Seminar “Transatlantic Black Queer Networks”
Université Gustave Eiffel, May 25, 2022
On May 25th, 2022, the research laboratory LISAA held the round table seminar “Transatlantic Black Queer Networks” at Université Gustave Eiffel, in anticipation of the International Communication Association’s (ICA) 72nd annual conference, which took place on May 26th-29th, 2022 in Paris, France. Xavier Lemoine (Université Gustave Eiffel) invited Professor and performing artist E. Patrick Johnson (Northwestern University), a specialist in African American Studies and Performance Studies, and Professor Jean-Paul Rocchi (Université Gustave Eiffel), a specialist in American Studies and Gender Studies, to discuss the emergence of transatlantic black queer networks during the 20th century. Reflecting the ICA conference’s overarching theme One World, One Network, the seminar proved to be an energized and enriching dialogue on the informal means by which black queer artists and intellectuals have produced enduring transatlantic exchanges, from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Xavier Lemoine opened with a set of exploratory prompts which seem to fall along three main axes: (1) the history and memory of transatlantic black queer networks; (2) the form these networks have taken; (3) how the scholars’ respective works reflect these networks.
The floor was first given to E. Patrick Johnson who began by historically locating the birth of transatlantic black queer networks during the exodus of African American artists to Europe in the early 20th century. Many African American writers and artists chose self-exile as a means to escape American racism which often limited their artistic potentiality. Among the most famous examples, one can note Josephine Baker and James Baldwin who hoped to escape the American color line by moving from the U.S. to Paris and consequently created more organically constructed networks than their white counterparts who historically had access to cultural institutions of influence. African Americans and LGBTQ+ artists relied on less formal networks for support and to create spaces of inclusion. Johnson used the term “homosociality,” which is interesting as it is traditionally used in Sociology to describes platonic relationships between men and “is applied to explain how men, through their friendships and intimate collaborations with other men, maintain and defend the gender order and patriarchy of the same sex.” 1 However, Johnson queers the word to describe how African American queer artists have built informal networks through such social gatherings as rent parties and other social events, where political activism and artistic expression developed as an afterthought. Thus, Johnson’s linguistic choice seems logical as Blacks in America have used impromptu venues such as churches, cookouts, and other informal gatherings to assemble, politically, since Emancipation. Although the Black Nationalism and the Nation of Islam movements questioned whether Christianity was conducive to black emancipation in the latter half of the 1960’s, there is no denying that many black activists used the church as an informal venue to express political discontent.
Jean-Paul Rocchi chimed in to highlight that just two decades later, the black queer renaissance of the 1980s 2 built coalitions among black communities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Caribbean to demand that their conservative governments acknowledge the detrimental impact of the AIDS epidemic on queer communities of color. 3 This process created spaces where desire intersects with creative networks, becoming a political space but also a holistic network of black support. Although black queer artists formed less organized and more elusive networks, they nevertheless created transnational dialogues between America, Europe, and Africa that demanded further visibility to black queer peoples. Since their artforms do not necessarily follow heteronormative norms, the spaces recreated were not necessarily for identity formation. Rather, the construction of black queer spaces is a distinct process, because black queer structures are not predetermined either by family structures or by inheritance and are not inevitably transmitted from one generation to another. Instead, they are constructed as they are needed. Rocchi posited that this seminar is an incarnation of these networks and of the need to render them visible. For black queer artists and scholars, this is a completely freeing revelation. Black queer art recreates the possibility of the connection between the artist and the viewer which is oftentimes limited by white heteronormativity. In a sense, scholarship reconsiders the actualization and materialization of these freeing spaces and promotes black queer art as an idea of connection, which does not automatically exclude an array of human possibilities. Although there may be an urge to argue that this is true for any minority position, when we go back to generation and community building, queer communities are unique. Again, queer identities and structures are not predetermined by legacy and, therefore, are not necessarily passed down from one generation to another and are thus not meant to supplement legacy or transmission but to reinforce the possibilities of identification and transmission.
