Professor Jennifer Dominique Jones is constructing a new framework for interpreting Black liberal politics after World War II. Focusing on the relationship between “Blackness” and “queerness,” her scholarship has profound consequences for our understanding of social justice activism in the past and present. Staffer Gregory Parker recently connected with Professor Jones to talk about her research and book project.
Can you tell me a little about Queering the American Dilemma: Sexuality, Gender and African American Political Organizing, 1945-1993?
Queering the American Dilemma argues for the mutually referential nature of = “Blackness” and “queerness” as political concepts in the contest over the Black white racial status quo in the half century after World War II. Its chapters follow these two concepts over six distinct historical moments, locating them in specific discursive spaces. My analysis homes in on African American mainstream liberal organizations, in order to elucidate how homosexuality (as same-sex sex and gender nonconformity was referred to), as well as opposition to it, was constitutive of Black liberal politics during this period. Through this means, I offer new interpretations about Black and gay political engagements and Black sexual politics while remaining attentive to the actions and discourses of two groups with whom Black political action was always in implicit conversation: white gay/lesbian politics, on the one hand, and conservative politics, on the other.
I argue that these material and rhetorical crossings facilitated a profound paradox: as Blackness became increasingly associated with heterosexuality while gay/lesbian political formations became racialized as white (a process deeply tied to local spatial contexts and organizational formations), these two groups became increasingly mutually referential in discourses of the national political sphere. Such bidirectional referentiality was not rooted in the language of shared or intersecting identities, but rather in the rhetoric of similar and/or shared estrangements—that is the condition of being marginalized and deemed non-normative. Identifying the origins of these shared estrangements is consequential for both African American and gay/lesbian/queer history, not only because it provides added texture to each group’s individual experience, but because it provides a broader framework and set of explanations for the manner in which increasing “gay clout” continued to refer and require Blackness as a touchstone.
You’re a historian living through a historical moment, and it also happens to be related to what you study. As you work on larger projects, are there ever moments when you see what’s happening now and say, “I’ve got to rethink that”? Does history ever change faster than you can write it?
For me, I think the question is less that history changes faster than we can write it and more that the questions a scholar asks or the implications of a line of inquiry may change during the writing process. As a graduate student, a particular set of presentist questions fueled my interest in the appearance of constructions of same-sex intimacy and gender non-conformity within the modern civil rights movement and white supremacist responses to it: Where did comparisons between Black racial identities and LGBTQ+ identities emerge? Does returning to this period cast new light on the prevalent notion of ubiquitous Black homophobia? I completed my dissertation a month before the killing of Michael Brown and the visible emergence of what would come to be known as the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). Since then, I have been struck by the alliances and tensions between an older cadre of Black politicos (many of whom embrace liberal policies and reform) and organizers associated with the M4BL, many of whom embrace a Black feminist radical tradition in which intersectional understanding of race, gender, class, and sexuality is central. This movement, along with other developments in my thinking, have shifted my line of inquiry somewhat.
The book, now, contextualizes these early twenty-first century tensions by revealing how Black liberal political organizations have long grappled with the institutionalization of heterosexuality as central to full citizenship and the ways in which political homophobia could be weaponized against supporters of racial equality or undertaken as a strategy to counter white supremacy. Calling our attention to the ways in which Black liberals deployed homophobic rhetoric does not legitimize or condone such action— rather it reveals how this group of historical actors (and their political descendants) continue to grapple with the long historical constructions of Black sexuality as deviant and the reverberations of what Margot Canaday calls “the straight state” as they sought empowerment during the last half of the twentieth century.
Can you talk about the challenges of archival work?
In my work, the archive is a site of ambivalence. On the one hand, it can be a site of violence and erasure, as information about gender on conforming and same-sex desiring individuals is either absent or pathologizing. However, it is also a site of possibility in which I have found shards of stories, experiences, and information in unexpected places. My own approach to archival research is incredibly capacious in that I consult as many collections as possible for shards of information that might allow me to tell a larger story. This often means looking in unexpected places for information (or what I call moving beyond the finding aid) and allowing intuition to guide my research. Once I find documents of interest, I employ various methods to analyze the documents, including reading against the grain and engaging in Black feminist speculation practices.
Since some of the people you study are still alive, are oral histories or interviews part of your work?
Oral histories are an important part of my scholarship, especially for the final chapters of the book and a new book project about African American migration to Michigan cities and towns along what would become Interstate 94. The ability to speak to some of the historical actors in my current study has been wonderful and incredibly enlightening. One aspect of this process that has struck me is how generous people have been with their time and memories—often offering up so much rich material that falls outside of the parameters of the book. I am still in the process of conducting interviews for Queering the American Dilemma and the new project.