“Sheiks, Sweetbacks, and Harlem Renaissance Sexuality, or the Chauncey Thesis at Twenty-Five”
Benjamin Kahan's talk, “Sheiks, Sweetbacks, and Harlem Renaissance Sexuality, or the Chauncey Thesis at Twenty-Five” revisits George Chauncey’s field-defining text Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994). Chauncey argues for the existence of a visible “gay” male world in the 1920s and 1930s and posits a unity between same-sex cultures of working-class immigrants and African-Americans. Kahan reads across a range of Harlem Renaissance texts by Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, E.M. Hull, and Jean Toomer to argue that the intimate relations and sexual cultures of black New Yorkers differed substantially from their immigrant counterparts. Chauncey understands working class and African-American sexuality to be organized around gender status and gendered sexual acts (i.e. performing the insertive/penetrative role in sex) rather than around the sex of object choice (i.e. hetero and homosexuality). Building on Hortense Spillers’ work in understanding black sexuality as being “ungendered,” Kahan argues that none of the figures that populate Chauncey’s gay male world — trade, wolf, jocker, punk, fairie — are black. He instead recovers a cast of Renaissance sexual figures— the sheik, sweetback, faggot, bulldyke, and chocolate baby — to posit an alternative account of their public cultures of intimacy.
Benjamin Kahan is an Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. He has held postdoctoral fellowships at Washington University in St. Louis, Emory University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Sydney, the National Humanities Center, and the Reed Foundation. He is the author of Celibacies: American Modernism and Sexual Life (Duke, 2013) and the editor of Heinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality (Cornell, 2016). His book The Book of Minor Perverts: Sexology, Etiology, and the Emergences of Sexuality is currently in production with University of Chicago Press.
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