but rather what constitutes the completeness of humanhood.”[8] Several terms are in play here: individual, person, human, achievement, failure, and completeness. To these, we must add the dynamic between individual and community, or what Blyden would term “duty.” Segun Gbadegesin writes, A person whose existence and personality are dependent on the community is expected in turn to contribute to the continued existence of the community. . . . The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community. The meaning of one’s life is therefore measured by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.[9] Across many philosophers, this “commitment to social ideals and communal existence” is measured in intimate terms. Thus, representing many other positions, Kwasi Wireu summarizes, “being married with children well raised is part of the necessary conditions for personhood in the normative sense. A non-marrying, non-procreative person, however normal otherwise—not to talk of a Casanova equivalent—can permanently forget any prospect of this type of recognition in traditional Akan society. The only conceivable exceptions will be ones based on the noblest of alternative life commitments.”[10] Now, to some extent, I’ve stacked the deck. Producing out-of-context quotations to prove a point is wildly irresponsible. That said, a remarkable consistency emerges across a range of African philosophers working across Akan philosophy, Yoruba philosophy, Igbo philosophy, the Sotho-based Ubuntu philosophy, and Luo philosophy about the centrality of hetero-reproduction in conferring “full” personhood.

Given what we know about the range of diverse arrangements across Africa through which hetero-reproduction could happen—here, Nkiru Nzwegu’s scholarship on woman-woman marriage among the Igbo is exemplary, as she explains how a woman could marry another woman, who would then take a male lover to impregnate her—we might need to ask, more deeply, what constitutes intimate failure. What figures incarnated the intimate anxieties:failures we now associate with the queer? What figures “failed” to achieve “full” personhood? In my cursory reading (okay, some quite extensive), a few figures keep cropping up. One study claims that bachelors could exist because their married status depended on their economic status, but that “spinsters” were unthinkable. Other work singles out loners as “cursed people.” While yet other work speaks about people with disabilities. In an African studies still dominated by the importance of communitarianism and kinship, we might ask about the figures who fail to appear on genealogical trees and the figures who fail to repopulate those trees. Paying particular attention to how diverse communities organize their senses of self and community, confer personhood and status, we might look for those figures excluded from these designations.

By no means is what I’m suggesting easy. And, in fact, it would trouble the genealogies of African queerness that so many of us want to claim for political reasons. Asking contemporary queer movements to trace their histories not to same-sex desiring ancestors but to histories of intimate failure and incomplete personhood, that is, to histories of disposability, seems unhelpful, if not destructive. And, perhaps, that is not what I’m suggesting. At the very least, I am suggesting that a theorized African Queer studies should account, in some way, for the various intellectual genealogies of personhood and intimacy found within Africanist thinking.

[1] Kath Weston, “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 22(1993):344-45. It’s worth clarifying that Dynes is not an ethnographer.

[2] Deborah P. Amory, “’Homosexuality’ in Africa: Issues and Debates,” Issue 25.1 (1997). Amory’s “‘Mashoga, Mabasha, and Magai’: Homosexuality on the East African Coast” remains a model of careful scholarship, attentive to place and history.

[3] As philosopher Nkiru Nzwegu points out, much of what is now called “customary law” emerges from the collusion between colonial-era ethnographers, bureaucrats, and the male leaders who were presumed to be in authority because of the patriarchal frames presumed by colonial authorities.

[4] Neville Hoad, African Intimacies

[5] The question of how this “desire” is to be read must be asked.

[6] Leke Adeofe, “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics”

[7] Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, “On the Normative Conception of a Person”

[8] Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, “African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey”

[9] Segun Gbadegesin, “Ènìyàn: The Yoruba Concept of a Person”

[10] Kwasi Wiredu, “The Moral Foundations of an African Culture”

Freedom Dreams

Is there nowhere that is kind?
—Angelina Weld Grimké

There are very few contemporary political spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.
—Robin D. G. Kelley

Freedom dreams are sticky investments, promiscuous attachments, Velcro projectiles. We invest in those fighting injustice hopes that we often dare not express, anticipating that their successes will re-shape our worlds, chart different (dissident) possibilities for being, and being together. Freedom dreams rupture inevitable quotidians, irritating the certainties of slow violence and arbitrary execution. Each new victory seeds another future, an alternate trajectory. If nothing else, each new victory whispers, “it need not be like this.” We hold on to these whispers, gather them, chant them: “it need not be like this.”


