“Sexuality,” the word and concept, emerges out of discourses that have produced both problematic and useful ways to understand black sexuality in all its complexities, contradictions, and expansiveness. In its most common understanding, sexuality is the quality of being sexual or possessing sex; it is understood as what one does in terms of sex acts and practices and who one is, often (inadequately) defined as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual (Burgett 2007). Sexuality can be best understood, conceptually, as a category that entails desire, pleasure, practice, and more that interact with each other in complicated and often contradictory ways. Sexuality has also been used to denote sex assignment or male-versus-female differences, largely on the basis of genital and secondary sex characteristics and reproductive functions. It is a concept that has been applicable to the social organization and formation of human and nonhumans alike.
In a December 2012 essay in the Chronicle Review of the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled “Who’s Afraid of Black Sexuality?,” the writer Stacey Patton suggests that for a long time, scholars, including black scholars, have avoided mentioning the word “sex,” let alone discussing it openly. Patton goes on to say that black sex was particularly fraught because it invoked too many taboos: stereotypes and caricatures of “black Hottentots” with freakish feminine proportions; asexual mammies or lascivious Jezebels; and hypersexual black men lusting after white women. This has been compounded by the painful history of slavery, rape, and lynching and the panoply of ways in which black bodies have been subjected to and victimized by brutal forms of sexual violence and abuse by both state and nonstate actors in the U.S. Further, Patton explains in her essay that, conversely, in recent years, some black scholars from a number of disciplines have begun to “break the silence” and conspicuously engage issues around sexuality confronting black communities. This engagement is not just focused on the violence, oppression, and trauma; rather, these scholars examine and highlight eroticism, sexual desire, pleasure, and practice, including nonnormative sexual subjects and community formations. A summit on doctoral programs held at Northwestern University in 2012, titled “A Beautiful Struggle: Transformative Black Studies in Shifting Political Landscapes,” inspired Patton’s essay. This event sparked a spirited discussion about sexuality studies that marks a pivotal turn in the contemporary discourse on sexuality in the field of African American studies and black communities.
The etymology of “sexuality” is derived from the postclassical Latin sexualitas. But the etymology reveals nothing of the history of sexuality, which appears to be just as discursively homogeneous as its linguistic foundations. As documented by the French theorist Michel Foucault’s (1978) three-volume treatise on the history of sexuality, sexuality has been constructed by various institutions over the past two centuries: medical and scientific, judicial, religious, military, and economic. One of the most fecund aspects of Foucault’s work is his contention that sexuality is produced out of discourse whereby sexual acts become associated with actual human beings. Hence, the “sodomite” becoming the “homosexual” is a modern phenomenon (Foucault 1978). But, while Foucault also highlights the double impetus of power and pleasure embedded in Western constructs of sexuality, the genealogies he relies on are derived from Western regimes of knowledge. For black people, however, the formation of sexuality does not rest solely on a foundation of Greco/Roman/European histories of sexuality, the “objectivity” of the sciences, or Christian dogma. African Americans may have assimilated into such histories, but when resistance to a universal experience of sexuality has been waged, black people relied on the culture, language, and representations produced in their own communities to correct the gaps and errors produced by a history of sexuality. According to the ever-changing B.E.D. (Black English Dictionary), there are multiple terms that connote sexuality, all of them heterogeneous and requiring more context rather than a linear symmetrical history.
In addition, research on sexuality has compelled African American studies to redefine and expand its premise as an intellectual field foundationally situated as a linear, unilateral project based on the biological and sociological constructs of race and racialization. In many ways, African American studies remains somewhat ambivalent about sexuality, specifically because the discourses surrounding it cannot be separated from colonial and imperialist legacies. And although African Americans live at the intersections of race, class, and sexuality, ironically, scholarship on black sexuality in African American studies has developed on two contentious and disparate terrains that intend to define, control, and represent discourses on black sexuality in the field and in black culture and politics. Drawing from black feminist and queer theories, some sexuality scholars examine the historical forms of racialized sexual oppression of black people and how black sexual minorities are oppressed within and excluded from black sociocultural institutions. Yet this productive scholarship on sexuality has been suppressed and marginalized in African American studies due, in part, to an overcompensatory response to racist/white-supremacist renderings of black people as sexually deviant. Too often, on this side of the epistemological struggle, an essentialist, race-based, cisgendered, and heterosexist discourse of black sexuality dominates.
However, with the black political scientist Cathy J. Cohen’s (2004) notion of “deviance as resistance,” it seems that the most generative scholarship on black sexuality that is also critical and contextual has been produced by and from studies of minoritized communities and cultures: those black sexual dissidents who are oppressed within or excluded from black communities. Through their ongoing contestation, the work of these mostly black queer scholars constitutes Foucault’s notion of an “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” (1980, 81) in African American studies that uncovers deviant sexual practices and advances an expansive approach to studying black sexuality within its already-situated contexts of race, gender, and class. It is this movement in black sexuality studies—in academic, cultural, and sociopolitical realms—that is most productive and promising toward understanding and capturing the meaning and role of sex and sexuality in the lives of everyday black people.
Historically, from the very beginning of Western Manifest Destiny, sexuality determined one’s moral foundation, while morality determined one’s humanity. Thus, any analysis of sexuality in African American studies must begin with a discussion of freedom and liberation. For better or worse, sexuality in African American studies has consistently been used to determine the depth and nature of black ontologies. It is, like race, a measure of how one’s humanity is defined. Concepts of self-determination within the Black Power movement might be heralded as the significant intervention for rethinking black sexuality, moving away from white theories of hypersexual pathology, trauma, and abuse. Robert Staples’s (1971) and Alvin Poussaint’s (Phil Donahue Show 1980) early social science work was quite simply about challenging these pathologies. For example, the pioneering sociologist Staples once asked a significant question about sexuality and black America in a 1974 issue of Ebony magazine, one that still haunts black people across the globe today: Has the sexual revolution bypassed blacks? Staples may have been comparing the lack of a visible civil rights movement centered on sexuality or sexual identity to white America’s historical sexual revolution, but the truth is more complicated since sexuality, including the study of it, entails a revolution, rebellion, and decolonization that would be illegible in white histories of sexuality and sexual revolution. Since black people across the globe continue to live under white supremacy, African Americans’ sexual revolution is an ongoing process that does not begin or end with the 1960s. However, what does happen in the late 1960s is a stream of thought that invokes debate about eroticism and sexuality in discourses other than science, medicine, and history.
Unlike any other keyword, “sexuality” demands both rational and affective modalities to circumvent the imperatives imposed by Western empire. The poet and playwright Ntozake Shange asks, “So how do we speak of our desires for each other to each other in a language where our relationships to our bodies and desires lack dignity as well as nuance?” (1992, xx). Shange’s question eloquently sums up sexuality, its conflicts, its possibilities, and its origins in African American studies. It also implicates art and culture as important to evolving discourses on black sexuality.
In African American communities, the genealogy of sexuality has been theorized and engaged through the critical/rational as well as the imaginative and affective. This has meant that the most generative sites for understanding sexuality have come from black feminist theories and African American literary traditions. In each of these sites, the topics of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism have been deliberately taken up as essential to sexuality, and they have done so in a manner that sexology and Eurocentric theories of sexuality have not commented on.
As the remnants of chattel slavery, scientific racism, and eugenics continued to impact African American life, sexuality continued to be an issue, especially in novels by nineteenth-century black women writers, such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted ( 1988), Pauline Hopkins in Contending Forces ( 1969), and Harriet Jacobs in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl ( 1988). By fictionalizing sexual topics such as chaste and virginal womanhood, rape, miscegenation, and passing, these texts, alongside conduct manuals written by black ministers and preachers, captured the unaired tensions surrounding the sexual trauma of black women during chattel slavery and white anxiety about black masculinity and hypersexuality in freedom. Male writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois (1920) contributed other theories, resulting in an early archive of black culture and history linking sexual inquiries with a moral agenda to rescue black women’s virtue from the clutches of white men and black men’s masculinity from white ideologies of deviance.
Later, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man ( 1995), John A. Williams’s The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye ( 2007), and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora ( 1986) and Eva’s Man ( 1987) provided daring perspectives on race and gender, observing sexuality as a distinct category that could shift critical conversations about race and black humanity. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room ( 2001) and Another Country ( 1993) eventually broached questions of sexual identity to move beyond concerns about proper heterosexuality and productive black families. The 1970s ushered in a new era of critical inquiries and excavation of black sexuality in which critics read not only for race but for gender and sexuality as well. It is no coincidence that the recovery of out-of-print nineteenth-century slave narratives and novels coincided with the Black Women Writers Renaissance and the women’s representations of sexuality in their work. Likewise, the social and political discourse of an emasculating matriarch, fueled, in part, by the Moynihan Report (1965), bolstered more work on black sexuality from Robert Staples, who authored The Black Woman in America: Sex, Marriage, Family (1973). This book, as well as others, built on the critical tradition left by Du Bois’s early questions that linked black liberation with black women’s bodies. In this way, it became impossible for any critical analysis to separate gender from sexuality in studies of black sexuality.
Such was the case with the recovery of black women’s literary traditions, which sought to correct and collectively engage the discourses of black sexual pathology. During the 1980s, critics such as Hazel Carby (1987), Barbara Christian (1980), Darlene Clark Hine (1989), and Sander Gilman (1985) provided necessary interventions into African American studies by creating a field of inquiry around representation of black women’s sexuality. At the same time, the theories of someone such as Hortense Spillers (1987) invoked a diasporic and gender-neutral subject out of African American literary representations of sexuality, such as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Audre Lorde (1984) revised notions of eroticism, elevated sexual difference, and prioritized black feminism. Likewise, Cheryl Clarke began theorizing the failure of a black political sphere to transform its homophobic stance, saying of twentieth-century black politics, “We have expended much energy trying to debunk the racist mythology which says our sexuality is depraved. Unfortunately, many of us have overcompensated and assimilated to the Puritan value that sex is for procreation, occurs only between men and women, and is only valid within the confines of heterosexual marriage” (1983, 192). Clarke’s words were necessary because just as African American studies was moving from a political and activist endeavor to an intellectual enterprise, productive examinations of sexuality were being stymied by conservative gender politics.
