Frottage: Introduction (part one)

I first read Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) when I was eleven or twelve, in the late 1980s. I don’t know how it came to be in my parents’ Nairobi home, though I have a vague memory of the miniseries being screened on TV in the early 1980s. That initial reading left me with a haunting image of slavery. Following his capture, Kunta Kinte is locked in a slave hold, chained together with other men: “he very slowly and carefully explored his shackled right wrist and ankle with his left hand . . . He pulled lightly on the chain; it seemed to be connected to the left ankle and wrist of the man he had fought with. On Kunta’s left, chained to him by the ankles, lay some other man, someone who kept up a steady moaning, and they were all so close that their shoulders, arms, and legs touched if any of them moved even a little.” I was arrested by this image. At the time, though, I could not name what intrigued and terrified me about this enforced proximity, what, following Christina Sharpe, might be termed monstrous intimacy.

The image gains in intensity as the narrative continues. During a brutal storm, bodies rub against each other and against the ship: “each movement up and down, or from side to side, sent the chained men’s naked shoulders, elbows, and buttocks—already festered and bleeding—grinding down even harder against the rough boards beneath them, grating away still more of the soft infected skin until the muscles underneath began rubbing against the boards.” Skin, self, body is lost through “grinding” and “grating,” as bodies are fed into slavery’s maw. Haley’s metaphors combine images from food and sex cultures, gesturing to the roles slaves would play within food and sex economies as producers and products. Ironically, these images of food and sex—now so central to how we imagine life and care and pleasure—register the obscene labor of how humans are transformed into objects. The body-abrading taking place in the hold through a process of sustained rubbing accompanies the commodification taking place through ship ledgers that record weight and monetary value instead of names, religious affiliations, or geo-historical origins. In fact, several kinds of rubbing are taking place: bodies against each other; bodies against the ship; and these slave hold rubbings against the writing on slave ledgers, which is itself another kind of rubbing.

I use the term frottage to figure these violent rubbings and to foreground the bodily histories and sensations that subtend the arguments I pursue.

While I take the slave hold as my point of departure, I dare not linger there.

One can depart from the slave ship in many ways, and so let me preview the rest of project by describing the shape of my argument. Within black diaspora studies, scholars have insisted that while slavery was intended to dehumanize captured Africans, it did not succeed. Thus, much scholarship and creative writing has been devoted to proving that slaves were human. I term this desire to humanize slaves a genealogical imperative and argue that it functions predominantly through an ethnographic imagination, terms that I elaborate more fully later. A powerful, if less followed, line of thinking has pursued the problem of how slavery produced “thinghood.” For instance, Fred Moten writes, “The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist.” His insistence on using “objects” emboldens me to use a similar strategy. I am interested in how thinking about “thinghood” helps us theorize the black queer diaspora.

I begin from the premise that the black diaspora poses a historical and conceptual challenge to dominant histories and theories of sexuality in queer studies, which have tended to privilege white Euro-American experiences. I depart from the more familiar Euro-American genealogy of queer studies offered by scholars in fields as diverse as the classics (David Halperin), religion (John Bosworth), philosophy (Michel Foucault), history (Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey), and literary studies (Eve Sedgwick). Starting from the black diaspora requires re-thinking not only the historical and theoretical utility of identity categories such as gay, lesbian, and bisexual, but, arguably, more foundational categories such as normative and non-normative, human and non-human, subject and abject. While I complicate queer theory’s conceptual and historical assumptions, this project is not an extended “writing back” to a predominantly white queer studies: writing back re-centers that queer studies as the point of departure. Instead, I start with the production of blackness within modernity through the slave ship, the place that will produce most forcefully and consistently what Toni Morrison describes as an “Africanist presence”: the denotative and connotative languages and figures through which blackness is apprehended within modernity.

I use frottage, a relation of enforced proximity, to figure the black diaspora. I do so to unsettle the heteronormative tropes through which the black diaspora has been imagined and idealized. The black diaspora is often figured as a structure of blood descent through what I will describe as a genealogical imperative. Alexander Crummell’s famous 1888 statement, “a race is a family,” has had a vibrant, ongoing life in black diasporic cultural and intellectual production. Although this genealogical imperative can be traced across multiple black diasporic geo-histories, in what follows I turn to African American histories to illustrate how it has functioned as a scholarly and aesthetic injunction.

Following the publication of the Moynihan Report (1965) in the U.S., which blamed slavery for destroying black families and creating a “tangle of pathology,” scholars mounted a sustained campaign to defend the black family. Influential studies including Carol Stack’s All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974), Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and in Freedom, 1750-1925 (1974), John Blassingame’s The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (1979), and Richard Price and Sidney Mintz’s The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (1976) emphasized the enduring strength and longevity of heterosexual kinship bonds, in slavery and in freedom.

