Q&A with GerShun Avilez, Author of Black Queer Freedom

Author, GerShun Avilez, of Black Queer Freedom: Spaces of Injury and Paths of Desire answers questions about his familial influences, discoveries and purpose for writing his book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

The work of Black queer artists was not an explicit part of my undergraduate or graduate education, and I wanted to learn about and to be able to explain what Black queer art has been and is—not simply as a part of other traditions but as its own area of study. I wanted to write a book that showcases the work of Black queer artists but that did so by thinking across national borders. I wanted to help people understand how we can think about queer desire and identity throughout the Black Diaspora. Ultimately, I wrote this book for the reason that Toni Morrison says one should write: “If there is a book you really want to read, but it has not been written yet, then you must write it.” I wrote Black Queer Freedom because it is a book that I wanted and needed to read for myself and a book that I wanted to offer to my students and to all communities everywhere as we are coming to understand better the social and cultural significance of queer people to society.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

My biggest influence has been my mother. It is through her that I learned what Black Feminism is in practice, and witnessing these actions has impacted all of my work even though she is not an academic. My graduate advisor, Thadious M. Davis, continues to influence my approach to talking about Black life and culture. It is because of her that I could imagine a place in the profession for myself. I think I am always writing to her. All of the artists I write about greatly influence me, but especially the poet Cheryl Clarke. I keep returning to her work, and I learn something new every time. 

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

I would say that the most interesting discovery or the biggest surprise for me in developing this project was the writing by Black gay men in prison. I was surprised to find the writing that had been published and completely excited by the kind of ground that gets covered. When I began the book, I did not know much about this material—or even that some of it existed, and now the third chapter is focused on prison writing by Black gay men and on how they seek to define their identities radically within the space of incarceration.

GerShun Avilez is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Radical Aesthetics and Modern Black Nationalism.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

Because of the realities of racism, sexism, and homophobia, some people have trouble talking about Black queerness outside of notions of social restriction: to be a Black queer person means to have to deal with restraint. Other people stress the power attributed to being queer: being outside of the norm as beneficial and empowering. For me, Black queer life is not an either-or situation. In Black Queer Freedom, I offer a way to think about the devastating nature of different kinds of discrimination while also showcasing how Black queer people make a life in the context of such devastation and constant attacks. The ideas of life and freedom within the context of social restraint is the focus and primary lesson of the book I want to share.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

The most important idea that I want people to take away from the book is that there is an amazing range of writing by Black queer artists from across the Diaspora. There are certain people that often get discussed when we consider Black queer art, but there are a lot of others artists that we should keep in conversation such as Pat Parker or Makeda Silvera, who are important to considerations of Black queerness and the Diaspora. 

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

I love autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs, so I read a lot of them. Here are some of my favorites:  Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Alan Cummings’s Not My Father’s Son, Assata Shakur’s Assata, Farah Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne, and Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness. I also just finished George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, which was good.

I watch a little bit of everything from reality television to dramatic period pieces. I especially like any kind of mystery/thriller or science fiction (e.g., Locke & Key, Broadchurch, Stranger Things, and Vera) as well as comedies/dramas (e.g., Insecure, Atlanta, and You’re the Worst).

About Charrice Jones

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