Delectable Negroes: On precarity, death, and the Black queer male body
The Black queer body is full of holes, violated by the precarity of terror.
by Robert Randolph, Jr., Ph.D.
This essay contains discussions of sexual violence, lynching, and the serial murder of queer Black men.
Writer’s Note: The Deputy Editor invited me to write about this subject and I have carried these men, the named and unnamed in my head for weeks. I blew the deadline time and time again. We need to discuss the secondary trauma of writers who witness, in the Baldwinian sense, who sacrifice a piece of themselves so these stories are heard and felt.
“My memory stammers: but my soul is a witness.”
–James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985)
Gemmel Moore. Timothy Dean. Whose names are these, if not our own?
As an undergrad, I was introduced to sexual proclivities of white men. After we read and discussed portions of slave narratives written by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, my professor, a senior Black woman scholar, adamantly pronounced, “White people are the most vampiric race.” Some of my white classmates were outraged, their faces flush with rage. And two white girls left the class in tears. My professor’s sentiment may have been blunt, but it was true enough. Through African American literature, she illuminated the ways in which white folks drained the life-force from Black folks, both literally and figuratively.
America has a grotesque and horrific history, littered with the mutilated and dead bodies of my ancestors, of your ancestors. You know this. I don’t have to repeat it, and yet I must.
Nat Turner was tortured and lynched, his body rendered of fat, and made into lotion and soap. Harriet Jacobs tells the story of Luke, a slave chained to his master’s bed. Luke was never allowed to wear pants. Jeffrey Dahmer seduced, fucked, and ate Black queer men.
The Black body is a plaything. In these instances, the Black male body is ruptured queerly, unleashing a void white folk have yet to escape. Perhaps because they do not wish to do so. Or, perhaps because they are not capable of facing the depths of closure that holds their fragile existence together. In the white imagination, can the Black queer body exist beyond fetish and corporeal hieroglyphic?
In less than two years, two Black queer men, Gemmel Moore (26) and Timothy Dean (55), have been found dead in Ed Buck’s (64) West Hollywood home, a predatory sanctuary where the sexual appetite of a wealthy white man and the sexual degradation of many Black men have collided. Many of these men were in the throes of poverty, experiencing homelessness, and addicted to various substances. And Buck used meth to enthral his victims, to enslave them, to keep them wanton. I cannot know the whole truth of what happened in Ed Buck’s home. We may never know, but in some ways the specifics are inconsequential and give way to our collective and individual imagination. Our bodies remember.
In a journal entry, Gemmel spoke about the pain and heft of the Black queer body: “I honestly don’t know what to do. I’ve became addicted to drugs and the worst one at that. Ed Buck is the one to thank he gave me my first injection of crystal meth it was very painful but after all the troubles I became addicted to the pain and fetish/fantasy. […] If it didn’t hurt so bad I’d kill myself, but for now I’ll just let Ed Buck do it.” Gemmel Moore’s accounts of Buck’s proclivities are corroborated by Jermaine Gagnon’s account of “I’m his type and pretty much half of the Black community is his type – vulnerable, depressed. If you’re in a depressive state, that’s the energy that feeds him.” This language of food, of feeding, is what caught my eye. “Vampiric,” my professor said. How is it that Black bodies provide nourishment for white men?
As a professor of African American culture and literature, I am often loathed to talk about the specific and particular horrors of the American slavery regime. There are incidents I’ve read of and pictures I’ve seen that are just too painful to share. I don’t illuminate some nuances in texts because I am personally traumatized by them. But there are times, the ineffable, the grotesque, and the horrific must be vocalized, lest we choke on the pain.
In one class, we were reading a section of Harriet Jacobs’ The Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl where she discuss the precarity of love for enslaved people. Jacobs recounts a conversation between her mistress and another enslaved girl, who had dared to voice her wish to marry a free Black man and to start a family with him. The mistress responded, “I will have you peeled and pickled, my lady, if I ever hear you mention that subject again.” A student timidly approached a difficult realization and interjected: “But…that…sounds like language about food…” “Yes, it does, doesn’t’ it?” I responded. She was my first student to link that passage with the seemingly untenable notion of cannibalism during American slavery regime.
I went on to discuss some of the incidents presented in Vincent Woodard’s book, “The Delectable Negro: Human Consumptions and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture” (2014). While Woodard includes examples of cannibalism, he theoretically expands the notion of human consumption beyond eating human flesh. This is a necessary project that illuminates the parasitic tendencies of imperial powers and authoritarian societies and the deficient psyches of folks who actually believed they could own another human being. Even more importantly, Woodard’s work activates a grotesque archive, vitalizes the gothic aesthetic of the American imaginary, and illuminates an ongoing moment of the Black experience we often wish remained hidden. He also takes great care to explain how cannibalism and metaphorical human consumption was/is linked to homoerotic desire of white men who used Black male bodies for erotic amusement.
But Black queer men are more than playthings, conjured at the whims of white imagination to soothe the white psyche into absolution. As a Black queer man, my whole life I’ve been someone’s playing thing—young once and at the whim of others. Older now, I am still fetishized beyond recognition. Yes we are flesh, and spirit, too! We are more than vestibules to other people’s desires. What happens when your existence is the answer to someone else’s question?
How can we move beyond the trauma of the historical Black body, with its lacerations, punctures, and excessive apertures? The Black queer body is full of holes, violated by the precarity of terror. Everywhere terror is afoot, and it is as ubiquitous as the air, as deliberate as the structure of a cell. This terror is fattened with a steady diet of state violence. And it engorges itself on stories of Black queer folk plastered on social media, those who are often relegated to laborious hashtags.
Every day, something in the ether of a rapidly declining empire threatens to undo me. Will the deaths of these Black queer men finally do it? I am tired. None of this makes sense. Logic and reasoning do not apply. I am unstable. Coherence is impossible. Every time I leave my home, I suspend my semblance of security. And in many ways, I am unsafe there as well. Alas, throngs of Black queer folk have decried these aspects of (non)living for decades. I am no different.
I know their names. I had not wanted to know their names. I never do. Yet, their names may be all I have of them now. What are the possibilities of surviving beyond this moment? The probability? Is survival even an option when our names labor to be known to those who wish not to hear them?
Gemmel Moore. Timothy Dean.
Robert Randolph, Jr. is a scholar and writer from Down East, North Carolina. His research and teaching interests include 20th- and 21st-century African-American literature, and cultural production, socio-cultural foundations of education, and Black feminist/queer rhetorics. Randolph holds a PhD in educational and cultural studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Graduate Poetry Fellow of The Watering Hole. You can find him at twitter: @rrandolphjr.