Thanksgiving TV is terrible: families gather from far-flung places; there are predictable anxieties over whether this or that family member will show up; fights break out over many unreconciled issues; tears flow; and, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the show, families sit down to eat a meal and someone, usually the matriarch, says, “we can all eat a meal together.” Or, “we can be civil during a meal.” Langston Hughes’s poem, “I, Too,” teaches us that the question of who gets to sit at the table during a meal is never innocent. It is, in fact, one of the key ways that one’s belonging is affirmed. It doesn’t matter if the meal is left uneaten or is disrupted; one has been invited to sit at the table.

I have been thinking about something I am calling white reconciliation after Trump’s win. White reconciliation names the range of ways ideologically and politically divergent whites are gathered by and into white supremacy by being offered a seat at the family table. As Christina Sharpe points out, white kinship is a political and affective vernacular that subtends and operates alongside white supremacy (I’ll add the link when it’s available). White supremacy uses white kinship to sustain itself: “for our wives and children”; “for our families”; “protect the family”; “protect our children.” This kinship is both filiative (by blood) and affiliative (by choice). And while the language of white supremacy sounds political (and angry—those who use it are accused of being angry), the language of white kinship is taken as apolitical or, to use Lauren Berlant’s term, juxtapolitical: driven and sustained not by political battles to be won, but by feelings and values. Family is important. Family values. White kinship.

White kinship works through white reconciliation or, rather, it requires rituals of white reconciliation. U.S. Thanksgiving is the festival of white reconciliation.

If you’ve been following the election coverage, you might have seen some efforts at white reconciliation. Before the statistical breakdown (incomplete) was available, white reconciliation wanted to claim that Cousin Pookie (those black people who only voted because of Obama) would not vote and had not voted. The narrative had taken shape prior to the election—Obama named Cousin Pookie—and many of the white progressives who supported Hillary Clinton were waiting to use it. (I am speculating, but the history of white progressives railing against “those terrible  black homophobic people” guides this speculation.) The problem was the black misogynists. But, as the (premature) numbers emerged, the narrative was impossible to sustain—over 90% of black women and about 80% of black men had voted for Hillary Clinton. White reconciliation predicated on antiblackness needs alternate strategies.

Despite all the evidence, despite everything Trump said during his campaign, despite all the terrible antiblack people he has recruited and who support him, those invested in white reconciliation—in the promise of a seat at the Thanksgiving table—insist on saying that Trump should be given a chance. I suspect this is a conversation happening across Family WhatsApp Groups (for those in them), and in family group chats, and in family emails. As Thanksgiving approaches, white reconciliation will enter high gear: “I know you’re not getting along with your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/cousin/grandfather, but you’re still coming for Thanksgiving, right?” Some will be guilted into it: “Don’t you have the decency to spend ONE MEAL with your family?” “How dare you let politics divide us?” “We are stronger together.” “Family comes first.” These strategies work.

Once gathered around the table, one is reminded that the relative who voted for Trump is not so bad: they like a certain sport or team; they like music you like; they volunteer with underprivileged people; they have a respectable profession; they tell very funny jokes; they are very good at charades or basketball; they are, in a word, human. They may have “strong political opinions”—note, the rhetoric will shift from “hateful” and “bigoted” and “unhumaning” to “strong”—but they are fundamentally “decent.”

I learned how to think about the word “decent” by reading my friend Praseeda Gopinath’s work. Decent appears to be a neutral term: it does not signal total approval or even liking. It does not mean good or pleasant. It is slightly above bearable—decent, someone you can watch a game with, eat a meal with, drink a beer with, smoke a cigarette with. It appears to be an ethically neutral term. Praseeda’s work showed me how the idea of the decent Englishman masks white supremacy and patriarchy: “he doesn’t beat his wife” is decent;“he doesn’t use overtly racist language” is decent; “he doesn’t object to my gay/lesbian/gender-non-conforming partner” is decent; “he is not burning crosses on the lawn” is decent. The idea of the decent person will serve white reconciliation. (I suspect “not as bad as we expected” will also serve white reconciliation when it comes to Trump.)

