Wednesday, March 23, 2011

part III: racial nationalism and homophobia

{First, a brief recap of the last two posts... for fully new stuff, read from the first pink text onward}

What I learned over the last two posts:

I have spent the last two entries advocating for insider perspectives on black homophobia. Considering that residential and educational segregation persist and, consequently, most private (non-state) violence is intra-racial, I am skeptical of claims made from outside regarding the roots and ramifications of black homophobia.

Furthermore, I have maintained that the usual indexes of black homophobia (hip-hop lyrics, sermons and religious doctrine, poll data, and laws) are unreliable indicators of everyday behavior and beliefs. Explicit and public, they provide what, to modify James C. Scott, I might call an official transcript. Laws indicate how an elite wants a society to run; they prohibit those things that might interrupt productivity or unsettle hierarchies. That is, law attempts to regulate what is already occurring and, therefore, cannot indicate what a society actually is but instead projects an ideal elites wish to establish. (It's even arguable that such elites do not wish for the ideal to  come into existence, for without the constant threat of destabilization, they could never justify the violence necessary to insist on regulation).

Sermons are much the same as laws, the speech of a voice with authority but not absolute control over the congregation. In the specific case of African-American pastors' sermons, marches, and statements since the advent of George W. Bush, it is worth tracing the content of sermons to the offer of federal funds for marriage promotion. Even if federal money did not inspire the doctrine, it may well have contributed to increased emphasis on 'traditional marriage.'

With sermons, hip-hop lyrics, laws, votes, and other indicators bracketed (not ignored, just suspended before being put back into the mix), I'd like to offer a definition of black homophobia from within rather than without. In brief, it is that the most entrenched roots of black and white homophobia have to do with nationalisms--beliefs about what is necessary to protect, continue, and purify the nation. Even the most doctrinal oppositions to homophobia--within the Christian tradition, at least--are soaked with references to 'nations'--populations who are selected or chosen by God according to their faithfulness. Both biblical text and contemporary Protestant evangelicalism are framed in the language of opposing faith traditions as opposing national groups with differential access to God's favor and punishment. Therefore, nationalism is the field in which, to mix a metaphor, the attempt to uproot homophobia will bear the most fruit.

Assimilationist and Anti-Assimilationist Nationalisms, or Credits-to-Their-Race v. Street Soldiers

One explanation among black scholars regarding all matters of sexuality is what might be termed the 'respectability' thesis. This line of argument runs that because black people have been subject to perennial characterization as both insatiable and irresponsible sexual beings, black people with upward aspirations have had to erase their physicality and emphasize their moral and mental attributes. As far as I can tell, the thesis began as an explanation for a general hesitancy among black women embrace 'sexual liberation' as fervently as their white female counterparts.

Pioneering work by Hill Collins, Hine, Hammonds, and many more asserted that privacy, veiling, and shielding of their bodies and their sexual desires were often goals of black women, both as individuals and as Negro Women's clubs. Certainly, this desire for protection was understandable, considering that their sexual predicaments were precisely opposite that of respectable white women, from the colonial period through the Jim Crow era.

To speak in general terms, respectable white women were guarded as sexual property by fathers, brothers, and husbands, while black women were viewed as incapable of respectability and rendered vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation. From the seventeenth through the twentieth century (and, perhaps, beyond) colonial laws banning black men from owning guns, the continual reproduction of the image of black men as rapists of white women, and the concomitant denial of the fact of white males as rapists of black women have all played into the different conceptions of what progress would look like to the majority of black and white women. Exposure of any sexual desire whatsoever--but especially one that is not viewed as clean and normal--would, by this logic, confirm stereotypes and bring shame on the entire community. The imperative is a simple one: Cross your legs (or pull up your pants) and be a Credit to Your Race.
There is a parallel narrative regarding a shift in black attitudes toward queer figures during the civil rights movement. There is, considerable evidence that black newspapers ran advertisements for drag balls and other queer events before the 1960s. Indeed, a performer like Little Richard marketed himself successfully as "king and queen" of the blues as he toured black jook joints in the South. (Crossing over to white audiences meant seriously cleaning up the sexual component of his act. Suffice it to say, Tutti-Frutti rhymed with "Good booty" before it became a nonsense song.)

