Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life
(NYU Press, 2018)
Tavia Nyong’o’s timely new book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life, opens with an introduction to the legendary New York City drag queen Crystal LaBeija. Nyong’o describes a scene from the 1968 documentary The Queen in which LaBeija expresses her frustration at the drag pageant’s judging systems, which favor her young white competitor. LaBeija engages in what Nyong’o terms “afro-fabulation;” she performs “for and against the camera” in order to undermine a system that “disparages the black femme glamour she finds beautiful in herself and others,” powerfully undermining the ways in which she is represented.
Across eight chapters that serve as case studies of afro-fabulation, Nyong’o discusses the work of artists such as Trajal Harrell, Shirley Clarke, Adrian Piper, and Kara Walker, as well as lesser known work by Regina José Galindo and Samuel R. Delany. Nyong’o reminds us that fabulation is not storytelling or lying, but rather a term that “points to the deconstructive relation between story and plot.” His theory offers a way to think about performances that settle between this relation. Afro-fabulation is a strategy for black queer bodies to vocalize and perform against anti-black racism in order to challenge the way hegemonic powers seek to silence and erase those bodies. Within this space we find those who are outside dominant narratives who fabulate themselves for and against the means of representation. Examining the work of black, brown, trans, and queer performers and artists, Nyong’o draws upon philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of being singular plural as a wayto situate his subjects together to discuss how their fabulations might exchange with and diverge from each other. Each case study places the artists and their respective approaches in conversation with each other, creating a multidimensional definition of afro-fabulation—one that demonstrates how one person’s afro-fabulative strategy might work in a starkly different manner than another’s.
At stake throughout Nyong’o’s case studies is the question of in/visibility of marginalized figures. As a way to afro-fabulate within conventions of art history, Nyong’o uses the familiar model of comparison to perform innovative readings of popular and unfamiliar works. His comparison of Walker’s 2014 installation A Subtlety, which included a sugar-coated female sphinx sculpture staged at the site of the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, and Galindo’s 2013 performance Piedra, which consisted of the artist curled on the floor covered in coal while volunteers urinated on her, focuses on how the scale of an artwork cannot narrate the violent histories of slavery and colonialism in any definite manner. Although Walker’s installation is exponentially larger than Galindo’s performance, this does not mean that the former has captured the history it alludes to more completely than the latter. For Nyong’o, both artists perform acts of afro-fabulation that powerfully critique racist histories. Scale, then, is always relative, but this given should not stop us from considering how and why certain narratives circulate differently across history and art.
Nyong’o also examines Shirley Clarke’s controversial 1967 film, Portrait of Jason, about Jason Holliday, a gay black nightclub performer. Blurring the line between metaphor and material, Nyong’o uses the film’s “crushed blacks”—a term for the areas of a film strip that are underdeveloped, a feature that can now be corrected with contemporary technology—as a way to demonstrate the titular figure’s afro-fabulation. Nyong’o embraces this phrase as a way to “value those zones of indistinction” as they are in order to see how they might serve a black and queer strategy of fabulation, performing a powerful reparative reading of the film in which Holliday becomes a figurative “crushed black” who physically and metaphorically occupies the material ambiguity of the film itself. The way Holliday’s hyperbolic and ambivalent self-narration fails to properly “represent” himself not only for the white director, but the film apparatus itself becomes an example of how one can upset the demand for truth that art often seems to make.
Nyong’o meditates on the advancement of “post-black art” and “post-racialism” by asking, “can black people be expected to transcend that which we have yet to possess fully? How exactly are we to move past a destination we have yet to arrive at in the eyes of so many?” Skeptical that we are post- anything, he works from a black andqueer theoretical framework to approach an answer. Nyong’oformulates a theory of “black polytemporality” that is queer in its resistance to a teleological understanding of time. We see how this works in the analysis of Walker and Galindo, but also in a noteworthy chapter that reconfigures the history of queer theory by placing Delany’s 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection as the origin of the discipline. What these examples and Afro-Fabulations demonstrate more broadly is that the stories of history are never simply given—they are told. To afro-fabulate is to listen to and know the ongoing history of anti-black racism, but also to rebuke it by telling another story. In showing us how artists and performers engage in this act of telling, Nyong’o offers not only a compelling new way to think about works that challenge history, narrative, and truth, but also a method in which we might continue that work.