Right now, many people are saying, rightly, that normalization should be resisted. They are turning to Nazi Germany to find examples of how normalization happened. I am not a scholar of Europe or WWII. I learned how to think about normalization from feminist activists and scholars and from queer activists and scholars. Audre Lorde taught me how what she calls heterocetera creates shared ground. Adrienne Rich gave me the language of compulsory sexuality and Gayle Rubin taught me how to consider hierarchies of acceptable and unacceptable intimacies. Cathy Cohen and Rinaldo Walcott taught me how to think about punks, bulldaggers, welfare queens, and nation. Christina Sharpe gave me the language of monstrous intimacies, about the production of white kinship in one direction and property in the other. Katherine McKittrick and Dionne Brand taught me how to think about blackness and geography, about the places black bodies bear and are displaced from. Sara Ahmed taught me how to think about tables, about who gets to sit around them. And Simone Browne taught me to think about the race-work of biometrics, about the not-quite-human (Sylvia Wynter and Alex Weheliye) that marks our shared absence from the human-as-whiteness. (I cite to provide others to think with—there are many more.)

I think about intimate sites of normalization—the Thanksgiving table, the PTA meeting, the church fellowship, the grocery store, the gym. It will be the guy from grindr who merits Red Lobster. It will be the new friend with exquisite taste in cheese. It will be the neighbor who baked too many cookies and has to share them. It will be the local farmer who has the best produce at ethical prices. It will be the neighbor who helps shovel the walk after a snowfall. It will be seductive encounter after seductive encounter. For some. For white reconciliation. For the length of a Thanksgiving meal, and beyond.


At first, once a week, and then twice a week, and, eventually, four times a week, I’d head for the gay club in downtown Pittsburgh. It was small, located below street level, dark, leaning toward seedy, and, had I bothered to think about it, a death trap. Middle aged white men gazed at white twinks—the economies of desire did not exist for me, and I knew that early on. It was not a place to make friends. I brought my friends along with me, and left with them. I did not find community there, not in the sense I had once found community in the church groups I had belonged to, a sense of mutual care and responsibility. Yet, I found refuge and escape. Those hours I spent there dancing made many other hostile hours in other places possible.


I danced to find the languages my body could never master, to seek unfluencies from Central Africa and West Africa, from Eastern Kenya and Western Kenya, from high school dance festivals and music videos from the U.S. It didn’t matter that I could not master the styles or that I was the only one who could name what I was attempting: my body stretched into the syncretic, finding the languages of refuge and escape and memory.

Friends from Panama and Puerto Rico showed me that dance was possibility, as they shaped their bodies through salsa and merengue and club moves whose names I never mastered. They taught me how to blend where you’re from with where you are, where you dream about with where you live. From them, I learned to take the half-remembered and the never-mastered, and to let my body move into a here that I could inhabit, a now that I could sweat into.

With few exceptions, I danced alone. I could never enjoy the discipline of another body angling into mine, not as I was looking for other selves to inhabit, for geohistories to run through me. This was sacred space.


I did not find community in queer clubs. I found racism and white supremacy and body shaming.  I paid a psychic price to be in those spaces—in Pittsburgh, in Chicago, in Seattle. It was the price of the ticket. I also found relief from the anti-queer unhumaning I encountered outside of those spaces, the too-casual ways I could not exist. The “sense of rightness” that is heteronormativity never shares space. It claims all the air in the room, and I found myself gasping.

In the club, I found some air. Tainted, thin, even toxic, but it was breathable.


One night—one of those nights when the world breaks—I said to friends: I need to dance. Watch that I don’t do anything crazy. And I danced.  The dancing did not fix the world, but it made the brokenneness a little more bearable.

The queer club was not a church. At best, it was an emergency room. I looked for air to breathe, for bandages to deal with this week’s wounds, for whatever joy dancing would release in my body.

