Archive & Method: Toward a Queer African Studies

No. Can’t write it out. Not now.
—Samuel Delany

The problem, as always, is where to start. Which is to say, the problem always emerges where the political now demands an archive, and where the archive, in turn, demands a method. Given our present urgencies, in which we produce archives as their inhabitants and (disappearing) objects, the problem of method can seem both irrelevant and indispensable. At once an act of navel-gazing and world-building. After all, why spend time contemplating how one approaches the life one is trying to save? Isn’t it enough to insist that all life has value, that one’s life is part of that “all life,” to insist, that is, on an “I” that will not or cannot be denied? And, indeed, is this insistence on an “I” presumed and declared not to exist the best method, the place where navel-gazing expands into world-building? In this urgent moment where a threatened self inhabits an impossible world, surely circumstances demand that one use whatever tools are at hand, deferring the problem of method to a less life-threatening future.
*
How does one encounter oneself as both inhabitant and object of an archive, as the product/er of accident, coincidence, forgetting, recovery, erasure, reconstruction, and illegibility, the “dust” we term archive? And might it be useful to term this “encounter” a half-method, a satisfying trick that only partially assuages desire? A more honest, if less palatable, assessment might be that all methods are partial, Frankenstein assemblages held together by sweat and desire.

But this, I fear, is not what you came to hear.

So let me start again.
*
We live in an archive-producing moment, from the texts and sexts we generate on our phones to the tweets, blogposts and internet data we create, to the books, articles, and reports we assemble, to the masses of visual and audio material we are encouraged to generate. These are banal facts. To think about all of this labor and (vibrant) matter as an archive is also to note the regimes of surveillance we inhabit, from the employers who record keystrokes, to the various bits of spyware that track our virtual imaginations, to the many state-supported structures that record and catalogue our continual production. As anyone who has assembled or works in an archive knows, archives are as much random ephemera in varying states of use and disuse as they are processes that attempt to organize, to schematize, to impose temporal and other kinds of order.

Within the U.S. traditions I’m trained in, queer studies emerges as a deep reading within the archives—consider Gayle Rubin’s work in anthropology, Michel Foucault’s work in sexology, Hortense Spillers’s work on slave archives. These scholars describe how queer bodies are produced as knowable and unknowable, worth knowing and utterly disposable. And, certainly, the emergence of queer theory in the late 80s and early 90s is marked by many AIDS-related deaths, haunted by the many unnamed who haunt queer studies’ ellipses. Queer studies also emerges as a deep skepticism toward archival methods and practices—arrangement, hierarchy, taxonomy, and erasure.

This skepticism toward method-as-taxonomy similarly marks the emergence of postcolonial studies and African studies (in its decolonizing mode).

I want to mark this skepticism toward method as a shared feature of queer studies, African studies, and postcolonial studies, because those are, broadly, the three uneven umbrellas under which a queer African studies shelters.
*
I have started by highlighting the problems of archive and method because they lie at the heart of the Queer African Reader, which is, itself, an archive, and a place where method emerges as a question, sometimes as an absence, most often as untheorized. To understand the Queer African Reader as an archive—and, indeed, to understand this entire symposium as an archive—requires pausing to ask what the archive demands as its method. If one listens carefully to an archive, if one allows oneself to be possessed by an archive, then the archive teaches how it should be read. This is slow, tedious work—the labor of listening and listening again, of understanding one’s work as always partial, tentative, experimental.

The evidence of such experiments suffuses this symposium—yesterday, Neo Musangi reminded us that the African-making bible does not contain a First Africans; much of the visual art on display obscures faces and figures—masks and patterns abound in neo-realist figures inscribed by culture; and a particularly striking series of photographs, perhaps the most realist in the entire exhibition, documents absence, as it records the surviving family of a murdered lesbian. This exhibition of the missing, the obscured, the exiled, the impossible, and the emergent ruptures the fantasy of the known and knowable queer lining up to be counted and documented in a thousand NGO reports. Simultaneously, this exhibition hints at the difficulty facing those who would venture into queer African studies.

