The possible shapes of what has not been before exist only in that back place, where we keep those unnamed, untamed longings for something different and beyond what is now called possible, to which our analysis and our understanding can only build roads.
Anniversaries are strange things, especially at the juncture of black and queer, for they invoke the “many thousands gone,” all the black queer artists and intellectuals who did not live to see this field emerge, but whose work has provided ongoing sustenance and provocation, daring us to imagine more and imagine better. I dedicate this meditation to the ones we remember, the ones who inspire, the ones who died too soon, the ones we have forgotten, the ones we never knew, the ones we loved, the ones we could have loved: to those listening for their names.1
It has been close to 15 years since the Black Queer Studies at the Millennium conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and close to 10 years since E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson published the co-edited Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, which combined selected papers from that conference with other foundational work in black queer studies. Black Queer Studies was envisioned as a celebration of a still-emergent and vibrant field, which had been energized by works including Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000), Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003), Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (2001), and Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and Black Subjectivity (2000). These works ranged widely in their methods and archives, all insisting that the figure of the black queer was central to the emergence of disciplines and fields including sexology (Somerville), sociology (Ferguson), urban studies (Delany), public policy (Cohen), and affect and material culture (Holland).
Edit: As Darius Bost’s work reminds me, this listing of university press books does not account for foundational work published in many elsewheres by Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Charles Nero, and Eric Garber, among many others.
Because the conference and the publication that followed were billed as celebrations, they were marked by strategic ellipses that were both energizing and disciplinary. In her Foreword to Black Queer Studies, Holland writes, “Because hindsight is always dangerous, I will not critique what is missing from this collection, but rather only describe its missed opportunities as a kind of melancholia.” 2
Edit: Holland’s cryptic statement about “a kind of melancholia” had initially led me to consider melancholia’s relationship to a:the lost object. Melancholia, Freud writes, “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object,” where the object is “lost as an object of love.” Or, melancholia might be a loss where one “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” Holland’s “a kind of melancholia” suggests a “loved object” was/is missing in the black queer studies institutionalized as/by an anthology. Or simply an object whose loss could be felt, but which could not be named.
Holland’s barely-there, easy-to-miss invocation of “melancholia” unsettles the field-making endeavors of black queer studies by cultivating profound ambivalence about its “objects,” about what it chooses to “love” and “remember” and take as foundational. This “aside,” barely heard, is so very important.
If Holland’s strategic silence roots ambivalence at the heart of black queer studies, this ambivalence is not shared by the editors. Henderson and Johnson claim that the collection seeks to “interanimate” black studies and queer studies, and to “build a bridge” between the two to advance “long-term and mutually liberatory goals.”3 The collection aims to enhance “unity and community.”4 This focus on “unity and community” dictated the editorial choice to focus predominantly on the U.S., an odd decision given the important scholarship in the fields of the black diaspora and the black Atlantic that had transformed the academy since the early 1990s.5 It also felt odd because the black women scholars credited by Johnson and Henderson as foundational figures, including Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, embraced a broadly international imagination.
Simultaneously, Johnson and Henderson divide the labor of “black” and “queer” strangely. “Both terms,” they write, “are markers or signifiers of difference: just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilation and absorption.” This division of labor allows queer to be about “inclusivity” while black is about “historical and cultural specificity.”6 This division of labor seems to forget the scholarship by black feminists on blackness and sexuality, on blackness as non-normativity, and even un-normativity.7
Perhaps the biggest dissonance happens when the fields represented by “black” and “queer” are mapped through their entrance into the academy—the emergence of Black studies and Queer studies. Dissonant because this institutionalization evades the more contentious genealogies of blackness and queerness that would render improbable, if not impossible, the rapprochement between the two that Henderson and Johnson seek. In the absence of such genealogies, a certain professional politeness marks the Introduction to Black Queer Studies. In many ways, a silencing politeness.
By silencing politeness, I mark the absence in the volume of scholarship on sexually explicit work: no engagement with any forms of black pornography or erotica; no engagement with the problem sex poses for Black studies as it encounters Queer studies; no real engagement with black queer popular cultures—say, the fiction of James Earl Hardy. A commitment to “respectability” that left desire unspoken:unspeakable.
