By the time I had spent ten years in the U.S., I had stopped going to gay clubs. It wasn’t simply that I had grown older, though I had. It wasn’t that I no longer loved dancing. And it wasn’t that I had moved from more cosmopolitan cities—Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon—to a small, semi-rural college town. It was that I could no longer unsee the ways I was unseen.
After many years of dancing alone, I had opted to stop dancing.
Within gay history and mythology, urban spaces liberate those who move there from smaller, rural towns. Away from the scrutiny of family and friends, gay men can experiment, find themselves, be themselves. This narrative has been mapped neatly—too neatly—onto a world divided into homophilic and homophobic. Unsurprisingly, these terms follow older distinctions between civilized and primitive, advanced and regressive, global north and global south.
I understand, appreciate, and celebrate those who seek and find more livable lives, more ways to be possible. I am interested, however, in the versions of the world produced, in what I see as liberal sentimentality.
Sentimentality, as James Baldwin defines it, ossifies positions. Even and perhaps especially in its salvific guise, it cannot imagine complexity, incoherence, ambivalence. To invoke Fanon, it seals those it figures into easy binaries. It produces an unyielding, unchanging world. It affirms dominant world views.
And so, in publications dedicated to producing a liberal view of the world—liberal not as opposed to conservative, but as deeply invested in narratives of progress that maintain a strict division between the global north and the global south—the gay migrant from the global south to the global north will always find a better life, a more possible life, a life that he always knew he wanted but didn’t know was possible.
I learned how to dance in U.S. gay clubs.
Mining western and eastern Kenya, I borrowed from Luo, Luhya, and Kamba movements; I dug deep to find Central Africa in my hips, lingala shaping my arms; from black U.S. queens, I learned how to twirl, though I never gained their fluency. I learned how to love sweat—to feel my body pursuing freedom. And I was free.
Ntozake Shange gave me words:
we gotta dance to keep from cryin
we gotta dance to keep from dyin
Words that helped me remember why I danced, what I sought in dance.
For while I got my “gay on,” deracinated, hyperbolic, racially progressive which meant whitewashed, my body reached for other geographies, other geo-histories, and, finally, I had to listen.
I had to learn how to dance in gay clubs in the U.S. before I could dance in Nairobi. But I danced in Nairobi.
This is not about nativism.
It’s about the shape of stories that dare not map the relationship between gay liberation and deracination. What do gays from the global south give up or abandon to be gay in the global north? How else might these stories be told?
I’m re-reading Fanon—as usual, as always—and thinking of his failed attempts to restrict his geographies and geo-histories. The story of the Antillean black, he finds, is embedded in the story of the black in modernity. With whatever caveats that might be considered necessary, I would say the story of the global south gay who travels to the global north is generalizable.
The global north wants to pat itself on the back—unlike the intolerant global south, it welcomes gays. This myth does important ideological work.
Which is to say, I read Marlon James’s story in the New York Times and it did not sit well with me.
We who move are permitted to tell stories of success, if we succeed. We are permitted to tell stories of freedom and liberation, if we navigate awkward bureaucratic processes. We are asked to uphold the myth of the American dream: here, there is freedom. And we are asked not to think about loss. About deracination. About the price we pay to share in a myth.
Reading Marlon James in the NYT, one is surprised (or not) to discover no mention of #blacklivesmatter, no mention of any racial politics that would disturb the gay story the NYT wants to be told, needs to be told. It is a classic coming out story—deracinated in a deeply sentimental way.
It is powerful.
But sentimental work is always powerful.
Let me be careful.
Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s sentimentality created a sad fracture. I am not after something similar.
I understand why this story matters. I understand the importance of finding a possible life. I am glad that Marlon James can write that his life is now more possible.
Still, I am left uneasy by the shape of the world produced by his narrative, by the U.S. myth in which it participates, by the disembedded “I” held out as the promise of the U.S.