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Blackening Queer Studies and Sexing Black Studies
Dwight A. McBride has emerged as one of the most unique voices in African American studies in the last decade or so. As the recent chairman of a reinvigorated African American studies department at Northwestern University, McBride [End Page 510] has positioned his department to make crucial and necessary interventions into what African American studies can contribute to the U.S. academy. Through McBride's stewardship of the department's faculty hiring program, scholars working across a range of disciplines (from history to political science to cultural studies) in the humanities and social sciences have joined the Northwestern department signaling what a new African American studies in the twenty-first century might look like. McBride's leadership inaugurates a decidedly different and more theoretically engaged African American studies department with a still decidedly engaged community stance. Such an accomplishment is no small feat, as African American studies departments and programs continue to languish or disappear across the United States because of underfunding and other forms of institutional neglect, not to mention outright attacks on the field's credibility.
Enter McBride with his collected essays, Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch. These essays take up two fields of study that have reconfigured the social sciences and humanities over the last thirty years or so: studies of race and racism, in particular black studies and ethnic studies; and studies of sexuality, in particular gay and lesbian studies and queer theory. McBride's multidisciplinary essays cross-pollinate black studies and queer theory to challenge both fields to account for their blind spots, their key debates, and their claims to authority. In this regard the ethical component of McBride's essays is the strongest and most salient quality of the book. I raise the ethical here because McBride makes no bones about the moral position and challenge that he throws out to both scholars and a more general intellectual community. By the ethical I mean to signal a range of political concerns for which there are no set answers but for which serious and sustained political and intellectual engagement might allow us to work toward contingent and meaningful strategies of settlement outside a discourse of religious moral terms. One of the book's opening epigraphs is taken from Ephesians 6:10–13 in which God is put on as armor to wrestle with worldly evils. While practices that make use of religious epigraphs often strike me as curious and troubling, for scholarship is always for me about the demands of a secular, democratic life and future, McBride's turn to the language of morals (which I am renaming and insisting is really the ethical) is a politically shrewd and strategic move, given the role that Christian fundamentalism has come to play in the U.S. public sphere.1 The ethical claim of McBride's scholarship concerns itself with what forms of possibility and hope might exist for the racialized and homosexualized other of the Euro-American imaginary, for which those others remain a pollutant to the proper body politic of the nation.
Such concerns come across clearly in the title essay, in which McBride [End Page 511] probes how the now ubiquitous clothier Abercrombie and Fitch (A&F) not only reproduces a racialized and imagined white gentry U.S. citizen in its advertising but also uses its employment practices to mirror in its stores the images and ideology of its catalog. By probing A&F across representation and actual employment practices, McBride is able to ask difficult questions of the convergence between race and sexuality in twenty-first century U.S. cultural politics. The A&F essay points to how racialized sexualities seem to be offered little or no space in the recent popular visibility of queers in urban North...