Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

“walkin on the edges of the galaxy”: Queer Choreopoetic Thought in the African Diaspora

In her 1978 essay, “takin a solo/ a poetic possibility/ a poetic imperative,” Ntozake Shange interrogates literatures and criticism that submit to demands of racial representation over the possibilities of creative expression. Critiquing US literary culture’s tendency to reward writers whose voices reinforce prefabricated models of blackness, Shange observes that that, “if you are… female & black in the u.s.a./ you have one solitary voice/ though you number 3 million/ no nuance exists for you/ you have been sequestered in the monolith/ the common denominator as persona….”[1] For Shange, the imperative of racial representation constrains the range and complexity of voices and identities that can be presented in black literature, and seriously compromises literary conceptions of black women’s identity. In Shange’s work, the choreopoem form emerges as one of many ways to bridge this chasm between representation and expressive “nuance.” Developed and named by Shange in her most famous work, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975), the choreopoem instantiates a poetic melding of body and voice that allows Shange to probe what she calls elsewhere “the meaning of a contradiction in anybody’s body.”[2] By rendering body and voice inextricable components of creative expression, the choreopoem form allows Shange to write nuance back onto black female bodies through the communicative properties of the body, including gesture, dance, movement, and color.

Over the past three decades, Shange’s formal interventions—her signature typographies, her blending and invention of spoken languages, and her melding of lyric and movement in the choreopom form—have held particular meaning for queer and lesbian artists throughout the African diaspora. Queer Haitian-American poet and playwright Lenelle Moïse, for example, borrows the generic designation for her 2002 “choreopoem,” “Cornered in the Dark,” which explores black female sexuality and sexual violence. Likewise, queer-affirming performance group Body Ecology takes up the choreopoem genre in their mixed genre dance performances, while Keith Boykin riffs on Shange in the title of his 2012 anthology of gay men’s prose memoirs, For Colored Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Still Not Enough, following the gross lack of media attention to queer-of-color suicides in the queer suicide rash of 2010.

These artists have looked to choreopoetic thought as a means of articulating black queer experiences, identities, and lives. They take up Shange’s “poetic imperative,” musing on the choreopoem form to explore and explode contemporary conversations on race, gender, class, and ethnicity, and to mark the places in these discourses where queer sexuality lies, unspoken and untouched. These artists invite several questions about black sexuality and formal subversion: What are the queer potentials of the choreopoem form? What are its antecedents in Shange’s oeuvre, and how does it echo in the works of other writers? What does the blending of body and voice do for Afrodiasporic artists invested in speaking the many nuances of black sensory, sensual, and erotic life? What is queer about embodied voicing?

For queer women writers of the diaspora, choreopoetic thinking offers pathways for speaking oneself out of social structures that constrain the voice through willful misreadings of the body. As Kara Keeling points out, the inscription of racist, sexist, anglocentrist, and homophobic idioms onto black queer women’s bodies limits the range of subjectivites and experiences black queer women are allowed to express in dominant cultural imaginaries.[3] Class difference, differences of gender expression, and the subjective “nuance” Shange points to are erased in popular readings of black queer women’s bodies. This erasure of the expressive reaches of black queer women’s being illustrates the significance of what Hortense Spillers terms “the nuantial” for black women’s literary histories. Spillers imagines the nuantial as a nexus of black female sexual and subjective complexity written out of the black female body through what she calls “the powerful grammars of capture.”[4] The “nuantial” signals those disallowed interstices of contradiction, difference, and agential sexual desire denied black women in the violent processes of diaspora; it names that which allows us to speak about our sexuality, and that which allows us to speak at all.”[5]

Together, these two models of nuance—Spillers’s disallowed “nuantial” sexual and corporeal subjectivity and Shange’s forbidden “nuance” of complex black female voicing—demonstrate the need for new grammars, new forms of seeing, speaking, and signifying black female sexuality and difference. Shange’s innovation of the choreopoem offers such a form, a poetic form and mode of expression designed explicitly to represent the complexities of intersectional identity. Through the choroeopoem, Shange develops what we might term a body/language—a strategic means of inscribing the black female body with new languages that both rewrite that body’s meanings and expand the creative and conceptual terrains on which that body can speak. Body/language allows black women artists to articulate and emphasize the many meanings of their bodies (including the many identities those bodies signify); it also enables them to create new formal modalities for inserting black female intersectionality into discourses on identity and embodiment.

