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Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality? (4)

by Stacey Patton

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.

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