In that period, it does not seem that 'preserving traditional marriage' was a crucial concern for those Credits to Their Race known as Race Men and Women. And, if it was, this anxious need to produce a respectable race through sexual regulation had not been adopted across class lines within segregated black communities.

However, the short civil rights movement (beginning with the bus boycott) was accompanied by an intensification of respectable images, especially across the new medium of television: I am thinking of the black college students sitting in at lunch counters in their Sunday best and black protesters marching wearing suits, dresses, and freshly coiffed hair. I'm thinking of the very pointed signs at the Memphis sanitation workers strike where Dr. King was killed: "I AM A MAN," they insisted, as the basis of their claim to dignity.

To the extent that one of the centuries-old interpretations available to Americans considered same-sex desire a failure of masculinity, no effective battle for the working black man's dignity could be waged on the national stage under anything 'less than' a demand for access to manhood rights --incidentally, the same rights just claimed by working white men a century earlier under in their refusal to be "white slaves" or wage slaves, which amounted to an assertion that they were MEN and not slaves. David Roediger's thorough discussion in The Wages of Whiteness shows that in the nineteenth century, the terms "white slave" and "wage slave" oppose white manhood to Negro slavery in much the same way that civil rights rhetoric opposed manhood to femininity. It's not surprising, then, that "white slave" became a term used to describe white women who were deemed to have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Nor, is it any wonder that, from the dominant macho perspective, the only possible way for a real man to provide pleasure to another man would be via rape, a method of sexual terrorism assumed to involve a man as perpetrator and woman as victim. In other words, for white working men to say they were not slaves was simultaneously to say they were not negroes and they were not women to be raped.)

The formulation around gender propriety was somewhat different for women, emphasizing a lack of sexual desire rather than a refusal to "take it." Accordingly, fifteen year-old Claudette Colvin--who was arrested nine months before Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a Jim Crow bus in Montgomery--was deemed an inappropriate female representative of the race. The local civil rights organizations did not think that rallying around her would be effective in their media campaign, in part, because she was a dark-skinned and 'feisty' teen who had a child out of wedlock. The narrative of quiet dignity and asexuality erected around Rosa Parks produced the image of a race that was deserving of equality because of the propriety of its female representatives.

This "excluded until proven deserving" model shows that, contrary to what ya heard, citizens do not have natural and inalienable rights but, rather, must overcome a presumption that they should have none. Portraying oneself as 'normal' and 'respectable' are important ways that all but the wealthiest citizens obtain their so-called God-given, natural rights. The appearance of sexual propriety and gender conformity have been crucial in this matter, for white immigrants who assimilated into Americanness and for the various colored constituencies who have more and less successfully followed.

One of the famous symbols of this move toward respectability in the short civil rights movement was the now-infamous decision to remove Bayard Rustin from the list of speakers at the March on Washington. I am not sure of where the evidence was, but Rustin would surely have been known to the FBI as a homosexual, to use the parlance of the day. Considering the association of homosexuality with communism (don't ask), it was deemed prudent not to have Rustin speak and bring further scrutiny, surveillance, and stigma to the movement.

In some cases, black liberation organizations that sought not assimilation into America but its fundamental transformation also opted for nontraditional views of gender and sexuality. It is fairly well-known now that Huey Newton insisted that the women's liberation front and the gay liberation front were friends of black liberation--whatever mistakes these white-led movement may have made on racial matters. The Combahee River Collective has inspired generations of scholars and activists with their insistence on the inter-relation of gender, race, imperialism, and sexual oppression. However, Newton's musings and Combahee's program did not become dominant paradigms in either the church-based, integrationist movements or in the nationalist or pan-Africanist organizations insisting on intelligent self-defense.

Given the lasting influence of the radical sixties on an understanding of black identity and the politics waged in its name, it seems necessary to switch away from religion and respectability as primary motives for black homophobia. Indeed, homophobia waged in the name of blackness has little to do with aspiring to white middle-classness or holiness. (I'll thank someone who reminds me where I read that black church attendance, especially among males, is at a low point. Church has not been the only [and may be even less now] the source of black group identification. It may be a site where black people gather, but it may not be the primary location in which their sense of themselves as black is formed).

