Moonlight

Water is another country.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

At first, the sound of water.

Residence time.1 Black time. Black untime. The memory of water—the memory water has—the memory water is. We keep returning to the water. We keep being returned to the water.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-17-25-27

A face plunges into ice.

screen-shot-2017-03-03-at-17-55-07

Again.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-21-16-03

my mouth be a reminder,
how saltwater suppose to stop the tongue from swelling.

how teeth be bones too
how my voice sounds of a needed haunting

—Jayy Dodd, “Eloquent,” in Mannish Tongues

Little:

Disquiet: What is it about Moonlight’s depiction of black boy vulnerability—black boy pain, black boy suffering, and the very rare moments of black boy joy—that has made it so amenable to some viewers?

Before I saw the film, I saw all the acclaim that Mahershala Ali was receiving for his work in the film. He is tender. He is loving. He is accepting, especially when he tries, clumsily, to explain the difference between “faggot” and “gay.” Learning from Christina Sharpe and John Keene and Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill and Gloria Naylor and Randall Keenan and Marvin White and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, I am unsurprised by this care between a man and a boy. I am unsettled by the acclaim this “ordinary note of care” has received.

And then, there are Little’s silences.

Because so many have insisted on teaching us, we are now learning how to see and celebrate and think with #blackboyjoy. What are we to do with #blackboysilence?

The words “moving” and “lyrical” have been used many times to describe Moonlight’s silences. The sound of the world as it moves—the surf that always returns. Residence time. I think of Audre Lorde, asking, “What are the words you do not yet have?” Yet, I think, that is a misreading. It is unnecessary to populate Little’s silences. They are unsettling.

What does his gaze want? What do his silences want?

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-19-05-06

If this body is a boy & all boys know death
& death bodies Black:

          Then this body knows how boys die.

—Jayy Dodd, “Black Philosophy # 3,” Mannish Tongues

Chiron:

Ashon Crawley wrote a wonderful piece about what it means to be young—to be a teenager—and to desire touch.2 Sharon Holland writes, “Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but.”3 Some young queers want sex, as Samuel Delany’s Hogg teaches. Others want touch that acknowledges their erotic desires: “you do, in fact, have these desires—you can exist in the world with these desires.” As I read Ashon, I thought that it is easier to discuss Chiron’s desire than it is to think about Little as desiring.

Perhaps what’s difficult about discussing Little as gay—discussing why the label faggot is applied to him—is that we see little of the gender transgression we associate with young children being called gay/faggot/queer/funny/strange. Unlike in Empire, there is no scene of Little dressing in his mother’s clothing. He does not play with dolls. His wrist is distinctly not limp. He reads as quiet. Too quiet. Shy. Too shy. Though I’m not sure if shy is the word. I want to resist diagnosing silence. Even as I’m convinced silence wants something.

Because Moonlight is so elliptical, it’s difficult to tell what makes Chiron’s classmates—and bullies—mark him as gay. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage masculinity. Perhaps it’s something about how he performs or fails to perform teenage desire. Perhaps it’s something about his gazes and his silences. Perhaps—and this is terrifying to contemplate—it’s his loneliness. Darius Bost teaches me to think about black gay loneliness, about what often subtends and escapes declarations about community and kinship.

Perhaps it’s vulnerability. That softness that bullies seem to scent. That softness that gender policing notices. That softness that so many of us hide behind things we call wit or reading or shade or meanness. (How easily we bruise and callus.)

By the time we meet Chiron, in the second act, he is already wary. The quiet Little is now wary. His downward glances—he’s always looking down—designed to ward off attention. Kevin sees him. Kevin names him Black. Kevin explains why he names Chiron Black—a nickname, a move to recognize him, to touch him.

I need Sharon Holland:

Though touching a person may seem simple, it is anything but. Both physical and psychic, touch is an act that can embody multiple, conflicting agendas. . . . In fact, the touch can alter the very idea as well as the actuality of relationships, morphing friends into enemies and strangers into intimates. For touch can encompass empathy as well as violation, passivity as well as active aggression. It can be safely dangerous, or dangerously safe.4

I needed Holland—I needed the break—because it’s difficult to think about what happens to the touch between Chiron and Kevin, as they move from the beach, to the car, to the school.

Each movement depicts Chiron’s body opening itself more to Kevin’s: from sitting down hunched over at the beach, during the jerk-off, to Chiron’s more open posture as he sits in the car and as he leaves the car, smiling, to Chiron standing, fully open to Kevin’s punches.

In the final shot, before the final punch, when Chiron is fully erect—I don’t have the stomach to use a screenshot—Chiron is fully closed off. I wonder about the work of surviving that encounter—the work of experiencing the hand that grants recognition and generates pleasure turn into the hand that causes pain. Does Chiron know—can he know?—that Kevin is also fighting for his own survival? Is that a too-generous interpretation of Kevin’s actions? Of the care—the ordinary care—that says, “Stay down, Chiron”? Is it that care—the promise of that care—that allows Chiron to drive from Atlanta to Miami in the third section of the film?

Black

Black is stasis and return, a name offered as a promise of care, reclaimed by the film as Chiron, now grown, but arrested, returns to the promise of that care. Black, John Murillo III, writes, is untime. Untimely. By arrest, I gesture to the school-to-prison pipeline dramatized by the film, and to the psychic-physical arrest the adult Chiron confesses: “no one else has touched me.”

We know enough—too much, perhaps—about sexual violence in prisons to question Chiron’s confession. Touch—physical and psychic, what makes and unmakes us. We would like—I would like—to believe that he was safe from sexual violence while locked up. If we want that fantasy—if I want it, and I do—Moonlight offers it. It is an ellipses that allows us to fantasize about something that might be called “the one” or “monogamy” or “true love” or “soul mate.” If I fail to punctuate that ellipses, I will not leave it unmarked. We might ask what it means to touch and to be touched—but not by ignoring the quotidian violence that accompanies vulnerable boy-men who are locked up.

Kevin is the only one who calls Chiron Black, as far as I remember. If others use it, it is not with the, at first, benign friendship and, later, tender care. (I don’t have the stomach to see what Kevin calls Chiron while punching him—I think it is Chiron, not Black. If so, Black remains locked away, an intimate term. A term that touches.)

I like that Little grows into Black, the idea of Black as what can be grown into, claimed with tenderness, with and by an ordinary note of care.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-21-54-17

Are Black’s silences Chiron’s silences? Are they Little’s silences?

Because Darius Bost has taught me how to think about loneliness and because Samuel Delany has taught me to think about black gay sociality and because Marlon Riggs taught me to think about finding black gay community and because James Earl Hardy wrote a series of books on black gay friendship and because there are now multiple YouTube videos of drag balls and because Noah’s Arc exists, I wonder about the couple form at the end of the film. I offer this not as a point of critique—though how can it not be?—but as something that is sitting in me, on me, with me, about the impossibility of black gay sociality in homonormative times.

I wonder if black gay loneliness and the private black gay couple are objects of desire. I think of how James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin circulate, not as gay men who loved and desired—it matters who you love, Essex Hemphill says—but as deracinated, free from anything that might be called gay sociality, so that we need never think about them inhabiting and creating gay worlds and enjoying gay worlds.

What kind of object is black gay loneliness? Who desires it? Why?

We are returned to the water. Residence time.

screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-22-29-11

We are returned to the water and, through it, to a man named Juan from Cuba. We are returned to the water and, through it, to black boys looking out over the water, seeking something that might be called freedom.


1. “What happened to the bodies? . . . They were eaten, organisms processed them, and those organisms were in turn eaten and processed, and the cycle continues. . . .The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter and the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty and sodium . . . has a residence time of 55 million years.” (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake)
2. “Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself?” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks)
3. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism.
4. Sharon Holland, The Erotic Life of Racism.

random gay stuff

Within the Kenyan imagination, gay men come in two flavors: elite and commercial. Elite gay men are wealthy and powerful. Or wealthy or powerful. Either way, they command enough capital—economic, cultural, social—to navigate Kenya. Their capital protects them from hostile crowds. They can pay blackmail, if required. They can travel outside the country to be gay, if they wish. They circulate within crowds liberal enough (albeit, liberal in a Kenyan conservative way) to tolerate, if not endorse, their gayness. And, often, in these liberal crowds, they are “the gay friend.” It is not that their lives are untouched by homophobia. Instead, they have the resources to navigate that homophobia.

