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Reviewed by:
  • Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer"
  • Magdalena J. Zaborowska
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer.” Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 271 pp. $79.95 cloth; $22.95 paperback.

Kathryn Bond Stockton’s book is a welcome contribution to studies of race and sexuality in literature and visual culture and especially to the field whose cutting-edge name echoes in its subtitle – black queer studies. The defining collection of essays that sealed that field’s name comes from Duke University Press too; and, like Stockton’s book, its cover features a nude black male body. While both the essays in Black Queer Studies (eds. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson [2005]) and Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame assume the crisscrossing and intertwining of discourses on race and sexuality, the latter takes full advantage of its monograph length to focus intensely on the tropes, rhetoric, and often paradoxical imaginaries of abjection, shame, and humiliation. Stockton’s book argues forcefully that there are no “purely black” or “queer” forms of debasement, only “blended forms of shame” (23). This well researched and provocatively designed study deploys a rich toolkit of literary and psychoanalytic theory, critical race and cultural studies, and semiotics and queer theory. [End Page 379]

Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame explores “low” spaces of human interaction, or the meeting places for socially debased and degraded individuals and groups–black and queer people, or those marked by AIDS–in novels, film, photography, and popular culture venues like TV shows and news media. Stockton also shows that shame can be a thing of beauty in instances where abjection fosters self-scrutiny and uplift, where its certain manifestations are linked to desire and attraction, or where they enable production of knowledge and create possibilities for aesthetic expression, including “dark camp” (See, Conclusion). Her analyses of diverse, often purposefully divergent cultural texts privilege conceptual, thematic, and tropological synchronicities over chronology. Such an approach allows for “a circuitry of switchpoints” (4–5), a design that Stockton calls a “composite form” (23), one that helps to spark “point[s] of connection” between her two key signs–“black” and “queer” (5). The switchpoints help to organize the chapters around the moments of intense crossings of these key signs in relation to non-normative bodies whose diverse representations and productions Stockton studies throughout her book.

The introduction sets up the emergence of popular representations of “DL” or Down Low culture as the first of these switchpoints and argues for “probing the value of debasement as a central social action” (2). The richness of Stockton’s primary and secondary sources is both inspiring and challenging. To manage it, she loops back and forth through historic contexts to demonstrate how shame forces us to examine the complex workings of abjection and debasement that underlie mainstream American culture’s violent attractions to bodies of color and non-normative sexualities. This is also true, she shows, in the work of theorists, from Freud, Barthes, and Fanon to Lacan, Bataille, and Sontag, as well as in diverse American and European literary and visual representations. In chapter one, which links Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), Leslie Feingold’s Stone Butch Blues (1993), and Jean Genet’s Querelle (1947), Stockton explores “cloth wounds” or the workings and implication of sartorial shame on queer bodies, assuming that, like skin, “clothing raises the question of a surface to which shame attaches” (39). Moving from epidermal surfaces into the body, as it were, and across the bodies’ economic and social attachments to other bodies and communal settings, Chapter Two continues the examination of unexpected critical conversations. Proposing a specific “debasement” of “critical theories” (79), it demonstrates the limits of Freudian thought for reading Toni Morrison’s vision of black masculinity and femininity in Sula (1974). In a bold move that goes against some readings of Morrison’s text as seemingly homophobic, Stockton argues that this writer’s possibly riskiest engagement with anality undergirds Sula’s focus on homosocial bonds between lower-class black women.

The following chapters link the pain and yearning inherent in racialized and gendered homoerotic desire as they move between the material and the metaphorical...


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pp. 379-381
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