Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality?
A big part of the history of racism has been the mythology of sexual drive and prowess. The subject of black sexuality has been a minefield and scholars of history, anthropology and race have all studiously avoided the discussion. For better or worse, that is changing.
Both black and white scholars are discussing sexuality, confronting the myths and realities. What is often lost in the conversation are the differences in the different cultures of sexuality. Some cultures are more open, some are more private and some cultures define sexuality in ways very differently than we do.
Cultures also vary in understanding what is healthy sexuality. Sexual relationships outside of marriage are still abhorred in many parts of the world with horrible punishment meted out to violators. In other cultures sexual relationships don’t even raise an eyebrow. In some cultures, homosexuality still causes most people to recoil although that too is starting to change. We are witnessing a new sexual revolution now, one not predicated so much on the physicality of sex but one examining the cultures of human sexuality.
We are beginning to better understand the who and why of those most basic biological urges and how culture helps shape them.
Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality?
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 onPsychology 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.”