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To Be Black? September 25, 2007

Posted by alexis in Uncategorized.

Peace Everyone,

Last week we thought about responses to racist, gendered and homophobic violence in terms of what is “at stake” in this class.  This week I want to extend that to think about health or lack of access to healthcare as a specific form of institutional violence that manifests itself along familiar lines of oppression.  I find political scientist Cathy Cohen’s work especially helpful here.  (That is probably because from the first time I heard Cathy Cohen speak…she has been my hero.)  I refuse the violence of stalking, but I strongly recommend that we all follow the groundbreaking, brave and radical work that Cohen (now Director of Africana Studies at University of Chicago) is doing.


 Cathy Cohen’s The Boundaries of Blackness, published in 1999 is an important analysis of a specific failure of racialized politics.  By investigating why despite the fact that African American communities in the United States were disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic mainstream African American institutions and political leaders were slow to respond, Cohen looks at the limits of “racial consensus” politics when the “consensus” about who is black (and by consensus she means not the true consensus but rather the percieved consensus created by those within the African American community with the privilege of defining “the consensus)  excludes queer black folks, black mothers on medicaid, black folks in prison and black sex workers and black folks suffering from drug addiction.

In other words, the black people MOST impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic were (in)conveniently narrated out of black subjectivity.   Cohen argues that the extreme class differences between black people with access to wealth and the majority of black people who (as Cohen investigates in her earlier work with Micheal Dawson) are disenfranchised (i.e. denied the social, economic and political resources necessary for basic decision making power in their communities) have led to a situation where the “black leadership” imagined to consist mostly of people with economic and educational privilege is MORE concerned with presenting a “respectable” face to the dominant culture and reaping the rewards of proximity with white folks than with being accountable for the lived experience of the majority of black folks.    This narrative about respectability is what Cohen argues made mainstream black leaders afraid to center the needs of queers, prisoners, single mothers, sex workers and drug users.

However (and this is what makes her my hero), Cohen demands that this scary, non-respectable centering is exactly what needs to happen.   She argues that shaping a “black community” on terms catered towards white acceptance can only result in continued dehumanization…namely the dehumanization by black people with privilege of “other” black people who are marginalized…twice.  What Cohen describes as “advanced marginalization” is the deadly situation where marginalized people (for example black folks) because of racism and poverty are denied certain levels of access to mainstream institutions (say schools, hospitals, and voting booths that work).  Because of this situation of anti-black racism black people who have the most NEED for HIV treatment and  preventative healthcare services are MORE dependent on institutions WITHIN the black community (i.e. clinics at black churches, NAACP representation, Urban League advocacy etc).  HOWEVER because the consensus about who “counts” in the black community excludes the folks with the most need this black institutions are not serving the people who need it most.

So our people are dying.

Cohen demands that a movement to effectively end the AIDS epidemic must CENTER the needs of those who are usually demonized in the black community…and not only that…but the actions of sex workers, drug users, prisoners, single mothers on medicaid, queer folks must be seen as the new place of POLITICAL LEADERSHIP.  Michele Berger (Women’s Studies professor at UNC) elaborates on what this looks like in the fight against HIV in her book Workable Sisterhood (which I HIGHLY recommend).

So in 1999 Cohen says that if there is going to be a viable “black politics” (and “black” seems to have some major slippage with “African American” in this use) it MUST center around the leadership and needs of sex workers, queers, drug users, prisoners, and welfare mothers.  The bogeypeople of mainstream American Politics.

Interestingly, when I discussed this in the “in person” version of To Be A Problem with about a dozen 17-19 year old Duke Students, most of whom identify as “black” the students reflected much of the discourse that has come along in the decade since Cohen’s book was released.

Now…they insist AIDS is a “black issue”. (Though we did not reach “consensus” on whether this was because people had taken up work like that of Cohen and Berger or because so many black people had died from AIDS and are living with HIV that it has become undeniable). BET, Essence, Tavis Smiley and the crew have all jumped on board.

BUT…they also insist…it shouldn’t be.  AIDS should be a “human issue” since all human beings are succeptible to AIDS.   They elide Cohen’s demand for a radical black politics centered on the most silenced subjectivities by remembering that in their generation they have learned that AIDS is a “human rights issue”…..that just happens to disproportionately kill black people.

In some sense the move to “human” is also part of a discourse that transports AIDS “back” to Africa where it supposedly “started”. That is the point that the ONION article


parodies.   The students were surprised to learn however that the rates of HIV in the Bronx in NYC are HIGHER than the rates of HIV infection in Uganda.

While we ran out of classtime (which we always do) I questioned whether the new “human rights” discourse on AIDS wasn’t reproducing racism:

see up and coming scholar Alisha Gaines on Kate Moss’s anti-AIDS minstrelsy here .

