In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Queer Practices and African American Culture

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

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African American Studies Queer Practices and African American Culture
James Bliss
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0119


The texts in this article offer perspectives on queer practices in African American culture that cut across empirical and speculative forms of scholarship, alongside primary sources. These lists combine works of scholarship with primary documents, particularly since the mid-twentieth century, to the extent that both broad genres participate in the documenting of Black queer lives as Black queer lives. Along these lines, the texts collected across these lists deploy a variety of methodological and disciplinary strategies for representing practices that resist in necessary ways being reduced to scholarly discourses. Black historiography is, itself, a practice of recovery from the archives of an antiblack world. A tradition of Black feminist practitioners in history and cultural studies have demonstrated the manifold ways Black life is distorted by archives of Black subjugation. Recovering Black histories has meant reading across distortions and absences within these archives. Representing contemporary Black life practices has, likewise, meant working through and against ongoing forms of structural violence that pathologize Black life. Scholarship on queer practices in Black cultures, whether historical or contemporary in focus, requires working through distortions and gaps in already-fraught archives, and requires working against multiple, simultaneous forms of pathologization. For the purposes of this article, both “queer practices” and “African American culture” will be defined broadly. On the latter concept, notwithstanding the challenge of delineating something called “culture” within a social field that has, historically, maligned the inventiveness of Black people, “African American culture” here encompasses the array of Black inventive practices from the everyday to the extraordinary. In the context of this article, queerness shall encompass nonnormative sexualities and genders. This preliminary definition is immediately complicated by the sexual politics of structural racism. Namely: What, for Black Americans, might be the parameters of a normative gender or sexuality? From the perspective of an antiblack world, is there such a thing as an intersection between Blackness and the normative? In Aberrations in Black, Roderick Ferguson puts it this way, “as figures of nonheteronormative perversions, straight African Americans were reproductive rather than productive, heterosexual but never heteronormative” (p. 87). To be sure, really existing African American communities have their own standards of normative and nonnormative behaviors around and performances of gender and sexuality. The challenge for scholarship is to attend to the specificities of Black queer lives without ignoring the queerness internal to Blackness itself, which is also to say the queerness and the Blackness of life itself.

General Overview

The field of Black queer studies took shape fitfully over a span of generations. The first generation consists of what might be called para-academic collections and anthologies, among them Smith 2000 and the collected essays and speeches of in Lorde 2007. Hemphill 2007 establishes an itinerary for literary practice and criticism that was overtaken by a more explicitly if uncomfortably academic practice. The latter took shape in special issues, the first being Harper, et al. 1997 in the pages of Social Text, which incorporated a Black queer studies within broader questions of race and nation. It was the Plum Nelly special issue of Callaloo (Brody and McBride 2000) that set an agenda for a more explicitly academic formation of Black queer studies. Besides a historical critique of the racial and sexual politics of sociological practice, Aberrations in Black (Ferguson 2003) offers an elaboration of the stakes and possibilities of Black queer studies as a field formation (the politics of which shaped the author’s later monograph projects). The field was further consolidated by Black Queer Studies (Johnson and Henderson 2005), which collects scholars from across the humanities in the first critical anthology on the subject. After a decade during which the field grew in both breadth and depth, Johnson 2016 is a new collection, No Tea, No Shade, that extends the work of the previous collection while including new work, especially around Black trans studies. More recently, Davis and Black Sexual Economies Collective 2019 is an edited collection building from the Black Sexual Economies Collective, which endeavors to shift the focus of scholarship on Black gender and sexual minorities to include and to center matters of political economy and structural violence. Additionally, with Smalls and Powell 2019, the field continues to deepen its engagement with the growing field of Black trans studies.

  • Brody, Jennifer DeVere, and Dwight A. McBride. “Introduction.” In Special Issue: Plum Nelly; New Essays in Black Queer Studies. Edited by Charles Henry Rowell. Callaloo 23.1 (2000): 286–288.

    DOI: 10.1353/cal.2000.0003

    This special issue of Callaloo collects seventy works of short fiction, memoir, poetry, theory, and criticism in and on Black queer studies.

  • Davis, Adrienne D., and the Black Sexual Economies Collective, eds. Black Sexual Economies: Race and Sex in a Culture of Capital. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019.

    An edited collection with a focus on the relationship between queer racialized subjects and the political economies of contemporary racial capitalism.

  • Ferguson, Roderick. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

    Ferguson’s first monograph puts canonical work of sociology in conversation with major works of Black American literature, where “queer of color critique” names the tension between the two sets of texts.

  • Harper, Philip Brian, Anne McClintock, José Esteban Muñoz, and Trish Rosen, eds. Special Issue: Queer Transexions of Race, Nation, and Gender. Social Text 52–53 (Winter 1997).

    This special issue of Social Text marks a moment in the history of queer theory when it began to think seriously about race and nation, and a moment when queer theorists of color announced their work as part of the project of critical theory. Contains early essays of a theory-oriented Black queer studies.

  • Hemphill, Essex, ed. Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men. Washington, DC: RedBone, 2007.

    A collection that extends the work of Joseph Beam’s In the Life, collecting dozens of works of poetry, prose, and criticism by Black gay men, alongside works that place their work in historical context.

  • Johnson, E. Patrick. No Tea, No Shade: New Writings in Black Queer Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822373711

    A sequel-of-sorts to Black Queer Studies, this edited collection deepens some of the work of the previous volume while endeavoring to include parts of the field that had not been represented.

  • Johnson, E. Patrick, and Mae G. Henderson, eds. Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    The first edited volume of Black queer studies by a major academic press, Black Queer Studies collects work by leading scholars in the fields of Black and queer cultural studies.

  • Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: Crossing, 2007.

    Originally published in 1984, Sister Outsider contains many of Lorde’s best-known speeches and essays, which analyze interlocking modes of oppression with an eye toward individual and collective action.

  • Smalls, Shanté Paradigm, and Elliott H. Powell, eds. Special Issue: An ImPossibility; Black Queer and Trans* Aesthetics. The Black Scholar 49.1 (2019).

    DOI: 10.1080/00064246.2019.1548054

    This special issue of The Black Scholar lays out a new agenda for contemporary Black queer studies, with special attention paid to the growing field of Black trans* studies.

  • Smith, Barbara. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

    Originally published in 1983, Smith’s Black Feminist Anthology, which expands on her earlier special issue of Conditions (coedited with Lorraine Bethel), cuts across genres and themes to lay out the breadth, depth, and complexity of Black feminist thought. The anthology gives central attention to the lives, artworks, and politics of Black lesbians.

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