Frottage: Introduction (part two)

In 1908, Liberian intellectual Edward Wilmot Blyden published African Life and Customs, a collection of articles that had first appeared in the Sierra Leone Weekly News. It was issued, “with the desire, if possible, of unfolding the African, who has received unmixed European culture, to himself, through a study of the customs of his fathers, and also of assisting the European political overlord, ruling in Africa, to arrive at a proper appreciation of conditions.” African Life and Customs attempted to counter the deracinating effects of modernity by providing Afro-diasporic populations, those who had “received unmixed European culture,” with a manual of how to be African. In its simplest form, African Life and Customs belongs to the body of anti-racist discourse produced by diasporic blacks through the latter part of the nineteenth-century and the early part of the twentieth. It shares similar aims as Frederick Douglass’s multiple narratives, Frances Harper’s novels, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, and Casely Hayford’s Ethiopia Unbound. Disparate though these works might be, they all attempt to prove the black’s humanity and capacity for civilization. In autobiographies, sermons, manifestoes, polemics, essays, and novels, Afro-diasporic activists in the nineteenth century contested racist depictions of blacks as primitive, uncivilized, and hypersexual. These discourses of resistance take on new life in the twentieth century, when they forge bonds among African and Afro-diasporic populations. Their focus ceases to be primarily inter-racial and becomes intra-racial and international, in a word, diasporic. I examine African Life and Customs as a foundational work that weds the genealogical imperative to what I will describe as the ethnographic imagination, a wedding that animates black diasporic cultural and scholarly production throughout the twentieth century.

Blyden was, arguably, the pre-eminent black diaspora scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was born in 1832, in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, then part of the Danish West Indies. Denied admission to colleges in the U.S. to study theology because of his race, he immigrated to Liberia, where he completed high school and was later ordained as a Presbyterian Minister in 1858. An autodidact, he learned to read and write Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, and a few African indigenous languages. He first rose to international prominence in the 1860s, when he traveled in the U.S. to recruit immigrants to Liberia, a process that he continued for the following thirty years. Over the course of a lengthy career, he served as a Professor of Classics at Liberia College (1862-71), Secretary of State (1864-66), Liberia’s first ambassador to Britain (1877-78), President of Liberia College (1880-1884), and ran for president of Liberia in 1885. In addition to numerous articles published in venues such as Methodist Quarterly Review, Fraser’s Magazine, The American Missionary, and Sierra Leone Times, Blyden’s major works include Liberia’s Offering (1862), From West Africa to Palestine (1873), and Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1887). He died in Liberia in 1912.

I begin with Blyden because I read African Life and Customs as a methodological forerunner to Afro-diasporic cultural and intellectual production over the twentieth century. He provides a method for Afro-diasporic populations to re-connect with their past: they can “study” the “customs” of their “fathers.” Blyden’s emphasis on “study” and “customs” embeds him, broadly, within ethnographic practices, and, more specifically, within an ethnographic imagination that will be taken up by writers across the black diaspora including Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, Leopold Sédar Sénghor, Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The phrase ethnographic imagination is capacious, and I use it to denote the array of fantasies, desires, and imaginations that subtend ethnographic projects in their various instantiations as armchair anthropology, field-work based research, and literary and cultural production; the desire to record fading modes of living (Toomer and Hurston), to imagine past histories of living (Senghor and Nwapa), to describe emergent modes of living (McKay, Hughes); and the impulse to locate collectivity forming and collectivity fracturing within the register of the intimate (the home, the family, the community, the village). Indeed, a guiding premise for this project is that the ethnographic imagination subtends black diaspora cultural production and political imagination throughout the twentieth century.

African Life and Customs consists of 15 short chapters that can be divided, broadly, into meditations on social, economic, and political organization. Following a short introductory chapter that surveys the existing scholarship on Africa, Blyden devotes the following 4 chapters (2-5) to the African family; the next 5 (6-10) to what he terms “industrialism,” or more broadly economic structures; the next 2 (11-12) to political organization, or the treatment of “criminals”; and the final 3 (13-15) to religion. By presenting a picture of what anthropologists will later theorize as a functional society, Blyden attempts to rehabilitate the negative image of Africa in colonial and racist discourse. Simultaneously, in the same spirit as Crummell’s statement that race is “like a family,” Blyden imagines that the functional society he describes should provide a paradigm for global black collectivity.

For Blyden, this rehabilitation takes place, most urgently, on the level of the intimate. He describes “the family” as the foundation of African society:

The facts in this African life which we shall endeavour to point out are the following:–
1st. The Family, which in Africa, as everywhere else, is the basic unit of society. Every male and female marries at the proper age. Every woman is required and expects to perform her part of the function of motherhood—to do her share in continuing the human race. (10)

He amplifies on this point:

The foundation of the African Family is plural marriage and, contrary to the general opinion, this marriage rests upon the will of the woman and this will operates to protect from abuse the functional work of the sex, and to provide that all women shall share normally in this work with a view to healthy posterity and an unfailing supply of population.

