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Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality? (6)

door Stacey Patton

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.

[to be continued]

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