I’m Shocked, Shocked That There’s Hatred Going On Here

Ta-Nehisi Coates picks up on an NPR piece about government hostility towards homosexuals in Uganda, and an interesting comments thread follows.

This is an issue that I’ve thought about for a long while, partly due to the influence of my friend Marc Epprecht’s groundbreaking work on the history of homosexuality in Zimbabwe, as well as the work of numerous other scholars who have dealt with similar issues in African history and in the politics of contemporary African societies.

On one level, there are a lot of subtler villains to chase out besides the authoritarian demagogues and amoral American evangelical activists, and some of them are pretty close to home for scholars studying Africa or other societies subjected to modern European colonial rule. This is one domain that lays out some of the really troubling consequences of a kind of slurried, careless combination of nationalist politics and postcolonial theory that ends up bracketing off the “Western” or “liberal” or “modern” in colonized societies as always invasive, dominant, hegemonic, compromised. This is what I sometimes call the “spot the hegemon” mode of cultural criticism. There are a lot of intellectuals who tut-tut and protest that this is a vulgar misreading of their arguments, and in many cases, that’s a fair enough objection–but it is a misreading which nationalists have often performed off of some consistent tendencies in postcolonial theory.

Whatever its genesis, anti-homosexual sentiment in contemporary Africa frequently is based on a claim that anything with a visible tie to “the West” is a contaminant. Nativism of one kind or another is a common pathology of modern nationalism: witness periodic moral panics in the United States and Western Europe about practices or trends deemed to be “foreign”. The thing of it is that it is empirically true that homosexual identities in contemporary Africa have some historical connection to the imperial and globalizing power of Europe in Africa since 1860. Not homosexual practices: as Epprecht and other scholars have made clear, homosexual acts are as much a part of African history as they are the history of every other human society. When we find a society in history where human beings didn’t fuck in just about every possible configuration of fucking imaginable, we’ll be in the presence of a real anomaly. Identities, people who say, “I am a homosexual”? That’s new, but so are people who say, “I am a man”, “I am a woman”, “I am an African”, “I am a Catholic”, and so on. A shopworn point by now about identity versus act, but never more important than in this context.

But you can’t adopt an emancipatory or activist position towards homosexual identities in contemporary Africa without thoroughly purging a cultural politics that is invested in nationalist (or racialist) purity, or that wants to somehow resurrect a pre-Western authentic.

Now on the other side of things, I guess I’m puzzled by the people who wonder why American evangelicals have been pushing their ideas about anti-homosexuality in Africa. Here there’s another branch of recent historiography that’s helpful, the kind of work that Catherine Hall, Antoinette Burton and Phillipa Levine, among others, have done to lay out the extent to which moral and cultural struggles in the metropolitan West have frequently involved a kind of feedback loop that takes those struggles out to peripheral theaters and then brings them back again.

The evangelists who profess surprise that Uganda has taken their agenda and turned into a far more draconian assault not just on homosexuality but on homosexual persons? They might be naive, I suppose, but mostly I think they’re just crying crocodile tears. The thing which makes African governments an attractor for all variety of civil and cultural activists in the West (including many people ostensibly on the left) is precisely that they appear porous, manipulable, buyable, biddable. An experimental laboratory for the fantasies of development experts, cultural conservatives, al-Qaeda-containing 4GW wonks, conservationists. Of course it never turns out that way, because that biddability is only the performative presentation that postcolonial elites have honed to perfection. What happens when you pour money, cultural energy, and the circulation of texts, people and objects into a system is sometimes the murderous legal diversions of the contemporary Ugandan state, and sometimes it’s the kind of farce that Norman Rush skewered so wonderfully in his novel Mating. But there’s nothing especially novel in American evangelicals trying to export a thwarted hate campaign and discovering that African recipients of their message cut straight to the heart of the matter and dispense with the Trojan-horse cultural rhetorics. It’s happened before, and will happen again.

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3 Responses to I’m Shocked, Shocked That There’s Hatred Going On Here

  1. jfruh says:

    For what it’s worth the rhetoric sometimes comes back to the West in interesting ways: my wife does diversity trainings for various state agencies and occasionally there will be African-American participants very resistent to material on gay people, taking the line that homosexuality did not exist in “Ancient Africa.” The “Ancient Africa” forumulation is in fact almost always used, which makes me wonder if there’s actually one source for it, because it’s such an odd turn of phrase to me.

  2. cjlee says:

    This situation highlights for me a political problem faced by many scholars when dealing with the postcolonial period: we don’t always know how to deal with cultural politics that are “conservative” in orientation, or that African “agency” can make a turn for the worst. Is it really surprising that parts of Africa that are highly Christianized would also be homophobic? To me, this doesn’t seem to be the result of recent evangelicalism, but is part of a deeper history of mission influence that has intersected with this recent trend. Scholars have typically celebrated the ways in which African communities employed independent church movements as a means of fighting colonialism, segregation, and so on. These histories fit into a broader set of politics that have been pitched or understood as on the “left”. Yet few have considered or emphasized the cultural conformity of these movements (their hetero-normativity, their patriarchal practices) or others based on nationalism. It seems that only with the emergence of homophobia in Uganda or Zimbabwe, or xenophobia in South Africa, that an awareness develops that this histories are not on the left, or universally progressive, or what have you. This isn’t so much a paradox, as an indication for a need for future work in this area.

  3. I don’t know how much this is true in the African cases, but this valorization of pre-contact culture as the foundation of nationalist discourse represents a flattening of the discourses of nationalism that existed in the early 20th century (or even, extending the discussion to the modern/premodern divide in the West, early 19th century) in which nationalism sometimes means holding on to pre-contamination culture, but also means developing the nation in a modernist direction. There used to be, in other words, a liberal nationalism, which seems like a rare commodity these days.

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