It is less a matter of sentiment, of feeling, of emotion, than of duty, of patriotism. Compulsory spinsterhood is unknown under the African system. That is a creation of the West. Its existence here is abnormal, anticlimatic, and considered a monstrosity . . . and is destined, wherever it seems to exist in practice, to disappear as an unscientific interference of good meaning foreign philanthropists with the natural conditions of the country. (11, emphasis in text)

Blyden’s discussion is predicated on an implicit contrast between Africa and the West, one marked by the two italicized terms: “normally” and “That.” African women participate “normally” in the functional work of the sex. Through this “normally” Blyden critiques racist and colonial discourses that described African women as lascivious and perverse, enamored of non-functional types of sex. As a native of the West Indies and a devoted anglophile, Blyden would, no doubt, have been aware of Edward Long’s claim that African women were so lustful and uninhibited they mated with orangutans. In response, he emphasizes that African women privilege “function,” reproduction, above all else, thus tying gendered and racial normativity to hetero-reproduction. Blyden’s emphasis on women also recognizes that African women had borne a disproportionate share of racist representation as visible embodiments of, contradictorily, lack and excess, hyper- and hypotrophied bodies. As with other black diasporic writers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Blyden acknowledges the need to normalize black women, to offer alternative frames through which to consider their bodies, feelings, and practices.

More than simply a defense of African life, African Life and Customs critiques European modernity for its failures, which are most manifest at the level of intimate life. Echoing the alarmist rhetoric that erupted because of white women’s emergence into and full participation in urban modernity—as single, unmarried, engaged in sex work—Blyden excoriates the West’s failures, while arguing, “Under the African marriage system . . . [t]here are no ‘women of the under world,’ no ‘slaves of the abyss.’ Every woman is above ground protected and sheltered” (24). “African marriage system” describes an ahistorical ideal by this point. By 1908, urbanized women in Africa engaged in trade and sex work, redefining their social, cultural, and economic landscapes. Blyden’s implicit contrast, then, is not only between a decadent West and an innocent Africa, but, rather, between a pre-urban and an urbanizing Africa. He rails against the deracinating effects of urban modernity that threatened an African-ness he defined as stable (and stabilizing) gender normative heterosexuality.

In Blyden’s estimation, Christian-advocated monogamy was a failed system; African polygamy solved real problems. He writes, “we are told by English periodicals that there are a little over five millions of unmarried women in Great Britain and the number is increasing. It is stated also that in the City of London alone there are 80,000 professional outcasts” (24-25). A slippery logic of innuendo coats these statements: unmarried women have limited options; urban spaces present themselves as places with many options; unmarried women choose to go to urban spaces to pursue options; on arriving there, they change from being “unmarried women” to “professional outcasts.” Urbanization creates professional outcasts. “Professional outcasts” elides sex workers and career women, marking both as intimate failures. Indeed, they are professional less for any skills they possess or services they may provide and more because they are unmarried. In contrast, Blyden claims that Africa has no such problems: “We are quite sure that there are not so many unmarried women in the whole of Africa between the Atlantic and the Red Sea and from the Cape to the Mediterranean” (25). These expansive geographies suture Africa as a space held together by virtue of its shared intimate practices.

Yet, African intimate practices are not simply natural; they are actively cultivated. Blyden argues they arise from centuries of experimentation. Africa “solved the marriage question for herself thousands of years ago. It has needed no revision and no amendment, because founded upon the law of Nature and not upon the dictum of any ecclesiastical hierarchy” (21). While the “law of Nature” provides a foundation, it must also be complemented by a pedagogy of intimacy: “[T]here is among Africans a regular process of education for male and female, for a period of at least three years, to prepare them for the [intimate] life they are to follow, and the [marriage] system under which they are to live” (13; emphasis in original). If Afro-diasporic populations fail at intimacy, as so many Euro-American observers suggested from at least the eighteenth-century, then that failure results from the deracination of diaspora, and indicates nothing inherent about African nature. In fact, complaints about black hypersexuality and lasciviousness in the archives of colonial modernity register European, not African, failing. Blyden’s claim about intimate pedagogy also rebukes the civilizing mission’s pretension to instruct Africans in domestic and intimate matters. Such education, he insists, leads to African degeneration. At each point, Blyden emphasizes that Africans train themselves to be appropriately gendered and socialized; that their lives are structured by adhering to prolonged periods of training; that this training is learned from nature and the natural world, and is not a foreign imposition; and that if any observers want to know anything about Africans, then they should observe intimate life and intimate practices above all else.

African intimate life provides the key to all African systems. As Blyden writes, “from the [patriarchal] Family Organization and the property laws which naturally follow, the whole social System is regularly developed” (41). Although the claim that political systems arise from familial structures has a long political history, Blyden’s claim that African families, and particularly black, sub-Saharan families share the same principles ruptures one of the boasts of Christian modernity: that the monogamous, Christian family or, in classical times, the monogamous family, could be a metonym for the state. It’s worth recalling here that even Leo Africanus, one of the earliest African writers in the sixteenth century, heralded as the leading Africanist scholar well into the eighteenth century, scolded sub-Saharan Africans for practicing rowdy group marriage, and derided them as not having any recognizable social organization. Blyden advances a radical position in citing African intimate life as the key to African social organization.

