Black Sexual Politics
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Black Sexual Politics

African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism

Patricia Hill Collins

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eBook - ePub

Black Sexual Politics

African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism

Patricia Hill Collins

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In Black Sexual Politics, one of America's most influential writers on race and gender explores how images of Black sexuality have been used to maintain the color line and how they threaten to spread a new brand of racism around the world today.

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Publisher
Routledge
Year
2004
ISBN
9781135955373

PART I
AFRICAN AMERICANS AND THE NEW RACISM

ONE
WHY BLACK SEXUAL POLITICS?

2001: The career of Jennifer Lopez skyrockets. A Puerto Rican woman, Lopez’s rise to fame came after her feature film appearance as Selena, the first Chicana superstar. News of J-Lo is everywhere; especially her much discussed love relationship and subsequent break-up with hip-hop artist Puff Daddy (aka P Diddy). One special feature of Lopez’s routinely makes the news—her seemingly large bottom. From late night American talk shows to South African radio programs to Internet websites, J-Lo’s butt is all the rage. Recognizing its value, it is rumored that Lopez insures her buttocks for 1 billion dollars, as one website mischievously described it, 500 million dollars per cheek.
2000: The photo insert for Survivor, Destiny’s Child third CD, shows the three African American women standing legs akimbo, holding hands, and dressed in animal skin bikinis. Selling over 15 million albums and singles worldwide, Survivor’s success reflects a savvy marketing strategy that promoted the song “Independent Woman” as part of the soundtrack for the hit movie Charlie’s Angels and foreshadowed the success of group member Beyoncé Knowles. Survivor’s message of female power also fuels its popularity. Counseling women to be resilient and financially independent, Destiny’s Child proclaim, “I’m a survivor, I’m gonna make it.” Survivor suggests sexual independence as well. In their highly popular song “Bootylicious,” written by Beyoncé, they refer to their butts as “jelly” and ask, “Can you handle it?” The term bootylicious proves to be so popular that, along with hottie and roadrage, it is added to the 2002 edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
1925: Born in a poor community in East St. Louis, Missouri, African American entertainer Josephine Baker moves to Paris. She becomes a sensation in the American production of La Revue Nègre. Performing bare-breasted in a jungle setting and clad only in a short skirt of banana leaves, Ms. Baker’s rump-shaking banana dance becomes an instant hit with Parisian audiences. When asked whether she will return to the United States, Ms. Baker replies, “they would make me sing mammy songs and I cannot feel mammy songs, so I cannot sing them.” Instead, in 1937 Ms. Baker becomes a French citizen and garners lifelong accolades as the “Black Venus” of France. Upon her death in 1975, she receives a twenty-one-gun salute, the only such honor given by France to an American-born woman.1
1816: After several years of being exhibited in Paris and London as the “Hottentot Venus,” Sarah Bartmann, a Khoi woman from what is now South Africa, dies. In the London exhibit, she is displayed caged, rocking back and forth to emphasize her supposedly wild and dangerous nature. She wears a tight-fitting dress whose brown color matches her skin tones. When ordered to do so, she leaves her cage and parades before the audience who seems fascinated with what they see as her most intriguing feature—her buttocks. Some in the audience are not content to merely look. One eyewitness recounts with horror how Bartmann endures poking and prodding, as people try to ascertain for themselves whether her buttocks are real. In the context of popular London shows that display as forms of entertainment talking pigs, animal monsters and human oddities such as the Fattest Man on Earth, midgets, giants, and similar “freaks of nature,” these reactions to Bartmann’s exhibition are not unusual. Upon Sarah Bartmann’s death, George Cuvier, one of the fathers of modern biology, claims her body in the interests of science. Her subsequent dissection becomes one of at least seven others completed on the bodies of women of color from 1814 to 1870. Their goal—to advance the field of classical comparative anatomy.2