However, Johnson underlined that queer communities were not all treated equally. In the mid-20th century, queer literature was difficult to get acknowledged. Yet, when a limited number of literary circles began to accept queer representations, it was queer white men who were writing about it. Black queers found it difficult to implant their works. Johnson’s observation appears likely, as unlike William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, black writers such as James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston, who is alleged to have had lesbian affairs, were not taken seriously. In a well-known anecdote, Baldwin’s publisher advised him to burn his transcript of Giovanni’s Room (1956), because it was about same-sex love between two white men and would alienate him from his base. In Notes of a Native Son (1955), Baldwin conjectured that he was well aware of the literary career that awaited him in the U.S.: a black writer destined to write “about the Negro Problem, concerning which the color of [his] skin made [him] automatically an expert.” 4 Therefore, the presence of Baldwin as a black artists and intellectual was highly sought after for insight into the unsolvable “Negro Problem.” Johnson reminded the audience, however, that Baldwin was a commodity, fetishized and colonized by white consumerism. He did not control the structures or institutions which circulated and monetized his work and was not in a position of power to change the structures he inhabited. Nonetheless, he and other queer artists strove to make these flaws visible through their art and transform that art into an aspirational and liminal space. Black queer artists move in the same space as their audience and, therefore, in the same utopian air that their art creates. There is something about presence that is utopic, fleeting, and ephemeral, or what Johnson articulates as “iodic.”
Rocchi responded by highlighting that literature and performance art result in the actualization and materialization of this aspirational space and further promote spaces where the possibility of connection is not excluded. Literary research is about affectivity and affects which generate from a text a space of possible connection between the literary artist and the reader. Rocchi ended the evening with the inspiring conclusion that the seminar (its existence) is an embodiment of transatlantic black queer networks. The presence of E. Patrick Johnson in Paris or Jean-Paul Rocchi in New York is an avatar of this network. The next step is to organize the materiality of this reality and its political meaning. There are teachings to be learned from black queer artists and scholars, as their site as the “other” makes them more alert about the possibilities of identities. Their work and the networks they create are not necessarily about reinventing the world or identities. Rather, they are about opening up spaces for discussion on how we may restructure the reality we inhabit. In short, experiential art helps to form identities and offers the potential for transformation and fluidity of those identities.
- Nils Hammarén and Thomas Johansson, “Homosociality: In Between Power and Intimacy,” Sage Open, 2014: https://doi.org/10.1177/215824401351805↵
- Scholar Darius Bost defines the black queer renaissance of the 1980’s as “a range of cultural forms—media, literature, film, dance, music, and performance—as a mode of community building, political mobilization, and self-determination in the face of state neglect and cultural exclusion.” Bost locates the beginning of the artistic and intellectual movement in the late 1970’s with the publication of Adrian Stanford’s Black & Queer (1977) and in response to rising white conservatism and the “complex ideologies about lesbians and gays” that such mainstream moments as the Black Panthers and The Nation of Island held; Darius Bost, “The 1980’s Black Gay Cultural Renaissance,” Oxford African American Studies Center, 2019: https://doi.org/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.013.78532↵
- Performative artist and poet Assotto Sain and writer-scholar Melvin Dixon visibilized (homo)sexuality through their art and activism to survive the AIDS epidemic which took their lives in the late 1980’s to mid-90’s. For more information, see: Erin Durban-Albrecht, “The Legacy of Assotto Saint: Tracing Transnational History from the Gay Haitian Diaspora,” Journal of Haitian Studies, 19/ 1, 2013, 235-256; Justin A. Joyce and Dwight A. McBride (eds.), A Melvin Dixon Critical Reader, Jackson, University of Mississippi Press, 2010 .↵
- James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin: Collected Essays, New York, Literary Classics of the US, 1998 , p. 5.↵
Ronnel Keith Berry
Ronnel Keith Berry, PhD is a James Baldwin scholar and recent graduate of African American Literature at Université Paris Cité. Entitled The Paradox of White Innocence in the Works of James Arthur Baldwin, his doctoral project offers a Critical Whiteness Studies understanding of how Baldwin’s early fiction works within the political, social, and artistic context of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-1968) to develop a heuristic understanding of how post-war notions of whiteness negatively impact Baldwin’s White characters. Ronnel has recently been selected to draft a chapter for the upcoming The Routledge Companion to James Baldwin. He is also the author of the co-authored paper “Reading the Sensual in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room” (Transatlantica, 2023) and “Racial Intelligibility and the Search for Happiness in James Arthur Baldwin’s Another Country” (Revue française des études américaines, 2018). His research interests include African American Literature, Transatlanticism, Critical Whiteness Studies and African Diaspora Literatures.
Pour citer cet article
Ronnel Keith Berry, Seminar “Transatlantic Black Queer Networks”, ©2023 Quaderna, mis en ligne le 11 septembre 2023, url permanente : https://quaderna.org/6/seminar-transatlantic-black-queer-networks/