A Theory of Black Queer History

This post is part of our online roundtable on Jafari S. Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us.

LGBTQ Black Lives Matter March, Tacoma, WA, June 27, 2020 (Shutterstock)

In the essay, “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage,” Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley articulates a call for creative, capacious, and fluid narratives that center Blackness and queerness within past, present, and future engagements with the Black Atlantic. Turning towards Black feminist literary production and memory, Tinsley offers a “reading for black queer history and theory in the traumatic dislocation of the Middle Passage;” one that brings into “view hybrid resistant subjectivities — opaquely, not transparently (Tinsley,193-199).” As a Black feminist historian, I wondered what possible forms this kind of inquiry might take if applied to the more recent past, a past that could attend to the material and historical experiences of Black sexual and gender dissidents or those that might in our present moment identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Queer (LGBTQ).

Jafari S. Allen’s There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life offers a stunning and ambitious model. The text explains ways of being that constitute(d) a Black diasporic vision of Black gay life. A conceptualization that necessarily adopts particular forms in various moments and places yet is rooted in a set of similarities. Moving from Black feminist mobilizations of the 1970s and the Black gay cultural renaissance of “the long 1980s” to the contemporary moment of Black Queer and Trans organizing and sociality across the African Diaspora, Allen offers a vision of Black gay politics that amplifies practices, sociality, and knowledges that might intervene in the compounded forms of material violence and vulnerability that Black sexual and gender dissidents face. The work resists generalization and transcends various (inter)disciplines and genres. It is a memoir, a genealogy, a love letter to elders, friends, and those yet to be born. But — if we are to follow the library subject designations— the book dwells within the scholarly arenas of “Black Queer Studies,” “Anthropology,” “Black Feminism,” and “Social Science.” At the risk of placing the work within yet another “disciplinary enclosure,” I want to suggest that this work is also a model for queer historical inquiry (Allen,14).

 There’s a Disco Ball Between Us advances a vision for Black Queer historical inquiries, inquiries that utilize interdisciplinary methods, trouble conventional historical periodization, (re)constitute expansive archives and centers the Diaspora. This book stands as a comprehensive intellectual, social, and political history of Black queer life globally during the last five decades. However, I want to amplify two methods that, I contend, should act as reference points for Black queer historically minded work moving forward. One is the consultation and (re)constitution of capacious archives, the other is the embrace of the anthological as a genre and genealogical practice.

Black Queer History as Capacious Archive

Throughout the text, Allen assembles a diverse and broad “archive” that includes cinema, painting and photography, poems and short stories, more conventional archival collections, as well as memory and imagination. These final “repositories” are what I found most animating about the capacious archive assembled here. The author’s memories of participating in Black gay and lesbian political spaces act as powerful repositories of experience and knowledge. Memories also surface tensions and contradictions that a conventional archive might not (for example, the prevalence of inter-racial desire among Black gay artists and activists). The willingness to mobilize memory and experience evokes the narrative theorizing so central to Black feminist and Black Gay/Lesbian thought as well as offerings in Black queer studies (like Roderick Ferguson’s essay “Sissies at the Picnic” and Marlon Ross’s Sissy Insurgencies). The work, then, amplifies the importance of experience and memory as critical repositories of knowledge for explicitly historical work.

The book also indexes explicitly Black LGBTQ historical projects, initiatives that “giv[e] us ways to remember and to think about remembering, and frameworks through which to (re)offer our (re) narrativization for projects of the living and those who will outlive us.” (Allen, 200). In Chapter Seven, “Archiving the Anthropological at the Current Conjuncture,” Allen articulates the necessity of a “meticulous vigilance” that would index (always overlapping) Black queer lives past, present, and future. While this chapter attends to silences that mark some queer lives, it acts as a finding aid for several archival collections, including the None on Record: Stories of Queer Africa Oral History Project, the Ruckus! Federation Limited Archive at the London Metropolitan Archives, and the In the Life Archive at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Seeing these collections listed in one place will certainly guide research agendas for years to come. However, I wondered how these projects or the broader conversations in this work offer ways to approach and see archival collections that index Black queer experience but are not explicitly labeled as such? To access and amplify heretofore unexamined repositories not in the spirit of recovery alone but to access what “we still do not know enough or know deeply enough” (Allen, 308)?

Black Queer History as Anthological

By returning to “the long 1980s,” Allen amplifies the importance of the anthological, or the manner in which “a collection purposefully makes a multivocal statement of the political and aesthetic commitments of a group of artists and/or scholars engaged in what they…believe is a collective (that is not necessarily “unified” but rather harmonious) project. (Allen, 9)” Indeed, the anthology was the dominant mode of creative, intellectual, and political action for Black gay/lesbian and Black feminist collectivities during “the long 1980s.1 This tradition continues into the twenty-first century with more “academic” texts like Black Queer Studies: An Anthology edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson as well as works like Mouths of Rain: An Anthology of Black Lesbian Thought edited by Briona Simone Jones and Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity by Morgan Mann Willis. Indeed, Allen invites us to “think of this book and its author as part of the anthological tradition” through its multifaceted engagement with so many creatives, organizers, intellectuals, and collectivities (Allen, 9). However, I wonder what conversations, ways of being, or habits the anthological might foreclose, who or what it might exclude.

Another key offering of the “anthological” habit is that it may allow for the incorporation of heretofore underexamined genealogies that deepen our knowledge of Black queer historical experience (if not Black gay habits of mind). Black Women’s and Gender History is a critical part of the intellectual genealogy of Black Queer History, if largely confined to earlier historical moments and scattered across book chapters and journal articles. For example, the work of Hannah Rosen, Sarah Haley and LaShawn Harris all index Black gender/sexual dissidence that today might be placed under an LGBTQ umbrella. How might an anthological approach to a Black queer historiography allow for greater engagement with this (and perhaps other) sites of knowledge-making that might help us understand the worlds and contexts for not only those that first self-consciously organized on the banner of “Black Gay” but those who came before them?

The publication of this work occurs at a moment in which there is greater interest in Black LGBTQ history within and outside of the academy. In its methods and subject matter, this beautifully rendered and lovingly crafted text should be necessary reading by those interested in histories of the African Diaspora in the late twentieth century generally, not only Black Queer histories. As more historians engage with the history of the 1980s and 1990s (and beyond), the importance of Black Gay/Lesbian social, intellectual, and creative formations will be consequential. There’s a Disco Ball Between Us acts as a crucial reference for those histories and other forthcoming works.

  1. For example, see Joseph Beam, ed. In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology (New Orleans: RedBone Press, 1986); Barbara Smith, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology (New York: Kitchen Table Press, 1983).
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Jennifer Dominique Jones

Jennifer Dominique Jones is an assistant professor of history and women's and gender studies at the University of Michigan. She previously taught in the Department of Gender & Race Studies and the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama. Her areas of research and teaching expertise are African American history after 1877, with a focus on politics and social life, and the history of gender and sexuality in the United States in the twentieth century with a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) politics and community life. She regularly teaches the following courses: Queer Histories of the United States, 1850 to the Present, Black Queer Histories, Black Intimacies, and History of Mobility and Migrations in African American History. Her forthcoming book, Ambivalent Affinities: A Political History of Blackness and Homosexuality After World War II (Justice, Power and Politics Series, University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2023), illuminates a heretofore underexplored history: the unlikely tethering of political narratives about LGBTQ to understandings of Black political mobilization for social justice.