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Performing Blackness and Sexuality

Kanika Batra

As a postgraduate student at the University of Delhi, India I developed a strong interest in postcolonial literature and theory. While teaching English literature at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi, a British Council Research grant for young professionals enabled me to interact with Black theatre groups based in London such as Talawa and Irie Dance Theatre. Subsequently I have been pursuing doctoral research in gender, sexuality and citizenship in postcolonial drama while working as an assistant at the Interdisciplinary Black World Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago. My dissertation examines postcolonial drama from India, Jamaica, and Nigeria in conjunction with feminist movements in these countries.

Many of the dramatists I discuss were influenced by feminist mobilization during the period 1970s to the 1990s; some of them present a progressive politics that is in advance of the goals of this mobilization. For instance, in their representation of alternative sexualities these playwrights and theatre groups anticipate recent activism on sexual identity and citizenship. Socio-economic justice and legal rights for gay men, lesbian women, transgendered and transsexual members of the populations are some issues raised by activists in alliance with feminist efforts. The plays I analyze were conceived and performed a series of “political acts” contesting the idea of the middle class, wage-earning male as the model citizen to suggest alternative conceptions of citizenship premised on rural and urban working class identities. One of the ways in which they accomplish this is by destabilizing the ideology of the heterosexual family as a primary social unit to suggest alternative forms of kinship and support.

Extending the geographical and cultural focus of my doctoral research I would like to examine the work of Black European lesbian playwrights in the 1980s and 1990s. Productions by British theatre groups such as Talawa and the Gay Sweatshop were significant interventions in debates on race and sexuality during this period. One history of the movement for political rights for sexual minorities in Britain points out that despite the state-sponsored policy of moral and sexual conservatism, the social and cultural visibility of sexual diversity had grown more during the eighties than in the previous decades when the movement was still in the process of establishing a vantage point to demand legal rights (David Rayside 6). One of the characters in the British-South Asian novelist Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia refers to this period as days of “little enjoyment”:

In those days of commitment while the world remained unchanged…pleasure could only be provisional and guilty…. There was a period, in the mid-seventies, when we imagined history was moving our way. Gays, blacks, women, were asserting and organizing themselves. Less than ten years later, after the Falklands crisis, CND, and the miners’ strike…the movement was in a contrary direction. Thatcher had concentrated the struggle. But she’d worn everyone down. Where did we go from here? (126).

In this paper I propose to analyze the work of playwrights such as Jackie Kay, Jacqueline Rudet, and Valerie Mason-John, associated with Talawa and the Gay Sweatshop at different points in their careers, as a significant contribution to the intersections between Queer Theory and Postcolonial Studies. Studying these intersections is particularly important at a time when interdisciplinary methodologies are interested in theorizing a multifaceted political struggle encompassing racial and sexual differences. I believe that the study of black performance and sexualities, as outlined in this proposal, can be an important contribution to curricula based on interdisciplinary approaches to the Black European experience.

Some of the questions that I hope to address in the workshop on “Black European Studies Curricula” include:

  1. Which theories central to queer and postcolonial studies can be enlisted to discuss the Black European experience?

  2. Can the Programs in Black World, African, and African-American studies existing in US universities be effectively used as paradigms develop interdisciplinary curricula in Black European Studies?

  3. Should the difference between Black studies curricula in Europe and the US be in the degree of emphasis accorded to the Black European experience within Black World or Global African Studies rather than complete overhauling of the US paradigm?

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