Contemporary sexual politics in the United States present African American women and men with a complicated problem. From the display of Sarah Bartmann as a sexual “freak” of nature in the early nineteenth century to Josephine Baker dancing bare-breasted for Parisian society to the animal-skin bikinis worn by “bootylicious” Destiny’s Child to the fascination with Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks, women of African descent have been associated with an animalistic, “wild” sexuality. Expressed via an ever-changing yet distinctive constellation of sexual stereotypes in which Sarah Bartmann’s past frames J-Lo’s present, this association of sexuality with Black women helps create ideas about racial difference. Black men have their own variety of racial difference, also constructed from ideas about violence and dangerous sexuality. African American heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson certainly sparked controversy when, in 1910, he fought the formerly unbeaten White champion Jim Jeffries. During the fight itself, over 30,000 men stood outside the New York Times’ offices, waiting to hear the outcome. Johnson’s bloody victory sparked race riots in every Southern state. Johnson’s predilection for White women only fueled the fires of White reaction. When authorities discovered that Johnson was having an affair with an eighteen-year-old blonde from Minnesota, they charged him under the Mann Act with engaging in white slavery. Johnson’s ability to wield violence and his seeming attractiveness to White women made him threatening to White middle-class men.3 For both women and men, Western social thought associates Blackness with an imagined uncivilized, wild sexuality and uses this association as one lynchpin of racial difference. Whether depicted as “freaks” of nature or as being the essence of nature itself, savage, untamed sexuality characterizes Western representations of women and men of African descent.4
For their respective audiences, the distinctive sexualized spectacles performed by Bartmann, Baker, Destiny’s Child, and Lopez invoke sexual meanings that give shape to racism, sexism, class exploitation, and heterosexism. Each spectacle marks the contradictions of Western perceptions of African bodies and of Black women’s agency concerning the use of their bodies. Together they frame an invented discourse of Black sexuality.5 For French and British audiences, Sarah Bartmann served as a sign of racial difference used to justify the growing belief in the superiority of White civilization and the inferiority of so-called primitive peoples necessary for colonialism. Her treatment helped create modern Black sexual stereotypes of the jezebel, the mammy, and the welfare queen that, in the United States, helped uphold slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial ghettoization.6 Illustrating through stark historical example how common sense understandings of race and gender flow smoothly into those of biology, medicine, and Western science itself, her body marked the intersection of entertainment, science, and commerce. Sarah Bartmann could be enjoyed while alive and, upon her death, studied under the microscope for the burgeoning field of comparative anatomy. As South African writer Yvette Abrahams and filmmaker Zola Maseko’s video recording on the life of Bartmann point out, we know little about Bartmann’s agency in this arrangement.7 What Bartmann lost by being displayed as a “freak” is far clearer to us through our modern sensibilities than what she might have gained for herself and her family.
Bartmann may not have been aware of the power of the sexual stereotypes that were created in her image, but women of African descent who followed most certainly were.8 Black women struggled to exercise agency and self-definition concerning these images and the social practices that they defended. Evidently aware of the sexual stereotypes applied to women of African descent, Josephine Baker played the part of the “primitive,” but for her own reasons.9 Baker entertained the French with her openness about her body, an important example of how an imagined, uncivilized, wild sexuality remained associated with Blackness within Western social thought and continued as a sign of racial difference. But was Baker really sexually liberated, or was her performance a carefully planned illusion that, in the African American trickster tradition, was designed to titillate and manipulate the tastes of her European audiences? Baker’s biography suggests a level of sophistication that enabled her to move far beyond her initial depiction as a bare-breasted “primitive.” Baker may have initially done banana dances, but from her point of view, she escaped performing the ubiquitous “mammy songs” assigned to Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, and other talented African American women then performing in the United States. In France, Baker ensured that she was well compensated for her performances.
