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Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality? (3)

by Stacey Patton

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?”

[to be continued]

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