A peculiar anxiety marks E. Patrick Johnson’s introduction to No Tea, No Shade. It emerges as repeated assurances that younger scholars respect and follow the work of older scholars.
The black queer “children” who came of age during the burgeoning stages of black queer studies also learned from the lessons of their foremothers and forefathers and avoided many (but not all) the theoretical missteps their predecessors made, while also generating their own theorizations of racial queerness with a critical difference. And while these junior scholars critically engage and critique the work of senior scholars, they do so respectfully and with a sense of deference, but with no less rigor or candor.
This new generation of scholars demonstrates its ability to showcase its knowledge of traditional scholarship and the most current theory. It really is the case that the new black queer theorists are honoring their forebears through a critical praxis made possible by those forebears yet are not bound by the same protocols of presentation or areas of research.
The House of Black Queer Studies was built by mothers and fathers (and those who embody both) who were/are grand and fierce, but it is the children who are constantly remodeling the house, keeping it updated, and making it the envy of the neighbors, all the while slaying and snatching trophies as their parents watch on with a careful side eye—no tea, no shade.
Over the past decade or so, I have mentored over a dozen graduate students, many of whom are now tenured professors and have their own monographs. It has been a privilege to watch them begin as curious students and blossom into fierce theorists, activists, and performers. And while I often tease a few of them about remaining on the teat too long and that my “milk” is all gone, the truth is, I secretly want all of them to stay close to the nest, not so that I may necessarily continue to nourish them but so that they may continue to teach me.
For at least the past decade, I have been interested in how tropes of kinship circulate within scholarly communities, especially within Black Diaspora studies, African American studies, African studies, and Queer studies.
My interest in kinship as trope and injunction is rooted in Kenya’s political history: in the image of Jomo Kenyatta as father of the nation and Daniel Arap Moi as “baba Moi,” who supplied primary schoolchildren with milk when I was in primary school. Over the years, I have wondered what happens when political representation is framed as a kinship relation. I have wondered what kinship excuses and permits, what it makes impossible to imagine. One does not throw away family, one is told.
(my own extended family—one grandfather with 12 children, another with 18 or so, more cousins than I can count or know, cruelties and violence excused because “you do not throw away family”: I do)
Kinship as mutual obligation—even love, or perhaps duty—cannot exist under ethno-patriarchy. The power asymmetries make mutuality impossible. These power asymmetries are most visible as demands for respect, deference, honor.
Perhaps what I am exposing here are the demands that make me itch, the demands I find suspect and impossible.
While Black Queer studies made some of my work legible in ways that, say, Postcolonial studies did not and African studies could not, the U.S. claustrophilia of Black Queer studies also made the figures I studied incomprehensible. While colonial modernity, especially the ship and the hold, generate modern blackness, that blackness assumes different shapes across Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, North America, and the Caribbean.
(my problem with some thinkers about global blackness has been that their archives are much too narrow)
One reason I turned to Edward Wilmot Blyden was that his thinking about blackness is geohistorically specific. Over the course of his career, he considered how Christianity and Islam figured blackness; he thought about how immigration and ethnicity figured blackness; he thought about how colonial modernity (beginning in 1492, per Wynter) reconfigured blackness; he thought about how African-ness and colonialism figured blackness. Did he get it all right? I don’t know. I am more excited by his willingness to inhabit the demands of geohistory.
To the extent that it’s possible, I have been trying to think away from the taxonomic-sexological hold on thinking about gender, sex, and sexual minoritization, to think, instead, about how minoritization happens in geohistorically specific ways. Instead of normativity or even heteronormativity or even reproductive heteronormativity, terms I continue to find very useful, I am interested in the uses of what Audre Lorde terms, playfully, heterocetera.
I find this language of foremothers and forefathers and forebears and mothers and fathers and children difficult and dangerous. Tim Dean, one of my former teachers, writes, “There is an open secret about sex: most queer theorists don’t like it.” Part of Dean’s ongoing work has been to ask how sexual cultures and practices generate (new/different) ways of thinking about sociality.
His questions led to my own about dominant ways of figuring sociality across the political and intellectual and social worlds I traversed. I kept coming up against kinship. And trying to think about how kinship in one space worked with and against kinship in another space. For whatever reason, I have been unable to think about something called Queer kinship. I find the idea of Queer mothering suspect, even when elaborated by thinkers I really like. And I am absolutely tired of the idea that Queer as verb or adjective resolves or moves beyond the practices and demands of heterocetera. I am slowly moving toward not using queer or trying to use it as precisely as possible: as a demand placed upon geohistory, in which case I need to track that demand within that particular geohistory.
(To my mind, Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Mad Man, Hogg, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand have been the most successful works at imagining varieties of sociality anchored in care and consent that imagine with and beyond heterocetera)
I think E. Patrick Johnson wants to do queer kinship and that his invocations of mothers and fathers and foremothers and forefathers and forebears and children are meant to be figured as queer. I am tripped up by the honor and respect and deference demanded by these relationships, by the heterocetera that subtends this queer kinship. A heterocetera that is compounded by the U.S. claustrophilia that continues to mark Black Queer studies in No Tea, No Shade—U.S. claustrophilia is not solved by sending U.S. citizens abroad to conduct fieldwork. It requires different conceptual tools and approaches altogether.
While I am grateful that Black Queer Studies helped to make some of my work legible—and I am especially grateful for Rinaldo Walcott’s work in that volume, which offered rich conceptual tools for thinking beyond the U.S.—I find very little useful in No Tea, No Shade. It is a family affair. I am not part of that family and I do not want to be.