Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Professor Jose Munoz of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts presented the last lecture of this week’s Sager Symposium Saturday afternoon in the Scheuer Room. The lecture was titled “Cruising Utopia: The Utopian Function of LeRoi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka’s) Toilet,” and specifically sought to examine what Munoz saw as a “radical kernel of possibility” in representation of queer identities in LeRoi Jones’ overtly homoerotic play, “The Toilet.”
LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka), a poet, playwright and writer of both fiction and non-fiction, was a founder of the Black Arts movement in the 1960s, a literary movement which sought to establish the legitimacy of artistic work using African-American idiom and style. His play “The Toilet,” produced in 1964, centers around a pair of high school boys, one white and one black, fighting in a public restroom. In this “dance macbre,” as Munoz put it, desire is transposed onto the violence of the fight and vice versa; and the end holds a “moment of wounded recognition” when one of the boys comes back to hold his battered lover.
The play intrigues Munoz because of the non-conventional ways it addresses queerness, allowing modern readers to see a non-stifled “moment of potentiality” in a time before the modern gay rights movement had so rigidly structured queer identities. The violence of the play gets at “practices of recognition” that are brutal and destructive, possibly evidence of the homophobic tendencies in black nationalism, but unrefined in a realistic way. He noted that his take on “The Toilet” had not been corroborated by Jones/Baraka, and that although Baraka is now involved in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) activism because he lost a queer daughter in a hate crime, Baraka does not necessarily identify as a queer poet. The very fact that Jones could write a homoerotic play without identifying as queer highlights Munoz’s argument about the radical possibilities of that earlier era.
Munoz brought in Jones’ play within an overall discussion of promoting “queer futurity” against political nihilism, with particular reference to Lee Edelman’s book, “No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive,” which argues that queer people will always be locked in a straight world because of the claim heterosexuality has on reproduction. For Edelman, Munoz said, “the future is kid’s stuff” and thus Edelman leaves no hope for a queer future. Munoz pointed out that it must be questioned “what kids does he mean?” and that Edelman risks overlooking children of color or who might be queer. He termed Edelman’s thesis “conceptionally a dead end” and argued that one cannot think about sex, gender, class or ethnicity in isolation.