Commercial gays—sometimes gay for pay—occupy several different spheres in the Kenyan imagination. Most traditionally, they are associated with sex work and tourism. For them, gay is not an “identity,” or is not perceived to be such. Instead, it is considered what they do “to survive.” Stories focusing on this group of gays routinely emphasize that they have wives or girlfriends. (Because bisexuality is really beyond Kenyan imaginations at this point. Gossip that will get me arrested suppressed.) A more recent variation of “gay for pay” targets human rights activists engaged in sexual minority organizing. They are gay, it goes, to receive donor money.

The idea that gayism, to use a very ugly Kenyan neologism, is economic might be dismissed as homophobic. Or, more precisely, as anti-gay. And often it is. However, it’s silly to dismiss all such arguments.

One of the founding essays of contemporary gay scholarship is John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” D’Emilio argues, convincingly, that modern gay identity and community are bound to shifts in economic structures. In my bastardized version of his argument, the rise of capitalism and the concomitant growth of towns and cities provided new opportunities for the gay-inclined to move from their kin-based, rural homes—and, here, kinship is framed as genealogical and economic, as rural farms and businesses were run by families—to cities, where they could establish different kinds of communities, not bound by the dictates of hetero-kinship, hetero-marriage, and hetero-reproduction. Similar attention has been paid to economic shifts in African studies. The growth of mining towns in Southern Africa, the establishment of prisons across colonial-era Africa, and the creation towns and cities across the continent provided new opportunities for sexual communities to form and thrive.

In Kenya, the ongoing opposition between “professional” gays, who often have a lot of social and cultural capital, and poor(er) gays has been disheartening to watch.

Kenya is neoliberal. The much-praised Vision 2030, the country’s economic and social goal, is a neoliberal nightmare. Regrettably, many gay activists have framed their vision of a good life, a possible life, within the narrow parameters of “national development.” “Gays are good for development,” so the argument goes. Development is often praised as a neutral, public good. Yet, as envisioned in Kenya’s policy documents and as practiced in Kenya, development displaces vulnerable populations, destroys the environment, and makes any sense of ethical collectivity impossible to imagine and realize. I worry when gay activism is hinged to the development train.

During a recent forum, David Kuria emphasized that we—Kenyan queers and allies—should examine the economics of queerness. His (brief) discussion focused on the economic costs of passing homophobic or homophilic laws. What would Kenya gain or lose?

I think I have a different question: what are the economics of being queer in Kenya? How is queerness, following Cathy Cohen, always an economic state or, more precisely, an economic relationship to institutions that queer? What does it mean to take up queer as an economic position? What might it mean to queer Kenyan economics? What would it mean to queer Kenyan development?

I have no real sense that using “queer” displaces the hegemonic force of “gay”: queer does not circulate in Kenya with any real institutional force. Which, some might say, might give queer the fugitive, marronage force that it needs to imagine beyond/beside institutional frameworks.

Though the thickness of livability requires that we navigate institutional and non-institutional spaces and possibilities.

On marronage, I am reminded that it was a possibility before aerial bombing. The British bombed Kenyan resistance fighters out of dense forest ranges.

Which is to say: one might have to be gay-queer or queer-gay, to engage existing economies while fashioning others that make life (more) possible. It’s not yet clear to me that hitching “gay” to already existing economies or even the economies embedded within the development imaginary is useful or even good. While these economies might not be explicitly anti-gay, they are definitely queering economies subtended by discourses and practices of disposability. Put otherwise, I worry when institutional gayness in Kenya embraces development(al) logics that depend on hierarchizing difference and, more precisely, designating which lives are worth living. Put more crudely, the desire for state recognition—we must be practical, and in a Kenya where not having certain basic forms of state-issued ID makes much impossible, one cannot simply reject the state’s demands—should not require one to blindly endorse the state’s actions.

I continue to wonder how to think about Kenya’s gay economies, about Kenya’s gay-queer economies, about Kenya’s queer-gay economies, about Kenya’s queer economies.

Empire and Queer Mothering

Nobody puts Baby in the corner
Dirty Dancing

One of the most powerful scenes in Empire features a young Jamal slipping on his mother’s heels, wrapping a scarf around his head, and tottering into a gathering of family and friends, a young drag queen. When Lucious sees him, he loses it.

He strides toward Jamal, grabs him, carries him down the stairs and to the back alley, and stuffs him into a trash can. Cookie, the wonderful Cookie, runs after Lucious, removes the young Jamal from the trash can and berates her husband. It is a moment of fracture.

Queers fracture families.

It is a queer fantasy. A fantasy that our mothers will be there for us. A fantasy that in our moments of sexual and gender dissidence, when, as children, we begin to explore the multiple ways we can be, a parent will stand with us. Will stand for us.

No one stuffs baby queers in the trash.

At six or seven, I was experimenting with gender play. On one memorable occasion—captured by my father’s camera, I wore my sister’s plaid skirt, a floppy hat, and baby heels. My father—his birthday is on March 4—found it charming. He reached for his camera. And, as I vamped, striking whatever silly poses I considered fashionable, his camera snapped away. The pictures went into a family album. They became part of family history. Perhaps my father allowed my gender play—my love for music, my ridiculously long nails, my soprano voice that refused to break, my love for reading, my softness in so many things—because I was his last child. His baby. He already had my brother, the son who had to be a son.

When I was 12 or so, I confessed that I was worried about my voice: it was too high, and I didn’t sound like the other boys. In that transitional period, gender anxiety was everywhere. He said not to worry. At a moment when older boys and other men were busy taunting that I “spoke like a girl” or “walked like a girl” or “behaved like a girl,” my father’s love was unconditional.

Though miles away from Cookie, he was my Cookie.

Young queers are fragile. Often, we don’t have models. Still. And even as more adults around the world “come out” and embrace sexual and gender dissidence, young queers remain distant from that world. While some news stories celebrate children coming out—7, 8, and 9 year olds have been featured as “out and proud”–such celebrations are premature.

We live at a time when “coming out” has become a demand—“be who you are.” There is a demand here, a demand to embody something that is becoming fixed and knowable. A demand that refuses exploration and experimentation, that refuses indecision and confusion. I continue to hold on to the promise of queerness—not the sophomoric “don’t label or classify me,” but the openness of becoming, what José Muñoz theorized so beautifully as the queerness to come, the queerness that will be, an opening into futures we can imagine, futures we can make.

I miss the young Jamal—I miss the gender play. Or, rather, I worry that we see so little of it in the now cis-gay Jamal, the Jamal raised by cis-heterosexual men. I wonder about how much we lose when our Cookie-parents are not around.

We see traces of that early Jamal. In Jamal’s stunning coming out song, the profound moment of disidentification, when an ostensibly heterosexual song is transformed from “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a woman” to “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a man.” The adult Jamal twirls—it’s a little moment, but every queer who has ever been a queen, even for a second, knows that twirl. He dances queer.

And Cookie, beautiful, wonderful Cookie, screams: “GO MAL!”

Perhaps because I am so deeply wedded to psychoanalysis, I continue to think that so many queers, no matter our age, need a Cookie. We need a figure who affirms our choices. Who sees whatever difference we may have and, instead of trying to change us, screams, “GO MAL!” This affirmation is different from the quiet resignation with which so many of us are met—“you’re queer, okay.”

As my father’s birthday approaches, a date I tend to remember before and after it happens and forget on the day itself—perhaps grief is this need to forget—I hope, as I have for many years that had he lived, he might have been my cheerleader. In Empire’s vernacular, I wonder if he might have been my Cookie.

The child in me—the queer child in those gender play photographs—believes so. The callused adult prefers not to know.

political homophobia

It is always strange to encounter oneself elsewhere, or, more precisely, the self that others think one is. I know enough to understand that all representation entails misrecognition: others’ images of us rarely accord with our images of ourselves and, strictly speaking, our self-representation is apt to be just as distorted.

I have been thinking about what anthropologist Tom Boellstorf terms “political homophobia” for almost as long as I’ve known about homosexuality. In Boellstorf (writing on Indonesia) and Ashley Currier (writing on Namibia), political homophobia describes how hetero-patriarchal sentiment is mobilized against those considered non-normative. It might include naming political opponents as gay or lesbian or otherwise gender- or sexual-dissident to exclude them from a nation imagined as heteronormative and hetero-patriarchal; or, as in Kenya, it might include arguing that particular parties or forms of legislation might introduce or promote homosexuality “through the back door” (as uttered in Kenya’s parliament discussions); or, it might simply mean how publics are called into being based on attitudes toward homosexuality.