After Christopher Dorner’s death, I started thinking with Essex Hemphill about memory work. Hemphill writes, “It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference.” I turned to bell hooks to learn about world-re-envisioning love, world-sustaining love, world-making love. I learned from James Baldwin—I’m still learning—the difficult labor of surviving because of love, and to love.


Resistance is an act of love. Protest is an act of love. Survival is an act of love. Yet, I find myself wondering at how many other ways there might be to love. About how to multiply these other ways of loving, to fill them not with the uncertainty of arbitrary violence, the always-available potential for death, the injunction to love fiercely because life can be so rudely truncated, but with differently paced forms of loving filled with richness and variety, with the slow unfolding that lasts all night and beyond.


Done took my livin’ as it came
     Done grabbed my joy, done risked my life
–Sterling A. Brown

We gather around Ferguson, Missouri, from around the world to mourn Mike Brown’s truncated life. We assemble with familiar phrases—“gone too soon,” “untimely death,” “tragic loss”—phrases that too many of us have uttered too often, phrases that we would prefer not to utter. Phrases that store still-unfolding histories of disposability. We gather in global moments of silence and global articulations of rage. We gather with the hope that Mike Brown had “grabbed” his “joy” when he could. We gather with the residents of Ferguson as they try to imagine a livable beyond, to build from this moment a more shareable world. And amidst the noise, we try to listen for their freedom dreams, to dream with them.


It might be impossible for those of us outside Ferguson not to try to pursue our own freedom dreams through Ferguson. We want to see our hopes realized: hopes that a racist police system will be indicted and undone; hopes that Mike Brown’s family will receive justice and compassion; hopes that fragile coalitions formed around Ferguson will continue to grow and to forge even more powerful alliances; hopes that those freedom dreams emerging from Ferguson will transform other spaces; hopes that the attention paid to Mike Brown’s killing will give pause should a similar situation occur and that lives will be saved; hopes that this moment will not simply be another place and date to add to an already too-long list, but will undo the very logics and practices that make such geographies:geo-histories possible. This is already too much to ask of and from Ferguson. We can hope that our freedom dreams help to nurture those of Mike Brown’s family. We can hope that we learn from Ferguson how to shape and inhabit freedom dreams. We can hope that we learn to listen to Ferguson’s freedom dreams.

*with many thanks to Robin Kelley for the phrase “freedom dreams”

Black Queer Studies Now

The possible shapes of what has not been before exist only in that back place, where we keep those unnamed, untamed longings for something different and beyond what is now called possible, to which our analysis and our understanding can only build roads.

—Audre Lorde

Anniversaries are strange things, especially at the juncture of black and queer, for they invoke the “many thousands gone,” all the black queer artists and intellectuals who did not live to see this field emerge, but whose work has provided ongoing sustenance and provocation, daring us to imagine more and imagine better. I dedicate this meditation to the ones we remember, the ones who inspire, the ones who died too soon, the ones we have forgotten, the ones we never knew, the ones we loved, the ones we could have loved: to those listening for their names.1

It has been close to 15 years since the Black Queer Studies at the Millennium conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and close to 10 years since E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson published the co-edited Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, which combined selected papers from that conference with other foundational work in black queer studies. Black Queer Studies was envisioned as a celebration of a still-emergent and vibrant field, which had been energized by works including Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000), Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003), Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (2001), and Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and Black Subjectivity (2000). These works ranged widely in their methods and archives, all insisting that the figure of the black queer was central to the emergence of disciplines and fields including sexology (Somerville), sociology (Ferguson), urban studies (Delany), public policy (Cohen), and affect and material culture (Holland).

    Edit: As Darius Bost’s work reminds me, this listing of university press books does not account for foundational work published in many elsewheres by Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Charles Nero, and Eric Garber, among many others.

Because the conference and the publication that followed were billed as celebrations, they were marked by strategic ellipses that were both energizing and disciplinary. In her Foreword to Black Queer Studies, Holland writes, “Because hindsight is always dangerous, I will not critique what is missing from this collection, but rather only describe its missed opportunities as a kind of melancholia.” 2

    Edit: Holland’s cryptic statement about “a kind of melancholia” had initially led me to consider melancholia’s relationship to a:the lost object. Melancholia, Freud writes, “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object,” where the object is “lost as an object of love.” Or, melancholia might be a loss where one “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” Holland’s “a kind of melancholia” suggests a “loved object” was/is missing in the black queer studies institutionalized as/by an anthology. Or simply an object whose loss could be felt, but which could not be named.