How does one think with and about those masked and obscured figures and missing and unknowable figures?
*
Again, this is, perhaps, not what you hoped to hear. So let me conclude by attempting to be more concrete.

I am interested in those figures, bodies, lives, and practices produced at the seams of time, when forms of collectivity shift under new social, political, cultural, and economic changes. When, for instance, ethnic groups assume new configurations under the regime of colonial modernity or when new socio-cultural collectives emerge through religious conversion or through modes of socio-political domination or mixing. At such moments, certain figures, bodies, lives, and practices become, variously, illegible or unabsorbed, unaccounted for by terms such as “family,” “household,” “man,” “woman,” “African,” or “human.”

These emergent and precarious figures, bodies, and lives stretch and rupture our definitions and forms, what we know, how we know, and how we produce and arrange knowledge. Queer, then, is less the fabulous stranger you meet while on vacation, and more the smelly stranger you move away from in a shared bus. Queer is the smelly stranger whose presence disorganizes how we know, how we organize space, and how we occupy space. Queer, in fact, might be the smelly stranger who undoes the fantasy of an infinitely elastic “we.”
*
After-thoughts

I had been asked to discuss the Queer African Reader, because the editors, Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, could not be present. I thought this was an impossible task—certainly, there was no way I could describe the passion and commitment and generosity and wisdom Sokari and Hakima brought to the process. Simultaneously, I did not want to dwell on the various genres in the reader, the assemblage of voices, perspectives, methods, archives. I hoped to suggest the labor of the Reader, as promiscuous method, as necessary archive, as a thing to think with and around. At the back of my mind was a review I’d seen that seemed unable to read the particular work of the Reader—a review that digested the Reader into already-familiar frames available in the North American setting. The Reader’s disruptive method seemed invisible.

The first day of the symposium ruptured my plans–Neo Musangi’s performance and the opening of the Critically Queer exhibition curated by Jabu Pereira suggested the wealth of ways Queer Africa could be imagined, as a particular insistence, as a demand placed on knowledge and imagination and ethics and politics and space. Jabu spoke wonderfully about taking over a university gallery space and populating it with artists in conversation in ways that made it utterly unfamiliar, in ways that pulled differently. The blend of work from Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, and Kenya, ranging from video installations to realist photography to neo-realist portraits to Glenn Ligon-like experiments with text, moved things around for me, suggested different ways of imagining queer Africa, different archives than those now so regularly cited as “authoritative” and “necessary.”

Work by Milumbe Haimbe, Kelebogile Ntladi, and Tyna Adebowale—about which I hope to write more—drew from and refigured quotidian fabrics, shared spaces, and social media. (I’m tempted to write on how all three work with and around the gaze, with Milumbe’s masked figures, Tyna’s post-realist figures, and Lebo’s techno-township figuration—I leave this here as a promissory note.)

I left the symposium with a richer sense of possibilities, a much-expanded archive, excited that all my arguments had already been anticipated and extended by the capacious imaginations in that space and beyond.

“Do You Have A Dildo?”

The question marks a performance that has always started before it begins, a question deferred, unacknowledged as worth asking. To hear it spoken aloud is to hear the air sigh, tear, attempt to knit itself together.

Accompanying it: do you have a bible?
In this space, one can buy one and not the other.

“Do you have a dildo?” asked in a university—do you have one now, for use, available. And what would it mean to produce one, to have one on hand, to slide it from receptive hand to receptive hand, to mark hands as dildo-sharing hands.

This becomes a performance
about
a missing dildo
*
We assemble on institutional steps, in the shadow of a library, facing a public square where a person writes on a small chalkboard. The chalkboard faces away from us. The wind will blow it all over. The spitting rain will drag tears through the chalk. But this, this we will only know later. For now, we watch writing.

