Once upon a time I wanted to be a constitutional lawyer. Which was actually a front for my real ambitions of wanting to be a U.S. Senator. Much in my college career effectively closed the door on the latter dream, and while the former is still very much possible, I would have to do some mental gymnastics in forgetting many of the lessons instilled in me through lectures, seminars, readings, and the political organizing I engaged as a student. However, though my understandings of institutions and political change have altered quite a bit since my days sitting in the back of pre-law classes, the root of my desire for change has remained constant. As a lawyer and a senator, I would be admitting something is wrong and put simply; I want to do something about it. Well my “fellow” Americans, something is wrong and I want to do something about it. But before we start composing our “to-do” list, I want to trouble our notions of the “something is wrong” while attempting to further complicate the, “to do something about.”
What my old-self, the budding con-law scholar and the present-self, the hungry radical Black-queer writer have in common is a certain political hopefulness, but, what can never be discounted is the trip from old to new, a certain walk through a valley of despair and hopelessness that is still being worked out in the day-to-day of my living. I want to play with notions of hope, politics, and hopelessness while joining Lisa Duggan and Jose Esteban Munoz in their conversation on the same topics, while hopefully illuminating a certain position, a critical juncture, I believed missed by the two queer scholars.[i] There is something to be said of the similarities, the hunger of my old and new self that does not explain away the “something is wrong,” but instead reorients the “to do something about.” And it is in the “wrong” that hope finds its life, and that is where I situate my current project, the further illumination of the “wrong” which in turn I believe will breed a certain type of hope. But first some parameters of a critical thinking through must be set and it is here that I join while simultaneously diverge from Duggan and Munoz.
The arch of my work I believe to be engaged most critically with the question of how do Black queer people speak of themselves, the world, and organize politically? @howtobenoladarling made a statement on his tumblr the other day that caught my interest, “I don’t Identify as queer lol because its closer to whiteness”, which was not a surprising statement for myself or a host of Black queers writing and organizing around the nation, but it still seems to be shocking for many non-Black queers organizing under the banner of radical queer politics and radical queer scholarship. @howtobenoladarling continues, “I dont just happen to be black. I am black. was born black. the system reminds me that I am black every fucking day, sec, min, hour of my life. so I wont EVER forget that shit.”
Though I define myself as a Black-queer, I don’t take issue with @howtobenoladarling’s repel of the word queer. While Duggan and Munoz theorize a certain hope in realm of politics, the starting point for their analysis differs from the fact of Blackness @howtobenoladarling starts at, and raises questions on what does it mean to be a Black-queer? To really give pause at the hyphen that joins identity while simultaneously separating, what @jeromeiznice has repeatedly, eloquently, and convincingly made clear are antagonistic positions, or an ontological conundrum in need of some attention.[ii] To think critically at that hyphen is to think critically at the way we Black-queers organize with queer theory and politics. Some will ask, why am I not thinking through the way Black-queers organize with Blacks? Besides the fact that I always am, I would say that question misses the point of a structuring Blackness @howtobenoladarling is pointing us to while also taking us out of the ‘ensemble of questions’ @jeromeiznice is pushing us to reckon. Lisa Duggan posits her battle as a “queer-leftist,” as that of displacing: “supposedly populist left-liberal politics (Tom Frank 2004; Todd Gitlin 1995) based on a falsely unified past, a call for the commonsense priority of economic interest over cultural issues, and a vision of a homogenizing political future somehow always best represented by straight, white guys. Such hope suppresses the messy vitality of political longings emanating from an elsewhere that is always already marginalized” (Duggan & Munoz, 275-6).
I’ve learned to take caution in conversations where the enemy of leftist organizing is the “straight white guy.” Not because straight white guys are necessarily comrades, but rather because the frame of the conversation relies upon an assumption that the essential battle (and this is when the conversations are at their best) is against white capitalist heteropatriarchy, while leaving out of the frame or the conversation actually resting upon an essential anti-Blackness.[iii] One is left to wonder, what “political longings” does Duggan speak of, what type of suppression is she speaking out against, and is there a place of marginalization in which @jeromeiznice’s questions can be set aside and all us queers can theorize and organize together?
Stepping back to survey the field of queer theory/politics from where Cathy Cohen made her appeal in “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” (1997) to where we are now, or “Hope and Hopelessness: A dialogue” (2009), I would have to offer an answer of ‘no.’ Perhaps this is my stake in the hopelessness Duggan and Munoz think through and my agreement with @howtobenoladarling’s statement. However, that ‘no’ or the hopelessness is not the complacency that Duggan and Munoz are (and I would actually place myself alongside) working against. Instead the ‘no’ is a diverging force that separates Black from queer and attempts to highlight the unique specificity of anti-Blackness.
No other being is structured by way of violence and captivity like that of the Black. This is Saidiya Hartman’s plain truth when she comments on the nature of the slave community:
It cannot be assumed that the conditions of domination alone were sufficient to create a sense of common values, trust, or collective identification. The commonality constituted in practice depends less on presence or sameness than upon desired change—the abolition of bondage. Thus, contrary to identity providing the ground of community, identity is figured as the desired negation of the very set of constraints that create commonality—that is the yearning to be liberated from the condition of enslavement facilitates the networks of affiliation and identification (Scenes of Subjection, 59).
