Black queer and Black Trans – Imagine Imagination Imaginary Futures

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rinaldo Walcott, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

Over the last few years I have had the opportunity to teach, to learn from and to learn with an incredible and impressive group of Black queer and Black Trans students. These students live and work at the interstices of communities, studies and politics and in each case they are often not imagined as belonging. In most cases they are rendered unbelievable. They, we, occupy the larger problem that all Black people are faced with, which is that of being both unimaginable in the academy and simultaneously unbelievable. While the academy is a place that fosters the imagination in a wide variety of ways, especially in scholarship, the academy is also a place that lacks imagination when Black people show up in it. Black people seem to produce the limit of the academy’s imagination whether it is scholarship, policy, or just simple courtesies.

One of the many things that Black queer and Black Trans people learn very quickly in the academy is that none of the post-60s offices (Human Rights, LGBT, Disability, etc) can contain them, can address their issues and concerns and can adequately account for their presence as students, faculty and staff. These offices, policies and even studies working tightly within the boundaries of, for example, LGBT identity, imagine their normative subject as always a queer Euro-Canadian subject. Thus the Black queer subject cannot be imagined to exist, nor can such a subject seek services, be written into scholarship, and be intelligible to and in policy.

The Black queer and Black Trans subject is indeed an unimaginable personhood, unbelieved as even existing. To make the claim from the subjecthood of blackness that the academy lacks imagination when it comes to Black subjects, especially Black queer and Black Trans subjects, is not to cast aspersions on only the conservative side of the academy. Indeed many on the “progressive” side of the academy find it difficult to imagine Black subjecthood too. Many a scholar working on the difficult questions that the post-9/11 security culture has thrown up for us have consistently and some might even say permanently cast the Muslim body as a “brown body,” making immediately absent and invisible, even unimaginable, a Black and or African Muslim body.

I have elliptically written about this particular problem elsewhere in the essay, “Reconstructing Black Manhood; Or The Drag of Black Masculinity.” However, I revisit those ideas here to throw the net a bit wider in an attempt to demonstrate the depth of the problem that the Black queer subject, the Black Trans subject, and all Black people encounter in the Canadian academy. As the artist Abdi Osman has powerfully shown, the limits of our imaginations have significant implications for our politics of liberation, as I will demonstrate below. Let us take as our example the Black or African Muslim. How might we think about Muslim positionality in Euro-North America?

To help me do the work of thinking critically about the ways in which Muslim subjectivity is both always already present and simultaneously elided in North America we must confront what Waheema Lubiano calls the “failure of categories” in the foreword to Ronald Judy’s (Dis)Forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Both Judy’s study and Lubiano’s “muscular” engagement with the study’s limits and possibilities point to the contested nature of how blackness and Muslim-ness come to be in the colonial Americas.

Judy’s study makes use of “linguistic indeterminacy” as the premise of his investigation into how a Kantian, modernist “Reason” could not make sense of an enslaved Muslim presence, especially its representivity in Arabic, and in the practice of Islam, which had to be vigilantly denied and invalidated for Christian doctrine to endorse slavery. Thus all enslaved Africans had to be reduced to the non-religious or the African practices of monotheism (in this case Islam) had to be ignored and denied since those practices troubled certain European reasons for African enslavement. Reading the Muslim presence then as much more than a mid-twentieth century one in North America presents a different kind of intervention. It is an intervention that blackens and thus complicates a number of histories, trajectories and politics. In this regard the Muslim presence has a far deeper and more extensive and complicated archive than is currently being accessed by both the Right and progressives alike.

This longer history and its elision haunt our contemporary conversations. Framed in this way, representivity is of utmost importance since the long history of Muslim presence in the Americas is in the first instance a Nigger, Negro or Black one. And, following Judy, it is a representivity that is both “linguistically foreign” and heterographic. And it is crucially important to note it is a Black presence that speaks to the deeply profound ways in which the African body was not just stolen and made into a commodity but it was fundamentally denied that status of body in the first instance.