For black queer writers in particular, airing the gagged far reaches of several unsanctioned subjectivities requires creative feats of both body and voice. The erasure of subjective nuance from dominant conceptions of black identity occurs largely through ideological structures and practices that disaggregate black bodies from the complex capabilities of the human voice. The overwhelming and enduring presence of stereotypes of black women in American and global narrative culture attests to dominant cultures’ structural resistance to imagining black women speaking in multiple different ways, about multiple different things, individually or collectively.[6] In the US context, caricatures such as the Mammy, the Jezebel, and the Angry Black Woman or Sapphire stereotypes instantiate what Melissa Harris Perry terms an “intentional misrecognition of black women,” which pervades American social and civic life.[7]

This misrecognition of black women occurs largely through willful and repeated misreadings of black women’s bodies. The stereotyping of black female bodily expression (seen, for example, in the “eye-rolling, neck-popping” angry black woman stereotype) supports cultural and civic power imbalances in which, as Perry notes, “black women’s concerns can be ignored and their voices silenced in the name of maintaining calm and rational conversation.”[8] For black queer women, this willful misreading of the body produces multiple burdens of representation, in which the body is required to unwrite several different stereotypes—racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, classist—at once, leading to the kind of distorting visibility Keeling discusses. In this dynamic, the black queer female body must respond to so many kinds of misreading that it cannot readily speak its humanity—its impulses and its strangenesses, its fantasies, needs, and desires.

Centering nexuses of body and voice allows black queer writers to create routes of passage out of this bind of stereotyping and representation, reaffirming the kinds of pleasure, fulfillment, and healing that imperatives of monolithic representation preclude. As E. Patrick Johnson points out, “for black gay people, dancing and singing at once have transcendent spiritual potential not afforded them” in other spaces, including the black church, where external interpretations of their sexuality and erotic bodily life bar them from fully experiencing the spiritual healing available to nonqueer people. For Johnson, “the simultaneous acts of dancing and singing bridge the sacred and the secular,” allowing black queer people to create experiences of spiritual and personal fulfillment unavailable to them in spaces where their bodies and identities are stigmatized, misrecognized, or misunderstood.[9]

Choreopoetic thinking creates similar opportunities for healing and transformation in literature. They serve as poetic instantiations of what Cherie Moraga terms “theory in the flesh,” in which “the physical realities of our lives—our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings—all fuse to create a politic born out of necessity.”[10] Undoing the boundaries between body and voice allows black queer women writers both to represent the processes by which their voices are unwritten, and to develop new languages that can write against the erasure of their complex subjectivities, desires, and lives.

This strategy of voicing complex black female identity through languages of the body constitutes what we might think of as a queer legacy of Shange’s choreopoetics. Since Shange’s coining of the term choreopoem in 1975, several queer women artists of the African diaspora have worked to meld body and voice in their own poetics, developing, as Shange has, new forms and genres that bring verbal and corporeal technologies together in order to reframe dialogues on identity.[11] Artists such as Moïse, Body Ecology, Achy Obejas, Zanele Muholi and others explore the interstices of body and voice to articulate the nuances of black queer women’s intersectional identities. These writers incorporate into their poetics an idea of “queerness” as an identification of sexual difference that cannot be disentangled from differences of race, gender, nation, class, and the myriad other disempowered subject positions that black queer women’s bodies can signify. They deploy queerness as a collectivizing and healing language in which, as Cathy Cohen suggests, “punks, bulldaggers and welfare queens,” emblems of racial, class, and other alterities, can form “the basis for progressive transformative coalition” and community through shared languages of difference and recognition.[12] For these artists, literature must not only tell a black queer woman’s story, but also re-present the bodies through which that story moves, and on which it makes its meanings.

