Notes on Queer Africa

Reading Kenya from the U.S. requires remembering that Kenya is not the U.S.
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To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways.
– Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What might it mean to incarnate the persistent state of wounding? What language might the wound speak?
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This essay is an experiment in queer African studies. Given the well-documented positions of Africans within western-based histories of embodiment, gendering, and sexuality, the notion of a queer African might seem redundant. There has been little space within the western imaginary to envision a normative African or Africa. Indeed, one might argue that African studies persists in attempting to produce a legibly normative subject who can be apprehended as having the same cognitive, affective, ethical, and other capacities granted to the putatively western subject Sylvia Wynter refers to as Man.
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A genealogical problem also exists. Martin Manalansan has argued that privileging Stonewall as the foundational moment in the emergence of contemporary queer politics—a rupture now understood as globally foundational as numerous global pride parades suggest—and the broader internationalization of western and, largely, U.S.-based identity and post-identitarian paradigms, has rendered non-western genealogies of embodiment, gendering, and sexuality footnotes within queer studies.

On a methodological level, the non-western gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-subject has never been as richly documented and catalogued. Presented in guidebooks designed to solicit pink dollars and elaborated in academic studies designed to solicit empathy/sympathy/lust, the non-western queer has been identified and pursued, tagged and numbered, made legible and (im)possible.
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To ask for recognition, or to offer it, is precisely not to ask for recognition for what one already is. It is to solicit a becoming, to instigate a transformation, to petition the future always in relation to the Other. It is also to stake one’s own being, and one’s own persistence in one’s one being, in the struggle for recognition.
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What might it mean to imagine a queer African studies that is not wholly mediated by or apprehended through frames provided by a U.S.-based queer imaginary? What might it mean to imagine a queer African studies that is not simply an off-shoot of a predominantly U.S.-based black queer studies or a variation of queer of color analysis? What might it mean to understand queer African studies as a conceptual demand, and not simply as an extended exercise in example gathering that exemplifies extant claims?

To ask these questions might be to throw into relief the limits of the white, heteronormative couple as a point of departure for intimate critique. It would certainly require understanding the limits of using non-western intimate formations to critique western norms, especially given that intimate norms are various, and what may appear culturally freeing in one context may be disciplinary in another. Certainly, the uses to which non-Africans may put African cultural practices need not be liberatory for Africans.

Indeed, it might be that queer African practices register as normative or illegible or incoherent or opaque within dominant queer paradigms. And that illegibility or incoherence or opacity may offer little to U.S.-based queer studies, neither modifying nor complicating nor rejuvenating it. We cannot presume to know in advance what an encounter between African queer studies and a U.S.-based queer studies might be.
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eventually even hunger
      can become a space
to live in.
-Carl Phillips

The cautious Africanist may wonder how to balance the labor of cultural translation with a need for ethical misapprehension. Faced with the too-common question, “what is ‘queer’ in African?” Faced with the equally common, “how do you say that again?” “how do you spell it?” and “how pretty your language is,” the now-exhausted Africanist might decide that the meeting place of a queer African studies and a U.S.-based queer studies feels radically uneven: when one showed up for the meeting, one did not expect to have to clear the bush, cut down the trees, raise a fence, erect a meeting structure, craft furniture, serve refreshments, and still retain enough energy to seem intelligent when the other meeting participants arrive.
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Perhaps the question cannot be heard at all, but I would still like to ask
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What allows us to encounter one another?
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life
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The reluctant Africanist knows the danger of being a native informant: Elisha can’t not take up the mantle.
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I have nothing to lose tonight
    -Essex Hemphill, “American Hero”
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To think of queer economies might be to multiply encounters of mutual incomprehensibility. To insist that opacity remain an ethical imperative.