In those spaces where bodies pressed and queers hugged and kissed and strangers simulated sex on the dance floor, worlds were made, affection between queers made quotidian. In working class Pittsburgh, those who ruled those worlds were not the wealthy and the connected, but the fabulous and the daring, those with little social capital outside of these spaces. In these spaces, we college kids from Pitt and Duquesne and Carnegie Mellon ceded some of our privilege, and learned different ways to order society—we didn’t question that we came and left together, and that it was easier for someone from CMU to hook up with someone from Duquesne than it was to hook up with someone who was not a college kid. Class was present, privilege was present, though we might trade blowjobs in the bathroom with cute strangers.

We were generating worlds, learning the kinds of demands we could make, the kinds of lives we desired—this was what Audre Lorde calls the erotic. Having learned the flavor of joy in the club, we could attempt to build worlds that pursued it. In my twenties, I thought this joy came from dancing, and I pledged that I would never stop dancing. Ankles age. Knees age. Bodies grow in ungainly ways. Now, I realize I meant I’d never stop pursuing the kind of joy I found while dancing, that I’d try to build and inhabit a world that made such joy readily available.

I have often sat by myself in queer clubs, looked around, and marvelled at this tribe I claim as my own. Marvelled at our capacity to create beauty, our ability to pursue joy, our willingness to risk pleasure. I have often asked how, having seen these elements, anyone would ever dare to wish us ill. Even as I know that what I see—the joy, the pleasure, the fabulousness, the ordinariness, the loneliness, the ostracism—cannot be seen by those who unhuman.

I celebrate those who find what joy we can. I celebrate those who found what joy they could. May we continue to find joy and to create beauty.

a note on grieving

Is there a difference between, “the bastard is dead” and “you are entitled to mourn, but remember he was a bastard”? I think there is. I think it has to do with one’s presumed audience and with the work both statements set out to accomplish. I have seen versions of the second floating around since David Bowie’s death was announced and it makes me uncomfortable because of its presumed audience: those who are mourning and those who are gathered by mourning. When I first saw it, I thought of the infamous Westboro protesters who became notorious for showing up at funerals of queers (and other people whose lives and politics they didn’t support) with signs that insisted those people were evil and were going to hell. The image is not quite right—the analogy is wrong—but it’s the first thing that came to mind.

A vernacular: sorry not sorry

I think a few things are being conflated: the process of grieving following a loss and the whitewashing (or pinkwashing) of eulogies and hagiographies. Even this is imprecise. Saying, “this person’s work meant a lot to me” is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing). Expressing grief is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing). Saying, “I am sad” is not whitewashing (or pinkwashing).

“I know you’re sad, but you’re sad for a bastard” strikes me as cruel, if not wrong. It suggests, for instance, that those who are sad have fairly (whitewashed or pinkwashed) relations to those they are grieving, relations unmarked by complication and ambivalence. This is rarely the case. Mourning—I know I’m switching between mourning and grieving—is never uncomplicated. We may shed tears for people who wounded us deeply—we might even be surprised that we are shedding tears for them. Grief is not rational. Our attachments are not rational—“I don’t know why I’m crying” is a common reaction to announcements of death.

I think it’s okay not to participate in rituals of grieving. One can simply stay away. One can stay silent. Or one can speak about the dead person without joining those who are grieving: “I’m glad the bastard is dead.” When Moi dies—if he ever dies—I will say this without shame. I have planned the t-shirt and the party. I will not say, “you’re entitled to mourn, but he was a bastard.” I think it’s okay to say, “I’m not mourning because he was a bastard.”

I have been repeating a formula: “it’s okay.” I could not figure out a way around its prescription. To that formula, I have attached “I think” and a repeated “I,” both attempts to manage my reaction to this policing of grief.

I’ve been trying to figure out why “you’re entitled to mourn, but remember he was a bastard” continues to nag me. It has something to do with the nature of the demand: what kind of demand is being made? Again, let me emphasize that I understand how such memory-work functions in relation to whitewashing (and pinkwashing) eulogies and hagiographies. I understand the political work of interruption. I’m having a problem grasping the work of “he was a bastard” as a response to “I’m feeling sad.”