To access that site, it pays to look at a secular form of blackness, one that has to do with a sense of political embattlement and social cohesion. These versions are not about aspiring to whiteness but about 'keeping it real'--that is, maintaining black cultural authenticity. I would argue that the struggle for national inclusion (either within the US or in autonomous black states) becomes the larger container into which class and religion are placed. This is not to say that politics and cultural authenticity supersede religion and respectability, but rather that the former are the lenses through which the latter are interpreted.

For an example of the way that the pressure that black nationalism placed on Christianity, see James Cone's The Spirituals and the Blues in which he argues for the continued relevance of Christianity to black political struggle in the United States. This certainly shows that, at least in the 1970s, the dog of black political struggle was wagging the tail of Christianity, and not the other way round. My suspicion is that this legacy remains intact--although further investigation may reveal that there are more black people now who do not think of black political struggle at all and, therefore, have the dog of Christianity wag the tail of blackness.
From within a black nationalist or pan-Africanist paradigm, which emphasizes the situation of racial domination in which black persons find themselves throughout the globe, homosexuality is white and imperial. It is 'decadent,' aesthetic, and impractical, a pastime for those who need not busy themselves with the business of fighting imperial forces. From this standpoint, a revolutionary blackness (as opposed to an accommodating negrohood) must be the opposite of every aspect of white imperialism. The result is a version of blackness rooted in a street culture with neither leisure nor luxury to spare.

There is no trace of religosity or middle-class aspiration in Amiri Baraka's recurring disparagements of gay men in his Black Arts-era writings of the late 1960s and early 1970s:

Roywilkins is an eternal faggot 
His spirit is a faggot 
his projection 
and image, this is 
to say, that if i ever see roywilkins 
on the sidewalks 
stick half my sandal
up his 

"American Sexual Reference: Black Male" -- from Home: Social Essays
"Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank, left without the hurt that reality makes--anytime. That red flush, those silk blue faggot eyes..... They are the 'masters' of this world... [T]hey can devote their energies to the nonrealistic, having no use for the real.... Think now, the goal of white society is luxury. Work is done by unfortunates. The purer white, the more estranged from, say, actual physical work."

For Great Malcolm a prince of the earth, let nothing in us rest
until we avenge ourselves for his death, stupid animals
that killed him, let us never breathe a pure breath if
we fail, and white men call us faggots till the end of
the earth.

This final citation -- one not already ably analyzed in Phil Harper's stunning work on black masculinity -- does indicate a certain aspiration, although not one for middle-classness. In fact, it idealizes a specifically working-class version of blackness where all white men appear as effete, in direct proportion to their wealth. Yet, despite all its pretense of deadly opposition to all things white, there is a call for white recognition here. Baraka is not asking to take part in the American Dream as assimilated, integrated fellow middle-class middle-Americans. Rather, he wishes for black men to be seen as worthy adversaries. Baraka doesn't want to beat the life out of white men; he needs them alive so that he can beat recognition of his superiority out of them again.

As any follower of super-heroes knows, these adversarial relationships thrive on the survival of the antagonists. Superman can't kill Luthor, even though he continually bests him. Indeed, Shakespeare suggested something of this mysterious tangle in the antagonistic generals' relationship in his Coriolanus. The Roman Coriolanus and the Volscian Aufidius are bonded by their hatred. "Not Afric owns a serpent I hate more than thee," one says. "We hate alike," rejoins the other, in a curious moment that is both sworn hatred and something approximating a marriage vow.

Love and hatred are so bound that, later in the play, the Volscian general says his heart leaps more to see Coriolanus than it did to see his wife on their wedding night. When Aufidius does have his first (and fatal) victory over the indomitable Coriolanus--by means of treachery--he immediately weeps and calls for a massive state funeral. If modern readers weren't so certain that sissies can't fight, one might be able to recognize a play like Coriolanus as a thwarted love story.