Here, let me tread carefully: these studies did not reify the black family in any singular or unproblematic way. Many criticized Moynihan for framing black community relations through the lens of a normative, white nuclear family. For instance, drawing on Stack, Mintz and Price write, “One of the problems with traditional studies of the black family . . . was a tendency to reify the concept of ‘family’ itself. . . . [I]n Afro-America, the ‘household’ unit need by no means correspond to ‘the family,’ however defined.” They follow this correction by focusing on the historical role of kinship during slavery, asking, “What, if anything, might have constituted a set of broadly shared ideas brought from Africa in the realm of kinship?” Their speculative answer is instructive for understanding the role of kinship in black studies:

Tentatively and provisionally, we would suggest that there might have been certain widespread fundamental ideas and assumptions about kinship in West and Central Africa. Among these, we might single out the sheer importance of kinship in structuring interpersonal relations and in defining an individual’s place in society; the emphasis on unilineal descent, and the importance to each individual of the resulting lines of kinsmen, living and dead, stretching backward and forward through time, or, on a more abstract level, the use of land as a means of defining both time and descent, with ancestors venerated locally, and with history and genealogy both being particularized in specific pieces of ground. The aggregate of newly arrived slaves, though they had been torn from their own local kinship networks, would have continued to view kinship as the normal idiom of social relations. Faced with an absence of real kinsmen, they nevertheless modeled their new social ties upon those of kinship.

This rich passage describes how kinship and genealogy subtend racial alliances: “kinship” provides a “shared” vocabulary that mitigates geo-historical differences. “Shared ideas” of kinship and genealogy enable intra-racial collectivity by “defining an individual’s place in society.” Kinship provides social legibility and structures social relations, allowing individuals to be recognizable through their real and imagined relationships to others. The model is hetero-reproductive, as one’s importance is measured in relation to those who precede and follow one. One emerges from a hetero-reproductive chain and is obligated to continue that chain.

Mintz and Price reveal how the standard queer critique of the heteronormative couple cannot account for black diasporic and African modes of figuring intimacy and creating normativity. Take, for instance, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s field-defining “Sex in Public,” which positions queerness against “the heterosexual couple,” imagined as “the privileged example of sexual culture.” This idea that queerness challenges and disrupts coupled heterosexuality is now taken as common sense within queer studies, in a way that attending to other geo-histories must complicate. Indeed, focusing on the heterosexual couple risks missing how African and Afro-diasporic practices of polygamy, polygyny, polyandry, and fictive kinship can also be normalizing and disciplinary. If, instead, we focus on the multiple ways heteronormativity functions within a broadly conceived genealogical imperative, we might ask with Elizabeth Povinelli, “Why does the recognition of peoples’ worth, of their human and civil rights, always seem to be hanging on the more or less fragile branches of a family tree? Why must we be held by these limbs?” Povinelli’s question helps to illuminate the importance of directing attention to the genealogical imperative within Afro-diasporic and African scholarship.

It is, perhaps, easier to acknowledge how the genealogical imperative has shaped scholarship in anthropology and history, fields marked by their interests in kinship and community, on the one hand, and change over time, on the other. But the genealogical imperative has also guided aesthetic criticism, and a particularly fine example can be found in Houston Baker’s Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. In a particularly telling passage in the conclusion, Baker weds Afro-diasporic scholarship to the genealogical imperative:

The family signature is always a renewing renaissancism that ensures generation, generations, the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery. What I have said is that the family must explore its own geographies . . . Renaissancism’s contemporary fate is our responsibility, demanding a hard and ofttimes painful journey back to ancestral wisdom in order to achieve a traditional (family) goal. That goal is the discovery of our successful voices as the always already blues script . . . in which a new world’s future will be sounded.

Baker’s intricately constructed prose allows no separation between the aesthetic and the biological, the artistic and the historical, the culturally productive and the biologically reproductive. The repeated “renaissancism” formally enacts his injunction to recreate and procreate, especially as renaissance refers to re-birth. To write with the “family signature” is to produce and reproduce, to affirm, always, the hetero-temporalities that connect the ancestors to the future. The task of Afro-diasporic scholarship, then, if one follows Baker, is always genealogical. In fact, Baker’s italicized “must” demonstrates what I’m calling an imperative, and, more broadly, becomes a mode of aesthetic evaluation. Truly valuable aesthetic work must follow and value the genealogical imperative.

Lest this focus on the family be understood as an exclusively African American affair, scholarship in the broader assemblage of the black diaspora similarly understands the black diaspora through hetero-kinship tropes. For instance, introducing a major anthology on black diaspora scholarship, Isidore Okpewho acknowledges the impossibility of encompassing black diasporic diversity. But this diversity is subsequently managed through hetero-kinship tropes, as the black diaspora is marked by its relationship to “the mother continent” and those scattered are re-collected as “sons and daughters.” These are small, and, arguably, casual moments in Okpewho’s argument, but this very casualness demonstrates the ease with which hetero-kinship is taken for granted as an operational principle of black diaspora scholarship. I draw attention to them because of how they manage black diasporic geo-historical diversity under the rubric of hetero-kinship figured as genealogical descent. While African and Afro-diasporic scholars might not all agree on racialization, politics, religion, ethnicity, economics, or culture, hetero-kinship is consistently reinforced as a capacious category that manages all difference. It is precisely the casual, unremarked way that hetero-kinship tropes lubricate difference that interests me.

The term diaspora combines two terms dia (across) and sperein (scatter), and invokes the labor of spores as they spread to fertilize. Although critical endeavors have tended to focus on diaspora as dispersal, the often unnamed critical hope is that such scattering results in communities: what Brent Hayes Edwards has termed the “futures of diaspora” takes place on the grounds of hetero-insemination and hetero-genealogy. However, I argue that another black diaspora is possible, a queer(er) one. Frottage tracks the uneven traces of dispersal and scattering associated with diaspora, attempting to arrest the heteronormative inevitability that would conflate dispersal with insemination and hetero-futurity.

