Frottage: Introduction (part one)

I first read Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) when I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1980s. I don’t know how it came to be in my parents’ Nairobi home, though I have a vague memory of the miniseries being screened on TV in the early 1980s. That initial reading left me with a haunting image of slavery. Following his capture, Kunta Kinte is locked in a slave hold, chained together with other men: “he very slowly and carefully explored his shackled right wrist and ankle with his left hand . . . He pulled lightly on the chain; it seemed to be connected to the left ankle and wrist of the man he had fought with. On Kunta’s left, chained to him by the ankles, lay some other man, someone who kept up a steady moaning, and they were all so close that their shoulders, arms, and legs touched if any of them moved even a little.” I was arrested by this image. At the time, though, I could not name what intrigued and terrified me about this enforced proximity, what, following Christina Sharpe, might be termed monstrous intimacy.

The image gains in intensity as the narrative continues. During a brutal storm, bodies rub against each other and against the ship: “each movement up and down, or from side to side, sent the chained men’s naked shoulders, elbows, and buttocks—already festered and bleeding—grinding down even harder against the rough boards beneath them, grating away still more of the soft infected skin until the muscles underneath began rubbing against the boards.” Skin, self, body is lost through “grinding” and “grating,” as bodies are fed into slavery’s maw. Haley’s metaphors combine images from food and sex cultures, gesturing to the roles slaves would play within food and sex economies as producers and products. Ironically, these images of food and sex—now so central to how we imagine life and care and pleasure—register the obscene labor of how humans are transformed into objects. The body-abrading taking place in the hold through a process of sustained rubbing accompanies the commodification taking place through ship ledgers that record weight and monetary value instead of names, religious affiliations, or geo-historical origins. In fact, several kinds of rubbing are taking place: bodies against each other; bodies against the ship; and these slave hold rubbings against the writing on slave ledgers, which is itself another kind of rubbing.

I use the term frottage to figure these violent rubbings and to foreground the bodily histories and sensations that subtend the arguments I pursue.

While I take the slave hold as my point of departure, I dare not linger there.

One can depart from the slave ship in many ways, and so let me preview the rest of project by describing the shape of my argument. Within black diaspora studies, scholars have insisted that while slavery was intended to dehumanize captured Africans, it did not succeed. Thus, much scholarship and creative writing has been devoted to proving that slaves were human. I term this desire to humanize slaves a genealogical imperative and argue that it functions predominantly through an ethnographic imagination, terms that I elaborate more fully later. A powerful, if less followed, line of thinking has pursued the problem of how slavery produced “thinghood.” For instance, Fred Moten writes, “The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” His insistence on using “objects” emboldens me to use a similar strategy. I am interested in how thinking about “thinghood” helps us theorize the black queer diaspora.

I begin from the premise that the black diaspora poses a historical and conceptual challenge to dominant histories and theories of sexuality in queer studies, which have tended to privilege white Euro-American experiences. I depart from the more familiar Euro-American genealogy of queer studies offered by scholars in fields as diverse as the classics (David Halperin), religion (John Bosworth), philosophy (Michel Foucault), history (Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey), and literary studies (Eve Sedgwick). Starting from the black diaspora requires re-thinking not only the historical and theoretical utility of identity categories such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, but, arguably, more foundational categories such as normative and non-normative, human and non-human, subject and abject. While I complicate queer theory’s conceptual and historical assumptions, this project is not an extended “writing back” to a predominantly white queer studies: writing back re-centers that queer studies as the point of departure. Instead, I start with the production of blackness within modernity through the slave ship, the place that will produce most forcefully and consistently what Toni Morrison describes as an “Africanist presence”: the denotative and connotative languages and figures through which blackness is apprehended within modernity.

I use frottage, a relation of enforced proximity, to figure the black diaspora. I do so to unsettle the heteronormative tropes through which the black diaspora has been imagined and idealized. The black diaspora is often figured as a structure of blood descent through what I will describe as a genealogical imperative. Alexander Crummell’s famous 1888 statement, “a race is a family,” has had a vibrant, ongoing life in black diasporic cultural and intellectual production. Although this genealogical imperative can be traced across multiple black diasporic geo-histories, in what follows I turn to African American histories to illustrate how it has functioned as a scholarly and aesthetic injunction.

Following the publication of the Moynihan Report (1965) in the U.S., which blamed slavery for destroying black families and creating a “tangle of pathology,” scholars mounted a sustained campaign to defend the black family. Influential studies including Carol Stack’s All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974), Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom, 1750-1925 (1974), John Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979), and Richard Price and Sidney Mintz’s The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (1976) emphasized the enduring strength and longevity of heterosexual kinship bonds, in slavery and in freedom.

