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Kemi Adeyemi’s Feels Right Explores the Politics of Black Queer Nightlife

“Have you talked to Kemi Adeyemi yet?” Since I began writing about new books in LGBTQ studies for Autostraddle, other folks I’ve interviewed have encouraged me to reach out to Adeyemi, Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Adeyemi’s new book Feels Right: Black Queer Women and the Politics of Partying in Chicago explores the experiences of Black queer party promoters and party goers in the segregated city. In the last few years, a number of new academic books have been published in lesbian studies and on nightlife; Adeyemi’s is the only one to explicitly focus on the lives of Black queer women. Feels Right takes seriously the way Black queer women come together on the dance floor as a political act in pursuit of community.

Adeyemi’s book is as much about nightlife studies as a field as it is about Black queer women’s experiences with Chicago’s nightlife. Adeyemi told me when we talked in May that she has long been “frustrated with writing about queer nightlife that really presents it as this utopian escape from everyday life.” “That’s a story, it’s not reality,” she argues.

Adeyemi adds, “so much of being out at night and partying is so intimately entangled with everything that happens outside of the party. And it didn’t feel fair to my ethnographic research or to my interviews to rescript this content into this beautiful story.” Feels Right asks, “what is queer nightlife, if that’s not the endpoint?” Adeyemi’s book explores what it actually feels like both to party and to plan parties for Black queer women in Chicago, which “is not always an entirely pleasurable affair.”

As Adeyemi writes in the Introduction, “good feeling is only ever temporary, if it arrives at all, amid the myriad of buzzkills that shape the queer party, whether they be bad music, whiteness, arguments between attendees and organizers, corporate greed, neoliberal capitalism, or just bad vibes.” Instead of a utopian story about the communities formed by Black queer parties in Chicago, Adeyemi is interested in tracing the actual experiences of party promoters and attendees. She wants to explore “the entire scope of the sensorium,” she tells me, which includes exhaustion, frustration, disappointment, and burn out.

Instead of feeling good, Adeyemi is interested in what it means and what it takes to “feel right,” which she describes as “those hard-to-pin-down sensoria signaling that everything has clicked together.” As she writes, “Issa vibe.” Feeling good and feeling right can happen at the same time, but aren’t necessarily overlapping. “The framework of feeling right offers a closer, kinesthetic look at the interlocking systems that situate us in our bodies, among other people, and within the built environments that structure our movements and our energies,” she explains.

The built environment is key here, particularly in Chicago. As she writes in the book, “The search for feeling right on the queer dance floor always overlaps with efforts to feel emplaced in Chicago, where access to feeling right and access to legal rights are entangled and circumscribed by neoliberal spatial politics that overdetermine where black queer people go and how they feel.” Adeyemi’s understanding and analysis of Black queer nightlife in Chicago is intimately entwined with the segregation and development of its neighborhoods, and the way that Black queer people express how it feels to live in the city. As she notes, “the queer dance floor is not an apolitical site in these conditions.” Adeyemi writes that most of the Black queer women she interviewed didn’t feel right partying in Boystown, for example, Chicago’s most well-known gayborhood, which is full of bars that primarily cater to white cis gay men and where Black queer people often feel like outsiders at best and violently excluded at worst. In a city marked by “racialized territorialization,” queer nightlife spaces are “highly contested zones where black queer women directly implicate their bodies as they assert their physical rights within and over the neoliberal city.”

Adeyemi’s chapters explore three parties in Chicago created by and for Black queer people: Slo Mo, Party Noire, and E N E R G Y. Each chapter examines a particular way of feeling right that Black queer women seek or embody at these parties. Adeyemi writes, “The right to feel good is a veritable political project that drives many black queer women to return to their nightlife scenes time and again, even as their pleasure is seemingly endlessly deferred on the dance floor and in the city.” She looks at particular moments at these parties — conversations, gestures, dance moves, conflicts — that illuminate these feelings. She summarizes for me, “the first chapter is about slowness and people’s capacity to just be easy in the bar, to dance slowly, to sing, to talk. The second chapter is about the feeling of Black joy and everything that’s fraught with that. And then the third chapter is about feeling ordinary.” As she examines these feelings with her interlocutors, she intertwines her analysis with a discussion of gentrification in Chicago’s South and West sides and how it impacts these parties, and in particular how it interferes with partygoers’ attempts to feel good and feel right.

The conclusion of the book focuses on how it feels for party organizers to plan and attend regular events week after week, month after month, and year after year. These organizers balance their desires to create space for Black queer community with the amount of organizational labor this entails and with their own emotional wellbeing. All of this can be exhausting in and of itself, particularly in the summer during Pride season, and can lead to burnout if and when the balance isn’t achieved. Adeyemi puts her interlocutors in conversation with each other, centering the voices and wisdom of Black queer party planners as they envision a more sustainable and communal future for their parties.

Since we’re chatting on the eve of Pride month, I ask more about what she thinks of Pride as both a space of rebellion and recreation, where people go to party. “I do think Pride is like, literally like the perfect example of the frustrations that my book is talking about. Everybody feels like they have to come out for Pride and it’s just like the worst time ever. The worst parades, the worst parties, the worst forms of intoxication,” she laughs. “But you go, and you either go because you think you’re gonna have a good time, or you go to feel righteous rage.” When we imagine Pride as a utopian space for queer joy, it disregards all of these realities that Adeyemi points to: how disappointing Pride can feel amidst the imperative to feel good during it.

Thinking about what Pride means in our contemporary anti-LGBTQ moment, she adds, “As far as securing legal protections over our bodies and our siblings’ bodies, the stakes do feel different. They feel heightened, they feel more dangerous, they feel more urgent. They feel more violent. And then the chasm between those stakes and Pride™, that is so vast. My best case scenario, my most rageful Pride season, would be just taking to the streets. No floats. But also: pay artists and pay party promoters!”

