Dissertation-Era Writing

Although issues of gender normativity and social respectability run through Afro-diasporic discourse from at least the mid nineteenth century, the genealogical imperative comes into its own at the precise moment when black diaspora studies and black studies in general were being institutionalized in the 1960s and 1970s. The implications of this historical coincidence range far too widely to be covered here. Suffice to say, the genealogical imperative, with its focus on the (re)production of normative gender relationships, the importance of kinship relations, the importance of familial descent, and the policing of queer sexualities, all of these became foundational elements to black cultural and intellectual discourse in ways whose full impact we have yet to trace. I focus on a U.S. context here not only because it provides one of the clearest examples of how a genealogical model develops, but also because the U.S., for a variety of historical, institutional, and financial reasons, becomes one of the key centers for diasporic scholarship in the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most important incitement to discourse for emerging black studies was Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous The Negro Family: The Case for Action (1965). Moynihan portrayed a black family in crisis, fractured by the legacy of slavery, urbanization, and female-led households. In response, black scholars were eager to disprove Moynihan’s thesis and to demonstrate the enduring bonds of kinship. Influential and often disparate 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.”[1] 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?” (66) 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. (66)

While their critique of “family” is well taken, this turn toward kinship reinstates literal and symbolic means of genealogical descent as the basis for social being. Especially toward the end of the passage, the tentative nature at the beginning, “would suggest,” “might single out,” becomes bolder, “nevertheless modeled.” This move from tentative speculation to bold declaration exemplifies the foundational myth of what Hortense Spillers terms “the inviolable ‘Black Family’” a “structure [that] remains one of the supreme social achievements of African-Americans under conditions of enslavement.”[2] But if the term “family” remained more metaphoric than real, a figure of speech that described fictive kinship bonds, it was still structured as primarily heterosexual and reproductive. Varied terms such as “family,” “community,” “kinship,” “nation,” and even the very notion of “politics,” were filtered through a heteronormative lens.

By no means am I suggesting that a black heteronormative discourse emerged without challenge. Important figures such as Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith critiqued the heterosexist strain of what Dwight McBride has aptly termed “straight black studies.”[3] However, these critiques struggled against the not-so-subtle injunction that “representative” black scholars, artists, and activists should champion forms of gender and sexual normativity. McBride explains, for example, that James Baldwin attempted to position himself as a speaker “for the race” by “masking his specificity, his sexuality, his difference” (223). Interviewed on the Dick Cavett Show, Baldwin claimed to be defending his “wife,” his “woman,” and his “children” (222), positioning himself as a black heterosexual patriarch so that he could speak as a “race man.” Even figures publicly known to be queer often adopted the veneer of heteronormativity to speak for and to “the race.”

We cannot underestimate the ongoing influence of Moynihan’s report, especially in terms of the stark oppositions that it has posed for black studies: community or oblivion. We can mark the impact of this discourse by staging an implicit debate between political scientist Cathy Cohen and cultural critic Rinaldo Walcott, a debate that takes place on the unsettled and unsettling terrain of black queer studies. Advancing a queer critique of “identity categories,” Cohen clarifies that she is not advocating their “destruction or abandonment,” clarifying, “We must reject a queer politics that seems to ignore in its analysis of the usefulness of traditionally named categories the roles of identity and community as paths to survival, using shared experiences of oppression and resistance to build indigenous resources, shape consciousness, and act collectively.”[4] Cohen’s invocations of “identity” and “community” implicitly derive from a post-Moynihan perspective that conflates identity with community. To abandon either “identity” or “community” would be to risk oblivion, to step off the well-tested paths to “survival.” Queer critique is welcome but, as my piano teacher once had it, ma non troppo (not too much). Walcott succinctly comments, “community as a discourse and a practice remains the fetish of the black studies project.”[5] Given the importance of identity and community within black studies, Walcott poses some ground-clearing questions: “Is black queer studies the improper subject of the black studies project? Or can black queer studies even reside within the confines of the black studies project proper?” (91)

