mah tongue is in my friend’s mouf
—Zora Neale Hurston
Soon after I completed high school, I worked at a small nursing home. Every few months, a certain kind of patient would come in: a young man, brought by family, rarely visited, visibly wasting. This was before antiretrovirals. He seemed terribly isolated and resigned. He knew he was dying. He was always in a private room. One patient—tall, young, good looking—was social. He’d leave his room—he had no visitors, cell phones were not yet ubiquitous—and chat with us at the reception. Nothing I remember, but I recall his few attempts to connect in some way.
Perhaps because it was Moi’s Kenya, in the grip of massive political repression and economic hell, we did not discuss how these young men got HIV. We did not speculate about their sexual practices or sexual identities. I did not know how to ask those questions and they seemed irrelevant. Care was provided by the medical staff and we, the office staff, witnessed. Young men were young men. Careless. Free with their favors. Unlucky. Perhaps with each young man who walked in and left in a bodybag, we were slightly relieved it wasn’t a brother, a cousin, a friend, a lover. Sometimes he was.
Funeral notices spoke about long illnesses and sudden illnesses, pneumonia and tuberculosis. Per the press, African villages were “emptying.” It was an abrupt shift from the “overpopulation” worries a few years earlier. I remember little. I borrow other memories. I invent some.
I learned that there was a language to describe Black gay experiences with AIDS when I went to the U.S. It was in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, the Other Countries collective’s Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS, Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, Melvin Dixon’s Love’s Ceremonies. It was in Brother to Brother and In the Life. We spoke about condoms and cybersex, masturbation and non-penetrative sex. Phone sex and mutual masturbation. To borrow from Douglas Crimp, we were discussing how to be promiscuous in an epidemic.
A few years into my stay in the U.S., I wondered whether the stories and poems I’d learned existed in the same way for Kenya. It was easy to find statistics—all those empty villages and destroyed populations—and easy to find venues of transmission—“harmful” traditional practices, including circumcision and widow inheritance, along with the modern irresponsibility of long-distance lorry drivers and hypermobile sex workers. African promiscuity. African illiteracy. African promiscuity. African backwardness. African promiscuity.
There were multiple stories, drawn from familiar, colonizing scripts, modified to deal with this new epidemic. Africans fucked too much. Africans fucked irresponsibly. Africans fucked and fucked. Africans were aggregated. Individual stories did not matter. Few of those affected spoke in anything more than approved soundbites. There was nothing for me there.
I have wondered where to find stories of gay and queer and HIV and AIDS Nairobi in the 80s and 90s. What would I need from such stories? Who can tell them? Could I hear them?
For at least the past decade, Kenyan writers have insisted that “we” should tell “our own stories.” “We” and “our” shape what is legible within any emergent collective. At their best, “we” and “our” set the stage for collective deliberation, for working across difference, toward freedom. More commonly, “we” and “our” fence the legible by making it generate and sustain an already legible “we” and “our.” I learn from Paul Gilroy that “we” and “our” might be what produce works that sustain “we” and “our.” They might also emerge from producing that “we” and “our”: the collectivity does not precede the making that generates it. But the possibilities of that emergent we-formation are too easily captured by pre-existing formations, so that possibility is arrested by “we” and “our.”
(the knot—to live with it—to live as it—to try to name what leaves us tongue-tied)
To name a “we” and “us” embeds me within those tongue-tying formations, to name a kind of legibility needed for survival.
CLR James, born in Trinidad, living and working in London, wrote The Black Jacobins, about the Haitian revolution, to inspire African anticolonial efforts.
I have been staring at this formulation over the last few days, because I think its stretch—across geohistories—provides lessons I am still trying to learn.
I started my career as an African Americanist, inspired by Maureen Honey’s Shadowed Dreams, an anthology of poetry by Harlem Renaissance women. Were I not so restless, I would name myself a scholar-fan of the Harlem Renaissance.
At no time have I ever imagined that learning about the Harlem Renaissance took something away from my relationship with Kenya. I am not sure intimacy with a geohistory generates better knowledge. I needed the Harlem Renaissance because contemplating my own embedding in time needed resources I don’t have.
I also want to imagine that shared histories and memories suture Afro-diaspora and Africa: we draw from there to think about here or another there. What U.S. people call “family style” meals, where multiple spoons dip into the same pot. Koleka Putuma writes,
My cousins and I would gather around one large bowl of umngqusho
each with their own spoon.
And I think this is a beautiful way to imagine the aesthetic and critical labor of Afro-diaspora and Africa. What we share, Audre Lorde writes, illuminates what we do not. There is difference, and a shared pot.
To watch Pose from Nairobi has meant asking about shared histories of difference. As far as I know, Nairobi had no ballroom culture. Even as I’m sure—with the kind of speculative certainty minoritized groups have learned to call history—that some gay Nairobians had been disowned by their families, that some gay Nairobians founded collectives in which they could survive, that some gay Nairobians followed each revelation about AIDS with dread, that some gay Nairobians tried to return home to die, that some gay Nairobians died surrounded by gay friends, and that some gay Nairobians died alone. I am sure that some families erased their gay relatives’ lives and loves, invoking the blood of this or that deity, or this and that ancestor.
As I watched Pose, I wondered what history of gay Nairobi I would want. What would a history of trans Nairobi be?
Perhaps those drama festivals in which students from ostensibly single-sex schools played all possible sexes created space for trans and queer Kenyans to exist, if only for the space of a performance. Did those imagined worlds open other worlds? What forms of recognition and possibility took place in schools, across schools, in festivals, across festivals? I won “best female” two years in a row during inter-house drama. (Despite this, the drama club didn’t want me—they already had a “best” female for their roles.)
Perhaps a story of queer and trans Nairobi is a story about drama festivals and music festivals and charismatic churches full of young people who had no names for what they desired. Perhaps it is about public toilets and stolen intimacies and cumstains on bathroom walls. Cumstains on bathroom walls, an image I learned in high school. A kind of history of desire.
Perhaps a story of queer and trans Nairobi features the sex worker who made—and make—Nairobi work, about the worlds sex workers imagine and make possible. Perhaps it is about good middle- and upper-middle class people figuring out they cannot follow expected directions—they must forge new paths that make them possible, if only for limited periods.
One ungenerous approach would be to claim that cultural products from one minoritized geohistory do not translate to another, and, in that space of resentment, to demand representational fidelity rooted in cultural insiderism. I am uninterested in this. I find it narrow.
I am interested, instead, in how minoritized groups seeking freedom, across geohistories, across difference, might share imaginative spaces, in the improvisatory call and response that transforms the call and the response, the caller and the responders. Rather than complain about “missing decades” in Kenyan cultural production, I am overwhelmed by the shared space-time of Afro-diasporic and African abundance, delighted by the freedom work we create and share. I am inspired by the imaginations we share and feed, even when those imaginations center on grief and loss.
I’m thankful for the space Pose provided to imagine all those who didn’t make it to this side of the Millennium, and to imagine that, if only for brief moments, they knew they were loved.