GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.4 (2000) 529-553
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Philadelphia and the Race of "Brotherly Love"
The white man has deprived him of his masculinity, castrated him in the center of his burning skull, and when he submits to this change and takes the white man for his lover as well as Big Daddy, he focuses on "whiteness" all the love in his pent up soul and turns the razor edge of hatred against "blackness"--upon himself, what he is, and all those who look like him, remind him of himself.
--Eldridge Cleaver, "Notes on a Native Son"
Eldridge Cleaver, former Black Panther minister of information, opens his "Notes on a Native Son" with a series of celebratory remarks about James Baldwin, each of which demonstrates that Cleaver "lusted for anything that Baldwin had written." But as Cleaver comes to see Baldwin as a black gay man, his prior identification with him takes a sharp turn. Suddenly, Cleaver indicts Baldwin for having a "total hatred of the blacks, particularly of himself"; in short, Baldwin has a "racial death-wish." 1 Insofar as Cleaver understands white racial supremacy primarily through the figure of castration, Baldwin's homosexuality signals no more to him than a submission to whiteness. Fully excluding the possibility of a black male homosexuality that would not take as its primary coordinates a love of whiteness, Cleaver reads the existence of homosexuality in black male embodiment as the unilateral effect of racial domination: the white male subject deprives the black man of his masculinity, while the black male subject, to the extent that he is or becomes homosexual, submits unequivocally to such a castrating deprivation.
As Cleaver's language makes clear, the dominant register for understanding the tactics of this racist deprivation is at once material and symbolic, turning [End Page 529] on a literal and a metaphorical castration of black men. Though the thematics of castration has proved a powerful mobilizing rhetoric in antiracist struggle in the United States, my project here centers on the barely perceptible move whereby castration is converted from a mere description of the tactics of white racism into an antiracist analytic by which such white masculine tactics are diagnosed, critiqued, and imaginatively resisted. I suggest that there is a certain inevitability to Cleaver's sudden disidentification with Baldwin when castration is the only way in which to conceptualize white racial domination. If white supremacy can be thought only through the phallic economy of castration, black homosexuality quite predictably becomes the submissive effect of white racism.
While Cleaver's understanding of the formation of African American male homosexuality is fairly straightforward--the black male homosexual has responded uniformly and submissively to the white man's sexualized domination--it is startlingly less clear where white homosexuality is to be found in this scenography of castration. Is the white subject who deprives the black man of his masculinity under and in the wake of U.S. slavery to be understood as essentially homosexual? Or would white masculinity's attempt to castrate black men signal an "activity" on the part of white men that is fundamentally at odds with homosexuality's purportedly essential "passivity"? My answers to these questions take a circuitous route, one that first negotiates the lynching/castration scene that animates Cleaver and others to figure homosexuality as an "external" racial threat. 2 My destination is the film Philadelphia (1994), which materializes the white gay male subject, but in a manner that brings into crisis the antiracist discourse that has relied on normative sexual and gender relations--and the figure of their humiliating unmaking, castration--to critique white masculine supremacy. Philadelphia reminds us that the history of racial castration to which Cleaver refers often contains no self-named gay subject, white or black; rather, the interracial masculine dramas inaugurated in U.S. slavery mobilize the phobic signifiers of homosexuality-- passivity, castration, submission--in a way that finally derealizes homosexuality. I suggest that the excision of the homosexual as subject has been crucial to the racist assignment...