One possible answer comes from Robert Reid-Pharr’s collection of essays Black Gay Man. Reid-Pharr uses the title of his book to frame three separate sections; ultimately, however, each section bleeds into the next. Of particular interest is where the final essay in the section “Black” ends and the first essay in the section “Gay” begins. The concluding essay in “Black,” titled “At Home in America,” ruminates on the ostensibly perpetual “crisis” of the black family. As the essay ends, he asks, “What lies beyond the black family and its constant production, however awkward, of black people, with their black problems and black crises?”[6] This set of concerns marks the end of the section “Black” and announces the opening of the section “Gay,” a section that opens with the bold declaration,

If there is one thing that marks us as queer, a category that is somehow different, if not altogether distinct, from the heterosexual, then it is undoubtedly our relationship to the body, particularly the expansive ways in which we utilize and combine vaginas, penises, breasts, buttocks, hands, arms, feet, stomachs, mouths and tongues in our expressions of not only intimacy, love, and lust but also and more importantly shame, contempt, despair, and hate. (“Dinge” 85)

This particular turn suggests that “beyond” the black family lies the embodied, desiring queer. Indeed, the essay “Dinge” focuses on queer interracial intimacy without once mentioning the black family. Implicitly, the black queer is the figure “beyond” the black family. How this “beyond” should be read, however, is an ongoing problem for black queer studies.

Although I have suggested that structurally Black Gay Man seems to rupture the relationship between black and queer, it might be more accurate to claim Reid-Pharr cleaves the terms. United structurally, black and queer are animated by different concerns: on the one hand, race understood through, and as, the logic of kinship and on the other sexuality as produced through the (il)logic of same-sex interracial desire. Paradoxically, the black family stands in as a metonym for race while fraught interracial desire produces the black queer, or, as Reid-Pharr provocatively puts it, “You say black gay. I hear nigger fag” (103). Historically, the term “nigger” was used not only to disenfranchise black individuals, but also as the ultimate way to mark their deracination. One left Africa belonging to an ethnic group and a family; one arrived in America a nigger. Similarly, when used in homophobic discourse, “fag” disembeds an individual from ostensibly heteronormative settings, marking one as an outsider, sexually deracinated. While both terms have been reclaimed for, arguably, progressive causes, as Reid-Pharr uses them, they invoke these histories of displacement and deracination. Conjoined, they mark the black queer’s exclusion from the domain of the black family and the race for which it is a metonym.

“Nigger fag” demonstrates the centrality of deracination to black queer identities and, in so doing, makes diaspora central to the emergence of black queer identities.[7] We are at some remove from Foucauldian-inspired paradigms in which individuals are queered through institutional discourses. If we foreground deracination—a deliberately diffuse term—we must attend to the various sexual and non-sexual discourses that deracinate black individuals, ranging from sexological and anthropological texts, to bills of sale and ownership and insurance documents. Although this manuscript does not attend to such a wide range of documents, I want to suggest the possible scope of this project, and its potential for bringing black queer studies into dialogue with a host of seemingly unrelated, indeed, non-humanist disciplines.

Rinaldo Walcott provocatively argues, “the diaspora by its very nature, its circumstances, is queer,” adding, “the territories and perambulations of diaspora circuits, identifications, and desires are queer in their making and their expressions” (97). Rather than accepting the proposition that diaspora is always already queer, we might specify how diaspora queers. Such a task might begin by showing how discourses of the black diaspora, and diaspora in general, arrest the deracinating, queer act of dissemination in the term “diaspora,” a term that refers to scattering or sowing, by foregrounding insemination and fertilization as the inevitable end-point of diaspora.[8] In contrast, Walcott would have us attend to the queer implications of scattering and sowing, the deracination that creates modern black and queer subjects. By making explicit the queer implications of historical diasporas, we simultaneously make visible the normalizing, genealogical imperatives in current scholarship on the diaspora. Whether scholars claim that a focus on diaspora maintains and preserves race or that it disrupts race through foregrounding hybridity, both approaches attach diaspora to hetero-futurity.

My goal in critiquing the genealogical imperative in diasporic scholarship is not to suggest that we can “move away” from such a foundation, for to do so would mean we jettison an entire body of work that has had profound and necessary social, cultural, and political effects. Unlike Lee Edelman, who asks that we accede to the impossible task of refusing the promise of politics, I am interested in retaining a notion of the political. My critique, then, is mainly methodological. How might a queer approach enable us to re-read the archives of diaspora? We might understand diaspora as a more antinomian formation, not dedicated solely to preserving and extending genealogy, but focused also on the innovative ways in which diaspora has engendered experimental modes of living and loving.

