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Open Cultural Studies: On Uses of Black Camp

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Dr Anna Pochmara (University of Warsaw, Poland)

Dr Justyna Wierzchowska (University of Warsaw, Poland)



Andrew Ross, in his now classic text “Uses of Camp,” points to Prince and Michael Jackson and their polysexual identities as emblematic of camp aesthetics but does not fully examine the significance of the race factor in their campiness. According to Pamela Robertson, one of the very few authors who have explored this fascinating intersection, this is characteristic for discourse on camp in general. Critics tend to compare camp to black culture or to blackface, but they do not explore race as inherent in or significant for camp aesthetics. This glaring gap in critical discourse is largely connected with the regime of authenticity that limited many studies of black culture and has been recently challenged by works such as G. A. Jarret’s Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2006) or Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature (2011). The focus on racial authenticity in black culture has led to the privileging of texts explicitly embedded in historical discourses, such as slave narratives, and to the marginalization of, especially nineteenth-century, fiction, and particularly texts parading non-black, white-looking, or racially indefinite characters (cf. Maria Giulia Fabi, Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel, 2001). This exclusion of a vast body of largely women-authored texts, frequently featuring mulatta protagonists, has been problematized in numerous, mostly feminist studies since 1987, when Hazel Carby published the canonical Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. These feminist explorations, however, have mostly focused on the mulatta figure and the phenomenon of passing in literature and have never used camp as an analytical tool. On Uses of Black Camp, a 2017 special issue of Open Cultural Studies, aims to fill in this lack in critical discourses of both camp and black cultures, to help us better understand the reasons for such scarcity of texts on blackness and campiness, and to discuss the effectiveness of camp as a political tool

The call for papers encourages essays that address but are not limited to the following topics: 

  • Performances of racial passing and excesses of mulatta melodramas; 
  • Blues and the politics of non-normativity, or “The race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley,” to misquote Langston; 
  • Black English and “the will to adorn,” to quote from Zora; 
  • Superflies and Foxy Browns, or Blaxploitation (and anti-Blaxploitation); 
  • Black dandies, sweetbacks, and processes of citification; 
  • Diva gangstas – to paraphrase A. Ross – and swagger queens, or the glamorous campiness of hip-hop culture; 
  • From Sun Ra to the Electric Lady, or black to the extraterrestrial funkadelic Afrofuture, to signify on Mark Dery; 
  • Signifyin’ and “camping the dirty dozens,” to borrow from M.B. Ross; 
  • Symbolic gayness of camp and symbolic whiteness of homosexuality; 
  • Race perfomativity and race plasticity; 
  • Gender performativity, Wilde sexuality, and black camp; 
  • Posthumanism and alleged postraciality. 


Notes on the Uses of Black Camp
Anna Pochmara / Justyna Wierzchowska, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0064

Love is the Message: Barkley Hendricks’s MFSB Portrait Aesthetics
Hyacinthe, Genevieve DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0057

Nobody Knows My Name: The Masquerade of Mourning in the Early 1980s Artistic Productions of Michael Jackson and Prince
Pochmara, Anna / Wierzchowska, Justyna DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0058

“If You Don’t Bring No Grits, Don’t Come”: Critiquing a Critique of Patrick Kelly, Golliwogs, And Camp as A Technique of Black Queer Expression
Barnes, Sequoia DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0062

“Beef Jerky in a Ball Gown”: The Camp Excesses of Titus Andromedon in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Dexl, Carmen / Horn, Katrin DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0041

Prissy’s Quittin’ Time: The Black Camp Aesthetics of Kara Walker
Stephens, Brian DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0059

Beyoncé’s Slay Trick: The Performance of Black Camp and its Intersectional Politics
Chatzipapatheodoridis, Constantine DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/culture-2017-0038