Despite all its name-calling and avowed hatred, Baraka's militant black male is a dedicated reflection of a white ideal -- except that, instead of seeking to join in confluence, it wants conflict. Try drawing two shapes that are entirely opposite each other and you will see that they resemble each other but face in opposite directions. Thus, if my geometrical reasoning is correct, both the assimilationist and the anti-assimilationist version of blackness are perfectly congruent with white nationalist ideals. The difference is merely that assimilation wishes to move entirely in sync with them while black nationalism wishes to move against them on every front. Perhaps this is a reason that black nationalism has to call nonviolence, integrationism, and assimilationism homophobic slurs: black nationalism is (to borrow from Madhavi Menon) homo-phobic. That is, it is afraid of sameness--afraid of its own similarity to the white supremacy it so faithfully stalks and opposes.
We might call oppositional blackness a militant heterosexuality, a nationalism that is rooted in the street. Let's call it the celebration of the street soldier, for short. It's not terribly surprising that such an ideal would arise, considering the unsuspended siege on black bodies. With vulnerability to incarceration, rape, and forced labor across both sexes, militant nationalism is a perfectly logical, even necessary response. Reasonable, too, is an emphasis on practicality: a disparagement of activities that do not seem to directly contribute to the amassing of resources and strengthening the capacity for militant self-defense.* 

I am suggesting that the best way to transform black nationalist exclusions to revise notions of what is useful to the reproduction of the nation. Certainly, it is indisputable that same-gender loving and gender-nonconforming people have contributed in every possible field -- intellectual, governmental, artistic, military, economic--even reproductive. (Once again, this is why I am skeptical of homosexual as a 'species.' Too many people who have had homo sex have also produced children through hetero sex. This is true from antiquity to the present).

It would seem to me that, in the end, that is the challenge to black homophobia as an imperative of belonging to street soldier culture. The attempt to disrupt this homophobia will need to be made partly within its own terms, which are neither religious nor middle-class. Rather, they are, at least in part, about the idea that having a national territory and elected government will protect black people from the deprivation and targeted violence associated with white-dominated national and imperial zones.

In this light, black homophobia is analogous to white homophobia. That is to say, when homophobia is expressed nationalist terms, it always boils down to the propagation and defense of the nation as a race. This is why, for example, homophobia and racism typically combine in certain nationalist movements. It is not simply that hard right white nationalists chose indiscriminately and at random to "hate" Jews, blacks, immigrants, and homosexuals. Rather, they consider each of these groups to be a threat--internal or external--to the continuity of the nation as a space of racial domination. I would therefore argue that even the homophobia of right-wing white evangelicals should be understood as nationalist in its orientation, rather than religious. Notice their refrain that America is a "Christian nation." In the past, critics of this formulation have heard the "Christian" and responded with a demand for secularism. We should, instead, face the much harder issue of "nation," which has race and reproduction as its primary aims--aims for which religion can be harnessed but its not the first cause.

In this sense, black homophobia and white homophobia stem from the same source--nationalism. But just as white nationalism and black nationalism have entirely separate political goals and speak to entirely different racial configurations, so the opposition to them is probably best pursued in specific locations rather than in some general opposition to 'hate' in the abstract. Hate and violence do not occur in the abstract; they occur in specific confrontations. Consequently, attempting to undo them will involve how nations are imagined--their constituent parts and their contributing members.

In concluding here, I am not suggesting that black queers (having been excluded from the unofficial armies opposed to white rule) petition for membership in these armed forces as (mostly) white queers have asked to do in relation to the militaries of the US and Europe. 

It seems we should be able to say, simultaneously, that 1) GLBT people have contributed to the various achievements and failures of the human species as arranged under banners of race and nation *and* 2) that "queerness"--by definition, a deviation from expected norms--might also help us create new notions of family, nation, and race that do not rely as much on the closed system of 'blood' relation or extol violent military service as the highest (indeed, the sole) virtue.

