A Response to Black Studies Readers, Dancers, Students, and Teachers
This post is part of our online roundtable on Jafari S. Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us.
“Crossings,” M. Jacqui Alexander reminds us, “…are never undertaken all at once or once and for all.”1 I am grateful to Black Perspectives for hosting this crossing—highlighting work analyzing the impact and continuing significance of the anthological generation of Black gay artists, activists, djs, drag queens, scholars, former prisoners, and various recombination of these positions, as African American intellectual history. I am profoundly grateful to and inspired by my brilliant conversation partners—especially Dr. Marcus Lee, who believed this book and our continuing conversation to be important enough to organize this discussion. Thank you for this collection of what he calls “converging curiosities and overlapping investments,” meditating on “the future of Black Studies and the practical conditions of Black life.”
Black gay time is funny. One issues an invitation, but folks are not required to show up. A central conceit of my disco ball—a textual ‘conversation’ composed of the voices of the dead and the living—is just an author chattering into “the literatures” until other voices join in, making the promise real. Thank you. This collection of superb, thoughtful short essays instantiates a future real conditional tense in and for Black Studies—providing new grounds, bridging aporias and pushing significantly beyond what I have tried to contribute. What greater affirmation of my intention (if not my execution, which can falter) can I ask, than to witness the “quality of light” I tried to offer being turned up so brightly and beautifully? It is all grace. A cool drink of water.
It is now becoming clearer to many that, had we listened the first time, the intellectual and political positions introduced or reintroduced by radical Black lesbian feminists of the long 1980s might have made us free(r today). There’s a disco ball between us asks how the long 1980s can be at once its own unrepeatable conjuncture and perhaps also a usable record, or map, to navigate the violences, vulnerabilities and never-before-seen promise of this current moment. In this book, I have tried to make good Black gay sense of the current moment, by remembering a Black gay politics that may be necessary for all our futures (you may also read: if we are to have any future). In this series, my interlocutors have also homed in on the fact that the book is also one proposal to/for Black Study(ies). The work insists on centering the thinking, methods, ways of relating, aesthetics, and projects—that is, the politics, of radical Black lesbian feminists. These politics form the core of what I theorize as a Black gay habit of mind. Beginning at the end of the long 1980’s with the conference ‘Black Nations/Queer Nations? Lesbian and gay sexualities in the African diaspora,’ the second section of the book pursues Black queer studies as it emerged, turning to contemporary examples of perennial and newly emergent intellectual, political-economic and methodological challenges faced by Black Studies more broadly. This section of the book engages current controversies around diaspora/transnationalism, fieldwork, competing canons, travel, sex, professional standards and antagonistic camps—all of which are embedded and reflected in Black life, here and there. Before concluding, There’s a disco ball between us: A theory of Black gay life returns to “Unfinished Work,” recalling the Colin Robinson poem of the same title in his You Have You Father Hard Head.
“A vision for Black queer historical inquiries”
Dr. Jennifer Dominique Jones astutely begins her essay referencing Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley’s early “call for creative, capacious, and fluid narratives that center Blackness and queerness within past, present, and future engagements with the Black Atlantic.” Omise’eke’s provocation is a key catalyst for my theorization. My multi-sited ethnographic practice tried to find and elaborate what Dr. Jones summarizes as “a Black diasporic vision of Black gay life, one that necessarily adopts particular forms in various moments and places but are rooted in a set of similarities,” hoping to expose and invite readers and scholars to take up what she calls the
“intellectual, social, and political history of Black queer life globally.” When I began, I did not know that this would entail “the consultation and (re)constitution of capacious archives” to the degree that I later found necessary to answer questions, and stage this “embrace of the anthological” as Jennifer Jones calls the genre and genealogical practice. Not only did I want to intervene in the research agenda of readers, community members, artists and scholars to come; but also, to encourage us to think about why, how, and by whose labor this “evidence of being” arrives in well cared for repositories. It does not happen by mistake, but through the meticulous vigilance of folks like those highlighted in “Archiving the Anthological.”
