Again (Frottage)

Perhaps black bodies on slave ships re-imagined themselves away from the commodification underway through an erotics of touch, as Omise’eke Tinsley claims. Perhaps the combined textures of flesh and wood and metal created new sense-apprehensions of sensuality and sexuality, opening up bodies and minds to what Christina Sharpe has recently described as monstrous intimacies, scenes where the desire for pleasure cannot be distinguished from the desire for pain. Bodies rubbing against each other absorbed the darkness of slave holds, transferred and re-transferred blackness—dark and erotic—leaving traces on the texture of history, indeed, on the very grain of history.

Such rubbing produced (and produces) pleasure and irritation, memory and history, embodiment and commodification, and what, I will argue, is a figure for a method to produce and read black queer diasporic archives: frottage. Frottage names this figure for a method, a fleshly abstraction. I undertake here an obscene project, not merely impertinent, as Hortense Spillers might term it: the slave ship’s depredations offer a strategy of reading black queer diasporic intimacies; enforced proximity under conditions of desubjectification might offer an altogether different genealogy of intimacy than exists thus far; and this genealogy is necessary if we are to understand our existence as post-slavery subjects, in black and white.

To suggest that blackness is transferred through frottage offers an altogether different orientation to the historical production of the black diaspora: intimacy, terrible intimacy, monstrous intimacy, becomes foundational to the production of blackness, to the very constitution of the black diaspora. The co-production of blackness and homosexuality mapped so beautifully by Siobhan Somerville through the archives of sexology and scientific racism has a longer, more dispersed, incredibly inchoate history that I attempt to trace. A black diaspora that is, in Rinaldo Walcott’s terms, always queer(ed).

Yet, I hesitate to embrace Walcott’s always already queered black diaspora, though I appreciate its provocations. I hesitate because the black diaspora has so often been imagined and idealized through tropes of hetero-normative kinship, no matter how such tropes fail or are rendered impossible in black diasporic histories. The term diaspora, it is worth remembering, suggests scattering across, and invokes the labor of spores as they spread to fertilize. And while critical endeavors have tended to focus on diaspora as dispersal, the often unnamed critical hope is that such scattering results in communities: what Brent Edwards has termed the “futures of diaspora” takes place on the grounds of hetero-insemination and hetero-genealogy. The black diaspora, then, names a structure of kinship formation, of what Gayl Jones terms “making generations.” Whether those generations are made through structures that resemble the nuclear family, as documented most recently by Frances Foster Smith, or that disengage from the nuclear family and embrace forms of fictive kinship, the labor of diaspora is to create hetero-futures.

Another black diaspora is possible, a queer(er) one.