The last item in this series will be the promised analysis of this issue through the lens of class. (As was already hinted here in the discussion of displaying allegiance to black culture as street culture).
* It is worth noting that when founding the world's first black republic, the liberated slaves and free people of color in Haiti prefigured the father/soldier figure that appears in Black Arts poetry 160 years later. The Haitian Constitution of 1805 stated that no Haitian can be considered a good citizen unless he is a good husband, father, and especially soldier. One of the most eye-catching moments here is that the only recognized citizen is male. The new state recognizes former chattel as "men" primarily so that it can elicit military service from them. As the saying goes, I ain't made at em, in one regard. Haiti had been the wealthiest colony in the hemisphere, the pearl of the Antilles. Every major European power would have loved to recolonize Haiti, re-enslave its people, and re-commence forced sugar and coffee production. In the face of these very real threats, the need to reproduce servants of a militarized state again makes was certainly urgent. The question is whether or not people considered to be female or feminine are lesser contributors to national projects that seek and maintain independence. And, no, I am not suggesting that women have a wonderful place circumscribed by the need to raise revolutionary sons and fed revolutionary husbands' various hungers. Rather, I am trying to broaden the nature of what a contribution might be and to suggest that these contributions don't have to be sorted according to reproductive organs.


  1. You could use this analysis in all kinds of interesting ways on my own work on Philadelphia during the urban crisis (esp. in the relationship between Philly head cop and later mayor Frank Rizzo and first the gay community and then the black community - suffice to say it wasn't good with either). But I digress.

    I've been reading a bunch of the new stuff on the carceral state (the rise in incarceration rates in America from the 60s forward of black men mostly). I wonder how the prison experience both as location of black nationalism but also as a place carrying the taint of homosexuality might play into this. Prisons were the locations of the some of the most dramatic black nationalist violence (Attica and Holmesburg to name just two).

    I had heard (and could be completely wrong) that some of the black styles that developed from the 90s onward come out of the prison context and in particular sexuality in prison.

  2. I want to know more about your work on Philadelphia, David! Was this near the time of the MOVE crisis?

    Again, you anticipate my next post with your focus on the nexus of prison and black nationalism.

    What has happened to make us converge, I wonder? Is the academy that homogenizing? We'll have to talk in real time. I'll try to contact you offline.


  3. I suppose I should add that black and white nationalism do not always have "entirely separate goals," as I wrote above. To the extent that white nationalism wants a pure white nation and black nationalism wants a national haven for terrorized blacks, the final outcome can be the same, even if the racial reasoning differs (i.e. domination versus safety).

    The strange possibilities for collaboration are suggested by the recurrence of meetings between (first) Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan and (later) Malcolm X with the same.

  4. Once again, a lot to digest. I think you've clearly articulated the need to incorporate nationalisms in discussions of homophobia (and as you mention, others have as well). I would like to emphasize something you only mentioned once: family. Wrapped up in nationalism are notions of what a proper family looks like, and we won't eliminate homophobia without reconceiving politically (see below) the black family (and as our friend Khadijah always tells me, the state is the key actor there).

    I always like when critics offer concrete directions forward so I appreciated your conclusion. I do, however, want to push the questions even further to the ground, and ask what kinds of policy/political shifts do we need (or do we need them?)?

    For (2), I'm thinking of, specifically, changes in marriage incentives (and tax benefits), welfare (I don't know how), prison reform, etc. All of these are tools of managing the nation that structure how homophobia manifests in black/white communities -- and have specific class elements I'm sure you will explore. (It makes sense, then, middle/upper class Americans "seem" to be "getting over" homosexuality--W&G, Glee, etc.--as their interactions with the state are fewer). Would you claim we can create change through traditional political tools? Because it seems your theorization of the nation draws on deeper concepts of nationalism, one which seek to problematize the very idea that nationhood can do anything but promote and create violence. But I'm not sure if that's where you're going. Because for me, I'm not sure we need to jettison the nation to eliminate homophobia. Lord knows I'm not attached to the nation -- but it seems in all probability the problems we see in the black community are as much about class and resources (admittedly effects of white supremacy) as they are about an imagined black nation/community with all the entailments of authenticity. And so could be altered through broader progressive political action (of the sort named above).

    I would also re-emphasize a point you mention briefly: that when we discuss "homosexuality" we are really discussing what I wrote about in AE awhile ago: effeminacy and intimacy. I'm not a performance studies or affect person, really, but I do think we need to constantly remember these are bodily phenomenon: style and dress, gender performance, holding-hands, kissing, all in public arenas. Homosexuality is an abstract demon, but it is also quite visceral, and in cases of violence against black queers (my main concern), these are the instigators.