Frottage: Origin Stories

Origin stories are mostly rubbish. We select what sounds most appropriate, most acceptable, most scholarly, or most provocative. We sift and discard, create ourselves as creatures of archives and classes and conferences.

I was sitting at [prestigious archive] and came across [obscure document] and it led me down this path

This project started in [famous person’s] class

At [distinguished conference] I started pursuing this project

I was gazing at books by famous people and decided to put them into conversation


I was going down on my lover and I wondered how a book could describe how she tastes

After fucking 60 guys, I wondered what fucking the next guy would feel like

I had a bad bout of gonorrhea and it inspired this meditation

Every time I wrestle with yeast, I start asking questions about the world

It’s not that one set of origin stories is better than the other—perhaps more entertaining, yes. Instead, it’s probably true that origin stories are diverse strands—a yeast infection takes place in a famous archive, a famous speaker is guy no. 61, the excitement of a distinguished lecture leads to fantasies of going down on someone.

As an undergraduate, I learned that theoretical ideas started to make sense while I was clubbing. In between Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox, Spivak would begin to make sense. In between this dance track and that dance track, Foucault would speak to me. Ideas came to life as my body moved, and I said, at the time, that I was interested in body studies. I meant, I think, that my body taught me how to feel my way into ideas and worlds.

Here are a few origin stories.

I wanted to write about black people. Not about black people and the white gaze—and I haven’t gotten past that completely. I wanted to write about black people together. About ways black people found to imagine their worlds. And to imagine each other.

I wanted to think with and through the body, to have the body present as much as possible, even when it couldn’t be. Consider a running head a provocation.

I wanted to center the geohistories of blackness without having them arrive in one place. I hoped to keep diaspora on the move, without saying that it ended in the Americas or in Europe. I was not interested in endless motion; rather, I was captured by the fits and starts Paul Gilroy described as the black Atlantic. And interested in what it meant to imagine livability in contingent spaces.

To the extent that it was possible, I wanted to be true to the idea of living together. Sianne Ngai had written something wonderful on irritation, and I kept thinking about proximity. Here’s one version of what I had written:

While I am interested in forms of intimacy that demonstrate positive attachment and belonging, forms of intimacy associated with love and pleasure, for example, I also want to note that intimacy, especially what might be called enforced intimacy, might just as well produce disgust and revulsion. Consider, for instance, the range of ways we might react to riding in a crowded bus or train, the pleasurable, idiosyncratic moments when a scent or smell or touch brings delight and pleasure; and also consider, the, perhaps more common experiences of irritation, annoyance, and revulsion. Both of these moments might be taken to represent the affective potential of intimacy: intimacy has no particular or specific affect attached to it.

I wanted to think of blackness as enforced intimacy, and to see where that would lead me.

A long trail of thinking led me back to Hélène Cixous:

I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.
Men still have everything to say abut their sexuality, and everything to write. (“The Laugh of the Medusa”)

I first read this as an undergraduate. And while I’d dabbled in Masculinity Studies, I found its frames and terms and models mostly unusable for what I wanted to say. Here, a problem of the archive. So I wanted to write about the men “without whom.” In some ways—and here my Kenyan education shows—I wanted to wrestle with my angels. In the bible, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel (queer this), and as dawn approaches, the angel touches Jacob’s hip and leaves him limp.

Jomo Kenyatta and Frantz Fanon were my angels. I could not be or think without them. Yet, I paid a high price to think with them. And I had to find a way to think with them. The other two figures I thought with, Rene Maran and Claude McKay lubricated my way to think with Kenyatta and Fanon.

Was this enough? Should I have written on women? Especially as a feminist? I continue to wrestle with this. I have wanted to write about Pauline Hopkins and Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson and Nella Larsen (at least I had an article out on her) and many other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance for a long time. But this, I thought, was not the right place.

A final thought (not really) on what it means to put close to ten years of thinking and writing on a blog instead of pursuing a book by a university press.

The manuscript-in-progress has been one of my final ties to the life I once thought I should desire. It lives on my CV as a promise to a self that I have found it difficult to let go. We can never fully abandon who we were. I could try to be more thoughtful and say that I’m not sure it makes sense to publish a book that few Kenyans will read—but that’s not really true. Partly, I put up these fragments to say goodbye to certain dreams. Partly, I put them up in an ephemeral way to engage the ephemerality of black queer life and black queer imaginations. Partly, to say, I once thought of these things.

being present

I have been trying to think about what it means to be present. About how one inhabits the present—how one is absorbed by it, how one absorbs it, how one is pressed by it, how one presses onto it, how one navigates it, how one is disoriented by it. I have yet to find the appropriate metaphors—I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize them.

The present cannot be written, for all writing is always in the past tense. An easy lesson. And one that causes despair. This thing slips away. Or turns away. The present turns its face against us.

(Who is this “us”?)
From here, the I wants to hide in the us:we, the we:us, because to be present must be to be in the we:us, the us:we.

There is no crowd to hide behind. The crowd gathers stones. The crowd is indifferent. The crowd kills with indifference.

To be present, to be here, in the midst of this violence. To say nothing. Because the rock-throwing crowd is hungry. And indifferent. And to claim this as a way of being here. Being now.
I gave away the secret—there is no secret.
How does the present become impossible to be in? And what does that mean? What can it mean? The impossibility of being present. Yet to be made present. One wakes up to discover one is present. Even if one cannot be.

“Let me be.”

An impossible demand. And, still, one tries to make it. “Let me be.”