Rocks pour from a
bag. One will be
thrown into the
crowd, the action
familiar: one
winces in
recognition.
This is called
stoning.
Hurling rocks.
A carrot is being shaved, a knife held too close to a neck. Red ink pours over a Holy Bible. (We travel in circles and loops to locate a shop where this can be bought, wayward, unable to find the direct line, the straight line, the proper line that leads easily from here to here—the bible
becomes a wayward object

A carrot is being shaved in public, situated between a person’s legs—circumcision becomes castration in this public domestic, becomes the failure of both to produce bodies that can be pleasured: a few of us know this is also an attempt to shape a dildo, and it will not form: frustration attends this deferral of form, this impossibility of/for pleasure—a question forms and lingers

(do YOU have a dildo?)
*
Red ink pours over a Holy Bible—blood is everywhere indicated, the circumcised body, the menstruating body, the violated body, the bleeding body, the body made and unmade in blood-soaked pages, in smite-imaginations, in imagined

abominations                                                                 the word “GAY”
appears in the scrawl                                         smeared in a Holy
Bible made                                     sacred                     via embedding
(intimate             profanity                 a voice murmurs that fuck might have been written—it is not clear)

inkredhandsbloodredhandsinkbloodhandsreachout

A bible is torn, pages crumpled, folded, ripped, undone—a body attacks this bodyattacking book, this book that makes attackpossible, this attackenabling book

pages drift
stick on wet pavement
(my notes smear in the spitting rain)

The board is turned to face a watching audience, an enthralled audience, a waiting audience

THERE WAS NO I AFRICANS!

*
Performance remains as fragments: snapping cameras, indifferent laughter, a stranger’s passing comment: one must suspend much to “be” in the performance—to track its desire, recognize its hungers
*
A knife slices a carrot

Black Gay Livability

An encounter from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Shit and Eric meet Mr. Johnston, a white conservative who wants to shut down the porn movie theater they manage. Mr. Johnston, it turns out, once debated Robert Kyle, the black gay founder of the Dump. A brief exchange ensues between Eric and Mr. Johnston:

“Hey— are you Mr. Johnston?”

The man frowned back. “I ain’t met you— I don’t think.”

“I saw you back at a town meetin’, ’bout fifteen or twenty years ago, in the Dump. You was havin’ a debate with Robert Kyle.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Oh, yeah— starry-eyed coon with way, way too much money, who thinks there ain’t nothin’ more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots.” He grunted.

Though he was surprised, Eric laughed. “If you are one— a black faggot, I mean— that can seem pretty
important to you, actually.”

Perhaps what strikes me most—hence I repeat it—is that the Dump is a world in which Shit can live and even thrive.

Shit understands its rules and codes of conduct:

“If you end up inside one of them cabins [in the Dump] and you wanna mess with one of them black bastards—” back in the cab, Shit made fists near his shoulders and stretched—“ don’t be shy. Down here we figure any kind of suckin’s okay; kissin’, anything like that. But when it comes to fuckin’, you need your paper— or a rubber.”

As Dynamite elaborates,

“Ask to see it and make sure it’s less than four months old. It’s free, and it don’t cost ’em nothin’ to come over here and get it. That’s been keepin’ the guys in the Dump pretty healthy since eighty-five, eighty-six now.”

Permit a slight, necessary detour.

Douglas Crimp opens his 1987 “How to have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” thus:

The sloganeering of AIDS education campaigns suggests that knowledge about AIDS is readily available, easily acquired, and undisputed. Anyone who has sought to learn the “facts,” however, knows just how hard it is to get them.

He notes that in the mid-eighties, mainstream anti-HIV campaigns (to the extent they existed) were anti-sex and largely homophobic. In this environment, “gay people invented safe sex”:

We knew that the alternatives – monogamy and abstinence – were unsafe, unsafe in the latter case because people do not abstain from sex, and if you only tell them “just say no,” they will have unsafe sex. We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures.

As always, the problem of that “we.” Those with better AIDS histories can trace, more aptly, the race and class splits that, increasingly, defined a “we” worth saving and worth mourning, and a “not-we” who could not be mourned, who never existed to be mourned.

This “not-we” is the “foundation” of the Dump. As Shit explains,

“Now the whole thing is Mr. Kyle’s. He lets all these gay niggers live over here. He got a’ office in Hemmings, where they interview you and everything. You just gotta be gay and homeless and not smoke. And black, pretty much mostly. But he kinda liked Dynamite. If you’re some serious alcoholic or drug addict, you gotta go into rehab for three months. They pay for that, too. It’s Mr. Kyle’s experiment.”

