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Nobody Is Supposed to Know

Black Sexuality on the Down Low

2014
Author:

C. Riley Snorton

Nobody Is Supposed to Know

How the “down low” media phenomenon reinforces troubling representations of black sexuality

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the “down low”—black men who have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—has exploded in media and popular culture. C. Riley Snorton traces the emergence and circulation of the down low, demonstrating how these portrayals reinforce troubling perceptions of black sexuality generally.

C. Riley Snorton has written a stunning new chapter in queer theory. This book magnificently extends Eve K. Sedgwick’s concept of the closet to grapple with race, sex, and secrecy. Building on concepts like the ‘glass closet’ and examining the dynamics and geographies of the down low, Snorton makes the startling claim that the down low is not a set of hidden practices but that it actually constitutes the staging of the conditions of Black representability. This is a very important book and it will have an immediate impact on the study of race and sexuality.

Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the “down low”—black men who have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—has exploded in news media and popular culture, from the Oprah Winfrey Show to R & B singer R. Kelly’s hip hopera Trapped in the Closet. Most down-low stories are morality tales in which black men are either predators who risk infecting their unsuspecting female partners with HIV or victims of a pathological black culture that repudiates openly gay identities. In both cases, down-low narratives depict black men as sexually dangerous, duplicitous, promiscuous, and contaminated.

In Nobody Is Supposed to Know, C. Riley Snorton traces the emergence and circulation of the down low in contemporary media and popular culture to show how these portrayals reinforce troubling perceptions of black sexuality. Reworking Eve Sedgwick’s notion of the “glass closet,” Snorton advances a new theory of such representations in which black sexuality is marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. Through close readings of news, music, movies, television, and gossip blogs, Nobody Is Supposed to Know explores the contemporary genealogy, meaning, and functions of the down low.

Snorton examines how the down low links blackness and queerness in the popular imagination and how the down low is just one example of how media and popular culture surveil and police black sexuality. Looking at figures such as Ma Rainey, Bishop Eddie L. Long, J. L. King, and Will Smith, he ultimately contends that down-low narratives reveal the limits of current understandings of black sexuality.

Nobody Is Supposed to Know

C. Riley Snorton is assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

Nobody Is Supposed to Know

C. Riley Snorton has written a stunning new chapter in queer theory. This book magnificently extends Eve K. Sedgwick’s concept of the closet to grapple with race, sex, and secrecy. Building on concepts like the ‘glass closet’ and examining the dynamics and geographies of the down low, Snorton makes the startling claim that the down low is not a set of hidden practices but that it actually constitutes the staging of the conditions of Black representability. This is a very important book and it will have an immediate impact on the study of race and sexuality.

Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

Nobody Is Supposed to Know

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Transpositions
1. Down Low Genealogies
2. Trapped in the Epistemological Closet
3. Black Sexual Syncretism
4. Rumor Has It
Conclusion: Down Low Diasporas

Notes
Index

Nobody Is Supposed to Know

UMP blog - Black sexuality, the glass closet, and why the "down low" can never be one specific thing.

Many of the ideas in Nobody is Supposed to Know emerged from hours of watching R. Kelly’s episodic hip hopera, “Trapped in the Closet.” It seemed to me, then, that Kelly’s audiovisual odyssey had much to say to some of the ongoing debates in queer studies, particularly around issues of performance, embodiment, and the spectrality/centrality of blackness in all of these conversations. 

Read the full article.