Margin Notes, Reading Practices, and Black Queer Traditions

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

Hollywood, CA / US – June 14 2020: All Black Lives Matter solidarity march (Shutterstock/ Rudy Salgado)

Let us begin at the end. Jafari Allen tells us in his conclusion, “I want to read your margin notes. To hear your response and your call, following your generous act of reading” (Allen, “Conclusion,” 295). There’s a Disco Ball Between Us is a talkative book. Conversation figures centrally within its content and the structure of the theory of Black gay life Disco Ball seeks to account for. It would be to the reader’s detriment not to make margin notes and annotations, not to join the conversation that Jafari so warmly beckons us to have in the book’s Invitation. “Dear Reader,” he begins, “There’s a Disco Ball Between Us was expressly written to my students and to friends of my mind . . . among whom you may be counted” (Allen ix, emphasis added). Disco Ball is written as a night out at the (Black, queer) club. The book’s invitation to read and converse simultaneously invites us out for the night, as the conclusion finds us “stumbling out of the club into the light of dawn” (Allen xvi; Allen 295). In this brief response, I’d like to sit with Disco Ball’s engagements with lived experience and with the passage of time.

A detour to the past: I am among the 15 or so students (including Marcus Lee) enrolled in “A Genealogy of Black LGBT Culture and Politics,” taught by Jafari at Morehouse College in the spring of 2013. The final assignment is a semester-long group project responding to the following questions:

“How has the Black LGBTQ/sgl ‘community’ developed at (or around) the Atlanta University Center? What were/are some of the key nodes of cultural and political expression on campus? What events, policies, and structures of feeling impelled these? What events, organizations/movements, individuals and discourses circulating in Atlanta, in the US, and beyond contributed to this? In what ways is the ‘community’ on campus or in Atlanta distinct from other populations of LGBTQ/sgl individuals, and what factors are resonant across differences? [How] are these local and translocal discourses and practices related?”

In contrast to the accusation, as briefly described in Disco Ball, that Jafari’s course imported “white gay perspective” to the Historically Black Atlanta University Center, I think about the investments of this course as a prelude to two of Disco Ball’s many conceptual offerings: a “Black gay habit of mind,” and “Black gay time” (Allen 150).

Within Disco Ball, the notion of “habits of mind” serves as an intangible yet traceable means of identifying belonging within community. In order to “offer an accounting of our habits of mind,” Jafari finds himself in Disco Ball “traipsing very Black and queerly across continents and themes, re-narrativizing the idea of Black/queer in clips, cases vignettes, and memories” (Allen 172). In this sentence, the ‘our’ illustrates the constructed and claimed collectivity of Black queer/gay, while the movements necessary to re-narrativize illuminate the spatial and conceptual expansiveness of the people, practices, and objects that might be gathered under the umbrella of Black gay habits of mind. Jafari pursued similar lines of thinking when constructing that final assignment a decade ago. Note the quotations around community, which draw attention to the term’s contingencies as a necessary dimension of its full embrace. Look at how he asked us to identify the impact of “events, organizations/movements, individuals and discourses circulating” within and beyond our location in Atlanta, pushing our class towards reckoning with gay/queer/LGBT/sgl experience in the AUC as in relation with Black gay sociality more broadly.

In alignment with this book’s pursuit of illustrating and anthologizing Black gay habits of mind, the author specifies his investment in an ethnographic sensibility, or “attunement with the social and the intersubjective,” rather than fidelity to disciplinary conventions in and of themselves (Allen xv).