There is, of course, “No reckoning allowed/save the marvelous arithmetics/of distance.” The book’s narrative arc begins with “Joseph Fairchild Beam (Joe) was my first.” I do not start here because Joe was one of the “exceptionals” (that Cathy wisely warned us about uncritically centering our research agenda around). We begin with my infatuation with the writer-editor-activist because Black gay men’s contribution to incipient Black gay politics (already-in-progress, thanks to Black gay women) was impelled by bonds of erotic desire for one another “against this double-cremation.” It has become a politics worthy of tracing and critiquing toward more capacious futures. While my “narrower” focus was on (or, it is more accurate to say my being enamored of and shaped by) the generation of artist-activists who self-consciously organized and articulated Black gay, there are other historical actors and sites that are important to understand. Professor Jones indexes generative possible scholarly futures in her comments. Archives like those she and historians of labor, abolition, health, gender, and social movements, for example, have consulted contain evidence of Black gay participation. This is important to think with for the future, to avoid unintentionally crowding out questions that could be addressed to a wider group of interlocutors than I engage here. I too “wonder what conversations, ways of being, or habits (my use of) the anthological might foreclose, who or what it might exclude.” While I tried to critically re-situate a few the errors of the past—for example, what I term the “dick politics” that pervaded much of the gay Black male project—I have likely committed my own errors, unwitting exclusions, or disavowals. Although multivocal, the anthological is not innocent of motive(s), and places that remain unseen or unthought in our imaginations. There is an “editor.” Here we can see the importance of invested conversation: depending on one another to keep us honest as we compose anthological projects, then re-compose with what we have learned. Dr. Jones’s implicit proposition to “see archival collections that index Black queer experience but are not explicitly labeled as such” is well taken and necessary. I intend to follow her and others into wider archives, and toward collecting more necessarily collaborative, multilingual narrative archives in my forthcoming collaborative research project, “Lessons of the Long Black 80s.”
“When a disco ball is between us, we sense things differently”
Mess. Even as I assert its importance and potential, I am discomfited. This chemise is not a perfect fit. It is body-con– showing the dots and dimples, while the propriety that shaped me as an individual and part of a community of “good” people who “keep it cute,” insists on foundational smoothing. Is this generational? Let me push the metaphor of the chemise, borrowed from Ms. Hurston, a bit further. “The seeming messiness”— pointing out that mess is in the eye of the beholder—can also be read as seaming— that is, as a design-engineered technique to consciously shape. Usually, seams should not show, but Dr Bock’s question and my own is “what avenues of thought… become available if we take up the perhaps uncomfortable (for the researcher/writer/reader) toward a more intimate, contingent register that mirrors real life and promises to find us arriving at a different kind of question about the good life[?]”
We might feel disoriented when a disco ball is between us, “bumping into each other on a floor that seems to sway underfoot,” but this is merely a new proprioception—a different (closely studied, intimate) relationship to our bodies in space and among other bodies. This is why it takes one a while to get used to the dark of the club and intermittent flashes of the disco ball, which Professor Bock says “make(s) a mess of light, throwing it out in little chunks of color and vibrancy that pull the body into movement despite itself.” As I offer in the book’s introduction, to “put your body in it” in this way feels like dancing in tandem, if not in syncopation. Taken over by the shared experience of feeling the bass in your chest.
“Traits of Negro Thinking and Feeling: Anansesem and Promiscuous Interpenetration as a Decolonial Practice”
Professor Otu brings us the diasporically rich framework of “kente epistemology”—using the figure of Anansi who is “born” in Ghana but returns in many ways in Caribbean and US stories of complexity and overcoming—and suturing it to “Memories of my grandmother”—Richard Wright’s understanding of his grandmother’s own ‘Traits of Negro Thinking and Feeling,’ which we can read as a Black habit of mind. These also indeed richly “…enable an encounter with an epistemology that traverses broad, unquantifiable temporal and spatial domains” as Dr. Otu generously characterizes the book. I am heartened by the proposal that my book is resonant with the decolonial critique of the late South African anti-Apartheid activist and Africanist anthropologist Archie Mafeje, who assayed ways to combat what Professor Otu calls the “…malaise that has long beleaguered anthropology, exemplified by the discipline’s inability to break away from the colonial obsession with the subject-object binary.”
Is there a disco ball in your classroom? In the beginning of her contribution to this roundtable, Dr. Alexandria (Lexi) Smith takes us on a “detour to the past” in which she is enrolled in “A Genealogy of Black LGBT Culture and Politics” in the spring of 2013 (along with Dr. Marcus Lee, who instigated the class, and this roundtable). Meditating on her remarks incisively show how teaching and “investments”—beyond intellectual “interests”—shape our research and writing, come to constitute the projects or work each of us has come to do.