[1] Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) 65. Subsequent citations in text.

[2] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 218.

[3] Dwight A. McBride, “Straight Black Studies,” Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality (New York: New York University Press, 2004) 35-58. Subsequent citations from this volume in the text.

[4] Cathy J. Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) 45.

[5] Rinaldo Walcott, “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in Diaspora,” Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) 91. Subsequent citations in text.

[6] Robert F. Reid-Pharr, Black Gay Man: Essays (New York: New York University Press, 2001) 82. Subsequent citations in text.

[7] It should be clear by now that the notion of a black queer identity exerts considerable pressure on the very notion of identity; it is used here catachrestically, as a convenient shorthand.

[8] In recent critical discourse, especially in the journal Diaspora, diaspora becomes wedded to hetero-futurity. See, for instance, William Safran, “Diasporas in Modern Societies: Myths of Homeland and Return,” Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 83-99. For an alternate, non-heteronormative paradigm of diaspora, see Daniel Boyarin and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing 2003) 85-118.

3 thoughts on “Dissertation-Era Writing

  1. Yikes, I’m a no-nothing, so take me with a dose of salt.

    I thought about Joseph L. White’s “Toward a Black Psychology” which was published in Ebony Magazine in 1970. No academic, but was around at the time and will attest that the ideas were much discussed.

    Reginald L. Jones was an important figure in establishing a Black Psychology. I mention them because school desegregation was an issue which involved so many. Psychology was the entry point for many educators. School desegregation meant that black and white educators engaged with each other. Moynihan’s study came into the discussion via popular press and White’s piece in Ebony provided a counter whose significance may not be apparent from a distance.

  2. Excellent! Thank you.

    I have a slight sense of how Moynihan’s work seeped into the public–I read Haley’s Roots as an extended response, for instance. But this I did not know about.

    Ebony and Jet have very rich diasporic lives, like Drum from South Africa. Because my work focuses on the first half of the 20th C., I am not as versed as I should be in what happens in the latter half–the scholarship, yes, but not much else. And I like the idea that Black Psychology forms a powerful area where Moynihan is taken up. I have tended to look at history, sociology, and anthropology (just more familiar with those fields), but this is a great direction to track.


    And also, thanks for reading over-anxious prose. My academic writing “feels” less friendly than I would like. Not that I am apologizing. I am, after all, writing to the 3 people who will pick it up, maybe.

    • Schools of Social Work and Education have low prestige at most universities. I’ll admit too much of the research isn’t very good. But both are sources of institutional memory–and their low status provides an-other perspective. When Black Studies departments were being formed schools and social work settings were where the “rubber hits the road.”

      Reginal Jones’ textbook “Black Psychology” was in print for more than 30 years. Almost certainly your library will have a copy. It’s a collection of articles so a quick perusal will give you an overview of research of the time which often had an educational or social work setting in mind.

      William Labov’s 1972 Atlantic Magazine article “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” was also very influential. It’s hard nowadays to imagine mass market magazine articles being as influential as they were. A language deficit was taken as a fact among educators before Labov, and he pretty much blew that notion out of the water.

      Joseph White’s article is in Jones’ anthology, I couldn’t find it online and can’t scan things easily. I really do think it worth seeking out. The article, much as Labov’s article did, helped to shift popular conversations away from deficit to difference. White touched upon differences in normative gender roles. The article wasn’t research per se, but did shift the tenor of research in multiple areas.

      So one reason to point in the direction of education and social work vis a vis Black Studies is simply because the scholarship is often neglected in those fields. Another reason goes to your interest in the political. Schools are a political battle ground.

      Just before stepping up to the Supreme Court in 1971 Lewis Powell wrote a confidential memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce. It was confidential, but has the same sort of “tip of the iceberg” character I’m claiming for White’s Ebony piece and Labov’s Atlantic article.

      Being somewhat versed in educational scholarship–not very–it’s interesting to me to see how central educational ideas are to conservative think tanks. I’ll spare you from my ranting on that subject, suffice it to say that the institutionalization of conservative think tanks is contemporaneous with the institutionalization of Black Studies departments.

      Way off on a tangent, I think H. L. Hunt provides a window into American rightist political ideology. His idea for a “cashocracy” seemed rantings of a crank then, but how prescient he was!

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