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  • Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race by Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman
  • Emily A. Owens (bio)
Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman, Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race Durham: Duke University Press, 2012. 200 pages.

Beginning with canonical slave narratives and closing with a meditation on the spectacular racial-sexual life and death of Michael Jackson, Against the Closet offers a bold and timely exploration of black sexuality across the ages that is as firmly rooted in the history of African Americans as it is deft and innovative with close readings. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman begins with the now widely accepted notion that race and sexuality are coterminous, and turns to black fiction as a realm in which African Americans have historically “come to terms with difficult notions … by both representing and challenging them with fictive worlds” (23).

Her book effectively queers the African American literary tradition, but refuses to anachronistically seek queerness in black writing across time. Instead, her “queer subject … inhabits social (and sometimes sexual) margins, throwing into crisis and into relief our most precious and pervasive ideations of the normative” regardless of “whether a figure or sexual arrangement can be properly labeled ‘queer’” (24). Uncovering, then, African American literature’s queer metaphorics, she reads black representations of sadomasochism, homoeroticism, lynching, interracialism, and incest as strategic political enjoiners that represent, challenge, and resist realities of racialized oppression and struggle.

In her first two chapters, Abdur-Rahman demonstrates the ways that black writers displace sexual perversion onto whiteness while preserving [End Page 230] black sexual respectability; in the following two chapters, depictions of black sexual alterity mobilize nonheteronormative political visions, echoing what Roderick Ferguson (via Toni Morrison) has called “something else to be.” Abdur-Rahman begins with a rereading of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative in the Life of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, through which she disrupts the consensus that modern sexuality emerged at the end of the nineteenth century and asserts that eighteenth and nineteenth-century slavery grounded racialized sexual differentiation. In her second chapter, Abdur-Rahman reads depictions of lynching in Pauline Hopkins’s Contending Forces and William Faulkner’s Light in August as “a kind of racialized gang rape” that profoundly expressed the perverse and violating homoeroticism of white male participants and spectators and “reactivat[ed] the legal, customary, and political structures of racial slavery.”

Chapter 3 turns toward black authors’ embrace of sexual nonnormativity, using Ann Petry’s The Narrows, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, and James Baldwin’s Another Country to reveal their deployment of interracialism and homoeroticism as bridges across difference. Mid-twentieth-century black novelists, she explains, “investigate the possibility of transforming the felt desire of sexual intrigue into a broader political vision,” asking not only how erotics can heal interracial conflict but also asking to what extent black politics might require “accepting the diverse identifactory and desiring practices within the racial collective” (85).

Abdur-Rahman’s stunning final chapter, “Recovering the Little Black Girl: Incest and Black American Textuality,” reveals the ways in which black women writers have used incest narratives to grapple simultaneously with the afterlife of slavery, twentieth- century reincarnations of ancient racial-sexual traumas, and the failures of civil rights retrenchment. Here, Abdur-Rahman names the emergence of a literary trope, arguing that “depictions of incest in texts that center on black women abound.” She continues, explaining that incest narratives index “a figurative sexual arrangement that epitomizes black familial ruin in the post–civil rights period” (116). In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Gayle Jones’s Corregidora, Octavia Butler’s Imago, and Sapphire’s Push, Abdur-Rahman uncovers trenchant critiques of both the historical and contemporary abandonment of black women and children and the masculinist impulses of black nationalism “which bear a mimetic relation to hegemonic U.S. masculinity” (117). Abdur-Rahman’s bold readings prove that these authors mobilize the incest narrative “as a site from which to begin to unravel and repair harrowing black familial dilemmas” (23) and to envision caregiving structures that can nurture and sustain women of...


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pp. 230-232
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