Queer(s) Reading / flesh and bone / Sharon P. Holland

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Queer(s) Reading began as a panel for the 2020 Seattle MLA—an event that was, for many attendees, one of the last physical gatherings they would take part in for quite some time.  We continue that conversation in this forum under the very different conditions generated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our collective concern is the vitalizing possibilities of queer(s) reading—that is, of embodied and located modes of experiencing, engaging with, and interpreting the literary, visual, multimedia, and theoretical texts that inform queer lives. Queer(s) reading, as the six authors in this forum describe it, is both a radical relation and a radical refusal, working to expand networks of queer kinship, collectivity, feeling, friendship, love, and desire. Queer reading may be done alone, but it is never solitary.

This forum’s desire is to play with and expand the potential of how we read, see, listen, and watch. We engage and pursue critical conversations beyond the deadlocked opposition between “critique” and “description.” Queer(s) reading is an invocation, and a provocation, that finds value in the inventiveness of the situated, the sensual, and the relations between. 

Many thanks to our contributors, to the audience at MLA, and to the editors of ASAP/J for their support

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“These niggers are human beings.”

“Bass” from Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

In the summer of 1987, two texts that would become central to how we see ourselves in the world in the African-descended imaginary broke into our theoretical consciousness – each spoke of the “flesh” and each reconstituted the organic matter of that new world black female subject. For Hortense Spillers in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Baby,” this subject, became an “ur-text” for an American grammar of new world being: “ [. . .] only the female stands in the flesh, both mother and mother-dispossessed. This problematizing of gender places her, in my view, out of the traditional symbolics of female gender, and it is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject.”1 What will be important for the work here is the difference between “gendered femaleness” and “insurgent” “female social subject.” While this difference is not resolved in Spillers – what is female after all without gender might be an important question to keep in mind.

In another register altogether, for Toni Morrison, the flesh represented a similar grounding for recognition and revolution. In the clearing scene in Beloved (1987), Baby Suggs commands:

“Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick them out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. . . This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight.”2 (103-04)

Note here that Baby Suggs’s flesh is ungendered, and each and every part, rearticulated, could stand for any primate, anywhere. The disarticulated flesh of a human being tied to the ground or a tree is reimagined in Baby Sugg’s clearing, and given the work of Katherine McKittrick to make that clearing meaningful in black geographies of female selves, the presence of flesh, loved, and perhaps whole is as much a matter of place as it is the place of matter. For McKittrick, Morrison and Spillers that matter is decidedly female. McKittrick outlines a process whereby “locations of captivity initiate a different sense of place through which black women can manipulate the categories and sites that constrain them.”3 Years ago in my first monograph (Raising the Dead 2000), I took this discussion of “flesh” in Spillers and Morrison to be one and the same. Flesh, in my reading became radical possibility in both texts. A reading that did not bear fruit in the decade to come.

But the flesh that Spillers’ conjures in 1987, and that Morrison reimagines, seem to have other trajectories in more recent genealogies of black thought. In black pessimism through a range of texts, flesh is the ordering of a black self, a being dis-ar-ti-cu-lated to make the task of enslavement both potent and ideal. 21st century iterations of black death in pessimism usually refer to a black body, ungendered, generalized, and so the matter of gender is subordinated to “the state’s mobilization of black death.”4 This mobilization of black-life-unto-death is not without its gendered life – as the lives of black “men” (#blacklivesmatter) became juxtaposed to those of black “women” (#sayhername). My question is what shall we make of this juxtaposition and can our discussion of gender be recognizable in a framework where gender is almost passé? Or is the violence of ungendering, following Spillers, another particular form of violence done to black bodies? And is it possible that this new world subject, the Harriet of that generation and the next, might take her proper place in legacies of black liberation?

