• October 31, 2014

Who's Afraid of Black Sexuality?

Who's Afraid of Black Sexuality? 1

Geoffrey Prescott

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Geoffrey Prescott

Who's Afraid of Black Sexuality

Gregory Prescott

Well, for a long time, lots of people. Including scholars. Particularly black scholars.

If sex was once difficult to discuss openly, black sex was especially fraught. It touched on too many taboos: stereotypes and caricatures of "black Hottentots" with freakish feminine proportions; of asexual mammies or lascivious Jezebels; of hypersexual black men lusting after white women. It brought up painful memories of white control over black bodies during slavery; of rape and lynching; of Emmett Till, a teenager tortured and murdered in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman; of the controversial 1965 "Moynihan Report," which called black family structures and reproductive patterns "a tangle of pathology." Or of Anita Hill in 1991, testifying before the U.S. Senate about alleged black-on-black sexual harassment.

Old tropes have continued to permeate popular culture and public commentary, whether a national furor over Janet Jackson's exposed breast, a recent blog post on Psychology Today's Web site (later retracted) to the effect that black women are less physically attractive than other women, or the barrage of news stories about a "marriage crisis" among black women who cannot find suitable mates. Witness remarks about the artists Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, the tennis star Serena Williams, or Michelle Obama that harp on their ample backsides. Remember last year, when Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, quipped about the first lady's "large posterior"? And this summer, when the Killers' drummer, Ronnie Vannucci, described how he accidentally found himself "grabbing her ass" during a hug?

Consider also how television repeatedly offers sexualized images of black men, whether parodying the half-naked (but not threatening) body of Isaiah Mustafa, the hunky Old Spice guy; hauling black men on stage, as Maury Povich does, to allow "baby mamas" to give them the results of paternity tests; or giving us the gargoylesque rapper-turned-crackhead-turned-reality-TV star Flava Flav, who searches for love among scores of uncouth women who humiliate themselves as they compete for his attention.

"The white imagination still traffics in toxic racial and gender stereotypes," says Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a professor of women's studies at Spelman College. Talking about sex "means that we are engaging in and calling up discussions of black sexuality that we think underscore what white people say about us. That leads to silence."

That silence has left a gap in the classroom and in black-studies scholarship. Rising faculty members worry that a topic doubly controversial—race and sex—could derail their careers. Students and professors are sensitive, even squeamish, about portrayals of their communities. Reflecting on the years of avoidance, Kevin Mumford, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, thinks there is a basic dynamic: Many black people "refuse to give up the privilege of normalcy."

In recent years, however, a growing number of scholars, in a variety of disciplines—queer studies, women's studies, anthropology, African-American studies, sociology, literature, history, public health—have begun to break that silence. Black sexuality is the focus of a number of conferences, research projects, and anthologies. While discussions of sexuality go far back in the world of black scholarship—to such work as W.E.B. Du Bois's report on black sexual mores and marital practices in Philadelphia, Ana Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells's examinations of the racist construction of black male and female sexuality, and the social scientist E. Franklin Frazier's dissection of the social patterns of the black bourgeoisie—today's work is more explicit, rawer. It gets into the bedroom with heterosexual black men having sex with other men "on the down low"; onto the streets and porn sets with cross-dressers, transsexuals, and black sex workers; behind prison bars with gay and lesbian inmates; into the dungeons and play dens of blacks who seek pleasure through bondage and pain.

And it is driven by a sense of urgency over problems confronting black communities, such as the AIDS crisis, incest, homophobia, domestic violence, and sex abuse in black churches.

The in-your-face approach owes much to the feminism among women of color and to the queer-studies scholarship that began to make its mark in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, KitchenTable: Women of Color Press became the first publishing company entirely run by women of color, focusing both on research about race and gender and on advocacy for women, gays and lesbians, and other oppressed groups. Queer studies similarly drew from scholarly theory about the construction of sexual personae and from gay activism.

That twin vision has given work on black sexuality a controversial edge.

Marlon M. Bailey rose to give a talk at a meeting this year to celebrate Ph.D programs in black studies. "It's time," he announced, "to talk about sex."

