- On Being Area-StudiedA Litany of Complaint
I am an Africa-based queer scholar. I am an Africa-based scholar who has accepted an invitation to participate in a conversation that will live behind a paywall and, thus, will be inaccessible to many in Africa. I am an Africa-based scholar trained in the United States, struggling to unlearn the fluencies that so readily grant me access to conversations in mainstream queer studies. I am an Africa-based scholar who has chosen to publish most of my thinking on queerness and especially queer Africa on a publicly available blog as an ethical and political act that refuses academic gatekeeping as the price one must pay to be legitimized as a scholar. My blog is called “Gukira,” a Kikuyu word that, depending on how one reads it, translates as to keep silent, to cross (as in cross a road), more than, and, if one really stretches it, to awaken. Gukira is a wandering word, a wayward invitation to linger in and on spaces of fugitivity.1
I am an Africa-based queer scholar trying to find the right way to enter a conversation whose premises seem much less clear after more than a year spent away from the US academy. From here, my protestation, “I am not an Africanist,” meets with puzzled looks. Stella Nyanzi, a Uganda-based medical anthropologist, asked me, “What is an Africanist?” suggesting that this geodisciplinary designation does not travel well, if at all.
Other terms are troubling.
I am a queer scholar. By which I mean to say, I am trained in and identify with a field that does not exist in my present geography. A sense of deracination overwhelms me. But I say this with trepidation, because deracination has so often been fetishized, if not celebrated, in queer studies. Consider John D’Emilio’s urban-based queers; Judith Butler’s abject; Lee Edelman’s early proclamation, “Queer theory is no one’s safe harbor for the holidays; it should offer no image of home,” now morphed into the “antisocial” thesis; Sara Ahmed’s “affect alien”; [End Page 183] Elizabeth Povinelli’s autological subject; and Michael Cobb’s “single.”2 Faced with so many demands to un-be and un-belong, one understands Robert Reid-Pharr’s (2001: 103) comment, “You say black gay. I hear nigger fag.” This dissonance between the said and the heard registers Reid-Pharr’s unease with queer articulations of race: “I still have to resist the impulse to flinch when someone refers to me as a queer and to positively run for cover when someone refers to me as a black queer” (ibid.: 102–3). From Nairobi, even the deracinating power of “black queer” seems inaccessible, and I must face other illegibilities. Perhaps we might call this the geohistories of location. Or, following Katherine McKittrick (2006), the peculiar ungeographies generated by particular bodies. Here’s one point of entry by the Kenyan queer scholar Neo Musangi (2014: 54):
The Akamba people of Eastern Kenya are my people. And sometimes they are not. The thing that I am they call tala. They do not call me tala; it is the thing that I always was. A thing that I became; a thing that I am becoming. Tala is the thing that I am. But tala is not even a name. It is a description. To call myself “a thing” is to choose to exist outside of myself. . . . To think of tala is to imagine a state of being and not being. Neither this nor that. This and that but not. I live as a description.
What if one were to refuse the instinctive recoil that says “native informant,” the queer assimilation that gathers yet another term to prove that “we have always been everywhere,” or the anti-identitarianism that fetishizes “description” over identity? What demands would tala make on the concepts and histories in which queer studies is embedded? What would queer studies have to unlearn about its geohistories to encounter tala on shared ground? What fluencies would queer studies have to give up to enter into conversation with tala? What geographies and geohistories would have to...