No Easy Romance: An Introduction to the Black Gay Life Forum

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

New York, NY / USA – June 27th 2020: Claim our Space Now & KJB Rally For Freedom in Times Square. Speakers and performers took over Times Square and marched to the Stonewall in the West Village (Shutterstock/ Kevin RC Wilson).

Dear Writer,

The respondents that comprise this roundtable have accepted the generous Invitation with which you begin, There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life. We, too, feel called by—and accountable to—the Anthological Generation of the long 1980s, the epidemic dead and the living, Black folks here and there, then and now, all at once. We share your conviction, Dear Writer, that Black Gay habits of mind are vital and instructive, worth remembering and worthy of debate. Thank you. Our collective project is to draw connections that further map the stakes of your elegant writerly practices, methodological interventions, and theoretical insights. In turn, Dear Writer, we invite you and the readers of this roundtable to think with us about the future of Black Studies and the practical conditions of Black life.

Following the intimacy of your writing, especially including your use of direct address and effacement of professional titles, this roundtable strives to extend the conversation advanced in Disco Ball. You will not find a collection of detached, discrete “book reviews” in this series. Instead, converging curiosities and overlapping investments unfold, as we move between registers and modes of attention—not unlike friends having a spirited discussion. Before offering my contribution, a reflection on the politics of historical recovery, I want to briefly preview the course of this exchange.

Closely reading the distinct modes of narrative theorizing modeled in Disco Ball, Alexandria Smith begins our discussion with a meditation on the practice of juxtaposing empirical observation with lived experience, and historical recovery with living memory. Her essay, “Margin Notes: Living Time,” highlights the extent to which Disco Ball moves beyond trite performances of anthropological reflexivity and reaches toward a genre somewhere between autoethnography and memoir. Dear Writer, as Alexandria invites additional reflection on the theoretical labor of life writing and the vulnerability required to place one’s own past under review, she urges readers of Disco Ball to witness the conceptual insights enabled by your unique writerly practices—and to realize (as Sylvester might put it) that the writing is the concept.1

Emily Bock, too, enters our conversation with a few margin notes. Hers, however, are clustered tightly in the corners of dog-eared pages, spilling over from one chapter to another, leaving a “mess” of new curiosities and lingering questions between texts. Emily’s “Bless This Mess” reflects on your call, Dear Writer, to resist the demand for neat ethnographic translation and readymade answers, as she contemplates what is methodologically required to attend to “mess”: the unruly, unfocused, and/or unorthodox. Indeed, Emily’s comments raise fundamental questions about social science as an enterprise: Does social-scientific inquiry necessitate disregard for that which appears excessive?

As we pursue some questions and pass on others, are declarations of historical contingency and situatedness enough to counter the fantasy of “seamless” or “innocent” interpretation? Or, does ethically attending to the poetics of Black life require methodological supplementation—e.g., life writing, as Alexandria suggests, or some other form?

To Kwame Edwin Otu’s mind’s eye, the interplay among ostensibly unrelated political projects and historical events, the swift movement between modalities, and the “messy” crisscrossing of sites, desires, and disciplines in Disco Ball is reminiscent of the weaving of a spider web, or the stitching of kente fabric. Supplementing the disco ball metaphor, Kwame proposes kente as an epistemology: a way of seeing or thinking that maps connections among apparently disparate subjects. Here, dissimilarity and incommensurability are read not as analytic dead-ends, but as generative points of departure for new modes of inquiry. Kwame’s “Ode to Kente Epistemology” builds upon Emily’s reading of your methodological triptych, Dear Writer, by inviting further reflection on the epistemological commitments necessary to read the familiar alongside the strange, without privileging the former or fetishizing the latter.

Jennifer Jones advances this conversation about methods in a slightly different direction. As its title, “A Theory of Black Queer History,” suggests, Jennifer’s essay tracks the practices of historical interpretation that animate Disco Ball. More than that, however, she encourages readers to take up Disco Ball as a sort of finding aid, inasmuch as the text identifies a number of under-examined archival collections that maintain records of Black Gay life. Still, Jennifer wonders, Dear Writer, about the records of those who live(d) outside the inner circles of the Anthological Generation. Drawing implicitly on Cathy Cohen’s caution against constructing Black Queer studies around the lives of “Black Gay Exceptionals,”—Jennifer calls attention to the elusive records of sexual dissidents and gender insurgents that lived through the long 1980’s, but neither self-consciously organized as “Black Gay” nor gathered under the umbrella of such terms. What might attending to “queer” life lived at a distance (both physical and political) from Conditions: Five and its progeny reveal? Jennifer’s musings resonate with my own, Dear Writer. The remainder of this essay meditates on the political implications of your approaches to history and the archive.