An openly gay professor of gender and American studies at Indiana University at Bloomington who calls himself a "butch queen," Bailey followed presentations on the history of the field, the state of its doctoral programs, and the trajectory of its research. Flanking him on the panel were older, distinguished scholars who had spent decades forging their discipline.

"I see we've saved the sex for last," Bailey drawled, batting his eyes. "Especially good sex."

Laughter rippled through an amen corner. But some parts of the audience maintained a stiff silence as he chastised the field for ceding discussions of black sex and sexuality to other disciplines like queer studies or gender studies.

After the session, the hallway was abuzz. Some younger and queer scholars gathered in small pockets in lobby areas, at times checking their surroundings and lowering their voices to a whisper to complain.

Queer scholars lamented that homophobia persisted in black studies as it emphasized "respectability" and social norms about heterosexual behavior, hypersensitive to the image of black people in the wider community.

Why be afraid to admit that black sex was long defined as "queer"—outside the norms of society—through the legitimacy given the rape of black women, the breaking up of black families, and the emasculation of black men in slavery? Why not acknowledge that the history of racism had caused black people to become distant from the most intimate dimensions of their lives? Why not rejoice in their diversity, and stop worrying about putting the best face on everything black people do?

"Enough with the nostalgia and celebration about how far the field has come," Bailey said in a phone interview weeks after the conference. "There's a silence around issues of sexuality, and that silence is especially palpable at black-studies conferences."

According to Darieck Scott, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, for many years scholars didn't want to deal with the questions that were being asked in the hallways at the black-studies conference, because they faced a double bind: "How do you talk about black sexuality when the very notion that there is such a thing—that black sexuality is distinct from human sexuality, period, or that it has some classifiable existence in the world that makes it different from the sexualities lived and practiced among other peoples and cultures in the world—is an expression of an essentially racist logic?"

Listen: Who Were the First Black Dandies?

Monica Miller, an associate professor of English at Barnard College, takes us to 1760s England for a story about slavery, sexuality, and sartorialism.

In addition, in the early years of black studies, the most pressing battles seemed elsewhere. "To focus on sexuality would have been a distortion of the agenda," says Marlon Ross, an English professor at the University of Virginia. It was hard enough to fight for a place at the table for a new academic discipline focusing on black people. Acquiescing to the demands for work on sexuality, many of them coming from gay and lesbian scholars, seemed too dangerous. "People were still being ostracized. There was still a great deal of stigma, violence, and exclusion," Ross remembers.

The conflict within black studies, however, should not be overstated. Ross thinks more and more scholars acknowledge that questions about black sexuality "are central matters in how we've been perceived and how we perceive ourselves."

Nor is the conflict unique to one field. Tricia Rose, a professor of Africana studies at Brown University, says that because sexuality studies, as a whole, remains marginal throughout scholarship, researchers are still figuring out how and where to pursue it. "I do think that, historically, the absence of sustained focus on gender and sexuality in all academic disciplines means that they are all working to figure out how to do intersectional work and still retain a core disciplinary identity," she says.

Black studies has long stood at the juncture of numerous disciplines—with all the ambiguities, turf wars, and competing scholarly norms that can go with interdisciplinary work. "I don't remember a time where there hasn't been dissent about a variety of issues, including sexuality," says Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

Debates about black nationalism and separatism, the existence of a black aesthetic, the role of religion in the black community and, particularly, the civil-rights movement—to say nothing of the argument over whether black studies should be a separate department or program, or situated within other academic units—were notably heated.

So it might be fairest to describe the ferment around black-sexuality studies—within black studies and broadly in academe—as an evolution.

As early as the 1970s, black lesbians and feminists like Barbara Smith and Cheryl Clarke, and influential poets and writers like Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Michele Wallace, and Ntozake Shange, criticized white feminists for ignoring race, and black male scholars for overlooking gender and sexuality. The title of the paperback edition of an anthology published in 1982 said it all: "All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies."

Dealing with issues of class, race, and gender all at the same time, black women called for confronting reproductive rights, rape, prison reform, forced sterilization, and violence against women. Lorde's poetry opened up a space to talk about differences not just between men and women, but also among women—including differences in sexual behavior and preferences. Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple broke the silence on incest in the black community. Wallace's Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf exposed sexism and violence against women in black communities.

