Black Queer Writers and the Transformative Possibilities of Queer Sensuality

Editor’s note: In honor of LGBTQ History Month, this week we’re revisiting pieces published on Black queer history, thought, and/or culture. Today we turn to J.T. Roane’s essay on Black queer writers of the 1980s and their engagement with eroticism, sex, and sexuality. 
Alice Walker in 2013 (Steve Rhodes, Flickr)

Black Queer writers of the 1980s hoped to precipitate a seismic transformation in the political culture of the United States. Despite their failure to alter the social order at its core, their work remains particularly valuable in our own fascist moment as defined by “the normalisation of a social state of warfare” and the unchecked defilement of the planet and its human and non-human forms of life.

Critically, Black Queer writers moved beyond simply normalizing illicit sex. They entered the realm of epistemology—the ways that we know what we know—in order to create the cognitive conditions for an alternative mode of existence. This is not to say that they repressed matters of sexuality; rather, they mobilized it within a wider framework of queer sensuality—or a reordering of the normative subject and object relations undergirding social life—to rethink the very basis of knowledge and political action.

While not often credited with transformative theoretical insight, Black Queer writers wrote through the possibilities latent in transforming the methods by which we derive knowledge through observation. They wrote toward a new basis of social order not premised on the hierarchies and exclusions consummated through the two axioms of the Western intellectual tradition: the mind/body and human/nature divides.

Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, in particular, challenged the interpretation that rational inquiry served as the only basis for viable and transformative politics, opening for us how something as powerful yet intangible as a feeling might be mobilized to transform oppressive social conditions. This is particularly useful given the contemporary political scene in which white revanchist sentiment has been green-lighted by a major political party while justifiable black rage has been virtually excommunicated from public discourse.

Unlike many among the activists and writers of the generations that preceded them who had strategically mobilized dissemblance and neglected their erotic selves under the rubrics of respectability, Black Queer writers of the 1980s embraced erotic energy. They defined erotics and sensuality as more than the sexual; as irreducible to the pornographic; as a deep well for the capacity to care; as alternative sources of social connection; and as the “impulse and connections that flourish in the shade of the state.” They theorized that, as an alternative source of power, the erotic could be mobilized to remake the parameters of social order.

Participating in or learning from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements as well as Second Wave Feminist organizing and Gay Rights activism, the constellation of Black Queer activists and intellectuals who were politically active by the mid-1980s had unprecedented access to the possibilities of an aboveground and visible politics for communities facing what Deborah King called “multiple jeopardy.” They overlapped with a generation of Black Feminists—people like Flo Kennedy and Shirley Chihsolm—who sought to forge connections between seemingly disparate political tendencies. Despite the repression of progressive social movements and the rightward drift of American politics that culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan, they inherited a sense that the world could and should respond to the plight of the oppressed, despite the treacherousness and staying power of revenge-oriented white, heterosexist, and patriarchal power.

Black Queer thinkers, writers, and activists of the 1980s imagined their sex and sexuality as a point of political possibility. They viewed it as part of the repertoire of subversive acts by which they might demand that the state and society displace one of the primary pillars of white supremacy, what Cheryl Clarke described in her path-breaking 1981 essay “Lesbianism: an Act of Resistance” as “coerced heterosexuality.” Indebted in part to the sexual revolution of the 1970s, Black Queer writers of the 1980s were able to embrace their sensuality and sexuality as more than aberrational forms.

