"Youse awful queer chappie": Reading Black Queer Vernacular in Black Literatures of the Americas, 1903-1967
Silberman, Seth Slark
Peterson, Carla L
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Read together, twentieth-century representations of black male homoerotism and homosexuality written up to the Black Arts movement shape and complicate traditional definitions of a black racial literary canon. Far from marginal or clandestine, these black men differently depicted in prose and verse continue the kinds of "networks of affiliation" that Saidiya Hartman finds in the communal connections that shaped black life in the nineteenth-century US during slavery and Reconstruction, ones based on the "metaphorical aptitude" demonstrated by black vernacular folk tales and songs. Community founding was necessarily agile. It depended on presence of mind more than melanin as a strategy to wrest the sign of "blackness" from flesh indicating enslavement. It also incorporated rather than homogenized differences within a black racial "community among ourselves," as Hartman calls it. "Youse awful queer chappie" examines how that kind of wily solidarity and resistance supports a body of texts that both contribute to a black literary tradition that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. characterizes as a gathering of "talking books" as well as fashion a particular hermeneutic and technique I call "black queer vernacular." Sometimes, but not always, with the word queer, the black writers I study with this manuscript, tell a story of black masculinity not fungible but mobile. Any individual text or author provides merely one nexus in a textual technique of characters, types, words, and images that demonstrates how the sign of "blackness" incorporates both race and sexuality. Less a rejoinder to scholarship in the fields of African American studies or gay and lesbian studies, the manuscript draws from poststructuralist, feminist, and queer theory to regard an already present dialogue in twentieth century black literary studies. By moving from W.E.B. Du Bois' landmark The Souls of Black Folk, through the Harlem Renaissance and London's Caribbean Artists movement, toward the Black Arts movement, the manuscript highlights how Diaspora informs, even as it fades from, analyses of black representation. It talks back to, and expands, the defining aesthetics of the black racial literary canon.