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E. Patrick Johnson & Mae G. Henderson, eds., Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology (Durham:  Duke University Press, 2005, $23.95, 377 pages, ISBN 0-8223-3618-9)—Chris Bell, Nottingham Trent University




Queer studies is at an important crossroads, and […] the quality of our path ahead, as always, depends significantly on our acknowledgment and examination of the disparate political/historical contexts that have led to where we are now.
Jewelle Gomez [289]


In April 2000, the Black Queer Studies in the Millennium Conference convened on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Black Queer Studies is a collection of sixteen of the papers—revised and extended—presented at that conference. Published in late 2005, one initially wonders why there was such a gap in time between the conference and the resultant text. As soon as one begins reading the text, however, such concerns are easily forgotten. In their place comes a sigh of relief in the knowledge that the work is in print, a sigh perhaps best expressed in the singular utterance, finally.


The collection begins with Cathy Cohen’s “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens:  The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” Cohen’s subject, an issue at the heart of many of the essays in Black Queer Studies, is the outright failure of queer movements and coalitions to include a diversity of individuals, communities, and representations in its composition. For all intents and purposes, queer has not lived up to its own promise of deconstructing power differentials and hegemonic hierarchies. Instead, queer, more often than not, upholds the power differentials and hierarchies it claims to be dismantling; queer excludes more than it includes. Cohen’s essay does not shy away from addressing the limitations of queer:    


Despite the possibility invested in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics, I argue here that a truly radical or transformative politics has not resulted from queer activism. In many instances, instead of destabilizing the assumed categories and binaries of sexual identity, queer politics has served to reinforce simple dichotomies between the heterosexual and everything “queer.” An understanding of the ways in which power informs and constitutes privileged and marginalized subjects on both sides of this dichotomy has been left unexamined. [22]


Upon my first reading, I found Cohen’s essay somewhat repetitive, with obvious arguments. Having reread it, I view it as a compelling contribution, and certainly a good choice to start the collection. The difference in readings might be attributed to the fact that I agree with practically everything Cohen says. I initially allowed that agreement to cloud my vision, believing Cohen had nothing new to offer. Quite the contrary, her essay is a breath of fresh air in that it adroitly deconstructs the power differentials and hierarchies that queer erroneously perceives itself as addressing.


Of prime importance is Cohen’s key assertion that sexual orientation has been foregrounded in queer at the expense of other salient identities and identifications e.g., race and ethnicity. She writes:  “all heterosexuals are represented as dominant and controlling and all queers are understood as marginalized and invisible. Thus, even in the name of destabilization, some queer activists have begun to prioritize sexuality as the primary frame through which they pursue their politics.” [25] Cohen continues by pointing out how queers with white racial privilege, arguably, have more cultural capital and cachet than straight individuals without white racial privilege. The binary between heterosexuals and homosexuals is not as readily identifiable as one might be led to believe. Ultimately, a consideration of the other always already present identities and identifications that orbit queer is vital to an understanding of queer.


In “Race-ing Homonormativity: Citizenship, Sociology, and Gay Identity,” Roderick Ferguson continues in a similar line of thought as Cohen, concluding by offering the compelling claim that “intersections are not about identity” [66]. This calls to mind a statement made by editors Johnson and Henderson in their introduction: “[T]o ignore the multiple subjectivities of the minoritarian subject within and without political movements and theoretical paradigms is not only theoretically and politically naïve, but also potentially dangerous” [5]. It is not enough, then, to say that queer fails with regard to identity politics. The failure of queer is larger, more dangerous, than that. The failure of queer, as this text emphasizes throughout, is the failure to recognize the potentiality of intersections, a potentiality that, as Ferguson suggests, should not be limited to constructs of identity. Thus, it is somewhat remarkable, not to mention disappointing, that Ferguson falls into an identity politics-based trap in his essay when he describes political pundit Andrew Sullivan as “the virtually normal and authentic gay” [64]. This might be true with regard to his race. However, Sullivan is also HIV-positive, which relegates him to the margins of queer. In short, Ferguson does what he accuses others of doing, privileging the identity part of the intersection over the entirety of the intersection. Another contributor, Devon Carbado, makes a similar gaffe in his essay entitled “Privilege.” Carbado writes, “Racism requires white privilege. Sexism requires male privilege” [191]. Such a conception is misleading in that it does not take into account racism practiced by people of color against white people nor sexism practiced by women against men, both political realities in our world.  


