The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

The Question of Normal
by Sharon Holland

These remarks were first prepared for a symposium organized by Professor Elisa Glick at the University of Missouri-Columbia, entitled, "Race, Ethnicity & Queer Studies," sponsored by the Women's and Gender Studies Program.

Not Freud Again!

My next monograph, tentatively entitled, "Between Fabrication and Generation[s]": Biology, Sex (Acts), and Habitual Non-Belonging, interrogates the productive and the non-productive, as it attempts to resist the effort to absorb those who stand on the outside of the outside (the space of habitual non-belonging) into the body politic, into the rational pattern of biology, sex, and family. It begins with the following primal scene:

A few days after Tupac Shakur's death, I pulled into a grocery store parking lot in Palo Alto, California with my then partner's 15-year-old daughter. We were listening to one of Shakur's songs on the radio - because he was a hometown boy, the stations were playing his music around the clock - a kind of electromagnetic vigil, if you will. An older (but not elderly) woman with a grocery cart came to the driver's side of my car and asked me to move my vehicle so that she could unload her groceries. The tone of her voice conveyed the fruition of expectation - it was not only a request, but also a demand that would surely be met. The southerner in me would have been happy to help; the critic in me didn't understand why she simply couldn't put her groceries in on the other side where there were no other cars or potential impediments. I told the woman that I would gladly wait in my car until she unloaded her groceries - that way, there would be plenty of room for her to maneuver.

While she did this, I continued to listen to Shakur's music and talk with Danielle. We were "bonding" and I was glad that she was talking to me about how Shakur's death was affecting her and her classmates. When I noticed that the woman had completed her unloading, I got out and we walked behind the cars toward the SAFEWAY. What happened next has stayed with me as one of the defining moments of my life in Northern California. As we passed the right rear bumper of her car, she said with mustered indignance, "And to think I marched for you." I was stunned at first - and then I recovered. I had two options: to walk away without a word, or to confront the accusation - to model for Danielle how to handle with intelligence and grace what would surely be part of the fabric of her life as a black woman in the United States. I turned to the woman and I said, "You didn't march for me, you marched for yourself - and if you don't know that already, I can't help you."

Questing for the Question

You might be asking what this scenario has to do with the question or questions at hand. You might be wondering what it has to do with the title of this piece. As scholars, we are often asked to consider the same set of questions when speaking to the intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Queer Studies. One of the entry points into that discussion begins with the question "what is normal?" The question demands a response - it is both a challenge to convention, and a re-institution of it. For the respondent is asked to consider the issue as well as defend and/or attack its veracity depending upon his or her political predilections. The next question quite possibly follows the logic of the first, "How are cultural norms produced and maintained?" And it is precisely to this question that my primal scene refers. The statement, "to think I marched for you," and all of the violence that it enjoins, gets to the heart of what it means to be normal, what it means to sustain "normal" and ultimately what "normal" does to an ever-increasing idea of what I am calling "the perpetual outside." For the question on the lips of the woman in that SAFEWAY (and I will never think of a SAFEWAY store as a s a f e w a y) is ultimately one about belonging. Her challenge chases after an ideal of and for blackness - for a norm of blackness - that sits alongside, but perpetually outside the everyday blackness that she encounters, the normative whiteness that she perhaps inhabits.

What Gave You the Right?

In addition, the challenge also sits at the heart of what "civil rights" means and has meant for the general population. When lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered subjects yoke their claim to citizenship through an appeal to "civil rights," or "equal protection under the law," there is the implicit demand that the psychic dimension of that connection also have its place. Regardless of whether or not such claims are politically or morally efficacious, we have to also consider the psychic life of the connection being made. Such a connection is visceral, such a connection necessitates a simultaneous emotion and responsibility: To feel, and to act on that feeling. I am not sure that queer studies, as a discipline, has ever fully considered what it means to be connected to the fate of black people in this particular and sometimes visceral way. I am anticipating that such an understanding is beginning to take shape. In their introduction to the collection, Left Legalism/Left Critique, Wendy Brown and Janet Halley offer the following scenario:

So left, feminist, queer, and liberal constituencies together have celebrated these reforms [in same sex and domestic partner recognition and adoption] as a way for the law to recognize brave, exploratory "families we choose" as they evolve into ever new forms of intimate attachment. But our loose, fluid normativity stiffens when, in the aftermath of a breakup between lesbian co-parents who had not secured a second-parent adoption, the biological mother asserts a unique status as parent to deny her legally unprotected lover access to the(ir) child. (15)

Brown and Halley interrogate the fantasy of a "fluid normativity" that exposes the catch-22 of law and family. For them, civil liberty is not only about the law; it is also about the very idea of "family," a space/place where the emotions that engender calls for legal justice or legal reform might reside. What is the point of jurisprudence that does not recognize the devastating subtlety of emotion(s)?