The Muslim body recently resignified as a “brown body” in the context of post-9/11 discourses from a range of positions, has made recalling the longer history of a Nigger Muslim presence in the Americas crucial. The failure of the category “brown body” to produce a thick representivity and performativity of Muslim-ness lends a certain indecipherability to Muslim-ness that might be productive for various kinds of interventions. Lubiano quarrels with Judy’s otherwise brilliant study for its inattentiveness to gender and in particular the gendered nature of Kantian Reason. I want to mobilize both Judy’s and Lubiano’s insights to position the queer images of the photographer Abdi Osman which mediate against the continued invocation of a “brown bodied” Muslim as a failure to produce an adequate response to what Toni Morrison calls the “economy of stereotype.”

The Abdi Osman photographs reproduced below point to the limits of the imagination and offer a profound critique of contemporary conversations about Muslim representivity and performativity. These critical fictions require us to imagine a different kind of past, present and future. And since the photographs inscribe an iterative “queerness,” the photographs call up the multiple ways in which the scholarship my students are creating attempts to produce a conversation in the Euro-Canadian academy that might make them believable on some plain of thought. They, us, seek to regain our bodies from failed imaginations and practices.  

Photographs by the Artist Abdi Osman
with permission of the artist
© Abdi Osman
© Abdi Osman
© Abdi Osman  

Toward a critical diversity and social justice
These photographs ask us to confront what I have come to call critical diversity. Critical diversity does not only work at the level of representational inclusion. Rather, critical diversity asks some difficult questions about inclusion and what inclusion signals and or means in each context. Critical diversity is about both the texture and the depth of diversity. And by taking into account the texture and depth of diversity, its critical balance and calculation comes into play.

Let me give an example of an ideal type of critical diversity. In the multicultural model it might be sufficient to have some form of Black representation, maybe even multiple forms. But with critical diversity those forms of multiple Black representations would have to account for a range of factors internal to blackness so that blackness is never homogenized. Such representations might have to account for questions of class position, of disability, of sexuality, of religion and so on in an attempt to get at the depth and the texture of how blackness is experienced and lived out in both its extra and intra-Black differences. In short, it might have to account for the “Black Trans lesbian disabled body,” a caricature that has come to be characterized in Black vernacular political culture as some of the ways in which black bodies consistently disappear from our view.

Imagine such a person beyond the economy of stereotype! Blackness in this instance cannot only be framed and understood in relationship to race and racism. Thus critical diversity seeks to not just populate our various arenas with one-dimensional encounters; it seeks to provide encounters that strike deeply at the core of what it means to be human. Thus critical diversity is about the ways in which categories or genres of the human cross-cut each other. Critical diversity requires us to actively engage our imaginations and thus to imagine beyond the body presented to us.

I take it as an ethical given then that, fundamentally, only when some form of critical diversity is approached that we can move towards social justice. Social justice is the greatest unknown in all this work. Social justice cannot be decided in advance, it has no particular destination, it is a process of coming into, a “to come” moment as Jacques Derrida would put it. Social justice and indeed its achievement can only be known to be accomplished when those seeking it declare it to be so – that is declare that social justice has been done. Thus social justice is more a desire and a constant project to be worked on and worked at, than a set of programs, a product and or a concluding deadline.

The post-60s movements of civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian liberation produced moments through which movement towards social justice could be glimpsed, but those were merely moments in a process, an opening, if you will. Critical diversity provides other avenues along this process, but critical diversity is not the end point of social justice either, it is a part of it. What is most important and crucial about social justice and its philosophical and political call is that it opens us up to rethinking the entire process of any organization of more broadly formation, should it be necessary. Social justice then embeds critical diversity as a “normative” way of doing things and thereby social justice is a way of being in the world.

Social justice is a whole way of life. It cannot be a type of training, and you can’t run social justice workshops and trainings, despite neoliberal equity and diversity mainstreaming claims. Social justice is both an approach to living life and an orientation to thinking and imagining differently the present and the past as a way of setting in place the conditions for a different kind of future. It is that future my Black queer and Black Trans students have set out to write and create by living, studying and acting out of the ordinary.

Rinaldo Walcott is an associate professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.


Equity Matters


Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-SpiritedGender equityAnti-racism


This is so insightful and exciting--the notion of social justice that Rinaldo invokes here immediately reconnected me to the true Sufi ideas of human, being and social justice that permeate the poems of Rumi, Hafiz, Mir and Ghalib. Amina Jamal