Be what? Be where?
Yet, one’s silence is not absence. It, too, can be presence. A way of registering the weight of the silencing present. Silence has its demands.

This is not what I want to be writing. It is what I can write. The gap between the two might have a name. I have yet to discover it. And, if I did, I am not sure I’d have the courage to use it.

Being present does not mean being now-here, now:here, herenow. It can feel that way. Now(here). A form to say all that cannot be. All that cannot be let to be.

Let me be.
At times, I have mourned that I do not know how to fracture language. I have wanted to write more abrasively, to write words that scratch throats, that make eyes bleed. I don’t know how to. Too many years of learning to let words glide, feeding a lyricism that I wish I could discard. It comes easily now. Too easily.

The present does not lend itself to lyricism. Not even the lyricism that can be mourning.

How does one describe the familiar scabs of yet another depressive episode? The tedium of darkened rooms, unreturned emails, lost appetites, small obsessions, and what one learns to call little victories, reluctantly?
This, I think, is not a way of being “absent” or “detached” or “numb,” as the experts have it. I think the weight of the world is present in depressive episodes. I think one gets caught under the weight and loses the will or the ability to throw it off. And it accumulates. As unwashed clothes. Unwashed bodies. Clotted thoughts. Unspeaking. This is called “unhealth,” because health is predicated on doing, moving on, planning, seeing what matters and what must be discarded for one to live.

What does it mean to stay with? To refuse to move on? Freud called this pathological. I disagree.
The word “weight” takes on significance. The depressive so often feels exhausted. As though Atlas is distributing his weight to those who are psychically available, those recruited against their will. What is it to be psychically available to depression? (Flirting with unhealth. The books say that if untreated, depressive episodes get worse. Flirting with unhealth.)

But. Sociogeny.

What is psychic health to the disposable?

We call it the ability to struggle. The ability to survive. The ability to imagine. The ability to dream. The ability to forget one’s disposability until one is faced with it—inevitably. Inevitably. Inevitably.

Inevitability as a way of being here, being present in this now:here.

Sociogeny weds the social to the psychic. One cannot be psychically well when one is considered disposable. The archive of disposability—expanding, always expanding—impinges on the psychic.

The psychic life of the disposable: now-here, now(here), now:here
this is what I have been trying to write,
not like this,
not here

For Garissa University College

I imagine that some of the students killed and injured at Garissa University College hated school. They attended school because their parents wanted it, because they had no other plans, because their friends were there. I imagine that some of them loved exams. They loved the thrill of pitting their minds against tricksy questions. I imagine some were falling in love, others falling in lust, and that both met on fields of vulnerable hearts and hungry bodies. I imagine that some had learned to stay up all night, talking, studying, dreaming, worrying, praying.

I imagine some students never completed their homework. I imagine others had learned the best way to copy from their friends. I imagine others worked collaboratively: they imagined together, thought together, studied together, solved problems together, and got confused together.

I imagine many students imagined their futures. Some with dread, as they were their families’ “hopes.” Some with the hope that they would be able to travel, to move elsewhere in Africa or to the Middle East or to China or to anywhere but Kenya. Some imagined that Kenya’s new county structure would enable them to become public servants. Some imagined that the county structure would give them easy access to power.

I imagine some, perhaps many, were struggling to imagine futures.

I imagine some were struggling with depression. They didn’t know why but they couldn’t get out of bed. They had lost focus. They felt sad or angry or irritated. They felt suicidal. They had not yet found language to describe their symptoms.

I imagine some read GUC’s General Information with a mocking smile.

What to do in case of arrest. The University authorities shall not protect or cause any immunity from arrest and prosecution if a student breaks the law within or outside the University. Individual students(s) arrested will be responsible for their own defense, payment of fines, bails etc. However in case of arrest, students should notify the office of the Security Officer.

Fire Breakout

The University shall organize drills to make students be aware on what to do in case of fire. The following should however be noted in case of fire breakout:

  • Sound an alarm and shout Fire! Fire!
  • Evacuate the building quickly but calmly through the nearest exit. Do not stop for personal belongings.
  • Close the door behind you and move to a safe and open ground.
  • Shout fire! Fire! If other occupants of the building have not noticed the fire. Blare the siren if it is near.
  • If you have any burns, move to the dispensary for assistance.
  • Do not go back to the building until it has been declared safe.

I imagine that, like many typical college students, some felt invulnerable. I imagine others felt vulnerable. I imagine some were scared. I imagine others bluffed courage. I imagine some had found their niche. I imagine many others were still searching.

I imagine life-long friendships had been formed, or were being formed.

And while some might have imagined what they would do should the school be attacked, I imagine they thought the prospect was remote.

I do not know any of the students who have died—at least 70. Nor do I know any of the injured or still missing. I spent 15 years in university settings, as a student and teacher.

I join those mourning the dead.

possibility, deracination, sentimentality

By the time I had spent ten years in the U.S., I had stopped going to gay clubs. It wasn’t simply that I had grown older, though I had. It wasn’t that I no longer loved dancing. And it wasn’t that I had moved from more cosmopolitan cities—Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon—to a small, semi-rural college town. It was that I could no longer unsee the ways I was unseen.

After many years of dancing alone, I had opted to stop dancing.