If, as Jennifer writes, Disco Ball advances an insightful theory of Black Queer history, the text also offers a heartbreaking account of archival loss. We witness diaries buried and records withheld, residents ousted, venues foreclosed, lives “excised, mis(re)membered, and misgendered” (194). None are more arresting than the 1993 murder and double cremation of Black Lesbian activist Venus Landin, sensitively recounted in Chapter 7 (196 – 199). Landin’s is a harrowing tale of compounded loss: killed by her former lover in a murder-suicide, she would posthumously suffer the incineration of her personal records and the twisted redeployment of her name to promote Christian “gay conversion” years after her violent death. Amid the destruction of her archive and desecration of her legacy, Venus Landin appears to lose distinction, as she becomes yet “Another Venus”: “Hers is the same fate as every other Black Venus: no one remembered her name or recorded the things she said, or observed that she refused to say anything at all” (Hartman 2008, quoted on 197).

Dear Writer, while I find your discussion of Venus Landin and the connection drawn to “Venus in Two Acts” incredibly moving, I feel deeply ambivalent about framing Landin as “Another Venus.” Hartman writes, “There is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage” (3, emphasis added). By contrast, while we no longer have access to the records that were destroyed the night Landin was killed, we do have other materials—including notes from her participation with the African-American Gay Lesbian Alliance of Atlanta (AALGA), quotes from her September 1990 interview with Ebony magazine, and records of her consultations with the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. Admittedly, I am perhaps being a sore, sensitive social scientist, Dear Writer, in that I am eager to dwell on how much we can know about Landin and other members of the epidemic dead and the living that seem “lost” to history. I am also siding with activist Colin Robinson in the disagreement between he and archivist Steven Fullwood—briefly narrated later in Chapter 7–over the status of archives. The insistent notion of “underdocumented and disappeared” Black Gay history threatens to detract attention from the rich materials and traditions that are indeed available to us. Still, it is true, Dear Writer, that we know more about Maxine Wolfe than we will ever know about Venus Landin. Hence, my ambivalence: Do the above-mentioned archival traces of Landin make her at all different from “every other Black Venus”? Or, do the glimpses made possible by a few interviews, organizational notes, and grant proposals only sharpen the hunger for the story that remains lost?

Finally, Dear Writer, I end where you begin: with your position on the past. As Disco Ball makes abundantly clear, its project is not just to recover history, but to theorize its enduring significance. In particular, the text mines the political possibilities that emerged during the long 1980s—a period that is typically characterized as one of totalizing loss, revolutionary disappointment, and political decline. Disco Ball offers no easy romance. The text depicts the “good times” in relation to (not in spite of) violence, structural adjustments, and other political conundrums. Yet, a certain sense of nostalgia animates each page. Post-colonial theorists and civil rights historians have long warned against the use of romance and nostalgia to interpret the past, since these modes of remembrance threaten to produce an immobilizing or pacifying notion of political triumph. The nostalgic longings and uneasy romance at play here, however, feel different. Dear Writer, as I reflect on your work, I can’t help but think of Black Gay playwright Brian Freeman’s brief narration of the late-20th century in his 1997 play Civil Sex: “Yet, somehow, amidst all the shards of disappointment and political detritus: a bloom.” What other politics, I wonder, are at work in our shared insistence on recovering this unlikely “bloom”?

  1. In Chapter 3, footnote 18, Allen includes a quote by Sylvester: “No one conceptualizes me, I am the concept.”
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Marcus Lee

Marcus Lee is the Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in LGBT Studies in the Society of Fellows and an affiliate of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. He earned a B.A. in Sociology at Morehouse College and a Ph.D. in Political Science, with a certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies, at the University of Chicago. His research concerns 20th century black political history, social movements, black popular culture, and science and technology.