Against the Closet

Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race

Against the Closet

Book Pages: 216 Illustrations: 1 illustration Published: September 2012

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Theory

In Against the Closet, Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman interrogates and challenges cultural theorists' interpretations of sexual transgression in African American literature. She argues that, from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth, black writers used depictions of erotic transgression to contest popular theories of identity, pathology, national belonging, and racial difference in American culture. Connecting metaphors of sexual transgression to specific historical periods, Abdur-Rahman explains how tropes such as sadomasochism and incest illuminated the psychodynamics of particular racial injuries and suggested forms of social repair and political redress from the time of slavery, through post-Reconstruction and the civil rights and black power movements, to the late twentieth century.

Abdur-Rahman brings black feminist, psychoanalytic, critical race, and poststructuralist theories to bear on literary genres from slave narratives to science fiction. Analyzing works by African American writers, including Frederick Douglass, Pauline Hopkins, Harriet Jacobs, James Baldwin, and Octavia Butler, she shows how literary representations of transgressive sexuality expressed the longings of African Americans for individual and collective freedom. Abdur-Rahman contends that those representations were fundamental to the development of African American forms of literary expression and modes of political intervention and cultural self-fashioning.


Against the Closet will benefit professors and ambitious undergraduate and graduate students of African American literature. With consistent theoretical acumen, Abdur-Rahman’s last three chapters likewise undermine dominant notions of modernity, normalcy, and belonging.” — Regis Mann, Journal of American Studies

"Against the Closet offers a bold and timely exploration of black sexuality across the ages that is as firmly rooted in the history of African Americans as it is deft and innovative with close readings. . . . Speaking through and with the traditions of black feminist theory and queer theory, Against the Closet makes an indelible mark in its fields.” — Emily A. Owens, Palimpsest

Against the Closet is a story worth reading and retelling, as it weaves a lively, original, and complex narrative about the progressions of race and sexuality in African American literature, unencumbered by one way of reading or thinking about the material. It is both an informative and instructive critique of its subject matter, one that should be essential reading for scholars of black sexuality in African American literature.” — Timothy M. Griffiths, Callaloo

Against the Closet is no traditional literary study. But the ride it takes us on is bumpy only in the sense that it boggles the brain with fresh insights and inspired interpretations at every turn of the page. From an introduction that is even more a tour de force of cutting-edge critical theory than the Michael Jackson conclusion, through four chapters of deeply probing, richly textured, finely nuanced readings, Against the Closet challenges much of what has been thought and theorized about how sex and race mean not only in African American literature but also in American history.” — Ann DuCille, Novel

“By adeptly using local and national newspapers, Mckiernan-González provides captivating accounts of local residents’ perspectives on and resistance to enforced measures. Fevered Measures joins Natalia Molina’s Fit to Be Citizens and Alexandra Stern’s  Eugenic Nation as essential studies of public health campaigns among Latinos. It deserves to be widely read by scholars of U.S. history, Latino studies, public health, and border studies.” — Omar S. Valerio-Jiménez, New Mexico Historical Review

“The critical frame offered in Against the Closet clearly has far ranging applications for the most current African American literary authors. As such, this important book may very well inspire further consideration of how sexual non-normativity can create a space for new modes of liberation and self-definition.” — Stephanie Li, Modern Fiction Studies

"Against the Closet is an important book that theorizes African American literature as a historiography of racialized sexuality, and it will inspire elaborations in the most generative directions." — Roderick A. Ferguson, GLQ

"Against the Closet is an important and much-needed book, a significant contribution to African American literature, cultural studies, sexuality studies, and critical race theory. Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman's close readings of fictional representations of race and sex are nuanced and illuminating, and the history of racial thought and sexual science that she presents is indispensable." — Maurice O. Wallace, author of Constructing the Black Masculine

"In this significant and timely text, Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman complicates and expands our understanding of the queerness of blackness, making a welcome contribution to black cultural studies, black queer studies, literary studies, and work on lynching and the making of post-slavery whiteness." — Christina Sharpe, author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman is Assistant Professor of English at Brandeis University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction. Against the Closet: Racial Identity and the Bodily Basis/Biases of Sexual Identity 1

1. "The Strangest Freaks of Despotism": Queer Sexuality in Antebellum African American Slave Narratives 25

2. Iconographies of Gang-Rape: Or, Black Enfranchisement, White Disavowel, and the (Homo)erotics of Lynching 51

3. Desire and Treason in Mid-Twentieth-Century Political Protest Fiction 82

4. Recovering the Little Black Girl: Incest and Black American Textuality 114

Conclusion. In Memorium: Michael Jackson, 1958–2009 151

Notes 157

Works Cited 181

Index 193
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5241-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5224-2
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