Blyden’s claim about the centrality of heteronormative and hetero-gendering practices to African and Afro-diasporic identity-formation provides insight into a structuring ambivalence of this entire project: arguments for African and Afro-diasporic political, social, and cultural innovation are made at the expense of gendered and intimate diversity. Blyden is an especially knotty figure, because he anticipates what have been innovative approaches in the fields of gender and sexuality. Avoiding the essentialist/constructionist binary, Blyden argues that African women do not marry “out of sentiment, of feeling, of emotion.” Rather, they marry because “of duty, of patriotism” (11). Within popular and academic discourses, debates have continued to rage over whether non-heterosexual desire is natural. Simultaneously, the “naturalness” of desire and the respectability of “love” have been used to advance political claims for queer social and civil rights. In Blyden’s estimation, personal feeling, personal inclination, personal desire, is, ultimately, irrelevant. Thus, Sharon Holland’s recent claim, “Having a right to our queer desires is a fundamental tenet of queer theorizing,” which, in a more quotidian register is framed by queer activists as the right to love, finds no traction within Blyden’s thought. One can desire as one wants; one can even love as one wants; but that is subsumed by one’s hetero-reproductive duty. For Blyden, sexuality does not exist within a psychoanalytic register of desire. How one is “born” and how one “feels” must always take a backseat to “duty,” to “patriotism.” Pedagogies of intimacy are designed to cultivate proper intimate attachments that nurture “duty” and “patriotism.” In fact, Blyden banishes individual, idiosyncratic desire from diasporic intimacy. Simultaneously, diasporic cultural production and dissemination should be in the service of maintaining appropriately gendered and sexualized black communities.

For Blyden, one cannot claim an authentic African or Afro-diasporic identity without practicing appropriate heterosexual intimacies. Indeed, one cannot be recognized as legibly African or Afro-diasporic without embedding oneself within a heterosexual matrix. He subordinates individual desire to collective need: “We, and not I, is the law of African life” (30). Blyden’s emphasis on “duty” over passion and desire may seem quaint, but it has had a vibrant life across multiple geo-histories and continues to exert intense pressure on black diasporic intimate life. Indeed, the idea that the legible black body must be heterosexual has been so powerful that, as Dwight McBride argues, even figures known to be openly queer have assumed a position within heterosexuality when speaking for a black collective. McBride explains, for example, during an interview with Dick Cavett, James Baldwin attempted to position himself as a speaker “for the race” by “masking his specificity, his sexuality, his difference.” Baldwin claimed to be defending his “wife,” his “woman,” and his “children” positioning himself as a black heterosexual patriarch so that he could speak as what Hazel Carby describes as a race man.

While Baldwin performatively inhabited black heterosexual masculinity to speak as a race man, Kenyan-born ethnophilosopher, John Mbiti, would codify the relationship between the genealogical imperative and social legibility in Introduction to African Religion, which was first published in 1975. “Marriage,” Mbiti argues, “fulfills the obligation, the duty and the custom that every normal person should get married and bear children. . . . Failure to get married is like committing a crime against traditional beliefs and practices.” Marriage, adds Mbiti, provides “completeness”: “Marriage is the one experience without which a person is not considered to be complete, ‘perfect’, and truly a man or a woman. It makes a person really ‘somebody’. It is part of the definition of who a person is according to African views about man. Without marriage, a person is only a human being minus.” Marriage confers proper gender, and proper gender confers full humanity. As Mbiti’s argument proceeds, he raises the stakes: not only does (heterosexual) marriage satisfy “duty” and “custom” and “tradition,” in which case those who claim to be modern can safely disavow marriage; it certifies one as “truly a man or a woman,” as a “human.” Mbiti’s argument welds the genealogical imperative to gendered and human legibility, the grounds from which one can be recognized as human. His claims for African identity, or, rather, African legibility, resonate across Africa and Afro-diaspora, enabling interactions across differently located individuals and communities with diverse interests and politics. From Blyden through Mbiti, African and Afro-diasporic scholars have wedded a genealogical imperative to an ethnographic imagination, producing black legibility through this wedding.

Frottage: Introduction (part one)

I first read Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) when I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1980s. I don’t know how it came to be in my parents’ Nairobi home, though I have a vague memory of the miniseries being screened on TV in the early 1980s. That initial reading left me with a haunting image of slavery. Following his capture, Kunta Kinte is locked in a slave hold, chained together with other men: “he very slowly and carefully explored his shackled right wrist and ankle with his left hand . . . He pulled lightly on the chain; it seemed to be connected to the left ankle and wrist of the man he had fought with. On Kunta’s left, chained to him by the ankles, lay some other man, someone who kept up a steady moaning, and they were all so close that their shoulders, arms, and legs touched if any of them moved even a little.” I was arrested by this image. At the time, though, I could not name what intrigued and terrified me about this enforced proximity, what, following Christina Sharpe, might be termed monstrous intimacy.

