Afro-Fabulating in the Shadows

“I have a right to show my color, darling! I am beautiful and I know I’m beautiful!” The opening pages of Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life summon the specter of Crystal Labeija. In a now-iconic scene from the 1968 documentary The Queen, the founding mother of the storied Harlem ball house decries, with spectacular fury, the outcome of the Town Hall drag pageant in which she has just been named runner-up to Harlow, a white queen from Philadelphia. Filmed amidst a boisterous crowd spilling out of the theatre, Labeija appears as a magnificent study in chiaroscuro. The defiant luminosity of her face is set off from the inky darkness of the New York night by the sparkle of her tiara and earrings. In asserting the right to “show her color,” Nyong’o notes, Labeija “abjures and, in the next breath, solicits the recording apparatus of the camera” (3). In this intricate negotiation between self-concealment and self-disclosure, Nyong’o identifies the work of afro-fabulation. By “alternately addressing the documentary filmmakers and defying the machinery of representation that she recognizes them to be complicit in,” Labeija enlists the camera against itself in order to afro-fabulate “an alternate system of values for the documentarians to witness, if not fully record” (3).

If Labeija’s legendary read offers only “a partial glimpse into a darker queer world than The Queen is able to capture,” what does she hold in abeyance, hidden in the gap between what the camera can witness and what it can record? What does she refuse to give over to the visual schemas of racial meaning that the camera helps to produce and sustain?

Afro-Fabulations is an elegy to the critical potentiality of darkness for black queer life. Rarely have the pleasures and dangers to be found in the shadows been evoked with such lyrical elegance or theorized with such conceptual precision. I suspect that this is because of how stridently the book diverges from the conventions of Western philosophy as metaphysics. The opposition between darkness and light is philosophy’s most durable metaphor for the disclosure of knowledge and the revelation of truth. Derrida noted that this tradition could be considered to constitute a photology, “the name given to a history of, or treatise on, light.” Yet the involutions of shadow and light that play out in a scene like Labeija’s require an anti- (or perhaps an alter-) photology, one that is alive to the ways that blackness and queerness have not just been excluded from the photological schema but construed as threatening its foundations.

“You think dark is just one color, but it ain’t,” Pilate says in Song of Solomon. “It moves and changes from one kind of black to another.” Like Morrison’s character, Afro-fabulations understands that it is the mutability of darkness that makes it a resource for surviving and even evading what might be called the photo-chromatics of racial meaning. Crystal Labeija’s insistence on the “right to show her color” exemplifies, for Nyong’o, how acts of afro-fabulation can perform a “queer hack in the codes of an anti-black world” (4). To show how this works, Nyong’o recircuits black studies through queer theory by drawing upon a furtive crew of philosophical dissidents who have endeavored to unsettle the photological tradition from within. Among them is Henri Bergson, who wrote of fabulation as an ever-present “virtual” instinct for mythmaking that lingers at the edges of human perception and casts a shadow over “the illuminated human centers of intelligence, imagination, and reason” (14). By way of Deleuze, Nyong’o recasts fabulation as a drive toward the “virtual” that responds to the sheer intolerability of what passes for the “actual”: the “tactical fictionalizing of a world that is, from the point of view of black social life, already false” (6). In a later chapter, Nyong’o discusses artworks by Kara Walker and Regina José Galindo that deploy what he calls uchromatic blackness—a term borrowed from the renegade “non-philosopher” François Laruelle, who uses it to indicate a photographic blackness that “is not the absence or opposite of color, but the possibility of any color whatsoever” (Nyong’o 125).

But if there is an afro-fabulationist politics to be found in the uchromatic shadows, there is also a pedagogy. What does the archive of black queer fabulation that he assembles have to teach us? Those who have been lucky enough to study with Nyong’o will not be surprised that his answers concern the way fabulation expands our capacity to navigate the ruses of history and memory. This point is especially central to the book’s revelatory chapter centering on Jason Holliday, the voluble protagonist of Shirley Clarke’s incendiary 1967 documentary feature Portrait of Jason. An aspiring cabaret performer whose dreams of stardom have been curtailed by the racism and homophobia of the 1960s Greenwich Village scene, Holliday chronicles his life story in a dazzling, increasingly plastered monologue delivered over the course of a single night. The film culminates with Holliday appearing on the verge a total emotional breakdown under a barrage of off-screen questions from Clark and her then-boyfriend. Like Crystal Labeija, Jason is recorded realizing the contradiction by which he is caught—that the camera’s promise to glamorize is inseparable from its power to degrade.

Yet Nyong’o is drawn to how such “dark precursors” from the black queer past attest (if even in a limited or partial way) fabulation’s strange powers to involute linear narratives of historical progress, calling up “crystal images of pasts whose violent force can shatter the present” (113). Sometimes this can be accomplished by contemporary artists and performers who engage with the past through speculative re-enactment, as in Jason and Shirley, a 2015 experimental remake of Portrait of Jason by the black queer filmmaker Steven Winter and featuring the writer and activist Sarah Schulman in the role of Clark. Their collaboration revisits–without trying to resolve–the vexed racial and sexual dynamics between the white woman filmmaker and the black gay man who became her cinematic subject that make the original film so incendiary.

Afro-Fabulations could prove suggestive for thinking more expansively about recent struggles surrounding how blackness enters the representational field, and on whose terms such representations are produced and circulated. How might the critical edge of dark fabulation be at work in an act of silent protest that involves standing, for hours, in front of a painting hanging on a museum wall, in order to block it from view? Or in issuing a public call for artists to withdraw their work from an important museum exhibition that is also underwritten by the financial largesse of a profiteer of the global market for militarized policing? Such acts lay bare the connections between the art market and the ongoing forms of violence and dispossession by which racial capitalism is maintained and reproduced, and they demonstrate a canny understanding that major museum exhibitions can be retrofitted to work against the logic of the market by becoming “a choke point, where the withdrawal of work has potentially powerful economic as well as symbolic effects,” in the words of the July 2019 open letter by Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett that catalyzed precisely the consequences that it set out to accomplish. In so doing, such acts seem to confirm Agamben’s suggestion that the only true contemporary is someone who can “firmly hold his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light but its darkness.”


Cover image: Crystal Labeija in The Queen, directed by Frank Simon, 1968.


Leon Hilton

Leon J. Hilton is an assistant professor of theater and performance studies at Brown University. His current book project, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, examines how cultural attitudes towards neurological disability and difference have been represented, negotiated, and contested in performance across a range of genres—including theater, documentary film, and media and performance art—from the mid=twentieth century through the present. His research has been supported by a Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and by the Mellon Foundation, and work has been published in GLQ, African American Review, The Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and TDR/The Drama Review.