    Holland’s barely-there, easy-to-miss invocation of “melancholia” unsettles the field-making endeavors of black queer studies by cultivating profound ambivalence about its “objects,” about what it chooses to “love” and “remember” and take as foundational. This “aside,” barely heard, is so very important.

If Holland’s strategic silence roots ambivalence at the heart of black queer studies, this ambivalence is not shared by the editors. Henderson and Johnson claim that the collection seeks to “interanimate” black studies and queer studies, and to “build a bridge” between the two to advance “long-term and mutually liberatory goals.”3 The collection aims to enhance “unity and community.”4 This focus on “unity and community” dictated the editorial choice to focus predominantly on the U.S., an odd decision given the important scholarship in the fields of the black diaspora and the black Atlantic that had transformed the academy since the early 1990s.5 It also felt odd because the black women scholars credited by Johnson and Henderson as foundational figures, including Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, embraced a broadly international imagination.

Simultaneously, Johnson and Henderson divide the labor of “black” and “queer” strangely. “Both terms,” they write, “are markers or signifiers of difference: just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilation and absorption.” This division of labor allows queer to be about “inclusivity” while black is about “historical and cultural specificity.”6 This division of labor seems to forget the scholarship by black feminists on blackness and sexuality, on blackness as non-normativity, and even un-normativity.7

Perhaps the biggest dissonance happens when the fields represented by “black” and “queer” are mapped through their entrance into the academy—the emergence of Black studies and Queer studies. Dissonant because this institutionalization evades the more contentious genealogies of blackness and queerness that would render improbable, if not impossible, the rapprochement between the two that Henderson and Johnson seek. In the absence of such genealogies, a certain professional politeness marks the Introduction to Black Queer Studies. In many ways, a silencing politeness.

By silencing politeness, I mark the absence in the volume of scholarship on sexually explicit work: no engagement with any forms of black pornography or erotica; no engagement with the problem sex poses for Black studies as it encounters Queer studies; no real engagement with black queer popular cultures—say, the fiction of James Earl Hardy. A commitment to “respectability” that left desire unspoken:unspeakable.

It seems odd to describe as “polite” essays that critiqued the race-blindness of queer studies (Marlon Ross on Sedgwick’s closet, Charles Nero on gay white ghettos); extended Barbara Smith in critiquing what Dwight McBride memorably termed “straight black studies”; followed Barbara Christian’s injunction to theorize otherwise (E. Patrick Johnson’s “Quare studies”); prioritized archives based on black lives and cultural production (Jewel Gomez on black lesbian texts, Kara Keeling on black lesbian cinema, Mae Henderson on Baldwin, Philip Harper on his transnational travels and desire encounters). Except, repeatedly, many of these essays are coy, bashful, unwilling (or unable) to speak to what Rinaldo Walcott describes as “shameful and funky sexual practices.” One notes, for instance, that E. Patrick Johnson’s notion of “quare” as a “theory in the flesh” has relatively little (if anything) to say about fleshly appetites:

    Quare studies must encourage strategic coalition building around laws and policies that have the potential to affect us all across racial, sexual, and class divides, Quare studies must incorporate under its rubric a praxis related to the sites of public policy, family, church, and community.

    Quare studies would reinstate the subject and the identity around which the subject circulates that queer theory so easily dismisses. By refocusing our attention on racialized bodies, experiences, and knowledges of transgendered people, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of color, quare studies grounds the discursive process of mediated identification and subjectivity in a political praxis that speaks to the material existence of “colored” bodies.

Johnson’s “manifesto” leaves unspoken:unspeakable the idea that black queer practices might be about sex, desire, fucking, going down, sex toys, public sex, cruising, fisting, leather, s/m. Instead, his essay ends on a coy note about men who like to cook and clean. One reads black gay cultural production from the 1980s and 90s and then turns to Johnson to see all that fierce desire and sexiness exiled, muted.

(From Hemphill’s “Now we think as we fuck”


Johnson’s “Now we think as we cook”)

citational analysis produces its own shapes of thinking and feeling. I had said I could not write this, by which I mean: I struggle to unlearn what is habit, to find what is necessary. Registers clang up against each other, clog up prose.

Two essays in Black Queer Studies offered the most provocative and compelling discussions of what the field might do: Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: On the Radical Politics of Queer Studies,” first published in 1997, and Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora.”