Within the logic of political homophobia, the accusation that one is “gay” or a “gay activist” or even a “homosexual activist”—these are metonymic names meant to represent all gender and sexual dissidence—is supposed to discredit one’s persona and arguments. As Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant argue, heteronormativity is about a “sense of rightness,” about a moral and ideological anchoring in what is supposed to be beyond question, no matter its incoherence.

And, so, despite my well-known distaste for confession, a series of confessions:

  • I’ve been out as queer to my friends and family since 1996.
  • I attended graduate school to focus on queer studies.
  • As a graduate student and as a professor, I taught classes devoted to queer studies.
  • My first blog, Gukira, on blogspot, was explicitly queer.
  • I have written many blog posts on queer issues on this blog.
  • I have publications in Wasafiri, Modern Fiction Studies, the Queer African Reader, Kwani?, and elsewhere, that draw on queer studies and defend queer livability.
  • I have published articles in the Guardian defending queer livability.
  • I have participated in many conferences speaking on queer issues.
  • My twitter bio reads, “Queer Writer”
  • While disposability is a relatively recent term in my lexicon, the thread of my writing has always been against practices that unhuman and make life less possible.
  • I believe all life is valuable.

Many of these statements can be used against me in a Kenya that has a draft anti-homosexuality bill. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya in which no prominent political figure has come out—either in support of queer rights or as queer. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya where the mere fact of being married or hetero-reproductive bestows respectability and credibility. Many of them can be used against me in a Kenya where hetero-patriarchy repeatedly asserts its rights to use and discard women’s bodies—consent not required.

I stand by these statements. If they mark me as “some other gay activist,” so be it.

African Queer Studies

The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.
—Saidiya Hartman

Like many other book-reading people, my path into queerness was as much intellectual as it was libidinal. In my Christian “youth,” I devoured articles in evangelical publications about the “scourge” of homosexuality. My body had yet to catch up with my brain, so I understood this as a purely intellectual exercise. After all, the anti-Christ was a “homosexual,” and so one had to learn as much as possible about this condition to combat it—the conflation is deliberate. The only other sources of information were my mother’s 1970s psychology textbooks, which had nothing good to say about “the vice.”

My exit from Kenya and entry into a U.S. university allowed for questions I did not know I had to find expression. The B&N in downtown Pittsburgh had a small, but exciting, Lesbian and Gay section, where I acquired my first copies of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, Patrick Merla’s Boys Like Us, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Warrior, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Tobias’s The Best Little Boy in the World, and Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind. I don’t recall now whether it was in downtown Pittsburgh or in Squirrel Hill where I also picked up E. Lynn Harris, Thom Gunn, James Earl Hardy, and the life-saving Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin. Other anthologies followed. And a RuPaul autobiography!

Once I’d finally found the courage, I started to haunt the surprisingly useful LGBT section at the Catholic university I attended. One had to tread warily, to make sure no one was looking, to look away as books were being checked out. If B&N provided narrative and poetic foundations, the library began to fill these out across time and space. A partial list of names: Eve Sedgwick, John Bosworth, David Greenberg, Karla Jay, Diana Fuss, Kaja Silverman, Jonathan Dollimore, Judith Butler, Alan Bray, Alan Sinfield, Stephen Murray, Judy Grahn, George Chauncey, Jr. And all of this created—or coincided with—other hungers for more familiar geographies, for the black and postcolonial, if not for the African.

It was the black and postcolonial that started making trouble.

Two brief articles on African “homosexualities” stand out in memory: a survey of African homosexualities by Wayne Dynes, with the subtitle “An Unnecessary Controversy,” and an essay by Deborah Amory arguing for the importance of same-sex research in African studies. Dynes provided a bibliography of (mostly) colonial-era ethnographic sources that, he claimed, demonstrated the presence of same-sex relations in Africa. Whereas I could discuss the Molly houses in Alan Bray’s England with great facility, the contested meanings of same-sex acts in the Medieval period with some confidence thanks to Bosworth, and even the legislative shifts, class contests, and English-Irish disputes that led to Wilde’s imprisonment, Dyne’s cursory method left me with little-to-nothing. I do not contest the usefulness of bibliographies; I do object to the tone of “An Unnecessary Controversy,” which presumes the undisputed truth value of the bibliographic sources.

Since she provided the language, let me use Kath Weston’s words:

In the international arena, the “salvage anthropology” of indigenous homosexualities remains largely insulated from important new theoretical work on postcolonial relations. The story is a familiar one in the annals of the discipline: well-meaning ethnographers rush out to record “traditional” practices and rituals before the latter change or disappear. At their worst, these efforts repackage colonial discourse (e.g. “primitive” societies) for consumption by Anglo-European audiences. At their best, they resurrect the vision of the Noble Savage living in a Noble Society that provides an honored place for at least some forms of transgendering or same-sex sexual activity.[1]

Weston’s 1993 critique is still urgently needed as Dynes’s “method” of uncritically citing colonial-era records has been widely adopted across academic and activist spaces. The routine citations of “x ethnic group embraced sexual/gender dissidence” continue to reproduce ethno-national, a-contextual versions of Africa and African knowledge. Often lacking from such discussions is an awareness, or even interest, in the Africanist scholarship describing the making of ethno-nationalist groups during colonial modernity (in Kenya, the work of Bethwell Ogot, Gideon Were, Tabitha Kanogo); the geo-historical shifts in the meanings of gender and sexuality under colonial modernity (discussed by Oyewumi, Amadiume, Nzweku among others); and the limitations of colonial-era ethnography (discussed by many people, including Talal Asad, Maxwell Owusu, and Johannes Fabian). Of even less interest to various advocates of this method is the notion that African diversities exist: while some populations may have embraced forms of sexual and gender dissidence, others might not. How might such distinctions be analytically useful?

In contrast to Dynes’s polemic, Amory’s brief survey of a still-emergent field imagined Queer Africa (still known as “homosexual Africa”) as a problem to be considered, one whose consideration would draw on the “importance of situated knowledges,” emphasizing “the emergence of specific discourses and representations (including academic theories) within their historical and political contexts of production.”[2] It detailed the exigencies and contexts of the research—the growth and spread of “political homophobia” in Africa, the quotidian violence directed against gays and lesbians in Africa, and the “emergence of post-colonial gay and lesbian identities and liberation movements around the world.” In a characterization of African Queer studies that still holds true, Amory writes, “What we are witnessing, then, are two related but distinct developments in African Studies (and around the world): one branch of research documents and theorizes diverse African histories of sexuality and gender, while another articulates emerging postcolonial liberation movements organized around lesbian and gay identities and rights.” Today, we might ask about the relationship between liberation-minded and neoliberal models of queer organizing in Africa.

The one, troubling note on which Dynes and Amory agreed was that “homophobia,” not “homosexuality,” had been “brought” to Africa by colonialism or, put more aptly, institutionalized through colonial bureaucratic procedures. This claim runs through much activist and academic literature by key figures including Sylvia Tamale, Marc Epprecht, and Neville Hoad. This claim is true to the extent that the archives of colonial bureaucracy are much more accessible than, say, what is now considered “customary law” or “tradition” across a range of African groups.[3] And, certainly, if we are to speak across the nation-wide and state-wide prohibitions against homosexuality, we must turn, first, to the colonial documents that imagined and forged the bounded territories we now describe as countries. And, even when we turn to “customary law,” or even “African philosophy,” we must contend with the processes of (often missionary) education, whether explicit in the sense that writers attended missionary schools or implicit in the sense that missionaries were instrumental in translating and transcribing many African languages and concepts. While I understand (and value) the polemical work of this claim—that “homophobia, not homosexuality” is a western import—its repetition, to the point where it’s dogma now, is, frankly, irritating. It is ahistorical and untheorized.

To preview a later argument: if African studies is to learn anything from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, it surely must be that a deeply genealogical method is needed to understand how certain figures become imbued with, and represent, the intimate anxieties of their geo-histories. Focusing on the acceptability of homosexual acts and identities leaves unexplored other histories of intimate dissidence and policing. African queer histories are impoverished by this inattention to specific histories of unlivability and disposability.

