Today marks the 150th anniversary of the term ‘homosexual.' Please share this article and join me in affirming the legacy of the activist who coined it - Karl Maria Kertbeny.
Damon Salesa’s essay on “Samoa’s Half-Castes” discusses mixedness as “a state of ‘becoming’ – a liminal position outside of the category of ‘Samoan’ yet not fully, nor permanently, U.S. citizens” (82). Hybrid people, borders, and citizenship** illuminate the tensions between defining inside and outside when both can be embodied within – space and the body politic, race and nationhood. In “National Liberation and Culture,” Amilcar Cabral discusses assimilation as a means of cultural erasure, highlighting the “value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign rule” and the endurance of the “historical reality of the society already under domination” (45). The interaction, intermixing, and dependency fostered by culture clash is not necessarily a subsummation or restructuring of an indigenous*** culture, but perhaps a perversion of the dominant culture by minority elements. Indeed, who is the influencer and who is influenced – acting or acted upon, entering or being encroached upon, inside or outside?
In “His Kingdom for a Kiss,” Tiya Miles remarks that “the Americans were able to endure the cognitive dissonance of devastating native populations … while valorizing the image of the Indian through their own appropriation of Indian-like ideals, appearances, and behaviors” (169). Miles cites Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country, discussing scholarly debates surrounding how much native peoples inspired American political frameworks. Does subaltern agency necessarily need to be defined in terms of how much it can influence an oppressor? In denying victimhood, do we absolve aggressors of their sins? Richter, referencing Richard White’s The Middle Ground, remarks that “the old balance-of-power diplomacy was perhaps gone forever, but Native people in the continental interior**** were once again finding productive means of accommodation with the transatlantic European imperial world” (210). Do narratives of adaption and survival, hybridity and influence comprise a true middle ground?
This volume primarily treats sex as (1) reproductive – a means of complicating racial categories through the birth of mixed people – (2) sentimental – an act of tenderness that toes the line between coercion and consent, muddling the binary narrative of aggressor versus victim – and (3) violent – phallocentric and symbolic of activity/passivity, penetration, and imperial domination. The only example of “homosexual” activity is featured in Nayan Shah’s “Adjudicating Intimacies,” wherein the seemingly nonconsensual sodomitic act committed against a young white male by three South Asian men acts as a foil for a discussion of “heterosexual” manhood and marriage (127-130). But I am interested in how we might queer intimacy. We may consider “homosexual” relations, wherein symmetrical power dynamics between people of the same gender throw asymmetrical race and class dynamics into sharp relief. We may also consider “nonnormativity” – how taboo acts and sentiments, or queer bodies (mixed people), or queer geographies (borderlands) complicated imperial circumscriptions.
* This premise connects well to Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), 25 & 102. Excerpts below.
** How do we define citizenship, beyond legal protections, as a social and political identity? To what land or nation does one belong? If bodies and borders are in flux, what makes a citizen?
*** How do we define indigeneity? Who was “first” to a land? Is nativity inherently geographic in scope? To what place are migratory populations indigenous?
**** Are continents imperial constructions, too?
My first piece on NOTCHES is out today! It's on trans experiences in Ancient Rome.
Click the link or images above to read more!
I'm assuming the premise of the first question was actually meant to draw attention to my own privileges as a half white, middle-class individual – fair enough. My engagement of Black and Brown histories has always been mediated through a white institution. In an act of virtue signaling or in order to meet the quotas set out in "inclusive" strategic plans, historians and institutions create exhibits about Black and Brown people without including Black and Brown people in curation or interpretation. These exhibits use Black and Brown people's materials without full credit, nor do they identify how the subsummation of these materials into the institution's collections will benefit the communities from which they came. Therein lies the rub – the act of "legitimation" that characterizes the public history profession's newfound interest in and consumption of working-class, POC histories.