“Conversations Intricate and Tactile”: Ntozake Shange’s “Two”

While Shange’s strategy of blending voice and body is perhaps most recognizable in the best-known versions of for colored girls, her choreopoetic thinking is evident both before and beyond the life of the Broadway production.

Cover of the poetry collection version of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls

Cover of the poetry collection version of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, 1st ed. (Berkeley: Shameless Hussy, 1975).

The poems collected in the chapbook version of for colored girls, published in 1975 by Shameless Hussy Press, chart the development of Shange’s choreopoetic thinking, both in for colored girls and beyond. As Alta Gerrey, Shameless Hussy publisher, notes, even before the poems’ publication, Shange preferred to perform the poems to music, always with “someone dancing” in the background.[13] This early emphasis on the body is evident in the front matter of the chapbook’s second edition printing, in which image of a black female body accompanies the text, indicating the place of black female embodiment in Shange’s poetry even before the emergence of the choreopoem as a form.[14]


Frontmatter of the poetry collection version of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Shameless Hussy, 1976).

The poems, from which several sections of the choreopoem version of the text are culled, demonstrate the importance of embodied speech and expressive corporealities in Shange’s landscape of black female erotics. The collection’s second poem, a narrative piece titled “Two,” stands out as a particularly rich example. Dedicated to fellow poet and playwright Thulani Davis, “Two” tells the story of Graciela and Smoke, nonspeaking focal figures whose relationship illustrates the corporeal and sensory dimensions of black female language and communication. Early in the poem, the third-person speaker informs us that the women are so close to one another that “even when they spoke different languages/the voice was the same.”[15] Likewise, the unidentified speaker describes the intimacy between the two in specifically corporeal terms, explaining that “they never missed anyone else/ like they missed each other/ a deep hole crawled through all … marrow/ so they stayed round/ together/ most time the… thoughts they shared waz private.”[16] Smoke and Graciela’s relationship is defined by a same-sex intimacy that is erotic and corporeal, and that is facilitated by languages of both the body and the voice.

Shange echoes this embodied language of black female intimacy in formal properties of the poem. “Two” departs from Shange’s signature free-verse poetic style, taking on a prosepoetic stanza structure that uses minimal whitespace and literally fills the pages with the body of the text. This structure is underscored by the poem’s handling of dialogue. Although the text introduces Smoke and Graciela through metaphors of language and voice, the third-person speaker of never yields to their polyglossia; the figures’ speech is rendered only through indirect discourse embedded within the poem’s paragraph structure. The reader must thus work to excavate the women’s voices, and try in vain to disentangle those voices from the formal body of the text.


Shange, “Two.” for colored girls, Shameless Hussy Press chapbook, second edition, 1976.

Nestled deep in the anatomy of Shange’s poetic structure, Smoke and Graciela’s voices—and their erotic connection—are most readily heard through languages of the body. The speaker gives us to understand that the two spend their time doing “what brought them secrets to cherish & purposes for rising at sunrise/ dancing & writin,” and that each woman shares stories about her many lovers with the other in “conversations intricate and tactile/ as whoever’s legs had been between hers.”[17] In this relationship, the simultaneity of language and movement in the joint practices of dancing and writing—the core juncture of the choreopoem form—also forms potential for a radical black female sensuality. It is through the women’s embodied languages—and in their “intricate and tactile” conversations about sexuality—that they divvy up the many sexual partners who approach them, seeking to sleep with both Smoke and Graciela at once. This endeavor always ultimately fails, the speaker informs us, because “choosin both smoke and graciela waz cosmically impossible.”[18]