By no means am I claiming that Dynes and Amory were the first to write on queer Africa. Simply, they are the names that stuck in my mind. Also, I read them because they spoke about a somewhat familiar geography. I was interested in Queer studies, but I had charted a different path that went through Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and ended with Reginald Shepherd and Carl Philips.

When I finally turned to African Queer studies in grad school—in part because an earlier trajectory had proved impossible—it was with a different sense of the labor. By that point, the schism between LGBTI studies and Queer studies had widened considerably, so much so that they might have been speaking different languages—often, they were. My interest in psychoanalysis had deepened. Under the influence of my advisors, and because I had access to an amazing library, I had become newly interested in the problem of the archive. With a mass of new key terms—intimacy, public, colonial modernity, subjectification, allochrony—and with new (to me) scholarship to build on by Neville Hoad, Rudi Bleys, Megan Vaughan, Gaurav Desai, Siobhan Somerville (at the time, I was also in a year-long postcolonial reading group led by Ania Loomba that incarnated true interdisciplinarity), I turned to sexology’s archives. The shape of the previous sentence, with all its awkward embedding and squashing tries to convey the immense rush (excitement and headache) of this moment. Fabian and Hoad and Loomba had taught me how to ask about the developmental logics and scales that defined “the human.” The African appeared in sexology’s archives as hypo- and hyper-developed: too uncivilized to be homosexual, a condition that afflicted the “over-civilized” races, and too excessively bodily not to be queer (the too-large penises, too-large clitorises, too much appetite). Broadly, Africa appeared in the sexological archives Foucault had used, the archives on which much Queer studies depended. To his four categories—the homosexual, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, and the Malthusian couple—one could very easily have added “the primitive.”

How had this “fifth” figure escaped Queer theory’s gaze? How had the foundational works that built on Foucault simply ignored this figure? And, if it was to be used, how was it to be used?

One might argue that the figure of the “primitive” or “savage,” to the extent that it was enfleshed in captured, enslaved, and destroyed bodies, made unhuman through the logics of accumulation, fungibility, and dispossession, could not allow many of the fictions of Queer studies to exist. What, after all, is an identitarian/anti-identitarian or anti-social/communitarian claim when applied to the unhuman?

Again, I get ahead of myself.

Those entering Queer African studies now encounter a richly conceived field shaped by multiple collaborations among artists, activists, and academics. The recently published Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, models a continent-wide and diasporic example of this work. It follows similar anthologies from South Africa, including Sex and Politics in South Africa, edited by Graeme Reid, Neville Hoad, and Karen Martin. As it travels through popular culture, legal cultures, life narratives, organizational politics, and the politics of representation, it models the ethics of dissensus, as contributors debate the pasts, presents, and futures of queer (the term is also debated) lives, politics, and aesthetics. We might say that in this volume, peer review emerges not as a silent (invisible) background, but as vigorous, visible conversation. Amending myself, I’d now say that “theory” is enacted as practice—the academic in me would still have liked/would like to see some of these theoretical stakes outlined more clearly, but this is a deeply theorized volume.

In what might be considered the “homosexual-focused” branch of African Queer studies, Neville Hoad has offered what I consider the defining statement of this scholarship:

“homosexuality” is one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations (sometimes in the negative, sometimes not) that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representations by Africans and others[4]

As I wrote in a review of the book, “This claim re-visions V. Y. Mudimbe’s classic argument on the ‘invention’ of Africa by emphasizing the foundational role of embodied, intimate practices.” Hoad’s argument has gained in strength since African Intimacies was published, as Nigeria, Uganda, and now Kenya have proposed or passed legislation defining national and African identity against “homosexuality.” Even as “homosexuality” floats as a contested term in much of this legislation. One notes, for instance, that the law has invented a punishable category known as “the intention to commit homosexuality,” where, ostensibly, desire, or what it “read as desire,” is punishable.[5]

Hoad’s literary and cultural scholarship joins work by Jarrod Hayes on the Maghreb, Brenna Munro on South Africa, and, Chantal Zabus on Africa. In sociology and anthropology—more broadly ethnographic approaches—books by Zethu Matebeni, Ashley Currier, Amanda Swarr, and Rudy Gaudio detail life stories, community formations, and political organizing. Located squarely in history, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani is the finest historical study of southern African homosexualities. This, I must note, is a rather idiosyncratic sampling of an increasing body of work. In privileging book-length works, I have left out important scholarship by Lindsey Green-Simms, Unoma Azuah, Desiree Lewis, T.J. Tallie, Xavier Livermon, Serena Dankwa, Robert Lorway (who has a forthcoming book on Namibia), Sikhumbuzo Mngadi, Thabo Mbisi, Zackie Achmat, and Vasu Reddy. The South-Africa-based journals Agenda and Feminist Africa continue to support a range of queer-themed scholarship.

Let me emphasize again that this is a fairly idiosyncratic list. (Yes, I see you Cheryl Stobie and Henriette Gunkel.)

Rather schematically, the list is dominated by scholars who work on South Africa or southern Africa. So much so, that Queer Africa is too easily conflated with Queer South Africa. Or, as I suggest in work that I’m tired of trying to get published, two notions of Africa emerge: the homophilic South Africa and the homophobic elsewhere. (Brenna Munro’s book is exemplary in contesting the notion of a homophilic South Africa; but because it’s set in South Africa, it simply produces South Africa as both homophilic and homophobic.) My sense is that this focus on South Africa has taken on a disciplinary lens, or, more aptly, a framing lens: scholarship that does not follow a certain South African framing—a focus on legislation, the role of the nation, the post-apartheid racial stakes—simply becomes illegible. (For instance, I’m yet to see any work that considers the place of ethnicity and inter-ethnic negotiations around sexuality.)

My other sense is that Queer African studies has yet to grapple with its theoretical foundations. On the one hand, theoretical questions emerge from the archives we engage. And so I note that archived are still being assembled. At the same time, I worry about the ease with which certain white figures of Queer studies are taken up or discarded while Black Queer studies is rarely engaged. (Some of this, I suspect, stems from the U.S.-centric nature of Black Queer studies, but surely that limitation should also apply to foundational work in Queer studies. And, I would add, we need a conversation between Queer African studies and Queer Caribbean studies. These conversations happen informally—we certainly read each other—but we have yet to figure out where to meet in conceptual space.)
*
And, so, a turn. I’m going to try to learn from (mainstream) Queer studies and Black Queer studies (especially in its diasporic and Caribbean forms) to pose some theoretical questions African Queer studies might want to ask at some point. Perhaps idiosyncratically, I’m going to privilege African philosophy as a place from which to ask these questions.
*
Feminism and Postcolonial studies were my first encounters with the “problem” of the human. Did the “human” include “women” and the “less civilized races”? These are the questions that drew me (and keep me) in Black Diaspora studies and Queer studies, both of which, in their most radical (at the root) articulations, continue to ask how the human is envisioned and how the human can be re-envisioned. What notion of the human, for instance, is invoked in “human rights”? What version of the human circulates in mainstream ontology? What versions of the human ground disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations? What genealogies and genres of the human are in play when Africa is invoked?

The argument that colonial modernity introduced homophobia rather than homosexuality into African cultures is often based on troubling ethnographic evidence, as I have already said. Repetition is not bad. The peculiar taxonomic gaze that always already knows how to see Africa has been so dominated by particular categories of sexual and gender dissidence: difference (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex) that it has not stopped to ask how else genealogies of African sexual and gender dissidence might be read within Africanist paradigms of personhood. As philosopher Leke Adeofe asks, “What is a person in the African view?”[6]

(I shall avoid going down the Blyden/Mbiti route as I’ve been there several times. I shall note, only, that their work remains foundational to African philosophy.)