Within gay history and mythology, urban spaces liberate those who move there from smaller, rural towns. Away from the scrutiny of family and friends, gay men can experiment, find themselves, be themselves. This narrative has been mapped neatly—too neatly—onto a world divided into homophilic and homophobic. Unsurprisingly, these terms follow older distinctions between civilized and primitive, advanced and regressive, global north and global south.
I understand, appreciate, and celebrate those who seek and find more livable lives, more ways to be possible. I am interested, however, in the versions of the world produced, in what I see as liberal sentimentality.

Sentimentality, as James Baldwin defines it, ossifies positions. Even and perhaps especially in its salvific guise, it cannot imagine complexity, incoherence, ambivalence. To invoke Fanon, it seals those it figures into easy binaries. It produces an unyielding, unchanging world. It affirms dominant world views.

And so, in publications dedicated to producing a liberal view of the world—liberal not as opposed to conservative, but as deeply invested in narratives of progress that maintain a strict division between the global north and the global south—the gay migrant from the global south to the global north will always find a better life, a more possible life, a life that he always knew he wanted but didn’t know was possible.
I learned how to dance in U.S. gay clubs.

Mining western and eastern Kenya, I borrowed from Luo, Luhya, and Kamba movements; I dug deep to find Central Africa in my hips, lingala shaping my arms; from black U.S. queens, I learned how to twirl, though I never gained their fluency. I learned how to love sweat—to feel my body pursuing freedom. And I was free.

Ntozake Shange gave me words:

we gotta dance to keep from cryin
we gotta dance to keep from dyin

Words that helped me remember why I danced, what I sought in dance.

For while I got my “gay on,” deracinated, hyperbolic, racially progressive which meant whitewashed, my body reached for other geographies, other geo-histories, and, finally, I had to listen.

I had to learn how to dance in gay clubs in the U.S. before I could dance in Nairobi. But I danced in Nairobi.
This is not about nativism.

It’s about the shape of stories that dare not map the relationship between gay liberation and deracination. What do gays from the global south give up or abandon to be gay in the global north? How else might these stories be told?
I’m re-reading Fanon—as usual, as always—and thinking of his failed attempts to restrict his geographies and geo-histories. The story of the Antillean black, he finds, is embedded in the story of the black in modernity. With whatever caveats that might be considered necessary, I would say the story of the global south gay who travels to the global north is generalizable.

The global north wants to pat itself on the back—unlike the intolerant global south, it welcomes gays. This myth does important ideological work.
Which is to say, I read Marlon James’s story in the New York Times and it did not sit well with me.

We who move are permitted to tell stories of success, if we succeed. We are permitted to tell stories of freedom and liberation, if we navigate awkward bureaucratic processes. We are asked to uphold the myth of the American dream: here, there is freedom. And we are asked not to think about loss. About deracination. About the price we pay to share in a myth.

Reading Marlon James in the NYT, one is surprised (or not) to discover no mention of #blacklivesmatter, no mention of any racial politics that would disturb the gay story the NYT wants to be told, needs to be told. It is a classic coming out story—deracinated in a deeply sentimental way.

It is powerful.

But sentimental work is always powerful.
Let me be careful.

Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s sentimentality created a sad fracture. I am not after something similar.

I understand why this story matters. I understand the importance of finding a possible life. I am glad that Marlon James can write that his life is now more possible.

Still, I am left uneasy by the shape of the world produced by his narrative, by the U.S. myth in which it participates, by the disembedded “I” held out as the promise of the U.S.

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.

holding my father’s penis

It is small.

It happens during what the psycho-social industry calls “a formative phase,” a period when the person I am meant to become will be shaped. I am plasticine-adolescent, moulded by every man who speaks, pushes, touches, gazes. My father is dying, but he refuses to die, and when he dies, I refuse to let him die. His penis has already been chopped off, a void created in place of an absence.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that the phallus is not the penis. Frantz Fanon teaches me that the black is genitality. My fantasies teach me to crave daddies, men I will never call daddy, men who will submit, men who can enjoy pleasure.

Dying and Sex: how banal.

This writing is not about my father’s death, my psycho-social development, my being queer, my sex practices, the bestselling genres of emotional vulnerability. It is not about the death I missed, the funeral I wish I had missed, the memorial services I skip, the men I want to pursue who look nothing like my father, the men who pursue me who look nothing like my father, the twenty five years it has taken to write about my father, the person I am when I write about my father, the person I unbecome when I write about my father.

If I write “my father” enough times, something might be exorcised. Maybe the me who has never known how to move on. One returns to the scene of emotional devastation to discover pieces of a self that are unrecognizable, and, worse, unusable. To discover that the carapace sheltered by nostalgia can no longer be treasured. To confront the I who cannot be valued from here, from now. Shattering happens. Again.

From my father, I inherited a love for solitude, a desire to escape from the demands of sociality, a craving to indulge silliness.

Details, my editor tells me, provide real details. Stories that provide life, depth, texture.

My Swahili has always been terrible. Classmates laughed at my pronunciation—a transformed Eliza Dolittle speaking Swahili. Teachers laughed at my attempts to shape Kikuyu into Swahili. Swahili was a school language, not one of the languages used frequently at home. Not a language I wanted to learn, not French or Italian or Arabic.

Perhaps I was 12 years old. I had failed a Swahili exam, so badly that my father sat in his green velvet chair and laughed. He decided that he would tutor me in Swahili. For a few months, he supervised my homework. I would sit in the dining room, complete an assignment, and walk to the living room, where he would check my answers.

Frustrated by this regime, one time I inscribed a little “fuck you” on the bottom left corner of my notebook. My father saw it. He told me to bring his belt. He made me lie down on the floor and he belted my buttocks a few times.

