Cruising Ethiopia: Worldmaking, Antinormativity, and Other Aesthetic Strategies in the Work of Pauline E. Hopkins

On June 9th, 2012, about a year prior to the Supreme Court ruling that would invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, Kate Taylor wrote an article for the New York Times entitled, “Black Leaders and Gay Advocates March in Step.” Taylor describes the two movements finding coalitional support in one another on the eve of two battles: the antiracist struggle against “Stop-and-Frisk” policing and the impending fight for marriage equality in the United States. In some respects, one would buy the predicating logic that these movements and their respective proponents make for strange bedfellows, though perhaps not for the reasons Taylor describes. The marriage equality movement, while having practical aims such as tax benefits, hospital visitation rights, and citizenship, is largely an effort to instantiate homosexual normativity in American culture; the fight against “Stop-and-Frisk,” — an important staging point for the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement — does not operate in the same symbolic order. It asks not necessarily that African-Americans be accepted into the fold of American values, but rather that African-Americans be spared the constant violence visited upon them by the state, thus fulfilling the notion that they are to be treated equally under the law regardless of their perceived Americanness.

What binds these groups, problematically figured in such discrete formations, is their common antagonist: state power working on behalf of white and heteropatriarchal ideological forces. Yet there’s much more between sex, gender, and race in America than what can be understood through modern political theater and its narratives alone. Though Taylor is right to diagnose a long history in which idealizations of sexual and racial performance have become wedge issues between Civil Rights and LGBT rights movements — and thus between straight black people and gay whites broadly defined — arguments like hers simultaneously reify assumptions we make about the inviolability of blackness and queerness in America as stable and essential identitarian positionalities. This brings to mind a number of questions that would be important to understanding a more ethical coalition politics: why do we continue to elide the fact that there exists a significant portion of LGBT-of-color Americans who must constantly negotiate their multiple alignments with these movements? Why is African-American politics continually perceived as sexually normative by default? Why are LGBT politics still overwhelmingly thought of as white? How have the social mythologies and narratives of black and queer experience in America induced such common-sense perceptions? How did the fight to desire and love freely become partitioned off from what we imagine to be the fundamental stakes of the black struggle? And, finally, how do sexually transgressive or gender variant subjects of color that experience their marginality intersectionally challenge and revise the doxa of these political frameworks through the invention of a queer-of-color imaginary? To attend to these questions, some scholars, such as Katherine Franke, have begun to look back into earlier history to know more about how race and sex politics interweave and mutually inform one another in the legal, extralegal, and literary cultures of the United States. My work looks specifically at the Post-Reconstruction period and early Jim Crow as a dense nodal point in the genealogy of American sexual politics, one rife with texts that narrativized and challenged sexual and racial ideology in normative and queer ways. Domestic organization and marriage were central to this cultural debate; this serves to indicate that not only have marriage politics had a much longer half-life in American culture than can be encapsulated by LGBT marriage equality, but that marriage and domesticity were central subjects to early critical race theory and early Jim Crow racial ideology.

In my paper, and throughout my work, I suggest that queer theory, especially where the nineteenth-century is concerned, is still in need of significant “racing.” My work focuses on the vitality of black uplift literature of the late-nineteenth century to the emergence of popular queer concepts like “worldmaking” and “disidentification” in postmodern America. Primarily with queer scholarly audiences in mind, I hold that African-American literary scholarship has often attended to sexual transgression, even when it has not termed it “queer.” Thus, I attempt to route queer theory and the queer-of-color critical genealogy through the emergence of the African-American literary tradition in the post-Reconstruction era. In doing so, I engage with that era’s production of heterosexuality, as well as its investment with biraciality, amalgamation, and miscegenation as sexual pathologies and imaginative forms of resistance. For the purposes of this conference, I center this argument on an examination of Pauline E. Hopkins’ novels and letters, claiming that Hopkins’ imaginative speculative fictions on the sex politics of raciality evoke a kind of Muñozian queer utopianism. Hopkins’ work serves as evidence that there is no post- or after-marriage moment because marriage and domestic ideology are much larger social discourses with long historical spans. Her imaginative and diverse depiction of domestic ideology and marriage in her speculative fiction shows that early critical race theorists and other cultural figures already expressed varying degrees of ambivalence about the politics of marriage and domestic ideality long before gay liberation.


Part of panel Reimagining Queer Collectivities and Kinship Outside Marriage
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45