The image gains in intensity as the narrative continues. During a brutal storm, bodies rub against each other and against the ship: “each movement up and down, or from side to side, sent the chained men’s naked shoulders, elbows, and buttocks—already festered and bleeding—grinding down even harder against the rough boards beneath them, grating away still more of the soft infected skin until the muscles underneath began rubbing against the boards.” Skin, self, body is lost through “grinding” and “grating,” as bodies are fed into slavery’s maw. Haley’s metaphors combine images from food and sex cultures, gesturing to the roles slaves would play within food and sex economies as producers and products. Ironically, these images of food and sex—now so central to how we imagine life and care and pleasure—register the obscene labor of how humans are transformed into objects. The body-abrading taking place in the hold through a process of sustained rubbing accompanies the commodification taking place through ship ledgers that record weight and monetary value instead of names, religious affiliations, or geo-historical origins. In fact, several kinds of rubbing are taking place: bodies against each other; bodies against the ship; and these slave hold rubbings against the writing on slave ledgers, which is itself another kind of rubbing.

I use the term frottage to figure these violent rubbings and to foreground the bodily histories and sensations that subtend the arguments I pursue.

While I take the slave hold as my point of departure, I dare not linger there.

One can depart from the slave ship in many ways, and so let me preview the rest of project by describing the shape of my argument. Within black diaspora studies, scholars have insisted that while slavery was intended to dehumanize captured Africans, it did not succeed. Thus, much scholarship and creative writing has been devoted to proving that slaves were human. I term this desire to humanize slaves a genealogical imperative and argue that it functions predominantly through an ethnographic imagination, terms that I elaborate more fully later. A powerful, if less followed, line of thinking has pursued the problem of how slavery produced “thinghood.” For instance, Fred Moten writes, “The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” His insistence on using “objects” emboldens me to use a similar strategy. I am interested in how thinking about “thinghood” helps us theorize the black queer diaspora.

I begin from the premise that the black diaspora poses a historical and conceptual challenge to dominant histories and theories of sexuality in queer studies, which have tended to privilege white Euro-American experiences. I depart from the more familiar Euro-American genealogy of queer studies offered by scholars in fields as diverse as the classics (David Halperin), religion (John Bosworth), philosophy (Michel Foucault), history (Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey), and literary studies (Eve Sedgwick). Starting from the black diaspora requires re-thinking not only the historical and theoretical utility of identity categories such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, but, arguably, more foundational categories such as normative and non-normative, human and non-human, subject and abject. While I complicate queer theory’s conceptual and historical assumptions, this project is not an extended “writing back” to a predominantly white queer studies: writing back re-centers that queer studies as the point of departure. Instead, I start with the production of blackness within modernity through the slave ship, the place that will produce most forcefully and consistently what Toni Morrison describes as an “Africanist presence”: the denotative and connotative languages and figures through which blackness is apprehended within modernity.

I use frottage, a relation of enforced proximity, to figure the black diaspora. I do so to unsettle the heteronormative tropes through which the black diaspora has been imagined and idealized. The black diaspora is often figured as a structure of blood descent through what I will describe as a genealogical imperative. Alexander Crummell’s famous 1888 statement, “a race is a family,” has had a vibrant, ongoing life in black diasporic cultural and intellectual production. Although this genealogical imperative can be traced across multiple black diasporic geo-histories, in what follows I turn to African American histories to illustrate how it has functioned as a scholarly and aesthetic injunction.

Following the publication of the Moynihan Report (1965) in the U.S., which blamed slavery for destroying black families and creating a “tangle of pathology,” scholars mounted a sustained campaign to defend the black family. Influential studies including Carol Stack’s All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974), Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom, 1750-1925 (1974), John Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979), and Richard Price and Sidney Mintz’s The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (1976) emphasized the enduring strength and longevity of heterosexual kinship bonds, in slavery and in freedom.

Here, let me tread carefully: these studies did not reify the black family in any singular or unproblematic way. Many criticized Moynihan for framing black community relations through the lens of a normative, white nuclear family. For instance, drawing on Stack, Mintz and Price write, “One of the problems with traditional studies of the black family . . . was a tendency to reify the concept of ‘family’ itself. . . . [I]n Afro-America, the ‘household’ unit need by no means correspond to ‘the family,’ however defined.” They follow this correction by focusing on the historical role of kinship during slavery, asking, “What, if anything, might have constituted a set of broadly shared ideas brought from Africa in the realm of kinship?” Their speculative answer is instructive for understanding the role of kinship in black studies:

Tentatively and provisionally, we would suggest that there might have been certain widespread fundamental ideas and assumptions about kinship in West and Central Africa. Among these, we might single out the sheer importance of kinship in structuring interpersonal relations and in defining an individual’s place in society; the emphasis on unilineal descent, and the importance to each individual of the resulting lines of kinsmen, living and dead, stretching backward and forward through time, or, on a more abstract level, the use of land as a means of defining both time and descent, with ancestors venerated locally, and with history and genealogy both being particularized in specific pieces of ground. The aggregate of newly arrived slaves, though they had been torn from their own local kinship networks, would have continued to view kinship as the normal idiom of social relations. Faced with an absence of real kinsmen, they nevertheless modeled their new social ties upon those of kinship.