This discussion of the flesh in relationship to gender intrigues me because it is the flesh from bone that makes the abattoir for the human, as it is the flesh on disarticulated bone that makes meat from non-human animal. My simple offering here is that we might be able to think through this conundrum of rendering in a situation where the non-human animal gets its due and the gendered nature of black resistance and/or collusion might resurface as a possible query or even, interest. As McKittrick reminds us, “Human geography needs some philosophical attention.”5 But tracing gender in black thought on black death is like following a finger’s imprint upon the water, the ephemeral nature of “it” marks a fugitivity in direct contradistinction to the fungibility of slavery itself. Even McKittrick moves from speaking to Equiano’s tale to speaking of the lives of black women without necessarily marking where gender goes for that instant in marking black life – where and how precisely do “[h]is memories”6 become the inheritance of black women?

If we scan through a rough selection of texts in black pessimism, we find our “gender” bundled in with a group of investments – race, class, nation, gender, and sexuality.7 Critics in black pessimism are quick to point out the particularity of gender and race’s “slip and slide” – and how difficult it is, excuse the metaphor here, to rein them in.8 “Black flesh,” for Frank B. Wilderson III, is what slavery “reconfigures the African body into.”9 For Hartman, Sexton and Wilderson, “flesh” is produced under conditions of slavery where blackness is violently robbed of its ontology, of being anything other to itself but what enslavement has in mind for “it.”10 Another question that opens up here is what happens when the enslaved are emancipated? They do not go gently into a freedom in the flesh, as other human subjects might enjoy; instead, “[t]he Slave needs freedom from the Human race, freedom from the world.”11 It is precisely this contention within black pessimism that so invigorates me – how to get blackness past a humanity that so signals a bankrupt status; and how to think through the idea of black freedom through species, rather than ontology? What I might be looking for here – and this is speculation, since this study concerns itself with “New World” adventures in the human, rather than those prior to what Tiffany King refers to as the palindrome of 1441 – is a sense that the distinction between human/animal that predates the Enlightenment’s selfish concern with the human might also interest us in relationship to the kind of split from blackness into black/flesh (becoming meat).

So, we have a paradox, or perhaps a different ordering arising from criticism and fiction, between philosophically driven and aesthetically minded texts. For Morrison’s Baby Suggs, flesh is reparative, for those who follow critical strands of black thought, the flesh is created out of a wounded body. The only flesh that Baby Suggs can hold onto in the Clearing, then would be one disconnected from a body that can be loved in that place. Following Spillers’ theory of the domestication of gender, Wilderson gives ample attention to the difference that gender might make in his pairing of Butler and Spillers in a chapter on Monster’s Ball. But even before that, we understand that the task to be performed here is an obliteration of white (female) claims to a gendered difference that does not serve the interests of race, more broadly.12

In a word, the problem of the Negro is not only a problem for thought, a process that Wilderson rightly observes in Fanon (“violence is a precondition for thought,” 122), but the problem of the Negro is also a problem for gender.13 Or to put it more pointedly it is 2021 as I write this and we are still considering the Negro as a universal whose gender (male) is assumed, at the same time that we see ourselves letting go of gender altogether as a determining factor in self-identity, but certainly not in realm of the social. How can we think gender in the space of negation of its claims upon the human altogether?

In steps along Wilderson’s important study of black films, blackness and critical cultures, he continues to assail that gap between “black being and Human life” a chasm that is “intuitive and anecdotal”  (Wilderson, 57), as any inquiry into that revolutionary grounding of blackness in existing thought, would create the conditions for the dismantling of systems devised to hold ‘it’ in place, e.g. outside of humanity or at least, human life; would arrive at an ethic that is not sustainable for the whole of humanity, in a scenario where the spectre of whiteness holds no possibility for blackness’s promise except as shadow. But the difference, I want to offer here is not in the substance of “being” and “life,” but in the extent to which they are still the same (bankrupt) coin. The same capital is the focal point, rather than the system of laws and the taxonomies of being that keep such laws in/as illegitimate stronghold. If thingness belongs to blackness, if slavery turns black people into objects, can some/thing some/one work some magic and get us back to where we once were as “Africans” before we were “Blacks” (Wilderson, 38)? This before-middle-time is a temporality that supersedes what became of us (the tense is wrong here if I want to keep the promise of Patrick Wolfe’s work in the forefront: it’s a process, not an event) and returns “us” to something like that French feminist concept of women and the symbolic in the time before Oedipus. If we think of becoming here, then the array of ethical choices for us as enslaved subjects opens up just ever-so-slightly so that we can see that it is not one choice made by another so long ago (should I take the whip when it’s offered to me?) but a series of the same choices – ones that belong distinctly to a species who holds down the rights to being altogether. What is truly gripping about the work of being, is that it conditions itself, perhaps following Heidegger, as a substance in and of itself, without a boundary of embodiment that would or could consider any other kinds of life-living propositions readily available to it. These moments of hopefulness about entering the body politic, and Wilderson is right about this, produce an object that thinks itself a subject who consistently shows up a dollar short and a day late: the price of the ticket.