Despite the explicitly sensual dynamics of the women’s intimacy, the possibility of a shared erotic experience between Graciela, Smoke, and a third lover remains foreclosed until they encounter a figure who shares their understanding of the inseparability of body and voice. At the midpoint of the poem, the two attend a “ridiculous fete/jumbled with glitter boys” and “butch whacks.”[19] At the party, they encounter a “colored mimist… from mars” who redirects the poem’s narrative and opens new possibilities for black female sexual expression through embodied voice. Immediately, the three connect through the erotics of embodied voice: “graciela heard him talking & he was not talking/ smoke felt his heat & his hands were chill-damp.”[20] Graciela and Smoke sleep with the mimist, an act that has transformative implications for all three, leading to amalgamations of body and voice and broad-scale reconfigurations of both material and textual terrains. In erotic engagement, all three bodies become “… singularly muted language/… & the three of them/ smoke/ graciela/ & the mimist created so much energy/ they all thought they were walkin on the edges of the galaxy.”[21] This encounter establishes the queer reach of Shange’s choreopoetic thinking. Here, communication through both voice and body offers transcendent possibilities for articulating nuanced modes of black sexual expression; by becoming “singularly muted language,” Shange’s figures introduce the possibility of a queer space in which two deeply intimate black woman friends and “a colored mimist from mars” can create inroads into new galaxies of subjectivity and sexual connection.[22]

Queerness and “Monstrous” Silence: Achy Obejas’s Memory Mambo

This kind of choreopoetic thinking is crucial to queer Afrodiasporic women artists writing toward the transcendent “nuance” that Shange finds at the border of body and voice. One example is Achy Obejas’s 1996 coming-of-age novel, Memory Mambo. Like for colored girls, Obejas’s text is often read in terms of its political interventions, with less attention paid to its work at the level of form. Obejas takes up the kind of choreopoetic logic Shange introduces, using fusions of body and voice to highlight the complexities of queer diasporic women’s identifications—their “galaxies” of thought, feeling, and connection—in the space of the prose fiction page. Where both versions of for colored girls emphasize the transformative potentials of embodied voice, Obejas uses choreopoetic thought to show the danger that the silencing pressures of “monolith[ic]” identification holds for queer women’s bodies in diaspora.[23]

Memory Mambo tells the story of Juani Casas, a lesbian-identified woman coming of age in a working-class Cuban and Puerto Rican enclave of Chicago at the close of the twentieth century. Juani’s story is narrated from an ostensibly consistent first-person voice that seems to speak Juani’s perspective. Yet, Obejas’s narration positions the character’s body as a funnel for many different and potentially conflicting voices, each articulating different perspectives on race, womanhood, and identity. Early in the novel, the narrator states: “sometimes other lives lived right alongside mine interrupt, barge in on my senses, and I no longer know if I really lived through an experience or just heard about it so many times, or so convincingly, that I believed it for myself—became the lens through which it was captured, retold, and shaped.”[24] Juani identifies her perceptual anatomy as a “lens” through which several voices—queer, straight, masculine, feminine, Cuban, American, and others—speak their contradictions through her, the narrator’s body.

It is Juani’s multivocal body that allows her to understand the complexities of her own racial and ethnic identity within her queer Afrolatina community.[25] She describes her Puerto Rican lover, Gina, as a “self-hating queer” who believes that “being a public lesbian [would] somehow distract… from her puertorriquenismo.”[26] Gina imagines her racial identifications in direct tension with her sexual identification, remarking: “that’s so white, this whole business of sexual identity. But you Cubans, you think you’re white.”[27] Thus, for Juani, “[i]t didn’t matter that all our friends, and eventually my family, said our names together Juani and Gina, as if it were one word—juanigina—because the bottom line was simple: Gina wasn’t out.”[28]

This tension between racial allegiance and the expression of queerness interrupts both Juani’s view of her body and the form of Obejas’s text. Like Smoke and Graciela’s “tactile” erotic talk in “Two,” the amalgamated nomenclature of “Juanigina,” introduces the queer possibility of embodied speech. Juanigina signals two voices in one body—a specter of female Afrolatinidad in which disparate political perspectives and national identifications can be resolved through a queer intimacy instantiated on both corporeal and linguistic planes. Juanigina names the fantasy of a contrasting voices and ideologies joined through the body and its pleasures. Yet for Obejas’s characters, silence disables the choreopoetic potential of this formulation. Where Smoke and Graciela’s vocal merging demonstrates transcendent erotic black female possibility, Obejas illustrates the damage that befalls queer diasporic women unable to escape “sequester in the monolith” of single-issue representation.[29] The presence of homophobia and Gina’s decision to privilege national and ethnic representations over the nuanced expression of her sexuality render their relationship impossible, and obliterate juanigina’s radical possibility. Thus when Gina’s friends accuse Juani of being a “gusana,” or “bad Cuban,” partly because of her insistence on being out, and Gina says nothing in Juani’s defense, this psychic rift prompts a violent physical fight that produces several parallel ruptures in Juani’s narration. She states:

This is the part where I left my body…

All the screaming had dissolved into a high-pitched hum interrupted only by the thud of a fist on muscle, the labored work of our angry lungs, and the crack of an elbow or leg hitting bone.

All of the blood pours savagely from my limbs, all of my limbs are severed, veins sliced open, blood blinding—and here you are, teeth bared, blowing air—I go this way then that, push you away, hit you, bring you to me… feel, again, your muscles stretch underneath my bones, my bones crushing your bones… blue/black/magenta—my blood like a fountain…—and I kiss you… gums, teeth, down your throat, then we both gasp and choke and spit—and I love you, monstrously and uselessly….[30]

This fusion of voice and body—the dissolution of screams into the sounds of colliding flesh—mobilizes choreopoetic thought to illustrate the violence of ethnic and racial “monoliths” and the danger silence holds for queer bodies. Juani’s efforts to reconcile her own perspective with Gina’s speech (or, more precisely, with her refusal to speak about sexuality) result in an explosive physical confrontation that destabilizes boundaries between self and other through voice. The two women’s bodies merge into sound in Juani’s narrative, their voices becoming an undifferentiable “hum” of violence and voice. As the passage’s sentence structure scatters to accommodate the many differences at play, the narrative point of view also shifts to carry the characters’ stories into a fluid present tense. This shift provokes the novel’s only instance of second-person address. Juani’s “you” (in “here you are, teeth bared, blowing air”) is a relatively open signifier, hailing not only Gina’s body, but also the larger presences of xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy, racism, sexism, and other violently oppressive forces that interrupt queer Afrolatina sexuality and love. Escaping this intersectional melee requires a chorepoetic intervention of negation: Juani declares she must “leave her body” to break out of the scene as her voice itself “crack[s]” under the weight of racial monoliths and sexual norms.

“Visual Fusion” and “Textual Impairment”: Zanele Muholi’s “What do you see when you look at us?”

While the queer legacies of choreopoetic thought may be most clearly visible in the works of diasporic poets and prose writers, the formal melding of body and voice opens important pathways for black queer visual art as well. The work of South African lesbian photographer Zanele Muholi illustrates the resonances of choreopoetic thinking for queer visual artists in the diaspora.

Muholi’s 2011 mixed-genre text, “What do you see when you look at us,” compiled with queer South African poet Pam Dlungwana and Namibian-born poet Olivia Coetzee, demonstrates the usefulness of choreopoetic thinking for articulating the links between body, voice, and black queer women’s subjectivity on the visual plane. Part visual chapbook and part photo essay, the text is comprised of portraits of black South African lesbian women and poems exploring black queer female experience. The poems and images are collected under headings that flag specific aspects of queer life such as “On Poverty,” “On Blackness and Body Politics,” and “On Race and Representation.” Muholi terms the text a “visual fusion,” following Shange not only in developing a new genre for exploring Afrodiasporic female sexuality, but also in naming that genre as both an amalgamation of and an extension beyond other recognizable forms. Muholi’s generic invention of the “visual fusion” echoes the logic of the choreopoem by highlighting the epistemological properties of the image of the black queer female body, but also insisting that even the poems themselves should be read as “visual” texts.