Whereas I would never discount queer identification without the burden of homophobia, heteronormativity, and heteropatriarchy, it is crucial that we do not displace questions of history (pace Hartman) and questions of structure (pace @jeromeiznice). Jose Munoz’s starting point is Paolo Virno’s theorization on the worker condition. Munoz examines notions of hope based upon an interrogation of capitalism, one in which we understand worker exploitation is not simply the problem, but that work has become the dominating condition of human life (Duggan and Munoz, 277). He goes on to question, “what would it mean, on an emotional level, to make work not the defining feature of our lives? How could such a procedure be carried out?” All fine questions when organizing a worker revolution, but under a queer banner how do we fold in, or make present the questions of the Black, she who is not defined by work, rather by enslavement (Hartman), or social death (Orlando Patterson)? Both Munoz and Duggan labor in a way that collapses structural position by way of identification with queer—Duggan’s above shift of focus toward “straight white guys” and Munoz’s later analogous listing of “illegal border crossing, real or symbolic escapes from chattel slavery, [and] xenophobic immigration laws” (Duggan and Munoz, 277). And this is not a clarion call for intersectionality, which in my view has been watered down into a tangled mesh of identity over identifications, which reinforces emphasis on the white/non-white divide while ignoring the ‘structuring irrationality’ of anti-blackness.[iv] Rather, I turn to Zakiyyah Jackson’s radical call for queer theory to engage the ontological work of David Marriott. In her article “Waking Nightmares[v],” Jackson highlights Marriott’s theorization of Black positionality—the shattered subject—while doing much needed and important work by way of understanding questions of queer discourse in relationship to racial Blackness and modernity. She states:
Marriott’s scholarship reminds us that queer theory may unwittingly diminish its criticality if it fails to acknowledge the role antiblack racism plays in shaping the discursive practices of gender and sexuality. The violence that produces blackness necessitates that from the existential vantage point of black lived experience, gender and sexuality lose their coherence as normative categories. Moreover, as queer theory attempts to map a territory that encompasses an increasingly generalized nonnormativity, it may unwittingly overlook the function of blackness in modernity, since the black body has been rendered the “absolute index ofotherness”(Jackson, 359, emphasis mine).
I worry, as Jackson does, where do Black-queers go, when the banner of queer displaces a critical engagement with the language of race? Or what @howtobenoladarling reminds his reader, “the system reminds me that I am black every fucking day, sec, min, hour of my life.”
So what can be made of our question of hope? Jose Munoz reminds us “hope is a risk. But if the point is to change the world we must risk hope” (Duggan and Munoz, 279) Duggan follows and cautions “those among us who forsake ossified modes of security, or who simply cannot enlist them for ourselves, take terrifying risks everyday. Bad sentiments, pursued as escape, can lead to isolation, poverty and death” (Duggan and Munoz, 279). However, as Jackson reminds us (borrowing from Omar Rick) the black body has been rendered the “absolute index of otherness.” Therefore we must account for these bodies that exist in risk at all times, this place of isolation, poverty, and death Duggan fears to go. I still call myself queer, perhaps because I hold out for the “radical potential,” but until the Black is accounted for and we go the place we fear to be, my hope will continue to be violent, and well, we’ll just save that for another 2000 words or so.
[i] Lisa Duggan and Jose Esteban Munoz, “Hope and hopelessness: A dialogue” Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory Vol. 19, No. 2, July 2009, 275-283
[ii] This line of thought is taken from various conversations in which @jeromeiznice and myself have been involved: email exchanges, private conversations, seminar-table discussions, and my own research presentation in the Spring of 2011. I also owe a great debt to the Black Queer Collective of UC Irvine for influencing my research and pushing the bounds of thought on the ‘peculiar’ position of the Black-queer.
[iii] If I am reading Jared Sexton correctly, I believe this is one of his key points in his stroke of genius article, “The Curtain of the Sky.” How do we call for a critical engagement in politics and theorization that does not posit the central antagonism as that of a white/non-white divide, but rather examines political ontology (Wilderson) by way of illuminating the non-Black/Black divide; a world structured by anti-Blackness. How do we deal with this fact of Blackness? or what Sexton writes, “one can reject without contradiction the thesis that it is best to be white and Christian—the postulate of white superiority, and even pursue the re-signification of a historically disparaged Jewishness, Indianess, Asianess, etc., while endorsing, in whole or in part, the thesis that it is nonetheless worst to be black—the postulate of black inferiority” (pg. 12).
[iv] I must give thanks to @abolitionista for encouraging my rethinking of the term ‘intersectionality’ and its uses. She commented eloquently on the complications of Kimberle Crenshaw’s groundbreaking article “Mapping the Margins,” at a panel discussion hosted by the Black Student Union at UC Irvine, winter 2011.
[v] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Waking Nightmares: on David Marriott” in GLQ 17:2-3, 2011