What is the demand?

That one should not feel sad? That one’s grief should be modulated? That one’s sadness should come with a disclaimer?

Political interruptions are demands: what is being demanded? What happens when demands are not explicit? What happens if the demands are impossible?

(the impossible demand can transform sadness into frustration and anger, both of which will be directed at the person making the demand, and perhaps that is the point, though I don’t understand how nudging sadness into frustration is politically useful)

I am trying very hard not to abstract deeply felt emotions and positions, not to misrepresent them, but not to think at them simply for the pleasure of thinking.

I remain nagged.


History is not kind to us
we restitch it with living
past memory      forward
into desire
into the panic   articulation
of want      without having
or even the promise of getting.

–Audre Lorde, “On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verrazano Bridge”

I have been curious about selfcare/self-care/self care as it has circulated attached to Audre Lorde. A quick (but not comprehensive) search of Audre Lorde’s poetry and prose reveals that she never used selfcare/self-care/ self care, at least never in any of these forms. I suspect the term was familiar to her. It’s common in cancer care—it’s deeply embedded within health paradigms. Another quick (but not comprehensive) search indicates that selfcare/self-care/self care enters English somewhere in the eighteenth century, though the idea of it is much older. (I’m trying not to invoke Foucault’s care of the self, but I’m trying too hard, so let me invoke it here and let it go.)

In its present incarnation, this idea of selfcare/self-care/self care that attaches to Audre Lorde is taken from a passage in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is an act of self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” The idea has received generous, loving, and space-clearing elaboration by Nick Mitchell and Sara Ahmed.

Nick argues that Lorde’s critique of self-indulgence valorizes resilience (a term philosopher Robin James thinks about beautifully). This demand for resilience, often incarnated in the figure of the strong black woman, makes it difficult to consider and inhabit vulnerability and pleasure, pain and suffering. The documents of colonial modernity (what some call racial modernity) emphasize the black’s ability to bear pain.

Ahmed draws on one of Lorde’s keywords, survival, to discuss the politics of persistence:

In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered.

Ahmed has taught me to think about the long life of metaphor—how does one assemble what is shattered? Shattering always brings me to glass, sometimes ceramics, but mostly glass. Skin-breaking, body-scarring shards. No matter how quickly and efficiently you sweep up broken glass, little shards might escape, do escape. They gather to pierce. How does one assemble a community from the shattered? What kind of community can that be?

What injuries do we inflict on each other to be together?

An aside from something else I am writing.

I have thought a lot about toxicity and damage—how one lives with them, how one suffers from them, how one is destroyed by them, how one tries to manage them. There’s no shame in saying I have not learned how to manage damage. There’s no shame in saying I don’t want to learn how. Livability cannot be endlessly deferred

I have been stuck on two things (imprecision is needed). Lorde described herself as a poet. In “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she explains poetry as the incubator of the emergent.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have once found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings, and to discipline (transpose) them into a language that matches those feelings so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.

Poetry reaches for, runs after, lingers on, makes possible. Poetry thinks. When I think with Lorde, I must think with her poetry.


I’m stuck on self-preservation. What is self-preservation? I think of centipedes rolling in on themselves, hedgehogs curling into spiny balls, tortoises retreating into their shells. Such images take me away from “warfare.” Or make it difficult for me to get to “warfare.” I suspect that “self-preservation” does something wonky to selfcare/self-care/self care, or, perhaps, returns selfcare/self-care/self care to the healthworld in which it is embedded.

The will to persist (conatus, as Elizabeth Povinelli teaches me in her engagement with Spinoza) might be read as “warfare.” But I think it takes a lot of work to get from “self-preservation” to “warfare.” It depends, I think, on which animals one thinks with. I reach for tortoises.

To be minoritized is to be gathered by and through dissolution.