The work of contemporary artists such as Destiny’s Child also invokes the contradictions of sexualized spectacle and Black women’s agency or self-determination. Transported from the immediacy of live stage performances, Destiny’s Child perform in the intimate yet anonymous terrain of CDs, music videos, movies, Internet websites, and other forms of contemporary mass media. Here each consumer of “Independent Woman” or “Bootylicious” can imagine a one-on-one relationship with one, two, or all three members of Destiny’s Child, whose images and artistry are purchased, rented, or downloaded under the control of the consumer. Under conditions of racial segregation, mass media provides a way that racial difference can safely enter racially segregated private spaces of living rooms and bedrooms. Destiny’s Child may not be like the girls next door, but they can be seen on home theater and heard via headphones within the privacy of individual consciousness. In this new mass media context, Black sexual stereotypes are rendered virtually invisible by their ubiquity; yet, they persist through a disconnected mélange of animal skins, sexually explicit lyrics, breast worship, and focus on the booty. Destiny’s Child may entertain and titillate; yet, their self-definitions as “survivors” and “independent women” express female power and celebration of the body and booty. The women in Destiny’s Child are also wealthy. Just who is being “controlled” in these new arenas? For what purpose? Their message contains a defiance denied to Bartmann and Baker—“It’s my body, it’s my booty, and I’ll do what I want with it—can you handle it?”
What are we to make of Jennifer Lopez? As a Latina,10 where does she fit in this story of Western constructions of “wild” Black sexuality, the social construction of racial difference, and Black people’s reactions to them? Like Josephine Baker before her, Jennifer Lopez is celebrated and makes a considerable amount of money. Elevating Jennifer Lopez’s buttocks to icon status invokes historical meanings of Black female sexuality and takes the politics of race and sexuality to an entirely new plane. In this case, a Latina brushed with the hint of Blackness and not clearly of African descent carries the visible sign of Black sexuality. In order to be marketed, Black sexuality need not be associated solely with bodies that have been racially classified as “Negro,” “mulatto,” or “Black.” Western imaginations have long filled in the color, moving women from Black to White and back again depending on the needs of the situation. In antebellum Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, White men desired quadroons and octoroons as prostitutes because such women looked like White women, but they were actually Black women, with all that that implied about women’s sexuality.11 J-Lo’s fluid ethnicity in her films, from the Chicana in Selena to the racial/ethnic ambiguity in subsequent roles, illustrates the shifting contours of racial/ethnic classification. When it comes to “hot-blooded” Latinas, one might ask which part of their “blood” carries the spice of sexual looseness? 12 This all seems to be a far cry from the commodification of Sarah Bartmann’s buttocks—or is it?
The fact that these examples involve women of actual or imputed African descent is no accident because the racial difference assigned to Black people has often come in gender specific forms. In the nineteenth century, women stood as symbols of race and women from different races became associated with differentially valued expressions of sexuality. During this period marked by the rise of European nationalism, England, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy all jockeyed with varying degrees of success to define themselves as nation-states. Each followed its own distinctive path in constructing its own national identity and that of its colonies. Yet they shared one overriding feature—the treatment of women within each respective nation-state as well as within the colonies were important to national identity.13 Ideas of pure White womanhood that were created to defend women of the homeland required a corresponding set of ideas about hot-blooded Latinas, exotic Suzy Wongs, wanton jezebels, and stoic native squaws. Civilized nation-states required uncivilized and backward colonies for their national identity to have meaning, and the status of women in both places was central to this entire endeavor. In this context, Black women became icons of hypersexuality.14
Men of African descent were also seen as hypersexual beings that have generated similar icons.15 During the era of live entertainment, and until the onset of the technologies that made mass media possible, men were objectified differently from women. The West African slave trade and Southern auction blocks treated both Black women’s and men’s bodies as objects for sale, yet women participated in sexual spectacles to a greater degree than did men, because Western ideas about women and femininity itself have long been more tightly wedded to ideas about women’s physical beauty and sexual attractiveness. Even today, men are far more likely to stare at and comment upon women’s breasts, buttocks, legs, face, and other body parts than are women to subject men’s bodies to this type of scrutiny. Like all women, Black women were objects to be seen, enjoyed, purchased, and used, primarily by White men with money. African women’s sexuality may have piqued the prurient interest of Western audiences, but African men’s sexuality was seen as dangerous and in need of control. Live expressions of Black male sexuality needed to be hidden from White spectators, especially audiences that might contain White women. Until recently, the very tenets of female respectability made it impossible for a female audience to cheer on a live male sex show, especially a White female audience viewing Black men as sexual beings. Assumptions of heterosexuality also inhibit males viewing other males as sexual objects. A situation in which White men view Black male bodies as sexual objects potentially creates a homoerotic space that is incompatible with ideas of straight White masculinity.
