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Queerness finds a way to survive and thrive wherever it goes, even under colonial oppression. Professor Omise’eke Tinsley, who teaches Black Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara, proves that history of resilience with her research, which focuses on queer and feminist Caribbean and African-American performance and literature. I sat down to chat with her about one of her many books, Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature.
Tinsley began her study of Caribbean queerness in literature during her senior year of college. As she was writing her thesis on Caribbean women’s literature, she asked one of her professors about the existence of Caribbean lesbian literature. “I was told by a professor who was from the African continent, that there was not really such a thing,” said Tinsley. “And that was probably because ‘homosexuality’–her word, not mine–didn't exist in Africa, and it was a European thing.”
Tinsley left the idea alone for a while, but it continued to brew in the back of her mind. In graduate school, during a summer in the Netherlands, she found a book by Gloria Wekker about mati work, the tradition of relationships and love between Black women in Suriname. “And so at that point, something clicked in me: these aren't little examples here and there. This is a tradition that has nothing to do with priests, or nuns, or anything but women living together and making community together and loving each other in the ways that support their lives.”
This book, and the love songs documented in it, sparked her interest in hunting down more queer Caribbean literature and poetry. “I have these vivid memories of these poems from the 1930s, finding them in the library in Berkeley and crying,” remembered Tinsley. “Like, ‘I knew this was here somewhere, I just didn't know where.’”
Tinsley’s book collects many of these literary works and ties them together with the concept of “thiefing sugar.” Borrowed from Canadian-Trinidadian author Dionne Brand’s In Another Place, Not Here, the phrase describes the reclamation of the history of love between women in the Caribbean. The Caribbean region is shaped by the sugar industry, which relied upon enslaved people from the coast of Africa. Sugar was “a really, really valuable commodity,” said Tinsley. “In some places, it was punishable by death to eat sugar while growing it, and sometimes people had muzzles on so that they couldn't eat the cane."
“And so you know, 'thiefing sugar,' the metaphor, is thinking about reclaiming that which is ours, but that has been taken from us,” she continued. “The idea that desire between women was once as common as cane growing, but also regulated and prohibited in these ways. And that to ‘thief sugar’ is to take back some of the sweetness that we create for our own use. So it's a metaphor that combines the colonial history, but also the history of sweetness and eroticism in women's history and queer history wherever we find ourselves.”
Those histories are older than we might think: the names that women have for their women lovers “are tied into West African-based spiritual systems,” explained Tinsley. “There's a whole cosmology in which somebody who's assigned female at birth loving somebody else who's assigned female at birth, or somebody who lives their lives as a woman, makes sense.” And while the colonizers thought it was a “dirty practice” and recorded it as such, for most people, “it was just part of the possibilities of life,” she said. “It was something that was understood as part of the universe and a part of a larger system, of how human beings interact with the divine and with each other.”
Tinsley’s evidence for these traditions stems from “luck and chance,” she said. She explored “literary histories where people were talking in a way that was strange. They were talking about people as ‘feminists, or as having ‘close relationships with other women.’ So I was reading against the grain, and then I would try and track these texts down.”
The texts she found didn’t necessarily spell out queerness, and most of their authors weren’t openly queer. “Following your gut and reading creatively was necessary to do this work,” Tinsley said. And while some scholars didn’t agree with these strategies, she pressed on because she had a choice. She could "continue to be silent about these love poems that are dedicated to women,” continuing the historical erasure of these relationships.
“Or, we can work with what's here. Because I'm always working with histories of the present. I'm interested in stories of the past that help us create space for ourselves in the present. And if that's what's there to work with, I think working with it creatively is a queer way to do literature.”
These queer literary works hold in themselves possibilities of decolonization and liberation. Thiefing Sugar focuses on the “really, really old” tradition of writing about beloved women as landscapes, a motif common across cultures and throughout history. But, said Tinsley, “I was interested in how Caribbean women imagine their women lovers in the same terms as flowers and fruit, but imagining that these natural sweetnesses could be reclaimed for their own use.”
That imagination is itself liberatory. “Black women having full use of our bodies and their possibilities is a decolonial project,” she said. “Without imagining that women have a right to use our bodies for whatever–they're not there to be in service of men or children–as long as Black women's bodies are imagined as in service to someone else, the colonial project is still going on.”
The colonial project continues through not only gender, but also through sexuality. While laws against sex between women in the Caribbean are few and fairly recent, the laws against sex between men “were copied straight from British law–a direct colonial import.” Combating homophobia, then, is a radical and decolonizing act.
“Oftentimes, I feel like young Caribbean American folks, but also young African-American folks, have this idea that Black people are extra special homophobic, or that homophobia is a big problem in the Black community,” said Tinsley. “And part of what I wanted to do with this book, and what I still want to do is to communicate to people, ‘That's actually not our history. That's not our tradition.’”
In fact, she argued, “This is part of what our ancestors fought to make possible for us: for us to love who we want. A lot of histories are being cut out right now; they've been cut out to discourage us from living our lives.”
We need those histories, and we need to pass them on–not only because it’s important that we know our past, but also because they teach us about what to do now. “I was living in Texas in 2016 when Trump was elected,” she explained. “There were stories about how to survive the segregated south that my grandparents hadn't passed on, because they thought I wasn't going to need them. And at that moment, I needed them. How can you protest conditions while also staying safe?”
“We're in that moment again with Black histories and with queer histories,” concluded Tinsley. “We need to have these stories from the past so that we know how to survive our present and fight for our future.”
For more of Tinsley’s brilliant work, check out:
Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism between Women in Caribbean Literature, Duke University Press Books, 2010.
Ezili's Mirrors: Imagining Black Queer Genders, Duke University Press Books, 2018.
Beyoncé in Formation: Remixing Black Feminism, University of Texas Press, 2018.
The Color Pynk: Black Femme Art for Survival, University of Texas Press, 2022 (upcoming).