In this essay I discuss how Charles W. Chesnutt’s The House behind the Cedars—through the tropology of spatialization, illustrations of expansive human intimacy, and indictments of the triangulation of antinormatively gendered and sexed bodies as political capital—intervened in sexual respectability politics in the African American uplift culture of the post-Reconstruction era. In doing so I argue that Chesnutt consecrated the “noble strivings” of sexually antinormative African Americans while simultaneously illustrating the way overdetermined sexual identity politics, especially those in the naturalist literary tradition, diminished black life. With Chesnutt as my starting point, I recommend a return to early Jim Crow novels—particularly those written between the years 1900 and 1905—to suggest their progenitorial role regarding recent turns in queer theory and queer of color critique. In doing so I take steps toward a literary genealogy of queer US sex politics that runs from Plessy v. Ferguson and early Jim Crow, into modernism, and down through women of color feminism of the late 1980s before its formal or academic consecration in contemporary US queer theory. I do this to emphasize an important but still-developing ethic in contemporary queer literary studies: the need to center the study of queer representation and politics on more than homosexuality and especially on blackness.

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