The emergence of black queer studies was, in many ways, an inevitability if African American studies as a discipline was ever to mature beyond the confines and constraints of its arguably necessary commitments to the politics of racial respectability. These commitments included presenting black life and black culture in the most “respectable” terms (educated, heterosexual, patriarchal, upper/middle class, etc.) so as to demonstrate to whites that we were their equals with regard to our share in their already compromised notion of humanity. The result was a sanitized version of black life and culture that bears little resemblance to the diversity of black people and the richness of their experiences. Put differently, and for our purposes here, I contend that there can be no real accounting of black history, black literature, black art, black culture, or black politics, without black queers. We are the ghost in the machine, the other spook that sat by the door, the silence that erupts, the repressed that always returns. So, needless to say, I was very pleased to see this forum edited by Terrance Dean grappling with the history of black queer studies’ evolution over the past three decades or so.
Let me begin with a kind of origin story that takes me back to 1990 when I was first entering graduate school, and before there were scholars at our colleges and universities who would become household names in black queer studies the likes of an E. Patrick Johnson (Northwestern), Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago), Marlon Ross (University of Virginia), Dwight A. McBride (The New School), Phillip Brian Harper (New York University), or Charles Nero (Bates College). This was a time when many of us black queer academics were trying to find ways of articulating our experiences into the developing work about racial blackness that at the time was evolving quite incredibly and importantly in the academy. But that story was a very heterosexual and heterosexist story—even, and sometimes perhaps especially, in the discipline of African [End Page v] American Studies itself. Indeed, the very construct of the “Black community” had begun to feel constraining to me: one that did not fully embrace what I saw as my own set of unique experiences via-a-vis the categories of “race,” “racial blackness,” and “racism.” And there was certainly no refuge or recognition to be had in the emergent discourse of (white) queer studies at the time either, where discussions of race were at best glossed or at worst occluded.
In 1998, twenty-two years ago and only two years after completing my doctoral studies at UCLA, I published “Can the Queen Speak?: Racial Essentialism, Sexuality, and the Problem of Authority.” The essay grew out of early exploration of those tensions that, in some ways, were animating my own life both as a budding academic and as a black gay man who was trying to figure out what the space was going to be, institutionally and in the discipline, for the kinds of questions about identity politics I was trying to articulate. In the year 2000, E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson organized the Black Queer Studies in the Millennium Conference held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where many of the early black queer scholarly voices gathered together. It was important and appropriate that a leading black feminist scholar and an emergent black queer scholar came together to see the need for this conference. For what we know today as black queer studies owes a great debt to the critical paradigms and inroads made by black feminist scholarship and its critique of the patriarchy in black culture and politics. So, that conference in North Carolina was both historically significant and personally life changing for me. That gathering of academics was for many of us the first time we were meeting each other in person. We knew each other by reputation, knew each other’s early scholarship, but it was the first time we were gathered together and in conversation with one another, and it felt momentous. That convening prompted us to recognize in each other’s work that something bigger than each of...