Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Queering the Color Line by Siobhan B. Somerville - Class Presentation

Queering the Color Line
Siobhan B. Somerville

Central argument of the book: “It was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either “homosexual” or “heterosexual” emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between “black” and “white” bodies.

In the introduction, Somerville indicates that her methodology comes from queer studies and that her theoretical apparatus is rooted in African-American studies and lesbian/gay studies. Through a brief discussion of the arguments that she builds in the book, I want to examine her methodology and consider the theoretical apparati at work in her book.

  1. 1.Scientific Racism and the Invention of the Homosexual Body

In this first chapter, Somervile review “expert” literature about sexuality, broadly defined to include the writings of physicians, sexologists, and psychiatrists (p. 15). She does this through close reading and contextual analysis in order to examine how “discourses of race and gender buttressed one another” and “shaped emerging models of homosexuality.” (p. 17.) Somerville reviews Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis as sexologists; she then discusses scientific racism in the nineteenth century, comparative anatomy, and eugenics. She concludes this chapter with an examination of how sexual orientation and race were intertwined as the mulatto and invert and reads an analysis from a 1913 medical journal by Margaret Otis about “love-making between white and colored girls.” (p. 34.)

  1. 2.The Queer Career of Jim Crow

In her second chapter, Somerville takes A Florida Enchantment as an emblem of the imbrication of race and gender during it’s twenty-three year life from a novel to a stage production to a film. She traces the changes in the various adaptation to contemporary anxieties and beliefs about race and sexuality. Her primary methods in this section are both close reading of the performative texts and analysis of viewer/reader reception.

  1. 3.Inverting the Tragic Mulatta Tradition

In the third chapter, Somerville takes up the two novels by Pauline Hopkins which “reshape cultural constructions of race, gender, and sexuality.” (p. 75.) Somerville does close readings of Contending Forces, particularly Dora and Sappho’s eroticized friendship, and Winona. Somerville contends “Hopkins’s ambivalent engagement with emerging discourses of homosexuality become visible through figures who disrupt conventions associated with the mulatta heroine.” (p. 110.)

  1. 4.Doubles Lives on the Color Line

In this chapter, Somerville focuses on the book, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, and it’s initial publication as by an anonymous author to the unveiling of it as authored by James Weldon Johnson. She then moves to analysis the second publication in the context not only of Johnson but also Carl Van Vechten, a white “patron” of the Harlem Renaissance. She concludes that the “text mapped culturally taboo sexual desires onto the color line.” (p. 130.)

  1. 5.“Queer to Myself as I am to You”

In the final chapter, Somerville examines both the work of Jean Toomer and its reception by literary critics as well as Toomer’s biography to look at the ways Toomer’s transgression of race and his insistence on being seen as an American functions also as a transgression of gender and sexuality.

  1. 6.Conclusion

In the conclusion, Somerville writes about the 2000 census and Stone Butch Blues as a way to examine current anxieties and cultural contestation over identity categories.

Some overall things we can think about in this text:

  1. 1.Selection of materials for analysis and particularly how she puts different material into dialogue with each other.

  2. 2.Organizational schema which is broadly temporal and progressive, but less nuanced in relationship to time than say Wolcott.

  3. 3.How Somerville is using the words sexuality, sexual orientation, race, invert, mulatto in different places of the text.

  4. 4.Is the overall argument well-done and convincing? What has she left out or elided to produce her analysis?

Queering the Color Line

Siobhan B. Somerville

  1. 1.What are the strengths and weaknesses of the selections of materials and methods of analysis that Somerville uses? How does she integrate literary texts as a site for historical analysis? Is this “literary historiography” compelling?

  1. 2.In some ways Somerville's project is similar to Wolcott's project in that both are writing an intersectional analysis that positions marginalized people in relationship to dominant discourses. Wolcott is writing about black women in regard to respectability in interwar Detroit and Somerville is writing about the interrelated construction of sexuality and race at the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, the books are quite different. How does comparing the two books further illuminate each?

  1. 3.Is the analysis that Somerville mobilizes an “intersectional analysis” as articulated by Dill, Collins, Nash, and McCall? In what ways does it fulfill that vision and in what ways does it confound it?

  1. 4.Somerville and Halberstam are both literary scholars and both Queering the Color Line and Female Masculinity include close readings as key parts of their overall arguments. In what ways do the analysis of each resonate together? In what ways do they differ? Are Somerville and Halberstam constructing sexuality in consonant ways?

  1. 5.Somerville makes an interesting move at the end of the book in her reading of Stone Butch Blues that works to point to contemporary applications of her analysis. What do we make of that? Is it compelling?

  1. 6.Robyn Wiegman in the chapter “Sexing the Difference” takes many of the same sources as Somerville yet she mobilizes a different analysis which centers the emergence of “blacks and women” and the feminist response of centering “black women” as a response to this cultural/discursive conundrum. What do we make of Wiegman’s analysis in light of Somerville and vice versa?

  1. 7.Queering the Color Line seems to have received only consistent laudatory reviews. The only thing reviewers mentioned is that at times the analysis didn't go far enough with fond hopes that Somerville and others would continue this work. What new possibilities for historical writing and research does Queering the Color Line open? What sorts of projects would be in sympathy with the arguments that Somerville makes?

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