Professor Smith’s use of the counter-intuitive phrase “intangible yet traceable” gives language to how I think of one of the animating formulations of my book: ‘habits of mind.’ It is more deeply embedded than a shared sensibility, in some ways operating in the realm of the ideological. Yet it is also not as possessively held or easy to identify. We can see habits of mind working and connecting across time and space. It is part of what she identifies as the “the constructed and claimed collectivity of Black queer/gay” which impels the I/we/us references and address throughout the work along with the implicating/inviting (or playfully indicting, as Dr. Bock points out) you. All of which Professor Smith calls “endeared addresses.” Illustratively and appropriately, she calls me by my first name in her incisive and moving essay. This interpellation underscores who we have become to one another— I once her teacher, and now a colleague thrilled to watch and witness—learning and poised to collaborate. I hope that readers share my pleasure in referring to Dr. Smith, and each ‘friend of my mind’ commentator here, by their well-earned honorifics accompanying their “government names.” It holds me in place (in between) and in company, just as my difficulty addressing Dr. Guy-Sheftall as ‘Beverly’ or Sister-President Dr. Cole by her first name.
Every syllabus constitutes an argument. Professor Smith returns to a class assignment that challenged students to do as I was trying to do in my field practice and writing. Yes, “contingency (is) a necessary dimension of (the) full embrace” of the concept and experience of community. May this always be the way. That a book is read back to its author in ways that affirms their intentions, speaks lovingly to how those intentions may have fallen short, and brilliantly illumines pathways beyond the book and its author. This too is in Black gay time.
This theory of Black gay life is (also) one kind of ‘life writing,’ the good doctor Smith suggests. She characterizes the practice engaged in the book as a “subtle braid” (rhyming with Kwame Otu’s interpenetrating weave). Then she intimates that a “flip… of the text’s orientation…” might be in order, “…centering (my own) lived experiences while accounting for the cultural/political/intellectual (con)texts which have shaped that living. Since publication, I have been thinking about what a follow-up intellectual biography that foregrounds the auto-ethnographic and memory would proffer. Still, as much as the author’s I appears and asserts itself in this book, it is held in balance and tension with the other modes of evidence and address employed. I found it more generative (and less uncomfortable) to write myself only in service to interactions, events, and texts on which I could turn the spotlight. This seems to me to be the correct stance of an ethnographer (and certain type of life writer—I am thinking of great examples of Robert Reid-Pharr’s Black Gay Man, Roderick Ferguson’s “Sissies at the Picnic,” and Marlon Ross’ luminous new book, Sissy Insurgencies, each of which Jennifer Jones cites). I too wonder what a flip to the foreground would do. “Ever faithful,” I will, as is my wont, follow my (Spelman) sister and try.
Finally: Dear Bloom,
Black cultures are not “lost” or “absent.” Still, the telling of it is certainly in deep controversy. Our searches are significant. Not only is the past “…a position,” as Professor Trouillot asserts, but also our relative positions to the past— our disparate longings and desires, ambivalences and (sometimes petty but deeply-held and often libidinal) quarrels with ‘history’— and their resulting narrative (re)creations, analyses, or turning away/rejection/negations, are constitutive. This brings me to the notion of “nostalgia,” and the false charge (really, a projection) of “melancholy historicism.”2
Thank you, Dr. Lee, for invoking Brian Freeman’s resounding critical reflection in Civil Sex: “Yet, somehow, amidst all the shards of disappointment and political detritus: a bloom.” His lyrical theorization gets us closer to the language we need to make plain or most accurate (which are not the same thing, of course) the book’s motive(ation): a bloom amidst recurring catastrophes. Grace—as in Sister Sonia’s “we held out our eyes delirious with… .” We will get to better language if we remain in conversation. While I use the word nostalgia in the book, it is not only insufficient but also dangerous, as you point out. More to the point, it is not an accurate or precise a description of Disco Ball’s project. I meant to invoke a deep and intense force of longing and desire, usually expressed in popular music and everyday conversation. Searching for the right word, expression, vibe and mode; the book tries-on the Brazilian Portuguese concept sodade, the Trinbagonian tabanca, and of course nostalgia, which I always hear in a Cuban accent. For me/for now the crux