Relatedly, Disco Ball contextualizes and celebrates the immediacy of different kinds of (auto)biographical accounting in Black feminist, Black queer, Black gay traditions. Jafari writes, “In this work we highlight grounded theorization, suggesting that concepts are no less powerfully incisive and analytically bridging when we read them over borders and seas, speaking different languages, from strategy meetings to dance floors, to texts of representation, to the author’s own experiences, practiced habits of mind, and sensibilities” (Allen 22). The mise en scène of the event framing the book, the night out at the Black queer club, is itself an instance of grounded theorization. Jafari’s speculative construction of this communal evening, which revisits the scene of his piece “For ‘the Children’ Dancing the Beloved Community,” “is, of course, partly about [his] own nostalgic longing” and simultaneously “[the longing] of that of a number of Black gays and other queers of color anthologized in books, archives, and treasured memories of friends, families, and lovers” (Allen 7). Nostalgia, longing, desire, dancing, and scene-setting permeate the text. Narratives of lived and speculated experience, and the thinking and feeling which accompany them, are foundational to the tradition Disco Ball traces and participates in.

Throughout Disco Ball, I am struck by the extent to which the depth and texture of Jafari’s brilliant thinking are so clearly enriched by his engagement, through the practice of writing and through the content of the theorizing, with the role of lived experiences within these Black gay traditions. Jafari brings many pieces together to communicate these investments to the reader. He relies on conversational tone, including the use of first person (both singular and plural), the use of first names and endeared addresses for interlocutors known and unknown, and the studied reflection on remembered events, both the anecdotal and the chapter-length autoethnographic. The author clearly positions himself as inhabiting the Black queer chronology of the long 1980s. Inhabiting, in the present tense, as we see and read the extent to which his multi-sited organizing and intellectual work, and the network of relationships generated in the process, persist over the arc of his career, landing on the pages of this necessarily long book. Given Disco Ball’s ongoing, though often subtle, braid of Jafari’s autobiographical reflections within his theorizing and anthologizing work, I wonder how he might approach the task of flipping this text’s orientation, of centering his own lived experiences while accounting for the cultural/political/intellectual (con)texts which have shaped that living. This question reflects my own scholarly interests in life writing, as well as a curiosity about how Jafari’s autoethnographic sensibilities could be brought into the foreground.

The “theory of Black gay life” which Disco Ball elaborates “tracks practices and habits of mind that emerged during the long 1980s” (Allen 8, emphasis in original). This period, flexibly bookended by significant moments in transnational Black gay cultural and political history in 1979 and 1995, is defined as “the Black gay classical period—during which Black lesbians, trans folks, bisexuals, and gay men first self-consciously renamed themselves and made art, organized, danced, and fucked under the sign of “Black Gay” (Allen 29). Disco Ball argues for and illustrates the co-articulation of Black gay habits of mind and Black gay time, a chrono-logic of “living in the present, powerfully conditioned by history, but also attuned to radical possibility” (Allen 7). This book proposes that inhabiting a Black gay habit of mind also involves Black and queer orientations to perceiving and conceiving of the passage of time. Importantly, Black gay time’s “excessive temporality spreads out broadly behind us and in front of us in pursuit of an elaborated litany for thriving” (Allen 5). Black gay time bears the evidence of the impossibility of straight or linear frameworks of time to account for Black queer life as it is/has been lived in community. Disco Ball refuses to take Black gay time for granted and instead works carefully to develop its framework across chapters examining Black gay, lesbian, and queer academic and cultural production, social movements in different places across the Black world, the contested presence of Black feminist and queer bodies of scholarship within academic institutions, and Black queer intimate practices and the discourses surrounding them.

I want to end by returning to 2013 as a moment when, without my knowing it, Jafari’s class—remembered now through its syllabus, through a handful of remaining relationships, and from assigned texts that still sit on my shelf—invited me to witness and then to inhabit Black gay habits of mind. Jafari’s pedagogy then, as now, is an elegantly explicit invitation to closely observe the genealogies of Black feminist, gay, and otherwise queerly named thinkers and cultural producers whose living forms the basis of our ongoing communities.

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Alexandria Smith

Alexandria Smith (she/her) is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies. She earned her Ph.D. in Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies from Rutgers University and received undergraduate training in the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. Alexandria is working on a manuscript which examines how contemporary Black queer literary authors have engaged and troubled the question of what it means to be a Black woman.