In a widely cited (and debated) statement, Ifeanyi Menkiti argues, “personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail.”[7] Complementing Menkiti, Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani argues, “the important question is not at what point in time an individual becomes a person, but rather what constitutes the completeness of humanhood.”[8] Several terms are in play here: individual, person, human, achievement, failure, and completeness. To these, we must add the dynamic between individual and community, or what Blyden would term “duty.” Segun Gbadegesin writes, A person whose existence and personality are dependent on the community is expected in turn to contribute to the continued existence of the community. . . . The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community. The meaning of one’s life is therefore measured by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.[9] Across many philosophers, this “commitment to social ideals and communal existence” is measured in intimate terms. Thus, representing many other positions, Kwasi Wireu summarizes, “being married with children well raised is part of the necessary conditions for personhood in the normative sense. A non-marrying, non-procreative person, however normal otherwise—not to talk of a Casanova equivalent—can permanently forget any prospect of this type of recognition in traditional Akan society. The only conceivable exceptions will be ones based on the noblest of alternative life commitments.”[10] Now, to some extent, I’ve stacked the deck. Producing out-of-context quotations to prove a point is wildly irresponsible. That said, a remarkable consistency emerges across a range of African philosophers working across Akan philosophy, Yoruba philosophy, Igbo philosophy, the Sotho-based Ubuntu philosophy, and Luo philosophy about the centrality of hetero-reproduction in conferring “full” personhood.

Given what we know about the range of diverse arrangements across Africa through which hetero-reproduction could happen—here, Nkiru Nzwegu’s scholarship on woman-woman marriage among the Igbo is exemplary, as she explains how a woman could marry another woman, who would then take a male lover to impregnate her—we might need to ask, more deeply, what constitutes intimate failure. What figures incarnated the intimate anxieties:failures we now associate with the queer? What figures “failed” to achieve “full” personhood? In my cursory reading (okay, some quite extensive), a few figures keep cropping up. One study claims that bachelors could exist because their married status depended on their economic status, but that “spinsters” were unthinkable. Other work singles out loners as “cursed people.” While yet other work speaks about people with disabilities. In an African studies still dominated by the importance of communitarianism and kinship, we might ask about the figures who fail to appear on genealogical trees and the figures who fail to repopulate those trees. Paying particular attention to how diverse communities organize their senses of self and community, confer personhood and status, we might look for those figures excluded from these designations.

By no means is what I’m suggesting easy. And, in fact, it would trouble the genealogies of African queerness that so many of us want to claim for political reasons. Asking contemporary queer movements to trace their histories not to same-sex desiring ancestors but to histories of intimate failure and incomplete personhood, that is, to histories of disposability, seems unhelpful, if not destructive. And, perhaps, that is not what I’m suggesting. At the very least, I am suggesting that a theorized African Queer studies should account, in some way, for the various intellectual genealogies of personhood and intimacy found within Africanist thinking.


[1] Kath Weston, “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 22(1993):344-45. It’s worth clarifying that Dynes is not an ethnographer.

[2] Deborah P. Amory, “’Homosexuality’ in Africa: Issues and Debates,” Issue 25.1 (1997). Amory’s “‘Mashoga, Mabasha, and Magai’: Homosexuality on the East African Coast” remains a model of careful scholarship, attentive to place and history.

[3] As philosopher Nkiru Nzwegu points out, much of what is now called “customary law” emerges from the collusion between colonial-era ethnographers, bureaucrats, and the male leaders who were presumed to be in authority because of the patriarchal frames presumed by colonial authorities.

[4] Neville Hoad, African Intimacies

[5] The question of how this “desire” is to be read must be asked.

[6] Leke Adeofe, “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics”

[7] Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, “On the Normative Conception of a Person”

[8] Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, “African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey”

[9] Segun Gbadegesin, “Ènìyàn: The Yoruba Concept of a Person”

[10] Kwasi Wiredu, “The Moral Foundations of an African Culture”

Black Queer Studies Now

The possible shapes of what has not been before exist only in that back place, where we keep those unnamed, untamed longings for something different and beyond what is now called possible, to which our analysis and our understanding can only build roads.

—Audre Lorde

Anniversaries are strange things, especially at the juncture of black and queer, for they invoke the “many thousands gone,” all the black queer artists and intellectuals who did not live to see this field emerge, but whose work has provided ongoing sustenance and provocation, daring us to imagine more and imagine better. I dedicate this meditation to the ones we remember, the ones who inspire, the ones who died too soon, the ones we have forgotten, the ones we never knew, the ones we loved, the ones we could have loved: to those listening for their names.1

It has been close to 15 years since the Black Queer Studies at the Millennium conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in 2000, and close to 10 years since E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson published the co-edited Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, which combined selected papers from that conference with other foundational work in black queer studies. Black Queer Studies was envisioned as a celebration of a still-emergent and vibrant field, which had been energized by works including Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics (1999), Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000), Roderick Ferguson’s Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique (2003), Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (2001), and Sharon Holland’s Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and Black Subjectivity (2000). These works ranged widely in their methods and archives, all insisting that the figure of the black queer was central to the emergence of disciplines and fields including sexology (Somerville), sociology (Ferguson), urban studies (Delany), public policy (Cohen), and affect and material culture (Holland).

    Edit: As Darius Bost’s work reminds me, this listing of university press books does not account for foundational work published in many elsewheres by Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Charles Nero, and Eric Garber, among many others.

Because the conference and the publication that followed were billed as celebrations, they were marked by strategic ellipses that were both energizing and disciplinary. In her Foreword to Black Queer Studies, Holland writes, “Because hindsight is always dangerous, I will not critique what is missing from this collection, but rather only describe its missed opportunities as a kind of melancholia.” 2

    Edit: Holland’s cryptic statement about “a kind of melancholia” had initially led me to consider melancholia’s relationship to a:the lost object. Melancholia, Freud writes, “may be the reaction to the loss of a loved object,” where the object is “lost as an object of love.” Or, melancholia might be a loss where one “cannot see clearly what it is that has been lost.” Holland’s “a kind of melancholia” suggests a “loved object” was/is missing in the black queer studies institutionalized as/by an anthology. Or simply an object whose loss could be felt, but which could not be named.

    Holland’s barely-there, easy-to-miss invocation of “melancholia” unsettles the field-making endeavors of black queer studies by cultivating profound ambivalence about its “objects,” about what it chooses to “love” and “remember” and take as foundational. This “aside,” barely heard, is so very important.

If Holland’s strategic silence roots ambivalence at the heart of black queer studies, this ambivalence is not shared by the editors. Henderson and Johnson claim that the collection seeks to “interanimate” black studies and queer studies, and to “build a bridge” between the two to advance “long-term and mutually liberatory goals.”3 The collection aims to enhance “unity and community.”4 This focus on “unity and community” dictated the editorial choice to focus predominantly on the U.S., an odd decision given the important scholarship in the fields of the black diaspora and the black Atlantic that had transformed the academy since the early 1990s.5 It also felt odd because the black women scholars credited by Johnson and Henderson as foundational figures, including Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, embraced a broadly international imagination.

Simultaneously, Johnson and Henderson divide the labor of “black” and “queer” strangely. “Both terms,” they write, “are markers or signifiers of difference: just as ‘queer’ challenges notions of heteronormativity and heterosexism, ‘black’ resists notions of assimilation and absorption.” This division of labor allows queer to be about “inclusivity” while black is about “historical and cultural specificity.”6 This division of labor seems to forget the scholarship by black feminists on blackness and sexuality, on blackness as non-normativity, and even un-normativity.7

Perhaps the biggest dissonance happens when the fields represented by “black” and “queer” are mapped through their entrance into the academy—the emergence of Black studies and Queer studies. Dissonant because this institutionalization evades the more contentious genealogies of blackness and queerness that would render improbable, if not impossible, the rapprochement between the two that Henderson and Johnson seek. In the absence of such genealogies, a certain professional politeness marks the Introduction to Black Queer Studies. In many ways, a silencing politeness.

By silencing politeness, I mark the absence in the volume of scholarship on sexually explicit work: no engagement with any forms of black pornography or erotica; no engagement with the problem sex poses for Black studies as it encounters Queer studies; no real engagement with black queer popular cultures—say, the fiction of James Earl Hardy. A commitment to “respectability” that left desire unspoken:unspeakable.

It seems odd to describe as “polite” essays that critiqued the race-blindness of queer studies (Marlon Ross on Sedgwick’s closet, Charles Nero on gay white ghettos); extended Barbara Smith in critiquing what Dwight McBride memorably termed “straight black studies”; followed Barbara Christian’s injunction to theorize otherwise (E. Patrick Johnson’s “Quare studies”); prioritized archives based on black lives and cultural production (Jewel Gomez on black lesbian texts, Kara Keeling on black lesbian cinema, Mae Henderson on Baldwin, Philip Harper on his transnational travels and desire encounters). Except, repeatedly, many of these essays are coy, bashful, unwilling (or unable) to speak to what Rinaldo Walcott describes as “shameful and funky sexual practices.” One notes, for instance, that E. Patrick Johnson’s notion of “quare” as a “theory in the flesh” has relatively little (if anything) to say about fleshly appetites:

    Quare studies must encourage strategic coalition building around laws and policies that have the potential to affect us all across racial, sexual, and class divides, Quare studies must incorporate under its rubric a praxis related to the sites of public policy, family, church, and community.

