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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.4 (2002) 787-794

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Queer Fictions of Race

Siobhan B. Somerville

By now a considerable body of work within literary studies and across disciplines has acknowledged the necessity of "intersectional" approaches for analyses of identity formation and representation. Rather than isolating particular axes of difference from one another, such approaches consider the constitutive role of discourses of sexuality, gender, and class in the production of race and racialization, for instance, and vice versa. Moving across and disrupting the stability of identity categories, queer theory has been enormously significant in drawing upon, conceiving, and transforming such intersectional methods. Although one familiar genealogy of queer studies locates its origins in the urgent need for a theory of sexuality (as distinct from theories of gender), in fact the most ambitious work in the field has critiqued any attempt to give priority to sexuality over other categories of identity. 1 Anchoring queer approaches exclusively or primarily to sexual orientation does not do justice to the potential reach of queer critique, which would destabilize the ground upon which any particular claim to identity can be made. Nor does such anchoring do justice to the ways in which queer critique and cultural production owe a debt to early intersectional approaches such as black feminist theory. Indeed, as distinguished from a formation such as lesbian and gay studies, queer theory potentially dislodges "the status of sexual orientation itself as the authentic and centrally governing [End Page 787] category of queer practice, thus freeing up queer theory as a way of reconceiving not just the sexual, but the social in general" (Harper et al. 1). The potential of queer theory has yet to be realized, however, and the field is still at the early stages of recognizing the urgency and full significance of placing questions of race and racialization at the center of our political and theoretical commitments.

If, to be viable, queer theory must be thoroughly informed by and linked to theories of race and ethnicity, fields organized around racial and ethnic identities (such as—especially in the United States—Asian-American Studies, Latino Studies, African-American/Black Studies, Native-American Studies, as well as less institutionalized formulations including so-called whiteness studies) also have much to gain from queer approaches. While the necessity for intersectional approaches is widely acknowledged, the intellectual, political, and institutional frameworks that we have inherited (and sometimes unwittingly reproduced) often put considerable pressure on maintaining boundaries between such axes of difference rather than exposing their imbrication. In fields organized around racial or ethnic identities, there has been a tendency to subordinate questions of sexuality and gender rather than seeing them as part of the historical processes by which those identities have been produced.

The stakes of intersectional approaches are thus potentially transformative theoretically, institutionally, and otherwise. As Dwight McBride has noted, "The point is not just one of intersection—as we have thought of it for so long—it is one of reconstitution" (377). Reconstituting these fields is already promisingly underway, and recent years have witnessed a strong and steady current of books, conferences, and journal issues that have gathered and pushed forward these efforts. 2 As part of that ongoing project, this special issue was first developed in spring 2001 with the realization that a number of essays that had been selected for publication in the regular review process for MFS formed a cluster with shared concerns and theoretical investments, indebted to the insights of both queer theory and critical approaches to race and ethnicity. Building on those initial essays, we issued a call for papers that resulted in an overwhelming response. The essays collected here demonstrate the varied and often surprising questions and models that can be generated when we begin from the assumption that race and sexuality are mutually constitutive categories of analysis. [End Page 788]

Kate Baldwin and Michael Maiwald, for example, each explore how different writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance drew upon critiques of capitalism in order to explore alternative models of masculinity and to expose the ways in which racial dominance is secured through...


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