A little nap has provided me with the rude language I’ve been seeking.

Across many reviews the normative classed object of (the reviewer’s? culture’s?) desire displaces Shit’s importance in the text to install the more familiar (even comically so) Eric: the “crazy whiteboy” with the gym body who has “weird” fetishes. The idea that Eric lives in Shit’s world is inconceivable, so much so that the world—the Dump—becomes invisible, unimportant, in review after review that must rescue this novel through the loving couple form. (Note, for instance, that despite Through the Valley’s insistence on describing Shit—his hair, his smell, his eyes, his teeth [and their absence], his hands, his bitten-back nails—these descriptions are all but absent in many reviews of the book, many of which contain physical descriptions of Eric.)

The normative subjects-objects of desire insist on their presence with anecdotes and prejudices and tolerance (Jo Walton rides a bus and worries about offending the “Jamaican woman” sitting next to her; Josh Zaidman dismisses “the Dump” as a place where “garbage haulers and other blue-collar workers can live and practice sex acts of any kind without discrimination,” that is, a place that does not and can not occupy a place in a “proper” ethical imagination; Paul di Fillipo revels in his “open-mindedness,” insisting on the gem-like quality of the novel—the repetition of “Diamond Harbor” in the review is symptomatic of many things; Hedley Bontano emphasizes, along with many others, that this book is a “challenging read” “for us,” an unspecified “us” defined by “squeamishness,” though, of course, “love” conquers all—work through the icky bits to find redemptive love.) This is cherry-picking, polemically so. Only, I keep noting how irrelevant it is to many reviewers that this novel insists on valuing the lives of “crazy black faggots,” or poor and homeless black gay men. The force with which these figures are removed from reviews is as startling as it is predictable.

Very little exists that teaches “us” how to read a Shit, let alone how to value him. Very little teaches “us” how to read a world set up to enable and value Shit, set up, that is, to keep him free and safe and fed and working and retired. For, in the end, part of what is miraculous about this book is that Shit—who refuses to learn how to read, who does not know how to use an ATM machine, whose plays of public nudity would get him arrested in many elsewheres, whose manners even Eric describes as “crude,” who is in no way equipped to live in any bourgeois version of gayness—in the end: this Shit has a long, vibrant, and happy life.

Poppers

I am losing interest.

Fucking: it’s afternoon, I don’t go to work until later, and I arranged my work schedule so I could fuck from 11 am to 3 pm and after I get off work at 11 pm.

Today it’s indoors. I skipped the park. The display of “you want me” I reject, “I’m so horny” I despise, and “I’m hungry” that I crave.

What are you attracted to?
Hunger.
*
He is hungry. Manbuilt. Soft mountains of welcome. The warmth of so much man. Hungry.

Fuck me.

Maybe he doesn’t say it. Maybe he simply strips. Lies open. Pushes back in invitation.

Fuck me.

Push in. Pull out. Don’t stop.
*
Hunger can be routine:
    I fuck men between 11 am and 3 pm
    And after 11 pm

Their names are
        the apartment at the corner
                the toilet in the park
        the third open door in the bathhouse
                a Cuban with menthol in his ass
        a daddy in the bathroom
                a hustler giving away freebies
         another new penetration.

Hungry.
*
He is, we are, hungry.

I am hungry on green screens and slick roads, erect at green signs and wet underwear, frantic at open doors and waiting asses, the first delicious moments of welcome.

I am losing interest.
*
Take a hit.

Take another one.

Yeah.

Fuck me.
*
The pornography of monosyllables.

          Fuck me.
Now.
*
Rush.

It’s called rush.

Here.

Have some.
*
He is every hunger in an instant. He is not here. He is every welcome. He is letting go. He is a green t-shirt and McDonald’s wrappers and an underground garage in a clothes-strewn room.

