Cruising the Black Maze

I cruise a black maze.
—Essex Hemphill

The “emergence” of black gay men in the academy was marked by a curious confession: I have a white lover or I have sex with white men, as though intellectual legibility within a predominantly white academy was predicated on a desire “for whiteness.” (See foundational work by Isaac Julien, Darieck Scott, Reginald Shepherd, Melvin Dixon, Phillip Brian Harper, Robert Reid-Pharr, Samuel Delany. I take desire for whiteness from Langston Hughes.) Desiring white bodies was deemed “transgressive,” evidence that black gay men had moved “beyond race,” which is to say, beyond “racial resentment,” that dangerous legacy from the 1970s, and could safely participate in queer studies. Black gay intellectuals demonstrated their cosmopolitanism, their participation in global circuits of feeling beyond the resentments of nation-feeling and nation-history, by confessing their still-transgressive desires for white flesh.

It seemed, from a certain perspective, that one needed to articulate this desire to join the small group of black queer intellectuals. To admit one’s desire for another black queer did not merit academic scrutiny. Thus, a too-polite academy enamored with transgression across color lines—and dedicated to maintaining those color lines by naming movement across as simultaneously transgressive and liberatory (see Robert Reid-Pharr on this)—rendered black-on-black queerness invisible, illegible, un-queer, even as the interracial acquired the paradoxical status of normatively queer, that is, legibly queer.
I wanted to give you
my sweet man pussy,
but you grunted me away
and all other Black men
who tried to be near you.
Our beautiful nigga lips and limbs
stirred no desire in you.
Instead you chose blonde,
milk-toned creatures to bed.
But you were still one of us,
dark like us, despised like us.—Essex Hemphill
There is something embarrassing about the claims I have made, something that feels “unreconstructed.” As though I’m stuck in a polyester groove. Resurrecting old resentments. To think about the intra-racial, to use “intra” to compete with or complicate a focus on the “inter,” feels Shameful.

Black-on-black queerness is much too banal or uninteresting. Against Joseph Beam’s claim that black men loving black men is a revolutionary act, the queer academy has yawned, deemed interest in black-on-black love as too voyeuristic (we are too polite) or simply not interesting because (and here I get mean) black queer men are only interesting when they profess their desire for whiteness as good post-racial subjects.
I’m writing an essay on Essex Hemphill. In doing so, I am returning to the wave of scholarship I read in the 1990s by black gay scholars, to questions that have been rudely simmering, to the particular and peculiar ways black queerness becomes “interesting” as a post-racial formation, rarely as an intra-racial scene. To be fair, the inter-racial is more regulated, more monitored, as Nayan Shah’s work demonstrates. Black-on-black love is interesting when it transgresses a normative claim about black deviance. Yet the transgression of normativity against deviance becomes tricky for the black queer who wants to name something “revolutionary.”

My sentences are snarling.
I’m writing an essay on Essex Hemphill and wondering about what it means to write an essay on him. In a future project, I argue that he bridges black arts affect with black gay feeling, a clumsy formulation, but rooting his work in the 1970s yields a richer picture than queer deracination provides.

Yet, I offer an incomplete story.

A fuller story would note the many discussions about black-on-black love that were taking place in non-academic spaces, on email lists where terms such as same-gender loving (SGL) marked points of departure for POC. As a latecomer and sometime participant in some of these discussions, I learned to cherish the fecundity of these discussions, to note the worlds they were building, the possibilities they created for thinking and acting, even as I mourned their absence from the academic spaces I wanted to occupy.
When I started writing this post, a day ago, the first few paragraphs came easily, fueled by the urgency I always feel when I read Hemphill. I wanted to tell a story about queerness and race, to nag.

As always, the urgency of the moment comes up against the habit of training. Writing creates a space for thinking—I think most effectively when I write. Writing also creates a space where “nuance” shades so easily into cowardice. Where the question of “what will those with power over me think?” meets “do I dare risk sounding retrograde?” and, worse, “do I dare risk sounding stupid?”

Thus, the genre of the endlessly qualified essay, the overly diluted claim, the overly specialized argument that moves from focusing on the world to counting commas. My first inclination is to revise the previous sentence, to make it more “nuanced,” which is to say, to blunt its edge.

We are, let me qualify that, I am not much given to “ass-splitting truth,” much as I love Hemphill. Habit. Fear. Anxiety. Careerism. These all-too-real facets of existence. Compounded, also, by a finely tuned ear for what is expected and what I am not ready to give—anger, rage, outrage, answers, solutions, absolution, emotional labor. (An unwritable essay muses on the affective labor of black academics.)

I wonder whether “writing on Hemphill” consists of endlessly qualifying him, turning him into a cup of tea brewed from a thrice-used teabag.

Is it a new language we must learn?
Is it a miracle sign that foretells of us
speaking in tongues and finally understanding?
These are the elusive questions that foil me.

And also, always, the problem of desire in Hemphill:

I want to court outside the race,
outside the class, outside the attitudes —
but love is a dangerous word
in this small town.
A note:

The original cover of Ceremonies, the 1992 Plume edition, features two black men on the cover, Hemphill and another man standing in shadow behind him. The most recent edition, the 2000 Cleis Press version, features a beautifully sculpted model standing alone. I don’t have my copy handy, so I don’t know whether the model is identified.

Between 1992 and 2000, queer studies had emerged as a “force” that included a number of black queer men among its numbers. It had also foregrounded deracination as the price black queers had to pay to participate in the queer academy.

These are coincidences.

Signs taken for wonders.