Quotidian Thesis

The other reason for sharing my anecdote is very simple: the conditions of that exchange contour every aspect of my professional life. This affect occurs on two levels: the writing process and the institutional experience. My research always begins with a quotidian scenario, a happening that gives me pause - an incident that cannot be explained away by prevailing theories nor removed from occupying a particular place in my consciousness. From that place, I begin to search for an argument that can handle the complexity of the experience. On the other hand, my institutional life is shadowed by the "how dare you" of that parking lot question. While I am encouraged to do cutting-edge work, to be a voice in the department, my experiences tell me that when you continually push people to see what you might be seeing, to come close to that cutting edge, they will ultimately resist; they will offer phrases like "departmental tradition" and "institutional memory" as an excuse for a kind of stasis that reminds you that you have forgotten your place. There is plenty of fodder for an unfettered intellect, but our academic strivings have little space to maneuver in the daily landscape of stereotype and mediocrity.

When average people participate in racist acts, they demonstrate a profound misreading of the subjects they encounter. For that woman in the parking lot, the civil rights struggle was not about freedom for us all, it was about acquiring a kind of purchase on black bodies. I would be given the right to participate in "democratic process," but the ability to exercise such a right would be looked upon with disdain and at times, rage. This scene from a mall stays with me as if that woman and I were locked in a past that has tremendous purchase on my present. In my mind, we hover there with the lie of difference and non-relation balancing precariously between us - like Rosa and Clytie at war on the dilapidated staircase in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom - it is a primal scene par excellence. The logic of "race" has as its primary defense the action of racism and it continues to work because we rely upon it to perpetuate the beautiful, but catastrophic lie of biology, of family and of kinship. Racism defends us against the project of universal belonging, against the findings, if you will, of the human genome project, pernicious though it might be.

Fill in the Blank

But back to the issue of belonging. . . . On several occasions, I have heard from friends and colleagues that Chicago is now the (un)official home of Black Queer Studies. To be honest, I haven't said much in response to such pronouncements. I certainly agree that Chicago is undergoing a Renaissance on several levels; during the last five years the city's academic hubs have been able to attract a cadre of critics, writers, and artists to this place I now call home even in these difficult post-September 11th times. Don't get me wrong; I am honored to be in the company of my (black) queer studies colleagues in Chicago. But I've always wondered what would it take to make Chicago's black queer studies the new "home" for queer studies? I'm sure I'm not the first person to make this observation. I am remembering a famous line from Mr. Baldwin here, "What is the price of the ticket?" I am also aware that at the moment I challenge the "center" of queer studies, I am required to participate in the same kind of demand placed upon me in that California parking lot. Belonging is indeed burdensome. The intersection of race, ethnicity and queer studies is always already crowded and based upon a set of assumed relationships that sets the stage for discord, for the question at the center of the center is always already: "prove to us that you belong;" "that you understand the larger picture;" and "that you do what we do." And if we can't provide the "proof," for we all know that queer studies has not re-envisioned itself from the center out or else we would be have no need for yet another conference on the intersection of (fill in the blank) - then we are called upon to create a separate sphere, whether spontaneous or intentional (let's call this place/space Chicago's black queer studies) so that we can readily recognize the outside of the outside.

Space and Place

Like the rhizome - a category Deleuze and Guattari borrowed from the font makers - that goes beyond the three-dimensional and so catches the outside of the outside, the questions at hand are indeed part and parcel of that fourth dimension to which I refer. The questions on my lips have everything and nothing at all to do with one another. And this is precisely my point. Where is the space in queer studies for a feminist who still believes that state-sanctioned marriage is one of the most insidious forms of institutionalized racism? Where is the place for the atheist at the table where (black) queer studies meets African American studies and they agree that the church is an important and necessary center for a discourse on the politics of black bodies, black subjects, black lives? Unlike the relentless Iago, I have ceased whispering at the ear of colleagues and friends, phrases like "God is dead" or "God doesn't exist." It is no longer funny. And finally, when is the appropriate time to have a discussion about all of these things that surely have their parallel in the principles of connection and heterogeneity that describe the (Deleuzian) fourth dimension. OUT THERE, our nation chases a phantom menace called terrorism that is a cover for a "holy war." And if you wonder what I'm talking about, just check out Jerry Falwell's latest missive on his website: "At this critical time in our nation's history, it is imperative that Christians join together in prayer for our troops who wage war against a merciless enemy." Under cover of the first menace, fundamentalists everywhere are waging (an)other war against another menace - the queer, the freak, the one who sits at the outside of the outside.

As you can see, I have little patience in these warring times for silence, for as Toni Morrison reminds us, this is serious and dangerous work. And in order to do it, we must change the way we think about the initial question(s) and their relations, literal or figurative.

Works Cited

Wendy Brown and Janet Halley, eds. Left Legalism/Left Critique. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.

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