It seems odd to describe as “polite” essays that critiqued the race-blindness of queer studies (Marlon Ross on Sedgwick’s closet, Charles Nero on gay white ghettos); extended Barbara Smith in critiquing what Dwight McBride memorably termed “straight black studies”; followed Barbara Christian’s injunction to theorize otherwise (E. Patrick Johnson’s “Quare studies”); prioritized archives based on black lives and cultural production (Jewel Gomez on black lesbian texts, Kara Keeling on black lesbian cinema, Mae Henderson on Baldwin, Philip Harper on his transnational travels and desire encounters). Except, repeatedly, many of these essays are coy, bashful, unwilling (or unable) to speak to what Rinaldo Walcott describes as “shameful and funky sexual practices.” One notes, for instance, that E. Patrick Johnson’s notion of “quare” as a “theory in the flesh” has relatively little (if anything) to say about fleshly appetites:
Quare studies must encourage strategic coalition building around laws and policies that have the potential to affect us all across racial, sexual, and class divides, Quare studies must incorporate under its rubric a praxis related to the sites of public policy, family, church, and community.
Quare studies would reinstate the subject and the identity around which the subject circulates that queer theory so easily dismisses. By refocusing our attention on racialized bodies, experiences, and knowledges of transgendered people, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of color, quare studies grounds the discursive process of mediated identification and subjectivity in a political praxis that speaks to the material existence of “colored” bodies.
Johnson’s “manifesto” leaves unspoken:unspeakable the idea that black queer practices might be about sex, desire, fucking, going down, sex toys, public sex, cruising, fisting, leather, s/m. Instead, his essay ends on a coy note about men who like to cook and clean. One reads black gay cultural production from the 1980s and 90s and then turns to Johnson to see all that fierce desire and sexiness exiled, muted.
(From Hemphill’s “Now we think as we fuck”
Johnson’s “Now we think as we cook”)
citational analysis produces its own shapes of thinking and feeling. I had said I could not write this, by which I mean: I struggle to unlearn what is habit, to find what is necessary. Registers clang up against each other, clog up prose.
Two essays in Black Queer Studies offered the most provocative and compelling discussions of what the field might do: Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: On the Radical Politics of Queer Studies,” first published in 1997, and Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora.”
This is an “interested” statement, by which I mean, these two essays helped to guide my own work and to affirm that I wanted to do was possible. Their particular questions and approaches have been incredibly generative and energizing.
A shift in registers:
Dates are fuzzy, but I first encountered Cohen’s article as I was “transitioning” out of Gay and Lesbian studies and moving “into” queer studies, an impossible fiction, but one that I needed to re-think the shape of the world. From years on black “queer” listservs, where we debated the word “gay” and sought better ways of naming ourselves (adodi, same gender loving, in the life, in the family, the children), I knew the world described in the books I read, the world I saw in clubs and bookstores and sex clubs, could not/did not see or imagine me. Essex Hemphill was a bible. He gave me the language of class and race, of precarity and optimism, of desire and solitude. When Cohen’s work told me that queer studies had yet to find ways to be relevant to black lives (or, in Rinaldo Walcott’s terms, black life forms), the world became more possible.
The too-easy switch between “gay and lesbians” and “queer,” Cohen argued, foreclosed the “radical possibilities” queer might offer as a genealogy or excavation of practices and logics of intimate surveillance and management. For Cohen, the distinction between “heterosexuality”/”heteronormativity” and “queer” obscured what was at stake: “one’s relation to power.”
Cohen offers a different map to get to “queer,” one whose names are Kimberle Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde; one that starts not with “I Hate Straights,” but with the Combahee River Collective’s statement. Where one starts matters. The path one follows matters. The tracks one leaves matter.
Cohen’s key word is “transformational”: “a [transformational] politics does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws that make these institutions and relationships oppressive.”
Cohen’s insistence that “the work” required examining relationships of power helped to unblock the anxieties I experienced when I could not find “gays and lesbians” in the black diaspora spaces I wanted to explore.
I write this after Renisha McBride’s killer has been convicted, as Mike Brown’s death changes yet another town, as Ferguson, Missouri, grieves under the weight of martial law—these traces of grief and rage, of a desire to make a world where these things are impossible, and this from my Nairobi bedroom, a stretch Cohen grants.
And if Cohen’s archives remained anchored in the twentieth century, her method of reading intimacy in relation to power permitted, even encouraged, many of us to look elsewhere, to re-think “queer” while being attentive to the intimacy-making and intimacy-destroying histories of blackness.
I append here a list of names: Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, as a promissory note
Re-reading Rinaldo Walcott, I am struck by how much his questions shaped mine: “Is black queer studies the improper object of the black studies project? Or can black queer studies even reside within the confines of the black studies project proper?” “Proper” is a key term here, as Walcott asks about the U.S.-centeredness of black studies, its relative inattention to other sites of blackness, and its desire for “epistemological respectability.”
But that is not what I wanted to write.
With the exception of Cohen’s essay, many of the essays in the anthology left me with a sense of what, adapting Marlon Ross’s language, might be termed U.S. claustrophilia: if, as Ross argued, (white) queer studies was obsessed with the figure/problem of the (white) closet, much of the black queer studies in the anthology could not emerge from the U.S. closet, a space that felt oppressive, and even impossible. And also false to the histories that preceded it: histories of many black lesbians and gay men traveling the world as they figured out their hungers, their desires, their ways of being possible.
Walcott’s insistence on diaspora—on travel, dispersal, undoing, genealogy, random encounters, misapprehension, split loyalties, betrayal, capture, revolution—produced a shape of the world that could be imagined, and theorized, differently. Diaspora genealogies also open the archive of black studies, demanding that we move beyond formal institutionalization in the U.S. to consider the intellectual labor performed in London in the 1930s (C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta), France in the 1920s and 1930s (the Nardal sisters, Lamine Senghor, Césaire), Makerere and Dar es Salaam in the 1960s (George Shepperson, Ezekiel Mphahlele).
As I wrestled to find geo-histories to think with and write about, Walcott helped me to re-discover Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” an essay that became foundational to my vision of black queer studies.
Permit an excursion from work in progress:
Spillers theorizes the middle passage as a subject-obliterating, thing-making project. In doing so, she takes on the challenge of contemplating what Aimé Césaire termed “thingification.”8 This urge to humanize slaves, she contends, is motivated by our inability to imagine the thing-making project of slavery, which is “unimaginable from this distance”; but to insist on the slave’s humanity risks voiding the problem of the slave as commodity, as thing.9 How might a queer diaspora that begins from thing-making function?
Spillers provides a tantalizing glimpse of this (im)possibility:
The [New World] order, with its sequence written in blood, represents for its African and indigenous peoples a scene of actual mutilation, dismemberment, and exile. First of all, their New World, diasporic flight marked a theft of the body – a willful and violent (and unimaginable from this distance) severing of the captive body from its motive will, its active desire. Under these conditions, we lose at least gender difference in the outcome, and the female body and the male body become a territory of cultural and political maneuver, not at all gender-related, gender-specific. But this body, at least from the point of view of the captive community, focuses a private and particular space, at which point of convergence, biological, sexual, social, cultural, linguistic, ritualistic, and psychological fortunes join. This profound intimacy of interlocking detail, is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time – in stunning contradiction – the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.10
In positing the “theft of the body” from “active desire” Spillers strips away a foundation of queer studies: the role of desire, whether that be same-sex desire or desire for gender or desire for fetish-sex or aimless, polymorphous desire.11 It is not that one’s desire is criminalized or pathologized, as Foucault might have it; but that desire itself becomes impossible in the brutal transition of thing-making. Thing-making proceeds through gender-undifferentiation, through the practices and logics of commodification, labor, and punishment.
But the story becomes even more complicated, for the same process that produces the slave as “thing” simultaneously inflects the slave’s thingness with “sensuality.” Although Spillers elaborates a 4-stage process that seems to proceed in a linear fashion, it might be more useful to understand this step-making as a strategic fiction that attempts to render partial, recursive, fractured, and synchronous stages: the “captive body” is at once as densely saturated with the power to elicit “sensuality” as it is excluded by its thing-ness from gaining agency through that sensuality.12 If, as a thought experiment, one takes Spillers’s sequence in a linear fashion, then one ends up with a move from a “captive body,” severed from its “active desire,” which acts as a “thing,” and through that process of thingification, becomes a “captive sexuality.” Sexuality, then, would not name the place of subjectification, as it has in queer studies. Instead, it would name theft and commodification, thing-making and gender-undifferentiation. The queerness of the black diaspora, then, would stem from an effort to describe this figuration, which is unaccounted for in sexology’s archives: the thing “severed” from its “active desire.”
The re-turn to Spillers was also a re-engagement with black diaspora histories, with the difficult labor of thinking through the problem of “the thing,” of “fungibility,” of what Walcott terms “black life forms.”
But I get ahead of myself.
In their Introduction, Henderson and Johnson admit that Black Queer Studies privileges the humanities, a function, perhaps, of intimacies, but also, one might speculate, of institutional and disciplinary priorities over what is worth funding. In the years since the anthology appeared, a growing body of work has used social science methods, at times located squarely within the social sciences and, at other times, embracing broadly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods. Complicating and even undoing archives and methods understood as foundational in queer studies, scholars and artists and activists have privileged sites of black sociality—the church, the club, the ballroom, for instance—to re-theorize black queerness. Black queer cultures and subcultures are richly represented and theorized on youtube, on multiple tumblrs, and in a range of independent film productions. And while some of this work is slowly—very slowly—making its way into the peer-reviewed academy, the radical critiques of method and foundations embedded in most of this work remain unheard. For instance, what would happen if black lives and histories were placed at the center of queer theorizing? What would happen, Sharon Holland asks, if the black lesbian were centered?
Equally important, the geographies of black queer scholarship have expanded, stretching and rupturing what Walcott describes as the too-easy alignment between blackness and the U.S. In work by Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Thomas Glave, Maja Horn, Jaffari Allen, Nadia Ellis, Shaka McGlotten, and Lyndon Gill, a queer Caribbean flows, listening to and learning from queer predecessors—Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, M. NourbeSe Philip, the many who have charted and navigated dissident waterways. A North American gaze focused on Africa is attempting to interact with black queer studies, in work by T.J. Tallie, Brenna Munro, Xavier Livermon, and Ashley Currier, though these conversations often seem muted, still waiting to happen.
(Many names are missing here: Tavia Nyong’o, C. Riley Snorton, Marlon Bailey, LaMonda Stallings, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Rosamond King, David Green, Kai Green, Zakiyyah Jackson, Neo Musangi, Zethu Matebeni, and many others I have yet to encounter)
Another kind of re-beginning:
The urgencies of the killing present have shaped the direction of much black queer labor as it has tried to document black queer disposability and develop paradigms for livability. The proximity to being undone haunts black queer cultural and intellectual production, whether it be in the form of “mainstream” queer canons that do not acknowledge the existence or contributions of black queer scholarship; in restrictive zoning laws and practices that reduce spaces for black queer sociality; in mainstream expressions and articulations of blackness that continue to unsee black queer lives, framing them as embarrassing problems to be solved or ignored; in lukewarm liberal versions of “inclusion” that depend on deracination; and in forms of institutionalization that mute what Cohen described as the radical potential of queer politics.
And, still, something insists that I am “doing this wrong,” not posing the “major questions” raised by this body of scholarship. This writing seems supremely “unhelpful” to those looking to get a “handle” on “the field.”
My “training” is fighting other instincts.
It is not clear to me that “black queer studies” can ever be/come a “proper object,” for blackness “anarranges” all claims to “the proper.” And it has seemed to me that the most urgent work produced in/around black queer studies raises, insistently, the problem of what Rinaldo Walcott terms “black life forms.” The tasks “before” black queer studies are genealogical—thinking with Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers and Fred Moten and Alexander Weheliye about those figures/bodies designated as “black,” how they are not only foundational to what is known as “the human,” but also how they unmake the assumptions tied to that human. This thinking goes beyond the “subject-making/subject-unmaking” focus of work from Foucault through Butler and Bersani and Edelman, demonstrating the limits of identitarian/anti-identitarian critiques, the limits of psychoanalytic approaches for which the black as possible subject will never have been possible. (And, here, I’m suggesting that the reading of Fanon as an “intervention” into psychoanalysis also misses the mark.) And so the problem of “how” to begin with a figure already barred from apprehension within the regimes of the human taken for granted even by a notion such as “the abject.” The black, after all, is not what is “violently excluded,” but what has never been possible to “include” in a notion of “the human.”
If, in fact, black queer studies begins with the impossibility of psychoanalytic subjectification, how might one speak about the unmaking desire of “the thing”?
This genealogical work unfolds into considering the place of what Christina Sharpe theorizes as “post-slavery” subjects who inhabit “monstrous intimacies”: the quotidian unmaking of being that is everyday blackness, the ease with which fungibility and killability mark black life forms. How does one think about life forms whose being is perpetually marked by unmaking? I write this as a Kenyan legislator proposes that queers in Kenya should be stoned to death. Queerness unfolds across:through this unmaking. Black queerness, rooted in the archives of disposability. How might one think with, find, inhabit, theorize from these archives of disposability? What is the labor of dwelling in these ungeographies of impossibility?
I write this with the strong awareness that much black queer scholarship on the contemporary focuses on strategies of livability—on love, on kindness, on ecstasy, on community, on resistance, on agency, on possibility. Much black queer scholarship and cultural production is engaged in rich forms of world-building and world-re-envisioning.
Simply: my head is not there. Not yet. Not now.
I am still trying to figure out how to think with:about impossible figures, unmade figures, unbeing figures, with the fleshed and unfleshed, with the thing that desires. With the bodies fleshed to be disposable: with the impossible futures that Edelman cannot apprehend. I am still trying to find the forms with which to write of black life forms that disrupt the possibilities of available forms, undoing sentences, grammar, the stanza, the line, the page. And if this writing is to do the kind of work I envision it doing, it undoes itself, as it must.
Black queer studies now might refuse José Muñoz’s invitation to envision a queerness that is “not yet here” by insisting on a queerness that has always been, that is foundational to blackness, producing the forms blackness can’t not inhabit in its various disposable and killable illegibilities. Black queer studies now might insist, as Zakiyyah Jackson does, on following Sylvia Wynter to ask about the forms of the human that blackness can engage, occupy, undo, uninhabit, re-think. Black queer studies now might refuse the so-called founding gestures of queer studies that privilege a color-coded West, disengaging from the troubling funkiness of blackness. Black queer studies now might continue charting the dissident geographies mapped by Dionne Brand and Katherine McKittrick and Thomas Glave. Black queer studies now might adopt what Nyong’o describes as an “improper affective stance” fueled by the “strangest of intimacies” that make demands yet to be imagined. Black queer studies now might insist on the grandness of its ass-splitting vision, its world-remaking vision.
As we continue to remember and call upon those who are listening for their names.
1. Melvin Dixon, “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name”↩
2. Sharon P. Holland, “Foreword: ‘Home’ is a Four-Letter Word” in Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson.↩
3. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 1, 6.↩
4. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.↩
5. I’m thinking of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994). Less obvious works including Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and influential essays by Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty. ↩
6. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.↩
7. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality”↩
8. Césaire uses “thingification” to argue that colonial oppressors lose their humanity because of their oppressive acts. I am adapting his language here to frame the emergence of blackness within colonial modernity.↩
9. Here, I depart from recent scholarship by Omise’eke Tinsley, which has speculated that erotic practices on slave ships helped to maintain humanity. Much as I relish this claim, I would like to consider how a more difficult history of thing-making and thinghood can inform black queer diasporic scholarship.↩
10. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”↩
11. I have in mind the foundational role of desire in work by Guy Hocquenhoem, Teresa de Lauretis, Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, Susan Stryker, Samuel Delany, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Michael Warner↩
12. This claim is properly understood as a speculative one, for historical records demonstrate how the enslaved used their sensuality.↩