An arbitrary place to start, as all beginnings must be:
John had argued with N’Komo [a native guard at a mental asylum] about the abnormal ways of love-making practised by many of his patients in the asylum. N’Komo had used them as proofs of madness, but John laughed, declaring that if this were true, hundreds of natives in the compounds and in the crowded city yards would need to be put in asylums, for in such places love-making between men was quite usual, as it was between women also.
“I tell you, Doctor. You think only mad people do these things. Listen! I was walking along the street in Johannesburg, not far from Doorfoontein Station. It was about eleven at night. I saw the pick-up van standing by the pavement. Then a native girl ran out of the yard with a white policeman after her. My heart was sore for the poor girl. She looked so frightened as she ran past. Presently the policeman came back. He had the girl. Some other men joined me. The policeman said to us: ‘Have you ever seen a man dressed like a woman?’ And it was true. He showed us the hair under the doek, straw in the dress for breasts, blue paint under the eyes, red paint on the cheeks and mouth. Yes, the man made such a good girl that only the sharp eyes of the policeman had seen this.” (Wulf Sachs, Black Hamlet)
This tiny fragment is part of an eclectic, eccentric queer archive I have been assembling. Eccentric because it focuses on small textual moments in a range of texts that do not add up to what might be called “evidence.” They live, more suggestively, in the realms of gossip, anecdote, speculation, fantasy, aside. And they are so minor—a word here, a sentence there, a paragraph elsewhere—that they require a speculative method grounded in fragments. And a belief that such fragments can be meaningful interventions, even and especially when juxtaposed against more empirically rich methods.
First published in 1937, Black Hamlet is the first full-length psychiatric case study of a black South African, John Chavafambira, by the Jewish psychiatrist Wulf Sachs. It is unique in African histories of psychic labor because, as Megan Vaughan argues, colonial psychiatry understood black subjects as aggregates, not as individuals: archives speak of “the African mind” or “African abnormalities,” rarely, if ever, about individual subjects. Introducing the 1996 edition, Saul Dubow and Jacqueline Rose emphasize that the book is “of its time,” a nod to its complicated racial and developmental politics.
To the fragment.
In forthcoming work on McKay’s Banana Bottom, I argue that sexual modernity was a contested project. Within the colonies, Arnold Davidson’s wonderful question of whether psychiatry or psychoanalysis won encounters a world(ing) where other frames multiply the options. The fragment above hints of these other frames.
While the fragment is recorded (and edited and framed) by Sachs, it depicts an encounter between two “natives” (to stay within the frame) in which sexual modernity, as a mode of knowing, is at stake. N’Komo buys into a symptom-pathology model of sexuality, where same-sex intimacies register as a mark of deviance-disease (criminality always meets medicine). To be responsible and more precise, N’Komo objects to the “abnormal ways of love-making.” While the text too-quickly resolves that “abnormal” into “same-sex,” we can invoke a more capacious sense of sodomy, understood as all non-procreative forms of sex. In Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta insists that only face-to-face (missionary) styles of love-making are “normal.” In any case, same-sex intimacies incarnate “abnormal love-making.”
The “native” laughs.
I want to hold on to this laughter, because it is very important. Not as a sign of native foolishness, as some might claim (“the native is easily amused,” colonial records read), but as a mode of epistemological disagreement. The theory is foolish. Unwarranted. The ostensible link between symptom and pathology is laughable. I will appropriate this: it is a queer and queering laugh, at the level of knowledge production. This is not about “native ignorance.” It is about competing frames of knowledge.
Then I get even more excited: look at Chavafambira’s examples!
At this point, the expected turn would be for the “native,” and Chavafambira is a traditional healer, a nganga, so native+, to invoke the village or tradition or a fantasized pre-colonial past. But that is not the turn. Instead, he says, look at the “compounds” and the “city yards.” Look, in other words, at the world we have created under colonial modernity. We are not mad. Instead, we have innovated modes of intimacy under colonial modernity. Chavafambira redirects us away from ongoing searches for authority in the past to the creative resources with which we engage the present.
And then, for me, it gets even more interesting: he offers, as an example of normality, an anecdote featuring a cross-dressing “native girl.” This would appear to be a strange place to indicate “normality.” But the normality is predicated on at least three elements. First, on the affective reactions of the “native girl” and the sympathy she elicits as she runs past him. She is “frightened” and this fright marks her encounter with colonial modernity, as it registers the racial terror that defines race relations within such a system. (It’s worth noting that this incident takes place before the formal institution of apartheid in 1948.) Second, this normality is predicated on the native girl’s reaction to white policing: she runs away. The relationship between natives and the police sets the frame within which something known as “normality” is distinguished from “pathology.” Third, and perhaps more interestingly, normality is based on the native girl’s ability to pass as a girl: “the man made such a good girl that only the sharp eyes of the policeman had seen this.” Here, what colonial records take as evidence of African lack, the ability to “imitate,” demonstrates, for Chavafambira, the native ability to inhabit colonial modernity—to invoke Butler, imitation as gender insubordination and colonial subversion. Chavafambira admires this native girl because she has figured out how to exist within sexual-colonial modernity.
From one perspective, his examples do not make sense. He offers as evidence of “normality” what some might dismiss as evidence of colonial modernity’s destructive effects on African forms of life. No less a figure than Wole Soyinka implies that gender dissidence registers pathology: “African males . . . take their masculinity for granted, just as women do their femininity” (On Africa). Yet, Chavafambira refuses to privilege a particular sex-gender-sexuality order as the order of things. And this matters.
What is the place of such a fragment within African thought and African histories of sex-gender-sexuality? Chavafambira was a native healer, a nganga, uneducated, or, at the very least, nowhere close to Kenyatta and Soyinka in terms of education and privilege. Indeed, he is an African Dora, but not even that, because Dora is legible and privileged. Chavafambira is not a name adduced as evidence of African philosophy or politics. He’s a guy who saw a psychiatrist and was written about. A case study. And it’s tempting to dismiss what he claims. Because, and here’s the dirty little secret: while we really seem to want to hear the subaltern speak, we’re really more interested in our translations and transcriptions and analyses. NGO folk talk to NGO folk, academics to academics, activists to activists, all in the name of a subaltern who enters our speech as a necessary absence to be deciphered.
From one perspective, Chavafambira lacks the authority to speak about sexuality: his examples are too local, his experiences too insignificant, his frameworks too limiting. Kenyatta studied anthropology with Bronislaw Malinowski.
Which “native” voice should one fetishize?
In a wonderful essay on Harlem Renaissance poetry, Mike Chasar muses on black laughter. In a reading of Sterling Brown’s poetry, he argues that Brown “situates the sound of laughter not as a sign of humor or comedy, but as a series of public, bodily noises competing in the modern soundscape.” Langston Hughes figures “black laughter as an elemental force connected to black power.” Chasar offers a way to return to Chavafambira’s laugh that situates colonial modernity as a series of competing bodily noises. Black Hamlet is set in urban(izing) South Africa and the two scenes above take place in a mental asylum (surely a place of competing noises and epistemologies) and a street in Johannesburg, respectively: colonial-era epistemology is figured as part of the competing noise, not as unassailable authority. Even when asserted as authority—symptom+pathology—the laugh challenges this interpretation.
Laughter stages an epistemological interruption.
To the question of queer provenance, Chavafambira offers a unique, unexpected, and absolutely necessary answer: look around you. Let the now direct your future.