Sunday, September 26, 2010

“Introduction: Queering Black Studies/’Quaring’ Queer Studies”, E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson

In their introduction to Black Queer Studies, Johnson and Henderson identify that they seek to bridge a gap and create a space of inquiry between black studies and queer studies, while "sabotaging neither and enabling both." The term “black queer”, as employed in the text, distinguishes a very specific group: gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered (LGBT) people of color. Though the United States serves as the central context, the writers remain cognizant of diasporas and post-colonial studies relative to African American sexuality. Authors referenced in this anthology include critics, writers, scholars and cultural producers whose work links 20th century black studies and achievements to the still emergent field of queer studies. The ultimate and collective goal of the writers and editors of this book is to demonstrate how both black studies and queer studies can be dually studied for the progression of a larger project that imbricates race, class, gender and sexuality.

Johnson and Henderson delve into the histories of black studies and queer studies:

Black studies: The 1960’s and 1970’s mark a crucial time for African Americans in relation to academia; the efforts of black students and faculty (e.g. sit ins, petitions, protests, ect.) put enough pressure on white administrators of predominately white institutions to form departments of black studies. Because African American scholarship and theory most notably surfaced at this time, much of the historical backdrop and central focus of black studies is centered within the context in the Civil Rights Movement. This fact proves problematic because black heterosexual male leadership powered the Civil Rights Movement and other black liberation movements. Black male leadership and the priority of creating a “united black front” bred sexism and homophobia, as the intellectual and community work of black women were viewed as unimportant or ignored and homosexuality was effectively theorized as a “white disease that had infected the black community”.

Queer Studies: Queer studies also emerged in the academy as a result of an activist movement – that of ACT-UP, an AIDS activist group, and its off-shoot group, Queer Nation. Much like the “unified front” political strategy of the Civil Rights Movement, Queer Nation’s aim to represent and advocate for those oppressed on the basis of sexual identity consequently subordinated other identity markers.

Though, like black studies, queer studies pride themselves on shaking people’s long held ideas and assumptions about identity by deconstructing binaries such as heterosexual/homosexual and gay/lesbian, theorists note the possible danger of “single-variable” politics – the deconstruction and “unmarking” of identities, especially of identities that add to the subordination of those already oppressed by their sexual identities. With this in mind, Johnson and Henderson anticipate that the dual examination of black studies and queer studies will illuminate how intersecting identities manifest to both oppress and privilege. Restating their goal, Johnson and Henderson claim their project is one that seeks individual rights in the interest of ensuring social justice inclusive of sexuality, which can only be enacted from recognition of other disenfranchised groups and coalition with them on the basis of intersecting identities.


  1. Yes! Please define diasporas and post-colonial studies oh and "unmarking". A link will work! This is a very helpful summary Alexa! I'm curious how the Editors understand creating the balance between individual rights and social justice for all. Perhaps we will see more evidence of this as we read further.

  2. Let me know if these links are sufficient!

  3. I think it is interesting that Johnson and Henderson want to make sure that they bridge the gap between black studies and queer studies while “sabotaging neither and enabling both.” I feel that only great things can come from applying both a queer critical lens to blackness and a black critical lens to queerness. Specifically, I think it would highlight the fact that the two identities aren’t mutually exclusive; that is, you can be both black AND queer.

    I remember that we briefly discussed in class what would be the difference in calling the book “Queer Black Studies” as opposed to its current title “Black Queer Studies.” Changing the book title to “Queer Black Studies” strikes me as having a negative connotation to it. I can’t find the words to describe what strikes me as off-putting about it… but it definitely doesn’t have the same feel and/or meaning as “Black Queer Studies.”

    You note that the book is U.S.-centered; I believe this was brought up in class, too. I really appreciated the authors’ explanation for why they chose to focus on the United States. I agree with them that it is super-important to focus on “mak[ing] an intervention at home,” as they describe it, although I definitely think that it is essential to move forward purposefully from this point and try to incorporate a more global focus, especially around issues dealing with queerness in communities of color. Furthermore, I think it’s necessary to recognize the limitations already placed on the book simply because it is focused on the U.S. Already the book will probably have to work to address societally-constructed notions of the gender binary, patriarchy, homophobia, etc. at work within the U.S. context. Despite it’s limitations, I have been very pleased with this book this semester, and I do believe that the authors accomplished much of what they set out to do.