My loathing for Swahili increased.

Another time, I could not conjugate something in Swahili. It was late at night, well past nine p.m. This time, he was in his bedroom, with the door locked. Perhaps he was feeling sicker than usual. He insisted that I call a friend, a neighbor, to ask for the correct answer before I went to bed. I stood in the corridor, outside his locked room, frustrated, trying to escape the humiliation of calling a classmate late at night for one answer.

My father was implacable. I called.

Swahili became the language of late-night calls, experiences in humiliation, a barrier between my father who could not accept a son who failed and a son trying to escape a language that humiliated.

One day, perhaps I am 12, my father buys a chess set. He has decided to teach me chess. He plays checkers—what’s the British English for this?—with my brother. Chess is for us. Patiently, he teaches me how to name pieces, how they move, how to read written chess moves. I will never become very good, always trusting instinct more than anything else. Because chess is our thing, I am unable to play it with anyone else.

We will weekend together: pack food, bags, ourselves. We travel to my father’s retirement home, the home he built to retire to, away from the city, the home to which he will never retire, the home that will be his burial ground.

An hour and a half away from Nairobi, it is dry here. The house is usually locked and empty. Upon entering, we open curtains carefully, watching for the orange scorpions that hide in unexpected places. This is not a space I know how to enjoy, at least never during obligatory family visits during the holidays, when it feels as though we are exiled from Nairobi. There is no phone here. The internet does not yet exist. We are far from friends who speak English.

Yet, on weekends here with my father, this place becomes special. We talk. We play endless games of monopoly. We break rules. Make new ones. We bond.

These are our memories. Now, my memories.

Perhaps I was 7 or 8. My father bought a set of battery operated toy cars that ran on tracks. He helped to assemble the tracks. We played with them.

When I was in kindergarten—though I called it nursery school—and through Standard 2, my father would pick me up when school ended at lunch time. We would eat lunch together. And then we would nap.

This simple thing: my father napped after lunch. I napped as well.

I have learned how to nap these days, now that I’m back in the house he could not grow old in. I’m not sure it feels the same. I wouldn’t know if it did.
A devoted anglophile, my father hated the U.S. He feared, I think, that the U.S. would take something away from him. Maybe that it would take us away from him. England was more available, more manageable: church hymns, Handel’s Messiah, undemocracy. The U.S. was too big, too new, too. I don’t know. It’s difficult to read his mind.

He was right.

I left for the U.S. five years after his death.
Another predictable story about an African who travels to the U.S.

We are a tiresome genre.
Two things stay with me about that first trip, a whirlwind of landing at JFK, spending the night in a small apartment in New York City, driving to Hartford, Connecticut, stopping over in Amherst, Massachusetts, before finally arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

JFK smelled bad. New York City smelled bad. It was summer New York City, and, trained by visual media that had no smell—television and film—I had not expected New York City to have a smell. Certainly not the smell of summer: hot, wet, sweaty, rotting. Even though I had traveled in Kenya, even though I could distinguish the smells of city and country, wet city and wet country, night city and night country, rich city and poor city, rain scented city and rain scented country, I had not anticipated that the U.S. might smell of anything more than television and movies, the liquid silk of celluloid.

Pittsburgh was sex. We drove through downtown Pittsburgh, Liberty Avenue, where the two extant sex shops blared “Sex.” Sex was on the streets. Sex was available to be thought with publicly, to be experienced in public. Liberty Avenue was home to Pegasus, a gay club with an under-21 night, a place what would be one of my homes. Over the next 5 years in Pittsburgh, I would wander down to Liberty Avenue late at night, look at the signs for sex, try to experience the shock of sex as something to be thought of, as an embodied way of being in the world.
Queer stories are always quest narratives. Over and over one is asked, “when did you first know?” Among the first gay men I spent time with, most of us in our late teens and early twenties, we’d always ask, “when’s the first time you had sex?” Sometimes, the former question had shades of, “when did you first know you were not normal?” Sometimes, it’s the bafflement of a heterosexuality that has always presumed it was the only thing that exists, “how can you not be heterosexual?” The curiosity is always invasive.

“When did you first know you were . . .?”

One becomes Kafka’s cockroach: which limb did you examine first? Did your movements feel strange to you? How did your feelings manifest themselves? Did you wake up with different hair? Did you get a sudden craving for Barbra Streisand? Or Diana Ross? Or Patty Lupone? Or—what’s the African equivalent?—Brenda Fassie? Did your erections take on a different aspect? How did your brain catch up with your body? Did desire jump out and shout, “surprise”?

Perhaps the last question.

Once one is past the breeze-erection period—the embarrassing adolescence when any tiny wind produces what must be called a “woody”—desire is often a surprise. One learns the difference between what is framed as attractive and what is experienced as desirable.

Should I have had a clue when, in high school, I turned away from the women termed desirable—light skinned plump girls who incarnated middle class femininity—and spent time with darker skinned slender women with stern miens and fierce minds? But a clue to what?

The forensics of desire are, inevitably, inconclusive.