Mass media technologies profoundly altered this reliance on face-to-face spectatorship and live entertainment. Television, video, DVD, and the Internet enabled images of Black women and men to enter living rooms, bedrooms, family rooms, and other private domestic spaces. Black male images could now enter private White spaces, one step safely removed because these were no longer live performances and Black men no longer appeared in the flesh. These technological advances enabled the reworking of Black male sexuality that became much more visible, yet was safely contained. Take, for example, the stylized music video performances of hip-hop artists. Camera angles routinely are shot from a lower position than the rapper in question, giving the impression that he is looming over the viewer. In real life, being this close to young African American men who were singing about sex and violence and whose body language included fists, angry gestures, and occasional crotch-grabbing might be anxiety provoking for the typical rap and hip-hop consumer (most are suburban White adolescents). Yet viewing these behaviors safely packaged within a music video protects consumers from any possible contact with Black men who are actually in the videos. Just who are these videos for? What are the imagined race, gender, and sexual orientations of the viewers? Black men have long given performances that placed sexuality center stage—Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and rapper Eminem all recognized and profited from this reality—but the sexual implications of viewing Black men in the flesh rarely made it out of African American settings where such performances had a different meaning. It is one thing to visit a Black nightclub to hear singer Millie Jackson’s live performance of raunchy blues or gather in a neighbor’s living room to listen to Redd Foxx records. It is entirely another to sit in an interracial audience and listen to comedian Eddie Murphy’s uncensored boasting concerning Black male sexual prowess; or to count the times within a music video that the camera hones in on rapper Ja Rule’s crotch.
Western perceptions of the sexuality of men of African descent also became central to the national identities of European nation-states engaged in colonial projects. England, France, and other colonial powers constructed their national identities by manipulating ideas about men in the home country and in their colonies. The United States followed a similar path, with ideas about race and masculinity intertwined with ideas about American citizenship.16 Like their female counterparts, men of African descent were also perceived to have excess sexual appetite, yet with a disturbing additional feature, a predilection for violence. In this context, the “White heroes” of Western Europe and the United States became constructed in relation to the “Black beasts” of Africa.17 Moreover, both were used to signal the hierarchical relationship between colonizers and colonies. Overall, colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation relied upon this discourse of Black sexuality to create tightly bundled ideas about Black femininity and Black masculinity that in turn influenced racial ideologies and racial practices.
As these systems of racial rule recede in the post–civil rights era, what if anything is taking their place? Over one hundred years ago, African American intellectual William E. B. DuBois predicted that the problem of the twentieth century would be the presence of the color line. By that, DuBois meant that the policies of colonialism and racial segregation were designed to create, sep...

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Citation styles for Black Sexual Politics
APA 6 Citation
Collins, P. H. (2004). Black Sexual Politics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1619652/black-sexual-politics-african-americans-gender-and-the-new-racism-pdf (Original work published 2004)
Chicago Citation
Collins, Patricia Hill. (2004) 2004. Black Sexual Politics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1619652/black-sexual-politics-african-americans-gender-and-the-new-racism-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Collins, P. H. (2004) Black Sexual Politics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1619652/black-sexual-politics-african-americans-gender-and-the-new-racism-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Sexual Politics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2004. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.