    Quare studies would reinstate the subject and the identity around which the subject circulates that queer theory so easily dismisses. By refocusing our attention on racialized bodies, experiences, and knowledges of transgendered people, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals of color, quare studies grounds the discursive process of mediated identification and subjectivity in a political praxis that speaks to the material existence of “colored” bodies.

Johnson’s “manifesto” leaves unspoken:unspeakable the idea that black queer practices might be about sex, desire, fucking, going down, sex toys, public sex, cruising, fisting, leather, s/m. Instead, his essay ends on a coy note about men who like to cook and clean. One reads black gay cultural production from the 1980s and 90s and then turns to Johnson to see all that fierce desire and sexiness exiled, muted.

(From Hemphill’s “Now we think as we fuck”

to

Johnson’s “Now we think as we cook”)

citational analysis produces its own shapes of thinking and feeling. I had said I could not write this, by which I mean: I struggle to unlearn what is habit, to find what is necessary. Registers clang up against each other, clog up prose.

Two essays in Black Queer Studies offered the most provocative and compelling discussions of what the field might do: Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: On the Radical Politics of Queer Studies,” first published in 1997, and Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies: Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora.”

This is an “interested” statement, by which I mean, these two essays helped to guide my own work and to affirm that I wanted to do was possible. Their particular questions and approaches have been incredibly generative and energizing.

A shift in registers:

Dates are fuzzy, but I first encountered Cohen’s article as I was “transitioning” out of Gay and Lesbian studies and moving “into” queer studies, an impossible fiction, but one that I needed to re-think the shape of the world. From years on black “queer” listservs, where we debated the word “gay” and sought better ways of naming ourselves (adodi, same gender loving, in the life, in the family, the children), I knew the world described in the books I read, the world I saw in clubs and bookstores and sex clubs, could not/did not see or imagine me. Essex Hemphill was a bible. He gave me the language of class and race, of precarity and optimism, of desire and solitude. When Cohen’s work told me that queer studies had yet to find ways to be relevant to black lives (or, in Rinaldo Walcott’s terms, black life forms), the world became more possible.

The too-easy switch between “gay and lesbians” and “queer,” Cohen argued, foreclosed the “radical possibilities” queer might offer as a genealogy or excavation of practices and logics of intimate surveillance and management. For Cohen, the distinction between “heterosexuality”/”heteronormativity” and “queer” obscured what was at stake: “one’s relation to power.”

    Cohen offers a different map to get to “queer,” one whose names are Kimberle Crenshaw, Barbara Ransby, Angela Davis, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde; one that starts not with “I Hate Straights,” but with the Combahee River Collective’s statement. Where one starts matters. The path one follows matters. The tracks one leaves matter.

Cohen’s key word is “transformational”: “a [transformational] politics does not search for opportunities to integrate into dominant institutions and normative social relationships but instead pursues a political agenda that seeks to change values, definitions, and laws that make these institutions and relationships oppressive.”

Cohen’s insistence that “the work” required examining relationships of power helped to unblock the anxieties I experienced when I could not find “gays and lesbians” in the black diaspora spaces I wanted to explore.

I write this after Renisha McBride’s killer has been convicted, as Mike Brown’s death changes yet another town, as Ferguson, Missouri, grieves under the weight of martial law—these traces of grief and rage, of a desire to make a world where these things are impossible, and this from my Nairobi bedroom, a stretch Cohen grants.

And if Cohen’s archives remained anchored in the twentieth century, her method of reading intimacy in relation to power permitted, even encouraged, many of us to look elsewhere, to re-think “queer” while being attentive to the intimacy-making and intimacy-destroying histories of blackness.

I append here a list of names: Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, as a promissory note

Re-reading Rinaldo Walcott, I am struck by how much his questions shaped mine: “Is black queer studies the improper object of the black studies project? Or can black queer studies even reside within the confines of the black studies project proper?” “Proper” is a key term here, as Walcott asks about the U.S.-centeredness of black studies, its relative inattention to other sites of blackness, and its desire for “epistemological respectability.”

But that is not what I wanted to write.

Still un-training.

With the exception of Cohen’s essay, many of the essays in the anthology left me with a sense of what, adapting Marlon Ross’s language, might be termed U.S. claustrophilia: if, as Ross argued, (white) queer studies was obsessed with the figure/problem of the (white) closet, much of the black queer studies in the anthology could not emerge from the U.S. closet, a space that felt oppressive, and even impossible. And also false to the histories that preceded it: histories of many black lesbians and gay men traveling the world as they figured out their hungers, their desires, their ways of being possible.

Walcott’s insistence on diaspora—on travel, dispersal, undoing, genealogy, random encounters, misapprehension, split loyalties, betrayal, capture, revolution—produced a shape of the world that could be imagined, and theorized, differently. Diaspora genealogies also open the archive of black studies, demanding that we move beyond formal institutionalization in the U.S. to consider the intellectual labor performed in London in the 1930s (C.L.R. James, George Padmore, Amy Garvey, Jomo Kenyatta), France in the 1920s and 1930s (the Nardal sisters, Lamine Senghor, Césaire), Makerere and Dar es Salaam in the 1960s (George Shepperson, Ezekiel Mphahlele).

As I wrestled to find geo-histories to think with and write about, Walcott helped me to re-discover Hortense Spillers’s “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” an essay that became foundational to my vision of black queer studies.

Permit an excursion from work in progress:


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.”8 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.9 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.10

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.11 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.12 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.”


*

The re-turn to Spillers was also a re-engagement with black diaspora histories, with the difficult labor of thinking through the problem of “the thing,” of “fungibility,” of what Walcott terms “black life forms.”

But I get ahead of myself.

*

In their Introduction, Henderson and Johnson admit that Black Queer Studies privileges the humanities, a function, perhaps, of intimacies, but also, one might speculate, of institutional and disciplinary priorities over what is worth funding. In the years since the anthology appeared, a growing body of work has used social science methods, at times located squarely within the social sciences and, at other times, embracing broadly interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary methods. Complicating and even undoing archives and methods understood as foundational in queer studies, scholars and artists and activists have privileged sites of black sociality—the church, the club, the ballroom, for instance—to re-theorize black queerness. Black queer cultures and subcultures are richly represented and theorized on youtube, on multiple tumblrs, and in a range of independent film productions. And while some of this work is slowly—very slowly—making its way into the peer-reviewed academy, the radical critiques of method and foundations embedded in most of this work remain unheard. For instance, what would happen if black lives and histories were placed at the center of queer theorizing? What would happen, Sharon Holland asks, if the black lesbian were centered?

Equally important, the geographies of black queer scholarship have expanded, stretching and rupturing what Walcott describes as the too-easy alignment between blackness and the U.S. In work by Gloria Wekker, Omise’eke Tinsley, Thomas Glave, Maja Horn, Jaffari Allen, Nadia Ellis, Shaka McGlotten, and Lyndon Gill, a queer Caribbean flows, listening to and learning from queer predecessors—Claude McKay, Audre Lorde, Michelle Cliff, M. NourbeSe Philip, the many who have charted and navigated dissident waterways. A North American gaze focused on Africa is attempting to interact with black queer studies, in work by T.J. Tallie, Brenna Munro, Xavier Livermon, and Ashley Currier, though these conversations often seem muted, still waiting to happen.

(Many names are missing here: Tavia Nyong’o, C. Riley Snorton, Marlon Bailey, LaMonda Stallings, Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Rosamond King, David Green, Kai Green, Zakiyyah Jackson, Neo Musangi, Zethu Matebeni, and many others I have yet to encounter)

*

Another kind of re-beginning:

The urgencies of the killing present have shaped the direction of much black queer labor as it has tried to document black queer disposability and develop paradigms for livability. The proximity to being undone haunts black queer cultural and intellectual production, whether it be in the form of “mainstream” queer canons that do not acknowledge the existence or contributions of black queer scholarship; in restrictive zoning laws and practices that reduce spaces for black queer sociality; in mainstream expressions and articulations of blackness that continue to unsee black queer lives, framing them as embarrassing problems to be solved or ignored; in lukewarm liberal versions of “inclusion” that depend on deracination; and in forms of institutionalization that mute what Cohen described as the radical potential of queer politics.

