restricted access A Taste of Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography by Mireille Miller-Young (review)
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A Taste of Brown Sugar: Black Women in Pornography. By Mireille Miller-Young. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014. 392 pages. Softbound, $28.95.

In A Taste of Brown Sugar, Mireille Miller-Young challenges long-held assumptions about and representations of black women in pornography and attempts to subvert the notion that the porn industry has thoroughly quelled—and continues to quell—the agency of black women. Miller-Young never denies that this narrative about agency contains kernels of truth; she explores rather comprehensively, for example, the effects of institutional racism and sexism on the industry, but argues that black women did not submit to stereotypes monolithically. She asserts that black porn actresses have historically made—and continue to make—choices within these oppressive constraints, motivated by several factors, such as socioeconomic considerations, personal values, or professional aspirations. Her informants' testimonies, gathered using a foundation of oral-history-like methods, tell a cumulative tale of personal negotiations that these women made, of decisions that both "challenge and conform to the racial fantasies that overwhelmingly define their representations and labor conditions" (16).

A tale with such paradoxical tension demands a deft author to tell it and, fortunately, Miller-Young is well suited for the task. Throughout the text she weaves together her informants' narratives, archival research, black feminist theory, and film analysis to render a history that recognizes black women's oppression in the industry while also establishing their agency—surprising in its breadth—within an oppressive structure. It is through her interviews that Miller-Young is best able to complicate the facile narrative that encircles black women in the porn industry, that of the victimized, helpless young woman whose hypersexualization was likely the result of childhood sexual trauma. Her informants are critically aware of this stereotype and respond in a myriad of ways. Some confirm the rampant exploitation found within the industry while still establishing that black women's autonomy, however limited, exists within it. Others defend their work—specifically, their performances—as a conscious, deliberate response to the stereotype. For instance, one actress, seeking to take ownership of black women's "illicit eroticism" (Miller-Young's term for black women's taboo sexual desirability to white folks), performed with a joyful, self-possessed [End Page 391] enthusiasm in her roles, roles that were often in scenes paired with white male actors. She believed that in doing so, even in parts she acknowledged "were kind of racist," she was rejecting the constraining sexual standards borne out of conservative American values (and compounded for black women by respectability politics).

The interview excerpts are rich, providing readers behind-the-scenes details of recent trends in black porn and a sober look at the trials, joys, and motivations of black women in the porn industry. Their quality can be partly attributed to what we know about Miller-Young's interview methodology: though she does not use the words oral history to describe her methods, her approach follows the same coauthorial spirit as that in our field. For these interviews, Miller-Young went to her informants, visiting their homes and attending conventions and networking events. Her reasoning for conducting interviews also bears resemblance to oral history's rationale: "I converse with porn actresses directly, listening to their voices and taking seriously their descriptions of their experiences. … Few have endeavored to learn about porn's meaning by looking at the self-presentations and self-understandings of black women working inside the industry" (21). Miller-Young explains her intentions further when thanking her informants in the book's acknowledgements: "I try not to speak for these performers but instead to collaborate with them. … I learned so much" (xiv). Here, she invokes a central tenet of oral history—coauthorship—in establishing their indispensable contributions to the work. In addition, her relationship with her informants was not unlike those commonly found in oral history contexts: as her fieldwork continued, Miller-Young "discovered an affinity with [her] informants that unsettled the traditional methodological division between researcher and object of study" (21).

I especially wonder about this admission of "affinity," given the extensive commonalities found between Miller-Young and her informants. Though the author and her...