This rich passage describes how kinship and genealogy subtend racial alliances: “kinship” provides a “shared” vocabulary that mitigates geo-historical differences. “Shared ideas” of kinship and genealogy enable intra-racial collectivity by “defining an individual’s place in society.” Kinship provides social legibility and structures social relations, allowing individuals to be recognizable through their real and imagined relationships to others. The model is hetero-reproductive, as one’s importance is measured in relation to those who precede and follow one. One emerges from a hetero-reproductive chain and is obligated to continue that chain.

Mintz and Price reveal how the standard queer critique of the heteronormative couple cannot account for black diasporic and African modes of figuring intimacy and creating normativity. Take, for instance, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s field-defining “Sex in Public,” which positions queerness against “the heterosexual couple,” imagined as “the privileged example of sexual culture.” This idea that queerness challenges and disrupts coupled heterosexuality is now taken as common sense within queer studies, in a way that attending to other geo-histories must complicate. Indeed, focusing on the heterosexual couple risks missing how African and Afro-diasporic practices of polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and fictive kinship can also be normalizing and disciplinary. If, instead, we focus on the multiple ways heteronormativity functions within a broadly conceived genealogical imperative, we might ask with Elizabeth Povinelli, “Why does the recognition of peoples’ worth, of their human and civil rights, always seem to be hanging on the more or less fragile branches of a family tree? Why must we be held by these limbs?” Povinelli’s question helps to illuminate the importance of directing attention to the genealogical imperative within Afro-diasporic and African scholarship.

It is, perhaps, easier to acknowledge how the genealogical imperative has shaped scholarship in anthropology and history, fields marked by their interests in kinship and community, on the one hand, and change over time, on the other. But the genealogical imperative has also guided aesthetic criticism, and a particularly fine example can be found in Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. In a particularly telling passage in the conclusion, Baker weds Afro-diasporic scholarship to the genealogical imperative:

The family signature is always a renewing renaissancism that ensures generation, generations, the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. What I have said is that the family must explore its own geographies . . . Renaissancism’s contemporary fate is our responsibility, demanding a hard and ofttimes painful journey back to ancestral wisdom in order to achieve a traditional (family) goal. That goal is the discovery of our successful voices as the always already blues script . . . in which a new world’s future will be sounded.

Baker’s intricately constructed prose allows no separation between the aesthetic and the biological, the artistic and the historical, the culturally productive and the biologically reproductive. The repeated “renaissancism” formally enacts his injunction to recreate and procreate, especially as renaissance refers to re-birth. To write with the “family signature” is to produce and reproduce, to affirm, always, the hetero-temporalities that connect the ancestors to the future. The task of Afro-diasporic scholarship, then, if one follows Baker, is always genealogical. In fact, Baker’s italicized “must” demonstrates what I’m calling an imperative, and, more broadly, becomes a mode of aesthetic evaluation. Truly valuable aesthetic work must follow and value the genealogical imperative.

Lest this focus on the family be understood as an exclusively African American affair, scholarship in the broader assemblage of the black diaspora similarly understands the black diaspora through hetero-kinship tropes. For instance, introducing a major anthology on black diaspora scholarship, Isidore Okpewho acknowledges the impossibility of encompassing black diasporic diversity. But this diversity is subsequently managed through hetero-kinship tropes, as the black diaspora is marked by its relationship to “the mother continent” and those scattered are re-collected as “sons and daughters.” These are small, and, arguably, casual moments in Okpewho’s argument, but this very casualness demonstrates the ease with which hetero-kinship is taken for granted as an operational principle of black diaspora scholarship. I draw attention to them because of how they manage black diasporic geo-historical diversity under the rubric of hetero-kinship figured as genealogical descent. While African and Afro-diasporic scholars might not all agree on racialization, politics, religion, ethnicity, economics, or culture, hetero-kinship is consistently reinforced as a capacious category that manages all difference. It is precisely the casual, unremarked way that hetero-kinship tropes lubricate difference that interests me.

The term diaspora combines two terms dia (across) and sperein (scatter), and invokes the labor of spores as they spread to fertilize. Although critical endeavors have tended to focus on diaspora as dispersal, the often unnamed critical hope is that such scattering results in communities: what Brent Hayes Edwards has termed the “futures of diaspora” takes place on the grounds of hetero-insemination and hetero-genealogy. However, I argue that another black diaspora is possible, a queer(er) one. Frottage tracks the uneven traces of dispersal and scattering associated with diaspora, attempting to arrest the heteronormative inevitability that would conflate dispersal with insemination and hetero-futurity.

Frottage: Origin Stories

Origin stories are mostly rubbish. We select what sounds most appropriate, most acceptable, most scholarly, or most provocative. We sift and discard, create ourselves as creatures of archives and classes and conferences.

