Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Black sexuality, the glass closet, and how the "down low" can never be one specific thing.

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the "down low"—black men who
have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—
has exploded in media and popular culture.
Wordle image source.

Northwestern University

Many of the ideas in Nobody is Supposed to Know emerged from hours of watching R. Kelly’s episodic hip hopera, “Trapped in the Closet.” It seemed to me, then, that Kelly’s audiovisual odyssey had much to say to some of the ongoing debates in queer studies, particularly around issues of performance, embodiment, and the spectrality/centrality of blackness in all of these conversations.

R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" consists of 33 chapters
released between 2005 and 2012. View Chapter 1 on YouTube.

Initially, I was most drawn to the depiction of the two male lovers—Chuck and Rufus—who at first glance appeared to confirm and recirculate all of the myths associated with down low. Yet “Trapped” refused the easy moralisms associated with representing the down low. Rather the series staged the infinite imbrications of black heterosexuality and queerness in representation. In other words, and as Kelly’s “Trapped” demonstrates, even though the “down low” typically refers to black men who have sex with men and women and do not identify as gay, bisexual or queer, there is value in exploring how the down low articulates with more general representational practices of black sexuality.

In the book, I engaged numerous pop-cultural texts, which in their content, production, and circulation shaped a way of seeing the down low as a morality tale. In fact, the book’s title takes its name from the R&B girl group TLC’s single “Creep”: “Just keeping it on the down low / Said nobody is supposed to know,” which encapsulates how the down low functions most frequently through mechanisms of rumor and gossip.

Extending TLC’s sonic analysis and turning to the work of Eve Sedgwick, I offer the ‘glass closet’ as a metaphor and analytic to capture how representations of black sexuality are marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. While the glass closet might serve as the grounds on which to explore how down low narratives exploit common sense notions of race and sexuality (namely, that the truth of such things are obvious and transparent), I also turn to ‘ignorance’ as performance and tactic that might crack such an enclosure.

As I discuss in the second chapter of my book:

I mean ignorance in at least three ways: one, the state of not knowing; two, the act of willfully ignoring; and three, in the black vernacular sense of describing something or someone who engages in socially and/or politically problematic activity. Ignorance, in the black vernacular, represents the very opposite of being politically correct; it is an affectively charged descriptor for those who act shamelessly. (72)

Again “Trapped” becomes a useful meditative text. As Kalefa Sanneh (2007) wrote in a review for the New York Times, it “represents raw artistic vision at its best — which is to say, at its most willfully ignorant.”[i] While there are myriad examples in “Trapped” that demonstrate the multiple ways I take up ignorance as an analytic (many of which I explore in the book), here I would like to take a little more time and space to think the two concepts—the ‘glass closet’ and ‘ignorance’ together vis-à-vis a brief discussion of the “crack.”

Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions for a “crack” that articulate a relationship between the sonic and the visual: “1. A line on the surface of something along which it has split without breaking into separate parts: ‘a hairline crack down the middle of the glass’ and 2. A sudden sharp or explosive noise: ‘a loud crack of thunder.’[ii] One could imagine that ignorance might act on the glass closet such that it produces a crack. Or put differently, ignorance might expose the vulnerabilities and flaws in what appears to be the impervious regulatory regime known as the visual.

Yet the crack, as a sonic term, also gestures toward how ignorance might make use of “sudden” or “sharp” sounds to negotiate the conditions of a glass closet. That the sonic—think here of the numerous depictions of opera singers shattering glass with the sheer magnitude of their sound—can contest and intervene in the visual is not a new idea. But in the context of this discussion, suffice it to say the crack seems to function both as the mechanism and the effect of ignorance on the glass closet.

While I do not want to imply that sound is the only way to intervene in an imagistic field, it is important for my purposes here to underscore the crack’s multiple resonances, which parallel both the content and the approach that I take up in the book.

In as much as I demonstrate that the down low can never be one particular thing, neither can vision, or hearing, or any of the other ways one defines sense.


C. Riley Snorton is author of Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

"C. Riley Snorton has written a stunning new chapter in queer theory. This book magnificently extends Eve K. Sedgwick’s concept of the closet to grapple with race, sex, and secrecy. Building on concepts like the ‘glass closet’ and examining the dynamics and geographies of the down low, Snorton makes the startling claim that the down low is not a set of hidden practices but that it actually constitutes the staging of the conditions of Black representability. This is a very important book and it will have an immediate impact on the study of race and sexuality."
Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure 


[i] Kelefa Sanneh (August 20, 2007). “Outrageous Farce from R. Kelly: He’s In on the Joke, Right?” New York Times. Music section. Accessed online

[ii] “crack” (2014). Oxford English Dictionaries. Accessed online

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