"I always give black lesbian feminists the credit for the rise of sexuality studies," says E. Patrick Johnson, a black-studies professor at Northwestern University and co-editor of the 2005 Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology,  from Duke University Press.

Among scholars, much of the early work was done by historians, particularly black feminist historians, says Johnson. They brought out of the shadows the violation of black women under slavery—and the women's response to it. They discussed the ways black women had kept their sexual lives private throughout history, to protect themselves against racism. In medical and literary studies, theorists like Evelyn M. Hammonds, Hortense J. Spillers, and Claudia Tate drew on psychoanalysis to understand the psychosexual dynamics of that privacy. Other scholars dealt with the emasculation of black men through lynching. But many early studies of the period focused on black sexuality as something that whites violated, suppressed, or exaggerated to justify discrimination. Few said anything about black sexual agency, pleasure and intimacy, or same-sex relationships.

And the reason that those might be explored as a category separate from human sexuality in general—without employing what Darieck Scott calls "essentially racist logic"—is the enduring history of black bodies, living under an exploitative and objectifying gaze.

In the early days, however, black nationalists and segments of the civil-rights movement accused black feminists of diverting attention from the urgent work of eradicating racism and restoring black manhood. Others objected that, for example, Alice Walker's depiction of incest reinforced stereotypes about dysfunctional black masculinity.

"It's easy for people to forget all the hostility," says Spelman's Guy-Sheftall. That history made it more difficult to include sexuality discourse in black studies as the field developed, she says.

It was in the late 1980s that queer studies began to make its mark in black studies. In 1986 came the publication of In the Life, an anthology of writing by black gay men, edited by Joseph F. Beam, an African-American gay-rights activist who died of an HIV-related illness in 1988. "The bottom line is this: We are Black men who are proudly gay," he famously declared. And when Beam wrote that he wanted the truth to be told instead of watered-down versions of black life that excluded people like him, queer scholars heeded his call.

In 2000, frustrated by what he saw as silence about race in queer studies, Northwestern's E. Patrick Johnson organized the first black queer academic conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with Mae G. Henderson, who is straight. "I understood that identity is something that is created," Johnson says. "Race might be an invention, but racism is not. It's very real, and white gay men didn't get that. They didn't have to, because they are white men." The conference drew 400 attendees, many of them graduate students who, he says, "came seeking affirmation of the research they wanted to do."

The time was finally right. Younger scholars had grown up exposed to work by black LGBT writers and filmmakers like Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, and Melvin Dixon. They had taken courses in gender studies and queer theory in college and were ready to see sexuality as a performance, a social construct, a varied phenomenon.

After Magic Johnson's November 1991 news conference announcing that he was HIV-positive, black America could no longer insist that it was not at risk for the infection, which had been associated most closely with white gay men. In the years following, it became clear that AIDS activism would have to extend to communities of color being ravaged by the disease.

The urgency of the AIDS crisis "really prompted folks to say that we cannot continue to proceed as if we don't have a gay community within the black community, and we can't proceed in the academy as if queer studies does not matter," says Johnson. "The young folks are saying, 'Let's talk about sex, because people's lives depend on it.'"

Those young people are also frustrated, and willing to say so. For decades, the "welfare queen" has been a standard cultural image, illustrated with oversexed addicts and promiscuous single mothers who bankrupt the country (and, in a recent iteration, drive up the federal deficit). "The visual for those stories has always been a black person," says Celeste Watkins-Hayes, a black-studies professor at Northwestern. She recalls President Ronald Reagan's stereotype of a welfare queen who used 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and was collecting $150,000 worth of Medicaid, food stamps, and veterans' benefits.

"Racial oppression is diminishing and limiting," Watkins-Hayes says. "Black-sexuality studies is about being liberatory, reinforcing, and life-affirming. Those two tensions end up making for fruitful scholarship. The confluence of those ingredients has led to a deliberate and clear articulation of a subfield called black sexuality studies."

