The family tree is not the only way to envision diaspora, and I turn to theorists of “thinghood” to suggest a model for envisioning the black diaspora and for framing black diasporic queerness. Hortense Spillers’s classic “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” offers another genealogy into the queerness of the black diaspora. 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.” 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.”
If Judith Butler has taught us to claim the genealogy of abject(ion) for queer studies, to seek moments where subjects emerge by producing non-subjects, I am interested in what a genealogy of the “thing” offers to queer genealogies. “Offers” is, perhaps, too mild, for as Fred Moten teaches, blackness is “an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line.” Within colonial modernity, blackness comes to figure as perverse sexuality, as its potential and realization, as the gateway to queer appetite. What Spillers marks as “captured sexualities” hints at the taxonomic logic that will drive sexology’s will to know and ability to organize itself. If, as Foucault demonstrates, sexology is a strategy for cataloguing and managing sexual, that is, human, difference, its formal strategy can be aligned with, if not derived from, the slave catalogues that recorded color, weight, and size, not merely managing human cargo, but actively transforming humans into commodities. It is precisely the “captured sexualities” of the “thing” of “blackness” that haunts sexology, as its necessary underside, as what Morrison might term its Africanist presence. Yet, the thinghood of blackness also renders it difficult to apprehend within a genealogy that takes sexuality as subjectifying. Here, I am marking a deep cleavage within black diaspora studies and queer studies: sexuality represents a vexed meeting ground, the place where a blackness haunted by thinghood encounters a non-blackness haunted by subjectification. We are not on shared ground.
Frottage will name this encounter between queer studies and black diaspora studies, this persistent meeting, this lingering over, this site of stimulation and frustration. But I will swerve from the too-familiar site of the inter-racial to focus on the intra-racial, swerve to complicate the intimacy suggested by the definite article of “the” black diaspora. Against genealogical models that invoke the definite article to claim fictive kinship grounded in a hetero-reproductive imagination, I want to suggest the possibility of using frottage as an uneven relationship of proximity, a persistent, recurring meeting of bodies in space, an attempt to forge aesthetics and culture and politics and history from the shared “capture” of blackness.
In beginning with the thing-making problem of blackness, I depart from recent scholarship in black queer studies that interrogates a predominantly white queer studies using a majority U.S.-based archive. As E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson explain, “just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilations and absorption. And so we endorse the double cross of affirming the inclusivity mobilized under the sign of ‘queer’ while claiming the racial, historical, and cultural specificity attached to the marker ‘black.’” However, by assigning “black” the labor of “specificity” and granting “queer” the power to disrupt sexuality, Johnson and Henderson abandon too readily how blackness “anarranges” sexuality. Where Johnson and Henderson seek to “interanimate” both fields, “sabotaging neither and enabling both,” and while I share this reparative impulse, foregrounding blackness as thinghood does not permit queer studies to be “inclusive” of black specificity, precisely because the subject-making work of queerness cannot be so easily reconciled to the thing-making work of blackness.
I use frottage to name a range of overlapping interpretive and conceptual strategies. As with Max Ernst’s concept of frottage, which consists of laying paper over a surface and using charcoal or pencil to rub over the paper and thus to reveal the textured surface, I seek in such sustained attention, such sustained rubbing, traces of the unexpected and the familiar, what has been known to be there all along and still retains the power to surprise and re-orient our methods of knowing and being.
As a conceptual strategy, frottage lingers on a critical and historical desire to name the black diaspora as a singular formation, the desire of that definite article “the.” I do not dismiss this desire. Instead, I use frottage to deepen its sense-apprehension, to foreground this intense longing for intimacy. In foregrounding desire and longing, I depart from genealogical models that anchor that definite article within a logic of kinship, whether that be through bio-genetic or fictive kinship. I retain what Marlon Ross terms the “pleasures of identification” without, at the same time, engaging in what Rinaldo Walcott critiques as the “fetish” for “community” in black studies. More precisely, I explore how blackness emerges and means without anchoring it to a genealogical tree. Instead of searching for kinship, I privilege conceptual and affective proximity: the rubbing produced by blackness and as blackness, as that which assembles into one frame multiple histories and geographies. I consider the black diaspora as affective and bodily proximity. Where Earl Lewis has theorized “overlapping diasporas,” I argue that pressing and rubbing rather than overlapping might offer a richer, queerer account of how diaspora functions as intimacy.
Finally, though not exhaustively, I use frottage to suggest diaspora as a multiplicity of sense-apprehensions, including recognition, disorientation, compassion, pity, disgust, condescension, lust, titillation, arousal, and exhaustion. I want to approximate as much as possible the range of bodily sensations produced by the insistent touching that is diaspora. I find especially useful Sianne Ngai’s discussion of “irritation” as a “non-cathartic” “ongoingness.” It might be that the enforced proximity produced by the category of blackness rubs up against the desire for intimacy expressed in the definite article “the,” producing irritation as the black diaspora’s dominant affect. Irritation, a term that captures an emotional and corporeal response, is a helpful term for thinking about the contested nature of blackness as a shared feature of Africa and Afro-diaspora. For the history of blackness as a shared category is marked by disagreement, disavowal, and ambivalence, from those who distinguish themselves as “African, not black,” to those who police blackness as a product of Atlantic slavery and thus unavailable to other populations, to those who claim a nativist distinction between U.S. southern descendants and Afro-Caribbean and African descendants. Yet the visual logic of blackness, which is modernity’s legacy, does not care for such fine distinctions. In using frottage, I foreground the affective conflicts, the irritations, that suture the black diaspora.
In the decades that bracket this project, from 1900 to 1960, representations of and debates about black diasporic intimacy intensified within national and transnational contexts. The literary sites of such representations include Pauline Hopkins’s incestuous romance Of One Blood (1903); Casely Hayford’s pan-African romance Ethiopia Unbound (1911); the lesbian poetries of Angelina Weld Grimké and Gladys Casely-Hayford; the queer poetics of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent; the vagabond erotics of Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928) and Banjo (1929); the radical feminisms of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) and Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun (1929); the ethnographic romance of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God (1937); the queer Negritude of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to my Native Land (1947) juxtaposed against the hetero-normative erotics of Leopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry; the charged inter-racial antagonisms of Mayotte Capecia’s Je suis Martiniquaise (1948); the infanticidal imagination of Amos Tutuola’s Palm Wine Drinkard (1952); and the immigrant promiscuities of Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners (1956). I mark these sites to indicate the scope and richness of this temporal period for theorizing a black queer diaspora.
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I end with a hopeful Fanon, a Fanon who makes black queerness possible, because Frottage is reparative in impulse. This project started as an impulse to find “sustenance” from works that I had been told offered no space to breathe, but works I could not do without. Maran, Kenyatta, and Fanon are three figures that for a range of biographical, political, cultural, and aesthetic reasons I could not do without. But they seemed to offer no space, no possibilities. This project is one attempt to find possibilities.