Academic journal article African American Review

Black Feminism and Queer Families: A Conversation with Thomas Allen Harris

Academic journal article African American Review

Black Feminism and Queer Families: A Conversation with Thomas Allen Harris

Article excerpt

In Vintage: Families of Value (1995) Anita Jones proclaims, "I have chose to do like my mother and be a warrior... 'cause I'm a lesbian. My life has evolved around women being sensual, and I rather enjoy it." Speaking forthrightly to the camera, Jones identifies some of the larger challenges raised by black women's lived experiences and by black feminist paradigms working to disrupt the silences surrounding black female sexualities. In Thomas Allen Harris's innovative documentary, which chronicles the lives of three sets of black queer siblings over a five-year period, the women portrayed--Adrian Jones, Anita Jones, Anni Cammett, and Vanessa Eaddy--articulate the impact of their respective familial experiences on their mappings of sexuality and identity. Vintage, as a forum, opens a dialogue in which these women add their voices to black feminist work that redresses socio-political misconceptions of familial gender roles, matrilineal histories, and, more recently, black lesbian sexualities. Through this dialo gue the women in the film implode (a)historical renderings of black familial dysfunction as they imbue black women's experiences and sexualities with agency. By situating black women's experiences as an integral narrative of his experimental documentary, Harris's film enacts the necessity of "exploring the experience of supposedly 'ordinary' Black women whose 'unexceptional' actions" (Smith and Hull xxi) become the peculiar project of a developing black queer narrative.

Harris's film succeeds at appropriating the black family from its demoralized public media representation through a radical framing of the black family within a queer context. His queer depiction of the black family functions to dispel myths of its pathology by refusing to entertain its departure from a nuclear model. In its subject matter, Harris's documentary dispenses with overtly addressing structures of familial normativity imposed by hegemonic racial models. Instead, the film allows the historic racial and sexual prohibitions of the black family in the United States to be explored through the familial and sexual reclamations of the documentary's black siblings as doubly queer self -expression. Harris claims that, "because few African American families conform to the patriarchal, nuclear-family model, they are depicted in popular media and government studies as amoral and in decay. Vintage cuts through these fictions of the 'vanishing' black family."

Harris's film reconfigures the terms black and family in an attempt to depict the difference and diversity of meaning which these terms suggest. As a bold critical move in African American and queer cultural production, Harris's project subverts the notion of queerness as a discrete sexual identity or relation to others by taking as its focal point not the lover relationships of the queer siblings but the intra-familial, intra-racial, and class negotiations of identity and agency that each queer sibling grapples with in order to define him- or herself and his or her queer sexual desires. This broadened approach to exploring queerness is a much needed perspective if queer, as a critical model, is to prove useful beyond a select group or an essentialized sexual identity of lives and work. Harris's film, through the use of documentary, fantasy, and archival footage, theorizes as queer the contradictions and connections that the combinations of black and family and sexuality create in the United States.

With many barriers set in place by the profit-motivated institution of slavery that defined for generations the destiny of a black woman's sexual being, as well as her children's, rupturing the silences and oppressions imposed on black female sexualities has been an endeavor fraught with violent revisitings and violating erasures. Over the course of the past two decades, at least since the appearance of Barbara Smith's essay "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," the process of breaking such silences through a critical black feminist perspective has been in progress. …

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