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“I am brown by my own invention.” – Patricia Williams, Alchemy of Race and Rights (Williams, 1991)
m I brown? my brown daughter asked. A question both innocent and fatal. A question that signifies (un)belonging and a question that signifies a nod to paradigms of power, a question in which otherness rings. Brown is a word that creates unsettlement, discomfort, a word too close to dirt, mud, earth, shit, animals, nature. Brown tells its own story, many stories, too many stories from too many places, spaces, geographies, and temporalities. Brown demands a border (even as it dissolves it), a nation (even as it leaves it), a moment of sovereignty (even as it renders it porous). Brownness is a brown body, abject flesh, a dirty language, a mother tongue, a melancholic sociality, a domesticated interiority, a racial fixation, an opening in ontological thought, a singularity, a multiplicity, an interdependency, a desire, a disidentification, a cluster of affects, a misery cognition. Brown is a site of tactile anxiety lodged in sensation. To feel brown is to feel “something else'' (p. 101), elsewhere, an other-wiseness, knowledge-beyond-knowing.
Jose Esteban Muñoz’s much-anticipated Sense of Brown comes out just as I am mining my own archive of brownness—an investigation of brownness through the provocation of the maternal, the effacing of the brown maternal and the abject brown maternal body is a driving vexation in my work (Archive of Tongues, forthcoming with Duke University Press). Muñoz worked on ideas of brownness for fifteen years (from 1998-2013), moving through and across wide-ranging texts and theorists, high and low performances, mainstream and underground cultural productions. In Sense of Brown (edited and introduced by Tavia Nyong’o and Joshua Chambers-Letson for Duke University Press), Muñoz distills a voluptuous brown archive of queerness, transness, and femmeness via Latinadad and Cubanidad to offer us interruptions and fragments on brownness. Introducing the complicated and amorphous analytic of brownness into the conversation about race, Muñoz frames brown as a specific yet plural sense of being produced by the perverse conditions of coloniality and a response to those violent realities. The title alone indicates the stakes: brown is not a concept simply found in Muñoz (and/or in Latinadad, itself a contested concept by Muñoz himself) but a multitude of senses, feelings, beings in the global field of racialization. In thirteen drafty, wistful essays (some of which were written as talks or poetic fragments), Muñoz holds out brownness not as bad object (which it is) but as a mode of being, as onto-epistemology, as feeling, as sensation.
But what is brownness precisely (if precision or something close to it can be achieved)? Or asked differently, what does it mean to be brown? To paraphrase Amber Jamila Musser in Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (2018), how does brown move flesh to elsewhere? As an analytic, like any analytic, brownness requires both specification and capaciousness. On this level, we get some puntos claves in the first and second chapter. First, Muñoz aptly writes that brown applies to those we immediately think of or identify as brown (“south-to-north migration” (p. 3),” “familial formations” (p. 3), “‘shithole’ countries” (p. xxiv), and I would add, south-to-south migrations). Second, people are browned “by way of accents and linguistic orientations that convey a certain difference” (p. 3), a mode of speech suffused by what Muñoz names the “antinormative space” (p. 63) of memory and its “contradictory associations, identifications, disidentifications” (p. 65). Third, brownness connotes precarious spatiality – undocumented, immigrant, dispossessed, diaspora – how brown people’s “right to residency is challenged” (p. 3); and how this “ludic/aimless” brownness usurps “state logics that constrain life and lead to mass protocols of control and dispossession” (p. 79). Fourth, brownness points to everyday customs and everyday styles of living that connote a certain illegitimacy: an affective surplus of feeling, living, relating, and being that is illegible to dominant culture, thus pathologized, dismissed, mocked, judged, attacked. Muñoz notes the varying US assaults on brown life and most certainly, in a world reeling from Trump and the pandemic, the list is even longer: the book banning frenzy in Arizona, which led to the targeting and dissolving of ethnic studies programs; a wide range of draconian immigration laws such as SB-1070; the Muslim ban; anti-Palestinian ethos; English hegemony; the cooptation of brown culture/s (read: turmeric latte, chai tea, naan bread, Halloween hijacking of Día de Muertos, Cinco de Mayo, Chola/o aesthetics, etc.); the caging of children at the US/Mexico border; and brown children as always and already “becoming animals” (p. 82), border-crossers, criminals, rapists and terrorists. Muñoz reminds us that brown people bear these contradictions of dominant culture and systemic violence affectively and sensorially; some of us are folded in as model minorities while others are produced as domestic problems.
