Notes on Queer Scholarship

Somewhere around 2007, I found myself reading Alexander Crummell’s sermons. I use the strangeness of “I found myself” to register my sense, even now, of how unexpected that was. I was, after all, writing a queer dissertation. Surely, my objects of study could have been more, well, queer? There are no scandals in Crummell’s life, as far as I know. He had what might be called an “attitude” and was “elitist,” but was otherwise pretty much stuffy and conservative, dedicated to building a perfectly respectable black middle class that would be led by the elites—Du Bois gets his idea of the talented tenth most directly from Crummell, who was his mentor.

Crummell’s sermons are boring. Really, really boring.

This, I hasten to add, was a far cry from the sexy dissertation work I had once envisioned that would look at queer innovative poetries—Frank O’Hara to Assotto Saint to Carl Phillips. I still salivate over the sexiness of the project.

Perhaps living in the rural Midwest had de-sexified my thinking. Perhaps I saw in Crummell a future-yet-to-come, in which I would learn to speak like most Kenyan public speakers—ponderously, giving weight to each word, especially prepositions and conjunctions.

I knew in some obscure way that I was wary of subcultural queer sexiness—every time I read a book or article about a limited release movie or impossible to find record (on vinyl, of course) or once in a lifetime performance in an underground bunker that required 4 obscure passwords to enter and was asked to celebrate an ostensibly shared queerness or to take some paradigm from such practices, I flinched. It was a queerness that was too distant, unimaginable, fashioned, I thought, for other spaces, other people, other possibilities. And for all its sexiness, it did not seem to help me get past Crummell or Kenyatta.

Some of my anxieties over metropolitan subcultural sexiness have been captured by my friend Scott Herring—perhaps our shared Midwest experience produced a shared disorientation. His critiques of queer metronormativity resonate deeply.

I wondered then, and now, about the cluster of objects and events and situations deemed queer, about what felt like their relative inaccessibility, even and especially when I was in spaces that abounded with them. I felt awkward at the Hide/Seek exhibition in DC, for instance, unable to inhabit the shared space it sought to create, irritated, also, by my inability to inhabit this space. And while it’s all well and good to cite Lee Edelman’s early claim in GLQ that queer is not about “going home,” it’s a different thing to experience oneself constantly un-homed by the sexiness of one’s academic neighborhood—one might talk of queer academic gentrification, but that sounds a little too precious.

Even though my (in progress) book has a sexy title—frottage—it is not sexy. Indeed, for all that it lives in relatively sexy academic neighborhoods—the black diaspora and queer studies—it is the staid neighbor, a little appalled by the loud music and garish makeup of queer-er neighbors. I have been trying to think about the un-sexiness of this project as a kind of claim that might be made, as creating a kind of space in the neighborhood for the dowdy and unfashionable, and the impossible to avoid.

I am not, here, arguing against the life-wielding possibilities of queer subcultural events, objects, and situations. One finds resources to survive and thrive where they may be found. I am noting, instead, the kinds of anxieties produced by queer projects that privilege these subcultural events, objects, and situations as the guarantors of a better queerness, even where the better is more fashionably alienated. In reading much very sexy queer work, one experiences oneself as having failed to attain the hand stamp that will glow under special lavender lamps. The air becomes thin.

And so I found myself reading Crummell’s sermons. A mainstream, rather boring guy without a hint of sexual scandal. And from Crummell, engaging other non-sexy thinkers and non-sexy works in non-sexy ways. When I write about sex, and I do, I sound much more like Philip Kitoto than Susie Bright. I am not against sexiness, I add defensively (too defensively?). Nor am I against paths and gaps and crevices and scratches on obscure vinyl records—those geographies and soundtracks of queerness. Nor am I arguing for archives and methods of reading that “really matter.” Those who have read my academic work recognize my approaches as incredibly mainstream, sometimes leavened with creative comma use. And in the (perhaps outmoded) tradition of my discipline, I devote much time and space to “close reading.”

I wanted—still want—to find a way to address Kenyatta’s claim that there was “no homosexuality among the Gikuyu,” and I knew (or thought) I could not respond to this claim without crossing the busy highways where his thinking is a major form of currency. (Those who have seen traders on Kenya’s roads will grasp my meaning.) Even when I attempted to use side paths, I found them heavily thicketed, brambled by guerrilla histories, obstructed by machete-wielding revolutionaries. I wanted, still want, to probe what I have elsewhere described as miri ya mikongoe, the fictional roots of cultural and other forms of belonging to which we cling so tenaciously to ward against deracination, to account for the forms of embedding that we cannot do without, and not necessarily out of duty (this I take from Elspeth Probyn, Marlon Ross, Joseph Beam, and Elizabeth Povinelli).

And so, much like Ngugi’s Waiyaki, I find myself entering the hut of night-masked elders, aware of the good they desire for me—this way lies prosperity—and aware, also, of the inchoate desires that cannot turn toward that good, desires that intuit the cost of that good. (To think of what I often describe as normativity as a “good” requires some major re-orientation, but to think of it as a “bad” has come to seem too easy, and the too-easy makes me itchy. And, perhaps, it is that “normativity” does not translate well over different time-spaces, and my own predilection for dowdiness asks for space.)

Strange alliances are forged in dark spaces, and it’s striking how the demands of tradition-bound normativity can feel akin to those of subcultural sexiness.

6 thoughts on “Notes on Queer Scholarship

  1. This right here is a great post I will read again and again in the coming days. Very layered.

    “I still salivate on the sexiness of the project.” Brother, living in the midwest can desexify anyone’s thinking. Even though I would say the West Coast can do that also. (Like here in Portland where manufactured rebellion is mainstream and being conservative becomes pushing against the grain).

    I’m no expert on queer culture, but I see some of what you speak of here in Portland. This very sexy, ubercoded, almost unreachable, and, I must say, very gentrified, queerness. I think we might be the world capital of it.

    Ah, Kenyatta. I have been trying to unpack the man for so long. Him and Moi. But I’m not as civil as you. Or maybe my infantilism only allows me to take cheap shots at them. To avoid critical theory and in taking them to task become somewhat like them. Let me say that reading here has encouraged me not to be lazy any longer. It might be time to grow up.

    This fictive notion of culture you speak of (and Kenyatta’s claim that there was no homosexuals among the Gikuyu) reminds me of Milan Kundera’s idea of nostalgia. That nostalgia is not longing for the world as it was, but rather as it should have been. Who is Kenyatta, then, to use his creative memory and heterofascist motives to remember definitively for all Gikuyus that there have been no homosexuals among them?

    I’d go a little further and argue (very badly as usual) that culture is always fictive. Who is that racist Frenchman who described a nation as “a group of people who share common lies about their past, common hate for their present neighbors, and common illusions about their future”? The same may be said of cultures, no? This Kenyatta illusion of a mythopoetic Gikuyu culture sans homosexuals.

    And now the usual dive into psychoanalysis: recall that Claude Levi-Strauss bit about how when pressed (or is it “badgered”?) as to whether they really believe that they are descended from some bird or an erupting volcano (you know, the numerous creation stories), most tribal people Strauss badgered would say, “Well, that’s what our ancestors believed.” They’d resign themselves and pit their ancestors as those who really believed, a kind of transference.

    In another way, the ancestors become those whose world/knowledge we must not disturb or disrupt (“we know very well there are gays among us, but for the sake of our ancestors it is better if we pretend there aren’t).

    This transference of belief onto the Other (or rather believing through the Other) is such a part of the conversation we’re having in many parts of Africa right now about this issue. And why does Kenyatta mark out just Gikuyus as sans homosexuals instead of the usual marking Africa as such? Pressed even further (as I have written on my blog), would he cede speaking on behalf of all Gikuyu and defend just his village or his family as sans homosexuals?

    Pressed even further, would Kenyatta as to whether there were no gays among the Gikuyu, would he say, “Well, that’s what our ancestors believed.”

    • I miswrote this last bit: pressed even further as to whether there were no gays among the Gikuyu, I wonder if Kenyatta would say, “Well, that’s what our ancestors believed.”

  2. I am so tickled to be mentioned on the same page with a person as feisty and independent-minded as Crummel, I just have to say “Thank You!”

    Former 70s Black Studies High School Campaigner,

    Susie

    • Ok, seriously? THE Susie Bright commented right after me. Eish, I have to stop being an infantilist on your blog, Keguro, if some of my s/heros read here.

      Onward! to more infantilism.

  3. I jump on Kenyatta unfairly (and perhaps too easily) and have, elsewhere, offered a more nuanced reading of his work, taking into consideration the sexological world of Malinowski as he interacted with Havelock Ellis. If one reads Kenyatta carefully–I had to learn to read him without so much anger–one can trace the influence of sexology as it mingles with theories of deracination: Malinowski had argued that queerness emerged from modernity’s deracination, this a refinement on Ellis’s claims for “acquired homosexuality.” Gaurav Desai has the best reading of Facing Mount Kenya as the kind of strategic fiction you describe–and here, it’s worth remembering that for all his claims, Kenyatta hadn’t lived among “traditional” Gikuyu since he was about 9 or 10.

    It’s crucial to remember that in London at the time, L.S.B. Leakey and Elspeth Huxley were both speaking *for* the Gikuyu, as experts, and, of course, a few books had already been published by the Rutledges and Cagnolo. Kenyatta was in a saturated field and fighting, I think, to stay afloat. (I am much less sympathetic in other writing on him, but I like to contextualize him.) He was also a very smart opportunist and liked to play “African.” No one was going to press Kenyatta on anything–and I have to some degree agreed with him that there were “no homosexuals” among the Gikuyu, if one uses homosexual in the quasi-historical sense Foucault does (medicalized, legalized, ontologized) or even in a subcultural sense as a specific group of people with specific tastes, habits, and peculiarities that disturb or unsettle gendered and sexual certainties. (And, here, let me add that Blyden is very important to this story, because he provides the languages that distinguish between duty and desire, and that’s key because it means that desiring subjects may exist, but need not receive recognition.)

    I think the reason Kenyatta becomes so important–Facing Mount Kenya sold very few copies in 1938 and the remaining copies of that first edition were destroyed during the war; it was reprinted in the early 1950s–is that he can imagine counter-collectivities against British imaginings, and this carries on. He authorizes present-day speakers to think of African culture as a “thing” to be preserved. Simon Gikandi has some wonderful essays on Kenyatta’s cosmopolitanism that are must reads.

    I lived in Portland for a while–I liked the weather. And the libraries. And perhaps I should have said rural Midwest. Chicago is a whole other place.

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