Today, scholars in the field are studying gender, queerness, pleasure, public health. They're looking at representations of sexuality in contemporary gospel music and cyberspace, at sex among black men in prison, sex tourism in Brazil, gays and lesbians in the civil-rights movement, the sexualization of black children, and much more.

In September, Harvard University and Palimpsest, A Journal on Women, Gender and the Black International Palimpsest sponsored a symposium, "The Queerness of Hip Hop / The Hip Hop of Queerness," which examined hip-hop culture through the lens of queer theory. It looked at the roots of hip-hop in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender activism; at the genre's queer aesthetics, fashion, and style. In October, graduate students at Princeton University put on a conference "to interrogate the intersections between blackness and queerness."

"How might we understand the relationship between blackness and queerness if we first reject the premise of their mutual exclusivity?" read the call for papers.

Mireille Miller-Young, an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is exploring the history of black pornography, looking at sex workers who get pleasure out of bondage and physical pain and who use racial stereotypes to market their bodies. She has a book, titled A Taste for Brown Sugar: Black Women, Sex Work and Pornography, forthcoming in 2013 from Duke University Press.

In 2005, Miller-Young gave a paper on black-female porn at the conference of the Association for the Study of Worldwide African Diaspora. Presenting images from porn conventions, film sets, and Web sites, supplemented by interviews with more than 60 sex workers, she acknowledged fears that blacks in porn were acting out their own exploitation and "making it worse for the rest of us," she says. And she pointed out that black women have fought discrimination in the porn industry, just as in other labor markets.

But the situation is more complex, she argued: "If you look at the films closely, you see interesting moments where black women are trying to present sexuality in a way that is different. They are showing beauty, class, sensuality, sexual skill, and intimacy between black couples."

The women she interviewed, she says, were frustrated that feminists and other critics "don't see what they are trying to do, which is open up possibilities for black people to see themselves sexually. We can have fantasies about bondage, take pleasure in our painful pasts, and even find pleasure in stereotypes."

You can hear the exasperation in Miller-Young's voice when she describes how some black women in the audience reacted to her presentation. The chair of the panel turned away from the screen, closed her eyes, and refused to look at the images. One prominent black feminist scholar sitting in the audience, Miller-Young says, called her a "pervert."

"They said that by showing these images of porn stars, I was re-exploiting them," she recalls. "But I'm fascinated by the 'ho.' She is a figure that all black women have to contend with, whether you are sex workers or professors."

Several of the 30 scholars interviewed for this article say that some conservative black feminists tend to marginalize or dismiss not only sex workers but also the experiences of queer people, and to treat gender as if it were the sole province of women. There's too much focus, the scholars say, on the sexual violation and stereotypes of black women, little discussion of sexual crimes against boys and men, and not enough research on the diverse ways in which blacks seek pleasure and express a range of identities.

David Levering Lewis, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who was the first scholar to out major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, says he worries about the trajectory of some research on black sex. "Some of this scholarship is a bit queasy and sounds like a rationalization for an exercise in curiosity," he says. "But there is room in the big tent of the academy for these kinds of explorations. History without sexuality is incomplete."

Others are raising the discomfort level by treading on what is considered sacred ground—the civil-rights movement. Mumford, at Illinois, has written articles that examine how the civil-rights and gay-rights movements worked with and against each other, and how the "Moynihan Report" raised veiled questions about black homosexuality. The publication of the late Manning Marable's biography of Malcolm X caused some controversy because he identified Malcolm as a bisexual during his years as a hustler, before his conversion to Islam. Serious research on the relationship between gay history and the civil-rights movement is just emerging with dissertations in progress, Mumford says.

"There may be a need," Mumford says, "for black sexuality studies to push the envelope."

Nowhere, perhaps, do scholars want to do that more than in the field of public health. Chandra Ford, an assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles's School of Public Health, says health researchers have had a tendency to see black sexuality as "a perversion, a problem that needs to be studied because it's so different."

She's referring to dark moments not just in the past: the forced sterilizations of thousands of black girls and women in North Carolina from 1929 to 1974 or the studies in Tuskegee, Ala., of syphilis among black men from 1932 to 1972. In 2010 a report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention caused a firestorm when it announced that half of all black women between the ages of 14 and 49 were infected with genital herpes. The statistics were based on a group of 893 black women who had been tested for antibodies to the HSV-2 virus, which meant only that they had been exposed to the herpes virus, not that they had actually developed the disease—or ever would.

Following the report, which the CDC later admitted was misleading, several black scholars and scientists spoke up about the way medical research is conducted on African-Americans. Too much research, they said, focuses on clinics in poor, urban areas where people are more likely to use drugs or have sexually transmitted diseases. The data from those populations, they said, cannot be used to form generalizations about all black people—or about black versus white people.

Velma M. Murry, a sociologist at Vanderbilt University whose research is on the black middle class, has found evidence that contradicts national reports about sexually transmitted diseases among blacks. She has noted that middle-class African-American girls delay having sex two years beyond the national average for all girls. What is missed is "the positive practices of black families—the practices that work for us, that lead to better physical and psychological health."

In sociology, public policy, and public health, scholars have been pushing researchers to look up from diagrams and charts of health statistics to develop studies that speak to the people being studied, rather than to the assumptions and the culture of the researchers who produce the studies.

For example, Northwestern's Watkins-Hayes has explored the economic and social-survival strategies of women living with HIV and AIDS in the Chicago area. Seeing that much of the news-media focus and LGBT activism involve white communities, Mignon R. Moore, a sociologist at UCLA, sought to gather information by following more than 100 middle-class and working-class black lesbians for three years to provide insights into how black culture helps shape their identities and family formation. Leon E. Pettiway, a professor emeritus in the department of criminal justice at Indiana University at Bloomington, has moved beyond statistics on street crime with his 1996 book, Honey, Honey, Miss Thang, a poignant look at five gay, drug-using transvestites who struggled to retain some sense of dignity in the face of substance abuse and hustling to stay alive.

Old taboos are falling. After all, the country now has a black president who has declared his support for same-sex marriage. Exploring lived sexuality, recognizing the black sexual experience in all its diversity—including pimps, prostitutes, transsexuals, and porn stars—is freeing intellectual debate from old fears and inhibitions. But scholars say it's not just a matter of widening their research agenda. It means bringing the insights about black history and culture, about the structures of racism and pathology, into public-health discussions of AIDS, drugs, prison conditions, and molested children.

These scholars say it's a matter of saving lives.

Stacey Patton is a staff reporter at The Chronicle. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers University at New Brunswick and is the author of That Mean Old Yesterday (Simon & Schuster, 2007), a memoir about growing up in foster care and the historical roots of corporal punishment in African-American families.

Corrections (12/3/2012, 10:17 a.m.). Because of an editing error, this article originally misreported Leon E. Pettiway's institution. He is at Indiana University at Bloomington, not at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. And Darieck Scott is a member of the department of African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley, not the department of African studies.


Key Books in Black Sexuality Studies

Honey, Honey, Miss Thang: Being Black, Gay, and on the Streets, by Leon E. Pettiway (Temple University Press, 1996)

The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics, by Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture, by Siobhan B. Somerville (Duke University Press, 2000)

Traps: African American Men on Gender and Sexuality, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd and Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Indiana University Press, 2001)

Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy, by Tricia Rose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)

Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology, edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson (Duke University Press, 2005)

Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality, by Dwight A. McBride (New York University Press, 2005)

Exploring Black Sexuality, by Robert Staples (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006)

Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, by Patricia Hill Collins (Routledge, 2004)

Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual, by Robert Reid-Pharr (New York University Press, 2007)

Private Lives, Proper Relations: Regulating Black Intimacy, by Candice M. Jenkins (University of Minnesota Press, 2007)

Blackness and Sexualities, edited by Michelle M. Wright and Antje Schuhmann (LIT Verlag, 2007)

Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, by E. Patrick Johnson (University of North Carolina Press, 2008)

Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance, by James F. Wilson (University of Michigan Press, 2010)

¡Venceremos?: The Erotics of Black Self-Making in Cuba, by Jafari S. Allen (Duke University Press, 2011)

Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood Among Black Women, by Mignon R. Moore (University of California Press, 2011)

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