Notice the structure of Lorde’s statement: the move from “caring for myself” to “self-indulgence” to “self-preservation.” Notice the isolation: Essex Hemphill calls this isolation “loneliness.” What if self-preservation relies precisely on this loneliness? Under what conditions is self-preservation possible?
I’m staring at Our Dead Behind Us (1986) and The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance (1992), Lorde’s final two collections of poetry. A Burst of Light falls between these two, even as we know that publication dates for poetry collections may have little relationship to when poems were written. Still, acts of gathering are useful.
Several weeks after I started writing this, I’m still staring at her two collections. I’ve been unable to write through them—even at its most lucid, her poetry is still incredibly difficult. Also, I really want to avoid the poetry-makes-shit-immortal line that we inherit (most famously) from Shakespeare. (Every English major absorbs this.)

Instead, I have been thinking about self-preservation—about pickling and drying and salting and canning and freezing. About what happens to flavor and texture, about health and treatment. The zoloft-fog I refuse to inhabit, though it promises to extend some version of living.

Perhaps I’m stuck at the relationship between survival—one of Lorde’s keywords—and self-preservation. If the Lorde we now think with in our neoliberal times is the Lorde of selfcare/self care/self-care and not the Lorde of survival—I’m trying to tread carefully here—I think we need to ask why. Perhaps self-preservation gives us a different way to get to Lorde.

What is self-preservation’s relationship to survival?

What is that affective and ideological shift? What is the change in tactic, if there is one? I think there is.

I’m tired. I don’t know how to continue. This, too, is about self-preservation.


I used to think I hate the word pole—perhaps I do. Pole is the sorry one offers for minor injuries and the condolence one offers for major losses. It means sorry you are feeling pain. It is a ritual word. A word that carries and means and performs.

I’m not very sure I understand empathy or sympathy. As an undergraduate, I wrestled to distinguish the two. As a teacher, I tried to describe them. Pole always haunted these efforts.

Pole is ritual.

It is what one is supposed to say, what one is trained to say, what one is disciplined to say—the discipline that becomes habit. Habits can be sincere. I’m not sure pole extends or displaces as sympathy or empathy do. It might create something else—or simply sustain a sociality. Sometimes it means I am here. Sometimes it means I am thinking about you. Sometimes it means I cannot be here for you in this or that way but, perhaps, in another way. Now, I’m drawn to the perhaps of it.

I distrust it.
Pole is not about resilience. Though it needs an awareness that the world produces and proliferates injury. It is, perhaps, an injured word. A word that seeks injury, that magnifies injury, that revels in injury so that it can offer comfort.

An army of people march around Kenya offering pole. It falls from a million strange mouths—it sits with injury. I am not sure it offers comfort. Pole waits to leap out, to perform its injury-noticing function. It transfers from house to house, wound to wound, loss to loss, and it multiplies.

We use it so easily. So readily. We stand waiting to use it.

A turn, perhaps.

I have been thinking for a while about Audre Lorde’s question,

What do we want from each other
After we have told our stories

It is an impertinent question, especially at a time when telling one’s story has become part of the data-generating machinery of everyday life. Africans must tell their stories. Queers must tell their stories. Women must tell their stories. So many unheard stories, we are told. So many stories to be told.

And then what?

Lorde’s question is frightening. What if one’s story is deemed useless? What if one’s pain does not matter? What if one’s most profound insights are banal? What if one’s story simply becomes another data point in some unfathomable calculus? What if one’s story is illegible? What if one’s story turns others against one? What if one’s story is disgusting? What if those listening to one’s story do not know how to hear it.

I think of the African writers trying to sell their work abroad to people who don’t know how to hear them. I think of African writers trying to sell their work in Africa to people who don’t know how to hear them.

I think of those convinced that telling stories matters who lack the courage to ask what happens after those stories are told. What do we want from each other? Can we give it to each other?
Pole manages the act of telling stories.

Does it mean, “I have heard you”? Does it mean, “I am here for you”? Does it mean, “what do you need me to do?” Does it mean, “shut up and get over it”?

