Queer Africa: The Problem of Evidence

Consider the following:

Taken from an archive file dated 9th May 1912, it cultivates multiple desires. For some of us, a desire that these two found comfort with each other, no matter its form; for others, a desire that these two were “gay,” forerunners of some kind; for others, a desire to relocate them from the prison to an elsewhere, so that their “desire” to be together might be “real” rather than coincidental or forced—prisons are ambivalent places in histories of sexuality, where “acts” and “identities” rub in awkward ways.

I foreground “desire” because it is not clear what the passage describes. What different readers want it to be is as much a part of the story as the truncated story. The archive document from which this comes—my thanks to Brett Shadle for sharing it—similarly tells a story of unknowing. The Superintendent of Prisons writes,

He continues,

I want to hold on to this “undecidability,” to foreground what we “know” and defer, for the moment, what we “wish to know.”

I do so for a number of reasons.

While I appreciate the polemical and political reasons for advocating a “we are everywhere” and, in many cases, a “we were everywhere” stance, I am never quite sure who this “we” is and, at times, even less sure why it is. Surely the homosexual colonial officers cannot be so easily aligned with their colonized intimate “partners.” Nor can homosexual slave owners be so casually conflated with their intimate “partners,” even though, as a semi-good Foucauldian, I know there was “no” homosexuality then. More pointedly, I am concerned about the kind of spatio-temporal anachronisms that would seek to take this incident in Mombasa as “evidence” for a “queen-sized” narrative about a transcultural “we.”

I am also interested in thinking about the spectrum of male intimacies, about the range of friendship and ethnic and work-based and kinship-based practices. Rather than terming these “gay” in the pejorative high school sense that fears male-male intimacies, I would like to privilege an expansive range of male-male interactions that are not driven by homo-panic.

Focusing on a more expansive range of intimate male relationships is risky, of course. It can align too easily with conservative and sometimes homophobic interpretations of history that claim men slept together because they were “more friendly” in those days, and that men wrote each other love poems to demonstrate their “great friendship.” All of this might be true, but rather than accepting a potential range of male intimacies, conservative commentators dismiss altogether the possibility for some intimacies. Put more bluntly: some men kissed as friends and others kissed as lovers.

Yet, I also want to resist the homophobic logic that “always knows” what “those people” do. It is the logic of Martin Ssempa, which says all homosexual men fist each other while high on drugs. It is the logic that claims homosexuals cannot teach in primary or high schools because they are out-of-control pedophiles. It is the “bar” and “locker room” logic of the now repealed DADT that positions all available men as irresistibly objects for homosexual lust.

How, then, might we read this fragment from 1912?

I am intrigued by Convict 168. What did he report and why did he report it? One answer might be that he is newly aware of “homosexuality” as a criminal offense, and his report is thus evidence of a “homo-logic” among Africans at this time. Another answer is that he is aware of prison offenses, being subject to what Florence Bernault aptly describes as the petty criminalization of life under colonial rule. That is, Convict 168 reports an “act” he understands to be “against the rules.” Whether or not he “agrees” with the “rule” is irrelevant. He might have understood that favor might be gained for “telling on” other convicts. Or, he might have wanted to share Convict 3188’s mat and blanket.

I want to hold on to all these possibilities—to suggest that Kenya’s sexual(ity) archives are more often “winks” than firm handshakes. In other words, I want to hold on to the “of course there must have been” and the “we cannot know for sure,” because both statements create conceptual possibilities, though not necessarily empirical ones. I want to suggest that “unknowability” is less a theoretical gambit with little payoff and more an instance of generosity toward the past and possibility for presents and futures.

Of course, we cannot avoid the problem of “location.”

The file comes from Mombasa, a location that had “a reputation” by the late nineteenth century for its modes of gender and sexual flexibilities—I had written “dissidence,” but that assumes a normative framework that I am not sure was in play. As a port, Mombasa, though explicitly excluded from Richard Burton’s “Sotadic Zone,” implicitly dwells there. After all, the logic guiding the “Sotadic Zone” is spatial as well as racial: such zones are “contact zones,” places where capital flows and bodies move in a variety of ways, marked as much for their economic possibilities as for their socio-cultural promiscuities.

As a site for and of Modernity’s intimate promiscuities, Mombasa is a peculiar knowledge world, one where the meanings of the convicts’ actions, those who share the mat and blanket and the one who reports them, acquire additional significance, even as this significance is still filtered through the logic of the colonial prison. However, because Mombasa is such a site of arrival and departure, and because we know so little about these convicts, we also cannot know for sure how they understood Mombasa’s intimate reputation or participated in its forms of intimacy.

In following this trace, I build on Anjali Arondekar’s powerful and suggestive provocation on the uses of colonial archives to “read” sexuality:

The critical challenge is to imagine a practice of archival reading that incites relationship between the seductions of recovery and the occlusion such retrieval mandates. By this I mean to say: What if the recuperative gesture returns us to a space of absence? How then does one restore absence to itself? Put simply, can an empty archive also be full?

“How sexuality is made visible in the colonial archive,” she continues, may “paradoxically disclos[e] the very limits of that visibility” (3). With her, I am interested in rethinking the assumption that finding an “object” in an archive—a document, a stain, even a used condom—“somehow lead[s] to a formulation of subjectivity: the presumption that if a body is found, then a subject can be recovered” (3).

Much can be said about what it means to “recover” a “subject,” and I will return to this problem later in this series.

Let me “conclude” by noting the problem of feeling this particular trace arouses. It is difficult to lionize the two convicts who shared a mat as queer heroes. Traces in the colonial archive, they do not have the aesthetic presence of a Wilde or a Whitman, nor is it clear if their being imprisoned has anything to do with their intimate practices. Even if it did, it’s not clear that their intimate practices merit our approbation, or even that it would matter. The search for “others like us” too often results in such moments, where what is found disappoints or frustrates or leaves us faced with our own desires for other stories, and slightly guilty for having those desires.