*

And, still, something insists that I am “doing this wrong,” not posing the “major questions” raised by this body of scholarship. This writing seems supremely “unhelpful” to those looking to get a “handle” on “the field.”

My “training” is fighting other instincts.

*

It is not clear to me that “black queer studies” can ever be/come a “proper object,” for blackness “anarranges” all claims to “the proper.” And it has seemed to me that the most urgent work produced in/around black queer studies raises, insistently, the problem of what Rinaldo Walcott terms “black life forms.” The tasks “before” black queer studies are genealogical—thinking with Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers and Fred Moten and Alexander Weheliye about those figures/bodies designated as “black,” how they are not only foundational to what is known as “the human,” but also how they unmake the assumptions tied to that human. This thinking goes beyond the “subject-making/subject-unmaking” focus of work from Foucault through Butler and Bersani and Edelman, demonstrating the limits of identitarian/anti-identitarian critiques, the limits of psychoanalytic approaches for which the black as possible subject will never have been possible. (And, here, I’m suggesting that the reading of Fanon as an “intervention” into psychoanalysis also misses the mark.) And so the problem of “how” to begin with a figure already barred from apprehension within the regimes of the human taken for granted even by a notion such as “the abject.” The black, after all, is not what is “violently excluded,” but what has never been possible to “include” in a notion of “the human.”

If, in fact, black queer studies begins with the impossibility of psychoanalytic subjectification, how might one speak about the unmaking desire of “the thing”?

This genealogical work unfolds into considering the place of what Christina Sharpe theorizes as “post-slavery” subjects who inhabit “monstrous intimacies”: the quotidian unmaking of being that is everyday blackness, the ease with which fungibility and killability mark black life forms. How does one think about life forms whose being is perpetually marked by unmaking? I write this as a Kenyan legislator proposes that queers in Kenya should be stoned to death. Queerness unfolds across:through this unmaking. Black queerness, rooted in the archives of disposability. How might one think with, find, inhabit, theorize from these archives of disposability? What is the labor of dwelling in these ungeographies of impossibility?

I write this with the strong awareness that much black queer scholarship on the contemporary focuses on strategies of livability—on love, on kindness, on ecstasy, on community, on resistance, on agency, on possibility. Much black queer scholarship and cultural production is engaged in rich forms of world-building and world-re-envisioning.

Simply: my head is not there. Not yet. Not now.

I am still trying to figure out how to think with:about impossible figures, unmade figures, unbeing figures, with the fleshed and unfleshed, with the thing that desires. With the bodies fleshed to be disposable: with the impossible futures that Edelman cannot apprehend. I am still trying to find the forms with which to write of black life forms that disrupt the possibilities of available forms, undoing sentences, grammar, the stanza, the line, the page. And if this writing is to do the kind of work I envision it doing, it undoes itself, as it must.

*

Black queer studies now might refuse José Muñoz’s invitation to envision a queerness that is “not yet here” by insisting on a queerness that has always been, that is foundational to blackness, producing the forms blackness can’t not inhabit in its various disposable and killable illegibilities. Black queer studies now might insist, as Zakiyyah Jackson does, on following Sylvia Wynter to ask about the forms of the human that blackness can engage, occupy, undo, uninhabit, re-think. Black queer studies now might refuse the so-called founding gestures of queer studies that privilege a color-coded West, disengaging from the troubling funkiness of blackness. Black queer studies now might continue charting the dissident geographies mapped by Dionne Brand and Katherine McKittrick and Thomas Glave. Black queer studies now might adopt what Nyong’o describes as an “improper affective stance” fueled by the “strangest of intimacies” that make demands yet to be imagined. Black queer studies now might insist on the grandness of its ass-splitting vision, its world-remaking vision.

As we continue to remember and call upon those who are listening for their names.


1. Melvin Dixon, “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name”

2. Sharon P. Holland, “Foreword: ‘Home’ is a Four-Letter Word” in Black Queer Studies: An Anthology, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson.

3. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 1, 6.

4. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

5. I’m thinking of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing, and Identity (New York: Routledge, 1994). Less obvious works including Oyeronke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990); and influential essays by Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty.

6. Johnson and Henderson, Black Queer Studies, 7.

7. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality”

8. Césaire uses “thingification” to argue that colonial oppressors lose their humanity because of their oppressive acts. I am adapting his language here to frame the emergence of blackness within colonial modernity.

9. Here, I depart from recent scholarship by Omise’eke Tinsley, which has speculated that erotic practices on slave ships helped to maintain humanity. Much as I relish this claim, I would like to consider how a more difficult history of thing-making and thinghood can inform black queer diasporic scholarship.

10. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”

11. I have in mind the foundational role of desire in work by Guy Hocquenhoem, Teresa de Lauretis, Leo Bersani, Tim Dean, Susan Stryker, Samuel Delany, Robert Reid-Pharr, and Michael Warner

12. This claim is properly understood as a speculative one, for historical records demonstrate how the enslaved used their sensuality.

“thebeautifulonesarehere” (with thanks to Lebo Ntladi)

1. Openings

A stare—let us not call it a gaze—is solicited. Staring is persistent attention, bafflement, return. Again and again, “what is this?” and “how is it calling to me?” and “why is it calling to me?”

The siren song of visual objects.

I encountered Lebo Ntladi’s “thebeautifulonesarehere,” one of four in a series, at the Critically Queer exhibition curated by Jabu Pereira at the University of Cape Town. “Encounter” does not quite capture the multiple times I returned to look at the photograph, captured, first, by the recognizability of a human form, face-to-chest, and then by its dispersal into space, its accumulation of known and unknown cityscapes and landscapes, its vibrant colors and geometries, its making and unmaking of gendered (and other) possibilities.

Captured, I begged Lebo to send me photos of the work so I could try “thinking with it.” Lebo graciously agreed, sending me digital files of the entire series and ways of framing the entire project.

This particular encounter, these textual fragments, might be considered attempts at joining an ongoing conversation.

2. Framing

My name is Kelebogile Ntladi, I am a social documentary and portrait photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Thebeautifulonesarehere are photographic portraits, an ongoing body of work about identity. As someone who is a masculine presenting female, I often feel uncomfortable in public spaces, more than often lately in clubs, social events, parties, where there is a large black male presence. A constant discomfort every time someone male feels the need to establish their presence, in whichever way, as the Alpha male. It could be through a handshake, a shove, disapproving comments or more violent actions. I had often assumed that people in my own age group, mid twenties, and younger are generations more open, knowledgeable and understand different gender identities.

These collages are made from photos I took of various spaces in Johannesburg, the city and surrounding areas. Barbershops, inner-city schools, fences, abandoned buildings, the morgue, caskets, portraits of fashion, queers, and self portraits. I worked in layers. I drew portraits on paper of humans with animal-like features, horns, ears and trunks. I then added objects relating to science fiction or technology, sunglass like, futuristic frames. In each image I tried to make reference to urban cultural norms, body piercing, robotics, jewellery or “swag’. The second layer involved cutting the photographs and creating the collage, I like to work with images or spaces that I can control, structure and deconstruct. I chose a colour closer to gold referencing the history of Africa, The looting of wealth and identity and the reclaiming of that wealth and identity in the future.

One of the themes around this work is Afro-futurism, described as a literary and cultural aesthetic that combines science fiction, fantasy and afro centricity and can be identified as artistic, scientific and spiritual. Created to debate and interrogate the struggles of people of the African Diaspora by envisioning a utopia in the future where people of colour will have advanced technologically, socially, culturally and beyond current dystopian realities.

3. Frames
Lebo provides expansive frames: the public making, unmaking, and policing of gender; the (queer) optimism invested in generational change and youth cultures; the personing of geography and the geography of personing, and, here, it might not be out of turn to add (im)personation and (un)personing; the person-producing and person-disrupting possibilities of collage; and the liberationist possibilities of Afro-futurism.

Given Lebo’s frames—the beautiful and indispensable theorizing of “thebeautifulonesarehere”—my fragments, still trying to emerge, might be read as (mostly unnecessary) footnotes, attempts to catch up with the intelligence of the work and the artist.