Historians collect, preserve and interpret primary source materials on behalf of their institutions because they are working on projects for non-community members, outside of community contexts. For example, even when graduate thesis projects are meant to serve community interests, students are still doing the work for a degree and for a job in the professional public history workforce after they graduate. To reiterate why I'm seemingly obsessed with insider/outsider dynamics – I've repeatedly witnessed white scholars who "specialize" in POC history get chosen for curatorial and advisory group positions over actual Black and Brown community leaders, some of whom these white scholars had interviewed for their professionally lauded projects. White savior public historians envision themselves "rescuing" or "empowering" Black and Brown people's histories. Their project leadership gets them news headlines, commendations, prestige and position. But what does it do for community members? Public history practitioners need to offer their services and resources – funds and labor – for the creation of grass-roots initiatives that take place within and for the community (given community members' interest and assent).
So, no, of course historians can never do historical work that doesn't impose their own meanings and understandings – that's why I insist objectivity is a myth. But, disenfranchised people tend to have a more holistic perspective on social and historical structures. As I previously quoted bell hooks, "Living as we did – on the edge – we developed a particular way of seeing reality. We looked both from the outside in and from the inside out … we understood both.” Given the inevitability of human subjectivity, we need to recognize the epistemic privilege of POC.
Put another way, oral history is both an inclusive and exclusive practice. It remedies gaps in traditional historiographies that rely mostly on documentary evidence produced by the power elites. It also circumscribes communal memory. Sporadic accounts of the past, founded on old animosities or the specter of a foreign Other, are reproduced generationally – like fading carbon copies of an incomplete narrative – and compose inexact stories of exceptionalism.
But perhaps we shouldn’t take such a dim view of oral history. I once claimed oral histories are like hand-me-downs – passing through various people, traveling strange and unexpected routes. They accumulate little details, lose others; they get a bit misshapen along the way, and all the more wonderful. With the advent of recording technologies, they can be frozen in time, rather than transmuted by word of mouth. What were once quotidian anecdotes have become part of a larger-than-life mythos, a constellation of historical half-truths. Too often we question the cognizance, honesty and accuracy of our interviewees (or our narrators as Barbara Sommer and Mary Kay Quinlan refer to them in The Oral History Manual). Should we not be equally skeptical of our written sources and their authors? To reference Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, let us be wary of all four stages of historical production: "the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance)" (26). Perhaps history is just a macrocosmic collection of semi-fictions.
We must turn around and problematize the oral historian’s position in this exchange – their "gazing," perhaps better described as their listening, interviewing, or interpretation. As illustrated by the picture for this post, there is something simultaneously perverse and consoling about the white historian's consumption of POC narratives (or materials). We find a vested interest in the preservation of disenfranchised legacies. Or do we? Oral historians steal the words and memories of their subjects, do with them what they will, and get lauded for the work, ultimately profiting off the histories of Others. Sommer and Quinlan identify "good narrators" as those who have firsthand knowledge, who "represent all sides of an issue," "can communicate effectively," and are willing participants (49). How do interviewer biases inform these value judgements? The nonpartisan approach to history does not exist. Firsthand knowledge of an event is inherently one-sided because it comes from an individual account. Effective communication and participant willingness is dependent upon the relationship between the interviewer and the narrator. And how do language barriers play a role in selection?
Community connections are a necessity. I'm wary of white middle-class historians who tour contexts beyond their own and expect willing narrators to surrender their histories for outsider interpretation. Presumption is a common theme. In “When Subjects Don't Come Out," Sherrie Tucker asks, "Where did I get the idea that my sexuality-sensitive intersectional analysis must involve ... clearly delineated, immutable categories of sexual desire? ... While my interviewees don’t come out, they do reveal the power of a structure that conceals, shapes, and imperfectly contains sexual contents ('Don’t write about that')" (298). Historians have a vested interest in imposing their own meanings and understandings onto other people's lives. Unlike dead sources, oral histories are alive, rife with contested memory, fact, identity, interpretation and narrative construction. Respecting the human agency of self-identification and self-disclosure is paramount, regardless of structural forces – or perhaps because of them.