This is an “interested” statement, by which I mean, these two essays helped to guide my own work and to affirm that I wanted to do was possible. Their particular questions and approaches have been incredibly generative and energizing.

A shift in registers:

Dates are fuzzy, but I first encountered Cohen’s article as I was “transitioning” out of Gay and Lesbian studies and moving “into” queer studies, an impossible fiction, but one that I needed to re-think the shape of the world. From years on black “queer” listservs, where we debated the word “gay” and sought better ways of naming ourselves (adodi, same gender loving, in the life, in the family, the children), I knew the world described in the books I read, the world I saw in clubs and bookstores and sex clubs, could not/did not see or imagine me. Essex Hemphill was a bible. He gave me the language of class and race, of precarity and optimism, of desire and solitude. When Cohen’s work told me that queer studies had yet to find ways to be relevant to black lives (or, in Rinaldo Walcott’s terms, black life forms), the world became more possible.

The too-easy switch between “gay and lesbians” and “queer,” Cohen argued, foreclosed the “radical possibilities” queer might offer as a genealogy or excavation of practices and logics of intimate surveillance and management. For Cohen, the distinction between “heterosexuality”/”heteronormativity” and “queer” obscured what was at stake: “one’s relation to power.”

    Cohen offers a different map to get to “queer,” one whose names are Kimberle Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde; one that starts not with “I Hate Straights,” but with the Combahee River Collective’s statement. Where one starts matters. The path one follows matters. The tracks one leaves matter.

Cohen’s key word is “transformational”: “a [transformational] politics does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws that make these institutions and relationships oppressive.”

Cohen’s insistence that “the work” required examining relationships of power helped to unblock the anxieties I experienced when I could not find “gays and lesbians” in the black diaspora spaces I wanted to explore.

I write this after Renisha McBride’s killer has been convicted, as Mike Brown’s death changes yet another town, as Ferguson, Missouri, grieves under the weight of martial law—these traces of grief and rage, of a desire to make a world where these things are impossible, and this from my Nairobi bedroom, a stretch Cohen grants.

And if Cohen’s archives remained anchored in the twentieth century, her method of reading intimacy in relation to power permitted, even encouraged, many of us to look elsewhere, to re-think “queer” while being attentive to the intimacy-making and intimacy-destroying histories of blackness.

I append here a list of names: Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, as a promissory note

Re-reading Rinaldo Walcott, I am struck by how much his questions shaped mine: “Is black queer studies the improper object of the black studies project? Or can black queer studies even reside within the confines of the black studies project proper?” “Proper” is a key term here, as Walcott asks about the U.S.-centeredness of black studies, its relative inattention to other sites of blackness, and its desire for “epistemological respectability.”

But that is not what I wanted to write.

Still un-training.

With the exception of Cohen’s essay, many of the essays in the anthology left me with a sense of what, adapting Marlon Ross’s language, might be termed U.S. claustrophilia: if, as Ross argued, (white) queer studies was obsessed with the figure/problem of the (white) closet, much of the black queer studies in the anthology could not emerge from the U.S. closet, a space that felt oppressive, and even impossible. And also false to the histories that preceded it: histories of many black lesbians and gay men traveling the world as they figured out their hungers, their desires, their ways of being possible.

Walcott’s insistence on diaspora—on travel, dispersal, undoing, genealogy, random encounters, misapprehension, split loyalties, betrayal, capture, revolution—produced a shape of the world that could be imagined, and theorized, differently. Diaspora genealogies also open the archive of black studies, demanding that we move beyond formal institutionalization in the U.S. to consider the intellectual labor performed in London in the 1930s (C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta), France in the 1920s and 1930s (the Nardal sisters, Lamine Senghor, Césaire), Makerere and Dar es Salaam in the 1960s (George Shepperson, Ezekiel Mphahlele).

As I wrestled to find geo-histories to think with and write about, Walcott helped me to re-discover Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” an essay that became foundational to my vision of black queer studies.

Permit an excursion from work in progress:

Spillers theorizes the middle passage as a subject-obliterating, thing-making project. In doing so, she takes on the challenge of contemplating what Aimé Césaire termed “thingification.”8 This urge to humanize slaves, she contends, is motivated by our inability to imagine the thing-making project of slavery, which is “unimaginable from this distance”; but to insist on the slave’s humanity risks voiding the problem of the slave as commodity, as thing.9 How might a queer diaspora that begins from thing-making function?