4. Face-ing
I search my research files frantically, looking for thinking on “the face,” the “African face,” “face-ing,” and, possibly, “face-me(a)nt.” Sexology has taught me how to think about “the African body,” the genital-as-person metonym. Metonymy is spatial displacement, but to use synecdoche, ostensibly a more accurate term, demands that I accept an impossible relationship between racist representations and the people represented, that I accept the fiction and faction of human-unmaking representations.

I cannot do this.

One notes that African faces appear in colonial archives as relations of proximity to (idealized) European faces. These relations of proximity will be called “tribe.” Or, faces appear as the absence of light—as “darkness,” “blackness,” “night,” “unfathomable.” Or, faces appear as affect-bearers, as “horror,” “blankness,” “terror,” “rage,” an excess of emotion—but they cannot blush. The face as “mask-like,” the face as “masking,” the face as “mask.” The face as “shrunken head,” as “trophy,” as evidence of primal violence and ancestor veneration. The face is always appearing as a series of effects on the watcher—“I was scared”; “I was disturbed”; “I was restless”; “I was excited”; “I was aroused”; “I was disgusted.” It is a face of spectacular effects, wild and brutal and inhuman and unhuman. And a face that, years ago when I was thinking with images, did not exist to be read, a face that unappeared in liberatory and progressive attempts to discuss the harm enacted on black bodies. With a caveat that the face cannot be read in isolation—one must look at the slope of the neck, the angle of the torso, the torques that show and hide.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, the family of a murdered lesbian, Andritha Thapelo Morifi, gazed out of their sorrow. The poses were familiar—I have seen them in many Kenyan portraits: arms folded in front of the body, body arranged in school-trained angles, face aware of, but not sure how to interact with, the camera. The formal postures of grief.

I spent many years looking at photographs from my grandfather’s funeral in 1983. Perhaps I was trying to erase the experience of seeing his cotton-stuffed nostrils through the little glass pane in the coffin. Perhaps I wanted to recapture the red-eyed vulnerability on grown-up faces that seemed to disappear after the funeral. Those images taught me about the choreography of grief, about the postures of mourning, postures I recognized in the Critically Queer exhibition.

Behind these postures, histories of (dis)engaging from intrusive gazes.

5. Unlearning
Lebo’s images pose other questions, removing me—removing us—from the face-posture normativities that we know so well, and know not at all. The fluencies I have cultivated begin to unravel: I search for different words, different frames, different possibilities.

Katherine McKittrick teaches me that to say gender is spatial—or geographic—is to say that gender is always produced within and around space, even as gender produces the space around it. Space engenders and gender spatializes.

Kelebogile Ntladi, thebeautifulonesarehere, photo-collage on--__paper, 297x420 (2)

Two mirror images “face” this image, green reflecting into green, and, if one looks closely, a human-like figure turned toward or facing distant houses that, despite their distance, loom large in this green imagination. A tent-like shape (a shelter?) “centers” the face, an off-center “nose” that anchors and disrupts the ostensible symmetry of the mirrored images. A split nose. A history of harm. But also all the possibilities of green—as stolen, as fertile, as fading, as reclaimed. The “off-center” histories that make green so contested.

Atop the face, a helmet—curved like a bull’s horns, shaped like a gladiator’s implement, at once past and future, traditional and futuristic. High school history returns to whisper about Shaka Zulu’s “bull horn” formation—the word “assegai” lingers. My masculinist fantasies—filled with Klingon warriors—reach for two male-looking figures. On the right horn, a figure who appears to be running away from this helmet masculinity, trying to emerge and depart, balanced, on the right shoulder, by a half-face that looks out from an “engulfing darkness.”

I’m trying to “face” this figure, trying to unlearn my need to “face” it, which is to say, to gender its facing.

Symmetry returns, again, in the ear-like or hair-like protrusions that (un)balance the horns. Extending from the green in the face, the extensions look leaf-like, fall leaves, leaves in transition. As with the “face,” where green space gives way to human-made structures, the ear-like:hair-like structures inhabit flux—the asymmetrical vertical and diagonal lines, as with the mirror-image face, refuses the organization of symmetry, the taxonomic boast that to see a half is to see the whole.

A necklace-laced opening flirts with the unmaking labor of necklacing.

I’m still looking for a language to describe this photograph’s doing and undoing, its fantasies and its desires, its histories and presents. The rich, desert-like background it inhabits and emerges from.

This was not the image hanging in the gallery.

6. Re-framing
Before I learn to unlearn, I ask Lebo if the photographs engage with, or respond to, Armah’s The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born.

A quick no.

7. Re-turns
Arrested, I linger. Become overwhelmed. Turn away—glance back. Stare again.

Kelebogile Ntladi, thebeautifulonesarehere, photo-collage on--__paper, 297x420 (1)
Perhaps it is the text, “choice”; “CLASSIC HAIR CUTTING.” The promise of feminist freedom jostles against neoliberal agency—eroding subjects mutter, “I chose this.” A memory intrudes—the smell of barber shops, line drawings of hairstyles that my father taught me to ignore, desperate attempts to recapture River Road barbers in downtown Pittsburgh.

A nipple—is it a nipple?—peeks.

A “face” takes shape as an un-face, as the obscene inside of skin. The word “flay” rushes up from my archives.

Layers make “fore” and “back” difficult to assign. “Face” folds into “face”—a forehead-covering eye mask (or is it?); nose-like features build on each other, white-edged repetitions.

(I’m still trying to “face” this image)

My efforts to “face” this image, my failures to “face” it, make me think of Simone Browne’s work on face-discerning technologies, and their failures. The face-making labor of surveillance technologies: the unfacing labor of surveillance technologies. Which faces register and which ones “error.” The alien-ness of the “non-face.”

The symmetrical, collarbone-adjacent flashes of skin tug at my frames, muttering that this figure is too humanoid not to have human-like features. My failures to “face” this figure, then, resonate as ethical failures to “face” the other.

Lebo’s techno-face reminds us that gender-fuck and gender-play unsettle the “face-ing” of gender legibility.

(a sliver from a tv show: “is this a man or a woman?” screamed to a rapacious crowd)

Among many other things, gender-legibility circulates as a persistent demand, the place where “the human” is personed, or (im)personates.

8. Critical Aids

How does being beyond recognition open or close the field of political possibility?
—Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader

To reveal the ways in which I am affected by a photograph is to be exposed, describing what I see is an act that ‘outs’ me, one that positions my intimate self in a public sphere. ‘Giving myself up’ before a photograph is also to occupy a subject position beyond or outside of my own.
–Kylie Thomas, Queer African Reader

This thing that I am has no name. At least not in the language of my people; the language of the people of my grandmother; those of my mother and those with whom I share similar identity documents. Pardon me if to claim a people is to implicate myself in an imaginary collective that can never be mine. Forgive what appears as a dis-connect from obvious modes of intelligibility. Pardon me if to use the pronoun “my” is to situate myself in a position of possession; a possession that appears as an exaggeration. But this is necessary.
–Neo Musangi, “In Time and Space”

A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves.
–Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return

Africa has to mean a present and a future home again for those who strive for a freedom linked to the freedom of others like and unlike us.
–Pumla Gqola, “The Time Again for an Africanist Imagination”

Seeing an image means not dying.
–Marie-José Mondzain, “What does Seeing an Image Mean?”

9. Futures
This will be a full nine. To reach ten suggests a closure that must be inconceivable when futures must be imagined. And so ten, the roundness, the completion, must be deferred. Forgive the ethnographic lapse.

Collage can be experienced as violent assembly. Reading Kylie Thomas’s writing on how violence is memorialized in Zanele Muholi’s photographs returns me to the white edges in the second image, the traces of tearing; makes me see the barbed-wire fence that makes the blue sky background seem impossible; suggests cutting and jostling, struggles for space, struggles in space.

Struggle is an optimistic word.

If struggle names present conditions of un-freedom, it also points toward futures saturated by freedom. The futures Lebo’s work anticipates—beyond the violence of gendering and the violence against non-normative manifestations of gender—remain marked by struggle, marked by tears and scratches and scars. Marked by familiar cityscapes and landscapes, histories and presents of prohibition and access. This image, these images, enter the future bearing their histories.

“thebeautifulonesarehere”

*the images here appear courtesy of Lebo Ntladi, with Lebo’s permission. I asked.