There are only four sisters in this whole conference [in Russia]. In the plane coming to Tashkent, I sat with the three other African women and we exchanged chitchat for 5 1/2 hours about our respective children, about our ex-old men, all very, very heterocetera.
As far as I know, the word “heterocetera” appears only once in Audre Lorde’s published writing. It is a playful term and I would like to retain that playfulness. I would like not to burden the term. To use a food metaphor, many similar terms—fragments, singular, rare, playful—are often overworked in the service of theory and, like overworked pastry, they end up tough, edible, but unpleasant. Or, to use another metaphor, terms that are delicate are smothered by heavy sauces, losing elegance and flavor.
Metaphors can also smother.
I’m not sure heterocetera is a delicate term: it smashes heterosexual and et cetera—I have, right now, learned that it is et cetera, not etcetera: all hail the internet. Et cetera—the internet tells me etcetera is also correct, but I suspect this is a correctness created by usage—translates as “and the rest.”Et cetera is Latin. Hetero, on its own, is a prefix from the Greek meaning “other, different.” A heteronym, for instance, is a word with the same spelling, but different pronunciations and meanings. The dictionary offers the useful example of tear meaning rip and tear meaning liquid from the eyes.
Greek and Latin are smashed together to produce, if we let it: “other and the rest” or “different and the rest.”
(I’m playing, still)
In context—“our respective children, our ex-old men”—Lorde uses “hetero” as short for “heterosexual.”
I’m attracted to heterocetera because it does not have the weight—accumulated, sedimented through citation, authorized by appearing in an elite academic journal—of heteronormativity, the critical edge that heteronormativity bears in its very U.S. critique of the couple form.
Heterocetera does not sacralize kinship as the shared language of the black diaspora: “respective children” and “ex-old men” and that “very, very” describe the ordinariness of attachments and obligations—ongoing, failing, surviving, thriving—without the burden of the “inviolable black family” or the resilient black family. There’s something “extra” about heterocetera, something about the accumulation of bits and pieces, what remains, what becomes ex, the worlds constructed around and about and by and with the bits and pieces.
One influential strand of black diaspora studies has argued that the enslaved probably had shared ideas of kinship—attachment, gender, sex, sexuality, relation, sociality—that lubricated their interactions and made shared survival possible. I am interested in the bits and pieces that were cobbled together, assembled, fabulated, and invented across difference to make relation and survival possible.
Given that so many of the enslaved were so young, it is quite likely that they lacked the knowledge of social structure and rituals that would have conferred different forms of legibility within their respective communities. Certainly, they lacked the resources to perform sacred rituals of transition and maturity.
Six categorical labels routines used to classify bonded males were “men,” “men-boys,” and “boys”; female labels included “women,” “women-girls,” and “girls.”
Ship commander Charles Knealy received instructions regarding future purchases, indicating that close to half should “consist of Prime Men Negroes from 15-25 yrs old” and “Boys” should range from “10-15” years old. “Women,” on the other hand, needed to fall between “10 to 18” years in age.
On July 17., 1755, South Carolina merchant Henry Laurens wrote with the hope of obtaining “likely healthy People” imported for market sales. Of those most favored, he requested “two thirds Men from 18 to 25 Years Old”; in addition, for “the other young Women from 14 to 18.”
—Sowande Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea
What if heterocetera names a strategy of forging relations across ̛difference? What if it is as much about invention as it is about description? Consider how Lorde moves from “four sisters” to “three other African women,” how the political language of kinship is wedded to blackness and place—“other African women”—and these relations are augmented through proximity and interaction—“I sat with,” “we exchanged chitchat for 5 1/2 hours.” I’m trying to get at something absurdly ordinary about African and Afro-diasporic relating across difference, and the place of heterocetera in that relating.
What might heterocetera offer to thinking about Afro-diasporic and African relating that heterosexuality and heteronormativity do not? What assumptions about gender, sex, sexuality, sociality? What strategies of invention, speculation, fabulation, lying, wandering?
Why might heterocetera be good to think with?
Perhaps heterocetera is useful for the example it provides of how to create terms we need to describe the relations we forge. Perhaps the example it provides is how to be playful with the terms we fabulate.