Black Gay / Gay Black


Champa Patel

University of Nottingham, Nottingham U.K.

Copyright © 2002 by Champa Patel, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Simms, Delroy Constantine, ed. The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities. Boston: Alyson Publications, 2001.

  1. With the current glut of academic writings on all aspects of social, cultural and political studies it is very difficult for any book to make a lasting impression. However, this collection of essays collected and edited by Delroy Constantine Simms is, in turn, thought-provoking, funny, academic, populist and insightful. Homosexuality remains one of the great taboos of modern society, and Simms brings together a range of writers from differing academic, journalistic and NGO backgrounds to comment on the multiple forms of discrimination faced by 'raced' individuals who are also homosexual. The volume opens with Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s introduction, which treats the black community and homosexuality as two separate dynamics and only points to any intersectionality between the two and its subsequent implications right at the end of his essay. Ironically, the structural and theoretical fallacies of Gates's introduction pave the way for the excoriating criticism the other writers heap on those individuals who treat blackness and homosexuality as mutually exclusive categories.

  2. The essays cover a wide range of issues and themes, such as body politics, music, dance, film, sport, literature, and the writers engage with a variety of sexualities constructed as 'deviant': bisexuality, transgendered people, drag queens, homosexuals, lesbians, same-gender-loving people, matis. This plurality of definition points to the range of behaviour that feels uncomfortably situated within conventional western markers and ideas of homosexuality. All of the essayists, through their conscious or unconscious choices of naming, engage with this idea within specific socio-cultural perspectives. For example, in a standout essay examining the RuPaul phenomenon, Seth Clark Silberman considers the impact of the English language in naming sexualities -- how such naming restricts and tries to contain behaviour within a system of understanding that is contrary to African American cultural norms.

  3. Some essayists develop this argument further by making diasporic identifications. Both Gloria Wekker's 'Matis-ism and Black Lesbianism: Two Idealtypical Expressions of Female Sexuality in Black Communities of the Diaspora,' and Cary Alan Johnson's 'Hearing Voices: Unearthing Evidence of Homosexuality in Precolonial Africa,' make a convincing and rigorous argument that Western models of understanding behaviour might obfuscate and repress the ways in which other languages and cultures construct and understand their sexual realities. Building on Foucault's work on the ways in which society polices and regulates sexuality, these two writers explore the difficulties of applying western conceptualisations of 'acceptable' behaviour to differing social and cultural contexts.

  4. One of the great pleasures in reading this anthology is not only that the essays are of a high standard as stand-alone pieces but also that there is a dialogue between certain pieces. This is true both within the relevant sections, such as the 'Sexuality and the Black Church,' and 'Homosexuality in Africa', and across the anthology as a whole. For example, Dwight McBride's essay, 'Can the Queen Speak?: Racial Essentialism, Sexuality, and the Problem of Authority,' offers a substantial critique of bell hooks's essay 'Homophobia in Black Communities,' which is also collected in this anthology. Other essayists offer different readings of the same character; Gregory Conerly's 'Swishing and Swaggering: Homosexuality in Black Magazines During the 1950s,' and Carmen Mitchell's 'Creations of Fantasies/Constructions of Identities: The Oppositional Lives of Gladys Bentley,' for instance, both critically examine Bentley, focusing respectively on black media responses to same-sex relationships and on the multiple subject identities of a Black lesbian. These different readings help to flesh out public figures into three-dimensional, complex, and often contradictory, personalities.

  5. Furthermore, a majority of the essays raise a crucial question: What are the political, cultural and social implications of identifying as black gay or gay black? Gregory Conerly addresses this most explicitly in 'Are You Black First or are You Queer?' but the issue is implicitly addressed in all the other essays. The essays highlight the problems that arise when race is privileged as a point of entry into identity politics and self-determination at the expense of other factors that also contribute to individuals' sense of self. The problem of replacing racial privileging with sexual privileging is most evident in Jason King's hugely enjoyable and intellectually rigorous 'Any Love: Silence, Theft, and Rumor in the Work of Luther Vandross.' King's basic premise, that privileging the racial is often to the detriment of other equally important factors, stands but in his zeal to prove his argument he unfortunately replicates the fallacies of the racially essentialist position by posting sexual identity as a key agency in identification.

  6. A disappointment was the very surprising omission, for this British reviewer, of any black British/European examinations of homophobia within black communities. Although these differing communities are referred to in certain pieces there is no essay-length treatment of the subject. In addition, most of the essays retain a North American bias so that the section on Africa seems almost like an afterthought. The anthology then, and admittedly it is a impossible task, was certainly not fully representative of the black diaspora but was quite specific to North America and Africa. In addition, although female sexuality is afforded more treatment than is usual in these types of anthologies, the text did also retain a male bias. In the final analysis, however, the anthology is very thorough in that it covers the institutional, political, social and cultural structures within which racism and homophobia coexist. For combining intellectualism with humour and vivid insights, and despite some minor quibbles in terms of geographical focus and treatment, this text deserves to be praised in the best possible terms.

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