Adeyemi started this project as a graduate student living and partying in Chicago in the 2010s. She tells me that she wanted to explore Black nightlife and gentrification, and it eventually made sense to do so in the community spaces she was already inhabiting. As she signals in the Preface, the sheer amount of work it takes to research nightlife is often underestimated: “People who don’t work on nightlife love to comment that my research must be so fun, a comment that often doubles as a suggestion that nightlife research isn’t really research at all.” On the contrary, she tells me that this work is both incredibly rewarding and draining:

“I like to go out and dance, and I like to party. But when you have to do it with your brain on in a certain kind of way, when you’re having to pay attention to different kinds of things and not just paying attention to what your body needs or feels or how to be with the beat, or how to be moving in the crowd, when you have to be doing that and also watching for interactions or being attuned to the overall dynamic for the purposes of writing about it, that is also really intellectually and emotionally draining.”

As Adeyemi has gotten older (she is now in her mid-late 30s), going out at night for the purpose of research has gotten more difficult. But she affirms, “The process of being in conversation with people about when, where, why, and how they party was so enriching and fulfilling.”

Centering the experiences of Black queer women was important for Adeyemi in an academic field that rarely does. Adeyemi’s work, particularly her third chapter on E N E R G Y and ordinariness, provide commentary on how “Black queer women are largely absent and illegible within existing queer nightlife scholarship that is overwhelmingly centered on people who identify as men and where the very phrase ‘queer nightlife’ has become a kind of metonym for the scenes and spaces that they have historically attached to, such as gay bars and drag scenes.” In a series of powerful and bolded questions posed throughout the chapter, Adeyemi asks readers to interrogate their own relationships to Black queer women in their research:

“How Do I Need Black Queer Women to Do My Work? Do I Avoid Black Queer Women in Order to Do My Work? How Do I Need Them to Help Me Think? How Do I Need Them to Be Absent to Help Me Think? What Are the Keywords I Use to Describe Black Queer Women? Where, on the Spectrum from Ordinary to Extraordinary, Do My Keywords Position Black Queer Women? Is My Writing about Black Queer Women or Is It about My Ego? Am I Just Hoping that My Research Is about Badass Shit or Is It Really? Is My Research Radical or Am I Just Citing Black Queer Women? Are Black Queer Women Actually Doing This or Am I Just Assuming They Are?

What Do I Need from Black Queer Women? What Do I Expect from Black Queer Women? What Do Black Queer Women Expect from Me? How Am I Listening to Black Queer Women? How Do I Know? How Do They Know? Do I Think about Myself More Than I Think about Black Queer Women? Be Honest.”

In our conversation, I ask Adeyemi more about what it has been like to research and write in a field dominated by gay cis men. Adeyemi comments thoughtfully, “Those are precisely the people who trained me. Those are the people whose books allowed me to see and think about what my book might be like. Those are the people whose gay and queer party lives have literally spawned industries. Do you know what I mean? So I move with a lot of gratitude. And with a lot of frustration. That third chapter [on E N E R G Y] is for me really about the frustration of academic discipline. The frustration of graduate training, the frustration of how we assign what we assign, how we cherry pick chapters of particular books. You know, you’re familiar. Any of us who have gone through an institution understand the challenges of instruction, learning how to be in that conversation, or learning how to be in that space, or learning how to be in your body in that particular space.”

I do know, in no small part because Adeyemi and I both graduated from the School of Communication at Northwestern University in Illinois. Adeyemi got her PhD in Performance Studies, a competitive and prestigious program with a majority QTPOC faculty. I was enrolled in Screen Cultures, a (straighter, whiter) film and media studies program across campus. While I took classes with students in Performance Studies, Adeyemi was finishing her degree right as I entered grad school, so we never met during that time.

But I certainly experienced what Adeyemi described to me. In PhD programs, the classes we take — and which departments we take them in — shape the way we are taught to think, research, write, and teach. Each field has its canon, its major debates, its research methods, its conferences, its intellectual history, its celebrity faculty members, its taboo subjects. Graduate students are disciplined (literally and figuratively) into learning the norms of their academic field to become successful scholars who can continue on the legacy of their faculty mentors. It can be both an intellectually thrilling and a grueling experience. To focus your research on an underrepresented community — particularly one that you belong to — can add layers of marginalization to this experience. To do so in a program or department that purports to value queer, feminist, and trans of color theory but still upholds disciplinary norms and hierarchies that make academia a violent space for queer people of color — that is a fraught experience, to say the least. To then push back against one’s own disciplinary training and to carve out space for yourself in an exclusionary field — this a bold move, and one Adeyemi does gracefully.

“I’m much more complex than I have been thought about, written about, and depicted in academia and in popular culture,” Adeyemi writes. In her future research projects, she tells me, she continues to be interested in the position of Black queer women in scholarly work and in academia itself. She wants to ask, “What can Black queer and feminist studies do to think about Black genders and sexualities as more than theories and concepts?” Her book provides one example of what it looks like to do that work. Building on conversations with dozens of Black queer people, Adeyemi’s writing practices how scholars can “forge connections with one another in critical thought,” as she puts it, to practice thinking with Black women rather than just about them. The result is a book that pushes the boundaries of studies of queer nightlife to interrogate and reimagine the field itself, with Black queer women at the center.

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Lauren Herold

Lauren is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College, where she teaches Women's and Gender Studies and researches LGBTQ television, media history, and media activism. She also loves baking banana chocolate chip muffins, fostering cats, and video chatting with her sisters. Check out her website lcherold.com, her twitter @renherold, or her instagram @queers_on_cable.

Lauren has written 16 articles for us.

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