The Sense of Brown is José Esteban Muñoz's treatise on brownness and being as well as his most direct address to queer Latinx studies. In this book, which he was completing at the time of his death, Muñoz examines the work of playwrights Ricardo Bracho and Nilo Cruz, artists Nao Bustamante, Isaac Julien, and Tania Bruguera, and singer José Feliciano, among others, arguing for a sense of brownness that is not fixed within the racial and national contours of Latinidad. Muñoz illustrates how the sense of brown serves as the basis for other ways of knowing and being in the world.
Three years ago, my friend handed me a thick stack of creased pages fastened with a binder clip. The top sheet was a table of contents covered in red pen marks that listed 13 chapters under the title The Sense of Brown, the manuscript left behind by José Esteban Muñoz, our teacher, when he died unexpectedly and too soon on December 3, 2013, at the age of 46. I spent a full day with the loose pages at a coffee table, carefully turning over each sheet. The book is a moving philosophical study of our 'ability to flourish under duress and pressure,' and it could not have come at a better time ... The Sense of Brown offers a political recharge, a consoling new proximity to one of the most influential thinkers in contemporary queer theory, and a rekindling of a collective readership ... As students, friends, and readers, we meet The Sense of Brown, finally, as a consolation in the midst of a global crisis that’s paradoxically lonely and chaotically social.
In the cheekily eponymous, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1977; 2020), Barthes identifies the German composer Schumann’s work as 'intercalated,' a 'pure series of interruptions' and 'fragments one after the next' (94) ... José Muñoz’s posthumously published The Sense of Brown is a work best understood in this Barthesian fashion of intercalation ... A frequent term deployed throughout these writings is attunement. Muñoz wants us to pick up on the sensorial nature of brownness, that it can be felt, sensed, and perceived in the here and now ... Brownness is not a one-to-one correlation, a toggling between identifications, not even a practice of dis/identifying with or against. Brownness is not a future dawning concept but one of presentness, what is so affixed in the here and now ... Nearing brownness, whatever it is yet to be, the further elaboration it requires, is what Muñoz leaves behind for us.
The Sense of Brown [...] contains thirteen essays written over the course of fifteen years, from 1998 until Muñoz’s death. Like his prior work, this collection ranges across fields—from performance studies and queer theory to Black and Asian American studies—as its individual essays concatenate into something like Muñoz’s theory of brownness. Or, perhaps it would be better to say, Muñoz’s sense of brownness ... Almost all the essays in The Sense of Brown are still in draft form. The editors acknowledge their introduction to be a strange placeholder for the one Muñoz himself would have liked to have written ... If what animated Muñoz’s criticism was his singular ability to combine praxis and theory in examining specific artworks, then a question arises now about how to continue his work. For despite the real gifts that The Sense of Brown gives us—its startling moments of insight and its profound intellectual generosity—what it leaves the reader with is Muñoz’s afterburn.