Saturday, March 17, 2012

Siobhan B. Somerville: Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000)

In focusing on literature and film from the late nineteenth- and early twentieth centuries, Somerville demonstrates how “emerging models of homo- and heterosexuality at the turn of the twentieth century were embedded within discourses of race and racialization, particularly bifurcated constructions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ bodies’” (175).  Noting that the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case, in which the government’s right to determine an individual’s racial identity was affirmed, emerged at the same time as the discourse of sexology, Somerville explains that “it was not merely a historical coincidence that the classification of bodies as either ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ emerged at the same time that the United States was aggressively constructing and policing the boundary between ‘black’ and ‘white’ bodies” (3). 
She begins by looking a the “invention” of the categories of homosexual and sexual inversion at the end of the nineteenth century, and compares these discourses with those of the scientific racism of the coincident eugenics movement.  Sexology was differentiated from the subsequently emergent field of psychology in that sexology was physiologically based, seeing the body as a text which could be read.  Writers such as Havelock Ellis and Richard von Kraff-Ebing wrote extensive case studies of sexual deviants, in which they made elaborate notations of physical appearances (from detailed phrenological descriptions to rather subjective evaluative ones of genital appearance), and Somerville notes the inherent racist biases in these “scientific” studies.  Still, it’s important to note the move from a religious authority to a scientific one, in these writers’ attempt to systematically study sexual differences and divorce them from the realm of sin.
One of the many strengths of Somerville’s analyses is her ability to not only historically contextualize the works she examines in terms of race and sexual identity, but also the authors, audiences, and modes of production responsible for the texts.  For example, when looking at the 1914 film Florida Enchantment, she not only looks at the presentation of race, gender, and sexual identity in the film, she also examines the production company who made it, the presumed audience of the theaters in which it was shown, as well as the significance of the changes which were made to the story from its appearance as a novel in 1891, a stage production in 1896, and its film production in 1914.  This historical contextualization allows her to analyze not only the intersections of race, gender, and sexual identity in the film, but more fully in terms of who was watching the film and with whom they would identify.
Somerville also examines the figure of tragic mulatta in fiction as well as Jean Toomer’s queeer characters, among other close readings.  I found her consideration of Toomer to be particularly astute, as she incorporates the ideas of canonical queer theorists Butler and Sedgwick into her analysis while also critiquing their own positions.  For example, when she references Butler’s observation that queer theory needs to take into account the “differential formation of homosexuality across racial borders,” Somerville importantly notes that “Butler reveals an understanding of ‘queer studies’ as a field analogous to (and therefore separate from) the field of critical race theory” (138).  Unlike Butler, Somerville wishes to address racialization and queering as “part of the same mechanism” (139).  In her analysis of Toomer, she identifies a use of “queering” as one which “dislodge[s] it from models that have either privileged the analysis of sexuality over race or attempted to detach processes of sexuality from those of racialization” (140).  Somerville’s analysis is really useful in its emphasis on historicized intersectionality, and the ways in which she works to foreground intersectionality rather than consider it in disparate parts. 

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