<Book Review>
Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing
Jeffrey Q. McCune
[Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 224 pp., 6 halftones.]

Beginning with a critical read of controversial yet talented R&B superstar R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, a once twelve part hip-hopera video that was later expanded, Jeffrey Q. McCune Jr.’s Sexual Discretion: Black Masculinity and the Politics of Passing is a peripatetic ethnographic project that richly explores Black men who have sex with other men while largely leading heterosexual lives in public. This phenomenon, while not entirely new, is often referred to as the “down low,” or the DL, and has recently garnered a significant amount of media attention. McCune looks at Oprah Winfrey’s highly consumed yet troubling expose, J. L. King, E. Lynn Harris’s sexual passing novels before moving to night clubs and chatrooms and rightfully critique the media sensationalism that has largely figures Black males as little more than diseased dicks (double entendre) who spread HIV to Black women and are, as always, in need of state intervention. Above all, McCune moves beyond the DL as a sexual/cultural phenomenon, consequently opening the space for us to think about how Black men, and others more generally, sexually pass, as well as the generative possibilities for doing so.

McCune’s reading of the DL in pop culture forums/forms corrects discourses of the diseased Black male body, shows how these discourses serve as troubling legitimizing narratives for state punishment and intervention, how they pit Black women against Black males, and Black bodies against queer bodies. His reading illustrates how to properly unpack a cultural artifact, and directly contributes to richer and more complex understandings of Black (queer) sexuality. More, McCune’s racial challenge of the closet as a metaphor for sexual liberation not only informs us of all the ways the closet rests on carceral logics, but illustrates how discretion, a generative mode of sexually being, allows for a certain kind of agency that resists visibility, which Foucault cautioned us, “is a trap.” In this way, McCune articulates how Black men use the down low to "imagine differently," so as to perform outside of the imposing carceral logics that trap Black men in what he calls "the architexture of black masculinity" (12; 16).

Additionally, McCune’s chapter, “Goin’ Down Low: Virtual Space and the Performance of Masculine Sincerity,” stretches the boundaries of ethnography to account for our increasingly digital world. “Historically,” writes McCune, “ethnography has been understood as an act of entering a certain physical space while collecting data, conducting interviews, and rendering the scene through a ‘writing of culture’” (103). Exploring performances of gender and sexuality in virtual and telephonic spaces, McCune asserts that the representation of these men by themselves in non-physical space is indicative of the varying and complex communication modes necessary to sustain a Black masculine identity. This chapter allows us to hone in on the ways in which community is more topical than spatial.

Given that masculinity is not solely the domain of men, and that women produce and consume masculinity as do male bodied individuals, I wonder is there is space to consider how women, masculine or not, engage in acts of sexual passing. Outside of the project and what we know as the DL, a nod to women who perform sexual passing could add a particular complexity to Sexual Discretion that would have indeed proved interesting if not outright insightful.

From the outset, Sexual Discretion is quite ambitious, but McCune’s writing is so beautiful and brilliant that he answers an array of lofty questions and challenges a series of troubling myths about queer sexuality, while braiding together various discourses in a graceful and seemingly effortless way. Sexual Discretion, at once, makes a handsome contribution to Communication Studies, Queer Studies, African American Studies, American Studies, Gender Studies, Ethnography, Performance Studies, Pop Culture Studies, and I am sure other sub/disciplines across the humanities and humanistic social sciences. In Sexual Discretion, McCune effectively queers the queer by asking us to consider and more fully appreciate the messy, unnamable, and indefinable parts of our sexuality as a generative force in their unruliness and contradiction.

     — Reviewed by Javon Johnson, San Francisco State University

Javon Johnson is an assistant professor of communication and performance studies at San Francisco State University, and an internationally touring performance poet. Additionally he is completing two books: Killing Poetry: Performing Blackness, Poetry Slams and the Making of Spoken Word Communities (forthcoming, Rutgers University Press) and Chiraq: War Cries, Love and Other Stories from the Murder Capital (Northwestern University Press).

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