Here, let me tread carefully: these studies did not reify the black family in any singular or unproblematic way. Many criticized Moynihan for framing black community relations through the lens of a normative, white nuclear family. For instance, drawing on Stack, Mintz and Price write, “One of the problems with traditional studies of the black family . . . was a tendency to reify the concept of ‘family’ itself. . . . [I]n Afro-America, the ‘household’ unit need by no means correspond to ‘the family,’ however defined.” They follow this correction by focusing on the historical role of kinship during slavery, asking, “What, if anything, might have constituted a set of broadly shared ideas brought from Africa in the realm of kinship?” Their speculative answer is instructive for understanding the role of kinship in black studies:

Tentatively and provisionally, we would suggest that there might have been certain widespread fundamental ideas and assumptions about kinship in West and Central Africa. Among these, we might single out the sheer importance of kinship in structuring interpersonal relations and in defining an individual’s place in society; the emphasis on unilineal descent, and the importance to each individual of the resulting lines of kinsmen, living and dead, stretching backward and forward through time, or, on a more abstract level, the use of land as a means of defining both time and descent, with ancestors venerated locally, and with history and genealogy both being particularized in specific pieces of ground. The aggregate of newly arrived slaves, though they had been torn from their own local kinship networks, would have continued to view kinship as the normal idiom of social relations. Faced with an absence of real kinsmen, they nevertheless modeled their new social ties upon those of kinship.

This rich passage describes how kinship and genealogy subtend racial alliances: “kinship” provides a “shared” vocabulary that mitigates geo-historical differences. “Shared ideas” of kinship and genealogy enable intra-racial collectivity by “defining an individual’s place in society.” Kinship provides social legibility and structures social relations, allowing individuals to be recognizable through their real and imagined relationships to others. The model is hetero-reproductive, as one’s importance is measured in relation to those who precede and follow one. One emerges from a hetero-reproductive chain and is obligated to continue that chain.

Mintz and Price reveal how the standard queer critique of the heteronormative couple cannot account for black diasporic and African modes of figuring intimacy and creating normativity. Take, for instance, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s field-defining “Sex in Public,” which positions queerness against “the heterosexual couple,” imagined as “the privileged example of sexual culture.” This idea that queerness challenges and disrupts coupled heterosexuality is now taken as common sense within queer studies, in a way that attending to other geo-histories must complicate. Indeed, focusing on the heterosexual couple risks missing how African and Afro-diasporic practices of polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and fictive kinship can also be normalizing and disciplinary. If, instead, we focus on the multiple ways heteronormativity functions within a broadly conceived genealogical imperative, we might ask with Elizabeth Povinelli, “Why does the recognition of peoples’ worth, of their human and civil rights, always seem to be hanging on the more or less fragile branches of a family tree? Why must we be held by these limbs?” Povinelli’s question helps to illuminate the importance of directing attention to the genealogical imperative within Afro-diasporic and African scholarship.

It is, perhaps, easier to acknowledge how the genealogical imperative has shaped scholarship in anthropology and history, fields marked by their interests in kinship and community, on the one hand, and change over time, on the other. But the genealogical imperative has also guided aesthetic criticism, and a particularly fine example can be found in Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. In a particularly telling passage in the conclusion, Baker weds Afro-diasporic scholarship to the genealogical imperative:

The family signature is always a renewing renaissancism that ensures generation, generations, the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. What I have said is that the family must explore its own geographies . . . Renaissancism’s contemporary fate is our responsibility, demanding a hard and ofttimes painful journey back to ancestral wisdom in order to achieve a traditional (family) goal. That goal is the discovery of our successful voices as the always already blues script . . . in which a new world’s future will be sounded.

Baker’s intricately constructed prose allows no separation between the aesthetic and the biological, the artistic and the historical, the culturally productive and the biologically reproductive. The repeated “renaissancism” formally enacts his injunction to recreate and procreate, especially as renaissance refers to re-birth. To write with the “family signature” is to produce and reproduce, to affirm, always, the hetero-temporalities that connect the ancestors to the future. The task of Afro-diasporic scholarship, then, if one follows Baker, is always genealogical. In fact, Baker’s italicized “must” demonstrates what I’m calling an imperative, and, more broadly, becomes a mode of aesthetic evaluation. Truly valuable aesthetic work must follow and value the genealogical imperative.

Lest this focus on the family be understood as an exclusively African American affair, scholarship in the broader assemblage of the black diaspora similarly understands the black diaspora through hetero-kinship tropes. For instance, introducing a major anthology on black diaspora scholarship, Isidore Okpewho acknowledges the impossibility of encompassing black diasporic diversity. But this diversity is subsequently managed through hetero-kinship tropes, as the black diaspora is marked by its relationship to “the mother continent” and those scattered are re-collected as “sons and daughters.” These are small, and, arguably, casual moments in Okpewho’s argument, but this very casualness demonstrates the ease with which hetero-kinship is taken for granted as an operational principle of black diaspora scholarship. I draw attention to them because of how they manage black diasporic geo-historical diversity under the rubric of hetero-kinship figured as genealogical descent. While African and Afro-diasporic scholars might not all agree on racialization, politics, religion, ethnicity, economics, or culture, hetero-kinship is consistently reinforced as a capacious category that manages all difference. It is precisely the casual, unremarked way that hetero-kinship tropes lubricate difference that interests me.

The term diaspora combines two terms dia (across) and sperein (scatter), and invokes the labor of spores as they spread to fertilize. Although critical endeavors have tended to focus on diaspora as dispersal, the often unnamed critical hope is that such scattering results in communities: what Brent Hayes Edwards has termed the “futures of diaspora” takes place on the grounds of hetero-insemination and hetero-genealogy. However, I argue that another black diaspora is possible, a queer(er) one. Frottage tracks the uneven traces of dispersal and scattering associated with diaspora, attempting to arrest the heteronormative inevitability that would conflate dispersal with insemination and hetero-futurity.

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