of the matter is the criticality required of this (our) longing, and the recognition that there are levels to this. Disco Ball is not “nostalgic.” I said “(i)n the harsh glare of leaving that space and forgetting, we get distorted glimpses…” – this would be “nostalgia,” yes? The uncritical reflex to wax “back in the day,” which we imagine as so much more… (something) than today— temporarily forgetting that our imagination of or impetus to question yesterday has everything to do with our present moment and our imagination or hope for a future. The passage continues, now critically engaged: “… And I wonder about this current moment—half-past, or thirty ’til. This time ten, fifteen, twenty-five years too late? And I wonder. I want to look for what we have forgotten, inside.” The project is one of longing and looking again. Wondering. My rendering of Venus Landin’s story is one instantiation of this. Of course, I want her story—her murder, her former lover’s suicide, her former friend’s narrative betrayal—to be otherwise. Still, we cannot change the past. The glimpses of Venus Landin reflected here from my memory, but also available in the records Marcus Lee cites, should serve to, as he contends, “sharpen the hunger for the (aspects of this) story that remains lost.” This was my intention in extending Saidiya Hartman’s shatteringly true statement about “…every other Venus.” Because of our (gestures toward) vigilance, the records of our Venus Landin can be different. I want this flicker of recognition to spark and join with others, for a brilliant prism of/from the disco ball.
We already possess the incantation to transform “alone” to community: speech/action that instantiates an us/we. “Siempre. Hasta…” “like bread in our children’s mouths.” This is not pathological. There is no “melancholy” in this historicism, but rather mourning, anger, love, and aliveness. This is a condition of blackness. It should go without saying that it is not just the “slave past” that we have between us. Stephen Best and I agree that a “communitarian impulse runs deep within (B)lack studies.” And we agree that it is not (just) the past that constitutes a we… But, while he focuses on (his own self-reported disaffiliation which impels) negation, I read with and participate in the reproduction of numerous and varied Blacknesses constituted by an ‘us’—Black folks everyday—the central agent in the long Black radical intellectual tradition and Black Study(ies). Black Studies is many things, child— at bottom it is a continuous, deeply invested, and often raucous conversation. It is contentious and at times a controversy in and of itself. One can find oneself feeling uninvited to the conversation (the question arises: who authorizes invitations?), or in the position of constantly scandalizing kith and kin who would be more comfortable if Black gay and Black feminist scholars (and people) were excluded. But we ain’t. We been here, building this. And here we (at least some of us) remain, in mostly unrequited “loyalty,” as Essex Hemphill already told you. Contrary to Best’s impulse toward dissociation and disaffiliation; the anthological generation confirms for me that fraught affiliations are best re-negotiated, not conceded. Nor should attempts to show the complexities of our shared histories and affective ties be dishonored.
I am wondering again. The light of the disco ball is dis-orienting my position: is this roundtable at the Waffle House after the club? Champagne brunch in Miami? Doubles on Ariapita (with slight pepper, and a cold Stag) or fried sardines with choppes bien gelada in Lapa? I long to continue these conversations where Anansi wove their first web. It is well after the end of the long 1980s and I find myself stumbling out of another door, with new, younger, brilliant company. Wet from dancing (or is it from tears?) and eager to get started again. Delirious with the grace conferred by “the epidemic dead and the living,” I held out my eyes, as our genius Sister Sonia entreats us, to stretch beyond the expected, and against today’s sad, depleted pretension of paradigmatic disconnection. And now, miraculously and as promised, I see y’all: blooming. Thank you.
- Alexander, M. Jacqui. Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Duke University Press, 2006. ↩
- Apropos “melancholy historicism” see Stephen Best, None Like Us: Blackness, Belonging, Aesthetic Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). Perhaps in another conversation, we will discuss David Scott’s critical framework highlighting “tragedy” set in motion by his careful apprising of generational desires and habits of mind. (Scott, David. Conscripts of modernity: The tragedy of colonial enlightenment. Duke University Press, 2004). My work showsthat desire is not necessarily “romance,” and that that while “tragedy” is a useful heuristic, it cannot be our central animating formulation for the long 1980s. ↩