Analyses of sexuality in African American studies were also spurred on by the emergence of Afrocentric thought on sexuality. Molefi Asante (1980) and Frances Cress Welsing (1991) put forth essentialist arguments on African sexuality, suggesting that all nonheterosexual forms of sexuality were European cultural importations. Each posited that such categories were themselves the result of white supremacy and terrorism. Major lines of inquiry no longer simply asked whether black people were virtuous and chaste enough to obtain and retain citizenship but whether black hyperheterosexuality and homosexuality were a result of white terror during slavery and Jim Crow. However, anthropologists and historians of the African diaspora, such as James Sweet (1996), Lorand Matory (2005), and Gloria Wekker (2006), provided compelling arguments that alternative sexualities, including homosexuality, have always existed in African cultures, both traditional and modern. Diverse sexualities in Africa predate colonization.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, black queer studies began to broaden perspectives beyond cisgender heterosexuality and to provide alternative analyses of black sexuality. For example, the “Black Queer Studies in New Millennium” conference (2000) and the collection based on the conference proceedings, Black Queer Studies (Johnson and Henderson 2005), ushered in significant interventions in African American studies by emphasizing black queer cultural formations and the queer of color scholars who study them. In what the critics Jennifer Devere Brody and Dwight McBride (2000) metaphorically denote as “plum nelly,” black queer studies located itself in between two fields, queer studies and African American studies, so as to begin the transdisciplinary critique of plumbing or questioning African American studies’ avoidance of sexuality and queer studies’ avoidance of race. In the questioning of sexuality, queer of color critique insists that African American studies be a site to deconstruct previous sexuality studies and queer theories that make no mention of race and ethnicity. Both African American studies and queer studies changed the questions being asked and the objects of study to answer the questions. Rather than relying on religion and biological sciences, African American studies began to generate theories beyond deracinated histories and discourses of sexuality, specifically interrogating concepts of racialized sexuality.
For example, Abdul Jan Mohammed (1992) develops a theory of racialized sexuality through an analysis of the fictive discourses of Richard Wright. Siobhan Somerville (2000) also uses African American literature and culture to “queer the colorline.” The cultural theorist Roderick Ferguson uses canonical texts in African American literature to critique sociological examinations of black sexuality to create his queer of color critique, stating, “The specific history of African Americans’ constitution as the objects of racial and sexual knowledge through canonical sociology has produced modes of deployment that cohere with and diverge from those outlined by Foucault” (2004, 72). Elsewhere, Ferguson warns us not to ask, “How can we make sexuality the object of African American studies”; instead, we should ask, “In what ways has the racialized, classed, and gendered discourse known as sexuality dispersed itself to constitute this particular discipline or interdiscipline?” (2005, 87). In the majority of his work, Ferguson notes that sexuality is the critical product of interventions made by women of color feminisms. Nevertheless, as debates about black lesbianism and sex wars demonstrated, women of color feminism had inadvertently erected barriers about proper objects and subjects that queer theory would push against.
Despite the work done by many scholars within black queer studies, too much of African American studies still views sexuality as a minor concern: racial identity and solidarity politics take precedent over sexual identity politics. Therefore, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, radical studies of sexuality have necessarily become about further resistance to legacies of morality and respectability politics. These strategies entail using improper objects of study to intervene in both queer studies and African American studies. Picking up from where feminists such as Cheryl Clarke left off in her criticism of African American political agendas, Cathy Cohen has consistently advised African American studies to sharpen its knowledge and politics around improper objects and deviance to avoid the fallacy of previous generations. More specifically, Cohen suggests that the repetition of deviant practices by multiple individuals and the creation of new identities and communities can lead to an emerging politics of deviance as resistance (2004, 27). In addition to Cohen’s ideas about deviance, Robert Reid-Pharr has also contested queer theory’s and queer studies’ conservative editorial mandates of language, stating that he has “continued… to be amazed by the implication that, even though utilizing a queer apparatus implied a commitment to bringing new topics into polite academic discourse, it did not obligate one to call into question the necessity of the polite, civil, gentlemanly nature of that discourse” (2001, 101). Here Reid-Pharr highlights both the possibilities and limits of black queer theoretical and sociopolitical interventions.
Yet, as noted earlier, often marginalized people and communities and the transgressive practices that they undertake provide a useful perspective for defining and redefining sexuality in general and black sexuality in particular, so as to push beyond the confines of academic discourse. As contemporary scholars refuse to ignore the lives and culture of nontraditional families, sex workers, transgender artists and activists, and queer folk alike, they remind us that black sexuality is lived, just as it is examined and talked about. An ongoing critical dialogic relationship is required, particularly during these times when the stakes are high in the struggle over black sexual knowledge and when the sexual domain continues to be a means through which epistemological, and literal, violence, oppression, and exclusion are inflicted on black people. Likewise, however, this meditation of the keyword and the discursive terrain out of which it emerges highlights the potential for sexuality to be a space of freedom to explore and experience agency and pleasure and to achieve at least a modicum of autonomy and bliss.