I have yet to return to Leo Africanus in any sustained way. What I knew about him in 2002, the moment of our first “encounter,” is probably outdated, if not misremembered. What sticks, a social hierarchy of Africa, based on religion, politics, architecture, skin color, and sexuality. An opening into African Queer Histories?
Ovr ancient Chroniclers of Africa, to wit, Bichri and Meshudi knew nothing of the land of Negros but onely the regions of Guechet and Cano: for in their time all other places of the land of Negros were vndiscouered. But in the yecre of the Hegcira 380, by the meanes of a certaine Mahumetan which came into Barbarie, the residue of the said land was found out, being as then inhabited by great numbers of people, which liued a brutish and sauage life, without any king, gouernour, common wealth, or knowledge of husbandrie. Clad they were in skins of beasts, neither had they any peculiar wiues: in the day time they kept their cattell; and when night came they resorted ten or twelue both men and women into one cottage together, using hairie skins instead of beds, and each man choosing his leman which he had most fancy vnto. Warre they wage against no other nation, ne yet are desirous to trauell out of their owne countrie. (The History and Description of Africa, Book Seven, English Trans. 1600)
The “problem” with “Negros” is that they have no conception of ownership. Granted, this observation (and similar ones) enable colonialism, but it might be useful to muse on what the absence of “ownership” entails.
A seeming absence of species distinction—the men and women live much like the “cattell” they herd. In groups, without any particular distinctions of rank or privilege. Indiscriminate intimacy based on “fancy,” not commitment. A lack of political ambition, suggested by their unwillingness to “wage warre.” An absence of curiosity, a provincialism marked by the absence of desire to “trauell out of their owne countrie.”
Multiple generations of African-descended people have labored not to be the people Africanus describes. Have we reached a historical point where Africanus’s fabrications—evidence suggests he did not visit many of the areas he describes—might be recycled? If so, to what end?
This passage leaves me ambivalent, a step away from the rage it elicited during that first encounter. I am interested in its possibilities, especially how it thinks about ownership and intimacy. I am fascinated by the seemingly unstructured world it describes, one driven by libidinal rhythms at once utopian and provincial. Simultaneously, I am too much a descendant of the athomi not to be troubled by its depictions: Africanus’s “Negros” “fail” to desire modernity. Their “queerness,” for that is what “the modern” period will term it,” is a problem of desiring wrongly. Desiring too much and not enough. And, worse, refusing to make inextricable desire and ownership. For daring to be “too close” to “cattell.”
Africanus’s own modernity is predicated on his distance from these “Negros.” What might proximity to Negro a-modernity yield?