Fifth, brownness is intersubjective with Blackness insofar as overlapping, crisscrossing, adjacent, co-formative conditions brought both into being thus, brownness like blackness, “indexes a certain vulnerability to the violence of property, finance, and to capital’s overarching mechanisms of domination” (p. 3). As such, brown is at once in relation to blackness and a gesture to the uneven yet overlapping genealogies of racialization. It is, in the words of Muñoz, “not white and not black either, yet it does not simply sit midway between them” (in “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down,” Muñoz, 2006). Throughout Muñoz’s oeuvre, it is clear that he considers the absolutism of black and brown as separate racial ontologies itself a white antagonism (and this is made most clear in the essays titled, “Brown Commons” and “Brown Worldings”). But here perhaps Muñoz could have accounted more carefully for the relations in-between blackness and brownness. It is unclear how brownness may potentially further provincialize blackness (both in the US or southern elsewheres), or where it works in relation to blackness vis a vis excess aesthetics and (“ugly,”) feelings (c.f. Ngai, 2007), or if black and brown are always in intimate relation to one another, how are we to think of intra-racial racism, violence, loathing, superiority, asymmetries, extraction? Simply put, Sense of Brown does not address these questions.
But such in-betweens matter. Global capitalism and its violent machinations of moving bodies, destroying kin, exploiting, disappearing, and violating bodies and severing the mother-tie produced writ large the conditions of brownness and blackness, as well as different brownnesses and difference blacknesses, each with its own particular and peculiar encounter (and collusion) with whiteness and one another. Therefore, I want to stretch out Muñoz’s conceptualization and offer brownness as a racial formation trapped in its own shifting specificities as one that, yes is “coexistent, affiliates and intermeshes with Blackness” (p. 138), but one that can also remain aloof toward, dismiss and extract from the global and diasporic field of blackness. Further, while like Muñoz, I remain invested in fleshing out onto-episto distinctions of black, brown, etc. I also understand that these distinctions can be tremendously US-based, as they interact quite differently, if at all, in most of the world that functions through colorism (Caribbean, South America) or the racialization of caste or race (India, Pakistan, Middle East). But Sense of Brown is the provisional and unfinished intellectual meanderings of Muñoz, a curving, ambling journey of brownness whose end we can only speculate. Yet, even in its partiality, Sense of Brown’s invocation of brownness — in relation to coloniality, immigration, precarity, vulnerability, violence, language, and libidinal modes of being and desire — compels us to think about how brownness is always moving, traveling, and transmogrifying with coloniality and colonial encounter, how it remains “attuned to the negative and the abject” (p. xxiv), and how a “brown sense of the world…maintains the urgencies and intensities we experience as freedom and difference” (p. 149).
Like Muñoz, I come to brownness through women of color feminisms and queerness, thinking here of how Muñoz—learning from Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, Barbara Christian, Combahee River Collective to name a few—furthered the notion of a queerness that is always and already in relation to blackness and brownness. And this route to brownness versus other routes (say W. E. B Dubois’s color line, Stuart Hall’s floating signifier, Gayatri Spivak’s subalternity) is another sort of reckoning. Thinking of racialization as shattering negation (Frantz Fanon), as deeply felt process (Zora Neal Hurston), and as bridge (Gloria Anzaldua), Muñoz posits brownness as both analyst and analysand, both the disturbing encounter of various modes of being – “A queer brown body that is thrown into the world to endure the bodily residue of historical violence”(p. xxvi; Ruiz, 2015) – and the hermeneutic through which we reorder that being, knowing, and feeling into queer spaces of negativity, errant femininity, and brown melancholy.
But Sense of Brown is more than a sketch of brownness as an ontology of relations; it is an opportunity to sit inside Muñoz’s writing and thinking space, an almost wistful feeling of being in his thoughts as they formed, as they firmed. Reading Muñoz’s essays invokes a meditative feeling; one gets a sense that Muñoz was reflecting on his ideas, the drafty in/coherence of this ensemble reveal the essay as process. The essays are inviting, soft and melancholic. He turns to melancholic texts and is himself melancholic, even as he offers us—or searches for—a way out of it. He invites the reader in as an interlocuter, co-thinker, fellow feeler. Part of the viscerality of the text is that the reader is invited to feel the messiness of thought and the messiness of brown theory in the white academy, thinking here of how black and brown scholars work circulates and is taken up, how the stakes around race and gender and sexuality and class and empire accrue force, and how so much of the theorizing we do in and for and beyond the academy emerges from our panics, traumas, crisis, geographies, and familial and familiar scenes of violence. The beauty of this collection is that we are invited to think with Muñoz and in Muñozian ways, which means an affective and sensuous and cerebral path to think with and about and through brownness.
