Figure 1: Norman Lewis, Cantata (1948)
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.
if we ever lose sight
may there be a lamppost
a moon, a star
a guiding light
house, some reservoir
of echo and song within.
peel me into that little girl
again, into a dreamer
still developing her country
merging neighborhoods and cities
of skin and bone
fascinated by the sensational
happiness of low living lovers1
Aja Monet’s poem “when in doubt” is a chronicle of what is yet to come and a prayer for the always already. It is addressed to little black girls or to the black girls that all black women once were or to the black girl who resides still in the now grownup black woman who speaks this poem, constitutes its shaper and reveler in prayer and poetic song. In the evocation of “we” is a verbal summons and instantiation of a collective of the lost. The poem gathers them up (those little girls of color lost to themselves, if not the wider world) and provides a directive, a direction. There is an internal geography, a world built into corners and crevices where the reverberations of speech and song smooth the rough ground of terrorized zones (whether failed homes, violent streets, or occupied lands). The poem intones these reverberations. It orients lost black girls to dwellings of the interior, the private, mapping pathways to barely visible lights and sights of their own world-making potential. “when in doubt,” thereby, consecrates and crowns the internal as a site of decolonial (de)territorialization, the fleshly ground of a girl child’s dreaming, her own echo and bone the impenetrable borders of a sovereign place.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Aja Monet is a black woman poet, educator, performer, and activist of Cuban and Jamaican descent. She writes poems “textured with the sights and sounds of growing up in East New York in the nineties, attending school on the South Side of Chicago, then soaring all the way to the olive groves of Palestine.” This description appears on the inside of the book jacket of her 2017 book of poetry, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter. It is a thematic description that touches on the surface of things, the landscapes of distressed worlds, the sociality and affect engendered by place. Monet’s poem “when in doubt” insinuates that it is within black girls, and specifically within what fascinates and thrills them (of the low and the loving), that we find horizons of black livability. I am in Saidiya Hartman’s study here. Hartman writes Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments “as the fugitive text of the wayward,” in which she regards young black women as avatars of a “future world that resides in waywardness and a refusal to be governed.”2 Aja Monet’s poetry focuses on black girls whom it directs to turn away, to turn in. For those readers not summoned by it, her poetry provides an opportunity for a reading practice of refusal—that is, for modes of aesthetic encounter that resist the will to interpretive capture and, furthermore, that reject the presumed transparency and knowability of black texts and black worlds.
In an effort to conceptualize or to imagine a mode of reading—a practice of deliberative encounter with an aesthetic object, or any object really—that might be understood or properly termed “queer,” I begin where I always seem to, which is with the theoretical framings, the ethical orientations and the emancipatory imaginings of black feminist thought. Black queer study retains an intimate conceptual and institutional alignment with black feminism, and it is within their shared dwelling, shared grammars, shared politics, and shared imaginaries that my thinking takes shape. Ever aware of the racialized and gendered violences that make and mark the vulnerability and violability of black female subjects, I contemplate performances of aesthetic, critical, and interpretive refusal (or rejection, obviation, forestallment, escape) in creative texts by black women artists. We might call such things the inhospitality of the unhoused.
In Queer Times, Black Futures, Kara Keeling reminds us, “Whatever escapes recognition, whatever escapes meaning and valuation, exists in an impossible possibility.”3 Keeling reorients the emancipatory potentality of black literary and visual art from the politics of representation—which enable (or simply encourage) recognition by another or before a governance structure—to the liberatory politics of obfuscation and obscurity within art practice. Her insinuation of formal fugitivity—those brushstrokes, lyrics and lines within imaginative black texts that obscure, turn away, escape from the viewer—call for as-yet-unthought, as-yet-unmapped alternatives in both encounter and existence. Of poetry, Keeling argues that, “with its associated lyricism, fragmentation . . . and temporal disruption,” the formal features of poetic expression “resist narration and qualitative description. It is a felt presence of the unknowable.”4 How black girls and women show up in black aesthetic production (and specifically in the poetry and visual art that I read in this brief essay) offers ways to tarry with black female subjects less as identities per se than as positions (or postures even) of sociopolitical refusal and onto-epistemological critique.
When you first see her, you think immediately of Jean Michel Basquiat. The style of her design recalls the synthesis of 1980’s graffiti and urban expressionism that characterize his work. Fashioned of spray paint and bold acrylic colors of earth and ocean, hers is the face of a black girl, gorgeously assembled and yet quietly gone awry. There is something calm in her moving or misshapen mouth, something treasured in the texture and geometry of converging symbols and facial features. Her painted surface could be many things: a quilt or a city, a mathematical equation or a commune. In this regard, she is reminiscent of paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Gustav Klimt. Set against a twilight-tinged sky blue, this multimedia portrait embeds multiple pairs of eyes—whether to embody the multiplicity of the black girl’s subject position, or to convene its own audience of onlookers and witnesses, or to remind viewers of the many ways of seeing things in view. At once a portrait that faces the viewer directly and a cartoonish profile that looks askance and away, Genesis Tramaine’s Chasing Pearls deploys aesthetic multidimensionality and multidirectionality to call forth the unthought and the unmapped.