After all, I relished watching Deep Throat, which I found buried under my elder brother’s mattress. I continue to return to Hans Billians’s brilliantly conceived explorations of group and public sex. My favorite orgasm—experienced at 13 or 14—was fueled by heterosexual pornography.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that all quest narratives are driven by a desire for something that can never be found. What we call desire must, inevitably, be frustrated. My encounters with psychoanalysis will make my hungers less frightening, if not more manageable. On and off, for about four years, I will immerse myself in Freud and Lacan, engage with thinkers immersed in their work: Jacqueline Rose, Leo Bersani, Joan Copjec, Tim Dean. I will learn to lose myself in their work—to plot life stories and body hungers along geometric shapes that I do not understand, to live outside my body, if only for a few hours.

Hunger pangs return at night. I will roam chatrooms, become excellent at cybersex; roam sex shops, become proficient in casual sex; roam sex clubs, become talented at having multiple sex partners; roam personals ads, become armored against the annihilating racism of a world that insists it was never invented for me.

At first, I sleep with older men because they want me. Or, to be more precise, they want to sleep with someone young. Early on, living in Pittsburgh, I learn that gay is white. Before I venture out of chatrooms, I learn to mask my race, to try to live out a fantasy that permits raceless cybersex. For some men, even the prospect of cybersex with a black body is too much. Later, as I venture out to meet men, waiting on cold winter street corners for cars that will never show up, I learn that the fantasy of planning to sleep with a black body is transgression enough. Still, the hunger pangs continue. And when I eventually start wandering into strange houses—never the same one twice—I learn that having a black body in a white space is transgression enough. White men will want to masturbate while I watch them. This is transgression enough.

From the seclusion of my majority white university, in a race-segregated Pittsburgh, I will not know how to desire black men, Asian men, Latino men, or Arab men. It will be many years before I learn to read bodies in the U.S.—how they speak desire, walk desire, dance desire, live desire. For too many of those years, my name will be Stephen. Or Ian. Or whatever will not produce the mangled pronunciations that kill my desire. Whatever will not return me to my past, my hungers, my father.
My father’s penis is small and grey and shriveled.

In 1988, he and my mother traveled to England for treatment. My sister and I were left alone, and an aunt checked in on us. Freed from parental control, we ate too much ice cream and watched too many movies. In retrospect, we were not wild enough. We didn’t have wild parties. I’m not sure we would have known how to. We were responsible. Even content.

Memory is always a battle of tenses: the past trying to make itself felt in the present, the present trying to insist on its nowness, the future of reading crowding out a present that is already past. I slip among tenses, fall down, stay down.

To write in the past tense is to occupy the scene of devastation, to wander among the ruins from which one might have constructed oneself. To marvel at the shoddy construction. To wonder how one is still possible given the random materials cobbled together to assemble a self.

When my father returned from England, he was smaller.

I was my father’s last child, the child of his prosperity. He was comfortably middle class, perhaps even wealthy, by the time I was old enough to want things: toys, books, attention. It showed. Pictures of him from the early 80s show a head swallowed by rolls of fat, a missing neck. His shirts strain to hold him in. By the mid-1980s, a regime of golf and farming had returned his neck, though he was still comfortably middle class, as his 40-inch waist proclaimed. He returned from England with a 28-inch waist.

I was the child of his prosperity. My waist was larger than his.

He continued to shrink. His doctor told my brother and me, “he will say hurtful things. He does not know what he is saying. Do not pay attention.” My brother, having learned to absent himself in that way elder brothers can, didn’t have to pay attention. I was there. I heard.

One does not stop listening to one’s idol because a doctor says so.

His voice became querulous. His stomach unable to process food. He lived on drugs and rehydrating fluids. He pissed drugs and rehydrating fluids.

I saw my father’s penis as I handed him a jug to piss in because he could not walk to the toilet. I saw my father’s penis as I helped him walk to the toilet to shit—he couldn’t shit, there was nothing to shit. I saw my father’s penis as he was dying. I saw my father’s dying penis.

A father’s dying penis must be handled carefully. Unlike those penises in castration fantasies, cut off from vibrant life, a dying penis announces its fragility. It is the disgusting object one wants to protect. The disgusting object that one can never not desire.

I hide behind one.
My father died when I was 14. By the time I was 24, I knew I preferred older men. At first, it was because they were available—I didn’t have to engage in the frustrating choreography demanded by my peers, that toxic blend of insecurity and arrogance that left so many of us damaged in spaces where we sought refuge, if not acceptance. Older men were more honest about their hungers.

Some were closeted. Some were lonely. Some wanted something younger. Some were experimental. Some were conservative. Some were conventionally attractive. Some were desirable. Some wanted sex. Some wanted me. Some wanted sex with me.

One man rode a motorcycle, smelled of hot leather and sex hunger, and wore red stockings under his chaps.

Others I met in dark rooms where the only thing that mattered was our hunger: we never had to meet again.

Two men linger.

One was a little shorter, perhaps 5’7”. His body was quiet intensity, his appetite fueled mine. We played and maybe even loved. Maybe. We met twice. I could not meet him after that. Pleasure with him offered a glimpse of a future I could not let myself imagine.

Loss truncates imagination.

Over the many years my father drove me to school, when my siblings had left home and I was the only passenger, we mapped out our future: where I’d go to school, what I’d specialize in, how we’d work together. Our dreams fused. The future belonged to us. It was impossible to imagine without him.

At 24, I finally wrote to him, about him, with him. I started trying to imagine a world without him.

At 24, I was hungry.

Extending Freud, Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török argue that death makes us horny. After a death, we want to fuck. A lot. Some people domesticate this idea by claiming fucking affirms life.

What does one call an accumulation of little deaths? A host? A multitude? A flock? A clutch? A pride? A pod?

