A groundbreaking examination of how twentieth-century African American writers use queer characters to challenge and ultimately reject subjectivity
Black Queer Flesh reinterprets key African American novels from the Harlem Renaissance to Black Modernism to contemporary literature, showing how authors have imagined a new model of black queer selfhood. African American authors blame liberal humanism’s model of subjectivity for double consciousness and find that liberal humanism’s celebration of individual autonomy and agency is a way of disciplining Black queer lives. These authors thus reject subjectivity in search of a new mode of the self that Alvin J. Henry names “black queer flesh”—a model of selfhood that is collective, plural, fluctuating, and deeply connected to the black queer past.
Henry begins with early twentieth-century authors such as Jessie Redmon Fauset and James Weldon Johnson. These authors adapted the Bildungsroman, the novel of self-formation, to show African Americans gaining freedom and agency by becoming a liberal, autonomous subjects. These authors, however, discovered that the promise of liberal autonomy held out by the Bildungsroman was yet another tool of antiblack racism. As a result, they tentatively experimented with repurposing the Bildungsroman to throw off subjectivity and its attendant double consciousness. In contrast, Nella Larsen, Henry shows, was the first author to fully reject subjectivity. In Quicksand and Passing, Larsen invented a new genre showing her queer characters—characters whose queerness already positioned them on the margins of subjectivity—escaping subjectivity altogether. Using Ralph Ellison’s archival drafts, Henry then powerfully rereads Invisible Man, revealing that the protagonist as a queer, disabled character taught by the novel’s many other queer, disabled characters to likewise seek a selfhood beyond subjectivity. Although Larsen and Ellison sketch glimpses of this selfhood beyond subjectivity, only Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments shows a protagonist fully inhabiting black queer flesh—a new mode of selfhood that is collective, plural, always evolving, and no longer alienated from the black past.
Black Queer Flesh is an original and necessary contribution to black literary studies, offering new ways to understand and appreciate the canonical texts and far more.