- The Color of Shame: Reading Kathryn Bond Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame in Context
Kathryn Bond Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame: Where “Black” Meets “Queer” takes shame as a productive site of inquiry about identities that are produced by repeated public debasement, even though, as Stockton says, “debasement should not be seen as a theme in this book” (8). Not wanting to view Blackness and queerness as simple or fixed notions (as indicated by the quotation marks in Stockton’s title), Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame seeks rather to explore “switchpoints between black and queer, queer and black” (5) in order to discover the value of shame for critical cultural analysis. Stockton writes:
Debasement is a fully indispensable informant. It is a key to understanding the ties, bold and subtle, between two signs that would seem linguistically, historically separate. The strangeness of queerness would not seem particularly destined to meet the darkness of blackness, except in the bodies of dark queer folk. We will see this is not so. Shame is an equal-opportunity meeting place for these signs. In fact, I believe we cannot grasp certain complicated cultural, historical entanglements between “black” and “queer” without, at the same time, interrogating shame—its beautiful, generative, sorrowful debasements that make bottom pleasures so dark and so strange.(8)
Exploring “black” and “queer” in connection with the unlikely category of shame allows Stockton to bring together terms and texts that are not frequently in dialogue with each other. She considers the “dark camp” of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of “cloth wounds and skin wounds” in David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club (206, 216). She finds concern with Blackness in the unlikely interstitial spaces of canonical queer texts that do not feature characters of African descent, such as Jean Genet’s 1953 Querelle, Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 The Well of Loneliness, and Leslie Feinberg’s 1993 Stone Butch Blues. In these texts, Stockton argues innovatively that clothing becomes the vector for negotiating the shame and debasement of non-normative genders and sexualities much as black skin has become both a marker and vector for racial debasement. She claims:
Cloth and skin touch on each other’s meanings since each is a surface—with intense, complex, and variable codings attached to it—that may be the object of prejudice, violence, attraction, and invective. Each may be physically marked with a wound (torn cloth, torn skin) and each can elicit psychic wounds (self-loathing, for example) because of the shame it seems to carry. Each can also, in certain contexts, elicit pride—or sexual attraction and aesthetic delight. That is, there is beauty.(40)
Drawing a correlation between skin and cloth allows Stockton to explore the ways in which wounding is enacted upon and then reappropriated by those subjected to it in relationship to the categories of shame and debasement. Stockton explores the characters in these novels as “martyrs to their clothes” to reveal how “shame can adhere to forms of beauty” (41). Those whose only “sin is their skin” might bristle at the idea that clothing could be made equivalent to the complex social codings of race. Nonetheless, Kathryn Bond Stockton’s book suggests the possibilities and pitfalls for theorizing beyond conventional understandings of race and gender. On the one hand, Stockton’s desire “to probe the value of debasement as a central social action” allows a necessary inquiry into the ways in which “‘black’ and ‘gay’ at the level of signs” are locked into what she terms “a bottom” enactment of the complicated politics of shame (2). This allows her a provocative and original engagement with texts by Toni Morrison, Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, Radclyffe Hall, James Baldwin, and Roland Barthes. On the other hand, by accepting “debasement” as the predominant category through which to view “the crossing of signs” between Black and gay, Stockton locks her inquiry into widely accepted concepts of “black” and “queer” (as evidenced by her reliance on the New York Times Magazine in her opening discussion of “the Down Low”). This...