Of Our Normative Strivings

Roderick A. Ferguson; Of Our Normative Strivings: AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES AND THE HISTORIES OF SEXUALITY. Social Text 1 December 2005; 23 (3-4 (84-85)): 85–100. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-23-3-4_84-85-85

The adoption of Foucault's History of Sexuality as the crux of queer theory's engagement with sexuality also ignores preceding theories. Yet women of color feminism has had the longest engagement with racialized sexuality. While queer studies has the most concentrated engagement with sexuality, Ferguson argues it has made queer studies believe their work is the only and most significant approach. Further, History of Sexuality had ignored race, and thus the conversations about sexuality have steered away from race. His goal is to put History of Sexuality in dialogue with queer of color accounts of sexuality.

Women of color feminism "insist[s] on the historical specificity and heterogeneity of “sexuality,” a specificity and heterogeneity denoted as racial difference" (pg. 86). Ferguson writes: "If sexuality is an epistemological project characterized by dispersion, openness, and infinite descriptions, then we cannot assume that any one theory of sexuality can explain sexual formations regardless of how they are differentiated by race, gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality" (pg. 87).

He argues that sexuality is not an object which one discipline can claim; doing so would result in its canonization, rather than disruption. Sexuality is also intersectional, constituted by racialized gender and class formations. Queer studies' steering away from racialized gender and class is inadequate. To locate sexuality within only one epistemic terrain or discipline is anti-interdisciplinary.

In this essay, Ferguson focuses on racialized sexuality as a form of racialized power, focusing on History of Sexuality's position that sexuality is an operation of power. He focuses on the end of the Civil War, when the United States government had to figure out how to manage a population of newly freed ex-slaves. Specifically, he focuses on Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees, which provided education and a discursive construction of the African American middle class as the model minority. He writes: " The black middle class ... would inherit modernity by adhering to gender and sexual propriety. That is, the black middle class would be the first U.S. model minority, championing civic ideals around industry, citizenship, and morality" (pg. 92).

"Part of the moral function of this new model minority known as African American was to repair the damage that the Civil War did to the Confederate states, to the nation, and to the white heteropatriarchal family" (pg. 93). He argues that the industrial education of the Freedmen's Bureau and the writings of Booker T. Washington: "The domain of African American sexuality—a domain punctuated with notions of gender and sexual propriety, morality, domestic health and education, virile manhood, and genteel femininity—is an arena whose foundations are laid by African American intellectual discourse. We might say that object lessons not only refer to the production of literal objects but also to the production of normative gender and sexuality" (pg. 95). Foucault positions sexuality as an operation for production; in this case, the U.S government sought to operationalize Black heteropatriarchy to restore the U.S. He writes of the conscription of Black men into war that "both war and sexual normativity claimed to be able to draft African Americans into citizenship and humanity" (pg. 96).

The overall thesis of this essay argues for a queer of color intervention in queer studies: "sexuality has a variety of deployments in which we might observe its constitution through discourses of race, gender, and class. Epistemologically, this means that we must embark on critical journeys to locate and explicate those deployments. Institutionally and politically, it involves assessing the racialized, gendered, and class forms of power that issue from sexuality’s many extensive routes" (pg. 99).