But while the essays generously take the readers on this journey, the introduction—lovingly written by Tavia Nyong’o and Joshua Chambers-Letson—is not quite consistent to the porosity of Muñoz’s thought. It is clear that Nyong’o and Chambers are intimately connected to Muñoz’s scholarly archive, and when he was alive, to his personal life, and were thus perhaps obvious choices for the editors. However, I would have loved to hear from one of the BIPOC performance artists Muñoz discusses in the book, or someone whose work resonates with the horizons of women of color and trans femme genealogies to which Muñoz is indebted, considering in particular that these women raised Muñoz, were his mentees and also most of his case studies (queer women of color and their art). On another note, I could not help but feel that Nyong’o and Chambers-Letson introduction held a not-so-subtle tone of masculinity. Certain writerly decisions—their attunement towards masculine artwork, their search for “lost and errant sons” (p. xviii), and their movement between the meta-historico-theorizing and narrative voice that does not quite come together—result in a masculine tone that re-inscribes the genealogical and epistemological patriarchies of the academy. Perhaps this masculine tonality was in symbiosis with a Muñozian irreverence that may have been funny twenty years ago, but not so much now. I am thinking here of Muñoz’s punning of This Bridge “Called My Crack,” one of the essays in the book, where Muñoz argues for an understanding of how gay men of color were continuing the project of radical women of color or how their work was sutured to these feminist and feminine traditions (p. 15). But for a collection of essays committed to multiple “masculine undoings” (p. 32) and continuing the project of “fierce women of color” (p. 23), there is a kind of masculine grieving at work in the introduction, a convergence of deep grief and masculinity that incites that age-old feeling that when men grieve, women are not invited to the funeral. I am not sure how this could be resolved or what such a tone marks, but certainly more femme affect would have reflected Muñoz investment in transfemme performance artists and the failures of masculinity. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Nyong’o and Chambers-Letson gift us Muñoz’s essays, offering us a way in that reveals how time amplifies and mystifies grief even as it may also magnify the turf wars on who gets to represent Muñoz and brownness in his absence—the exhaustive fulminations around the authenticity of brownness, who gets to be brown, and how brown, and at what costs to blackness. This is the thorny path of gendered brownness—fraught, palimpsestic, slippery, amorphous, exploratory, opened now perhaps to permanent inquiry.
Yet, as a brown lesbian feminist (of Pakistani descent) teaching at an all-women’s historically Black college and university, I work to bring this brownness into view as part of the terrain of the unthought. Brownness, for me, is my mother tongue—errant, furtive, dirty, excessive, promiscuous insubordinate. I think of how in my work I investigate brownness as a long slow motion of improvisation, a movement towards slow life and slow death, a movement that over the years, acquires alacrity, efficacy, and a silky fatalism. Such a reckoning with brownness has stakes in this Muñozian hauntology: brownness as “uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility” (p. xxix), brownness as an affect that gestures to paradigms of violence, a brownness that keeps ticking in brown people. Indeed, the sensual reverberations of brownness that Muñoz offered cannot be felt apart from the brutal violations to which they are bound. So perhaps what I am left with at the end of Sense of Brown is Muñoz’s and my own melancholy.
Williams, P (1991) Alchemy of Race and Rights: A Diary of a Law Professor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 183.
Musser, AJ (2018) Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. New York: New York University Press.
Muñoz, J (2006) “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position. Signs 31(3): 680.
Ngai, S (2007) Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Ruiz, S (2015) Waiting in the Seat of Sensation: The Brown Existentialism of Ryan Riviera. In Jose Muñoz Sense of Brown. Durham: Duke University Press: p. xxvi
Moon Charania is an Assistant Professor in International Studies at Spelman College. She is currently completing her second book, Archive of Tongues (Duke U. Press), a multi-genre book that investigates brownness through the provocation of the maternal. Many thanks to Jasbir Puar, Tiffany Lethabo-King, Ghassan Moussawi, and Sara Shroff for thinking with me on Muñoz and Sense of Brown.