- Love in ActionNoting Similarities between Lynching Then and Anti-LGBT Violence Now
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I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.—James Baldwin
At my job I am the only out, visibly black woman in the college—when I remind colleagues that I am integrating the university but have no National Guard to help me do so, they are both surprised by the fact of my uniqueness and puzzled by my recourse to that history to drive home my point. Queers have long since been cautioned to stay away from the use of the moniker “civil rights” . . . To whose body does this history truly belong?—Sharon Holland
If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.—Unknown
At the 2012 Callaloo Conference, participants examined a topic too seldom explored in intellectual spaces: love. One panel in particular demanded that I continue to wrestle with its implications. I had the honor of moderating “Queering Love,” the session in which Marlon Ross and Sharon Holland gave theoretically challenging presentations. Aside from offering powerful arguments, each made what seemed to be sidebar comments that left a lasting impression. Ross reminded us that, despite declarations to the contrary, it is a myth that black communities are exceptionally homophobic. He noted that African Americans have always recognized and accepted a range of sexual expression.1 Yet, even as Ross urged us to maintain our faith in the community’s welcoming spirit, Holland noted the danger of viewing the community as a family because it has yet to make space for lesbians. “We are not fully within the fold,” she said to me after the panel.
Both descriptions felt right to me. Black communities are not as homophobic as has become the mainstream contention,2 and these communities do not fully embrace lesbians. How should I understand the truth of both statements? Might thinking these declarations [End Page 689] together be the essence of queering love?—of understanding it in more dynamic ways? And, because love is worthless without action, how might wrestling with the tension between Ross’s and Holland’s comments translate into action? If queering love would reveal deeper truths, then it would also necessitate ever more demanding acts, the quest and daring and growth that James Baldwin identified as the work of love. Ironically, violence showed me how to queer love—how to free it from predetermined boundaries—and to accept Baldwin’s challenge to embrace being and doing as its fundamental imperative.
When Holland reminds us that she is integrating spaces without the help of the National Guard, she points to a threatening specter that hovers over her everyday existence. The threat will not retreat; violence can emerge as easily as a response to her queerness as to her blackness as to her womanness. Very often in this country, it is violence that stands at the intersection of those identity categories. Facing this reality is not about accepting victimization as the distinguishing feature of one’s identity. After all, it is not identity that is the problem, but rather, the country’s aggressive heteronormativity, racism, and sexism. To identify these congregating oppressions is to claim agency—by telling the truth about the environment the United States creates for some of its citizens. Potentially needing the National Guard says much more about American society than about a queer black woman.
Studying lynching for the past fifteen years has taught me that violence is used to mark who belongs and who does not, so challenging it requires resisting the belief that those targeted have no rightful claim to space. To critique aggression is to insist that its targets deserve inclusion, not just tolerance. In the process, one must refuse to surrender to shame, the most powerful partner violence has. Because it polices the borders of mainstream acceptability, violence...