Do the new “I am African” campaign and the exploits of Bono seem likely to truly impact the disproportionate effect of HIV on black communities everywhere? Or do they make the grim statement that the Onion amplifies: African life is not valuable.  We now admit that all people come from Africa. Blackness is a “style” we can all appropriate.  Therefore it is okay if all of the black people actually living in Africa die…because we have stolen their subjectivity already.

Maybe that wasn’t the best note to end class I was profoundly disturbed that my students had more faith in  white “human rights” activists to impact the lives of the people most impacted by HIV/AIDS than in the people (queer/sex worker/single mother/prisoner/drug user) themselves.   I know that Cohen wasn’t suggesting that since black mainstream leadership had failed to address the problem early on we should just give up on black leadership altogether and put our faith into multinational initiatives controlled by white folks so this  leaves me with some urgent questions for you all.

How do you imagine we could collectively respond to HIV/AIDS?  Do you think that a “black politics” like the radical one that Cohen recommends could be viable?  Do we think that what Cohen says about “centering deviance” is possible?  Could/should it be applied on broader terms than “the African American community”?  Could we read Cohen to be saying that due to political changes and the unpredicted class divisions enabled by integration that there is no coherent “black community”?  What does this mean for “black scholars”, “black community organizations”, “black rebels”, anti-racist allies, people of color coalitions?

On what scale(s) do you see this next necessary phase of response to the deadly injustice of which AIDS is merely one salient example? Local? Global? Glocal? What kinds of community institutions could turn around the dynamic of “disenfranchisement” that Cohen points out?

Or as June Jordan asks in “Nicaragua: Why I Had to Go There”

“When will we seize the whole world with our freedom?”

Looking forward to your responses,




1. kameelah r. - September 30, 2007

re: textual conversations with “boundaries of blackness” (because it works as a dialogic not monologic work)

what i see in my head: gentrification (who is displaced) and gerrymandering (who is counted) of blackness–how do we reconcile the displacement/exclusionary politics– (as cohen notes the “marginal and blight on the community, p.15) and redistricting of blackness? in the “redevelopment” of “respectable” blackness calls for the displacement of certain bodies and implantation of disciplined and presentable bodies.


after completing the (mis)calculus and discursive alchemy of black authenticity and racial apostasy under the auspices of the league of respectable black folks and paid for by the don’t act a fool, cuz they watching us fund (daf-ct-wuf), the blackness border police have been created and deployed for immediate action. they are dispatched to ‘hoods, AIDS clinics, welfare offices, gay clubs, women’s studies departments, crack houses, dance halls and the occasional to patrol the borders and keep out the illegal/outlawed bodies because blackness must be clean, presentable and immaculate for when white and moneyed folks come for their yearly 1900s world fair and safari-like tours of blackness. border patrol stand at the borders armed with guns, words, to edit YOU out of existence. cctv, floodlights and akin surveillance materials are planted in various places to keep a watch on the spectacle other and to ensure they don’t try to jump that fence, take that swim or otherwise breach security.

and like homeland security they check if you got your black card before you cross over from deviant street to respectable boulevard. it is usually easy to tell who is from deviant street because they bear the mark of deviance in the way their words settle at various marks of punctuation, the hand they are holding, the long sleeved shirts that try to cover freshly picked track marks, their direction-less swagger and the scent of fried chicken and pressing castor oil. if you don’t have your black card and are caught on the “other-side,” you are detained (literally and figuratively) in the “blackness management/disposal” centers that are located in the blind spots and margins of blackness. here, there is no oversight to ensure humane treatment and prison guards conduct scientific experiments to determine the amount of alienation and exclusion one can withstand before

at the management centers, you must wait until your papers are approved–“crackheads”, “gays”, “welfare queens”, and “prostitutes” need not apply.

other thoughts
-the above narrative as an expansion for the surveillance, containment and policing of deviant blackness within academia, non-profit organizational philosophy, community organizing
-the choreography of death–the performance of blackness and the “killer” politics of respectability that choreograph an almost guaranteed death of black folks–where we are not only dying a death of HIV/AIDS, we are dying a death of invisibility, exclusion, alienation and denial because “we” are fixated on these myopic conceptual incarcerations and the need to “perform.” what happens when our politics are no longer dictated by the need to please an audience? what will that look like?

2. lyndsey - September 30, 2007

my response, “To be Black? or Queer Diabetics exist?” is on my blog at http://dropoffthekey.blogspot.com/


3. lex - October 1, 2007

Peace Kameelah,
I love this narrative. Especially the nod to funding. (Daf-ct-wuf). Brilliant. I think that it is very useful to think through these things using spatial analysis (which is-of course-more than metaphorical). It made me want to share this poem about gentrification that I’ve been working on:

Of course by using the terms “boundaries” and “marginalization” Cohen gives us the idea that this is a spatial, inside/outside thing, and I love your move to make it more explicitly a geography.