I am one inhale away from
losing interest

rush

hunger

He wanted to populate a world map of men who’d fucked him.
Kenya was already taken.
But I wanted to be on that map.
*
He was a librarian.
He had the strongest calves I’d ever seen.
*
I didn’t know what he wanted until several years after, a yielding I learned to take.
After.
*
He was a church deacon.
He still fuels fantasies.
*
Bashful.
As though this is always the first time.
We keep discovering our rhythms.
*
The married schoolteacher who snuck out to find chocolate.
*
The grad student who liked sandwiches as long as they had mayonnaise.
*
There is a hunger that feeds.
*
What are you into?
Hunger
*
And still I said no.
Not all hunger.
Some hunger feels less inviting.

One does not mind being a number. One minds being a particular kind of number.

The hunger of those who cannot remember, who will not remember, has never interested me.
*
The bus driver. The gym owner. The tight, the whisper, the groan, the pleading, the more, the traveling salesman, the trucker,

the one with the electric blue shorts from the 70s
*
The wet, the stretched, the used, the fragrant, the antiseptic, the belligerent, the hairy, the scratchy, the shaved, the never-again-but-scarcity, the available, the there, the now, the bent-over, the standing, the lying down, the un-faced, the too-faced, the daddy-caller, the wish-it-were-someone-else, the lights out, the tongue out, the

hungry

*
What do you like?
Who is hungry?

Notes on Queer Africa

Reading Kenya from the U.S. requires remembering that Kenya is not the U.S.
*

To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury, to find out the mechanisms of its distribution, to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear, and in what ways.
– Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What might it mean to incarnate the persistent state of wounding? What language might the wound speak?
*
This essay is an experiment in queer African studies. Given the well-documented positions of Africans within western-based histories of embodiment, gendering, and sexuality, the notion of a queer African might seem redundant. There has been little space within the western imaginary to envision a normative African or Africa. Indeed, one might argue that African studies persists in attempting to produce a legibly normative subject who can be apprehended as having the same cognitive, affective, ethical, and other capacities granted to the putatively western subject Sylvia Wynter refers to as Man.
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A genealogical problem also exists. Martin Manalansan has argued that privileging Stonewall as the foundational moment in the emergence of contemporary queer politics—a rupture now understood as globally foundational as numerous global pride parades suggest—and the broader internationalization of western and, largely, U.S.-based identity and post-identitarian paradigms, has rendered non-western genealogies of embodiment, gendering, and sexuality footnotes within queer studies.

On a methodological level, the non-western gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-subject has never been as richly documented and catalogued. Presented in guidebooks designed to solicit pink dollars and elaborated in academic studies designed to solicit empathy/sympathy/lust, the non-western queer has been identified and pursued, tagged and numbered, made legible and (im)possible.
*

To ask for recognition, or to offer it, is precisely not to ask for recognition for what one already is. It is to solicit a becoming, to instigate a transformation, to petition the future always in relation to the Other. It is also to stake one’s own being, and one’s own persistence in one’s one being, in the struggle for recognition.
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What might it mean to imagine a queer African studies that is not wholly mediated by or apprehended through frames provided by a U.S.-based queer imaginary? What might it mean to imagine a queer African studies that is not simply an off-shoot of a predominantly U.S.-based black queer studies or a variation of queer of color analysis? What might it mean to understand queer African studies as a conceptual demand, and not simply as an extended exercise in example gathering that exemplifies extant claims?

To ask these questions might be to throw into relief the limits of the white, heteronormative couple as a point of departure for intimate critique. It would certainly require understanding the limits of using non-western intimate formations to critique western norms, especially given that intimate norms are various, and what may appear culturally freeing in one context may be disciplinary in another. Certainly, the uses to which non-Africans may put African cultural practices need not be liberatory for Africans.