I was sitting at [prestigious archive] and came across [obscure document] and it led me down this path

This project started in [famous person’s] class

At [distinguished conference] I started pursuing this project

I was gazing at books by famous people and decided to put them into conversation


I was going down on my lover and I wondered how a book could describe how she tastes

After fucking 60 guys, I wondered what fucking the next guy would feel like

I had a bad bout of gonorrhea and it inspired this meditation

Every time I wrestle with yeast, I start asking questions about the world

It’s not that one set of origin stories is better than the other—perhaps more entertaining, yes. Instead, it’s probably true that origin stories are diverse strands—a yeast infection takes place in a famous archive, a famous speaker is guy no. 61, the excitement of a distinguished lecture leads to fantasies of going down on someone.

As an undergraduate, I learned that theoretical ideas started to make sense while I was clubbing. In between Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox, Spivak would begin to make sense. In between this dance track and that dance track, Foucault would speak to me. Ideas came to life as my body moved, and I said, at the time, that I was interested in body studies. I meant, I think, that my body taught me how to feel my way into ideas and worlds.

Here are a few origin stories.

I wanted to write about black people. Not about black people and the white gaze—and I haven’t gotten past that completely. I wanted to write about black people together. About ways black people found to imagine their worlds. And to imagine each other.

I wanted to think with and through the body, to have the body present as much as possible, even when it couldn’t be. Consider a running head a provocation.

I wanted to center the geohistories of blackness without having them arrive in one place. I hoped to keep diaspora on the move, without saying that it ended in the Americas or in Europe. I was not interested in endless motion; rather, I was captured by the fits and starts Paul Gilroy described as the black Atlantic. And interested in what it meant to imagine livability in contingent spaces.

To the extent that it was possible, I wanted to be true to the idea of living together. Sianne Ngai had written something wonderful on irritation, and I kept thinking about proximity. Here’s one version of what I had written:

While I am interested in forms of intimacy that demonstrate positive attachment and belonging, forms of intimacy associated with love and pleasure, for example, I also want to note that intimacy, especially what might be called enforced intimacy, might just as well produce disgust and revulsion. Consider, for instance, the range of ways we might react to riding in a crowded bus or train, the pleasurable, idiosyncratic moments when a scent or smell or touch brings delight and pleasure; and also consider, the, perhaps more common experiences of irritation, annoyance, and revulsion. Both of these moments might be taken to represent the affective potential of intimacy: intimacy has no particular or specific affect attached to it.

I wanted to think of blackness as enforced intimacy, and to see where that would lead me.

A long trail of thinking led me back to Hélène Cixous:

I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.
Men still have everything to say abut their sexuality, and everything to write. (“The Laugh of the Medusa”)

I first read this as an undergraduate. And while I’d dabbled in Masculinity Studies, I found its frames and terms and models mostly unusable for what I wanted to say. Here, a problem of the archive. So I wanted to write about the men “without whom.” In some ways—and here my Kenyan education shows—I wanted to wrestle with my angels. In the bible, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel (queer this), and as dawn approaches, the angel touches Jacob’s hip and leaves him limp.

Jomo Kenyatta and Frantz Fanon were my angels. I could not be or think without them. Yet, I paid a high price to think with them. And I had to find a way to think with them. The other two figures I thought with, Rene Maran and Claude McKay lubricated my way to think with Kenyatta and Fanon.

Was this enough? Should I have written on women? Especially as a feminist? I continue to wrestle with this. I have wanted to write about Pauline Hopkins and Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson and Nella Larsen (at least I had an article out on her) and many other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance for a long time. But this, I thought, was not the right place.

A final thought (not really) on what it means to put close to ten years of thinking and writing on a blog instead of pursuing a book by a university press.

The manuscript-in-progress has been one of my final ties to the life I once thought I should desire. It lives on my CV as a promise to a self that I have found it difficult to let go. We can never fully abandon who we were. I could try to be more thoughtful and say that I’m not sure it makes sense to publish a book that few Kenyans will read—but that’s not really true. Partly, I put up these fragments to say goodbye to certain dreams. Partly, I put them up in an ephemeral way to engage the ephemerality of black queer life and black queer imaginations. Partly, to say, I once thought of these things.

being present

I have been trying to think about what it means to be present. About how one inhabits the present—how one is absorbed by it, how one absorbs it, how one is pressed by it, how one presses onto it, how one navigates it, how one is disoriented by it. I have yet to find the appropriate metaphors—I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize them.

The present cannot be written, for all writing is always in the past tense. An easy lesson. And one that causes despair. This thing slips away. Or turns away. The present turns its face against us.

(Who is this “us”?)
From here, the I wants to hide in the us:we, the we:us, because to be present must be to be in the we:us, the us:we.

There is no crowd to hide behind. The crowd gathers stones. The crowd is indifferent. The crowd kills with indifference.