But to return to that insurgent black female that Spillers ends that 1987 essay with – if “she” doesn’t obtain, if gender is felt through the African American male’s experience of that “motherhood” denied, then what portion of this pessimistic journey through black “life” makes this new world subject female? The work of gender is never done.

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This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.

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  1. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17:2 (Summer 1987), 65-81.
  2. Toni Morrison, Beloved (Vintage, 1987), pp. 103-104.
  3. Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), xvii.
  4. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, ix
  5. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, ix.
  6. McKittrick, Demonic Grounds, xi.
  7. In Sexton’s Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, gender most often occurs in relationship to other intersectional realities and when we do get gender, on its own, it is inhabited by white females: “[b]eyond the expanded set of victims vulnerable to the putative menace of lascivious blacks, what makes multiracialism an augmentation of the negrophobia typically accredited to white supremacy is the variation it seeks in the functions of female gender” (62).
  8. Jared Sexton, Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 2008), 217.
  9. Frank B. Wilderson III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 18.
  10. See Wilderson, Red, White & Black, p. 38, chapter one, “The Ruse of Analogy.”
  11. Wilderson, Red, White & Black, p. 141.
  12. In an earlier discussion of white feminist thought, Wilderson remarks: “the foundation of all White feminist thought maintains its coherence not primarily thorough a conscious understanding of how the White female body is exploited, but through the unconscious libidinal understanding that, no matter how bad exploitation becomes, the White body can never fall prey to accumulation and fungibility. . .” Wilderson, Red, White & Black, p. 132.
  13. In a previous generation of pessimistic thought on the Negro, a scholar like Nahum Dimitri Chandler relegates Wynter and Hartman to footnotes, though he does take on the difference that gender might un-make in his work on Spillers.
Sharon Holland
Sharon P. Holland is the Townsend Ludington Distinguished Professor in American Studies at the University of North Carolina @ Chapel Hill. She is a graduate of Princeton University (1986) and holds a PhD in English and African American Studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (1992). She is the author of Raising the Dead: Readings of Death and (Black) Subjectivity (Duke UP, 2000), which won the Lora Romero First Book Prize from the American Studies Association (ASA) in 2002. She is also co-author of a collection of trans-Atlantic Afro-Native criticism with Professor Tiya Miles (American Culture, UM, Ann Arbor) entitled Crossing Waters/Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country (Duke University Press, 2006). Professor Holland is also responsible for bringing a feminist classic, The Queen is in the Garbage by Lila Karp to the attention of The Feminist Press for publication (2007). She is the author of The Erotic Life of Racism (Duke University Press, 2012), a theoretical project that explores the intersection of Critical Race, Feminist, and Queer Theory. She is currently finishing a decade-long project, “hum:animal:blackness,” an investigation of the human/animal distinction and the place of discourse on blackness within that discussion. You can see her work on food, writing and all things equestrian on her blog, The Professor’s Table

She is the convener of the Critical Ethnic Studies Collective and Chair of the American Studies Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also co-founder of the QTIOC Survival Fund, a partnership with community organizers to redistribute wealth and foster self-determination among our most vulnerable members of the community.