However, they went further than simply trying to remake what might be included in the designation normal, surpassing in their claims the need for access to marriage and its benefits that in part have continued to define white gay men’s political prerogatives without interrupting the logics of white supremacy, capitalism, or heteronormativity. They reframed sexuality as an act of resistance and as part of a range of the wider work of what Audre Lorde defined as the erotic—“an open and fearless underlining of my capacity for joy” that lessened tolerance for injustice as well as tapped into one’s “deepest rhythms” that might help form “a bridge between the sharers, [lessening] the threat of their difference.”1

Critically, the erotic and related concepts exposed and sought to uproot the radical human-nature divide and the mind-body separation central to Western intellectual domination and ongoing capitalist expropriation. In a 1988 interview, “Moving Towards Coexistence,” Alice Walker termed this capacity for novel connection “sentimentality.” As Walker described, sentimentality, although often used to negate its bearers as weak, signaled one’s “capacity to care.” Walker positioned this sentimentality against “many movements…dominated by white men who have a very dispassionate, rational linear way of approaching reality” that has “gotten us where we are today, which is on the edge of extinction.” For Walker, sentimentality not only bridged the capacity for humans to connect across intra-species differences such as race and gender, but also opened the capacity for care between human-animals and non-human animals, fundamentally undermining the primary hierarchy at the heart of white patriarchal domination—the human/nature divide.

Human dominance over the nonliving resources of the earth as well as non-human life forms historically helped to constitute the practices of dominion. Because black and indigenous communities around the world have been defined as part of nature, as beasts tethered to the environments roving Europeans “discovered,” the practices of dominion animated the ongoing domination and exploitation of people considered sub-human. As womanist theologian Delores Williams put it succinctly, “the assault upon the natural environment today is but an extension of the assault upon black women’s bodies.” Thus, Walker’s claim in mobilizing sentimentality to find commonality with non-human animals was also a radical invective against the agencies of the ongoing defilement of people and the earth. For Walker, sentimentality, an emotive and affective sensibility often radically opposed to the rational, might be mobilized to find commonality across the primary divide organizing a hierarchical world.

Returning to Lorde, we can examine how this conceptualization of an alternative capacity for human connection and community and the erotic also threatened another pillar of dominant Western epistemology: the radical separation of the mind and the body. As Lorde wrote, “As a Black lesbian feminist, I have a particular feeling, knowledge, and understanding of those sisters with whom I have danced hard, played or even fought. This deep participation has often been the forerunner for joint concentrated actions not possible before.” For Lorde, then, the erotic included sensual affect, anger, and playfulness, all of which are notably outside the limiting realm of the “rational” as a legitimate basis for politics in canonized Western thought. Here Lorde’s erotic and Walker’s sentimentality overlap.

As Lorde described, attention to these parameters of physical contact and social connection forged the requisite energy and novel capacity for previously impossible action, political and otherwise. Here, Lorde troubled the mind/body dichotomy by routing a different way of forging generative social life and political action through dancing bodies pressed together, as opposed to singularly through the mind. Moreover, unlike the dominant Western episteme that privileges sight or seeing as the only way of credibly observing phenomena, Lorde opened the haptic, or the ability to feel, touch, and be touched, as a route to knowing, subtly reordering the sensorium—the historically produced arrangement of the human senses whose education and acculturation constitute a socially sanctioned way of observing and interpreting “truth.”

The erotic and the related concept sentimentality are radical theorizations of a world unhinged from the ways of knowing that undergird white patriarchal domination and dominion. The erotic and sentimentality remain available as conceptual shifts that take us beyond the dominant paradigms constituted through the mind/body and human/nature divides within the Western intellectual tradition. We can mobilize these Black Queer edits in the realm of epistemology and politics to create the conditions for a different world. This is particularly important in our own moment, in which “If there is an exit, it will be via an exit from the social relation that defines capital.”2

As white supremacists assume the highest offices of political power in the land and mobilize misplaced white rage to support a new epoch of what William Davies calls “carceral neoliberalism”, queer sensuality remains a deep, if under-appreciated resource.3

  1.  For an important assessment of the various valences of Lorde’s usage of the erotic, see Lyndon K. Gill, “In the Realm of Our Lorde: Eros and the Poet Philosopher,” Feminist Studies, 40.1: 169–89.
  2.  Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr, “Gender Abolition and Ecotone War,” The South Atlantic Quarterly 115.2 (2016): 306.
  3.  William Davies, “The New Neoliberalism,” New Left Review 101 (September/October 2016): 121–34.
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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.