To be present, to be here, in the midst of this violence. To say nothing. Because the rock-throwing crowd is hungry. And indifferent. And to claim this as a way of being here. Being now.
I gave away the secret—there is no secret.
How does the present become impossible to be in? And what does that mean? What can it mean? The impossibility of being present. Yet to be made present. One wakes up to discover one is present. Even if one cannot be.

“Let me be.”

An impossible demand. And, still, one tries to make it. “Let me be.”

Be what? Be where?
Yet, one’s silence is not absence. It, too, can be presence. A way of registering the weight of the silencing present. Silence has its demands.

This is not what I want to be writing. It is what I can write. The gap between the two might have a name. I have yet to discover it. And, if I did, I am not sure I’d have the courage to use it.

Being present does not mean being now-here, now:here, herenow. It can feel that way. Now(here). A form to say all that cannot be. All that cannot be let to be.

Let me be.
At times, I have mourned that I do not know how to fracture language. I have wanted to write more abrasively, to write words that scratch throats, that make eyes bleed. I don’t know how to. Too many years of learning to let words glide, feeding a lyricism that I wish I could discard. It comes easily now. Too easily.

The present does not lend itself to lyricism. Not even the lyricism that can be mourning.

How does one describe the familiar scabs of yet another depressive episode? The tedium of darkened rooms, unreturned emails, lost appetites, small obsessions, and what one learns to call little victories, reluctantly?
This, I think, is not a way of being “absent” or “detached” or “numb,” as the experts have it. I think the weight of the world is present in depressive episodes. I think one gets caught under the weight and loses the will or the ability to throw it off. And it accumulates. As unwashed clothes. Unwashed bodies. Clotted thoughts. Unspeaking. This is called “unhealth,” because health is predicated on doing, moving on, planning, seeing what matters and what must be discarded for one to live.

What does it mean to stay with? To refuse to move on? Freud called this pathological. I disagree.
The word “weight” takes on significance. The depressive so often feels exhausted. As though Atlas is distributing his weight to those who are psychically available, those recruited against their will. What is it to be psychically available to depression? (Flirting with unhealth. The books say that if untreated, depressive episodes get worse. Flirting with unhealth.)

But. Sociogeny.

What is psychic health to the disposable?

We call it the ability to struggle. The ability to survive. The ability to imagine. The ability to dream. The ability to forget one’s disposability until one is faced with it—inevitably. Inevitably. Inevitably.

Inevitability as a way of being here, being present in this now:here.

Sociogeny weds the social to the psychic. One cannot be psychically well when one is considered disposable. The archive of disposability—expanding, always expanding—impinges on the psychic.

The psychic life of the disposable: now-here, now(here), now:here
this is what I have been trying to write,
not like this,
not here


Rumuruti lands in the ear like Garba Tula, a place that once sounded so foreign I decided to name our Rex-looking dog Garba Tula. On the internet, one finds Garbatulla, Garba Tula, and Garba Tulla, a multi-named ungeography, lacking the exactness of Limuru or Lamu or Lodwar, those liquid sounds of place that glide in and out of imagination and possibility.

Rumuruti is harsh serrations, those cutting “r” sound that invoke labor and loss. One hears, in it, the relentless sound of grass-cutting pangas, food-harvesting blades, a language of edges and smiles, bean-soaked and potato-infused. Here, nostalgia prefers to image women balancing pots of water on their labor-reshaped foreheads. Piped water is an invasion.

Some places exist for memory to wrap around.

Liquids are easier to visit.

I get stuck at nasals—Ngong, Muranga, Ngandani, Ngandure, Ngeranyi. As though space refuses to stick to them. Ngomeni sounds like a dance, a wave of spirit movements fueled by life-loving spirits. A partnership of winding. Perhaps that’s what nasals do: they wind around one’s mouth. Always making one “speak through one’s nose.”

An accusation: “you speak through your nose.”

The peculiar way space winds itself around noses and mouths, as memory and forgetting, those nasal activities, fricatives resolving into nasals. (I had a love affair with plosives once, a symptom of a different kind of need. But I worry about the heaviness of d, the slicing of k, the sly civility of c.)

Rumuruti lands in the ear like the place that cannot exist in sophisticated conversation. You speak as though you’re from Rumuruti, someone says. And I have yet to check a google map to see where Rumuruti exists. It came to me from a manuscript I’m reading. Another place from a book. Another book place.

Places are book places or smell places. The sulfur fumes of school trips to elsewheres, the night stink of coffee plantations, the press of bodies in elsewhere-bound buses and planes. Book places are geography places: lists of neverwheres incarnated as classmates who embodied those impossibilities. Lists of impossibilities created by memory-makers fighting against history-makers.

(Shall I always return here?)

Nguna is in Central Province, a place that no longer exists.

What do we do with old maps of places that birth us and that no longer exist?

Ngwatawiro is not next to Ngwena, except on an outdated chart of alphabetically listed ungeographies.

Charts produce proximities.

how to grieve–an unguide

We putter and fiddle. Straighten furniture multiple times. Undo and re-do, re-do and undo. Talk too much. Laugh too loudly. Cry silently. Make unreasonable demands. Hurt each other. Offer banal platitudes. Accept the healing of banal platitudes. Seek faith. Run into voids. Grief hits us all in multiple ways.

