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  • What Child Is This?: Closely Reading Collectivity and Queer Childrearing in Lackawanna Blues and Noah’s Arc
  • Vincent Stephens (bio)

Collectivity is a deeply embedded strategy in African American culture that has historically functioned as a response to challenging social and economic conditions. From the mid- to late twentieth century and beyond, African American “families of choice”—intimate associations of biological and nonblood relatives cohabiting and sharing household responsibilities—have been a primary mode of collectivity that has challenged the hegemony of the heterosexual nuclear family. The nuclear structure’s preeminence as an exemplar of U. S. affiliative ideals belies the postwar economic and racial biases that limited its material accessibility, engineered the failure of such structures to foster stability and health, and obscures the functionality of other household models. Renewed critical attention to the alternative modes of kinship African Americans have cultivated is essential to understanding how diverse households provide emotional and material sustenance.

“What Child is This” examines two cultural depictions of African American “families of choice” in order to challenge two modes of white sexual normativity. First, my reading of the “othermothering” and “exchange relationships” represented in the autobiographical telefilm Lackawanna Blues challenges white heteronormative logic that black conformity to the nuclear family will resolve racialized economic and social gaps. Second, my reading of same-sex couple parenting in the series Noah’s Arc is a rejoinder to “queer negativity,” a white homonormative strain of queer theory opposed to various forms of sociality but lacking critical attention to the historically subversive role of alternative kinship structures for African Americans. Both readings address the devotion of nonbiological adults to child figures within these families and elucidate the enduring utility of extended family households as unique nexuses of care for African American adults and children.

Conceptualizing Collectivity

Cornel West’s provocative statement on the value of “black culture” warrants close critical scrutiny for its encapsulation of collectivity’s symbolic utility for African Americans:

The genius of our black foremothers and forefathers was to create powerful buffers to ward off the nihilistic threat, to equip black folk with cultural armor to beat back the demons of hopelessness, meaninglessness, and lovelessness. These buffers consisted of cultural structures of meaning and feeling that created and sustained communities; this armor constituted ways of life and struggle that embodied values of service and sacrifice, love and care, discipline and excellence. In other words, traditions for black surviving and thriving under usually adverse New World conditions were major barriers against the nihilistic threat.

(40) [End Page 235]

This excerpt’s ideological essence could be interpreted either as a nationalist statement rife with essentialist presumptions or as a benign statement of cultural pride. I read it as an acknowledgement of the psychological and behavioral toll of white supremacy, racism and class subordination. West places African American “counterpublic” formations, generated by African Americans for their sustenance as integral to “African American identity” and acknowledges the “linked fate” of blacks, tied to a shared national experience. Significantly, the quotation does not imply that all blacks have or have had an interchangeable experience; there is room for variance. The compelling subtext of his statement is that black racial pride is not benign or ornamental but the embodiment of the specificity and urgency of institution-building among African Americans. The import of his statement here is significant, since the social gaps and the resultant psychological nihilism he addresses in the larger article remain integral to African American life.

Communal values, particularly “service and sacrifice, love and care,” are important because African Americans have generated traditions worth acknowledging as a heritage. Understanding community in terms of the intimate relations formed through erotic relationships, friendships and living arrangements localizes and grounds community. The United States is arguably transitioning from traditional to modern and postmodern intimacies, and a hallmark of this transition is a social recognition of the pluralized ways people form and sustain intimate relations (Plummer 8–9). This transition raises important questions about the ways certain intimate relations are socially valued over others.

The heterosexual nuclear family comprised of a man and woman who divide gender roles and reproduce has been the central social ideal of intimate relationships since the post...


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pp. 235-253
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