From the “Being” series, in “What do you see when you look at us” (a visual fusion)
Zanele Muholi et. al. (2011).[31]

“What do you see?” begins with a section titled On Black Lesbian Youth, which opens with a photo from Muholi’s Being series. The image shows two black women laying in a bed, entwined in each others arms as they look frankly at the camera, one smiling, the other’s face partly illegible, cast in the shadow of her arm, which cradles her own head. The greater part of the women’s bodies, too, is unintelligible through basic technologies of vision; light and shadow compel the reader to imagine the touch of the women’s flesh as it continues in the background of the front-lit scene. This image, however, is followed by the poem “Caught,” written by Dlungwana, a free verse poem describing an experience of erotic black queer intimacy through a metaphor of captivity.

Because of its stanza structure and its use of whitespace, “Caught” bears reproducing in full:

cupped in love
from lovers past

fist full of fury
new lust birthed,
a sweet decay of
inhibition and doubt

gently creaming into
warmth eminating from
a heart now residing
between thighs
greedily holding I captive,

The speaker of “Caught” remains unidentified until the last of the poem’s three stanzas, in which she describes “warmth eminating from/ a heart now residing between thighs/ greedily holding I captive/ Captured”. The “I” serves a function similar to the “language intricate and tactile” that Shange’s Smoke and Graciela speak; the speaker invites the reader to engage the sensory and sensual aspects of black queer women’s love unmediated by distancing pronouns—or the obscuring shadows of the visual; only after scenes like the one pictured in “Being” have been conjured does the poem’s speaker announce itself.

And, as in Shange’s “Two,” the poem’s form echoes its body/language. Dlungwana’s line breaks and the collaborators’ choice to arrange the poem at the center of the page evoke both a curved human form and the letter “I” that lays unspoken at the poem’s center. The visual fusion thus positions the poem itself both as a textual signifier of an individual black queer woman subject and as a body open and available for reading. By articulating the physical embrace the poem describes in terms of an erotic captivity, Dlungwana uses this ambiguous “I” to write narratives of black female sexual subjectivity that are erased, as Spillers puts it, in moment[s] of colonial, imperialist, and perhaps even psychic “capture.” The fusion of image and text here reimagines capture as a moment of mutual erotic exchange between black women, a subversive instantiation of the kind of “sheer sensual pleasure” around which both Shange and Spillers define black women’s subjective nuance.[33] The poem invites viewer/readers to find subjective grounding—that is, to search for the “I”—within a subversive queer erotics consistent with Moraga’s ideas about the radical potential of sexual power dynamics in the lives of queer women of color, for example, and with Audre Lorde’s notion of radical erotic expression as a means of intervention against social dominance.[34] Following this subversive poetics through to the poem’s orthography, we might read the alternative spelling of “emanate” as part of this rewriting, a formal disturbance that reveals the “I” where it is not supposed to be, doing what it is not supposed to do.

The fusion of bodily image and text continues throughout Muholi’s “visual fusion”, requiring the reader to navigate both body and text as part of a single set of utterances about diasporic lesbian identity. The portraits that follow “Caught,” titled, “Nothing Lust For-ever I” and “Nothing Lust For-ever II,” map the poem’s poetic rendering of embodied black female sexuality back onto the plane of the photographic image.


Muholi, “Nothing Lust For-ever” I (2009) in
“What do you see when you look at us” (a visual fusion).[35]

The photographs, which appear under the heading “On Black Lesbians and Safer Sex,” share the composition of Dlungwana’s poem, visually rendering scenes of black queer women’s erotic pleasure, but also inserting in that image the nuanced imperatives of sexual health and responsibility, and an ethic of care shared between black queer female bodies. The composition and tonal contrast of the of the black and white image focalizes not the act of sex performed by two black queer female bodies, but the image of the white latex glove, which represents an erotic care and mutual responsibility, and the violent threats HIV and AIDS pose to black South African lesbian women’s lives. In centering the glove, the image interrupts the exclusion of black lesbians and black queer women from public health discourses on HIV/AIDS and safer sex in South Africa, discourses in which, as Zethu Matebeni points out, “[w]hile much has been written about gay men’s sexuality and its interplay in HIV and AIDS debates, there continues to be silence about female same-sex relationships and how HIV and AIDS affect women in these relationships.”[36]

The photograph and the poem together work as doubly rhyming images: the photograph echoes the poem’s use of white space, positioning black queer female bodies in a visual continuity first with the form of the poem, which itself invokes the shape of a female body, and then with poem’s speaking voice—the missing capital letter “I” that both the photo and the form of the poem evoke. Reading the visual fusion for choreopoetic typographies, we can also read the arrangement of the bodies in “Nothing Lust For-ever I” as evocative of the forward slash, which, in Shange’s poetics, indicates a semiotics of both distinction and inclusion—a division of breaths and a joining of thoughts made material on the page.