We swing from one mood to another, one craving to another, one mode of acting to another.

There are no maps out of grief.

We who grieve change our minds frequently. Or we get stuck and cannot move on. Feeling accumulates and refuses to disperse. Occasionally, it explodes. We do not know when feeling bad ends. If it will end. We do not know if or whether thinking can remove us from feeling. We’re not sure if we want it to.

And we act. Frantically, desperately, convinced that we are right, that what we are doing must be done. The dishes must be washed at least three times. The house must be swept seven times a day. The funeral programs must be printed in Comic Sans.

And we who “think for a living” get frustrated that our thinking will not remove us from grief, will not make us more focused. We get stuck in trying to map how others should grieve. We draw odd maps. We feel useless.

We putter and fiddle.

Pick up this book and that article. Turn to this thinker and that one. This history and that one. This theory and that one. There is no tunneling under grief—no quick escape, no secret doorway through the wardrobe into another world.

And, yes, many of our reactions are predictable. Predictability offers some comfort: wake up, drink tea, go to the toilet, blame someone else, recycle words you’ve used a thousand times, drink tea, write a stern statement, have lunch, repeat statements, drink more tea.

Putter. Fiddle. Act.

And we judge. I judge. You’re not mourning correctly. You’re not thinking correctly about grieving. How dare you? Why don’t you? You must! You must not!

Grief multiplies fractures. It changes petty disagreements into lifelong enmity. It destroys fragile coalitions. Even as it forges new ones.

We know these things about grief—but still it disorganizes us. What we know rarely helps in those moments of disorganization.

Anne Cheng taught me that we rarely know how to stay with grief. Especially when we grieve for strangers. Perhaps grieving for intimates is easier, especially for those who have grieving rituals that help to shape grief.

How do we grieve for strangers? And how do we hold on to them as strangers as we grieve? Why might it be important to grieve for those we do not and cannot know?

I don’t know that grieving can be taught. I find the idea of “stages of grief” schematic, and often wrong. I keep coming back to disorganization, to all the frantic ways we try to manage disorganization.

I think we need to be tender with each other—to acknowledge the hurt we will cause each other as we grieve, the wounds that will be inflicted, the unhearing that will happen.

There will also be kindness, compassion, comfort.

Puttering. Fiddling. Acting. Map-Making. Grieving.

For Garissa University College

I imagine that some of the students killed and injured at Garissa University College hated school. They attended school because their parents wanted it, because they had no other plans, because their friends were there. I imagine that some of them loved exams. They loved the thrill of pitting their minds against tricksy questions. I imagine some were falling in love, others falling in lust, and that both met on fields of vulnerable hearts and hungry bodies. I imagine that some had learned to stay up all night, talking, studying, dreaming, worrying, praying.

I imagine some students never completed their homework. I imagine others had learned the best way to copy from their friends. I imagine others worked collaboratively: they imagined together, thought together, studied together, solved problems together, and got confused together.

I imagine many students imagined their futures. Some with dread, as they were their families’ “hopes.” Some with the hope that they would be able to travel, to move elsewhere in Africa or to the Middle East or to China or to anywhere but Kenya. Some imagined that Kenya’s new county structure would enable them to become public servants. Some imagined that the county structure would give them easy access to power.

I imagine some, perhaps many, were struggling to imagine futures.

I imagine some were struggling with depression. They didn’t know why but they couldn’t get out of bed. They had lost focus. They felt sad or angry or irritated. They felt suicidal. They had not yet found language to describe their symptoms.

I imagine some read GUC’s General Information with a mocking smile.

What to do in case of arrest. The University authorities shall not protect or cause any immunity from arrest and prosecution if a student breaks the law within or outside the University. Individual students(s) arrested will be responsible for their own defense, payment of fines, bails etc. However in case of arrest, students should notify the office of the Security Officer.

Fire Breakout

The University shall organize drills to make students be aware on what to do in case of fire. The following should however be noted in case of fire breakout:

  • Sound an alarm and shout Fire! Fire!
  • Evacuate the building quickly but calmly through the nearest exit. Do not stop for personal belongings.
  • Close the door behind you and move to a safe and open ground.
  • Shout fire! Fire! If other occupants of the building have not noticed the fire. Blare the siren if it is near.
  • If you have any burns, move to the dispensary for assistance.
  • Do not go back to the building until it has been declared safe.

I imagine that, like many typical college students, some felt invulnerable. I imagine others felt vulnerable. I imagine some were scared. I imagine others bluffed courage. I imagine some had found their niche. I imagine many others were still searching.

I imagine life-long friendships had been formed, or were being formed.

And while some might have imagined what they would do should the school be attacked, I imagine they thought the prospect was remote.

I do not know any of the students who have died—at least 70. Nor do I know any of the injured or still missing. I spent 15 years in university settings, as a student and teacher.

I join those mourning the dead.