[Duke University Press; 2022]
While reading Jafari S. Allen’s electric text There’s a Disco Ball Between Us: A Theory of Black Gay Life, I thought often of Lucille Clifton’s poem “homage to my hips.” Clifton writes: “they don’t fit into little/ petty places. these hips/ are free hips.” In There’s a Disco Ball Between Us, which is also a book about freedom and Black gay life as danced, Allen quotes from another of Clifton’s poems, “Atlantic is a Sea of Bones,” in relation to a film by trans artist and activist Tourmaline titled after the poem: “I call my name into the roar of surf/ and something awful answers.” Allen notes that Tourmaline “cannot help being archival: thinking past and present, aware of her work not only as art (and education) in the present but also as an important entry in the record.” Tourmaline is in what Allen calls Black/queer time, a type of Black/queer politic, study, or memory, the idea of which, Allen offers, “emerges directly out of the political, artistic, and activist work of radical Black lesbians of the 1970s who had cut their teeth in civil rights, Black power, peace, labor, antiapartheid, reproductive rights, and radical feminist movements.” Tourmaline is an archivist collapsing Black/queer time, Allen notes. “Black/queer life fleeting, endangered, yet vital and here/now. Black/queer responsibility to fight double (triple?) cremation. And Black/queer labor that other folks often do not appreciate as labor (is it because we look so good doing it?).”
This is only a single instance of Allen’s lyrical, genre-bending writing, which undoes, stitches and shakes off normative ideas about how Black/gay life is conceived and lived. For Allen, a “Black/gay habit of mind” is not a theory that offers a single, final answer to explain away or solve violences caused by acts of hetero-patriarchal antiblackness, past and future. Instead, it is a theory of reconsideration. It pulls together divergent ways in which Black/gay life flourishes, amidst by what Allen calls “our epidemic living and dead”. Black/gay life has been lost to AIDS, cancer, cis violence, and other bio-political enactments. Through it all, habits and politics centring joy, survival and community were formed, inside and outside academic circles. Some of these habits—such as dancing at the disco, gathering at the nightclub, huddling over in a conference room, creating art, sharing food, making love—sustain and form into a methodology; a toolkit for witnessing Black/gay life differently to how it has been before, and therefore living it differently too. Elegies and celebrations go hand-in-hand. Friendship is a critical methodology.
Allen explores these ideas in a collective, anthological manner. Allen’s writing is itself a type of poesis, both in its cadence and in its adopted structural register. Allen often uses first names, thinking intimately with a number of artists, scholars, activists, and respondents, some of whom are “intellectual forbearers/ancestors, colleagues, and/or friends.” The effect of this is one of warmth and euphoria; a rare affect when encountering a text as beautiful, critical, and innovative as Allen’s. Theory, as Allen demonstrates, need not be cold and distant to be rigorous. It is, as bell hooks said, a liberatory practice. Allen’s book pushes back against academic conventions structured by whiteness, such as the notion of the thinker as individual genius. Frequently, I encountered a chorality; not just a chorus of voices but a pulsing, harmonized, sequinned room of Black/gay lives dancing against time. Take the disco ball itself. Building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s thought that “pastness is a position,” Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s mixed media work Oyibo versus Herself (That’s not the Atlantic. There’s a disco ball between us.), and performance artist Kevin Aviance meditation on the disco ball being lowered for the last time at the historic NYC club, The Palladium, Allen formulates the disco ball as a kaleidoscopic metaphor, or technique where “generative flashes in which pasts are present” and movements of memory-making can be refractive, glimmering back loss, death, and the collective hum of companions who danced before they died. “The sanctity of the dance floor is upheld here,” notes Allen, placing the disco ball as a “(re)articulation — not of a ‘lost’ or ‘absent’ culture but of strategies and formulae, techniques, forms, and agenda needed to withstand recursive material attacks in the present.” Back to Clifton’s roar of surf: in the memory of death, ancestors glimmer in the light, out of time, invoked from the seabed.
Dancing is not merely a metaphor in Allen’s writing. Movement in the shimmer of a disco ball is a mode of thought, a way of living the present in the gleam of the past. Theoretical axes appear as refrains on the dancefloor: being each other’s “stitches in life, darling” (Kevin Aviance); work the “technique of the artisan” (Robert Reid-Pharr); the “spyglass” (Zora Neale Hurston); “are we not of interest to each other?” (Elizabeth Alexander); “after the end of the world” (June Tyson/Sun Ra); “first, we must recognize each other” (Audre Lorde); “double cremation” (Melvin Dixon). The disco is also a space: it is the hold, the break, the church, the shelter, the conference room, the roller rink, the dancefloor. The disco ball illuminates a “queer octave”: sibilants in a song, in the “elongated s or sh sound” of Black gay New York, keeping time, against time. The disco ball conjures up a “Black gay habit of mind” as methodology: one that anthologizes, hones a communal technique of gathering lives both past and present, “upholds a version of blackness that seeks to invite, seduce, repatriate, and recover our folks lost to various versions of antiblackness.” This is a radical reimagining of academic citationality: where citation practices have previously been re-employed against a specific political mode, for instance, Allen recasts them as a way of practicing life itself; as a habit with historical and material stakes. It means that a section on archiving communes with Venus Landin, a late leader of the Atlanta lesbian and gay community, historian Saidiya Hartman, activist Marsha P. Johnson, and poet, writer and scholar M. NourbeSe Phillip, amongst others.
This community-building is transnational in Allen’s book. Allen creates an assemblage of “cognates” from North America to Brazil, Nairobi and Jamaica. There’s a Disco Ball Between Us anthologizes desire as a glittering communal practice of Black/gay habit: as a moment of recognition between kith if not kin, as acknowledgement even if in quarrel, shifting lives in and out of time, dancing freedom.
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