How heterosexual Black men project the psycho-sexual traumas of the plantation onto our queer brethren
Harming queer Black men is quite literally bleeding ourselves of communal vigor for the sake of emotional convenience.
This essay contains discussions of racialized sexual violence and mentions r/pe
by Donnie Moreland
There is this thing with us, as Black men. This war. Well, less war and more an inter-communal pogrom, wherein any Black man who shows no desire to lay with women exclusively is designated a cancer, subject to extermination. The prevention of some insidious political initiative of the “feminization” of Black male-dom has persisted as a wayward justification of discrimination and hate crimes against queer Black men.
What we don’t say is that the truth of our sexual anxieties are derived from a history of warped power fantasies, and we construct these homophobic narratives and breed homophobic violence to protect ourselves from the evidence of our past, our existence as non-human chattel vulnerable to sexual violation. In hiding from the artifacts of our self-making, the burdens of our shame have befallen the bodies of queer Black men, those whose histories we share and who are owed for the horror of our deeds.
A Body of Lies
The argument against fluid, non heterosexual expressivity, especially homosexuality, in Black communities is often reduced to “because white men stripped the Black man of his manhood on the plantation, the Black man has become feminized today and we must reverse the process to reclaim our power as men.” The problem with this argument, aside from conflating femininity with weakness, is that it simplifies and deflates the complexities of Black-white male interactions in very close sexual proximities on the plantation, discouraging any proper investigation into the relative psycho-sexual repercussions of human subjectation in America.
Since the nineteenth century, the record of interactions between Black and white men during the period of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and into the Civil War has been questionably distorted. Much writing in study, or in account, of the sexual relationships, abuses, and relational complexities of the period is in reference to female-to-male relationships, less about relationships among men. Vincent Woodard, author of The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoerotcism within US Slave Culture, references scholar Robert F. Reid-Pharr’s critiques of absent narratives of complex male-to-male relationships on the plantation, in relationship to the male accounts of female-to-male sexual encounters and abuses, when describing a culture of racially-based sexual consumption.
According to Woodard, “Reid-Pharr’s assertions are borne out in the heartrending depictions of black men’s slave narratives and autobiographies of black mothers, daughters and wives raped by white men or the whole lynching and raping dynamic wherein black men are the historical objects of lynching and castraton and black women serve as historical objects of rape.” Disrupting these dynamics of gendered victimization throws out of balance the digestible heteronormatve arrangements of properly gendered performances on the plantation. Woodard’s reading of Reid-Pharr suggests, “The image of the white (Southerner) fucking the black man, however, throws all this into confusion.”
It is much easier to arrive at a binary relationship between Black male subjectation and the memory of slavery, when the evidence of male-to-male relationships are so fluid, warped, and complex. Woodard contends, referencing Frederick Douglass’ possible omissions of experienced sexual trauma and consumption, “Black men in such contexts had to negotiate feelings of affection, hatred, shame, sexual degradation, and arousal toward white men. Cannibalism was unspeakable, but cannibalism coupled with the subject of homoeroticism went into conventional ideas of black men as stoic, as embodiments of the valiant struggle of will and mind over body, as agents of reason and political strategy. To speak about ‘the feelings’ associated with his own flesh consumption would have aligned Douglass too deeply with unspeakable knowledge of the body as sexual and sensual object, potentially undermining the literary and literate authority we have come to associate with his masculinity.”
These omissions of experience, from the memory of Slavery, create a casym between evidence and performance, meaning that there are parts of our self-making, post Slavery, which have been made up to erase the memory of sexual and emotional trauma and experience. The immediate consequence being a misrepresentation of cultural identity and a conflation of intercultural histories for the sake of a type of comfort in post-Slavery performances. For example, suggesting that proper Black masculine expression is absent homoerotic impressions or same-sex desire because heterosexual Black men never allowed themselves to be sexually consumed on the plantation is to suggest that modern binary gender impressions stopped both sexual abuse and male-to-male desire, no matter the shape of these interactions.
This reimagines a type of power exchange between the master and the enslaved, wherein the enslaved Black man can now object to sexual consumption and eroticization, at the behest of the revisionist’s psycho-sexual angst. The absurdity of this rewriting of history leaves folks who have nothing to do with the impressions of plantation psycho-sexual politicking as scapegoats for heteronormative Black men to relieve ourselves of the duty of historical inquiry.
Contemporary conceptions of sexual fluidity, same-sex desire, and homoerotic projections now become tools agaisnt Black male-dom, though these modern cultural expressions were objectively absent plantation life and culture. Though ficticious, these fragile hetero fantasies of “exorcising the gay devil” do the job of eroding cultural reparation.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
In his most profound collection of work, Ceremonies, Essex Hemphill begins “Does Your Momma Know About Me?” with a selection from Joseph Beam’s essay, “Brother to Brother”: “When I speak of home, I mean not only the familial constellation from which I grew, but the entire Black community: The Black press, the Black church, Black academicians, the Black literati, and the Black left. Where is my reflection? I am most often rendered invisible, perceived as a threat to the family or I am tolerated if I am silent and inconspicuous. I cannot go home as who I am and that hurts me deeply.”
Beam’s confession of inter-cultural isolation is but one example of how our erasure of evidential truths have polluted our communities with falsehoods, fearmongering, and witch-hunts that have done nothing but service the crippling of our socio-emotional infrastructure, less the moral hoisting of. The collective memory of helplessness, vulnerability, and confusion grapples our sexual securities into submission, but in not identifying such struggle we have become socially self-injurious. Harming queer Black men is quite literally bleeding ourselves of communal vigor for the sake of emotional convenience.
In his essay, “If Freud had been a Neurotic Colored Woman: Reading Dr. Frances Cress Welsing,” Hemphill explains, “Even among the oppressed there is a disturbing need for a convenient ‘other’ to vent anger against, to blame, to disparage, to denigrate. Such behavior is surely a detrimental as any an oppressor can exercise against the oppressed.” Hemphill, who would eventually pass from the AIDS virus in 1995, an epidemic largely ignored by Black hetero thought leaders, militants, and public academics, deserved more from us. The same is true of Joseph Beam, who would also pass away from AIDS in 1988.
These men deserved more than to be punching bags for our psycho-sexual impotence. They deserved a home. A home to transition, with ease, amongst the brothers of their Black family. Instead we shamefully barred their entry and chained the door. Hands to our ears, we turned our backs, a soft grin about our dark faces, cursing their names as we walked away.
Donnie Denkins Moreland Jr is a Minnesota based youth violence prevention educator and writer. Donnie holds a Master’s Degree, in Film Studies, from National University and a Bachelor’s Degree, in Sociology, from Prairie View A&M University. Donnie has contributed to Black Youth Project, A Gathering of the Tribes and Sage Group Publishing.