Africa : Queer : Anthropology

Of the many ways to narrate the emergence of queer studies, I most like Tim Dean’s claim that Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” is the foundational work in the U.S. academy. Rubin trained as an anthropologist. I will return to this. Dean’s claim rethinks the more familiar, popular claim that queer studies emerged (and was nourished) in literature (Eve Sedgwick, Michael Moon, Alan Sinfeld, Jonathan Dollimore, Lee Edelman, Diana Fuss) and philosophy (Judith Butler, Elizabeth Grosz, Michel Foucault). I still think we need an account of why such work was possible within those spaces—something about the kinds of speculative experiments possible. Though, I note, that most of those now acclaimed as founding queer studies wrote their works as tenured faculty: these were second and third books. (As a fun exercise, track works published in Series Q—note which were first and second books.)

(it’s possible to track the divide between LGBTI studies and Queer studies along disciplinary lines—that doesn’t really interest me)

By the time I started grad school in 2001, there was a sense in the air—if not in the field of queer studies—that it was time to move beyond departments of English Literature and Philosophy and the speculative methods associated with them. It was time for social science approaches. Some of this mapping stems from the first—and only—class I took in queer studies, in the anthropology department, with Martin Manalansan. Students in the class, most of whom were in anthropology, favored social science methods. It’s not that the speculative experiments cultivated in English, Philosophy, and Cultural studies were wrong (yes, I know the fields and disciplines keep changing). It was that “studying real people” and “situations” was just as important. And those who identified as LGBTI within social science disciplines after the emergence of queer studies wanted to see what they could do. The after is important, because scholarly work requires legibility, often in the form of a field or method, to be published and to count toward a career in the academy. There is much work within sociology and anthropology after queer studies by self-identified LGBTI researchers that examines LGBTI communities that I would not describe as queer. It lives within LGBTI studies.

In 2001, the divide between queer studies and LGBTI studies was methodological and philosophical. Offering a lucid explanation, Siobhan Somerville wrote, 

Anchoring queer approaches exclusively or primarily to sexual orientation does not do justice to the potential reach of queer critique, which would destabilize the ground upon which any particular claim to identity can be made. Nor does such anchoring do justice to the ways in which queer critique and cultural production owe a debt to early intersectional approaches such as black feminist theory. Indeed, as distinguished from a formation such as lesbian and gay studies, queer theory potentially dislodges “the status of sexual orientation itself as the authentic and centrally governing category of queer practice, thus freeing up queer theory as a way of reconceiving not just the sexual, but the social in general.” 

In part, queer studies had positioned itself against pseudo-scientific, scientific, and social scientific attempts to map and describe human difference in hierarchical ways: against the uses of criminality and deviance in sociology, for instance; against the uses of the primitive and the savage and kinship in anthropology; against pathologizing ideas of skewed development in psychology; against genetic inevitability—and eugenics—in biology. In short, against the particular ways the human and biological sciences had mapped human difference.

Too, for fields and disciplines that relied so heavily on identity and identification, the idea of a queer critique that “would destabilize the ground upon which any particular claim to identity can be made” was simply unthinkable. In a complicated strategy that I am not qualified to describe, researchers’ training and identities were offered as proof that the hierarchy-making mistakes of the past would not be repeated.

(I suspect that Performance studies is the one field that weds queer critique, cultural critique, and ethnographic approaches successfully. But that’s a sidenote.)


African studies started as a colonial project. In “Practical Anthropology” (1929), Bronislaw Malinowski outlines the relationship between anthropology and what he terms “the practical man,” by which he means colonial administrators:

The practical man is inclined to pooh-pooh, ignore, and even to resent any sort of encroachment of the anthropologist upon his domain. On the other hand it is not always easy to advise the colonial administrator or missionary just where to find the anthropological information he requires. Now I think that the gap is artificial and of great prejudice to either side. The practical man should be asked to state his needs as regards knowledge on savage law, economics, customs, and institutions; he would then stimulate the scientific anthropologist to a most fruitful line of research and thus receive information without which he often gropes in the dark. The anthropologist, on the other hand, must move towards a direct study of indigenous institutions as they now exist and work. He must also become more concerned in the anthropology of the changingAfrican, and in the anthropology of the contact of white and coloured, of European culture and primitive tribal life.

A mentor told me that I’d misread Malinowski, but my reading of this article is that the “scientific anthropologist,” as opposed to the amateur enthusiast—read George Stocking, Jr., on the history of British anthropology—sought an active role in the colonial project. (The question of whether Malinowski was pro- or anti-colonial I leave to others to debate.)

I could not seem to escape anthropology when I turned to Africa—obligatory reminder, I am not an Africanist. I could not escape how it mapped place and belonging (tribe, ethnicity, clan, kinship); how it marked temporality and being (savage, primitive, undeveloped, underdeveloped, global south); how it marked African knowledge (proverbs, sayings, indigenous wisdom, elders, sages); how it marked African intimacies (kinship, ritual, initiation); how it marked African encounters with modernity (acculturation, loss, deracination); how it kept shuttling between “tradition” and “modernity.” I found—I find—all of this stifling and unimaginative and boring.

