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.