Indeed, it might be that queer African practices register as normative or illegible or incoherent or opaque within dominant queer paradigms. And that illegibility or incoherence or opacity may offer little to U.S.-based queer studies, neither modifying nor complicating nor rejuvenating it. We cannot presume to know in advance what an encounter between African queer studies and a U.S.-based queer studies might be.
*
eventually even hunger
      can become a space
to live in.
-Carl Phillips

The cautious Africanist may wonder how to balance the labor of cultural translation with a need for ethical misapprehension. Faced with the too-common question, “what is ‘queer’ in African?” Faced with the equally common, “how do you say that again?” “how do you spell it?” and “how pretty your language is,” the now-exhausted Africanist might decide that the meeting place of a queer African studies and a U.S.-based queer studies feels radically uneven: when one showed up for the meeting, one did not expect to have to clear the bush, cut down the trees, raise a fence, erect a meeting structure, craft furniture, serve refreshments, and still retain enough energy to seem intelligent when the other meeting participants arrive.
*
Perhaps the question cannot be heard at all, but I would still like to ask
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life

What allows us to encounter one another?
-Judith Butler, Precarious Life
*
The reluctant Africanist knows the danger of being a native informant: Elisha can’t not take up the mantle.
*
I have nothing to lose tonight
    -Essex Hemphill, “American Hero”
*
To think of queer economies might be to multiply encounters of mutual incomprehensibility. To insist that opacity remain an ethical imperative.

Roses

I’m reading Jack Spicer again. At first, his work sounded prophetic, then I realized that it registers the long life of queer disposability.

Take “Homosexuality”:

Roses that wear roses
Enjoy mirrors.
Roses that wear roses must enjoy
The flowers they are worn by.
Roses that wear roses are dying
With a mirror behind them.
None of us are younger but the roses
Are dying.

One might learn to enjoy mirrors, to understand mirrors as less distorting than the outside world, to see oneself as a rose in a mirror, as one wears roses. To see oneself as a rose and to imagine producing enjoyment in the rose one wears. The word beauty is absent here; instead, the word “enjoy.”

What communion is being proposed here, what reciprocity, between one short-lived form and another short-lived form? How to read that shift from “enjoy” to “dying”? Or to read the urgency of that “enjoy” because of its proximity to “dying”?
*
A bad (if necessary) reading practice “gays” authors we know to “be that way.” And the poem that opens my vocabulary did this to me, “Berkeley In Time of Plague” calls out to be “gay-ed”:

Plague took us and the land from under us,
Rose like a boil, enclosing us within.
We waited and the blue skies writhed awhile
Becoming black with death.

First published in 1957—the editorial notes do not indicate when it might have been written—the poem reaches from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the AIDS era Spicer could never have foreseen. Circulated in the McCarthyite 50s it speaks to the power of a paranoid state to prolong the life of plague, to domesticate militarized practices of normativity. Published, also, as the Civil Rights movement takes place, it speaks to the metonymic work of blackness as “death.” To how blackness remains the figure for/of death in the U.S. imaginary.

To be blackened is to be “dying”: constantly, endlessly.

Dying sutures black:queer.
*
And roses
*
Spicer’s roses lead me to Hemphill’s roses:

I allow myself to dream of roses
though I know
the bloody war continues

Where Spicer’s roses can inhabit—or fantasize about—a livability enabled by mirrors, a private space of rose-to-rose interaction, saturation, dying, Hemphill can only permit himself to “dream of roses” in his dying present.

Hemphill wants to believe in the promise of roses.

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.

And in Hemphill’s hope, I see Spicer’s despair: to blink, in Spicer’s poem, is to risk missing the short period during which one can “enjoy” and be enjoyed by the “dying” roses. But the “roses” are “dying,” whether one blinks or not. The promise of the unbloomed rose is always threatened.

Some roses never bloom.
*
From this distance, it is impossible to think of gay roses without considering the enclosing plague: AIDS literature brims with flower images, of the fatal beauty of petal-like skin cancers. Evidence of wars to value and save queer lives. Still evidence of wars to value and save queer lives.

We are still dying.
*
Increasingly, I have come to think of queerness as disposability. To think of queer world-making as a fantastic project, more rooted in science fiction than in any form of social realism. To inhabit a queer-erasing world with whatever strategies might be at hand, to try to bend while hoping not to break.

Mirrors shatter.

And roses looking at dying roses must also watch for mirror-destroying earthquakes.
*
My mother used to grow roses.

Now, her gardens are full of hardy plants that grow without tending.

Once indifferent to the roses, I find myself wondering about them, even missing them.