One of the most generative moments in your piece for me is towards the end when you theorize the choreography of death. I think this line of thinking is crucial…and devastating and brutal and it links your references to space to the movement of bodies, the breathing of bodies, and embodied violence in a way that I think performance theorist and class member Ebony Golden would love to engage (hint hint Ebony)!

But yes even the phrase alone “choreography of death” is making my chest feel still with ache. And in this context it also means I have to move.

4. lex - October 1, 2007

Thanks for this post Lyndsey and thanks for your generosity in brining the lessons that you are working through in your communities to this space. Even knowing that there is such as thing as an active group of queer diabetics is incredibly helpful for me in thinking about how diabetes impacts folks in my communities.

The question that you raise about “when” a disease becomes a problem is really on point. Your investigation of it here also made me want to think about what kind of a problem “dis/ease” is and for whom? Like…does having a treatable disease become a “problem” for me…because I can’t use my partner’s healthcare package or because i don’t have the proper immigration status when it might have been more of an inconvenience otherwise. Is it only a problem if I can pass it on to another generation…if it’s communicable…if it is associated with a moral stigma that will defame me and those I associate with…etc. etc.
I think your example of queer diabetic organizing opens up a whole new set of questions for me about what kind of “problem” “dis/ease” is and can be.
Thanks again!

5. Alexis Pauline Gumbs - October 12, 2007

Aminah said:I think I finally figured out how to post on this msg board-I’m so
looking forward to the Fanon discussions!

First of all, the first documented case of HIV were found in four gay
white males. So the idea that the disease began in Africa is largely
founded on circumstantial, at best, evidence, unless of course Black
people have been infected with HIV in small numbers but no one ever
diagnosed it until it infiltrated the white community and, in doing
so, became a problem worth diagnosing. Both of these scenarios point
to issues within our racialized health system. Those issues being that
blackness has been linked with pathology in western allopathic
medicine throughout America’s history and that the research, funding,
and investigation of diseases is directly linked to who is contracting
those diseases. For example, cystic fibrosis is a condition of the
lungs and digestive system that is prominent in Northern Europe. it is
a genetic condition and as such, presents itself in people with
European ancestry. Sickle cell anemia is a condition affecting the red
blood cells and is prominent in western Africa and sub tropical areas.
It is also a genetic condition that affects primarily Black men in
this country. While cystic fibrosis affects a smaller percentage of
people than does sickle cell, much more research has been devoted to
the study of this disease. It is not coincidence that sickle cell
anemia has received much less funding and can only affect white
Americans if black men (generally) are having children with white
women. Then again, historically those children would be considered
Black anyway so white people are pretty much safe from Sickle cell.
Getting back to AIDS from my health disparities rant, I am also
disappointed, but not surprised, to hear that (generally) middle and
upper middle class Blacks have put their faith in white “human rights”
activists to help their brothers and sisters. I feel that the adage of
“ looking back and pulling up your brother or sister” has some
inherent issues that manifest in this type of behavior from Our Kinds
of People. For a comparison, I offer the suggestion “look to your
sides and pull your brothers and sisters next to you.” The whole idea
that Middle and Upper-middle class Blacks have to look behind them, to
reach beneath them, to find their brothers and sisters sets up a class
conflict within the race. If blackness, and poverty, is associated
with a backward subject position, then the accumulation of wealth or
the resources that accompany it (including proximity to white folks)
must be defined as forward movement. As such, many of “our” ‘forward”
thinkers, if they self-identify as black, cannot self-identify with
poverty, or the disenfranchised if they want to claim forward motion.
However, these people, with proximity to white folks and wealth are
necessary. The link between white folks with power and money to Upper
middle class black folks to middle class black folks to the
disenfranchised black folks must be utilized to effectively address
HIV as a Black issue. Those links occur within education and within
Christian organizations.

Notes and Ideas:
∑ Teachers and ministers are on the frontline- they associate with the
disenfranchised .
∑ We need a best practices module-ie. prison outreach and Aids
outreach in Black Christian churches, sex ed in California schools
(the only places without abstinences only funding), strategies for
promoting green living (look at the 30yr time frame, major sources of
funding, making it ‘hip’ to be green)
∑ Unfortunately, teachers and ministers are politically tied. Both by
abstinence only funding, a faith-based initiative.
∑ Black people aren’t voting so its white ppl that are voting for this
abstinence only teaching that is killing black people.
∑ Change the discourse—this is where we can use black leaders. ie
Darfur and Don Cheadle and Hotel Rwanda
∑ capitalism depends on having people at the bottom- they need to be
dumbed down. “The idea of life unworthy of life”- Sylvia Winter: we
are competing against that
∑ Still, the worse thing you can do to your enemy is make them fear
you (Mandela). Fear results in hostility and they have bigger guns
than we do.

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