Two of the more thought-provoking and complex essays are placed adjacent to each other in the anthology: Rinaldo Walcott’s “Outside in Black Studies:  Reading from a Queer Place in the Diaspora” and Phillip Brian Harper’s “The Evidence of Felt Intuition: Minority Experience, Everyday Life, and Critical Speculative Knowledge.” In his essay, Walcott speaks to a stagnation in black studies: “[S]ome of the questions that made the black studies project the site of radicality at one particular historical moment might now require that we seek new questions” [98]. One of the ways of moving past the critical impasse that black studies finds itself in is a consideration of the merits of black queer studies:  “I am not constituting black queer studies as the vanguard of a liberatory project but rather as the unthought of what might be thinkable” [91]. In other words, Walcott does not promote black queer studies as the singular answer to all that ails black studies. He offers it as one possibility. Indeed, Walcott steadfastly argues against a collapse into structuralist perspectives, suggesting that such a collapse underpins the stagnation of black studies:          


What is demanded is a rethinking of community that might allow for different ways of cohering into some form of recognizable political entity. Put another way, we must confront singularities without the willed effort to make them cohere into a oneness; we must struggle to make a community of singularities of which the unworking of the present ruling regime, a regime that trades on the myths of homogenization, must be central. In short, a different sociality is required—a sociality of mutual recognitions [93].


The discourse in evidence here, while applicable to black studies as the referenced “political entity,” is not singularly relevant to black studies. Other identity politics-driven inquiries—including the problematic queer studies—might benefit from Walcott’s shrewd assessment as well.


Harper’s “The Evidence of Felt Intuition” is brilliant. The essay posits personal intuition as a site of verifiable evidence, the type of evidence that is vaunted in academic circles. Harper claims that the academic’s research interests spring from somewhere, and that locale is probably internal intuition. The primary concern is not how intuition can be qualified or measured but rather what the intuition gives rise to in terms of contemplation: “The point, however, is not the peril, but rather the fact that we cannot test it, for not to proceed speculatively is, to speak plainly, not to live. And it certainly is not to perform critical analysis, which incontrovertibly depends on speculative logic for the force of its arguments” [117]. Following this mention of “speculative logic,” Harper refers to “speculative habit” which, presumably, comes from practicing speculative logic [Ibid]. Moreover, Harper grounds his theory in a critique that is relevant to this text: 


[T]o speak personally, it bothers me less that white practitioners of queer critique tend not to address the significance of racial whiteness in the phenomena of sex and sexuality they explore (though one often wishes they would, and, indeed, some do) than they tend not to address the effect of racial whiteness on the very manifestation of those phenomena and on their understanding of them; for the upshot of this failure—somewhat paradoxically, given the interest of queer criticism in definitional fluidity—is an implicit acquiescence to received notions of what constitutes sex and sexuality, however nonnormative, as though the current hegemony in this regard were not thoroughly imbricated with the ongoing maintenance of white supremacist culture. [111; original italics]


There can be no denying the incisive nature of this statement. Additionally, the reader should pay particular attention to its beginnings, the formulation “to speak personally.” “To speak personally” is to speak intuitively. As Harper demonstrates here, when individuals dare to speak personally, intuitively, their statements can be as erudite and poignant as that of the most exhaustively supported research; supported, that is, through traditional forms of evidence.


