Genealogies are strange things, anchored as much by desire as they are rooted in history. They offer less the certainties of affirmation and more the pleasures of convergence, enabling fellow travelers to share tips, forge practices of belonging, find and create new orientations—there is a directedness to genealogies, though it is never uni-directional, and starting points can be startlingly disorienting. Always the pleasurable disturbance of the now what?
And for those of us, perhaps all of us, who live multiply directed lives, situated at the crossroads (as hyenas) of fields and institutions, orientations and desires, geographies and loyalties, all of which tantalize—here the hyena does choose, but chooses to keep returning to the crossroads—genealogies can be especially rewarding and tempting, serving as contingent anchors for shared pleasures.
I am thinking about this following a brief, intensely pleasurable exchange with a senior colleague and mentor about Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” We discussed, briefly, its genealogical repercussions, the kinds of work it has enabled, and continues to enable. There is still much to be said—the encounter, as I say, was brief and pleasurable.
To my mind, this is the essay that founds black queer studies, the one foundation without which the still-to-be-realized potential of the field-area can never be achieved. It is also the essay that grounds a black queer diasporic project, as it weaves in and out of Africa-based slavery to argue for the ongoing genealogical and intimate ruptures that constitute and reconstitute embodiment and intimacy across the black diaspora. One of its lessons, from which I learn constantly, is to take seriously the intimate irruptions and disruptions of affect and embodiment, to de-naturalize and historicize, impossibly, the intimate structures that we take for granted, to understand the fictionality of what survives slavery in its fictionality, which is not to dismiss its materiality, but to texture that materiality.
And so, as a result, I teach this essay in every class, undergraduate, graduate, because it is so incredibly foundational and necessary.
Now, those familiar with it will recognize that it is largely unteachable—it is vintage Spillers, which is to say a dazzling performance of a gumbo-like intelligence. Its overly-rich stew, deconstructive, psychoanalytic, historic, sociological, historical, and its points of intervention, as a critique of Moynihan, an implicit critique of certain reifications of family and motherhood in black communities, as a re-thinking of post-Moynihan work, as a study of black intimacy, as a founding reading of black affect, all of these make it a dense work to negotiate, one in which one seeks and finds what a former mentor called “glimmers” rather than veins. But so much richness lives in those glimmers, so much still to be realized.
I think, increasingly, about the after-life of this essay, how much it still has to teach us about the history of black affect, the ongoing history of black embodiment, the multiple histories of black intimacy, how even moments that Spillers might foreclose (there are a few) create rich openings—we can be impertinent, as she teaches in her writing, and this as a mark of deep respect, not merely the dissipations of youth.
I mention this essay, in part, because much of my recent thinking, at least over the past few years, has been less about the new ground I want to cover—I am, despite what others might think, less an innovative thinker, and more a ruminator—and much more about the older ground that I think we have yet to really cover. In part, of course, this stems from my interest in non-recent, albeit still recent histories. I “stop” around the 1960s, at least for the ongoing book project. I remain forever indebted to Adrienne Rich’s notion of Re-vision, to return to old texts with new eyes, or, in my case, with differently powered lenses, different kinds of investments, to find the kinds of resources there that might enable altogether different kinds of orientations today—orientations as spatial metaphors for intellectual and affective affiliations or revolutions.
I have yet to take hives as metaphors, but I am struck by the multiple openings of honeycombs, and the clotted richness inside. I am less interested in extracting that richness than I am in delving into its sticky promise. This final metaphor I have yet to parse. As one for the kind of academic work I find most rewarding, now.