Spillers provides a tantalizing glimpse of this (im)possibility:

    The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.10

In positing the “theft of the body” from “active desire” Spillers strips away a foundation of queer studies: the role of desire, whether that be same-sex desire or desire for gender or desire for fetish-sex or aimless, polymorphous desire.11 It is not that one’s desire is criminalized or pathologized, as Foucault might have it; but that desire itself becomes impossible in the brutal transition of thing-making. Thing-making proceeds through gender-undifferentiation, through the practices and logics of commodification, labor, and punishment.

But the story becomes even more complicated, for the same process that produces the slave as “thing” simultaneously inflects the slave’s thingness with “sensuality.” Although Spillers elaborates a 4-stage process that seems to proceed in a linear fashion, it might be more useful to understand this step-making as a strategic fiction that attempts to render partial, recursive, fractured, and synchronous stages: the “captive body” is at once as densely saturated with the power to elicit “sensuality” as it is excluded by its thing-ness from gaining agency through that sensuality.12 If, as a thought experiment, one takes Spillers’s sequence in a linear fashion, then one ends up with a move from a “captive body,” severed from its “active desire,” which acts as a “thing,” and through that process of thingification, becomes a “captive sexuality.” Sexuality, then, would not name the place of subjectification, as it has in queer studies. Instead, it would name theft and commodification, thing-making and gender-undifferentiation. The queerness of the black diaspora, then, would stem from an effort to describe this figuration, which is unaccounted for in sexology’s archives: the thing “severed” from its “active desire.”


The re-turn to Spillers was also a re-engagement with black diaspora histories, with the difficult labor of thinking through the problem of “the thing,” of “fungibility,” of what Walcott terms “black life forms.”

But I get ahead of myself.


In their Introduction, Henderson and Johnson admit that Black Queer Studies privileges the humanities, a function, perhaps, of intimacies, but also, one might speculate, of institutional and disciplinary priorities over what is worth funding. In the years since the anthology appeared, a growing body of work has used social science methods, at times located squarely within the social sciences and, at other times, embracing broadly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods. Complicating and even undoing archives and methods understood as foundational in queer studies, scholars and artists and activists have privileged sites of black sociality—the church, the club, the ballroom, for instance—to re-theorize black queerness. Black queer cultures and subcultures are richly represented and theorized on youtube, on multiple tumblrs, and in a range of independent film productions. And while some of this work is slowly—very slowly—making its way into the peer-reviewed academy, the radical critiques of method and foundations embedded in most of this work remain unheard. For instance, what would happen if black lives and histories were placed at the center of queer theorizing? What would happen, Sharon Holland asks, if the black lesbian were centered?

Equally important, the geographies of black queer scholarship have expanded, stretching and rupturing what Walcott describes as the too-easy alignment between blackness and the U.S. In work by Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Thomas Glave, Maja Horn, Jaffari Allen, Nadia Ellis, Shaka McGlotten, and Lyndon Gill, a queer Caribbean flows, listening to and learning from queer predecessors—Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, M. NourbeSe Philip, the many who have charted and navigated dissident waterways. A North American gaze focused on Africa is attempting to interact with black queer studies, in work by T.J. Tallie, Brenna Munro, Xavier Livermon, and Ashley Currier, though these conversations often seem muted, still waiting to happen.

(Many names are missing here: Tavia Nyong’o, C. Riley Snorton, Marlon Bailey, LaMonda Stallings, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Rosamond King, David Green, Kai Green, Zakiyyah Jackson, Neo Musangi, Zethu Matebeni, and many others I have yet to encounter)


Another kind of re-beginning:

The urgencies of the killing present have shaped the direction of much black queer labor as it has tried to document black queer disposability and develop paradigms for livability. The proximity to being undone haunts black queer cultural and intellectual production, whether it be in the form of “mainstream” queer canons that do not acknowledge the existence or contributions of black queer scholarship; in restrictive zoning laws and practices that reduce spaces for black queer sociality; in mainstream expressions and articulations of blackness that continue to unsee black queer lives, framing them as embarrassing problems to be solved or ignored; in lukewarm liberal versions of “inclusion” that depend on deracination; and in forms of institutionalization that mute what Cohen described as the radical potential of queer politics.


And, still, something insists that I am “doing this wrong,” not posing the “major questions” raised by this body of scholarship. This writing seems supremely “unhelpful” to those looking to get a “handle” on “the field.”

My “training” is fighting other instincts.


