In Chapter 4 Somerville provides a textual analysis of how both mixed-race identity and interracial desire function and become intertwined with issues of gender inversion and homosexuality in James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (anonymously published in 1912, reissued with credit in 1927). Somerville contends that the heterosexual (interracial) marriage that is pursued in the narrative is secondary to the "perverse" desire that is explored in regard to the protagonist's male homosexuality. As she states, "the representation of the mulatto body is mediated by the iconography of gender inversion, and interracial heterosexual desire functions in the text as both an analogy to homosexual object choice and a screen through which it can be articulated" (112). Importantly, the ex-coloured man is an unnamed protagonist, who is constructed as both object and subject of desire through the course of the narrative. "The very proximity of these oscillating racialized and sexualized 'perversions' is integral to Johnson's fascination with, and critique of, his unnamed protagonist" (112).
Like many fictional stories of that time in which the narrative turns on the identification/revelation of the mulatto/a character as other than white, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man is no exception. The pivotal moment for our protagonist occurs in a classroom setting, when the teacher excludes him from the group that consists of white students. This new "knowledge" leads the protagonist, who we are told has never given much thought to his racial identity, to confront himself in the mirror. This assessment, for Somerville, has as much to do with rethinking gender identity as it is a renegotiation of racial identification. From here, Somerville leads us through the various relationships that stand out through the course of the narrative. Somerville reads the relationships with some of the key male figures in the protagonist's life through the lens of homosexuality. In fact, Somerville argues that although the protagonist's erotic gaze is not directed exclusively at men, "the narrator's homoerotic attachments hold a much more powerful place in the narrative than do his erotic attachments with women" (114). Somerville claims that Johnson makes use of the scenes of homoerotic attachment to destabilize the protagonist's masculinity, which functions as part of the novel's critique of racial passing and clues us in as readers to the narrator's naïveté in regard to race.
At the end of the chapter Somerville moves away from textual analysis to discuss the issues of reading and reception and their connectedness with the ways in which the issues of race and sexuality were constructed and circulated in relation to the publication of the text. Although Johnson himself characterized the narrative as centering around "'some colored man who had married white'" (125) Somerville argues that Carl Van Vechten's introduction, which was published along with the 1927 edition, "made more palpable the imbrications of interracial and homosexual desire, both among characters within the book and between the text and its various audiences" (126). Although he both "supported (and appropriated)" African American's artistic production, as a white gay man, Van Vechten's introduction set the stage for "a position of reading and subjectivity that had as much to do with the sexual as racial subcultures associated with the Harlem Renaissance" (126-127). Finally, Somerville leaves us with the notion that part of the reason there has been ongoing attention given to the Autobiography is because of the ways the text "mapped culturally taboo sexual desires onto the color line," a relationship that was very much a major component of the art and literary scene of the 1920s.
In Chapter 5 Somerville looks at writer Jean Toomer, who is best known for publishing Cane in 1923. Questions of authorship, the commodification of the African-American identity, and Toomer's disidentification with his African-American heritage become central concerns in this piece. Somerville notes that the critically useful notion of passing may be a limited means from which to view Toomer's story in that it "tends to foreground certain questions as it erases others" (133). Thus, Somerville's project here is to shift the existing discussion that was primarily focused on race to a more involved discussion that looks also at issues of gender and sexuality. Somerville draws a link between Toomer and Johnson in "the ways in which their work is concerned with representing racialized masculinity and corresponding issues of sexual orientation" (134).
Somerville then turns to the toolbox of "so-called queer theory" to help try to make sense of Toomer's refusal to "position himself according to the available categories of 'black' or 'white'" (137). After a short disclaimer about her own positionality as a white late-twentieth-century queer academic, Somerville stresses that what is at "stake in this discussion is the extent to which 'race' and 'racialization' are seen as constitutive of sexuality in current attempts to mobilize 'queer' approaches" (137). Somerville is in agreement with Eve Sedgwick who suggests that "queer" is located in the intersections of race, ethnicity and nationality but somewhat at odds with both Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Judith Butler who seem to suggest that queer theory is somewhat separable from critical race theory.
Somerville returns to Toomer to provide some examples of the ways in which he employed and foregrounded the word "queer" in his own writings, which draws our attention to the way "the repeated use of the term seems to complicate and enrich available genealogies of 'queer' and demands to be situated in relation to historical and literary contexts, as well as our own current theoretical understandings of the term" (139). Somerville is also interested in the ways Toomer's writings serve to destabilize the categories of race and sexual desire. Finally, Somerville leaves us with a warning, inspired by Martha Umphrey's writings that caution against a "queer reading that would too easily recuperate its subjects" (164). "What emerges from this discussion is that queer reading is perhaps most useful in resisting any attempt to see race and sexuality as metaphoric substitutes; instead it might insist on marking the ways in which racialization is constitutive of sexuality, and vice versa, in specific historical contexts" (165).
1) I'm interested in the notion of authorship that Somerville touches on in Chapter 4. Is Johnson's resistance to being named the first time he published parallel to Toomer's disidentification in relation to his African-American identity? Somerville alludes to the fact that Johnson may have republished in 1927 under his own name because the historical moment had shifted so much so that a queer audience had started to arise. What do we make of this in relation to notions of authorship and identity?
2) It might be useful/interesting to return to a question that Somerville poses on page 163 that gets to the heart of the issues at hand (in Chapter 5 specifically) and that is "How might Toomer's gesture of racial disidentification, his refusal to adhere to a system of naturalized racial difference, be connected to the proliferation of 'queer' in his work?" and "Does this connection relate to the current work of queer reading?" Somerville admits that these are questions that are difficult to resolve, nevertheless it may be worth discussing.
3) In Chapter 5 Somerville leaves us with the ambiguous notion that it is impossible to predict what kind of response a queer reading may elicit. Are there ways to frame an argument so as to be more likely to elicit the response you may expect? Or is that beside the point of doing a queer reading?
4) What do we think of the idea of queer theory being inseparable or separable from critical race theory? Are there arguments to be made for both positions? Clearly, Somerville makes a strong case for the merging of the two fields, or a least using the tools of queer theory to get at some of the key issues for critical race theory and vice versa.
5) Why does Somerville qualify queer theory by calling it "so-called queer theory" at the same time that she obviously relies heavily on the work that has been done by queer theorists and positions that work as central in her analysis? (136). In fact, she herself identifies as a queer academic so the qualifier seemed out of place to me.