Hortense Spillers’ famous essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (1987) cathects black masculinity to death, both social and biological, and simultaneously to femininity, the latter articulation enacting the maternal influence—the female “handing”—so central to the rearing of black men. This convergence of morbidity and femininity at the site of black masculinity, I argue—especially given the essay’s publication date—necessarily evokes the HIV/AIDS epidemic, whose literalization of that convergence had by the late-80s become culturally salient. Most counterintuitively and provocatively, however, Spillers’ circuit of signification invests the epidemic with reparative and generative gravity, installs it as an objective correlative of the baroque vibrancy of black expressive culture under conditions of social death. HIV/AIDS here condenses a black cultural idiom anchored in environmental exposure, vulnerability, and risk—a political-ecological openness that is always a gamble with death.
The present essay excavates this logic from Spillers’s slippery essay, and proceeds to trace it through the more thoroughgoing emergences in Sapphire’s avant-gardist novel Push and in the poetry of Gary Fisher. Finally, it leverages this literary discourse into a reflection on the queer-ecological predicates animating the putatively ontological problematic of afropessimism.
"The Fateful Gamble: Autoimmunity and the Mattering of Black Life,"
Criticism: Vol. 64:
1, Article 1.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol64/iss1/1