Like Shange’s choreopoetic works, Muholi’s “visual fusion” trains readers in a new literacy, requiring them to come to new understandings of black lesbian subjectivity that take into account the affective and emotional nuances expressed in Coetzee’s and Dlungwana’s poems. Indeed, Muholi states that the text is “for all black women who are intimate and in love, women and transmen, regardless of their age, ethnicity, race, and borders. Ultimately, this work is for all humans who are textually impaired but able to feel.” Riffing on Shange’s title and the closing lines of for colored girls, Muholi offers a dedication that is both subjectively expansive and pointedly precise. Where Shange’s choreopoem closes with a tight circle of brown women physically joined in an intimacy of black woman “color” and nuance—the choreopoem’s climactic “laying on of hands”—Muholi opens her text by naming the absence of nuanced expression against which Shange’s colored girls dance, speak, and move.[37] She identifies the grammars of racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia as afflictions of language and corporeal misreading that, she says, render viewers “textually impaired” and bar black queer women from both textual and visual histories. By blending word and body, then, she joins Moïse, Obejas, and several other recent black queer women artists in extending Shange’s choreopoetic tradition, inviting the viewer to read, hear, and see against the afflictions of text that unwrite black queer women’s voices, and to understand, as she writes in full-bodied capital letters at the close of the text: “We are here NOW!”[38]