Yet, constitutive constraints.

(this anthropological imaginary has made questions of whether this or that erotic practice or sexual identity existed in this or that ethnic group incredibly toxic to me: that is a colonial fixing, and I do not care if your favorite African activist is busy singing songs and producing erotic art about “among my people” )


I do not necessarily think that focusing on cultural objects and acts of representation solves the colonial anthropological problem, nor do I think Africans trained in African studies, eager to “tell our stories,” are necessarily better at not narrating colonial versions of us.

Indeed, so dominant is “the colonial version of us”—as temporally belated and ethnically fixed and politically unsophisticated and “primitive”—that it circulates as common wisdom when we talk about ourselves. And it is also what is demanded of us. Even, and perhaps especially, when we appear in academic spaces.

Another note: I am really, really, really, really, really uninterested in ethnicity. I am interested in pursuing and practicing freedom by naming and critiquing and unsettling ethno-nationalisms and ethno-patriarchy.

In one of the early issues of GLQ, Lee Edelman argued, 

We would do well to construct queer theory . . . less as the site of what we communally want than as the want of any communal site. Queer theory is no one’s safe harbor for the holidays; it should offer no image of home. It can only function as another mode of experiencing, and allegorizing, the persistent displacement that constitutes desire and enables it to function as both spur and resistance to every totalization that would claim to know its “state.” Utopic in its negativity, queer theory curves endlessly toward a realization that its realization remains impossible, that only as a force of derealization, of dissolution into the fluxions of a subjectless desire, can it ever be itself. What, then, can one say of queer theory to those who are gathered to attend to its state? Reinvent it. Refuse it. Pursue it. Get over it. Just do it.

I continue to find useful the idea that queer theory estranges us, that it moves in uncharted waters. Here, I move Edelman, via Audre Lorde, to the possibilities of uncharted waters she maps in her beautiful poem “Outlines.”

It might be useful to pause for a moment on how “queer” functions. Queer and queerness often assume a vernacular life that does not—perhaps, cannot—exist in queer theory and queer studies. The estranging work of queer study can feel unqueer: one arrives desiring legibility and acceptance, only to find estranging frames and languages. I mean not only the languages of philosophy and psychoanalysis, but also the languages of blackness and feminism, of law and criminology, of religion and performance. “Why doesn’t this feel more fun?” Queer theory may not feel like home, but queerness is often expected to be.


The African who adopts queer is often asked to be queer in an African way. Here, “African way” is framed through anthropology. One should speak about traditional practices and ethnic this and ethnonation that and ritual this and rite that and traditional healer this and spiritual practice that. One is asked to be African in an anthropological way. Many of us accept these invitations and invent the fictions we need to be legible within the spaces we have been granted.


What I continue to find useful about queer-as-method is how it estranges, how it deracinates, and through that deracination, generates a position through which certain desires and practices unnameable and illegible in the vernaculars I know best become available.

But the question I keep confronting is whether queer-as-method is as available to me—to Africans—as it is to North Americans. By available, I do not mean that we work through the same thinkers or methods. We do not need an army of African queer scholars citing Foucault and Butler so our work can be legible as queer. (I simply echo Stella Nyanzi here.) And part of why I cite the long passage from Edelman is because of those final injunctions: “Reinvent it. Refuse it. Pursue it. Get over it. Just do it.” Here, the question of who gets to “reinvent” and “refuse” and “pursue” and “get over” and “just do.” The question of whether the African—fixed in anthropological time—can “reinvent” and “refuse” and “pursue.” How might one describe the encounter between “queer” and “Africa” without the weight of anthropology as gaze, as frame, as method, as affect, as expectation, as pleasure.

Is it possible for the African to enter queer theory and queer studies not through anthropology? If so, what might that look like? Is it possible to ask the African to generate knowledge without burdening the African with anthropology (your people, your rituals, your traditions, your customs, your religion, your land, your deities, your fertility)? I speak here not only of how the African is framed and approached but also of how we Africans are known to ourselves. Of the ways we Africans make ourselves legible to each other.

And if, North American queer theory and queer studies has been an exercise in Africans learning about North American fluencies and legibilities and illegibilities, is it possible that African queer theory and queer studies also demands that non-Africans learn our fluencies and legibilities and illegibilities and opacities? What speculative experiments are granted to African thinkers and theorists. What are we allowed to imagine and invent? What do we need to imagine and invent? What happens if our work is continually framed as data collection relegated to footnotes?

I repeat what I have asked elsewhere because I continue to grapple with these questions of frame and position, of legibility and illegibility, of opacity and transparency, of the weight of anthropology and the possibility of speculation. With Hortense Spillers,

In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time; over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness.