More Notes on Queer Africa: Toward an Intellectual Project

I sketch, here, a series of notes, a number of interlinked ideas arising from the conjunction, or frottage, of two ongoing projects. It thinks through the “figure” of the homosexual within non-U.S. and non-European locations. Through Foucault, we have learned to think of the “emergence” or “appearance” of “the homosexual” or homosexual-like figures as central to histories and theories of sexuality. Such a figure, as it appears on stage, in pseudo-science, in private diaries, in court records and other textual locations, offers an entry point that is so powerful, so necessary, that, arguably, a “queer history” is not possible without this figure. And here, I might simply be saying that glbt studies continue to provide the conceptual grounding for queer studies, even where queer studies might claim to move “beyond” (in the Bhabha sense) the more identity-proximal lgbt studies. (Identity-proximal is truer to the complex project of lgbt studies rather than identity-bound, which tends to be reductive when not condescending.)

The “figure” of the homosexual is a problem in what I think of, perhaps prematurely, as African queer studies. It is a problem, most often, because its figural status sediments too readily, becomes too-easily grasped in histories and ethnographies that extend the spatial claim “we are everywhere” into speculative temporalities: we “were” or, more precisely, “have been” everywhere. This speculation traffics under a certain homo-sense: of course, same-sex attraction must have existed at all times, at all places, in specific ways. Though, the caveat, while homosexual acts have existed, they did not traffic under the “name” homosexual.

We can thus, in a conceptual ruse, make plural both homosexualities that are “not quite” and histories that are “like.” (“Ruses” are necessary historical and conceptual tools, and in using the term, I invoke Hurston’s “lying,” a trickster’s rhetorical strategy.)

In other versions of this writing, I have expressed my distrust of the claim that imperialism brought homophobia, not homosexuality. I suspect that the reverse might be true, that homophobia precedes homosexuality, but this requires a kind of thinking beyond this current experiment.

My goal is not to dismiss “the” homosexual from queer African studies, but to be more deliberate about using its figural status, that is, to be more attuned to the act of cultural translation required to “use” this figure in African studies.

Doing so requires a few space-clearing gestures.

The first involves re-thinking the use of anthropological studies.

Within lgbti African studies, the figure of the homosexual has most frequently been approached in functionalist terms. Homosexuals and homosexual-like figures are “accepted” and even “revered” in certain traditional communities. They are both integrated into and integral to the lifeworlds so studies, fulfilling useful social and cultural roles, be it as spiritual leaders and advisers or as alternate social couplings, supplemental to other hetero-formations.

A thread holding together what are, admittedly, a wide range of studies is that various kinds of homo-like acts and identities thrived and even flourished in pre-colonial Africa. And, further, that many of these survive, albeit in altered ways, in the present. Such histories are resources for contemporary individuals and movements.

These studies are useful.

But.

I find myself asking how the insights from a “paranoid” version of queer studies might enable a different kind of approach, in which we might track how strategies of producing properly gendered and sexualized African subjects also queered other kinds of Africans.

Such information is available in the same ethnographies we mine for homo-evidence.

Let me offer a for instance.

Ethnographies and ethno-philosophy have consistently stressed the importance of “family” and “community” to Africans. They have also emphasized the non-place of the anomalous “loner,” a figure described as evil in some of this work. The loner is the “poisoner,” one whose very existence threatens the social.

The kind of queer history I am envisioning might trace the history of the “unattached” in African ethno-histories. It might focus less on those successfully embedded within African life and customs and think through those made anomalous by invented traditions and ritual practices.

This task is about specters, figures who haunt histories that exclude them, and so it is difficult but not impossible to write. It is also a necessary history as NGO-funded African activists embrace and are coerced (in ever so subtle ways) into the politics of homonormativity. There is something to be said here about how social conservatism functions in progressive African organizations to foreclose a more radical politics. This is not yet an argument I can make, as I feel its foundations, though deeply felt, are too precarious to withstand scrutiny.

In part, I am thinking of how to write a history of shadows. That this might be the task of a deeply materialist queer African history still remains to be thought and written. As speculative as this sounds, I must underscore its urgency. It is a project for now, for us.

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