Leo Bersani offered a more useful language: self-shattering. Sex was loss, dissolution, being undone, falling into pieces, forgetting. Not the mystical union promised by saccharine romances, where you dissolve into someone else in some grotesque parody of two becoming one. Nothing that safe. It was more frantic, more desperate, more difficult.

Each shattering produced a sliver of something I could use to build a post-mourning self. I needed many and more. Sometimes the pieces were difficult to find, even impossible. Sometimes the shattering didn’t happen fast enough or sharply enough. Sometimes there was a tear instead of a shattering.

How many pieces are enough to assemble a self one can inhabit?

At 24, I acquired what Samuel Delany calls a statistically significant number of sex experiences. I learned what I liked, how I liked it, when I liked it. I was surprised into pleasure. I took sex seriously. I accepted compliments from undersexed men. I don’t remember faces, names, living rooms, bedrooms, the geographies of sex lives. I remember some penises. The spongy texture of still-living flesh, the thrust of engorged flesh, the promise of pleasure-giving flesh.

Some penises stay with you.

Some penises you want to forget.
Over 20 years after my father dies, I return to Nairobi. I avoid his peers and friends. I avoid that inevitable moment:

“But you can’t be Bob!”
“Bob is dead!”
“You look like Bob!”

The pieces I have collected begin to shatter, become more fragile with each “Bob,” minor, earth-moving occurrences.

I haunt my mother’s house, my father’s ghost having taken on new flesh.
I no longer remember my father’s voice.

As you enter my mother’s house, past the red door, if you look to the upper-left hand corner, right before the three stairs that lead to the living room, a little bird hangs in a brass cage. That bird stole my father’s voice.

I imagine my father’s voice and hear that bird—an alarm installed so that he could beckon us. At first, us. And then, me. As he rejected the nurse my mother tried to provide. And my siblings ran away, because they could.

“Here,” my mother said, “this is how you turn on the oxygen tank.” Muscle memory: placing an oxygen mask over my father’s face, turning on the tank, fretting as it emptied, making frantic phone calls to have it replaced, calling ambulances in an era before cell phones, hoping-not-hoping that he would die. Turning on the oxygen. Hearing him gasp for oxygen. Understanding oxygen as something that could be gasped for.

Over and over, hearing that mechanical bird steal my father’s voice, my father’s mind, my father’s oxygen. Hating it. Still hating it.

Unable to ask my mother why she hangs on to it. The bird that stole my father.

How we learn to hold on to things.

Over the years of his sickness, my father, my father the doctor, a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology—how proud he was of this distinction, how little he managed to enjoy it—turned to anything that might work. Herbal remedies from suspect sources. Holy Water anointed by special priests. Anointed oil. His room became a collection of crucifixes and rosaries. Prayers filled our nominally secular house as never before. Hymns and more hymns sung in Kikuyu mode: lento tending toward shrill.

Light hurt his eyes. He could no longer climb onto the bed he had once shared with my mother. Their shared mattress was moved to the floor. My mother had a twin bed moved to the room. Her touch, I think, hurt his fragile, dying skin. How little he was touched by anyone in those dying years. Touched with love. Touched with care. Touched with intimacy. Different touches happened: clinical, but gentle. Necessary, but antiseptic. Bit of him flaked off in a bed that could no longer be shared.

Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to shut the curtains in my room, to spend glorious summer days huddled under too-warm blankets, wanting the world to go away. Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to distrust men in my bed. Perhaps it is from my mother that I learned to sleep in a twin bed, to refuse the tear that accompanies sharing and unsharing a bed.

At 24, 10 years after his death, I had not yet grown into my grief. I did not yet look like him. I was not yet the name that would remind and remember, the Bob-lookalike, the history that I now incarnate. At 24, I could haunt a new city of sex beaches and sex clubs, of hookups and STI clinics, of forgetting.

But then there was Bill.

Bill had all the eloquence the mechanical bird stole from my dying father. Perhaps he was in his 50s. Ravaged by AIDS-related complications. I recall his boots—black, thick-soled, orthopedic, because his feet were so badly damaged, he said. I never saw his feet. We met in Seattle. At first by chatting online, and then in person. He wanted touch—to be touched—to touch.

In a small café in Capital Hill, he told me about losing beauty. About the shock of moving from being one of the most desirable gym-built men in Seattle to inhabiting the AIDS-ravaged body from which everyone averted eyes. About what it meant not only to become undesirable, but unseeable. About finding the words to eulogize oneself, to hymn a dying self.

His voice was measured, gentle. His cheeks sunken. And while I could not give him what he wanted—the kind of touch he wanted—perhaps we gave each other a little of what we needed. I recovered a voice I needed to hear, a voice that expressed what it felt like to be dying. A voice that, in that moment, was louder than the mechanical bird in my mother’s house. Even then, I was selfish. I accepted the comfort he provided, not knowing how to extend comfort, turtling into libido-maddened grief.

A year after I left Seattle, I tried to write to Bill, to say something about the life I was now trying to build, a life I had begun to be able to envision. How awkwardly we write about such moments—how often I want to apologize for the ineloquence of grief.

He didn’t reply.

An online search told me he had died.

The gifts the dying provide.
There is no full-length mirror in the bathroom. What exists—put up by my sister for her daughter—slices me into pieces. My head is out of the frame, as is most of my torso.

I am a neck and a sawed-up torso, a botched guillotine job.