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  1. Ntozake Shange, Nappy Edges, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) 3. [Return to text]
  2. Ntozake Shange, See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983, (San Francisco: Momos Press, 1984) 20. [Return to text]
  3. Kara Keeling, “Joining the Lesbians: Cinematic Regimes of Lesbian Visibility,” Black Queer Studies, ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) 217. [Return to text]
  4. Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 15. [Return to text]
  5. Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 26. [Return to text]
  6. Canonical black feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins, bell hooks, Michelle Wallace, and many others have explored the significance of stereotyping in understanding black female voicing. Perry, too, draws on Shange’s work to frame her interrogation of black female identity and voicing, subtitling her text “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Is Enuf.” See Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  7. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) 22. [Return to text]
  8. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) 36. [Return to text]
  9. E. Patrick Johnson, “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark: Expanding Notions of the Sacred in the African-American Gay Community,” Callaloo Vol. 21, No. 2 (1998): 410. [Return to text]
  10. Cherrie Moraga, “Theory in the Flesh,” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa,(San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press, 1981) 93. The expressive technologies of color are central to Shange’s body/language as well. As Cheryl Clarke and others have pointed out, “color” functions in the choreopoem version of for colored girls as a crucial signifier of ethnic and racial difference within women’s communities. See Cheryl Clarke, After Mecca: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2005) 98. [Return to text]
  11. I situate choreopoetic thinking in relation to Shange’s work, not to center a US literary perspective as a progenitor of a queer African diaspora aesthetic, but to examine the overt and subtle ways in which queer diasporic poetics echo and connect across space and time. I read Shange as a focal point in this tradition because she has developed, named, and popularized a generic form—the choreopoem—that is useful in reading later queer diasporic formal innovations, many of which may be read as engaging directly or indirectly with her work. [Return to text]
  12. Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?,” Black Queer Studies, ed., E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005) 438. [Return to text]
  13. Alta Gerrey and Irene Reti, “Alta and the History of Shameless Hussy Press, 1969-1989” Regional History Project, University Library, UC Santa Cruz, 1 January 2001. [Return to text]
  14. The composition of this sketch also evokes the iconic cover illustration of the Scribner edition of the choreopoem, painted by Paul Davis. [Return to text]
  15. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, (Berkeley, CA: Shameless Hussy Press, 1975) 2. [Return to text]
  16. ibid. [Return to text]
  17. ibid. [Return to text]
  18. ibid. [Return to text]
  19. ibid. [Return to text]
  20. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, (Berkeley, CA: Shameless Hussy Press, 1975) 3. [Return to text]
  21. ibid. [Return to text]
  22. ibid. [Return to text]
  23. Ntozake Shange, Nappy Edges, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991) 3. [Return to text]
  24. Achy Obejas, Memory Mambo, (Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press 1996) 9; emphasis added. [Return to text]
  25. Miriam Jimènez Román and Juan Flores define Afrolatinidad as “an expression of long-term transnational relations and of the world events” that create ethnic and racial identifications among “people of African descent in Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, and by extension those of African descent in the Unite States whose origins are in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Afrolatinidad emphasizes both the African ancestry of many Latin American people and the extent to which “Latinidad and blackness are not mutually exclusive.” By considering their complex subject positions in opposition to “white” standards, Obejas’s characters position themselves within discourses of Afrolatinidad, and illustrate how Afrolatina identity intersects with various national, sexual, ethnic, and gender identifications. See Miriam Jimènez Román and Juan Flores, The Afro-latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States (Durham: Duke UP, 2010) 1, 10. [Return to text]
  26. Achy Obejas, Memory Mambo, (Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press 1996) 78. [Return to text]
  27. Ibid. [Return to text]
  28. Achy Obejas, Memory Mambo, (Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press 1996) 135. [Return to text]
  29. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, (Berkeley, CA: Shameless Hussy Press, 1975) 3. [Return to text]
  30. Achy Obejas, Memory Mambo, (Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press 1996) 135. [Return to text]
  31. Zanele Muholi, On Black Lesbian Youth (from Being series), 2007, Durban, in Zanele Muholi, “What do you see when you look at us?,” 26 October 2009, Zanele Muholi (Official Website) 22 August 2011. [Return to text]
  32. Pam Dlungwana, “Caught.” in Zanele Muholi, “What do you see when you look at us?,” 26 October 2009, Zanele Muholi (Official Website) 22 August 2011. 2. Sic. [Return to text]
  33. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enough, (New York: Collier, 1977) 47; Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) 26. [Return to text]
  34. See Amber Holibaugh and Cherrie Moraga, “What We’re Rollin’ Around in Bed With,” Sexual Revolution, ed. Jeffrey Escoffier (New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2003) 538-552 and Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom: Crossing, 1984) 53-59. [Return to text]
  35. Zanele Muholi, On Black Lesbians & Safer Sex (from Nothing Lust For-ever I), 2007, Amsterdam, in Zanele Muholi, “What do you see when you look at us?,” 26 October 2009, Zanele Muholi (Official Website) 22 August 2011. [PDF] 1. [Return to text]
  36. Zethu Matebeni, “Sexing Women: Young Black Lesbians’ Reflections on Sex and Responses to Safe(r) Sex,” From Social Silence to Social Science Same-sex sexuality, HIV & AIDS and Gender in South Africa, ed. Vasu Reddy, Theo Sandfort & Laetitia Rispel (Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press, 2009) 102. In 2006, Muholi created the queer activism and media organization Inkanyiso, to address the erasure of queer and LGBTI people from media in South Africa and beyond, providing media, video activism, and visual literacy training to black queer and LGBTI South African youth. Inkanyiso’s site includes a broad and rich archive of narrative and video documenting black lesbian experiences with HIV and AIDS in South Africa, including video of a vigil for black lesbian HIV/AIDS activist Buhle Msibi, and Busisiwe Sigasa, the lesbian Soweto-born poet, photographer, and blogger who died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2007. See [Return to text]
  37. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enough, (New York: Collier, 1977) 60. [Return to text]
  38. Zanele Muholi, “What do you see when you look at us?,” 26 October 2009, Zanele Muholi (Official Website) 22 August 2011. [PDF] 11. [Return to text]