Marlon Ross’s “Beyond the Closet as Raceless Paradigm” is noteworthy in its engaging with and troubling of one of the chief theories undergirding queer theory, the epistemology of the closet as posited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Ross counters Sedgwick’s idea by troubling (the whiteness of) her source material:


Sedgwick’s epistemological logic runs something like this: Proust may be shaped by his identity as a homosexual European living at the turn of the century, but more crucially he shapes inordinately and disproportionately the historical consciousness of what it means not only to be such a body but also to be modern in any body. Because Proust belonged to a group that got there first (elite European homosexual men), his closet consciousness is modernity. Wherever else all the other identities may lag in this process towards modern closet consciousness, without Proust the experience of others becomes incoherent. [172; original italics]


Famed philosopher Michel Foucault, and his followers, also come in for much-needed scrutiny:


Foucault’s scientists can script their human subjects as total homosexual compositions only because those bodies are not already marked as Negroid or Oriental; that is, in other words, because they are silently, invisibly already marked as unspecified Anglo-Saxons. Likewise, Foucault himself can script the formation of homosexuality as a totalized identity only by leaving unremarked the racial ideology undergirding these emerging sciences” [167; original italics].


In short, Ross takes one of the seminal theories of queer theory, as well as one of its prized theoreticians, and queers them, giving his reader a rich analysis of their shortcomings.


There is one overriding problem with Black Queer Studies, and that is its limited focus on the US. Nearly all of the contributors have ties to the US, with many of them working in US universities. Writing in the foreword to the text, Sharon Patricia Holland notes, “the essays collected here unabashedly focus on the Americas as a specific site—as a place where black peoples have and still experience the force of this country’s perpetual attempt to increase its borders and reach [xi]. The reader should immediately discern a problem in this formulation:  the (plural) Americas is reduced to (the singular) “this country.” In a similar vein, it is telling that Cohen focuses expressly on American culture while discussing Michael Warner’s oft-cited Fear of a Queer Planet [28; emphasis mine]. Cohen might have argued that American culture is, largely, the planet’s culture, but she does not. As a result, her focus is as limited as that of virtually every essay in this text. The only possible exception is Rinaldo Walcott’s essay. Walcott, a Canadian scholar, comments on the overriding US focus in black (queer) studies by observing:


[I]nterventions into the black studies project tend to turn on how U.S. blackness is implicated and positioned and often the debate or the limit of analysis tends to get stuck there, even when the Diaspora is at issue. The Caribbean, Latin America, and Canada (the latter being the most queer of Diaspora places) are hardly taken up within the black studies project. Again, there are always some exceptions; but why is it that the black studies project has hung its hat so lovingly on U.S. blackness and therefore a “neat” national project?  [92; emphasis mine] 


Walcott’s point of the US-specific nature of much of the discourse is not lost, although it is troubled by his assertion that Canada is “the most queer of Diaspora places.” Such claims of quantity do little to deconstruct the reasons why this text—and black (queer) studies in toto—is entrenched in US ideologies. If anything, Walcott invalidates his own encouragement of the “outernational” perspective, “outernational” being a term that is deployed and reiterated throughout his essay.


In sum, Black Queer Studies is a treasure trove of insight and critical awareness. All of the essays discussed above bear out the merit of this text. Other essays, particularly Kara Keeling’s “‘Joining the Lesbians’:  Cinematic Regimes of Black Lesbian Visibility” and Jewelle Gomez’s “But Some of Us Are Brave Lesbians:  The Absence of Black Lesbian Fiction,” convincingly discuss the politics of visibility and representation, demanding that the reader consider the power dynamics reinforcing those politics. As Gomez states, “It should be an urgent concern for all of us that, despite the rhetoric, the tenure-track jobs, online publishing, Ellen, and marches on Washington, in the beginning of the millennium black lesbians are less visible than we were twenty years earlier” [297]. In speaking to that reduced visibility, Black Queer Studies helps to make the epistemologies, theories, and concerns of black queers visible. The text is not always ideal—recall its restrictive purchase on US phenomenology—but it is always challenging, inspiring, and welcome.      


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