Oh, camp: that elusive other-world of lampoon and exaggerated meta-theatricality. Where RuPaul, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and Toto kick back and roast the world. Since the dawn of time, camp has been considered the Land of the GaysTM, replete with over-the-top style, drag, and parody. Don’t worry, friends—camp is in on the joke.
Despite its distinctly anti-academic stance, camp has garnered a massive following in the academy. In 1964, Susan Sontag published her foundational “Notes on Camp,” in which she analyzed camp’s meta and postmodern elements: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.…To perceive camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” According to the Gospel of Sontag, although camp was “serious” and earnestly invested in its own theatricality, camp was not political, it was just a style. Prior to “Notes on Camp,” most academics had dismissed camp as low-brow. Sontag elevated camp as a topic worthy of academic study.
Since Sontag, over one thousand critical texts have analyzed camp, with very little agreement. Moe Meyer and Chuck Kleinhans envision camp as a political and disruptive medium. Meyer argues that camp functions politically through parody—an extended, playful imitation of pop culture with a twist. Parody becomes a way for marginalized groups to subvert tropes of the dominant discourses that actively exclude and oppress them. Additionally, Kleinhans describes how camp’s “ethos of shocking mainstream middle-class values” disturbs and unsettles the normative social order. According to these theorists, camp embodies queer theory’s disruptive politics while also creating a free space for liberating expression beyond the mainstream’s constricting binds.
There’s just one problem: camp theorists have consistently failed to address race. In recent decades, queer theory’s single-identity focus has drawn notice from a number of LGBTQ+ theorists of color. As Isling Mack-Nataf put it, “When I hear the word queer I think of white, gay men.” Camp theory similarly seems limited in its white, gay scope. But camp has never been an exclusively white affair.
There is a burgeoning canon of dramatic works that use camp provocatively and politically to interrogate both race and sexuality. These works—including Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History (1999) and Bootycandy (2014), Ione Lloyd’s Dirty Little Black Girls (2009), and the Pomo Afro Homos’ Fierce Love (1991) and Dark Fruit (1991)—occupy a unique site in camp, which I describe as black queer camp. Straddling queer theory and black studies, black queer camp fundamentally represents an insurrection against not just homophobic discourses but also anti-black racist discourses. Simultaneously, it is involved in a project of racial and sexual uplift by re-centering and rendering visible the bodies and narratives of marginalized black queer subjects.
Black queer camp has a bag of tricks it uses to resist intersectional oppression. For example, it often parodies mainstream pop culture such as Gone with the Wind, Roots and other films or TV shows that either misrepresent or fail to represent black and/or queer realities. Comedic parody offers a strategy for reconciling conflicting emotions and complicated subject matter. In addition, black queer camp often reclaims black vernacular and queer-specific sexual lingo, rather than using the master’s language. Reacting against structural oppression and marginalization, black queer camp places black queer lives front and center.
These strategies are at play in Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, a wildly irreverent, revisionist history of the Nat Turner rebellion, the largest slave uprising in American history. O’Hara’s version of the events is an episodic, time-bending, campy fantasia, a counter-narrative against the mainstream white master-narratives about slavery and Nat Turner’s rebellion that have emerged. The main character, Ron, a lonely, black gay grad student struggling to write a thesis about Nat Turner, goes back in time via flying bed to experience the insurrection first-hand. O’Hara incorporates a homoerotic love story, puns, reclaimed queer and black vernacular, campy references to pop culture, and even musical numbers about slavery.
When Ron lands at the 1830s Virginia slave plantation, the scene curiously resembles Dorothy’s landing scene in The Wizard of Oz: Ron’s bed lands on a despised slave owner (read: Wicked Witch of the East) in a new world far from Ron’s home. The slaves even sing a “FULL-THROTTLE, NO-HOLDS-BARRED, 11:00, BROADWAY, SHOWSTOPPING, BRING DOWN THE HOUSE, PRODUCTION NUMBER, Chains and all” (yes, all-caps) celebrating the death of their master, which parodies the munchkins’ song “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” The unexpected juxtaposition of musical comedy and slavery, evident in the jarring tones of the lines “he raped my sista just fo’ fun” and “he’s dead./not catatonic or merely sleepin’/if ya take one sniff ya com’ back weepin’”—is unnerving and seems to distance the audience from the emotional weight of slavery.
While this campy presentation may seem mocking, it is political and serious. The clash of Broadway and slavery enables us to bear witness to the emotionally and morally weighted issue of slavery. Moreover, the camp gesture of parodying The Wizard of Oz draws parallels between the slave insurrection and the violent struggle for LGBTQ rights. The Wizard of Oz, after all, holds an honored place over the rainbow in gay iconography. In fact, several gay scholars have noted that Judy Garland’s death coincided with the start of the Stonewall Riots, gay history’s most famous insurrection. This signification creates a new intersectional perspective on marginalization at play in Nat Turner’s revolt.
W.E.B. DuBois famously called the slave spiritual “the articulate message of the slave to the world … longing toward a truer world.” In light of the celebrated black tradition of spiritual and protest songs as both resistance and community building, the collision courses of musical theatre and slave plantations seems less out of place. The slaves’ singing is a powerful and political vocalization of discontent with existing social structures and the dream of a better world. Read through the lens of black queer camp, it is clear that the slaves’ production number is intended not just to “BRING DOWN THE HOUSE,” but also to disrupt and dismantle a hegemonic, monolithic representation of plantation life—to bring down the master’s house.