Feels Right: Black Queer Women and the Politics of Partying in Chicago
Duke University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Ozichi Okorom
In Feels Right: Black Queer Women and the Politics of Partying in Chicago, Kemi Adeyemi underscores the complexity of Black queer feeling by moving beyond what simply feels ‘good’. Opting instead for an attempt at feeling ‘right’, Adeyemi employs an analysis of Black queer nightlife through the frames of “neoliberal governance” and the intervention of feeling and desire as rights that Black queer women constantly struggle towards. By calling on Black feminist ethnographic methods, Feels Right provides a critical examination of neoliberalism’s shaping of the racialized and gendered geography of the city, particularly by unpacking the transformation of queer nightlife spaces in Chicago. By focusing on three Black queer parties in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Logan Square, Hyde Park, and South Loop, Adeyemi expertly ties the dynamics of space and feeling on the dance floor to the geographies of the neoliberal city. Feels Right builds on the literature of Saidiya Hartman and Katherine McKittrick, where the dance floor, often discarded as devoid of legitimate political action, is reoriented as an informal ground where bodily movement, practices of kinship and intimacy, and feeling “serve as the terrain through which rights to the city are negotiated.” Ultimately, Black queer women, through the tedious yet necessary labor of sustaining Black queer community, refuse to relinquish their claims to these spaces and the whole of gentrified Chicago, even as developers, gentrifiers, and other challenges attempt to eradicate their presence.
Chapter One considers slowness as a distinct Black queer aesthetic and practice that stands in conflict with the fast-paced development of gentrifying Chicago. Adeyemi examines the many ways that slowness emerges on and beyond the dance floor of Slo ‘Mo: Slo Jams for Homos and Their Fans, a Black queer party located in the Slippery Slope Bar of Logan Square. This chapter contextualizes Slo ‘Mo within Logan Square’s transition from a majority Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Central and Latin American population to that of a younger, whiter hipster population, supported by urban renewal initiatives and development projects. Slowness becomes sonically registered within the party venue through the slow-paced music, allowing space and time for intimacy in the form of dancing and conversation. Slowness thus opens “alternative networks of communication, community and movement” that occur against the rapid development of the neighborhood. Furthermore, this chapter traces the ways that gentrification threatens Black queer space through the tumultuous transition of Slo ‘Mo to another venue where the slowness is disrupted by disruptive outsiders. Instead of fleeing the neighborhood, the Black queer women partygoers continue to attend. In examining this tension, Adeyemi points to the way feeling right comes to face the desire to feel good, because asserting rights to their own space becomes more important than the promise of a safe and pleasurable party experience. Through slowness, Adeyemi puts these Black queer women on a continuum with the women of Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), who did not “yield easily to the grand narrative of revolution,” and who understood that freedom occurs through “moments of presence and pause.”
Chapter Two reckons with the (im)possibilities of a cohesive Black queer community embedded within a capitalist, anti-Black, and heteropatriarchal structure. Adeyemi is careful to distinguish the tenets of Black Joy articulated by the partygoers as a “critical language, affective orientation, and embodied practice,” from what would soon become a project inextricable from neoliberal initiatives to commoditize good feeling. Adeyemi presents the structures of Black queer sociality within the party through her articulation of “choreographies of support.” This method produces feelings of belonging and safety that create the potential for a specific Black Queer Joy. However, these pursuits of joy and community are never without the threat of neoliberal governance that looks to encroach on and absorb Black queer space. In this analysis of Hyde Park’s Party Noire, Adeyemi examines the experiences of conflict amongst the Black queer women partygoers and organizers of Party Noire as they witness the destruction of the integrity of their space from the marketization of Black Joy. In this chapter, these Black queer women theorize on Black Joy as circulating within a marketized economy of pleasure that is tied to the way space is racialized in South Side Chicago. Despite the tragedy of this transformation, the organizers that Adeyemi are in conversation with continue to work to foster a sense of Black Queer Joy within the limits of neoliberal governance. In the end, Adeyemi invokes the cypher as an emblem for a Black Queer Joy that centers the collective over the individual and invests in the space in a way that resists “the proprietary accumulation of pleasure that defines Hyde Park’s urban development” by demanding accountability and collective responsibility from its inhabitants.
Adeyemi shifts from an analysis of Black queer life and neoliberal governance into a broader consideration of the ethics and implications of research on Black queer women through proposing the importance of Black queer ordinary as methodology. In this penultimate chapter, the dance floor of E N E R G Y is the space where Adeyemi calls for a study of Black queer life beyond the “event-potentiality matrix,” a framework that reduces and compartmentalizes Black queer experience “into and as a teleological summation of (often traumatic) events.” E N E R G Y’s power lies in its ability to curate a sense of the ordinary through crafting a sense of normalcy for the party attendees who dissociate from the embodied and sensorial violence of being queer they must navigate on the outside. Adeyemi showcases how the “event-potentiality matrix” extracts from these embodied moments, missing the materiality of Black queer being that one witnesses in those mundane in-between moments. This is evidenced in Adeyemi’s observations of slight gestures and moments of intimacy in this ordinary party space. The chapter uses the observations at this party to stage a broader critique of Black queer research methods that impose predetermined projects about freedom and progress onto the narratives and lives of Black queer women to make their experiences productive. By organizing these moments of pleasure and feeling in E N E R G Y in between questions about her relationship to these observations, Adeyemi provides a stellar model of what it looks like to think and theorize along the experiences of these Black queer women so that their thoughts and feelings form the basis of her arguments.
Feels Right concludes with a reflection on the stakes of building Black queer community, figured as a daily commitment to pursue what feels right even amid capitalistic, anti-Black and heteropatriarchal violence that threatens the wellbeing of Black queer women. Adeyemi underscores the rapid development of the city and neoliberal governance as presenting real challenges to imagining Black queer solidarity because of the way capitalism prioritizes growth and competition. The limits of solidarity and community show up in the lives of Black queer women as burnout, as they constantly negotiate the tensions between sustainability and profitability in a rapidly changing terrain. Adeyemi closes with an assembled dialogue amongst her interlocutors, resembling an interactive choral exchange that reveals harmonious discontent and desire for a space immune to capitalist logics of “consumption and co-optation.” This collective yearning evokes Feel’s Right’s dedication to everyone who “gets down on the dance floor,” as in those who engage in an erotic struggle as political practice.