Body Slang

In fact, I’m becoming a well-known faggot.
—Essex Hemphill

One cannot decently “have a hard on” everywhere.
—Frantz Fanon

Frantz Fanon is the gateway through which many of us, black academics who live across continents, must pass through. This is not only for us but also for the credentialing bodies that, despite our many structural and institutional critiques, still tell us what knowledge counts as knowledge, what knowledge is worth teaching, worth pursuing, worth recognizing.

Fanon is the proper name for a structure of intra-racial policing that insists one must not “have a hard on” anywhere. Decency, that word which plagues so many queers, determines whether or not one will receive approbation as a black critic, academic, activist.

What might it mean, then, to aspire to be a “well-known faggot?”

Kenyans will recognize this formulation: “When I grow up I want to be a well-known faggot.”
This meditation began as an attempt to think through body slang. Watching music tv one day, it struck me that if one mutes the volume, one cannot distinguish rappers from Detroit, Kisumu, Kampala, Nairobi, Paris, New York, Arusha, Accra, across continents and countries. What might be termed bodily disposition, or habitus, has become its own language.

Walking in Nairobi, it’s difficult to parse body slang: the bodies move the same way as bodies in Chicago, but do they mean the same things? What happens when the strut perfected in Harlem lives in Kibera or Lavington? When the brotha-hug is the preferred mode of greeting among a certain set who, in a heartbeat, return to the palm-wrist-palm of our grandfathers?

Told that shaking hands is traditional, I have offered to do it properly: to spray my palm with saliva and then shake hands. (Those who wield tradition should beware those of us who study it. I’m not yet old enough, but it’s perfectly acceptable for respected older men to bless an individual by spraying saliva on one’s face.)

Body slang.

How do we understand the bodiliness of globalization—the circuits of production that take cornrows from women’s heads in continental Africa to men’s heads in the United States and back to men’s heads in continental Africa?

I think a lot about what we are gaining and what we are losing.

Men my uncle’s age, in their late 40s and older, still hold hands to emphasize a point. One’s presence is assured by a clasped hand, not repeated nods. Whether or not one’s eyes wander is irrelevant when one’s body remains in contact with one’s interlocutor.

Men my age and younger do not hold hands, at least not in the city. We are well versed in global homo-anxiety. A movie we watched. A song we heard. People we encountered. Sources are hard to trace.

Nairobi’s little queers sing of cock and cum, flame, oh, honey, they flame! Their Kenyan-built bodies ready for house balls in New York. Their walks tell stories.

Yet, the indifferent androgyny of most men here complicates what can be read, and how. Body slang. I’ve never been very good at picking up slang. Body slang.

Travel makes harder, not easier. The nuances of desire slip by me—to be fair, they always have. It’s difficult enough to be multi-lingual, let alone versed in global, rapidly changing body slang.
When I grow up, I want to be a well-known faggot.

Despite many attempts on my part over the last few months, I am still not yet a well-known faggot in Nairobi. Well-known enough that former friends at the church, 1.5 minute walk from my house, are always too busy to drop by and say hello.

Yes, I noticed.

But not well known enough to receive hate mail and invitations to secret homo-parties, though the latter is probably entirely due to the lamentable state of my wardrobe.

(This, of course, is the church that praises patriarchy and governs by humiliating and shaming its female members. Yes, I noticed. And only my deep respect for my mother prevents me from writing the scathing letter I had planned. You owe her.)

Back to being a well-known faggot. Or trying to become one.

Context is all important. Essex makes this statement to counter the sexism and homophobia of some guy he meets on the street, the casual comment that “strong women” are turning “black men” into “faggots.” (Have I mentioned I keep coming back to Essex because he understands that any black gay politics worth its salt is deeply indebted to and embedded within feminism?)

Becoming a well-known faggot, Essex style, is to draw from one’s attachments and obligations: to engage black nationalist politics, afrocentrism, feminism, and gay rights. It is to stretch one’s body in multiple directions, to embrace the multiple anchors that ground one.

To feel the pleasurable weighting of embedding.
Body slang.

When I was twelve, those who knew it better called me by it: “faggot.” And they laughed. The banality of the story does not lessen its affective power. We little queers dance through banality, knowing there’s something fabulous, a place where the music is loud enough to drown out the laugh.

We become well-known faggots, and those who once laughed now fear approaching us because taint spreads—and fragile male reputations must be protected.

Body slang.

The language of desire my body spoke before my very slow mind caught up. Sitting under a tree with another boy who, like me, disdained sports, and spent hours shaping his nails, more beautiful than mine. Mine also gorgeous, then. What I wanted. Pretty nails.

Body slang.

In Kangemi, a man smiles at me. Flirting, I think. A smile. A “yes, I know you,” an invitation. What we do when everyone watches. What we know when everyone watches. How we feel as everyone watches.

Body slang.
In Nairobi the men walk with intent, gracefully inclining where desire pulls.