It is not clear to me that “black queer studies” can ever be/come a “proper object,” for blackness “anarranges” all claims to “the proper.” And it has seemed to me that the most urgent work produced in/around black queer studies raises, insistently, the problem of what Rinaldo Walcott terms “black life forms.” The tasks “before” black queer studies are genealogical—thinking with Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers and Fred Moten and Alexander Weheliye about those figures/bodies designated as “black,” how they are not only foundational to what is known as “the human,” but also how they unmake the assumptions tied to that human. This thinking goes beyond the “subject-making/subject-unmaking” focus of work from Foucault through Butler and Bersani and Edelman, demonstrating the limits of identitarian/anti-identitarian critiques, the limits of psychoanalytic approaches for which the black as possible subject will never have been possible. (And, here, I’m suggesting that the reading of Fanon as an “intervention” into psychoanalysis also misses the mark.) And so the problem of “how” to begin with a figure already barred from apprehension within the regimes of the human taken for granted even by a notion such as “the abject.” The black, after all, is not what is “violently excluded,” but what has never been possible to “include” in a notion of “the human.”

If, in fact, black queer studies begins with the impossibility of psychoanalytic subjectification, how might one speak about the unmaking desire of “the thing”?

This genealogical work unfolds into considering the place of what Christina Sharpe theorizes as “post-slavery” subjects who inhabit “monstrous intimacies”: the quotidian unmaking of being that is everyday blackness, the ease with which fungibility and killability mark black life forms. How does one think about life forms whose being is perpetually marked by unmaking? I write this as a Kenyan legislator proposes that queers in Kenya should be stoned to death. Queerness unfolds across:through this unmaking. Black queerness, rooted in the archives of disposability. How might one think with, find, inhabit, theorize from these archives of disposability? What is the labor of dwelling in these ungeographies of impossibility?

I write this with the strong awareness that much black queer scholarship on the contemporary focuses on strategies of livability—on love, on kindness, on ecstasy, on community, on resistance, on agency, on possibility. Much black queer scholarship and cultural production is engaged in rich forms of world-building and world-re-envisioning.

Simply: my head is not there. Not yet. Not now.

I am still trying to figure out how to think with:about impossible figures, unmade figures, unbeing figures, with the fleshed and unfleshed, with the thing that desires. With the bodies fleshed to be disposable: with the impossible futures that Edelman cannot apprehend. I am still trying to find the forms with which to write of black life forms that disrupt the possibilities of available forms, undoing sentences, grammar, the stanza, the line, the page. And if this writing is to do the kind of work I envision it doing, it undoes itself, as it must.


Black queer studies now might refuse José Muñoz’s invitation to envision a queerness that is “not yet here” by insisting on a queerness that has always been, that is foundational to blackness, producing the forms blackness can’t not inhabit in its various disposable and killable illegibilities. Black queer studies now might insist, as Zakiyyah Jackson does, on following Sylvia Wynter to ask about the forms of the human that blackness can engage, occupy, undo, uninhabit, re-think. Black queer studies now might refuse the so-called founding gestures of queer studies that privilege a color-coded West, disengaging from the troubling funkiness of blackness. Black queer studies now might continue charting the dissident geographies mapped by Dionne Brand and Katherine McKittrick and Thomas Glave. Black queer studies now might adopt what Nyong’o describes as an “improper affective stance” fueled by the “strangest of intimacies” that make demands yet to be imagined. Black queer studies now might insist on the grandness of its ass-splitting vision, its world-remaking vision.

As we continue to remember and call upon those who are listening for their names.

1. Melvin Dixon, “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name”

2. Sharon P. Holland, “Foreword: ‘Home’ is a Four-Letter Word” in Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson.

3. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 1, 6.

4. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

5. I’m thinking of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994). Less obvious works including Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and influential essays by Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty.

6. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

7. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality”

8. Césaire uses “thingification” to argue that colonial oppressors lose their humanity because of their oppressive acts. I am adapting his language here to frame the emergence of blackness within colonial modernity.

9. Here, I depart from recent scholarship by Omise’eke Tinsley, which has speculated that erotic practices on slave ships helped to maintain humanity. Much as I relish this claim, I would like to consider how a more difficult history of thing-making and thinghood can inform black queer diasporic scholarship.

10. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”

11. I have in mind the foundational role of desire in work by Guy Hocquenhoem, Teresa de Lauretis, Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, Susan Stryker, Samuel Delany, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Michael Warner

12. This claim is properly understood as a speculative one, for historical records demonstrate how the enslaved used their sensuality.