We say pole to preempt the demand that might come. Having offered my pole, I can walk away, convinced I have given what is required, without giving what might be demanded.

We have become convinced that listening is enough. We have become convinced that being listened to is enough. What do we want from each other? We have learned to say, “to be heard” or “to be listened to” or “to be acknowledged.” To hear “pole.” We have learned not to ask for more, not to believe there might be more, or that there should be more.
Another turn.

We say pole at funerals. I dislike funerals. I will not attend them. I do not like what they attempt to manage. I do not like what they attempt to create. I do not like their lies.

We know what to do at funerals. We know how to plan them, how to stage them, when to say pole, and when to repeat it. We are more comfortable with funerals than we are living with each other. We will chant “never forget” for people whose demands we ignored when they were alive.

Repeatedly, I’m struck by Kenyan gestures of resignation. Shauri ya Mungu is, of course, the most popular. Increasingly, I think pole is another.

Pole refuses to ask what we want from each other after we have told our stories.

a joke has been told

A joke struggles to emerge.

A murder of newly independent black politicians drink whiskey and debate whose dogs are more fiercely anti-black.

For whom does the joke emerge? For whom does the joke struggle?
I have thought for a long time about the laugh. The laugh has often been so cruel that I cannot hear it without wincing, without questioning its intent and target, without questioning the world it imagines and desires. If Freud helps me to understand the laugh’s relationship to the unconscious, that offers little comfort: the unconscious houses our most murderous impulses, our most anti-social tendencies, our most destructive fantasies. How, then, can one appreciate the laugh knowing where it springs from?

Laughs do not dissipate. They fade into each other and grow—the word might be reverberate. Film has taught us how to hear this laugh that lives and grows—the laugh that bounces off and creates surfaces, walls and mirrors, paths and bridges, frightening spaces that can’t be avoided. There is no other way to get from here to there, and no way to avoid needing to get from here to there, and the path is strewn with laughs.

For several years, a friend has told me that laughter is politically necessary, a way to live through today and, maybe, through tomorrow. Laughter may be one of the we-formations that is possible. How do Kenyans make it through whatever? We are famous for our laughter. When my mother laughs, I can hear her from several miles away. Perhaps laughter marks a certain spot, provides a certain direction, gestures to a something possible that is not this—perhaps laughter points the way to a possible elsewhere-not-here that might be worth waiting for, hanging around for, surviving for.

I grasp this argument, because I know how to grasp arguments. As with picking nettles, one must know how to grasp the plant to avoid its sting. The sting remains.
One can be more precise.

The joke is not the laugh. The joke need not lead to the laugh. The laugh is often independent of the joke. But if one follows Freud, the violence of the laugh is never independent of the violence of the joke. Clunkiness is needed here.

Perhaps deracination is key.

I do not enjoy most Kenyan humor. A little something tells me to use humour, as I once learned. I continue to resist British spelling, to resist the person it envisioned as it arrived in this space and the person it continues to envision as it persists here. I cannot enjoy most Kenyan humor. With some effort, I learned to enjoy some humor from elsewhere—but it’s never effortless. Over the past few years, the humor I have found most enjoyable—I wonder if I should muse on humor that’s not enjoyable—exists in fantasy. I have needed non-human settings—though they are often humanoid—to laugh.

The strategy is familiar—I needed to learn how to study other places so my brain could work. I say I am not an Africanist to say something about what happens to my thinking when faced with Kenya-Africa. I have enough tools now, after many years of studying elsewhere, to begin to see a few things, but I will never be able to think of here as I can think of elsewhere, and certainly not while here. Perhaps this explains the thinking-as-data-collection mode that exists here. Shall we call this an aside?
Laughter is the best medicine. Who writes prescriptions for the dysselected?
It takes a while to get to the question.

Do the dysselected have the pharmakon option of medicine:poison?
A joke has been told.

A laugh has been heard.

The dysselected remain.

Frottage: Introduction (part three)

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.

Theorizing Frottage
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.