On the exhibition website, Genesis Tramaine’s biography suggests she is a worker of spirit, a self-identified black and queer art-maker whose frenzied painterly practice reflects divine inspiration and surrender. Tramaine applies paint to canvas in and as the performance of prayer. A devotional visual artist who creates “abstract portraits of men and women who transcend gender, race, and social structures,” her work conjures urban saints and erects sanctuaries.5 As in Aja Monet’s poetry, black girls and women are presented simultaneously as devotional subjects and as objects of devotion. The exhibit in which Chasing Pearls is featured is called Parables of Nana. Comprised of nineteen abstract expressionist portraits set vibrantly, if mostly solitarily, against stark white walls, the exhibit is a meditation on various figures—black mothers, black daughters, black sisters, black grandmothers—who navigate the life-diminishing horrors of racism and misogynoir and still educate in the ways of grace. Tramaine describes her art practice as “focused on the shape and definition of the American Black Face, explaining that her subject’s exaggerated features capture the spirited emotions of the untapped, underrepresented soul of Black people through a mixture of acrylic and oil-based paintings.” Despite the occasions for contemplation that her portraits offer, they evade the finality of meaning and eschew interpretive closure. Via the psychic confrontation of vibrantly disordered color, a combination of liquid and geometric shapes, and the affective surplus of expressionist style, Tramaine renders black art, and specifically black portraiture, a site of spectacular refusal.
In her essay “To Be Announced: Radical Praxis or Knowing (at) the Limits of Justice,” Denise Ferreira da Silva’s proffers a meditation on the meaning and measure of blackness that grapples with its value and excess, or its value in excess. Noting the life-snuffing harms that attend and abbreviate black living, da Silva reads the black female as the figure that epitomizes racialized violence even as such violence gets obscured by her gendered specificity. In other words, the subject who is gendered black and female comes to bear the primary and the most brutal incarnations of interpersonal, social, and structural commodification and subordination that are characteristic of racist regimes. da Silva considers the efficacy and the interventional capacity of knowledge production to remediate the commodification, subordination, extermination of black people. She notes, “Any apparatus deployed in the knowledge of human affairs produce the very affairs they acquire.”6 The mimetic representation of harm relies upon that harm and reproduces it. da Silva turns to “the radical potential the juridicoeconomic figure of the (native/enslaved) female—namely, her sexual body, which insists on signifying Other-wise, [that] troubles representation.”7 She argues convincingly that the racialized and gendered excesses of the female black account for her failure to appear or to signify—to be captured, as it were.
There are two participants in this poetic unfolding, two black girls turned in and toward each other. They gather in Aja Monet’s poem “ree ree ree,” a lyric remembrance situated in motion and in relation. Notably, even the melodic sounding of the poem’s title obscures and deflects away from fixed meaning. The girls hide or hold themselves in cavernous hoods, share a blunt and exchange secrets, listen and dance to Biggie in a moment of ecstatic communion that is neither fully available nor interpretable to any reader, or onlooker, or outsider.8
you my bitch, aja
crept off the smoke
from her throat
i felt honored
how we wound and heal
in the caves of our hoods
how black and brown girls
gather and peel
comparing stretch marks
and playground scars. . . .
how close we come to each other
how the soul
taps and gossips
the secrets we hide
under our tongues9
Showing one another their stretch marks and playground scars, vulnerable inscriptions of injury and imperfection, black and brown girls engage in a ritual of learning to see and heal one another. In brief rhythmic lines, the poem conjures this education. In so doing, it portrays and performs their ritual of communion. Togetherness is thematized as the blueprint for how black and brown girls endure, sometimes with joy.
Notably, the girls’ union is imperfect and, like all unions, lacks the guarantee of permanence. Nonetheless, it constitutes a relational modality that is expansive and elastic and enduring enough to hold the quotidian injuries of twoness—and, further, of an imposing, murderous world. In her poetic practice, Monet celebrates the astounding and the everyday maneuvers of black endurance, black loss, black exuberance, but her verses lean away from any potential objectifying or usurping gaze. On the page—if nowhere beyond it—smoking, swaying adolescent black girls are protected. The only dialog in “ree ree ree” that the reader may overhear is an affirmation of belonging, one girl telling the other: you are mine—“my bitch,” my ride-or-die, my girl, my sister, my friend. (And even this the reader might not really understand.)
Aesthetic encounters are occasions and opportunities for reckoning. The queer reading practice advanced in this essay is one that divests from commitments to representational politics and their concomitant objectifying, if sometimes sympathetic, interpretive gestures. I am guided by Denise Ferreira da Silva’s attunement to the radical potential of racially (and sexually) subordinated black female subjects who, while neither evidencing nor exercising sovereign agency, can, nevertheless, throw entire systems of signification into peril. Black girls and women, cis and trans, are subaltern subjects who inhabit multiple unstable identity categorizations. In some black expressive texts, they embody modes of being that instantiate formal disruption, societal refusal, and living rebellion. Rather than any sustained attempt at capture, this reading reckons with black femaleness as a category of critique, of trouble, of excess, of undomesticated gender and of wayward, fugitive blackness.
For it is within black girls, and specifically within what fascinates and thrills them (of the low and the loving), that we may find horizons of black livability.
This is one of seven essays from Queer(s) Reading. Read the other posts here.
- Aja Monet, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 97-98.
- Saidiya V. Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019)
- Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures. (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 83.
- Ibid., 83.
- Denise Ferreira da Silva, 2013. “To Be Announced: Radical Praxis and Knowing (at) the Limits of Justice.” Social Text 31 (1 114), 59.
- Ibid., 50.
- Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, 2018. “The Black Ecstatic.” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies 24 (2-3): 343-365.
- Aja Monet, My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 23-24.