  5. Thank you for your incisive comments, AJC.

    I'll have to spend some more time thinking about your/Khadjiah's assertation that class level is an expression of state interaction (or its lack). Certainly seems true in a neoliberal economy accompanied by increased police power--I think of gated communities the world over and their private police forces. But I am not entirely sure I know yet how decreased connection to the state (such as that experienced by the transnational global elite) translates into less homophobia--or how this plays out in relation to the middle class in the US, which is certainly not the jet-setting elite but is the primary audience for W&G, Glee, Modern Family....

    As for 'traditional political tools' -- that's a tough one for me. I'm trying to do a bottom-up examination of black homophobia. I can't say I place much trust in the US-national model to do anything other than try to reproduce the domestic and international hierarchies with which many of us are all too familiar. I'm willing to concede that certain types of policy shifts could help, but I haven't the faith or the expertise to be the one to suggest them.

    In this case, I really do believe that ideas about the nation-as-family have a material force, structuring what can be seen and *valued.* So my goal has been to suggest that black people specifically re-imagine what contributions are required to continue our necessary struggle to be rid of state terror and the accumulation of illth (an excellent neologism I read once that is simultaneously the opposite of health and wealth).

  6. To AJC, part II

    Your point about the bodily styles and gestures that instigate homophobic violence is timely and well put. My own suspicions regarding affect theory lead me to shy away from thinking of homophobic violence as emerging from some 'visceral' response. For, if homophobia is simply visceral, a matter of an unthinking, physical response, then there is no hope to uproot it. And if all human activity boils down to the visceral, then surely more people would have rebelled against the counter-intuitive nature of a money economy. Clearly, people's instincts are not simply natural but are shaped and partially contained within ideologies *about* what is natural.

    Bringing ideology back into the picture, I attempt to pinpoint black nationalism as the instructive force which tells us why we should not like or value queers--beyond one's own desire to engage in same-sex activities. In other words, black nationalism and pan-Africanist liberation spend a lot of time telling us that homosexuality is not natural (to Africans); it's a European invention; it is counter-revolutionary. They have to educate us about what the 'natural' content of blackness is in order to try to get us to view homosexuality as incompatible with our ultimate nature. (BTW, you might want to read Ruth Leys critique of affect. I am so in love with it and borrowing heavily here).

    My suspicion is that certain forms of homophobia provoke such a strong physical response not because the unthinking body is disgusted but precisely because desire for or aversion to same-sex affection has been made consequential to larger beliefs about what is good, right, proper, holy, revolutionary (or counter-).

    But to return to the meat of your point--which was not about affect but about targets of violence: I haven't yet figured out a way to solve the problem of addressing black queers as actual, existing targets of violence and addressing black queerness as a "discourse" -- a mobile stigma that ranks a variety of persons and behaviors without regard for who they really are outside of the terms of the discourse.

    I suppose I am vulnerable to the charge of abstraction, as I I have emphasized the reach of homophobia in the hopes of showing that black homophobia is a BIG problem. I am not sure I know of another way to make a claim that homophobia is central to the struggle for black liberation and not a minor issue, the problem of a few *actually* queer people confronting a few homophobes willing to engage in anti-social violence.

    With this in mind, I have used as a point of departure Michael Eric Dyson's notion that the culprit here is "femiphobia"-- a fear of femininity *wherever* it appears -- rather than a narrow interpretation of homophobia. I think this lines up with your own analysis in AE, with which I strongly concur.

    Of course, femiphobia doesn't cover everything, either. Its terms leaves us to confront a different question about the disciplining of women to be ladylike, the fear of tomboyishness and of butch lesbianism. There's a top-down version here: you may know that there have been stories and films in the US and South Africa about the targeted rape of butch women by male police officers. There's also a bottom-up version: I've heard that today's black female college students are happy to acknowledge the existence of gay men--like their hairdressers--but they insist that black women "don't do" that intra-gender intimacy thing.

    Rather than have to produce a name for every permutation, I have tried to pinpoint nationalism as the larger structuring force that requires men to serve a military function and women to reproduce. My hope is that everyone can extrapolate from that to its many permutations.

    I know we'll have much more to discuss. So I'll close for now. Thank you, again.