- Identity's Elsewhere:White Queer Diasporic Feeling in Willa Cather's Fiction
There's a bizarre moment late in Blaire Niles's Strange Brother (1931), a novel about a white gay artist searching for romance, community, and home between Harlem, Midtown, and Greenwich Village in interwar New York. In the midst of compiling a self-affirming "anthology of what poets and philosophers and scientists had written on the subject of man's love for man," Mark Thornton picks up a copy of The New Negro to read a friend one of his favorite poems: Countee Cullen's "Heritage."1 But when Mark gets to a passage that immediately follows Cullen's refrain "What is Africa to me?," his recital is suddenly choked off by "the tears which filled his eyes and his voice" (Niles, Strange Brother, 234).2 Here, we see dramatized the felt connection between Cullen's articulation of disconnection to African origins and Mark's disconnection to a world ordered by heterosexuality and the homophobic culture of his "small-town" origins (135). This feeling of connection is not incidental, but rather part of a longer self-articulating practice through which the narrator explains that Mark had "always identified himself with the outcasts of the earth," particularly "the negro" whose suffering had "bound Mark to him" (234). As he describes his journey to New York and Harlem, Mark recalls that he was "impressed by all [that Black people] were doing, under such heavy odds, too—odds of a different sort" and that this feeling "made a bond" (151). While his first forays into Harlem were at "the night clubs run for white people," Mark soon finds his way to "the Harlem Library" where he makes deeper connections to the community. "I met Harlem people there, and got to know them," he explains. "In [End Page 403] Harlem I found courage and joy and tolerance. I can be myself there … They know all about me, and I don't have to live a lie" (152).
For Mark, Black culture—as he experiences it in Harlem alongside his friends Caleb and Ira, two straight Black men with whom he frequents the neighborhood's queersaturated scene—offers both an imaginative feeling of connection and a site for queer flourishing. Mark feels a sympathetic bond with these friends in whose racial struggle he sees his sexual struggle reflected. "I know how [segregation] makes you feel," he remarks one night to Caleb and Ira, "nobody knows any better than I do," drawing a striking parallel between the violence of racial segregation and the legal precarity and social discrimination faced by gay white men in early 1930s America (28). According to Joseph Boone, the scene exemplifies the "cross-identification" between racial and sexual otherness that adheres to queer modernism, one in which "shared, though different, experiences of discrimination and marginality" enable white queer subjects to identify with and through racial others.3 Boone's reading may be extended by thinking about the appeal of diaspora in such moments as a narrative that explains and maps feelings of "connection and disconnection" to origins for the queer subject.4 When he chokes up reading Cullen's "Heritage," Mark isn't responding to a poem about racial struggle, but a poem centered on the ambivalence of relation to origins and history.
Mark's felt affinity with Cullen's words appropriates and reorients diaspora and race as models for white queer feelings of dislocation, yearning for connection to some other people apart from the alienation he feels from the heterosexual family culture that dominates his community of origin and marks him apart from it as a sexual exile. To make a life, Mark moves to New York, a place where he expects his homosexuality will be accepted and where he might find love. Yet, Mark's tears blur the difference between his voluntary movement and the involuntary, violent dislocations that are at the heart of Cullen's poem and Mark's friends' experiences of segregation. How are we to understand the social and historical slippages that make it possible for a white gay male to recognize himself in the experience of a Black diasporic subject...