- Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race by Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman
A new frontier is emerging in critical race studies that places the erotic at the center of understanding how race operates. Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman’s Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and [End Page 186] the Erotics of Race joins Sharon Holland’s The Erotic Life of Racism (2012), Jolie A. Sheffer’s The Romance of Race: Incest, Miscegenation, and Multiculturalism in the United States, 1880–1930 (2012), and Siobhan Brook’s Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry (2010) in exploring the sexual underpinnings of racial constructions, particularly those concerned with blackness. This shift pushes the necessary exchange between queer theory and critical race studies to the forefront of any work that considers both the limiting and liberating potential of racialized discourse. Books like Against the Closet demonstrate the impossibility of considering sexuality and race as discrete categories. One of Abdur-Rahman’s primary contributions to this important scholarly turn is to highlight how the abject racial other and the sexual deviant do not constitute separate identities but are instead deeply intertwined.
Against the Closet is especially incisive in revealing the reciprocal relationship between transgressive sexualities and images of blackness. Abdur-Rahman reminds us in the introduction that “the very notion of racialized sexual pathology depended on emerging discourses of homosexuality” (9). Tracing a literary history that spans from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, Against the Closet argues that African American writers use depictions of sexual deviance to both disavow heteronormativity and express political longings for individual and collective freedom. This ambitious reformulation of black writers’ relationship to transgressive erotic acts links an array of historical periods (slavery, post-Reconstruction, civil rights and black power, and the post-civil rights era) to specific forms of sexual perversity. While the first two chapters focus on white acts of aggression on black bodies, the second half of the book explores forms of black desire. Abdur-Rahman understands representations of sexual deviance as emancipatory. However, given the absence of a sustained theoretical discussion of the closet as a recurring trope, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. The expressive culture described here is less concerned with the negation of the closet than with the generative and dynamic possibilities of sexual transgression.
Abdur-Rahman’s skillful reading of Frederick Douglass’s depiction of the whipping of Aunt Hester and a frequently neglected chapter in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl concerning a brutally abused male slave argues that sadomasochism is a defining trope of antebellum slavery. In an inspired consideration of the oft-quoted but rarely interrogated term, “peculiar institution,” Abdur-Rahman demonstrates how illegitimate sexual arrangements are intrinsic to the very designations of slavery. Such insights, which abound in this slim volume, demonstrate how the most vital concerns of queer theory are intrinsic to the experience of enslavement and [End Page 187] its discursive representations. The second chapter on lynching reads William Faulkner’s A Light in August alongside Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces. While both texts reveal the sexual features of lynching, I was dismayed that Abdur-Rahman did not elaborate on her surprising claim to Faulkner’s “rightful inclusion in the African American literary canon” (21). However, her supple analysis persuasively argues that lynching is a kind of racialized gang rape that both responds to and affirms a threatened white masculinity.
Chapter three, “Desire and Treason in Mid-Twentieth Century Political Protest Fiction,” is the most diffuse section of the book as it unites readings of Ann Petry’s The Narrows with a consideration of James Baldwin’s Another Country and Just above My Head. Abdur-Rahman focuses on depictions of racial desire but the link to sexual perversity is less convincing than in the other chapters of the book. Part of the difficulty here may be the broad sweep of Against the Closet, which in its handling of mid-twentieth century African American literature too quickly narrows in...